2016. 336 p & notes
One of the marketing points of Thornton McCamish’s biography of Alan Moorehead is that Moorehead is a forgotten writer, and that he has been re-discovered through this biography. Not for me: I’d actually read an Alan Moorehead book within the last 15 years, and I knew who he was. Back in 2002 I had just finished reading Sarah Murgatroyd’s book ‘Dig’, then I noticed that I had a lurid-tinted old paperback copy Cooper’s Creek on my bookshelves.
I started reading it, and was impressed by its evocation of landscape and explorations of personal loyalties. The book was from a different time, and its language was dated, but it certainly gave Murgatroyd’s book a good run for its money. I’d started reading it, thinking of Moorehead as an also-ran, but by the end of the book I found myself reviewing my opinion.
Biographer Thornton McCamish came to Alan Moorehead in his late twenties, through Moorehead’s autobiography A Late Education,which was assembled by his wife from three separate manuscripts. From that, he went on to read Moorehead’s eighteen other books
It was the germ that led, slowly at first, then with a feverish rush, to something like an obsession…I couldn’t get enough. Moorehead seemed to speak out of the past with a voice that felt astonishingly contemporary: alert, curious about everything, companionable. It was like getting letters from a rather brilliant friend…Long letters that you didn’t want to end, letters steaming with atmosphere, thick with vivid detail that raced from thought to thought with just one intention: to make you see how amazingly interesting it all is. (p. 12)
There’s another reason that I read this biography. I’d recently read Hotel Florida, about war correspondents in the Spanish Civil War, and Moorehead was mentioned in passing. I hadn’t realized that Moorehead even was a war correspondent, and I certainly didn’t realize that he’d gone to Spain.
In fact, Moorehead left his native Australia in 1936 and he spent almost all his career overseas. From Spain, he then became a war correspondent in WWII, most particularly in the Middle East. Cutting most of his social (although not familial) ties with Australia, he became the British Daily Express‘s “Our Man in Spain; Our Man in Cairo” etc. As far as Australia was concerned, he was “Our Man Elsewhere”, constantly on the move and afraid of the constrictions that marriage, family and home ownership bring. He was hailed internationally as the pre-eminent war correspondent.
As a war correspondent, he experienced the duality of a war correspondent’s behind-the-lines and front line experience. Behind the lines, he enjoyed a social life among other correspondents that intersected with writers, politicians and public figures. On the front line he observed death, deprivation and actual physical danger. McCamish notes that Moorehead was disgusted by war, but at the same time, he was attracted to the soldier’s almost mystical ennoblement that emerged from facing death directly, again and again.
But what does a war correspondent do when the war ends? McCamish doesn’t bail out once the exciting bits dry up, but instead stays with Moorehead as he tries, with only mediocre success, to move into fiction writing. He becomes a magazine travel writer- another form of ‘elsewhereness’ – which while lucrative, was not particularly career-enhancing.
Moorehead would have been a difficult husband. His wife Lucy, who was the women’s fashion editor at the Daily Express, tended to be ‘elsewhere’ from him, trailing along occasionally but mainly bringing up their three children while he travelled and engaged in various affairs.
Moorehead’s career took off again when he turned to popular history. He wrote about Gallipoli and Africa, and then turned to his native Australia – and this is where my lurid copy of Coopers Creek comes in. His books were best-sellers, even though they were treated rather condescendingly by some- but not all- in the academy.
Although he was Melbourne born and bred, he joined the ex-Sydney expatriate group in England that included Clive James, Robert Hughes and fellow-Melburnian Sidney Nolan and others. After so many years away, he was looking forward to returning to Australia in 1967 to take up a placement with the history department at Monash University, when he suffered a debilitating stroke. He could not write; he could not talk. He lingered for years, surviving a car crash that killed his wife Lucy. This was no tragic, untimely, ‘young’ death: instead it was a slow, silent disappearance.
The author, Thornton McCamish, is present in this book, right from the opening pages. In the places where Moorehead’s career seems to bog down, as it did for years, it is McCamish’s enthusiasm and faith in Moorehead that draws you along as a reader. It’s an honest literary biography that admits that not all writing is spun gold. I don’t think that you need to have read any of Moorehead’s work to enjoy this book. McCamish gives you enough of the flavour of Moorehead’s writing for you to see what he is so excited about.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book
My rating: 8/10