by Kenneth Fields
Perhaps the most important milestone in HV Morton’s writing career was his period at the Daily Express during the early twenties. His colourful articles on the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb had put his name on the front page of the newspaper for the first time, and this quickly established him as a star journalist. Fortunately we have a number of fascinating personal observations of him at this period from the writings of his colleagues.
The following is taken from “It Might Have Been You” (Chapman and Hall, 1938), the autobiography of Collie Knox (1897 – 1977). Collie Knox had joined the staff in the news room at the Express in 1926 in a junior position, after a short but eventful military career. He recalls that ‘In those days the offices in the Express looked out on Shoe Lane, a dingy little street from which came sounds of hammering most of the waking hours.’
‘… Often when I was in a tussle with some refractory copy and Wilkins was demanding how much longer I’d be, such gods as H.V. Morton and Hannen Swaffer descended from their thrones and entered the news room. With longing eyes I gazed at them. For here indeed were names with which to conjure. They were in receipt of more money per week than I earned in a year….. Would I ever be like them? Would anyone ever nudge his – or indeed her – neighbour and whisper, “That’s Collie Knox, you know”? My copy was forgotten and I followed these men with envious eyes as they stood surveying the room. Lords of all they surveyed.
‘Harry Morton is a wonderful writer. He has the gift of description tremendously developed. He will attend a national ceremony with every other newspaper star writer, and will notice that a shy little woman in black with a medal ribbon pinned on her breast is sobbing in a corner. While the other writers will concentrate on the obvious highlights, the pomp and splendour, Harry Morton will hang his story on the little woman in black. Instantly she will stand out as the central figure and she will live before the reader.
‘I remember once Morton was sent to write the experiences of a man who had climbed to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. When I read his description the next day in the paper I literally felt giddy… so vivid is his power of writing.
‘His books sell in millions, and he is unequalled in his own field. He remains the same quiet, charming man. Unspoiled. I knew that Baxter had a few tussles with H.V. If he did not think that a story was worthy of his time or his talent, he would refuse to go out on it. Baxter once said that he would rather deal with a temperamental prima donna than with H.V. when he was in that mood. But Baxter was eminently capable of dealing with any prima donna. He could wheedle a cork out of a bottle.‘
After six years at the Daily Express Collie Knox moved to the Daily Mail where he established himself as a popular columnist, musical lyricist and a patriotic writer during the Second World War. In his anthology, “For Ever England” (Cassell –1943), he includes an extract from the postscript of HVM’s “I Saw Two Englands” (Methuen -1942) which he named The Vigil Splendid. This outstanding example of HVM’s descriptive writing vividly explains what it was like to live in England during the Battle of Britain.
With best wishes,
This article was originally distributed on 21 November 2015 as HVM Society Snippets – No.194