Frank Moorhouse 1938-2022: From local views to big news

Jun 28, 2022

Photo credit: Kylie Melinda Smith

Frank Moorhouse structured his 2005 semi-fictional memoir Martini around his favourite drink. He was fascinated by the rituals and rules for living well that the martini symbolised. In Martini, he satirises the ritualism of the drink in a joke titled The Martini Rescue. If you get lost in the bush, he writes, “You do not panic. You do not walk aimlessly. You find a shady spot with a fine view, you sit down, you take out the
cocktail shaker, the gin, the vermouth, and the olives from your backpack (which every sophisticated trekker carries) and mix yourself a martini.” Within a few minutes someone will appear and say: “That is not the proper way to make a martini.”

The question of how many rules we need to live well and in a civilised manner fascinated Moorhouse, and it’s a theme that structures much of his work, culminating in his magnum opus, the League of Nations trilogy.

Born in 1938, Moorhouse was the youngest of his brothers Owen and Arthur. Moorhouse’s father was an inventor and the owner of a very successful farming equipment business with a wonderful name – Moorhouse: The Machinery Man. Moorhouse’s third book, The Electrical Experience, is set on the south coast of NSW. Writer David Marr said of the book: “He’s one of those writers who has been able to create their own geography, their own patch. Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla, Frank’s South Coast, it’s a fully inhabited geography which he visits and revisits. Every time it’s richer and balmier and completely real for me.”

In 1959, Moorhouse married his high-school sweetheart Wendy Halloway. Moorhouse was working as a cadet at The Daily Telegraph at the time, later moving with Wendy to Wagga to work on the Wagga Wagga Advertiser before joining the staff of the Riverina Express, a newspaper founded by his close friend
David Gyger.

Asked about how his early life influenced his writing, Moorhouse once said: “I’m always writing about Nowra. You could say everything I’ve written is really about Nowra.”

It’s a quip that conceals a deeper truth about his writing. His oeuvre often focused on the way human identity is bound up with relationship to place, family of origin and assigned social roles. Moorhouse is interested in what props up the boundaries of our identities, of how fluid they are, and whether it is ever possible to “escape” our origins.

These questions find their fullest expression in the character who drives the narrative in Moorhouse’s League of Nations trilogy of novels, Edith Campbell Berry. Like Moorhouse, Edith hails from a provincial town on the NSW south coast and, like Moorhouse, she wants to understand how we can transcend boundaries – local, national and international – to further social harmony and justice.

In the first book of the trilogy, Grand Days, Edith arrives in Geneva to work at the newly created League of Nations amid an atmosphere of heady idealism. The League was founded after the First World War with the grand ambition of securing global peace and making rules to civilise and unite all nations. Moorhouse was fascinated by the breadth and audacity of the League’s remit. He won the newly established Australia Council Creative Fellowship, also known as the Keating fellowship. Moorhouse used the grant to travel to Geneva and locate himself in the League of Nations archives.

He worked in the archives for many years and produced two large novels, Grand Days and Dark Palace. The third, Cold Light, is set in Canberra, where Edith returns after World War II.

The research was gruelling, and he reached a particularly low point after Grand Days was rejected for consideration by the judges of the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin literary prize on the bizarre grounds that it was “insufficiently Australian”.

The deeper irony, as Moorhouse pointed out in a speech he gave to a literary lunch, is that Grand Days is a book that interrogates the desire for borders: “The crossing of borders and the meaning of borders, national and other, and identity”. In 2001, he won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Dark Palace. At the beginning of the 1970s, Moorhouse decided to leave journalism to become a full-time fiction writer. He had just turned 30. His early work, published in the 1970s, introduced a style he dubbed “discontinuous narrative”, meaning that he wove various characters and narratives in and out of his short stories, often
across different books.

Moorhouse was equally involved in activism for a wide variety of social justice initiatives along with Wendy Bacon, Sandra Levy, Liz Fell and many others he fought Australia’s puritanical and irrational censorship laws. They published an independent magazine titled, variously Tharunka, Thor and Thorunka, which
landed them 40 prosecutions and earned Wendy Bacon a week in jail. In the 1970s, the suburb of Balmain was the epicentre of creative life in Sydney. In Days of Wine and Rage, a collection of essays, poems and stories from key writers and activists edited by Moorhouse, he chronicles the zeitgeist of ’70s political activism and the creative ferment. Writers who found their voice in that era included David Williamson and Peter Carey.

In 1973, lawyers Peter Banki and David Catterns approached Moorhouse to ask him to participate in a lawsuit against the University of NSW on the basis that a photocopier had been used to copy a book of his in full. The case went to the High Court and Moorhouse and team won. Universities, schools and libraries now pay authors for the copying of their work through fees collected by the Copyright Council of Australia.

Moorhouse was a very generous mentor to many younger writers, as his friend and author Matt Condon recalls. “He was a loyal and generous friend and one of the funniest human beings I have ever known. In his final phone texts, he wrote that he no longer had an interest in Police Rounds, as he did in his younger years,
but had moved onto Existential Rounds.”

He also had a very wide circle of friends and loved to dine out with them. When his close friend the chef Tony Bilson asked Moorhouse to write the foreword to a cookbook, Moorhouse wrote: “Tony Bilson has been a mentor, a tutor and a companion in my life as a restaurant diner since the days of Tony’s Bon Gout in
the early seventies”. He goes on to note that because he rarely cooks or eats at home, he is “utterly the most inappropriate person to write the foreword for a book titled Fine Family Cooking”.

One of the great loves of Moorhouse’s life, writer Fiona Giles, on whom he based a book, says of him: “Despite the complicated shape of our relationship, Frank was always incredibly generous, always protective and a wonderfully intellectual adventurer”.

Moorhouse’s oeuvre is remarkable not only for his productivity but equally for his ability to write about the twists and turns of intimate relationships and gender politics. Writer and commentator Annabel Crabb founded the unofficial Edith Campbell Berry fan club. She comments on why female readers love Edith:
“Part of it is that among female readers there’s a joy in finding a [female] character who is complicated, who’s appealing, is clever, but fallible … She feels like a gift to me”.

Moorhouse worked closely with publisher Jane Palfreyman and later Meredith Curnow at Random House. Jane Palfreyman comments: “Frank was an astonishing talent, a true original and one of our finest writers. Working with him on those momentous League of Nations novels Grand Days and Dark Palace and his quirky and intoxicating Martini: A Memoir were huge life highlights for me”.

Moorhouse was prolific. He wrote 18 books of fiction and non-fiction, screenplays and countless essays. He is survived by a very wide circle of friends. He leaves a hole not only in their hearts, but in the literary life of our nation. Catharine Lumby has written a biography of Frank Moorhouse that is soon to be published by Allen and Unwin. She is a professor of media at the University of Sydney.

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