Reviewed by Dianne Nielsen
He drank with Ava Gardner, Clive James and Truman Capote, fished with Hemingway, and debated with Churchill…and that was only part of his remarkable story.
Alan Moorehead escaped (his word) Melbourne in 1936 for a successful journalistic career in Britain and Europe. He was present at many of the great historical events of the 20th Century: World War I, the Spanish Civil War, World War II including the desert campaign and the liberation of Paris, Cold War espionage and decolonisation in Africa.
Moorhead worked hard to shed his Australian accent and became a multi-lingual cosmopolitan, friendly with many prominent literary, artistic and social identities of the mid-20th Century. His coverage of the desert campaign of the Second World War made him a famous British war correspondent and his books on that campaign later published as African Trilogy were best sellers. He also wrote a biography of General Montgomery whom he knew well. After the war he wrote for The New Yorker and other magazines.
Moorehead struggled to write fiction. His hero was Hemingway but he eventually realised that non-fiction was his forte and used the skills of description and the use of small telling details that he had honed as a war correspondent to make his readers feel as if they were on the spot. His ‘boots on the ground’ method was to visit the places he wrote about and his gift was not only to conjure for the reader the journeys of Burton, Speke and Livingston but to make his readers part of the journey as he retraced the steps of these legendary explorers.
His popular histories such as The White Nile, The Fatal Impact, and Coopers Creek and many others were best sellers and made him wealthy and famous. Professional historians disregarded his work but the public loved it. McCamish quotes Germaine Greer who, in a review of the spate of Gallipoli anniversary books, wrote that Moorhead’s was ‘a masterful account and the best written of them all’.
Some of Moorehead’s happiest times were the seven years he spent at the villa he built at Porto Ercole in Tuscany. He wrote in the morning, and in the afternoons there came a succession of literary and artistic friends. Robert Hughes came for a visit and stayed for two months. Martha Gelhorn, Sydney Nolan, Gore Vidal, Igor Stravinsky, John Cheever and many others visited him.
Moorehead’s biography A Late Education was published in 1970 four years after its subject had suffered a crippling stroke which had deprived him for a long time of speech and of movement in his right arm. He could no longer write. He eventually regained some speech and learned to paint with his left arm. His devoted wife Lucy herself a journalist and editor compiled A Late Education from three unfinished attempts Moorehead had made at writing his memoirs. Lucy also assembled Darwin and the Beagle from the film scripts and unfinished manuscripts that Moorehead had already written, reading the links aloud to Moorhead for his approval.
Moorehead died in 1983. His headstone reads simply: Alan Moorhead: writer.
Thornton McCamish is a freelance journalist and writer who first read Moorehead’s autobiography in 2008 and became interested in its author. McCamish notes that though Moorehead was a “literary giant in his time” he had “fallen into deep obscurity”. This is not a rigidly conventional biography because McCamish sometimes intersperses his own journeys to places that Moorhead visited or lived and compares the then to now. McCamish cheerfully admits that he became a little obsessed with his subject though he is not blind to Moorhead’s faults: his pushiness, which irritated his English colleagues, his frequent womanising which made his wife miserable, the several poor quality novels he wrote after the war before he turned to history.
I found this account to be authoritative – it is perceptive, affectionate and even funny in places. It is indexed and each chapter is referenced. It is a welcome addition to contemporary biography and reveals an Australian most of us would wish we’d known. Thornton McCamish more than fulfils the objective given in the subtitle of his lively biography of Alan Moorehead.
I highly recommend it.
By Thornton McCamish