Books: Cultural Amnesia — Alan Moorehead |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


Alan Moorehead (1910–1983) was among the most prominent of Australian cultural exports after World War II, when his books of non-fiction such as The Blue Nile attracted a wide following in the United States and the United Kingdom as well as in his home country. His rise to international fame had begun during the war itself. He was one of several Australian war correspondents who took the opportunity to employ, on a wider stage, the journalistic proficiency they had developed after several years of hard slog in the newsrooms of Sydney and Melbourne, along with the fluent, easily correct prose that they had learned to write in the Australian school system. Moorehead was there for the battles and the conferences through North Africa, Italy and Normandy all the way to the end. The hefty but unputdownable African Trilogy, still in print today, is perhaps the best example of Moorehead’s characteristic virtue as a war correspondent: he could widen the local story to include its global implications. By extension he later did the same for his home country: resident in Italy, he inaugurated the era of expatriate Australian writers which continues into our day. There were Australian musicians and theatrical figures who lived abroad before the war, and in recent times Australian artists in every field have colonized the world, but the post-war waves of expatriate Australian writers would have been less confident about their adventurous enterprise without Moorehead’s pioneering example of the confident interloper who showed how it could be a positive advantage to come from somewhere else. No writer did more than Moorehead to put Australia into the world picture as the most striking example of the old empire’s having produced, in its disintegration, vital new centres of creativity. When Moorehead was starting off, most Australian artists in any field thought of Britain as “home,” the infinitely richer mother-culture whose approval would validate them. Today the position is reversed: the British would like to know Australia’s secret. This demonstration of how colonialism can turn back on itself was well understood in advance by Moorehead, who set up his post-war European camp in the full knowledge that it was an advance post for Australia’s forthcoming cultural expansion, although not even he could guess how successful the expansion would be.

A startling amount of the productivity was his. Of his many books written in his self-imposed exile, No Room in the Ark, a charming tribute to the African wild animals, is a good example of his knack for getting there at the right moment and spotting the trends: in the Africa from which the old empires were at last retreating, the animals had become a resource, and the resource was threatened by mismanagement. Typically, he had spotted a theme which would be important in the world’s immediate future. The final effect of Moorehead’s accumulated work, so much of which stays as fresh as when it was written, is to convince you that to be born and raised in a prosperous liberal democracy not only confers the energy to see the world as it is, but the obligation to make sense of it, on behalf of all those deprived of the opportunity.

* * *

Outside, the street vendors came by, and the cries of the Cairo street vendors are just what you would expect them to be—entertaining and romantic in the evening and merely damnable in the early morning when you are trying to work. There was one man who brought such nameless pain and misery into voice that I was forced to the open window to listen. He was selling bath mats.


BEFORE THE LATE 1930s there had been individual Australians who had sailed away to make a world impact both in the high and the popular arts—Nellie Melba, Robert Helpmann, Errol Flynn—but with the opening of World War II it started to happen in waves, and the first wave consisted of the war correspondents. Of those, the most dazzling was Alan Moorehead. Counting as Australia’s first really conspicuous gift to international English prose, Alan Moorehead achieved the peak of his fame after the war, with his two best-selling books about nineteenth-century African exploration, The White Nile and The Blue Nile. But he was building on a solid reputation laid down during the war itself, when he was writing at his best. Though the Nile books have their merits, I have always found them shapeless, just as their author, I suspect, found the explorations indeterminate: nothing much was decided, argument was endless, and narrative was defeated. Moorehead retraced the steps of the explorers but all the paths were overgrown and didn’t tell him enough about what things had once been like. The African Trilogy, on the other hand, has a neatly monumental story to be told in the present tense. From being down and almost out, the Allied forces in North Africa came back against the Italians and Germans, brought them to battle, and defeated them. Moorehead was there to see it all. In this latter respect he had a big advantage over another star Australian war correspondent, Kenneth Slessor, who had made the hideous mistake of allowing his demanding wife to encumber him with her presence during the biggest assignment of his life as a journalist. While the battle of El Alamein was being fought, Slessor’s wife required his presence in Jerusalem to help her go shopping. The most important Australian poet of his generation, Slessor had linguistic gifts outranking even Moorehead’s, but there was no substitute for being there: Slessor wrote the best poem about the North African campaign, “Beach Burial,” but he wrote it after the event.

Moorehead was almost always there for the event. Travelling light, he had nothing except the official censorship to interfere with the flow of his prose as it went back to Fleet Street in the form of dispatches. His copy was world-famous at the time and has stayed good: it represents the best title to the encomia that the late-twentieth-century Australian prose writers, with Robert Hughes in the van, have lavished on him ever since. They are quite right. Moorehead could control his tone even when the circumstances were at their most intense: the hardest thing for a correspondent to do. To take the most obvious comparison, he was a far better reporter on combat than his friend Ernest Hemingway, whose cadences he sometimes borrowed, and always to his detriment. But he never made the mistake of borrowing Hemingway’s self-importance. Hemingway always wrote as if the action revolved around him. Moorehead wrote as if he had just happened to wander into it: the common experience of the war. Paradoxically, he sometimes had to feign this knack for happenstance. His sortable qualities of charm, good looks and cultivation gave him the entrée everywhere. (Then as later, the simplest classical tag from an Australian would stop the show with an English upper-crust audience, and Moorehead could quote from Theocritus and Horace until the officers’ mess was drunk dry.) On top of the parlour tricks he was a terrific fixer, showing the Australian lurk-man’s perennial talent for hitching a ride into the forbidden zone.

For reporting a modern war, Moorehead’s only but irritating drawback was a lack of sympathy with machinery. Even about weapons he had a nose for the big picture—he was able to tell Beaverbrook personally that when the Allied tanks came up against the German ones after D-day, the Allied tanks would be outclassed—but when it got down to nuts and bolts, a shape in metal did little for his senses. He was the sort of writer who said “microphone” when he meant “loudspeaker.” Another Australian, Paul Brickhill, aiming unerringly at an empire-wide audience of bright schoolboys, wrote a series of hit books (The Great Escape, The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky) that inadvertently showed up the extent to which Moorehead had failed to penetrate the mentality of all the young men who had been propelled by the war into a new, classless world of high technology. (It was to be of high social significance that there were few English-born popular authors capable of duplicating Brickhill’s achievement either: but what matters here is that Moorehead didn’t.) To that extent, Moorehead was stuck in the mud. His renowned social mobility was employed mainly among the upper classes. There was another story emerging from the machine shops, but he missed it. (In the next generation of Australian social historians, a sympathy with technology and industry would put Geoffrey Blainey in the forefront: but his emphasis was regarded, and regarded correctly, as an initiative without precedent.) Though Moorehead had marvellous powers of evocative description—vide the passage about the anthills in chapter 5 of Rum Jungle—they just weren’t aroused by anything technical, which meant that a whole dimension of tone was missing from his reportage, because World War II was a technical war.

The dimensions that were present made up for it. For a world war, he had a world mind. He understood the global interconnections of the battle zones from the start. He had a fully European intelligence as only a colonial can have: a cosmopolitan view that enabled him to assess the European tragedy without lapsing into chauvinism. Few Australian intellectuals, then or later, could match his capacity to see that Australia, far from frittering away its military resources, was making a necessary contribution to its own defence by throwing its efforts into the battles in the Middle East. In recent years, as the revisionist interpretations of Australia’s connection with Britain reached an apotheosis of myth-mongering in the seductive theory of Other People’s Wars, a position like Moorehead’s became hard to understand. Now that the tide of politically inspired fable is receding, his view should look coherent again, and even more intelligible, because it outlined a recalcitrant set of facts, and if the facts had not been so awkward, the urge to deny them might never have arisen. Moorehead was one of the first Australian intellectuals able to overcome their cleverness and see what their much-patronized politicians saw: that there was no question of a world war leaving Australia out. A nose for grand strategy put him miles ahead of any other Australian reporter on the beat. (A possible precursor was indeed antipodean, but from New Zealand: the cartoonist David Low, although he, we should remember, was spectacularly wrong about the war before it actually started.) Moorehead’s own country was not the only one to reap the benefit of his fair-mindedness, but a compatriot can be forgiven for attending first to what he said about the Australian troops. He reported faithfully and truly that in the long, hard preliminary slog to Benghazi they were crucial in reducing the Italian army from a fighting force to a liability. Moorehead blinked no details of the fiasco on Crete. Naturally if there had been less censorship he would have been able to be scathing about the blunders, but he left room between the lines for his bitterness to show. He was firm, however, on the critical point: the Australians had participated in an action which, though it failed, played a vital role in delaying Operation Barbarossa, and thus influencing the war in Russia. Seeing how the defeats fitted into the victories, he never made the intellectual’s characteristic error of searching through a jigsaw as if it had a key piece. With War and Peace as a knapsack book, he was able to complement Tolstoy’s key insight—everything depends on morale—with an insight of his own: morale depends on everything.

At this range it might be hard to imagine how important it was to be a good writer stating such complex and vital truths. In World War I, with Keith Murdoch’s fanciful press campaign placing such disproportionate emphasis on the Dardanelles, there was no comparably imaginative prose available to stress what the Australians achieved on the western front. To this day, few Australians, even when they are students of modern history—alas, especially when—have any idea that their countrymen played a significant role in the final breaking of the deadlock in the trenches at the end of World War I. (Philip Knightley has been almost the only popular historian to mention the matter.) Thanks to Moorehead, however, the importance of the 9th Division at Tobruk in World War II is not as easily overlooked. Without the Australians and New Zealanders, the Germans might have prevailed in the desert, and thus been far more free to act decisively in Russia. Only for Hitler was North Africa a sideshow. Rommel knew better. So, to his lasting credit, did Moorehead. He could see how each part of the war affected every other part—the hardest aspect of a world war for a writer to deal with, since writers are so likely to get lost in particulars. In a war, however, the particulars resonate across the world, and the penalty for not being able to follow them is to miss the picture.

Later on, when the centre of attention switched to the European mainland, Moorehead was careful not to let his cat burglar’s gift for access affect his broader judgement. After the war another Australian expatriate, Chester Wilmot, capped a brilliant success as a BBC war reporter by emerging as a literary heavyweight in many ways comparable in stature and ability to Moorehead. Wilmot, in his best-selling book The Struggle for Europe, gave a partisan view favouring Montgomery’s thesis that he could have thrust straight through to Berlin if Eisenhower had not stopped him. Wilmot had allowed Montgomery to bowl him over. Moorehead did not. Moorehead had befriended Montgomery in Sicily, had secured unequalled access to his headquarters in Normandy, and was eventually given the green light to write a biography. Montgomery kept back some of the most explosive stuff, including his diaries, but on the whole he gave Moorehead the inside track. It would have been easy for Moorehead to overdo the gratitude. In retrospect, he might seem to have done so: he swallowed Montgomery’s preposterous line that the delay in pushing on beyond Caen was deliberate, and wrote almost nothing about Arnhem’s magnitude as an unnecessary disaster. But for the time, Moorehead’s 1946 Montgomery was a probing book, and remains a well-balanced one. Moorehead proved himself capable of spotting the fatal flaw in Montgomery’s technique at his wartime press conferences: Montgomery patronized the correspondents by forever trying to pre-empt their job of turning technicalities into simplicities. Over and above the question of Montgomery’s merits and deficiencies, Moorehead was well able to see—as Wilmot calamitously didn’t—that Eisenhower was Montgomery’s superior in character and judgement. Finally, Moorehead was not seduced by the cosy glamour of the nearness that had been granted to him. He was too successful a seducer himself.

When dealing with stars, it helps to be a star. All the Australian war correspondents were gifted operators, but Moorehead had that invaluable extra attribute of being at his ease in a grand headquarters. High plaster ceilings and marble floors did not overawe him. He was one of those colonials who, through being hard to place, can place themselves anywhere as long as they are given a few minutes to dust their shoes and straighten their ties. In Cairo he was given letters from Auchinleck and asked to deliver them to Wavell in Delhi. In Delhi he had a long close-up of the brilliance of Sir Stafford Cripps—whom he might have overestimated, if Denis Healey was right in calling Cripps “a political ninny of the most superior quality” (The Time of My Life, p. 471). Moorehead also recorded an unsettling insight into the intransigence of Gandhi. Challenged about the possible effects of relying on passive resistance to dissuade the Japanese, Gandhi was forced into his fallback position of averring that not even the Japanese could kill every Indian. Moorehead, who already had some idea of what Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union added up to in terms of population control, clearly had his own opinions. At such points, the African Trilogy is not just about World War II, but about twentieth-century history in its grim totality. But rather than claim too much for a book that already holds more than we have a right to expect—it was, after all, written on the spot, and often on the run—the reader probably does best just to enjoy the neatness of detail and the refreshing flow of common sense, the clear water supply of sound judgement from a young man who had realized, without having his head turned, that the world’s crisis was his opportunity. The sense of destiny is in the dignified vigour of his prose, not in the magnitude of events. In that respect, he was the harbinger of the Australian voice that the world has since come to know, value and envy: the voice of common eloquence, speaking the way the Man from Snowy River used to ride. Unaffectedly confident, content to evoke without straining for effect, Moorehead described “the wonderful turquoise sea at Alamein, when the sunlight strikes the white seabed and is reflected back to the surface so that the water is full of dancing light and colour.” Thus having established that he knew how to say just enough, he had the authority of tone to say what was profoundly and lastingly true about the Australian 9th Division that came into the Alamein line after two years of fighting.

“Tobruk had discovered the Australians to themselves.” It was a piercing historical insight, which I had the privilege of echoing with a whole heart while reporting the Sydney Olympics more than fifty years later; and I was well aware whose voice I was copying. One way or another, all the expatriate writers in my generation have found themselves paying their tribute to a majestic progenitor. He could have handled success better. He should never have allowed The New Yorker to cripple him with the notoriously arrhythmic restrictions of its house style, but he had a Mediterranean house to keep up, and money talked. His first book about a world war, however, was the start of something for the country he left behind. In a few pages, Moorehead placed himself at the centre of the discussion about Australia’s relations with England—such as they had been, and such as they would be in the future. Proponents of an Australian republic have a good case, but it will remain incomplete until they take in what Moorehead wrote. It was surprising to find that Robert Hughes, so convinced and convincing an admirer of Moorehead’s, should have forgotten what his mentor said on the subject. He said what good writers always say: that history is the field to which you must first submit if you would turn it to use.