Books

Thornton McCamish
Our Man Elsewhere

Alan Moorehead is a strange obsession for a former editor of The Big Issue. Even for baby boomers, the name was on the spines in the bookshelves of their parents, rather than ones they bought themselves. For younger generations, it had vanished. As Thornton McCamish admits: “It would be hard to imagine a writer more unfashionably dead, white and male.”

Yet McCamish has revived the corpse astonishingly well. This is a book that hums along, yet has you going back constantly to savour its aphoristic sentences. It establishes McCamish as one of our finest new writers.

Moorehead is alive in these pages in all his glory as a correspondent in World War II and writer of best-selling nonfiction. In all his flaws, too: his lack of humour and insight into character that thwarted his ambition of turning war experience into great novels, as did Hemingway or even his Australian contemporary George Johnston. 

Moorehead was a driven, ambitious character. After a good start at Melbourne’s Scotch College, he put himself through university, won a cadetship on the city’s Herald, then with £500 in savings headed to London aged 25. His letters recount attending the Olympics in Berlin, seeing Hitler, sleeping with an “Austrian governess”, and spending a night in a Paris dive with “fifty naked prostitutes”. 

When the money ran out, he went to Gibraltar as a stringer for Beaverbrook’s new middlebrow Daily Express to watch the Spanish Civil War. Running Mussolini’s submarine blockade aboard a tanker carrying Soviet oil to the Republicans won him heroic front-page stories and a full-time job, first in Paris, then Rome. There he and Alexander Clifford of the Daily Mail each told his foreign editor the other was heading to Cairo; in true scoop fashion, both received orders to pursue. They were kitted out as official war correspondents in time for the opening of the desert war.

That conflict, with its clash of modern armies amid heat and emptiness, with a hectic mix of headquarters intrigue and belly-dancing nightlife back in Cairo, made Moorehead the most famous war correspondent of his generation. His reports, sometimes spare of fact, conveyed the sense of being there as he accompanied the campaigns into Italy, at the Normandy landings, and into Germany.

Moorehead hobnobbed uncritically with British commanders such as Montgomery, Auchinleck and Cunningham. He’d shed his Australian accent in 1936 after a London girlfriend said he sounded cockney. “He’d replaced it with something one might acquire at a gentlemen’s outfitters,” McCamish notes after listening to a recorded interview. 

The war’s end brought a turning point. Beaverbrook offered him ever more princely money to stay on at the Express, and cut him off totally when Moorehead refused. Leaner years followed, with the failed novels, freelancing for The New Yorker and The Observer, and a nadir as press officer for the British Defence Ministry resulting in a propaganda book on Britain’s atomic spies.

It was his counterintuitive decision to write Gallipoli, amid the torrent of fresh World War II memoirs, that launched his second career in best-selling nonfiction. Over a decade, he wrote No Room in the Ark, The White Nile, The Blue Nile, Cooper’s Creek and The Fatal Impact, the last two a return to the Australia he’d long ago left, where he was already becoming a relic of a fading imperial attachment.

Not quite a travel writer, not quite a historian, he fed the curiosity and quest for self-improvement of Westerners not quite able, before jet travel, to see the wider world for themselves. Nor did Moorehead challenge them too much: “native” cultures were regretfully heading for extinction, but that was inevitable. In Kenya, he looked at the wildlife, not the thousands of Mau Mau suspects in concentration camps. 

By the mid-20th century, travel writers running out of undiscovered places “had nowhere to go but into a more or less ironic mode of re-discovery,” McCamish writes. Looking back at explorers such as Burton and Speke, Burke and Wills, Moorehead’s books were successful because they recaptured the romantic idea of discovery. They also had a sense of time as an illusion: “like a daydreamer’s peyote that brings you momentarily into contact with the giant tide of the past behind us, invisible, but vast, and insistent.”

Restlessness fuelled his work and shaped his life, McCamish writes. “This time he’d found a way to channel his defining flaw − the outsiderism, the deficit of commitment he deplored in himself – into his work.” Alongside the travel, philandering was part of Moorehead’s make-up, tolerated with great pain by his English wife, Lucy. 

Then it came to an end. A heart operation at age 56 precipitated a stroke that shut down the parts of his brain that enabled him to read, write and converse at any length. Lucy assembled his last and arguably best book, the autobiographical A Late Education, from drafts he’d started much earlier and abandoned. Writing about himself, he’d said, was like “straining shit through a sock”. He lived a quiet life pottering about for 17 more years, his fame quickly disappearing.

This book is subtitled In Search of Alan Moorehead. But what of Thornton McCamish? He came across A Late Education in his late 20s, in 1999. “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,” he writes. Why? McCamish confesses to the same fear of being “trapped” in Melbourne as his subject, though his own generation were probably some of the luckiest children on earth. “All
I knew was that Stonehenge and Portuguese forts were elsewhere; in this country it was just dry creeks and bush-band lagerphones.”

The search became a “memorial cult with only one member”, he writes. In winning the confidence of Moorehead’s family, “it seemed wise to keep the madder stuff to myself − that I’d anointed him my proxy escapee from Australia, made him my remote probe into the depths of the mid-20th century − let alone my suspicion that, at some murky, furtive daydreaming level, I wanted to be him.”  JF

Black Inc, 336pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 9, 2016 as "Thornton McCamish, Our Man Elsewhere". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JF