Monthly Archives: June 2018

A meditation on Morton – and Bill Bryson, by Elisabeth Bibbings

More notes from a small island

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.

Elisabeth Bibbings

Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.198, 20 February 2016

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Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Literature, Travel

The Whirligig, by D’Egville

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I was surprised and delighted to come across this little gem recently on a certain well known online auction site. It is a set of three caricatures by ‘D’Egville’, entitled Whirligig. They have been cut from an unknown newspaper or magazine and according to the person selling them they date to around 1928.

The first sketch features a Lady Askwith, with the caption ‘You can’t be too kind to maids’:

Lady Askwith small

N.B., this is not the better known Lady Asquith, wife of the British Prime Minister rather, according to thepeerage.com, she is Ellen (née Peel), Lady Askwith CBE, who died in 1962. She was a writer, sub-editor and war worker; former wife of Henry Graham, and later wife of 1st Baron Askwith. Although apparently a noted socialite, other sources reveal her to be most unpleasant individual – a fully signed up member of the eugenics socity who spoke out strongly against the keeping alive of children from ‘weak minded mothers’.

The second features Miss May Edgington, with the caption ‘Marriage is not a brilliant joke’:

May Edginton small

According to Wikipedia, May Edginton (originally Helen Marion Edginton, 1883 – 1957) was an English writer of over 50 popular novels which often portrayed escapes or solutions for heroines in unhappy domestic situations.

But it was the third cartoon which most interested me. It features our very own HV Morton striding through the crowds, hat on head, cigarette in mouth with socks and suspenders proudly and quite surreally on display, an indication of how familiar Morton would have been to a popular readership at the time and how much a part of everyday life and culture he was. The caption reads ‘The world should be delivered from the horror of trousers’:

HV Morton small

It took quite some time to track down details of the artist himself but I hope you agree it was time well spent, d’Egville is a most interesting character:

Alan Hervey d’Egville FRGS FCI (1891-1951) was a cartoonist, caricaturist, illustrator and writer, the son of Louis d’Egville of the Academy of Dramatic Art who taught dancing and deportment to royalty.

Educated in Berkhamsted (Hertfordshire, England) and in France, Germany and Spain, he studied motoring at Daimler, Paris and taught the tango at his father’s academy before working as private secretary to the chairman of Rolls-Royce. He later subscribed to Percy Bradshaw’s Press Art School.

Enlisting as an interpreter on the outbreak of World War I, he transferred to the Intelligence Department, later becoming Chief Intelligence Officer, 4th Corps and being mentioned in dispatches. After the war he attended art school and went on to write travelogues and to publish his humorous sketches and caricatures widely in Europe and the US including in Bystander, Pan, Sketch, Passing Show, Men Only, London Opinion, Tatler, Le Rire, Humorist, Punch, and others. During World War II he joined the security service, rising to the rank of Major. Following the cessation of hostilities he continued to publish in a variety of journals as well as writing scripts for Fox films, illustrating books, and working in advertising as a commercial artist. He was an enthusiastic skier and much of his work dealt with this subject.

(Sources: “Biographical Sketches of Cartoonists & Illustrators in the Swann Collection” By Sara Duke and “The Dictionary of 20th-century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists” By Mark Bryant).

Although the caricatures are amusing in their own way I’m afraid I havent a clue as to the significance of the ‘Whirligig‘ title or the meaning of the various bizarre captions. In a nutshell, I don’t get it! Although in all likelihood they had obvious and probably hilarious significance to a 1920’s audience their meaning is totally lost today. I am not aware that Morton ever advocated a society without trousers, even in jest! If anyone is able to enlighten me I would be most grateful.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor

(Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.225 on 3 June 2018).

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‘In Search of H.V. Morton’, by Michael Bartholomew

In Search of HVM

Methuen, London, 2004. 248 pages with illustrations, notes and index. Also now available in paperback. From major booksellers and on-line through Amazon UK, etc.

The first and most important thing to say about Michael Bartholomew’s “In Search of HV Morton” is that this is an excellent read. The text flows, it is accessible and, unlike some biographies, it has a good structure and narrative. The reader is taken from Morton’s childhood, cycling around the lanes of Warwickshire and discovering a passion for place and history through his journalistic career, finding his niche as the foremost travel writer of his time and then, finally his gradual disillusionment as England began to take a different direction from the country he had known and loved.

Early in the work Bartholemew takes time to explain the distinction between the droll, urbane narrator of his tales (‘HV’ Morton) and the real man (‘Harry’ Morton) behind the books. Morton’s contemporaneous diary writings are contrasted with his works of literature throughout as a device to move through Morton’s life and explore the motivation behind both narrator and author. Any reader coming to this work hoping to read about the simple, solitary, companionable traveller of Morton’s books is in for a disappointment. Like the top rate journalist he was, Morton knew how to deliver precisely what his audience wanted and went to great lengths to maintain the illusion and charm of his books by keeping a low public profile. Fortunately for us (and perhaps less so for the reputation of ‘HV’) Morton left a large number of notes in the form of diaries and half written memoirs which formed the basis for much of Batholomew’s book, enabling his story to be told.

This account of the life of Morton is even handed and largely non-judgemental (despite the occasional spin placed on some of Bartholemew’s words by other reviewers).

Bartholemew obviously admires Morton’s talents as a master of descriptive prose and he presents Morton’s questionable political views as more naive and simplistic rather than anything more sinister; ‘more prejudice than politics’. Morton’s womanising and racism are presented, mostly in the form of extracts from his diary, and the reader is left to judge for him or her self. We are told of a man who, while privately contemptuous of the direction Britain was taking at times, was prepared to put his talents to work, on occasion for no financial return, to support the governmnent in its efforts during the war. Morton wasn’t without a social conscience and his 1933 social commentary “What I saw in the slums” is compared favourably with the better known “Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell; Bartholomew suggests that Morton’s depiction of women in the slums is ‘just as powerful and… less patronising’ than Orwell’s. We are told of Morton’s quiet bravery – castigating himself in his diary on the one hand for his cowardly feelings during the London blitz yet, despite his fear, going into the city to cover stories for his paper. At a time in Britain’s history when invasion appears imminent Morton writes about the distinct possiblility of being killed defending his village against the Nazi foe while at the same time is enraged as his gardener is enlisted into the armed forces.

This book is a sympathetic, ‘warts and all’ portrayal of the real man behind the public persona; above all it is a balanced account. It is direct and unstinting, delivering praise and criticism alike where they are due. By the conclusion any Morton admirer will be the better for having read it and will have an understanding of the real depth behind both ‘HV’ and ‘Harry’.

Niall Taylor

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