April 1, 2016

Born in Australia

By Robert Manne
Born in Australia
Alan Moorehead, October 1944. © Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Image
Thornton McCamish’s ‘Our Man Elsewhere: In search of Alan Moorehead’ is an antidote to forgetfulness

Thornton McCamish – I'll call him Thornton from now on, even though I know him only through Our Man Elsewhere – has written a truly wonderful book about the writer Alan Moorehead, who was at one time, of all the writers born in Australia, the most famous in the world. The phrase “born in Australia” was chosen deliberately. As Thornton tells us, although Moorehead was raised in this country he couldn’t wait to get away. We know a great deal about the postwar expatriate writers such as Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes. Alan Moorehead belongs to the no less talented prewar generation of expatriates that also included the journalist Chester Wilmot and the novelist Patrick White. 

As Thornton interprets it, Moorehead’s life is most usefully seen as a three-act play, lacking a meaningful prologue – he could not even recall his upbringing in Australia, from which he fled at the age of 25, a state which he described late in life as “self-induced amnesia” – and trailing off with a 17-year epilogue of debilitating ill-health. 

In this interpretation, the first act concerns Moorehead as a Daily Express war correspondent in North Africa and then Europe, probably the most esteemed war correspondent in Britain; author of four highly successful war books, The African Trilogy and Eclipse, and a biography of the impossibly narcissistic Field Marshal Montgomery, who, Thornton tells us, read the book “fondly” no fewer than three times.

The second act concerns his ten years as a successful but not especially distinguished travel writer, a semi-failed novelist, and a totally failed playwright. Concerning a play he wrote in this second act, Martha Gellhorn commented: “It is no good, never can be any good, and ought to be abandoned.” To which Thornton adds, tartly: “I’m surprised she didn’t say worse.”

In the third act, Moorehead was perhaps the most admired writer of popular histories in the English-speaking world. At this time he produced his masterworks: Gallipoli, The White Nile, The Fatal Impact and others, which sold enormous numbers of copies and which made him a rather rich man. Among admirers of Moorehead were the great art historian Bernard Berenson and the composer Igor Stravinsky. Moorehead did not underestimate the importance of fame and wealth. As he once put it: “I believe success does improve people.” One of the questions that haunts Thornton’s biography, never entirely resolved, is that of why Moorehead’s fame died off so quickly and so thoroughly.

Thornton sub-titles his book “in search of Alan Moorehead”. At first I was a little dubious about this trope. Rather soon my scepticism vanished. Thornton’s search involves in part amusing accounts of his attempts to locate towns or houses or rooms that played a role in the life of his subject. Even more interestingly, the search involves authorial self-scrutiny. Throughout this book Thornton involves the reader in his struggle to understand and to justify his passion for Moorehead. Why is he so obsessed by his subject? Is Moorehead really a good enough writer to justify it?

Thornton is tempted by the thought that his passion is a form of madness. He wonders whether the life might in the end be more interesting than the work. When an Italian writer tells Thornton that he regards Moorehead’s work as “wonderful”, he experiences tremendous relief. So, after all, he is not mad. Thornton confesses that “at some murky, furtive daydreaming level I wanted to be him”. As the writing of the book comes towards its end, he tells us, he could almost feel his passion “leaving my body, like a fever that’s done its work fighting off an infection”.

We read enough of Moorehead in this book to recognise that he writes beautifully, although what precisely it is about his plain, always concrete, sharp-eyed and observant prose that makes it so seductive is not easy to pin down. Not the least accomplishment of Thornton’s book is that his own writing, which is different, less spontaneous and more wrought, does not fare at all badly in comparison. I am not exaggerating when I say that there is hardly a page without an arresting or sparkling or memorably perceptive turn of phrase.

Of some of his war writing Thornton tells us that “he was learning to apply a hand-coloured tint to second-hand facts”. He describes the persona of Moorehead as revealed in his novels as “both unconvincingly masked and pitilessly naked”. He calls the invariably favourable reviews of Moorehead’s books by Jan Morris in the Times “a personal oompapa band ready to lead a parade of praise”, and says that a letter Moorehead wrote proposing marriage to his future wife read more like an inter-office memo that a billet-doux. To explain how Moorehead’s prose was affected by the writers he was reading, Thornton tells us, “great writing entered his system like dye”. I could choose hundreds of further examples. Thornton is not only a fine stylist but also a fine literary critic, in this book at least not in the slightest influenced by literary studies’ turn to theory of the past 40 years.

Different readers will have different interpretations of what this book is about. For me, it is in part about the connection between Moorehead’s restlessness of spirit and the accomplishment of his writing. Despite the steady and dependent love he felt for his wife throughout his life, Moorehead was incapable of sexual fidelity. As Thornton puts it, in a pithy single sentence: “He had been passingly unfaithful during the war, and intermittently, but regularly ever since.” For Moorehead, long periods without travel were experienced in the end always as a form of excruciating imprisonment. What Thornton realises is that this restlessness of spirit, “the old restlessness for elsewhere” as he calls it, which Moorehead regarded as “his defining flaw – the outsiderness, the deficit of commitment he deplored in himself” was in fact “the fountainhead of Moorehead’s ineffable talent, his ability to let us relive the past through long-ago lives in long-ago places”.

The book is also about Moorehead and Australia. Moorehead was desperate to get away from a place where he foresaw for himself an inevitable future of non-entity. In England, after a woman he bedded told him he had a cockney accent, he very quickly began to speak like an Englishman. Even though Australian troops had played a not-unimportant part in the North African theatre, Thornton notices that in Moorehead’s journalism and in his books they hardly ever appear. One of the moving aspects of Moorehead’s life is his attempt to reconnect with Australia in the last part of his writing life, with books like Rum Jungle and Cooper’s Creek and his ill-fated hope to compose the libretto for a Peter Sculthorpe opera about Fraser Island.

This reconnection never outlived a certain awkwardness on both sides, in part, as Moorehead recognised, because it came too late, in part because many Australians looked askance at the return of this prodigal son. Xavier Herbert did so for left-wing political reasons, Patrick White for snobbish literary ones. And yet, in what  Thornton regards as the most penetrating critical piece ever written on Moorehead as a writer, an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement observed: “It is curious how Australian he turns out to be,” a comment that perhaps takes us the heart of Moorehead’s accomplishment and his vision of life: plain, hard, uncluttered, unpretentious, always observant, unillusioned and tragically realist.

One of the things that most troubles me about Australia is the ease with which events and people that once mattered greatly vanish from view; what in a quite different context I have called our culture of forgetting. This book restores to view a writer who once mattered greatly here and elsewhere. As such it is an antidote to forgetfulness, a persuasive demonstration of how nourishing and absorbingly interesting faithful historical remembrance can be. 

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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