Christian Tyler on Alan Moorhead, Slightly Foxed Issue 35

An Observer Observed

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The trouble with memoirs is that too often they are written by people whose idea of what’s interesting is not the same as the reader’s. They are either grossly self-serving, like most political memoirs, or a good story spoiled by bad writing. Autobiography is not easy: it calls for literary talent, professional detachment and moral courage.

Alan Moorehead had all three. Not only was he a rare example of a high-profile newspaper reporter who turned himself into a bestselling author, but he also had the vital extra ingredient of critical self-awareness. The result is an unusually good autobiography.

Fortunately for us, Moorehead had drafted A Late Education: Episodes in a Life before being incapacitated by a severe stroke at the age of 56 which left him unable to speak or write properly and reading only with difficulty. His wife Lucy Milner was also a journalist (they had met at the Daily Express where she was woman’s editor) and she took on the job of editing her husband’s draft for publication in 1970.

The heart of the book is the friendship between Moorehead and his fellow war correspondent Alex Clifford of the Daily Mail. Professional rivals and temperamental opposites, they first met in a bar in St Jean de Luz in 1938 and didn’t hit it off. Meeting again in an Athens hotel in 1940, however, they found common ground and, having persuaded their respective newspapers to post them to Cairo, went through the rest of the Second World War together, from the Western desert, through Italy to Normandy and Paris.

The two were a perfect contrast. Alex was highbrow, diffident, well-educated, musically precocious and polyglot, but also indecisive, sexually shy and practically vegetarian. In describing his friend, Alan could see how very different he was himself: an energetic and ambitious young Australian, ‘aggressive, erratic and full of enthusiasms’, and in those days careless of others. Even physically they were op

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About the contributor

Christian Tyler is a former journalist. He worked for the Financial Times for 30 years.

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