Something Marvellous to Tell

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The generation that survived two world wars seemed to like nothing better than to go on reading about them. Well into the 1950s bookshops in the UK awarded pride of place to covers featuring grown-ups in cap and uniform superimposed on scenes of exploding ordnance and diving aircraft. In non-fiction as in fiction ‘War’ dominated the High Street; part-works, comics, board games and films catered to the same taste. Then around 1958, possibly in reaction to the Suez débâcle, ‘War’ began beating a retreat. ‘History’, ‘Travel’ and ‘Biography’ were encroaching. Within a decade the uniforms and the bombs had been banished to subterranean stacks now entitled ‘Military’.

This was great news for those of us who had been toddlers in home-knits in 1945 and were now, as school-leavers, developing an allergy to Alistair Cooke’s fruity delivery and Alan Taylor’s perorations to camera. We preferred Alan Moorehead. Here was someone who didn’t broadcast and didn’t condescend. He wasn’t even British; and he encapsulated the change in reading tastes. In fact he seemed to orchestrate it, for while other wartime chroniclers were being shunted off to the bookshop basements, he stayed put just inside the door. Moorehead, the famous war correspondent, had reinvented himself as Moorehead, the inspirational historian of travel.

The transformation had not been straightforward. A justly celebrated trilogy on the desert war in North Africa, published in the 1940s when he was on the staff of the Daily Express, had been followed by books on Field Marshal Montgomery, Gallipoli and the Russian Revolution. Of these only Gallipoli won prizes; and a couple of novels were decided failures. But in the late 1950s Moorehead produced a book on the plight of Africa’s wildlife. He had put war behind him, and it was probably while travelling with the kudu and the giraffe that he got the idea for a work on the exploration of the Nile and its c

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About the contributor

Publishers willing, John Keay is pulling out of China to return to India, possibly by way of Tibet. Otherwise he still lives in Scotland.

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