December 10, 2009

Geoffrey Moorhouse

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Geoffrey Moorhouse

Geoffrey Moorhouse, who has died aged 77, was a Guardian journalist of deep integrity who moved out of daily newspapers to write books on a variety of themes, most often invoking the human spirit. One book in particular, The Fearful Void (1974), is remembered some 35 years later in revealing in its author, as one critic put it, a sublime madness.

Aged 40, without previous experience of the desert, or of camels, how to navigate or local languages, he decided to attempt the first solo west-to-east crossing of the Sahara, some 3,600 miles. His was not a journey simply to conquer a physical barrier, but more a voyage of self-discovery: he wished to come to terms with his own fears about life. Cross the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Nile, he felt, and he could do anything.

After five months and some appalling hardships – not least the death of three camels, the dishonesty of companions (he found that he could not travel alone), dysentery that seemed never-ending, feet that were forever blistered, food ghastly to his western tastes – he gave up the struggle, still 2,000 miles from his destination. But in many an interview, he said he now understood himself better, even in failure. His account, although not pleasant reading, was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Britain a bestseller, which he greeted with a wry comment about almost having to die before readers took an interest.

This was his sixth book, and more than 20 more would follow. As a reporter, Moorhouse had proved himself a generalist who acquired knowledge, as he once confessed to me, as "a jack of all trades". His books showed an eclecticism in his nature but were never less than expert in their research and writing.

Born in Bolton, Lancashire (his surname was that of his stepfather), he was educated at Bury grammar school. He once recollected how much he learned at school about composition, but later made what he called his "great discovery through Orwell", that "labouring to develop a distinctive style was a fruitless exercise". He did his national service in the Royal Navy before joining the Bolton Evening News. After two years, and aged 23, he left for New Zealand. He not only worked on newspapers there, but also met his first wife, Jan. He brought her back to England in 1957 and for a few months worked in London for the News Chronicle, by then in decline. In 1958 he moved to the Manchester Guardian.

Finding himself drawn to church affairs as a reporter – he was, he said, "pickled" in the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible – he wrote Against All Reason (1969), a highly praised investigation of monastic life. He was also enthralled by architecture and was with the historian Nikolaus Pevsner when he scrutinised the very last entry for his Buildings of England, Butterfield's parsonage at Sheen, Surrey. Later, Moorhouse's inquisitiveness led him to write about missionaries and diplomats, as well as lobster fishermen off the New England coast.

At the Guardian, he became chief features writer in 1963, a post he held until he quit in 1970 for full-time book writing. In 1968, he took his turn covering the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, where he used his knowledge of trains to gain a modest scoop. Frustrated at being one of 500 foreign correspondents held at bay at Košice, some 10 miles from where the Russians were trying to browbeat the Czech leader, Alexander Dubcek, at Cierna, it occurred to him that, as the meeting was taking place at the town's railway institute, there must also be a railway line. The next morning he rose early and circumvented the security cordon by catching a workmen's train, bound for Cierna. Although he was discovered soon after arrival and returned to Košice, Moorhouse was able to file 800 self-deprecating words of his experience for the next morning's paper.

Four of his books were based on the Indian sub-continent. The first, Calcutta (1971), remains a classic and led him to write two other city books, New York (1988) and Sydney (1999) – his metropolitan trilogy, as he called them. In the early 1980s, he travelled in Pakistan to its border with Afghanistan and the result, To the Frontier (1984), won him the Thomas Cook travel book award. It was, though, originally suppressed in Pakistan by the regime of General Zia on the grounds that it was anti-Islamic.

He also wrote knowledgably about two sports – cricket and rugby league. His love of cricket (he followed Lancashire all his life) led him to write The Best Loved Game (1979), which won him the Cricket Society award, and, in 1983, Lord's, a study of the home of cricket, particularly the MCC. Moorhouse's volume of essays about rugby league (he supported Wigan), At the George (1989), led him to be made the game's official historian for its centenary in 1997.

As he grew older and travelled less – and having survived a near-fatal heart attack – he turned to history, working from his home in Gayle, a village in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire. Hell's Foundations (1992) was about the effect that the Gallipoli campaign of the first world war had on the Lancashire town of Bury, whose young men formed the bulk of the 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers and failed to return. He followed it with three books of Tudor history: The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002), on the popular uprising that almost toppled Henry VIII; Great Harry's Navy (2005), concentrating on the origins of the Royal Navy; and The Last Office (2008), which told of the dissolution of the monasteries through the example of Durham. The praise it received particularly pleased him, as that book brought together many of his life's interests.

That year, a novel by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame – Towards Another Summer – was published posthumously. Moorhouse and his first wife, who had given hospitality to Frame in the early 1960s, appear in the novel. Moorhouse thought the portrait of his wife excellent, but hoped he wasn't "as plonkingly earnest" as Frame had drawn him.

With Jan, he had two sons and two daughters. The younger daughter, Brigie, died of cancer in 1981. Jan was by then married to another Guardian man, Geoffrey Taylor. Moorhouse married again twice, but each marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner, Susan Bassnett, his daughter, Jane, and sons Andrew and Michael.

Peter Preston writes: There were two great feature writers on the staff when I became features editor of the Guardian four decades ago. One was Terry Coleman, master of the full dress interview. The other was Geoffrey. And he was special, too.

Geoffrey was quiet, brooding, very northern, always fascinated by time and place, as well as surface events. He was a reporter who delved and pondered, getting the facts right, making sure that the slices of life he portrayed were true. He believed in people and making their lives available for a broader audience. He had a quizzical eye and a gentle, reflective sense of humour. And, whether evoking a street market in Blackburn or Bologna, he was always detailed.

It was probably inevitable, as his own life moved on, that he would find the role of author-reporter more fulfilling than that of feature writer on demand, given the latter's requirement of hours rather than months to turn a rich idea around. Moving on was a great career move. But the Geoffrey I shall always remember, wry, precise, in no sense overbearing, was and remained a great reporter with the most precious gift a reporter can possess: to be able to write as well as he can observe, to describe what he sees in a way that makes it memorable.

WL Webb writes: Geoffrey reminded me recently that I had given him his first byline in the Guardian – a sketch of the kind once known as a "back-pager", about a stroppy curate getting on the wrong side of his Lancashire bell-ringers – and generally encouraged him in the late 1950s to push on and become one of the paper's stars.

We spent much time together in 1968, covering the Prague Spring and taking turns to guard jealously from other desperate reporters an ancient teleprinter in a dingy hotel that needed much coaxing to send our copy out. Geoffrey's concentration was ferocious. Once, when I tried to interrupt him in full spate to explain some Czech speech that had just changed the story, he took a wild swing at me, as I struggled to stop him typing away.

The same restless energies drove him on his solo slog across the Sahara and through all his other formidably researched and experienced books, until he came to rest in the Wensleydale he loved and celebrated so warmly in his north country pastorals in the Oldie.

• Geoffrey Moorhouse, writer, born 29 November 1931; died 26 November 2009

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