Geoffrey Moorhouse: Wide-ranging writer whose subjects ranged from travel and spirituality to cricket and rugby league

Michael Leapman
Saturday 28 November 2009 01:00

The qualities that drove Geoffrey Moorhouse were restlessness and an innate sense of curiosity.

Combined with a vivid writing style and an impetuous streak, they fuelled his career, first as an admired journalist and later as a still more successful travel writer and popular historian.

It was restlessness that provoked him in 1970 into leaving a secure and enviable berth as chief feature writer on The Guardian to become a full-time author. His first travel book, Calcutta, was published the following year; but he sought a more demanding challenge and in October 1972 embarked on an ambitious – some said foolhardy – project to cross the Sahara desert on a camel. In the resulting book, The Fearful Void, he wrote that he had undertaken the journey principally to plumb the depths of fear. "Fear should be met and faced or it can corrode the spirit."

In that respect the trip must be counted a success, for he endured many terrifying moments. At one stage all his party's supplies were lost and then their sextant was destroyed when a camel squashed it. As a result they deviated from the planned route and missed several water holes. Three of the camels died of thirst and there were times when it seemed the humans would not survive either. He had planned to trek all the way from the Atlantic to the Nile but, through illness and exhaustion, he was forced to abort the journey at Tamanrasset, half way across the desert, having covered 2,000 miles – the last 300 on foot.

His former colleagues on The Guardian were surprised neither by the ambitious scale of the project nor its near-disastrous outcome. "He was enthusiastic but strangely naïve," said one. "He was the sort of person who felt that God would look after him, come what may."

Brought up as a devout Christian, he maintained his faith but would constantly question it. Three of his early books were on religious topics and his final one, The Last Office, published in 2008, was an account of the dissolution of the Benedictine priory at Durham in 1539, and how it rose again as Durham Cathedral. When he died he was working on a book of essays that would explore his passions, among them his religious instinct. He proposed to explore why it was so powerful in him, "though I have doubts about almost everything connected with it and am dismayed (and terrified) by some of its manifestations".

He was born Geoffrey Heald in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1931. When he was four his father left home, and his surname was changed when his mother married Richard Moorhouse. After attending Bury Grammar School, and failing to win a scholarship to Oxford, he spent two years in the Royal Navy doing National Service. On leaving the Navy at the age of 20 he joined the Bolton Evening News. After two years he felt he had learned the basics of journalism and, always attracted by the romance of travel, took himself to New Zealand. There he worked on three newspapers and married Jan Murray, a New Zealander.

In 1956 the couple moved to England, where Geoffrey worked briefly for the News Chronicle before joining the Manchester Guardian as a feature writer. They lived in Stockport, where Jan enjoyed entertaining her fellow New Zealanders, among them the novelist Janet Frame, who stayed with them for a weekend in 1962. Some 40 years later Moorhouse discovered that Frame had written about that weekend in her novel, Toward Another Summer, which was not published until after her death in 2004. It included well-observed portraits of her hosts. "She clearly scribbled notes before she went to sleep each night," he wrote. "I just hope I wasn't as plonkingly earnest as he [Philip, his character] is drawn, though I have a sinking feeling that I might have been."

He and Jan had two sons and two daughters, one of whom died of cancer as an adolescent. The marriage, though, ended in divorce – in part because, with his good looks and equable manner, he found it easy to charm other women. After the split Jan married Geoffrey Taylor, a Guardian colleague, who would later write the official history of the paper. In it, he praised Moorhouse for "the strength of his descriptive writing and what seemed an instinctive rapport with the wide interests of readers, from Anglican hymnody to the Test match film library at Lord's or the workings of a nuclear submarine".

This eclecticism was reflected in his prolific output of books, 29 in all. Travel was the principal theme and the Indian subcontinent his favourite stamping ground. He won the Thomas Cook award for travel writing in 1984 with To The Frontier, an account of a three-month journey through Sind, Baluchistan and Punjab to Pakistan's north-west frontier with Afghanistan, culminating with the scaling of the Hindu Kush.

Yet he wrote perceptively about many other destinations, from Sydney to San Francisco to Samarkand. His 1988 book, Imperial City, is among the best of the many hundreds that have been written about New York. Other books stemmed from his love of sport, especially cricket. In 1977 Kerry Packer, the Australian media magnate, began the transformation of international cricket by luring the best players to take part in his own televised matches by paying them unprecedented fees. Moorhouse thought this might mean the end of the sport as he knew it, and wrote The Best-loved Game, an account of a single summer of English cricket. "It seemed important to record an English season while the matter was still in balance," he explained, "lest the shape and nature of our cricket should presently be spoiled." He also wrote a book about Lord's and, in 1995, the centenary history of rugby league.

His last three published books were about England in the Tudor period, a subject he found increasingly fascinating. After his divorce from Jan, his two later marriages – to Barbara Woodward in 1974 and Marilyn Edwards in 1983 – also failed, although he was with Marilyn for nearly 20 years. He shared the last years of his life with his final partner, Susan Bassnett.

Geoffrey Moorhouse, writer: born Bolton 29 November 1931; married 1956 Janet Murray (two sons, one daughter and one daughter deceased), 1974 Barbara Woodward (divorced 1978), 1983, Marilyn Edwards (divorced 1996); died 26 November 2009.

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