Growing up in a small town in the American midwestern state of Kansas in the 1980s, I had the unwitting privilege of being a member of the last generation where the world of books was revealed largely by combing through the stacks of my local public library. Amazon was only a river and “kindle” was a word on a spelling exam.
Although it seems clichéd, I spent many of my summer afternoons riding my bicycle down Main Street (yes, it really was Main Street) to the doors of a library that started life as the early 20th century project of a small town’s aspirational middle class. As with over 1,500 similar libraries across America, it grew into a centre of the community through the philanthropy of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Its purpose was to democratise knowledge and, less grandiloquently, provide reading material in a town lacking a decent bookshop.
It was here that I whiled away many afternoons, usually combing through the 39-volume Time-Life History of World War Two or tackling a biography of a baseball legend. From the battle-scarred streets of Stalingrad to the debauched life of New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle, “my” library genuinely played the role of opening my mind to a world far beyond the wheat fields of Kansas.
For obvious reasons, my parents encouraged my budding bibliophilia, allowing me to fill up my bookshelves with anything from tales of wartime derring-do (god bless Alistair MacLean) to the usual early entry points into the classics (no matter how hard I tried, the 15-year-old me found Holden Caulfield unrelatable). I still give my mother great credit for steering me, when I was undecided about the topic for a high school theme paper, towards the life of Langston Hughes, the great Kansas-reared poet and chronicler of the black experience in America in the early 20th century.
Since those early days in archetypal small-town America, I’ve lived much of my adult life overseas, primarily in South Africa and England. One of the great pleasures of this experience has been access to countless used bookstores that have served to feed a borderline bibliomania. Nearly two decades spent scouring dusty shelves from Charing Cross Road in London to Norwood in Johannesburg have opened my eyes to authors that rarely receive attention in the US. From Laurie Lee’s and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s accounts of youthful “walks” across pre-World War Two Europe to Ingrid Jonker’s haunting verse, I’ve regularly experienced the joy of discovering writers much better known within the Commonwealth than my home country.
Enter Alan Moorehead
The most impactful recent discovery came during a visit to Franschhoek, where I popped into a wonderful used bookshop, making my usual hollow pledge to my wife that “I only need 10 minutes and I promise not to buy anything”.
My eyes quickly settled on a doorstopper with The Desert War and “Moorehead” on the spine. Intrigued, I pulled down the book and settled into an armchair. It was one of those memorable moments in a reader’s life when you first discover a previously unknown writer, find yourself captivated by the prose, and have the jubilant realisation that there is very likely more where this came from.
I clearly remember what I read when I opened the volume, which turned out to be a compendium of war dispatches by Australian journalist Alan Moorehead. Moorehead, as I soon discovered, was a highly acclaimed war correspondent, serving as the Daily Express’s man in North Africa from 1940-1943, and later in continental Europe until the war’s end, where he earned a level of fame that could have only been achieved in a pre-television era when broadsheets were a part of nearly everyone’s daily routine.
My first exposure was classic Moorehead. It describes an event – an RAF air-raid on the Italian-held town of Bardia in Libya – that is unlikely to be in any grand account of the war, yet as described by Moorehead encapsulated the viscerality of the conflict and its strange magnetism.
“Standing on top of the dunes that night we watched for an hour the RAF turning one of their full-scale raids on Bardia. Looking across the wide intervening bay in the darkness, we saw it all stage by stage—the first bombs, the answering fire; the hits, the misses; the flames as the aircraft came away; drama as rounded and directional as a motion picture and watched with the detachment of a spectator in the stalls. Parachute flares with their fresh blinding light hung in the sky above the town, while bombs fell at the rate of two a minute in a regular pendulum motion—right, left, right, left. The AA fire in reply turned right, left, in search of the unseen raiders; then, losing contact, broke into crazy patterns over the sky. ‘Like a bullfight,” someone said. “And Bardia the bull.’ Two flaring lights opened high above the town and descended straightly. Two planes gone; two picadors. Then more swerving light in the sky; more interplay of light and the counterthrust of bomb noise against gun noise. Then the great flash as the ammunition dump went up and a slower flame advanced steadily into the night. The bull. The surviving planes homewarding sounded over our heads. It was finished and we went to bed on the sand.”
I was star-struck. That brief description of one air-raid in a conflict captures what good writing can do: bringing home the eerie beauty of a man-made light show in a desert night-sky, the death inherent in the performance, and the odd detachment of observers very near yet far removed.
Moorehead was no war lover, a fact that becomes clear as one reads his dispatches from the conflict, which he covered from its earliest days to liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. He spent little of his journalistic flair describing weaponry and other tools of war; instead, his prose focused on the brutalising impact of the conflict on the men around him and the landscape they passed through. Here is his description of the Battle of Sedjenane in Tunisia in 1943:
“This was where our parachutists fought when they were turned into ordinary infantry. No prisoners were taken in that terrible skirmishing through the rocks. I call on the parachutists one day, and all around the bush was heavy with the sweet and nauseating smell of bodies that were turning rotten in the sun after the rain. In their whole approach to death these young men had completely altered…These men were soaked in war. They were grown old to war in a few weeks, and all the normal uses of peace and the ambitions of peace were entirely drained out of them.”
There is little doubt that the Second World War made Alan Moorehead. Prior to the conflict, he was an upstart young reporter trying his best to shed his Antipodean roots and make a name for himself in the cutthroat world of Fleet Street. He came home from the conflict with a salary that would surely be the envy of any contemporary journalist and the gumption to turn down Lord Beaverbrook’s best offer to continue his trade after the conflict.
A Fall… and a Rise?
The post-war years saw Moorehead make a decidedly unsuccessful shift to the writing of fiction, followed by a turn to massively popular non-fiction. This journey, and much else, is revealed in Thornton McCamish’s hugely enjoyable 2016 biography of the writer, Our Man Elsewhere. Part obsessive’s tale and part travelogue (with McCamish the obsessive), the book charts Moorehead’s life from his earliest days in Melbourne to his deeply tragic final years.
McCamish’s admiration for Moorehead runs consistent throughout the book. Nonetheless, he doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that his subject was a product of his times, with views on race, decolonisation, and much else that are decidedly archaic at best and, in the case of his marital infidelities, deeply distasteful. McCamish appreciates Moorehead for what he was and what his legacy is: a long-deceased writer whose values and worldview are outmoded, yet whose body of work remains singularly impressive.
While McCamish’s biography clearly establishes the war as the fulcrum of Moorehead’s career, he spends equal effort charting his transition into a global literary celebrity who helped create the genre of popular history. Moorehead turned his spare yet always vivid prose to a medley of subjects. His first major success came in 1956 with an account of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, a book that surely helped cement the battle in the national consciousness of Australians and New Zealanders. He repeated this success with works on topics as diverse as the Russian Revolution, Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and colonial exploration in Africa (to name just a few).
Despite regular contributions to pillars of the intelligentsia like The New Yorker, and critical praise such as The Washington Post calling him one of the best writers in the English language, Moorehead’s audience was the self-improving middle manager rather than the literati. The former brought him wealth and celebrity and provided for a life that satiated his wanderlust and provided a purpose beyond the battlefields of North Africa and Europe.
McCamish is brilliant on the fleeting nature of literary fame, with Moorehead a heart-breaking case study. He died in 1983 after suffering for 17 years the after-effects of a stroke that left him largely unable to speak and half-paralysed. Although he had largely stopped writing since the late 1960s, the Times of London’s obituary still referred to Moorehead as “one of the few contemporary writers who successfully made the transition from journalism to history. In both crafts, he was pre-eminent”.
Even with laudatory obituaries in most major newspapers, Moorehead by the time of his death was long removed from the public consciousness. His books, with their not-so-faint aura of searching for the noble savage at the end of empire, lost their relevance to a readership that no longer needed him or other writers to journey to distant lands.
The experience that Moorehead offered was now within reach of anyone with a television remote or the disposable income to book ever more accessible travel. Moorehead thrived in a world in which the same aspirational middle class that visited my hometown library stocked their family bookshelves with Book-of-the-Month Club selections (many of Moorehead’s works made the list) and other signs of intellectual betterment.
Moorehead’s decline into obscurity seems to have begun a long overdue reversal. Much credit for this goes to McCamish, a gifted writer whose artful turns-of-phrase regularly match the prose of his subject. His biography follows recent reprintings of Moorehead’s work, including the volume I stumbled across in Franschhoek, and programmes on the writer on Australian public radio.
Critical opinion also remains distinctly positive as regards Moorehead’s output. Peter Parker, reviewing in The Spectator in 2015 the parade of books released to mark the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli, called Moorehead’s work a “…beautifully written, even-handed and panoptic account of the campaign (that) remains a model of military history”.
Alan Moorehead was a master chronicler of history, both witnessed and recreated. His style may seem slightly out of tune with modern reportage and his verbiage not infrequently anachronous, but he was, no matter how one looks at it, uniquely talented.
On a personal level, Moorehead’s body of work speaks to the kid who crouched in the stacks of his community library, looking for books that explained the world beyond. This audience remains and their appetite persists. I hope to see this forgotten scribbler return to his rightful place on the family bookshelf. DM
Todd Johnson is the risk leader for a large multinational company operating throughout Africa. He has previously held roles in corporate strategy, political and partnership risk management, and in the US Government as an analyst of African politics. He writes here in his personal capacity.
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