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.