ON A WRITER’S TRAIL

Un­fash­ion­ably dead, white and male, Alan Moore­head in­spired a gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian writ­ers, says Les Car­lyon

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

You had to ad­mire his self-be­lief. Alan Moore­head, a young reporter on the The Her­ald in Mel­bourne in the early 1930s, saw him­self as a man of des­tiny, even though his ca­reer spoke of com­pe­tence rather than ge­nius. He was de­ter­mined to be­come a fa­mous writer like his idol Ernest Hem­ing­way, and cer­tain that if he stayed in his na­tive land, hang­ing around courts and booz­ing with col­leagues, he would end up a bore. As he later wrote, he needed to get to the cen­tre of things and events. So, in 1936, aged 25, he es­caped — his word — to Lon­don on a one-way ticket. Des­tiny or bust.

When Moore­head died in Lon­don in 1983, hav­ing never again called Aus­tralia home, the Sun­day Times obit­u­ar­ist had trou­ble clas­si­fy­ing him. Moore­head was any­thing but a bore; he earned fab­u­lous roy­al­ties from be­ing in­ca­pable of writ­ing a bor­ing sen­tence. He was one of the best writ­ers of non­fic­tion in the world. His name was what th­ese days would be called a brand. But where did he fit? What was the genre?

He was a pol­ished travel writer with a quiet style and an eye that worked like a cam­era. He was an out­stand­ing pop­u­lar his­to­rian — think only of Gal­lipoli, The White Nile and Cooper’s Creek — with a mel­low voice that never ha­rangued the reader and af­ter a few pages be­gan to cast a spell that led to the com­pul­sive turn­ing of pages. He had dab­bled in bi­og­ra­phy with mod­est suc­cess. And be­fore any of this he was the dis­tin­guished war correspondent whose African Tril­ogy still stands as lit­er­a­ture, even if Moore­head’s prose style in 1943 was not yet fully formed.

African Tril­ogy is loaded with small and telling de­tails that are in­ci­den­tal to the to-and-fro bat­tles along the North African lit­toral: flar­ing pink sun­sets, Be­douin tribes­men run­ning from their sack-and-kerosene-tin set­tle­ments, dust as fine as bak­ing pow­der, camels that plod mood­ily. Th­ese asides give Moore­head’s prose tex­ture and verisimil­i­tude and turn a war story into a hu­man story. They say he was ac­tu­ally there. Joseph Con­rad once said that his task as a writer was, above all, “to make you see”. He had en­vi­sioned Moore­head.

But crit­ics had been puz­zling over Moore­head’s place long be­fore his death. CP Snow talked about a new cat­e­gory of lit­er­a­ture that would take in Bar­bara Tuch­man’s The Guns of Au­gust, Cyril Con­nolly’s En­e­mies of Prom­ise and some of the non­fic­tion of Arthur Koestler and Al­dous Hux­ley. “Let us call it high jour­nal­ism,” Snow wrote. “Of all its prac­ti­tion­ers, Mr Alan Moore­head is one of the most mas­terly.” Pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans, as is their wont, said Moore­head was not schol­arly enough.

It was all a non­sense, this cast­ing about for la­bels. Moore­head wasn’t try­ing to be schol­arly; he was try­ing to be a writer. He knew that pro­duc­ing books for a gen­eral au­di­ence was about more than dates, doc­u­ments and foot­notes. He knew it was also about aes­thet­ics, about ar­rang­ing words to cre­ate a “pleas­ant ob­ject”, as Eve­lyn Waugh once put it. In other words, it was about style, about cre­at­ing a voice, con­ver­sa­tional and in­tel­li­gent, that car­ried the reader Our Man Else­where: In Search of Alan Moore­head By Thorn­ton McCamish Black Inc, pp336, $39.99 along. And Moore­head knew his­tory read bet­ter if one walked the ground in the hope of com­muning with ghosts.

One of his le­ga­cies has been to in­spire oth­ers. He nur­tured the young Robert Hughes, who said Moore­head was the per­son “I wanted to be”. Hughes’s style ended up more bois­ter­ous than that of his hero, but one can dis­cern the Moore­head tech­niques, par­tic­u­larly that of boots on the ground, at work through­out The Fa­tal Shore. Clive James is an ad­mirer, no­tably of Moore­head’s con­trol of tone, as were Man­ning Clark and a gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian jour­nal­ists in the 1960s. David At­ten­bor­ough, en­tranced by na­ture like Moore­head, has ac­knowl­edged a debt to the Aus­tralian’s books, say­ing he was ahead of his time. And now we have Thorn­ton McCamish and Our Man Else­where: In Search of Alan Moore­head.

This book is a de­light, about as pol­ished and read­able as Aus­tralian non­fic­tion ever man­ages to be, and the se­cret is the qual­ity of the writ­ing, the quiet au­thor­ity, the flashes of wit and a re­fusal to bow to the con­ven­tions of bi­og­ra­phy. Which means, like Moore­head’s cor­pus, it is hard to clas­sify. It is bi­og­ra­phy, and ex­haus­tively re­searched, but with an ad­mit­ted bias.

McCamish tells us early on he’s a fan, be­sot­ted by his sub­ject and the things he did in a world long gone. He sus­pects that “at some murky, furtive day­dream­ing level, I wanted to be him”. But hero-wor­ship doesn’t stop McCamish from ac­knowl­edg­ing Moore­head’s fail­ings: the lack of hu­mour in his prose, his care­less­ness with small facts and his bad books, no­tably The Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion and sev­eral clunky nov­els.

McCamish, a free­lance jour­nal­ist and for­mer editor of The Big Is­sue, also has an agenda: to res­cue Moore­head’s work from ob­scu­rity, al­though among older read­ers Moore­head — “un­fash­ion­ably dead, white and male” — may not be as ob­scure as McCamish pre­sumes.

The writer takes a con­sid­er­able risk with his ap­proach. The per­pen­dic­u­lar pro­noun first ap­pears on page two and is there through­out. This is a book about McCamish and his quest as well as the dead white male. Yet, im­prob­a­bly, the de­vice works, per­haps be­cause McCamish uses the per­sonal pro­noun dis­creetly, doesn’t take him­self too se­ri­ously and never (as some­one once said) be­comes the pi­ano that thinks it wrote the con­certo. It is sim­i­lar to the tech­nique He­len Garner uses so deftly in her non­fic­tion. It

Alan Moore­head in 1966

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