This unconventional ramble through the life of the author of two popular history books that I dearly loved (The White Nile and The Blue Nile) was a pleasant walk indeed. It was a few months before our trip to Australia that I read another of his books, Cooper’s Creek, about the ill-fated exploration of the interior of Australia.
He was an ambitious journalist who left Australia as soon as he could for the more exciting Europe. In 1937 he was posted to Gibraltar and began sending dispatches about the Spanish Civil War. He got his wish for more excitement and fame when the war began. He became famous for his stories of the war in North Africa, one of the most famous journalists of the period. He was known for bringing the war to life and having read his popular histories, I can imagine that. After the war, he turned his hand to novel-writing and by all accounts was pretty bad at it.
His fortunes rose again in 1956 with the publication of his book Gallipoli, about that dreadful massacre of Australian soldiers in Turkey during World War I. My admittedly uninformed understanding of this battle is that Churchill was willing to put Australian but not British soldiers on the line in this dubious undertaking. But McCamish quotes Moorehead’s book:
‘No matter how often the story is retold there is still an actuality about it, a feeling of suspense and incompleteness,’ Moorehead wrote. ‘ Although nearly half a century has gone by, nothing yet seems fated about the day’s events, a hundred questions remain unanswered, and in a curious way one feels that the battle might still lie before us in the future; that there is still time to make other plans and bring it to a different ending.’
Critics loved the book, but there was a dissent by Norman Podhoretz in The New Yorker, who accused Moorehead of pandering to a wrong-headed British sentimentality about the glory of sacrifice. (Even a neocon is right twice a day.) The Duff Cooper Memorial Prize was presented to Moorehead by Winston Churchill. I hardly know what to say.
McCamish puts himself into the story; he was a dedicated fan and made pilgrimages to the places important in Moorehead’s life, hoping to feel his presence. Moorehead was an amazing figure: he came to know countless famous figures, he worked very hard at researching and writing, and he was an inveterate traveler. One question that comes up is why he disappeared from consciousness. His great talent was tapping into the issues of the moment and the moment does pass.
Thornton McCamish, Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead, Schwartz Publish Pty Ltd, 2016, 336 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available from Amazon.