An evangelist for Moorehead


Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead, Thornton McCamish, Black Inc.

It’s nice to read the author of a biography being so enthusiastic about the subject, as Thornton McCamish (above) is over Australian writer, now largely forgotten according to McCamish, Alan Moorehead. I had one old book of Moorehead’s on my shelves, and I had a vague idea who he was, but in his day he was one of London’s best journalists. McCamish, as I suppose many biographers do, became quite obsessed with Moorehead, ordering old books and videos off the internet, staying where Moorehead stayed in Europe. McCamish is not above describing his biographical journey, which lends this book an intimate informality. And he is something of an evangelist for Moorehead’s writing and books, which do have a simply beauty about them. McCamish argues that it was always hard to pin down exactly why Moorehead was a good writer, because it was elegant, unembellished writing, what C P Snow described as ‘high journalism’ (probably not intended as a compliment, but it can serve as one). McCamish is not bad at channeling Moorehead himself occasionally, and comes up with some lovely descriptive passages.

Moorehead was born in Melbourne, and as seemed to happen in the twentieth century, just walked into a job as a journalist. He took the chance to get to England quickly, where he reported on the African campaign of WWII. His war works are considered by those still with an interest as classics of the genre, even though or because he downplays the heroic aspects and recognises the senselessness of war. His subsequent books on African exploration are considered classics of that genre, whatever it may be (colonial history? travel narrative?). Australians who didn’t join him overseas were quick to dismiss him as try-hard English. Xavier Herbert said bluntly that he was ‘not one of us’. But he was a friend of Sidney Nolan (perhaps seeing in Nolan kindred ambition), not to mention Thurber, Hemingway, O’Hara and Harold Ross of the New Yorker. McCamish says Moorehead was, with Nolan, one of the most famous Australian cultural exports of the mid-twentieth century.

While he tried his hand at being a novelist, Moorehead said himself that, despite his descriptive powers being first-rate, the plots were ‘hopeless’. McCamish writes that trying novels was a ‘category error’. Moorehead was best suited to a kind of reporting that evoked place and atmosphere. And it paid the bills. He lived in a villa in Tuscany, kept an apartment in London, and could afford a yacht – well, half of one.

While some of his attitudes now seem dated, he was passionate about the despoliation of native culture by Europeans and not fooled by nationalism. But the kind of books he wrote – reportage, travel narratives – do date and that is perhaps why he is less well-known today. McCamish keeps returning to questions of the ‘but are they any good today?’ variety. Ultimately his enthusiasm for the quality of the prose is infectious. I will admit to being inspired to go find a copy of Moorehead’s The White Nile in a second-hand bookshop. I guess that is just the kind of result, apart from good sales of the biography, that an enthusiastic biographer would want.

Stromatolites to walking whales


In the Adelaide Museum they have a lovely room dedicated to the Ediacara fossils – fossils from the Flinders Ranges that are some of the oldest multicellular fossils ever found. (The room features a former seabed rock slab suspended vertically in the middle of the room, allowing fossils on both sides of the slab to be viewed.) The finds resulted in the insertion of another period in the geological timescale (unsurprisingly, the Ediacaran Period).

This is just one of the major discoveries that feature in the short and snappy chapters of Donald Prothero’s The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, which covers significant fossils from stromatolites to the Burgess Shale to archaeopteryx to walking whales to ancient humans. He also weaves in the stories of the people that found them, including the amazing Mary Anning, famous for her discoveries of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and others in the nineteenth century at Lyme Regis in England, and who provided may specimens for the more famous male geologists of her time.

When I was a child, Australia seemed to have a dearth of interesting fossils, but it is interesting how significantly Australia features in both Prothero’s new book and our more recent understanding of the history of life – from still-living stromatolites at Shark Bay to the Flinders Ranges fossils, to walking whales from Jan Juc, to Adelaide Museum’s mesmerising opalised ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons (surely some of the most beautiful freaks of geological history), and now, just this week, significant sauropod discoveries.

No immediate answer


French writer Jacques Ellul’s large oeuvre is a goldmine. His work is always head-turning, including that which is more focussed on biblical material, as with On Freedom, Love, and Power (Uni of Toronto Press). This is a transcription of Bible study sessions on Genesis, Job, the parables and the Gospel of John. The editor Willem Vanderburg tells us that many group members became Christian as a result of these studies, but warns that the material is not always ‘safe’ for the church, as Ellul is never afraid to critique taken-for-granted but erroneous doctrine. Here he takes us back to the Jewish way of seeing things, against later Platonic distortions, which has implications for interpretation and doctrine.

The Bible is, as Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson is fond of saying, the story of a journey of a people, narrated in various styles. It is not, like the Koran, a book of laws dropped from heaven, or a philosophical treatise. And, interestingly, Ellul suggests that the fact that it is God’s message to us in imperfect human language, in ‘weakness’, shows that God doesn’t impose his will on us, but offers us the freedom to accept or reject his message. The parables, Ellul explains, are examples of Jesus’ way of not dictating but offering food for thought which people are free to ponder or ignore. Tied to this freedom is the freedom to live with questions that don’t have an immediate answer. Ellul suggests that in the church, and unlike in the Bible, we reach too easily for conclusions.

Ellul reminds us that we read the Bible through the prejudices of our culture, and that while we must be aware of this, God can use these for his purposes, just as he uses imperfect human beings in general to achieve his purposes. And God uses the variety of humans, as is evidenced by the variety of styles in the Bible.

The last shot of the Civil War


Australian Confederates, Terry Smyth, Ebury Press.

In 1865 an American Confederate navy ship, the Shenandoah, steamed into Melbourne. It was on its way to chase and cripple the Union whaling fleet which was employed in the northern Pacific. I first heard about this earlier in the year, as the State Library of Victoria was engaged in bidding for the diary, recently discovered, of one of the Shenandoah’s crew members. At the time I thought the story would make a great book. Then I discovered Terry Smyth’s new book American Confederates, which describes this almost forgotten aspect of the American Civil War.

Smyth describes how the Shenandoah’s crew was feted in Melbourne, and how Melbourne had quite strong sympathies towards the Rebel cause, even though in official circles there was also reserve, as Britain was against the Confederacy. (Many Melburnians often thought of themselves as put-upon Southerners, having a rivalry with Sydney.) There was so much sympathy with the Rebel cause, and racist attitudes, that a number of Melburnians (illegally) signed on to become crew members.

After living it up in Melbourne the Shenandoah fulfilled its mission by destroying dozens of Union whalers, crippling the whaling industry, pretty much permanently, according to Smyth. Even the Confederate shipmen had mixed feelings about their efficiency, with one soldier describing watching a burning, sinking ship as like watching a soul sink beneath the waves.

While destroying the fleet, the ship’s captain, James Waddell, was also being told by prisoners that the war was over, and indeed it had ended in the middle of their journey north, but Waddell assumed this was simply a ruse to avoid being pillaged. It seems the Shenandoah’s crew also refused to entertain the idea that their cause could be lost. It was the Shenandoah’s crew who fired the last shot of the Civil War. Once the news finally got through, they realised they would be prosecuted as pirates, and the ship was chased around the world, eventually to England, where any non-Southerners were to be arrested under British foreign enlistment laws. The Melburnians, in their colonial accents, swore they were all Southerners, and a British official with the task of arresting traitors, likely with a wry smile, turned a blind eye.

The ship was outfitted as a private yacht, changed hands a couple of times and eventually met an undignified end at the bottom of the Indian Ocean… somewhere.

On this long journey, Smyth dredges up many treasures of information, about the Civil War and about other aspects of nineteenth-century life, including the (almost) invention of the radio in the American South, and the introduction of rabbits into Victoria.

Free market idolatry

Brueggemann 2

An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture, Block, Brueggemnn and McKnight, Wiley.

In a recent online interview, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, co-author of An Other Kingdom, says America, and by implication the West, is ‘thick into idolatry’. One of these idols is free market ideology, which even infects the church. The OT prophets have acquired an image of doom and gloom but the modern prophets that author this book contrast the ‘realism’ that suggests free market ideology is simply the air we breathe with a biblically influenced imagination that can envisage something better.

Free market ideology promises to fulfil our needs, but instead creates ‘poverty, violence, ill health and fragile economic systems’ (and, we might add, fragile environmental systems). All these can seem inevitable by-products but the authors contrast them with slow food, slowing down, cooperation, silence and covenants. The last of these, covenant, is an alternative to the idea of contracts, which are based on law. Covenants work on trust, contributing not to a culture of suspicion, but of cooperation and openness. Jacques Ellul writes about similar things. He suggests that ‘the Kingdom’ in the Bible is about building relationships where we give rather than trade. In this environment we no longer operate in a climate of scarcity but in one of abundance. As Brueggemann has been preaching for years, these are not particularly radical interpretations, but simply part of the alternative kingdom envisaged by the OT prophets, and a reasonable alternative to plunging headlong off the cliff.

The authors here are also wary of the attitude that technology can fix any problem we have, which is ultimately based on human hubris. Technology has its place of course, but it can be a tyrant. Just look at how we feel it is ‘necessary’ to be constantly updating our mobile phones. The authors offer the example of the Amish (who may end up having the last laugh). They aren’t, they say, against all forms of technology. That is a caricature. The Amish make a point of considering technological innovations seriously, measuring the worth of the technology against the good of their society.

Don’t miss the point


On Augustine, Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury.

Saint Augustine is a modern thinker, relentless in his inquiring, and insightful on the formation of the self, traits that endear him to the secular as well as religious reader. But in summaries of his thought, over-simplifications and distortions creep in, just as playing a Beethoven symphony on a ukulele may result in the loss of some nuance. Augustine is blamed for the reluctance of Christians to be involved in politics, a long-standing negative view of human sexuality, and the obsession with the self within Western culture. In this collection of linked essays, Rowan Williams aims to correct these perceptions. Though the writing is sometimes heavy going (Williams is a thoughtful commentator but his tendency to take into account every nuance, as well as his assumption that we will follow his sometimes very technical arguments, can be wearying) the book offers plenty of insight, partly due to the breadth of Williams’ familiarity with his subject, which puts Augustine’s better-known views into their proper theological context.

And so, says Williams, Augustine is not arguing for a separation of Church and State, but about the difference between good and bad politics. Rather than being high-minded at the expense of the body, Augustine recognises that our material lives don’t live up to their potential without a spiritual impetus. He is realistic about our limited capacity to know ourselves. And we miss Augustine’s point when we separate what he says about the self from his conception of God and his insistence that the attempt to understand ourselves is not done under our own steam but by God working within us. Along the way we are reminded of how Augustine was grappling with concepts of knowledge and the mind that still grip modern philosophers of mind.

Williams also comments on the accusation that Augustine’s view of evil as a lacuna lessens evil’s impact. Williams takes much time over the thought of Hannah Arendt and others and suggests that Augustine’s views are an attempt to logically explain evil in a wider theological context and that holes can indeed have dramatic negative consequences.

Somewhat on the flipside of this is the fact that Augustine’s theology centres on and always returns to love. His curiosity is not limited to the academic and technical, but he is interested above all in how faith is lived out in community and world.

Worthy as Williams’ book is in itself, hopefully it also points readers to Augustine’s own books, especially the Confessions and On Christian Teaching. There, Augustine’s enthusiasm and curiosity leap off the page. Even though there are moments where he can seem archaic and tedious, they are balanced by many other moments when he seems so attuned to our own querying, questing age.

(Originally reviewed for Crosslight magazine.)

‘The fifties woefully late’


Sometimes a book pops up that is such a pleasure to read, and more so because the subject matter has led one to believe that the writing itself might not be that exciting. The subject matter of Mark Feeney’s Nixon at the Movies is exciting – well for some – but one would be forgiven in thinking that the book itself might read like a thesis. But Feeney, firstly, structures the chapters such that the topics are linked ingeniously. And he constantly comes up with clever word plays and memorable sentences. Such as ‘Nixon was the fifties woefully late’. And he says that Kissinger ‘had his cake and spat it out too’. Then there are the descriptive phrases such as ‘balletically commingled’.

It is almost as good as the writing in Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes, possibly the best book ever written about Nixon even though it was written in Nixon’s first term – unbelievably, before Watergate had begun to surface. And therefore, good as it is, there is a lot more to tell (though it shows that Nixon was interesting even before or without Watergate). Wills has, in the book, amazing foresight but not the benefit of hindsight. Mark Feeney’s book was written about ten years ago, so he has all the history at his fingertips. (Well, most of the history, as there has been a whole lot more stuff out recently, including more White House tapes transcripts.)

But the major selling point of the book is the intriguing way Nixon’s life and morals can be related to Hollywood. Nixon was born, as Feeney notes, at around the time of Hollywood’s beginnings. He lived not far from LA. He became an avid movie-goer and saw a few films a week while president. (In those days actual reels had to be brought in to be projected as in a real movie theatre.) His daughters said that he was an eternally optimistic watcher, refusing to walk out on a film, always hoping even the duds would get better.

Feeney parades a huge stream of comparisons, insights into Nixon’s character, odd facts, and quirks of history. He, as with others, lingers on Nixon’s loneliness, one of the oddest things about this man who aspired to the most public of offices (‘a politician who didn’t like people’). Feeney notes that Nixon didn’t belong in congress, where camaraderie is necessary. While we think of Nixon versus the counterculture, it was also a case of Nixon versus congress. Of course for a loner, says Feeney, sitting in the dark watching a movie provides a safe place to relax, as much as Nixon could. He even dares to imagine Nixon loosening his tie and kicking off his shoes.

The movies are an excuse for Feeney to analyse Nixon’s personality – this is not just a list of movies Nixon watched, and an excuse to talk merely about the movies. It is an excuse to talk about Nixon and an excuse to talk about American society. While discussing director Frank Capra, Feeney, again aphoristically, says that while Capra’s films suggested that the system was bad and the people were good, Watergate indicated, disturbingly, that the system worked but the people (who after-all, elected Nixon by a huge majority) were bad. This is possibly why Watergate remains such a turning point. It is not that the American people didn’t know that politicians were sometimes bad, it is that the illusion of the great man rising above was shattered. After-all, the president was the epitome of the self-made man glorified in American movies. Watergate suggested – again disturbingly, considering American paranoia about government intrusion into so-called freedoms – that there needs to be a system in place to keep track of the individual.

There is, of course, something on John Ford and John Wayne. And a chapter on Nixon and Elvis, who, after-all, was also a movie star. Nixon and Elvis famously met once in the oval office. Elvis ludicrously asked if he could help with the war on drugs. Elvis and Nixon weren’t that dissimilar: poor boys made good, military men, heartfelt respect for America, wariness at the dark turn of the counter-culture.

And there is also something about John F Kennedy. Feeney notes that Nixon loved the movies – he got the fantasy element. JFK didn’t like the movies. After-all, his whole life was like a movie fantasy, including sleeping with movie stars. For Nixon, becoming president was the dream that compared well to the kind of movies he liked to watch – the goal achieved by the hero against all the odds. Unfortunately for Nixon it all ended not like his favourite movies but in a Shakespearean tragedy.