Over Christmas, I was given the latest book by the wonderful Bill Bryson. “The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island” celebrates both the 20-year anniversary of his first British book (“Notes from a Small Island”) and the fact that he has just been made a British Citizen (about time too, he’s been an honorary Englishman for years in my book).
However, this time, though I kept annoying my husband by giggling helplessly while reading in bed, and though I gave Mr. Bryson a full 5-stars on my Goodreads review (www.goodreads.com for every bibliophile), I didn’t quite agree with him all the time.
Witness the following quote, from his Dartmoor visit:
‘I had just finished reading “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton, which is always described as a classic, presumably by people who have never read it because it is actually quite dreadful. It was written in 1927 and consists largely of Morton motoring around England and slowing down every twenty miles to ask directions of a besmocked bumpkin standing at the roadside. In every village he went to, Morton found a man with a funny accent and f***-all to do, and had a conversation with him. . .
‘The impression you get from ISO England is that England is a cheerful, friendly place, peopled with lovable halfwits with comic accents, so it is a little ironic that the book is so often cited as capturing the essence of the nation. An even greater irony is that Morton eventually soured on England because it wasn’t fascist enough for him [ouch, and not true – Ed]. He moved to South Africa in 1947 and lived the last thirty-two years of his life there, forgotten by the world but happy to have servants he could shout at.’
Well, you can’t win ‘em all! Perhaps someone could write officially on behalf of the society to Mr. Bryson and put him right about HVM’s reasons for leaving England? Actually, the thought that there really was an H.V. Morton Society would probably call forth another rant, like the one about the ‘Water Tower Appreciation Society, a Society for Clay Pipe Research, a Pillbox Study Group, a Ghost Sign Society and a Roundabout Appreciation Society’, which features earlier in the book.
Anyway, why was Morton so inclined to write about ‘England as a cheerful, friendly place, peopled with lovable halfwits’? For an answer to that, I turned to a rather more gritty book, which I also enjoyed just after Christmas. “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, a falconer, describes her relationship with her goshawk Mabel, and how Mabel helped her overcome her grief after losing her father. To really appreciate this book, one needs to have read “The Sword in the Stone” by T.H. White, another amateur falconer, who Macdonald consistently refers to, comparing his clumsy attempts at training a goshawk with her own.
T.H. White was a contemporary of Morton, and Macdonald explains that during the ‘20s and ‘30s (when Morton was writing his travelogues), there was a great movement of people wanting to go back to the land, back to their roots. There were lots of events like midnight rambles and excursions deep into the countryside, and a great revival of country arts and crafts as people sought to forget the Great War and rediscover their national identity after the bloodbath which had decimated the nation. It struck me, reading this, that that is the background from which all Morton’s travel books that we love so much (even if Mr. Bryson doesn’t) have sprung. Nearly a century ago, Morton was capturing the feelings of the age – that Great Britain was still great, and its countryside and its characters were why people had fought and died. Nowhere is that more evident for me, than in the poignant first half of his 1939 “I Saw Two Englands”, when he realises that the England he loves so much is under threat in an even worse way than from the First World War.
So there you go, Mr. Bryson – Morton was a man of his time and upbringing, just as you are a product of yours. He may wax more lyrical than your bluff style, but one thing is true – he loved England in his own way just as much as you do.
‘I have said it many times before, but it really cannot be stated too often: there isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside of Great Britain. It is the world’s largest park, its most perfect accidental garden. I think it may be the British nation’s most glorious achievement.’ (“The Road to Little Dribbling”, p. 381).
I’m sure Morton couldn’t have agreed more.
Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.198, 20 February 2016