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Notes on a disappearance
Every book lover knows the thrilling experience of discovering a writer whose work changes the way they see the world. It can happen more than once; it had already happened to me several times before I picked up Alan Moorehead’s A Late Education in my late 20s, so I knew what was happening as I read – I’d found a writer who would forever be indispensable to my imaginative sense of the past. But it was still a shock. I hadn’t expected to feel that way about a journalist and popular historian I’d never heard of before.
Moorehead was a literary giant in his time, but by the time I discovered him, he’d fallen into deep obscurity. African Trilogy, Eclipse, Gallipoli, The White Nile, The Blue Nile, Cooper’s Creek – his work was easy enough to find, but only if you knew it was worth looking for. Among readers with long memories, Moorehead’s popular histories of the ’50s and ’60s – when he was probably Australia’s most internationally celebrated writer, and someone the Washington Post would soon call one of the best writers in the English language – are still cherished as classics of yesteryear. In the highbrow literary reviews, critics dust off the Nile books now and then and hold them up as benchmarks against which some unlucky new book of African travel writing is – almost always – judged minor or dull. Moorehead’s war books have been regularly reissued over the decades. As eyewitness accounts they enjoy a lingering half-life in Second World War historiography.
But in 2008 I knew plenty of keen readers in Melbourne, the city of his birth, who had no idea who he was. This wasn’t surprising, really. It would be hard to imagine a writer more unfashionably dead, white and male. His books are almost exclusively about men, and deal mostly with subjects – war, spying, exploration, wild animals, far-off adventures in far-off times – that might have been chosen to appeal to an Edwardian schoolboy. It was possible to believe, as I fed my growing infatuation, hunting down an obscure 1974 reissue of The Traitors (1952) through military bookstores or delightedly swooping on a rare first edition of Rum Jungle (1953) I spied propping up a potted cactus at a charity shop in Queenscliff, that I had joined a memorial cult with only one member. This notion wasn’t without its perverse appeal. It felt almost transgressive to find myself identifying so strongly with a writer whose themes seem so remote and obsolete; as if the inner Edwardian schoolboy I didn’t know I had was rummaging around in the dead-white-male dress-ups box, trying on dented pith helmets and old flying goggles.
But a regressive yearning for adventure wasn’t what made me read Moorehead’s entire published output. It was that voice I’d first heard in A Late Education; it was the time machine of the prose.
Here’s his first glimpse of the waterfront of Toulon, in southern France, as a 26-year-old, the first taste for this pilgrim from the New World of the intoxications of the Old. The Ormonde steamed into Toulon harbour in bright morning sunshine and anchored out in the roadstead. Passengers were ferried towards the mirage of the waterfront (“some turreted town from the East, floating on the edge of the water”) in little boats that ran right up to the stone coping of the docks. “I date my life from this moment,” Moorehead wrote.
You stepped from your boat straight on to the cobblestones, and all about you yelling women were selling oysters and mussels, lobsters and crabs, shrimps and limpets and sea urchins; they were all alive, reeking of the sea, and piled on top of one another in sagging wicker baskets. Beyond these stalls there was a short open space and then the cafes began, dozens of rickety little tables in the sunshine, with coloured sunshades, and sitting there, idly surveying the universe, sipping their vermouth-cassis, were the bottomlessly cynical French clientele. Wonderfully gay little men, chattering like monkeys. And girls. French girls, doing things or having things done to them, right there in the open in a way that would have caused a riot back in Park Villas, Melbourne. Before my eyes a man casually reached up his hand to the waitress, pulled down her head, and kissed her on the mouth. When, after a long time, she lifted up her head again and caught my eye she smiled pleasantly … This was it. This was what I had come for. Here in this market and among these people was the missing thing. From now on there was no more time to be lost: I must learn the language, I must understand what they were saying and thinking; and I must see all the other markets, the buildings, the paintings, and the peoples of Europe.
Like many Australians before and since, I knew this sensation of arriving in Europe and recognising that “missing thing” that was both foreign and deeply familiar. But I hadn’t seen it described as hungrily as this, or in prose which took so much pleasure in observed details that you want to crawl into the page and roll around in it. He “has a mind like one of those small and enormously expensive cameras”, the Times Literary Supplement declared in 1946. “Whatever he sees, up goes the camera, and you have, in any light, a beautifully defined picture.”
That descriptive gift went beyond word pictures. He had a casual brilliance for atmosphere, for conveying the distinctive air pressure of time and place. In that first decade of his European career, he was reporting from the rolling catastrophe of the Second World War, which meant that the atmosphere he described is the one that still haunts our culture through endless TV documentaries and movies and spy novels. All the dark ambience is there in Moorehead. If you were so inclined, you could read him now just to lose yourself in the texture of that dark dream: the desolation of cheap travellers’ hotels with creaky iron-grille lifts, whisky breath at secret conferences, tramp steamers tied up alongside foggy docks, the blacked-out nightclubs, black-market nylons, the cryptic telegrams, and always the background static of emergency.
But in Moorehead it sounds brand-new, as if he were the first writer to cross the border into a new world – the Middle East and Europe in the throes of modern, technological war – and the first to send back news of how it felt to ordinary people and what it was doing to them. The Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot wrote that Dickens describes London “like a special correspondent for posterity”; in the African Trilogy, Moorehead does something similar for Middle Eastern towns and deserts undergoing historic transformation, constantly tugging at your sleeve to show you another surreal detail, to make you stand in the right place so that you see what he sees. “He wrote effortlessly,” a wartime colleague later recalled, “the only man I knew who could type a story and hold a conversation at the same time.” And that’s how his copy read: like a conversation on paper. Moorehead’s biographer, Tom Pocock, called it his “buttonholing intimacy”: this is a writer who wants you to see and understand, and to do that, you have to be there, too, feeling the heat on your back, the dust in your tea mug, swatting flies at a briefing, smelling the smouldering charcoal in the brazier of an abandoned Bedouin village.
As early as 1941 you can also see the promiscuous curiosity of the travel writer Moorehead was becoming, his knack of seeming to fit in wherever he was while maintaining the detachment of an outsider seeing everything for the first time. Moorehead’s prose grew leaner over the years. As he himself became less easy and less eager to impress, so did his style. Detachment and polish were the qualities he was aiming for in his histories of the ’50s and ’60s. Moorehead was capable of tour-de-force passages that still make you want to leap out of your chair and find someone to read them out to, but there’s no straining for effect in his mature prose and little conspicuous panache. In the late works some grandiloquence creeps in, as though the language is trying to rise to the august standing of its author. You start to notice an over-fondness for the word “scene” (“now we must imagine the scene …” “into this scene burst”, etc. etc.), and brolly-twirling phrases (“One even fancies that one can descry Mount Athos …” he grandly reports in Gallipoli). In Moorehead there are sentences to which, given a moment, you fancy you could descry some potential improvements: maybe a fresher verb here, or a more pungent noun there. But this rarely feels true of a Moorehead page. In full flight his storytelling is so lucid and swift and sensible that it feels inevitable, and so nearly transparent the pages seem to be turning themselves. All you notice, and only after a while, is the sensation of being borne along by the story’s eagerness to be told, an irresistible current that barely ruffles the surface.
Joseph Brodsky wrote somewhere that once you’ve read a certain amount of a writer’s work you find yourself wanting to know what she or he looks like. I already knew what Moorehead looked like, and from his books I’d been able to compose a partial identikit image of his character.
But I knew what Brodsky meant. After I’d read all the books, what I wanted was to see the room Moorehead worked in.
A compulsive traveller, Moorehead wrote books all over the place. But one place stands out. In the 1960s, the high summer of his postwar career, he was based in a house he and his wife, Lucy, built just above the little seaside village of Porto Ercole, on Italy’s Monte Argentario. One day late in 2010 I drove down the west coast of Tuscany from where I was staying in Umbria to see if I could find it.
On the map it looked like a few hours each way at most – an easy daytrip – and an adventure on the right scale for the whim that I told myself this was. I didn’t know the precise address of the house, after all. I was just going to poke around, and take a look.
For reasons I can’t remember now, my wife and I decided it might be a nice idea to take along our small children. They would research gelati while I tried to find the house. After three long hours of ‘I Spy’ and ‘Guess the Animal’, we were still shooting south at the usual unnerving autostrada speed, through mountains thick with gothic pine forest. When the freeway finally swept us down from the hills, spat us out an exit ramp and onto the coastal plain, we soon became lost in a maze of little crooked roads with signs pointed puzzlingly into the hedges of overgrown corn on either side. Another hour passed while we found the causeway across to the peninsula and made our way around the coast to Porto Ercole.
We crawled stickily out of the car and took our bearings. Porto Ercole is one of those rustic fishing villages that has held its ancient shape while the decades have cluttered its edges with cheap flats. Between two high bluffs, each capped with the ruins of a medieval fortress, the town zigzags down a steep slope to a strip of waterfront cafes and shops facing the boardwalk, a pebble beach and a marina where hundreds of little white boats suckle at their piers. It was early autumn. It wasn’t deserted, but it was quiet, in that appealingly neglected way that summer towns have when all the holiday-makers have gone home. In the boutiques, expressionless shopgirls tapped at keyboards or rearranged trinkets in the windows. Now and then a moped blattered up a steep cobbled street to the main road, but in the following silence all you could hear was the clink of wires against aluminium masts and the slap-suck of water against rocking hulls.
I felt a surge of excited purpose – I was so close now! But I had no address for the Moorehead house, only vague descriptions of its approximate location. Distracted by the difficulty and unlikelihood of ever getting to this place from Melbourne, I’d overlooked this detail; I’d assumed that if I made it this far, finding the house would be the easy part. I hesitated, wondering whether coffee would help. Then I recalled that Moorehead had experienced a moment like this himself. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, he was based in Gibraltar, a junior stringer for the Daily Express in London, reporting on the shipping war raging in the Mediterranean. On the hunt for a scoop, he persuaded his paper to let him go to Istanbul to see what he could dig up there. But when he arrived in Istanbul, a city seething with rumour, spies, criminals and profiteers – or so everyone said – he realised he had come ashore “without a single coherent idea of what I was to do next”.
I wandered out into the streets and stood for a while gazing at the statue of Kemal Ataturk. He was carved boldly in stone and he was wearing a dinner jacket and turned-up cuffs on the bottom of his trousers. Camels and mules and street vendors with their handcarts passed by, covering the statue’s elegant legs with dust. Somehow, I thought, I must discover the technique of the high-powered foreign correspondent. He would not stand here, in the midday heat, with his hands in his pockets staring at a statue of Kemal Ataturk. He would be dining at embassies, telephoning Cabinet ministers, sending off long political cables, perhaps interviewing Kemal Ataturk himself. But how did one begin? … How did you penetrate that magic world?
Well, quite. How did you?
I left the kids pinging stones into the water and made for the tourist office. On the way I noted, with disappointment, no sign of a ‘White Nile Cafe’ among the village’s bars, no ‘Trattoria Moorehead’. The tourist office was in a modern, low-slung building that fronted a car park. The two women behind the desk inside looked pleased to have a customer. They listened encouragingly to the faltering Italian phrases I’d rehearsed for this moment, but when I finished they seemed nonplussed. Now I saw a quite specific look of feminine pity that I’d noticed a lot in Italy and which seems to be reserved for grown men who, for whatever reason, ought to know better. They’d never heard of Alan Moorehead. They were terribly sorry, one said, in perfect English.
That was that, then. My best shot at finding the house had come to nothing. Feeling foolish, I turned to go. But then one of the women gasped and flung out a palm. Wait. Yes, yes! A famous writer, you say? Yes! She nodded at her colleague in triumph. There was a rapid exchange in Italian. The other woman’s eyes widened. Oh yes! Si, si. My heart leapt. They had him now. I realised how excited I was to be this close to the house. I beamed with gratitude. The women nodded at me proudly. He is American, yes?
American? No. I explained again, in English. He was Australian. Or British, if you like. An expat.
The first woman frowned happily at her municipal map, tracing thoughtful circles in the air with a pen. There was a famous American writer’s house in the town, she said. She glanced up, a little impressed, I thought. You know him?
Not exactly, I admitted. Not really.
I tried again. Perhaps I should have mentioned earlier, I said, he’s been dead for 30 years.
At the word “dead” the women visibly tensed.
I tried for my most placid smile. No – I said – I just want to see the house. From the outside. The women were watching me carefully. Because I love his books, you see? I am a fan. I’m just a … fan. (I have always hated the word “fan”.) I kept smiling, like a harmless fan. “I just want to see where he lived.”
At that, the tension dissipated. Clearly I was telling the truth – why admit to such nonsense unless it was true? They had me print the name, ALAN MOOREHEAD, on a scrap of paper. Then they studied it from different angles, as though it were a cryptic clue, and crosschecked it against their map, looking from one to the other. Each woman pronounced the name experimentally. Mourhid. Morr-hayde. Neither woman knew the name, or the books; neither could think of anyone who would. They were out of ideas and very sorry. Never mind, I said. It doesn’t matter at all. Just a whim.
It mattered a lot, of course. Now I was desperate to find it.
The pilgrimage to the writer’s house is a cliché, but it’s still one of the oddest things readers do. What is in the reader’s heart when he or she goes to see a famous writer’s house? Prurience? Reverence? Hope? We know our memory of the books won’t be there, yet we go anyway, to experience the strange, simple fact – the same old fact, but strange every time – that the intimate journey we took with the mind of someone else can be traced to a person sitting at a desk in a room somewhere, gnawing their nails and wondering if the mail’s come yet. We want to pay our respects, I think, and to stake a claim. We demonstrate to ourselves, if to no one else, how important a writer’s work has become to us.
My failure at the tourist office was a blow, but there was still hope. I had the description in Robert Hughes’ memoir of walking drunkenly back to the Moorehead house from the village 50 years ago. It is a brief passage, and was never meant to be used as a map. But it might serve as one. The cemetery. Pine trees. Ten minutes’ walk up the hill. But which hill? And how far does a half-shickered art critic walk in ten minutes?
We had lunch, then piled back into the car. Past the cemetery there was a road that did, indeed, wind up a hill. But it quickly narrowed to a track barely wide enough for our car, let alone any that might happen along from the other direction. Dusty foliage pressed on either side; it was impossible to see anything except the shaded track ahead, which kept forking. We chose at random. It was like a game where the goal is to become lost as fast and as comprehensively as possible. We kept climbing. You could tell from the driveways, most of them solemnly gated, their letterboxes unmarked, that plenty of properties were tucked away behind the trees and scrub. Now and then through gaps in the foliage you could glimpse ordered shadow where tiny vineyards and olive groves clung to the hillside. We could be close, and we’d never know. I thought again about how long ago 1965 was, when Moorehead was in full flight, writing The Fatal Impact in daily increments up here somewhere among the trees, working in the mornings, strolling down to the town for dinner.
It was hopeless. A four-hour return trip loomed. The sun was getting lower. At least, I told my stupefied children, we’ve seen the town. Everyone was quiet while I tried to find a driveway I could use to squeeze the car around and begin the drive back. I found one. At the entrance was a plain wooden sign. Casa Moorehead.
I marched up the driveway alone. I had no idea what I was going to say, and tried not to think about it. I just followed my feet. The track made a sharp hairpin bend, then continued steeply uphill before it opened out to a broad gravelled area. There was the house – the back of the house, I guessed, from what I’d seen of photographs – a simple, two-storey building with creepers hugging the windowsills like delicate bunting, and a shuttered garage and no sign of anyone at all.
I was about to knock on the door when I glanced to my left and saw what I’d come to see, and then I forgot all about knocking on the door. About 50 yards or so up the hill from the house was a small cabin of rough honey-coloured stone wedged into the sloping ground. Moorehead’s writing studio – “His little shithouse, with no view,” Robert Hughes called it. “Do you want your little studio – how pathetic that sounds – run up right away?” Lucy Moorehead wrote to her husband in early 1960. As so often, Moorehead was away on a trip, and Lucy was attending to business, in this case, the business of seeing their dream home built. He did want it straightaway. And here it was, so small. I walked over and gazed at it, checking with all my senses that it was real, feeling that strange old sensation of seeing, right in front of you, a thing you have imagined so often that you can’t quite believe it exists outside the imagination.
Everything was very still. All I could hear was birds, and the scrape of my shoes on the gravel. A lawyer friend once told me that, technically, you’re only trespassing after someone has asked you to leave the property. But biography, or reader’s obsession, is itself a kind of trespass. Nothing you can do about it. And no one had asked me to leave yet.
I’d been trespassing for a while now in any case. A few years before, when I finished reading everything Moorehead wrote himself, as well as everything I could find that was written about him, I realised I hadn’t finished. So I flew up to the National Library in Canberra to inspect the collection of personal papers he gifted to the nation in 1971.
The National Library is where Australia keeps the documentary remains of its glorious dead, and the Manuscripts Reading Room, where anyone with a card and the inclination may inspect those remains, felt like an annex to a well-run mausoleum. When I arrived one winter morning, and unpacked my laptop, I had a crisis of nerve. Coming here felt like a fateful escalation of my interest in Moorehead. In that sensible room, with its rows of sensible-looking readers absorbed in ledgers and passenger manifests, the glamour drained out of my quest.
But then a trolley appeared bearing the first box of Moorehead’s papers and my anxieties were forgotten. I sat at my canted reading table and, with tingling fingertips, began to pick through the fragrant debris of a mid-century literary life. Here were the very cables Moorehead had received onboard a freighter running illicit fuel supplies into Republican Spain in 1937; scalloped-edge photographs of mysterious beaming bathers; a girl’s name scrawled on the back of a Tangier nightclub flyer from 1937; the notebooks in which Moorehead had jotted one-line impressions as he rode behind the tanks through Normandy in 1944. Rejection letters from publishers. Letters from readers, from agents, other writers. Royalty statements. Fan mail. Sketches for abandoned projects. The poignant letters from Father, as Moorehead always called him, full of achingly muffled pride at each new book his startling son produced.
For hours, I was euphoric. I’d begun to identify with Moorehead, I realised – no, more than that, I’d started to feel as though I owned him. Over the next couple of years I came back several times, whenever I could scrape together a few days. It never felt like work. It felt like losing myself in a time current. I was feeling my way back into the everyday texture of Moorehead’s life, trying to place the factiveness of these fragments in the popular-memory glamour of Moorehead’s milieux – pre-war Paris, expat Italy in the ’40s, the early jet age.
It was the speed and scale of his success that stood out first. From one neat little archival box to the next you could trace Moorehead’s rapid progress, and his excitement at seeing so much so soon, and doing so well. But over time, as old mysteries deepened and new ones appeared, I began to see some encouraging answers to the oldest mystery: why such a celebrated writer had become so hard to place so soon. This was crucial, since the alternative – that Moorehead had faded from sight because he and his work simply hadn’t been interesting enough to last – was too dispiriting to contemplate. But here, happily, was evidence suggesting that Moorehead had always been hard to place. For all his professional achievements, he had never loomed large in the public imagination. Moorehead wasn’t famously irascible, or vicious, or brilliant in company. He lacked the popular artists’ vices of the time. He became quietly notorious for his womanising in some circles, including, painfully, his wife’s; but that was a private matter. To the reading public, he wasn’t a fabled boozer, or a tremendous hater, communist or talk-show raconteur. He was highly ambitious for his writing, but never too fastidious to grind out mediocre copy for newspaper deadlines (he was always pragmatic about the relationship between writing and paying bills), and he wasn’t a natural self-promoter. One of his few recorded maxims for the writing life was “Avoid publicity as much as you can, above all television.” That reads like a misprint now, but Moorehead could afford to let the work speak for itself. He was, he once wrote to Lucy, “prim at heart and too serious. I’m only good and strong when I’m working, really working.”
One afternoon at the National Library I settled into a cubicle to listen to an oral history interview Moorehead recorded in 1964. I donned the plush headphones. This would be the first time I’d encountered his spoken voice, though I had an idea of what to expect. When he first arrived in London in 1936, Moorehead had been appalled when a girl he was sleeping with told him he had a “cockney” accent. He didn’t – but he got rid of it anyway, and old friends he met during the war and after often remarked on the change. It was still a shock. This imposter was an English aristocrat with blocked sinuses and a drawling tenor voice. Moorehead had shed his Australian accent, but he’d replaced it with something one might acquire at a gentlemen’s outfitters. “You sounded just as I had hoped you would,” one Mrs Barker of Birkenhead, Cheshire, wrote after she heard a BBC radio talk he gave in 1944, “and not [with] what my son calls a chromium plated accent.” But anything more chromium plated was hard to imagine.
I was thrown by this for a while. It felt like a rebuke for my presumption, for getting overfamiliar with the past.
The virtues of Moorehead’s work haven’t faded, but perhaps they’re harder to see out of context. And the context was an era in which his reports from distant places were a magic carpet ride of escape and adventure most people couldn’t get anywhere else but in books and National Geographic and the glossy magazines. This was the Western world on the cusp of ubiquitous television and mass travel.
Moorehead’s generation of writer-travellers was the last to see so many cultures existing in anything like an “unspoilt” state, whether it was the Dinka people of Sudan (“almost as naked, as primitive and as unresponsive to the healthy dreariness of modern civilization, as they ever were”), or even – perhaps especially – the last authentic fag ends of the British Empire. In East Africa and Asia Moorehead didn’t stay in the kind of hotels, as top-end travellers do now, where colonial ease and elegance are expensively simulated in repro teak and tiffin lunches. He stayed in hotels that were authentic remainders of the colonial period, whose fraying wickerwork and decades-old copies of Punch were the actual, tattered decor of the Imperial sunset.
It’s enough to make him seem like a citizen of a different world. Of course, it was a different world. From my earliest days in the archives I’d been struck by the realisation – a truism to historians, but new to me – that people’s lives were so very different to ours only a few decades ago. Whenever I read through his New Yorker pieces I found my eyes drifting from Moorehead’s copy to the strip adverts running alongside. How the ads have aged around him, I thought, these ads for defunct airlines and gizmos that were obsolete before I was born, from Braniff Airways to Magnavox radio-TVs.
Yet there is something else, particular to Moorehead, that roots the work of the ’50s and ’60s so firmly in its period: his imagination seemed to face backwards. Increasingly, he looked for stories from other times, stories of exploring, destroying and suffering, in which the great subject of his career finally reveals itself: the spread of European civilisation “like a proliferating plague” over distant lands, its “aggressive curiosity”, its self-destructiveness, and its often bloody retreat.
Moorehead was a product of the British Empire, and at some level remained one, even as a fellow-travelling young socialist, and then later as a roaming witness to the Empire’s abrupt dissolution. The young dreamer who’d started out all agog at Hemingway’s trailblazing prose style had, by the late ’40s, lost interest in literary innovation. But he didn’t need new forms to tell fresh stories. The carefully cultivated qualities in his prose – the shrewdness, and independence, the rhythmic clarity, the immunity to fads and cult personalities – were what gave his books their unassuming authority. Of pop culture and the social revolution that transformed Western life in the late ’60s there is hardly a trace in his work. Current affairs rarely intrude on his ‘Reporter at Large’ dispatches from across the world. But he never lost his ability to spot the big picture behind small details. His later books are quietly prescient about the rise of environmentalism and the fate of the postcolonial world.
Most of all, he never lost faith in the revelatory pleasure of the story. From the mid ’50s on, the story was everything. To read Moorehead’s work now is to be reminded of how we once told stories about the world to ourselves. It’s inevitable that the flaws and dated tics of his work should stand out in retrospect, particularly the paternalistic assumptions, and the unreconstructed terms in which he describes “native” peoples. But there are also qualities that we have perhaps forgotten how to value: the open-hearted view of adventure as a worthwhile thing in itself; and a kind of intelligent, unironic wonder at the world and how much of it there is to see.
I tried to put the question of trespassing out of my mind long enough to survey the scene, as Moorehead might say. I noted the window with its dust-streaked glass, a window which had been deliberately oriented so that the inmate couldn’t be distracted by the pretty view of the sea and the hills and the harbour. I am not a prowler, I told myself, I am a fan. I edged closer to the window: no sign of the author. No anglepoise lamp. No trace of the desk, a copy of Dr Livingstone’s that Moorehead had had specially made up. The place was a storeroom, crammed with holiday lumber, with inflatable pool toys and old fishing rods. Some gardening tools.
I stepped back. In his 40s and 50s, Moorehead himself made many trips like this to significant sites. He did all the usual desk-bound research, finding his way into the minds of his long-dead characters through their diaries and journals. But then he liked to track his stories back to their settings to feel the landscape under his boots. He always “walked the course”, as one friend put it. Sometimes there was a residual tremor of drama. But mostly he was surveying, fossicking for remains, adjusting his bearings and perspective.
For Moorehead, the crucial dimension wasn’t space, but time. In his books, explorers and scientists and soldiers act out their fates in alien, often vast landscapes, but also in the unpitying wastes of eternity. The quiet and neglected air of places abandoned by the onrush of history fascinated him. It made its way into his books in a distinctive way, in what one writer called “sudden pools of contemplative and passive quiet – a sort of cool stagnancy, into which the narrative … sinuously slides forward”. Behind all the action and wonder of The White Nile and Cooper’s Creek and The Fatal Impact is always this feeling of the universe’s indifference: to the pageant of history itself, its striving and pathos and absurdity.
In Moorehead, traveller’s ennui can be a sweet melancholy that feels existential; there’s a kind of Sunday afternoon listlessness to it, an unfocused yearning for other ages and places. I could feel it right here, in Porto Ercole. This was in every sense a Moorehead scene. Thirty years after his death, this little building radiated an air of gentle abandonment. The glorious indifference of time was all around, in the late afternoon sunshine catching wisps of spider web in the mortared stones, the hushing sound of a wind moving through the cypresses on its way to somewhere else.
This is an edited extract from Thornton McCamish’s Our Man Elsewhere (Black Inc.).
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