Category Archives: Armistice day

“I, James Blunt” – propaganda, fiction or both? by Elisabeth Bibbings

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This article was first issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.174 on 11 November 2014

This summer, I was browsing (yet again) in a secondhand bookshop, and found a delightful volume of Paul Gallico short stories (famous of course for “The Snow Goose”).  In this book, he reproduced some of his best magazine stories, and also had written an interesting preface to each one, telling how the story came to be created.

One such story was called “Thief is an Ugly Word”, (produced in Cosmopolitan during the Second World War).  The story told how the Nazis, to fund their war effort, turned to peddling stolen art, mostly using Fascist sympathisers in Argentina.  There was truth behind the story, and Gallico explains how the truth came to be spelt out in this fashion:

“During the war (in America) there was created at the behest of Washington, the most astonishing propaganda agency which met in New York, called the Writers’ War Board. . . its function was simple and easy to understand. When the psychological warfare boffins in Washington needed a writing job of any kind, the problem was dumped into the lap of the War Board in New York which found the right author in the shortest possible time and got the job done.  This would be in the guise of short stories, novelettes, newspaper articles or even circulars and pamphlets.  It worked . . .Propaganda in fiction is useful only when the characters and the story are thoroughly beguiling, interesting, or exciting and entertaining.  [He goes on to say that the story must be good or else the nugget of information you are conveying won’t get through – like “sugarcoating the pill”.]

“If this strikes you as a devious way to go about an exposee and if you might be inclined to say that a factual and documented article . . . might have been more effective, you would be wrong.  It is a fact, startling perhaps in its implications, that fiction has a far greater propaganda value and gains far more credence amongst readers than actuality.  I need refer you only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the results it achieved. A truth becomes far more vivid and active and lives in people’s minds to a much greater extent when fictionalised than when presented merely as fact.  People like to be told a story.”

From the collection “Confessions of a Story-Teller“, published in 1961.

I James Blunt 2

This reminded me of Morton and his one fictional work “I, James Blunt”.  For those who haven’t read it, it is a diary of an ordinary man living in Nazi England, after Germany has won the war.  It grimly describes day-to-day life including living in fear that someone with a grouse against you may turn you over to the authorities – which is what happens to James Blunt in the story.  It’s about the only work of Morton’s that I don’t particularly want to re-read and re-re-read.

But was this written in the same way as Gallico’s tale?

Kenneth Fields, HVM Society historian, writes in his book “The Life of an Enchanted Traveller” that the Ministry of Information did the job of the American Writers War Board.

“Its many separate divisions included a Home Intelligence Unit that prepared reports on the morale of the civilian population, a Films Division and a Literary and Editorial Division that produced a range of booklets about the war. The Authors’ Section was housed in the University College buildings in Gower Street, Bloomsbury and for a period its head was novelist Graham Greene who worked alongside fellow writer Malcolm Muggeridge. With academic scepticism they both believed their work was of little importance and found the Ministry to be generally inefficient.

“However in spite of these misgivings Greene continued to take his duties seriously. One of his schemes involved approaching a number of well-known politicians and writers to ask if they would use their talents in writing a series of patriotic pamphlets and books. These famous names included E. M. Delafield, Herbert Morrison, Vernon Bartlett, Dorothy Sayers, Howard Spring and H.V. Morton.”

It was as a result of his work for this Division, that Morton was chosen, along with Howard Spring, to write up the account of Churchill’s summit with Eisenhower which you will find in his book “Atlantic Meeting”.

I agree with Gallico that fiction makes for powerful propaganda.  Morton has the Union Jack banned, Waterloo Station becomes Goebbels Station, (names of British victories being erased from history), houses crumbling and the suicide rate soaring.  The Hitler Youth Movement is planned to be rolled out in schools.  Children will be educated in German.  All this carefully written to stiffen the morale of the British public.

Morton finishes his sombre novella with these words, “Fortunately the Diary of James Blunt will remain fiction as long as England condemns complacency and bring to times of good news the same high courage and resolution which inspire and unite her in her darkest hours.

As we remember those darkest hours, and those who fell in them, and those who did not fall, but fought on with that same courage and resolution – may we also spare a thought for those who fought Fascism with the weapons at their command – the typewriter and the pen.

With best wishes,

Elisabeth Bibbings

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Filed under Armistice day, Magazine Articles, Remembrance

The Ultimate Peace Symbol

Originally distributed as HVM Society Snippet – No.159

PoppyDear Fellow Mortonites,

The first flower to regrow in soil disturbed by battle is the red corn poppy. This was initially remarked upon during the Napoleonic wars. Later, following the First World War, these bright little flowers were again the first to be seen as the torn, bare earth of no man’s land slowly began to transform back into pasture which, to this day, still carries the deep scars of combat. In 1921 the poppy was adopted as a symbol to commemorate soldiers who have died in war.

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The Cenotaph, by AE Horne from Morton’s 1926 “The London Year”

In his 1926 “The London Year”, a mere eight years after the end of the Great War, HV Morton described, in moving tones, the Armistice Day ceremony taking place around the newly erected Cenotaph, and the two minute silence that followed the laying of the wreaths:

Now London is hushed. The roar from Charing Cross dies away. Only the jingle of a horse’s bit breaks the silence of a people frozen in memory. Three white gulls fly over from the Thames, circle above the Cenotaph, and go. In Whitehall you feel the silence and the prayer ; for men and women are praying. It is not right to look. It is too sacred. The old memories well up in the heart, the old aches, the great joys, the misery, the gallantry, the laughter, and the tears.

How long two minutes can be! How much can be remembered! How little can a few years touch those things that go right down into the heart. I would not dare to look into a woman’s mind at this time—those women with medals! I would not care to imagine their thoughts ; but the young men— ah! in two minutes how many voices call to us, how many faces we remember, how many friendships, how many are the splendid loyalties of those “unhappy far-off times….”

Today, Monday 11th November is Remembrance Day, marking the 95th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The wearing of the poppy, or the laying of a wreath, on this day has nothing to do with politics, or with glorification and everything to do with gratitude, honour and respect and the determined hope that by remembering the past with all its horrors, we can perhaps be spared a repetition of it. The poppy is the ultimate peace symbol, pure and simple.

Tyne Cot war cemetery, Belgium

Tyne Cot cemetery, Belgium

Langemark war cemetery, Belgium

Langemark cemetery, Belgium

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
11 November 2013

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Filed under Armistice day, HV Morton, Quotations

Armistice Day

Armistice Day Commemoration

(This was originally posted to HV Morton members as HVM Society Snippets – No. 145)

In February this year, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk; Florence Green died peacefully at the age of 110. A modest woman, she had worked much of her life at a local hotel and during her spare time was heavily involved with the British Legion – knitting clothes, blankets and toys for children. Before her marriage at the age of nineteen, she had also served as a mess steward in the Women’s Royal Air Force and, with her passing, the world lost its last living link with those people who served in the forces during the First World War.

Remembrance day is approaching. A commemoration of the day when, after more than four years of continuous warfare and roughly 20 million dead, the guns fell silent across the battlefields of Europe and the World on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 1918.

The hope at the time was that this had been the war to end all wars. Surely, after such madness, the carnage would never be repeated? We know now this was in vain, and, little more than two decades following the signing of the armistice at Compiègne in France, the conflagration ignited again. It seems the urge to warfare may simply be part of the human condition.

Twenty-six years after the excerpt below, in his 1951 book “In Search of London”, HV Morton, in somber mood, described post-Second-World-War London as a city “of jagged ruins and hatless crowds”. The bare heads of its populace were symbolic of a people who were, “graver and sadder”  than before – people, Morton wrote, whose courage had been “expended in many years of air warfare… the air raid wardens, the fire watchers, the firemen”. Knowing how the hopes for peace in the years following the Great War had been so thoroughly dashed, Morton briefly considered the possibility of yet another, third world war in the new atomic age.

The following contemplation of the Cenotaph in London is from Morton’s “The Heart of London” and was written only six years after the last shot of the First World War was fired:

§

The wind comes down Whitehall and pulls the flags, exposing a little more of their red, white, and blue, as if invisible fingers were playing with them. The plinth is vacant. The constant changing trickle of a crowd that later in the day will stand here for a few moments has not arrived. There is no one here.

No one? I look, but not with my eyes, and I see that the Empire is here: England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India… here — springing in glory from our London soil.

*    *    *    *    *

In a dream I see those old mad days ten years ago. How the wind fingers the flags…

I remember how, only a few weeks ago, as a train thundered through France, a woman sitting opposite to me in the dining car said, ‘The English!’ I looked through the window over the green fields, and saw row on row, sharply white against the green, rising with the hill and dropping again into the hollows — keeping a firm line as they had been taught to do — a battalion on its last parade.

The Cenotaph and no one there? That can never be.

§

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor (originally distributed 2nd November 2012)

HV Morton Society members who would like to, can read Morton’s 1927 account of a pilgrimage of 700 mothers of the fallen to the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium in the on-line archive.

For an explanation of the connection between the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the grave of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, have a look at the British Legion website.

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Filed under Armistice day, HV Morton