Category Archives: Book reviews

Travel in War Time

Travel in Wartime p 01 small

Apparently there is a sporting event being held somewhere, in which British cyclists have been doing quite well. Gripping as the saturation coverage is, during discussions about the finer points of the Omnium and particularly when anyone attempts to explain the rules of the Points Race to me, I find my thoughts drifting, inexplicably, to things Mortonian.

HVM was a keen cyclist in his youth, frequently taking to the lanes and exploring the countryside near his boyhood home, in the halcyon days before the Great War. He is of course more famously known for his motoring trips between the wars around Great Britain in the seat of his little blue Bullnose Morris car which, in a whimsical moment, he named Maud. But his travels, and those of others motoring for pleasure were severely curtailed with the advent of the Second World War and the introduction of petrol rationing. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good as the saying goes though, and the restrictions on motor travel were a boon to riders and manufacturers of the humble bicycle, who were able to take advantage of the now virtually clear roads.

In 1940 or thereabouts the Birmingham Small Arms company, which manufactured bicycles as well as sporting guns, began to publish an advertorial-type brochure called “Travel in War Time” and to give it away free when people wrote to them for their latest catalogue featuring the “Streamlight” range of bicycles.

img258 crop

As you can see from the image above, the author was HV Morton; as they say in the introduction, BSA hoped it “might be regarded as an entirely new chapter in his brilliant series ‘In Search of England‘ etc.“. The fact it might also help boost sales would be an added bonus of course.

The pamphlets, each comprising twenty pages and some 2,200 words, must have been produced in their thousands but they had soft-covers, held together with a single, large stitch at the binding fold and sadly, very few have survived. Thus they are one of the more collectible pieces of Mortoniana which can be found.

There is inevitably an element of Morton having to make a virtue out of necessity in his writing as he puts on a brave face and makes a show of bemoaning people who, in the days before petrol rationing would travel carelessly – “They would think nothing of ‘getting out the car’ and speeding for fifty miles in order to eat a bad dinner in some remote place, when they could have had a good one by remaining where they were.”  You can almost hear the gritted teeth as he writes, “It was all part of the tendency, which seems bent on leading the world back to barbarism, of allowing the machine to control us, instead of controlling the machine ourselves.

Pic 03Two happy cyclists take tea in what looks
like the village of Dunster, in Somerset

As he endeavours to present petrol rationing and wartime restrictions as, not a hardship, but a welcome relief from the dangerous and reckless days of the motor-car – “the emptiness of the roads, and the fact that life goes on very much the same as usual, is a measure of the unnecessary movement which was so characteristic of the nineteen-twenties and ’thirties” – there are hints he may actually have derived a degree of genuine, nostalgic pleasure from his first time in the saddle for twenty years. “I never imagined that once again a bicycle would be my treasured and constant companion, as in those days of youth, when it was always summer” we are told. At times he seems to have been positively reinvigorated, “Of the thrill of free-wheeling down a hill, I could write much, but perhaps the most I can say is that at such a moment twenty years slide from a man’s shoulders as if they had never been. In that splendid flight a man feels absurdly young again…“. Clearly with a bicycle in the garden shed there was no need for a fountain of youth!

And, being the writer he was, Morton leaves us with an uplifting closing paragraph, patriotically weaving the humble bicycle into the deep fabric and culture of Britain itself, and hinting at what might be lost if things don’t go well in the years to come, as he describes how those machines which are to be seen “… leaning against a churchyard wall or propped outside a village inn, tell of a love for good and honest things. They suggest freedom and simplicity, two precious things, and they suggest also that those who travel on wheels desire to understand the story of our own beloved and ancient land.

How long HVM continued to travel by bicycle once hostilities had ceased (or, indeed, once he had written the pamphlet) I cannot say, but this small booklet is a delight which captures the feeling of the age of “make do and mend“. And, as a bonus, there isn’t a single mention of lycra or the latest athlete to have “podiumed” (eugh!) to be found between its covers – enjoy the rest of the Olympics!

With warm wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This post was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.207

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Three books, two authors, two Englands

A comparison of the interwar travelogues of J.B. Priestley and H.V. Morton

Introduction:

What follows is a comparison of the accounts of different journeys around England, namely J. B. Priestley’s 1934 English Journey and H. V. Morton’s two “England” books, In Search of England (1927) and The Call of England (1928).

English Journey

H. V. Morton compiled his books from a series of articles he had written for the Daily Express newspaper between 1926 and 1928 of his impressions as he travelled around England in a small motor car. Each book is presented by and large as if it were one continuous journey. Morton’s declared intent was to encourage “an understanding love for the villages and country towns of England” in order to better preserve them for the future, although he admits concerns that this must be balanced against the “vulgarisation” of the countryside (iSoE p. viii). The books are light-hearted travelogues and generally politically neutral . Although suggestions of Morton’s personal views are apparent in the introductions, at no point do they intrude on the relaxed, amiable style of his narrator in the main text.

Priestley’s book was commissioned by his publisher, Gollancz and was an account of a journey which he conducted around England in late 1933, initially by motor coach but later by car and the occasional tram. Describing his mission, Priestley states “I am here, in a time of stress, to look at the face of England, however blank or bleak that face may chance to appear and to report truthfully what I see there” (EJ p. 61-62). As such, much of the book is overtly political and, rather than the reserved tones of Morton’s narrator, the reader experiences Priestley’s strongly held, personal views on much of what he encounters during his travels as he declares he is “here to tell the truth and not make up a Merrie England” (EJ p. 119). As journalist and author Andrew Marr puts it “Priestley wanted to rub the noses of Southern middle-class Britain in the reality of the other nation” (Marr, 2007, p. xxii).

Different Worlds:

As might be imagined, despite containing a few intriguing similarities, the two works are very different. This exercise is more though than simply a comparison of two authors, it is also a comparison of two Englands. The world of Morton’s ‘England’ books lacked things which would have been familiar to Priestley only eight years later, from Heinz Beans to Penicillin, from the Times crossword to equal suffrage, but what separated their two worlds so utterly and the reason such a comparison can never be entirely fair, was the devastation of the great depression of 1929. The Wall Street crash knocked the economic heart out of Britain’s industrial centres almost at a stroke, decimating production, ruining export markets and laying men off in their hundreds of thousands.

In Search of England 1952 edn

Morton’s essays were written in the twenties, before the crash, at a time when war-time restrictions were being lifted and when Britain was beginning to look forward to a prosperous future. They betray an airy optimism which is absent from Priestley’s account, written as it was at the height of the depression, by which time the world of Morton’s gently spoken narrator, with its bosky dells and winding village lanes had changed irrevocably. The statistics which Priestley himself employs in English Journey speak for themselves about the state of the economy of the time. In 1920 Britain was producing nearly 2 million tons of shipping but by the time Priestley came to write his travelogue that had been reduced by a brutal 90% to less than 2 hundred thousand tons (EJ p. 343). This led to massive hardship, not just in the ship building industry but in related industries too, mainly steel and coal production. Consequently the industrial towns and cities visited by Priestley were in an appalling state with unemployment reaching as high as 70% in places. This inevitably caused profound social changes and Priestley’s account of a Blackshirts’ rally, with its communist hecklers in Bristol is symbolic of the polarization of Britain and the rest of Europe along extremist political lines (EJ p. 29).

Morton of course would have been blissfully unaware of this impending disaster as he steered his slow and careful way around the highways and byways of England and this must be borne in mind when making a comparison. To be fair, following the depression Morton was fully aware of how the country had changed; when he was asked, in 1933, to reissue a book originally written in 1926 (A London Year) Morton was reluctant, pointing out that the first edition was “written during that brief waltz of wealth after the War” and expressing concern that a reissue might appear “quite out of touch with our times” (Morton, 2004).

Different Men:

Not every difference between the two works can be attributed simply to the times in which they were written of course. The difference between the authors themselves and how each one deals with the subjects of industry, wealth and social conditions is still an important factor. While life at the time of the writing of English Journey offered plenty of grist to the mill for the social commentator, Morton’s 1920’s England wasn’t entirely without its share of industrial unrest too. One has to look closely though to decipher where he has referred to arguably the most significant industrial relations event of the decade, the national strike of 1926. According to biographer Michael Bartholomew (2004, p. 95) the only mention it received in Morton’s work was a reference to the miners of Lancashire squatting on their haunches “like Arabs“. There is no hint that these disconsolate men are on strike and within a few lines Morton has breezed on and is sharing a joke with the reader about Wigan pier. It is hard to imagine Priestley being so cavalier if he had been writing about the same subject.

Apart from the different agendas of the two authors the general tone, the literary style, of the two is poles apart. Priestley is determined to reject any hint of sentimentality, he even accuses Dickens of being a “sentimental caricaturist” (EJ p. 274) and despises what he refers to as the creators of ‘Merrie England’, “who brood and dream over… almost heartbreaking pieces of natural or architectural loveliness at the expense of a lot of poor devils toiling in the mud” (EJ pp. 398 and 119). Priestley’s views are opinionated, thought provoking and challenging. He is the stern moralist who knows what is best for the people and isn’t afraid to proclaim it, the voice of the reformer, the social engineer, the ‘man with the plan’.

Call of England, The 2 Small

When it comes to the prevailing social conditions of the day, be it describing the base brutality of a Newcastle boxing ring, the deplorable conditions in the slums of Stockton on Tees or the unremitting, bleak despair of Tyneside, Priestley is at his finest. He pulls no punches as he ruthlessly exposes the full horror of the conditions which exist in mine, mill and shipyard within just a few hours of the capital. At a stroke he vapourises any convenient illusions about the working man which the wealthy classes of London and elsewhere might chose to maintain for their own peace of mind. Priestley is in search of the truth, he has no truck with peace of mind.

Morton on the other hand has a relaxed, languid style. He speaks with lyrical, almost poetic tones. He will seek out individuals and allow his story to be told through them and their experiences. His prose is intimate and personal, the reader feels as if they are being taken into Morton’s confidence as his narrative unfolds. As early as page one of The Call of England he is excitedly whispering to the reader about the joy he feels at the new adventure which lies ahead. His is the voice of the little person, he is the everyman; not the reformer, but the one who will be reformed. He is not blind to the hardships of the industrial cities, at one point comparing the recruitment of casual labour in the docks of Liverpool to a slave market, but by and large his aim is to entertain and tantalise the reader, not to dwell on uncomfortable topics. Morton is as anxious to please as Priestley is to confront.

This is not however, simply a case of one author nobly championing the working classes, while the other flits, magpie like (iSoE p. vii), from one glittering Arcadian jewel to another. In Morton’s writing he attempts at all times to be fair to his subjects and, by and large, if he can find nothing good to say about something then he will say nothing. While this means, at times, we find him glossing over some unpalatable truths it does mean that Morton’s style is more generous while Priestley sometimes accounts less well for himself, on occasion coming across as somewhat carping. He seems to find it difficult to give credit where credit is due, even when the subject is undeserving of his wrath. Consider for instance the two authors’ accounts of England’s second city, Birmingham.

Priestley described himself as a “grumbler” with a “Saurian eye” (Gray, 2000, p. 42) and perhaps this accounts for some of his remarks as he alternates between patronising and criticising Birmingham. Having initially hoped that the entire city (which he describes as “a dirty muddle“) had been “pulled down and carted away” (EJ p. 78) he takes a tour of the Corporation Art Gallery and Museum, courtesy of its director who is keen for Priestley to see the work of local craftsmen. In a few short paragraphs Priestley damns the work of aspiring young talent with extremely faint praise, describing them as “surprisingly good” and condemns locally designed silverware out of hand as “tasteless” although “admirably executed” following which he turns his back on the natives and proceeds to sing the praises of international painters for nearly two pages.

Morton, on the other hand, anxious perhaps to make amends for having ignored Birmingham in his first book, addresses the balance in the second by initially taking issue with a gloomy assessment of it (a “rotten hole“) from an inebriated commercial traveller on a train (both books make liberal use of the unfortunate commercial traveller as a foil in order to make many a point). He then goes on to announce his arrival at New Street station (having abandoned his car for once) with a light hearted paragraph on the city’s many achievements (“the city whose buttons hold up the trousers of the world“) before going on to praise its smartly turned out policemen and the classical columns of its town hall. Morton isn’t unaware of the less inspiring aspects of the city – its “drab uniformity” and “outer crust of ugliness“, but this is countered by reference to great camps of industry and praise for Birmingham’s successful commerce and the vigour and drive of its hard working people (CoE p. 175-179). Morton has an eye for the colour and vibrancy of the city which, even given the different times, seems to have escaped Priestley.

Both authors contrive to visit chocolate factories on their travels but while Morton (in York) is marvelling at the manufacturing process, expressing an interest in the colourful little hats and coats in the cloakroom and patronising his guide by complementing her on having a “pretty head full of statistics“, Priestley is agonising over whether the Cadbury plant at Bournville, which he acknowledges is providing its workers with some of the best conditions in the world, isn’t too paternalistic and, by offering its employees generous benefits both in and out of work, isn’t bringing about the beginning of the end of democracy. Priestley finally ends up apologising to Cadbury’s for his gloomy introspections at their expense!

Neither author appears entirely at ease in a crowd of strangers although here too they deal very differently with the subject. In Morton’s case in the crowded Manchester Royal Exchange (CoE p. 131) he positions himself in the strangers’ gallery high above the crowd (which he describes briefly as ‘the monster’) from where he picks out and follows a single individual as he weaves through the throng, in order to enlighten the reader – a cheerful little man who rubs his chin and makes a joke and who the narrator hopes is kind to his wife. Priestley by contrast has no time for such whimsical niceties and when visiting the crowds at Nottingham’s goose fair he appears striding, raptor-like through the multitude, his keen eye sparkling with disapproval. Priestley pulls no punches as he describes the scene of Wellsian horror around him with the unfortunate citizens of Nottingham reduced to “human geese“, the boys consigned to a “sub-human race” and the girls condemned as “slavering maenads“. Paradoxically, one of the few points in the book where Priestley appears happy is with a crowd of his peers at his regimental reunion, which he describes as a mass of “roaring masculinity“.

In other sections there are a few fascinating similarities to be found. Sweeping statements for instance are perhaps inevitable when undertaking the task of cataloguing an entire country but Morton’s description of Birmingham in his first book as “that monster” and Priestley’s description of Swindon as a “town for dingy dolls” built by social insects (EJ p. 38) probably did little to endear either author with their respective local readerships. Both being seasoned writers, they could turn their pens to a pithy, evocative phrase – Priestley describes the day he arrives at Southampton as being “as crisp as a good biscuit” (EJ pp. 12-13) and he portrays a budgerigar wonderfully as “flashing” about a room “like a handful of June sky” (EJ p. 127). Morton dreamily describes the distant ridges of the Yorkshire moors as being “as blue as hot house grapes” (CoE p. 88) while the ruined Abbey of Fountains is “like an old saint kneeling in a meadow” (CoE p. 68) and the road he comes to Manchester on is “as hard as the heart of a rich relation” (CoE p. 68). By contrast, as men of their age, both authors were capable of remarks which are jaw droppingly inappropriate to the modern ear – Morton merrily describes London as having “as many moods as a woman” (iSoE p. 51) and Priestley at one point opines to the horrified reader that he dislikes the ‘blues’ being sung in Blackpool as they concern the “woes of distant Negroes, probably reduced to such misery by too much gin or cocaine” (EJ p. 268).

Conclusion:

In the final conclusion the difference between the works is the difference between poetry and prose, documentary and drama; Priestley is Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes‘ while Morton is Eric Coates’s ‘Fresh Morning‘. Priestley’s work is powerful and intended to shock, Morton’s is gentle and intended to entertain; both are meant to inform. Each vividly captures the prevailing mood of their times, one looking back from a period of prosperity to a peaceful, halcyon England as it was before the carnage of the Great War, the other struggling to come to terms with the grim realities of the modern world in a time of great hardship. Priestley certainly gave the people what they needed to hear but Morton perhaps gave them what they wanted to hear.

Both men had a deep love for their country, despite having different stories to tell, and both would probably have been happy to have been described, as Priestley describes himself in his closing chapter, as ‘Little Englanders’. Both give a rounded view of England, despite their declared prejudices, with Priestley, while claiming to despise ‘Merrie England‘ and its creators never the less finding his own version of Arcadia walking with friends on his beloved Yorkshire moors (while managing to stay in character by sniping at unsuspecting cyclists). Morton too, despite initially devoting a mere seven paragraphs in In Search of England to what he described as the “monster” towns and cities of the North where the only good thing he has to say about them is that, compared with the surrounding greenery, they aren’t that big, by the time he comes to compile The Call of England a year later, has come to respect the power and productivity, vigour and vitality of England’s industrial heartland.

Finally:

Priestley’s English Journey is credited with influencing George Orwell’s 1937 work, the definitive Road to Wigan Pier, itself a no holds barred account of despair in the industrial towns of England. What influenced Priestley in his work is interesting to speculate. Almost certainly he would have known of and probably read Morton’s ‘England’ books, they were among the most popular books of their genre at the time, and this may well account for some of his antipathy to ‘Merrie England’ – Morton certainly does his fair share of the brooding and dreaming over “architectural and natural loveliness” which Priestley so detests. There was also another, less well known work however, published by the Labour Party the year before English Journey, to which Priestley might well have had access while preparing his work and which could conceivably have had some influence. It too is a frank and disturbing account of life in six English industrial cities at the height of the great depression. Its author also expresses outrage at the condition of the slums which he visits and castigates landlords for their role in creating such horrors. He argues passionately for state intervention to alleviate the suffering which he so vividly depicts. In tone and spirit it is not that far removed from Priestley’s English Journey. Its title is What I Saw in the Slums; the author is H. V. Morton and ‘Merrie England‘ is nowhere to be seen.

References:

Bartholomew, M., (2004) In Search of H.V. Morton, London, Methuen
Gray, D., (2000) J.B. Priestley (Sutton pocket biographies), Stroud, Sutton publishing
Marr, A., (2007) A History of Modern Britain, (paperback edn., 2008), London, Pan Macmillan
Morton, H.V., (1927) In Search of England, (2nd edn., 1927) London, Methuen
Morton, H.V., (1928) The Call of England, (14th edn., 1941) London, Methuen
Morton, H.V., (2004) in Devenish, P., Ann’s done it again!: HV Morton Society Collectors’ Note No.5 [online]
Priestley, J.B., (1934) English Journey London, Heinmann, Gollancz

This article originally appeared in the Albion Magazine Online.

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HV Morton, a mysterious letter and HMS Rodney

Blue Days at Sea, medium

A couple of years ago I wrote a review of HV Morton’s 1932 “Blue Days at Sea” for the blog. In the section of the book which recounts Morton’s time spent on attachment with the Royal Navy, I mentioned the author was accomodated, in room number eleven, aboard the mighty HMS Impenetrable. Costing an unimaginable (for the time) £7,488,274 to build, this vessel ran on 45,000 horse-power turbines and sported nine 16-inch guns, any three of which cost £100 to fire at one time. Morton describes this floating city as a steel island which ploughed through the ocean, the like of which had never sailed the seas before; he wryly comments that if a careful visitor searched hard enough they may have been able to find a screw or bolt small enough to represent their income tax.

This touching description was marred for me by only one thing – HMS Impenetrable didn’t seem to exist… and no amount of googling turned up any trace of her!

Then, in February this year, I was contacted by a canny e-bay salesman who wondered if I might be interested in bidding for a letter which had come into his posession – I took him up on his offer and, to my delight, my bid was successful. When the letter arrived, it turned out it had been written by HV Morton from Gibraltar in 1929 while based aboard one HMS Rodney. This time google came up trumps and it didn’t take long to discover that this ship, a Nelson-class battleship, was commissioned in 1927, so would have been only a couple of years old as Morton typed his missif. Could this have been the ship described in “Blue Days at Sea“, I wondered?

HVM letter HMS Rodney 25-3-29 smallMorton’s letter to Miss Brooke

I dug deeper, and discovered, like the fictional Impenetrable, HMS Rodney (along with her sister-ship, HMS Nelson) was the most powerful military vessel afloat at the time. She too had nine 16-inch guns and was propelled by eight Admiralty 3-drum oil-fired boilers, powering 2 Brown-Curtis geared turbine sets generating 45,000 horse-power. Her construction cost is given online as £7,617,799, a mere £129,525 different from HVM’s figure and her crew complement is reported to have been 1,314, while Morton gives the Impenetrable’s crew as “about 1,200 men” – as near as makes no odds.

HMS RodneyHMS Rodney – picture courtesy of wikipedia

This was very exciting – I believed the mystery had been solved! Surely the elusive HMS Impenetrable was in fact none other than the Rodney, which, I learned, had served with such distinction during the second World War, taking part in the sinking of the Bismark, Arctic convoy escort and the landings at Normandy, Sicily and Salerno. It was clear Morton’s admiration for her crew had been well placed and the ship’s motto “Non Generant Aquilae Colombas” (Eagles do not bring forth doves) was more than borne out by the heroic actions of its crew.

My hopes were confirmed when I made enquiries of Kenneth Fields and Peter Devenish, of the HV Morton Society. Peter reported Morton was aboard HMS Rodney as a guest of the Navy while writing a short series of newspaper articles for the Daily Express. The title of the series was ‘Fleet Exercise in the Mediterranean‘. From Kenneth’s assiduous research we know the following pieces were published in the series:

How Planes Fought Warships – published 3 April 1929
The World’s Mightiest Battleship – published 4 April 1929
Action Fought by Blind Men – published 8 April 1929
The Priest of the Parish – published 9 April 1929

The titles of those articles, in which Morton says, of HMS Rodney: “This battleship and her sister, The Nelson, are the world’s latest and most powerful warships” would fit very well with accounts of the Impenetrable contained in “Blue Days at Sea” and the dates certainly fit the date of the letter he wrote to Miss Brooke from Gibraltar on 25 March 1929.

As for the letter itself, Kenneth reminded me the piece HVM wrote about Sandwell Hall, mentioned in the letter, can be found in “The Call of England”, chapter 12, section 8. It is a touching account of a stately home, brought low by the industrial revolution, undermined by pit shafts, deserted and shortly to be demolished. Even by Morton’s standards this section has particular pathos, and it is no surprise that Miss Brooke’s ailing mother was so affected by it. But what her “interesting and… pathetic letter” acually contained we may never know, intriguing at it is.

Whatever the story behind it, this letter is now one of my greatest treasures – the ship’s crest and motto, the slightly uneven type-writing, Morton’s signature, even the imprint of a rusty paperclip at the top, all speak of real provenance; the parties involved, quite unwittingly, about to become part of a pivotal moment in world history.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

…  with grateful thanks to Kenneth Fields and Peter Devenish

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.175 on 29 November 2014

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“Vignettes of Childhood and other poems” – a review

There is a slight departure from the subject of HV Morton in today’s post but one which, I hope you will agree, is very much in the spirit of the great man.

Vignetes of Childhood

HV Morton Society member, Michael Thurstan Bassett is a man of many talents – poet, musician and artist. We have all enjoyed his work in the past as he has contributed several of his poems as society bulletins over the years, including this one, now available on the blog. So, you can imagine my delight when I heard he has just had a series of his poems published by Harvest Road Books of New Zealand, under the title “Vignettes of Childhood and other poems”.

When my copy arrived I was keen to see how his other works would compare with those I had already seen, and I wasn’t disappointed!

The anthology is in five sections with the first, Vignettes of Childhood, being a narrative of autobiographical accounts beginning with a small boy’s fascination with war and combat, irresistible when brought to his very doorstep during a childhood spent during World War II on the Isle of Wight. Mike was an eye-witness to the Battle of Britain and the later massing of the fleet prior to the D-day landings and these historical events are captured with evocative immediacy in Mike’s carefully chosen words. Then, from the immediate post-war years there are accounts of a period spent in post-war Germany with all the destruction and horrors witnessed there, before a blissful celebration of homecoming in Vignettes of Childhood V and the final, unfinished, leaving of the homeland for foreign shores. This section is a moving anthem to England and to times past. The final installment is set more than half a century after the first, as the author looks back, contemplating those “precious days”, yet ending with an optimistic note – although we seem forever destined to seek the unattainable, we will encounter beauty and grandeur on the way.

REMBRANDT modifiedMike is also a talented artist – dare one hope the second edition
of “Vignettes of Childhood…” might feature
some of his
artwork, such as this one; an homage to Rembrandt.

Later sections, more philosophical in nature, deal with a number of elemental subjects – gods, dreams, love, homecomings and departures but most of all with the spirit of man which can, perhaps, be seen as the overarching theme of this volume. Mike’s style has a deceptive simplicity, making it very accessible (a bit like HVM!), but like all good writers, contained within it are hidden depths, to be found if the reader cares to look.

Several gems are particularly memorable. There is the touching symmetry of The Lesson of Life (which quite brought a tear to my eye!), the uplifting optimism, despite all that life throws at us, of Credo, and the hopefulness of Orphic Mysteries. We are treated to a little of Mike’s subtle wit with the gently provocative Lunar Landing, as he has a dig at the demystifying of the world around us in the name of progress, and Martha and Mary – a treatise on two of the most iconic women in the Bible, which has much to say about the world today.

Many of the verses in this excellent collection display a wistful longing which is dealt with most movingly – a yearning for home, and for a bygone age – but throughout this is tempered by a more upbeat, positive tone, as in this quote, from the poem, Life’s Tarnished Cup:

For the healthy need no doctors,
And the happy need no priests:
Give man but power and freedom –
What need of sacred Feasts?

All in all this is a highly recommended volume, just the sort of thing to relax with and contemplate, feet up infront of a blazing fire, glass of robust single malt in hand! And I’m looking forward to doing just that this Winter, as I read, once again, this trove of literary treasure from a modest man of great talent.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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HV Morton’s International Appeal

No, no, put those wallets away – despite what you might think from the title, this is not a request for charitable donations!

I recently came across this flyer, tucked inside a 1935 edition of HV Morton’s “In Search of Ireland“, which gives marvellous insight into just how widespread this author’s popularity was.

In Search of Ireland flyer p 1

The front of this single sheet of paper is an advertisment for HVM’s best selling, “In the Steps of the Master“, published in October 1934, which it describes as “The World’s Best Seller” and suggests, at 7/6 (seven shillings and sixpence – that’s 37.5 pence in today’s currency), it would make the ideal Christmas present. It also features a retouched, monochrome reproduction of EA Cox’s original cover and informs us that already, only a few months after publication, it has sold a fifth of a million copies.

Interesting enough you would think, but it was the reverse of the flyer which really grabbed my attention.

In Search of Ireland flyer p 2

On the face of it, just a mundane order form, telling readers where to send their postal orders to secure that festive gift; but on closer inspection there is a review of the book which is of particular interest:

In Search of Ireland flyer p 2 crop

This review of “In the Steps of the Master” is written in Maori!

Being nothing if not obsessive, I transcribed the text:

February 1935                                                      Te Marama Rua o

KO TE ENUA APU E TUATUA NEI

Kua tae mai i te tima meile i topa akenei tetai buka ou “Ko In the Steps of the Master” te ingoa Papaa, ko te ingoa Maori “Ko te rua tapuae o e Pu”. Kua tataia tei buka e tetai tangta Beritane “Ko H.V. Morton” tona ingoa, na teia buka i akakite mai i te tu o te ingoa na eia buka i akakite mai i te tu o te enua ko Kanaana ou i teia tuatua.

Kua roa tona aerenga na roto i te enua e i roto i tona buka kua tata aia i te au mea e manganui tana i kite ana e i akarongo katoa. Kua aere atu aia ki Ierusalem ki te ngai anau anga o Iesu, ki Nazareta e ki te au ngai e manganui tei kite tatou i te au ingoa i roto i te Tuatua Tapu. Kua aere atu aia i te tautai ki runga i te roto i Galilea e kua kite katoa aia i te tangaa ravarai tei tautai i te pae tai mei te au tangata Cook Islands te tu, koia oki, te rave nei ratou i te rama e te auri katoa.

… But, unsurprisingly, it meant little to me. So I turned, in hope, to an online translation service, and discovered Google have recently included Maori in the list of languages it features. With a smug smile of satisfaction I entered the text and pressed “translate” and, hey presto!:

Have come from a team meile past a recent book your “In the steps of Master of the “name conflict, the English name” The two steps you Pu “. Has written a book tangta Beritane” The HV Morton “his name, in this book reveal the name of the stand and he books reveal the standing of the country and Canaan your Tairiiri.

Has his ways in the country and in his book he wrote the many things he saw his faith as a whole. Approached He Ierusalem to where Jesus’ birth, and Nazareth to the where we see many of the names in the Scriptures. He approached the fishing on Lake Galilee and found All he has to use all the fishing sites from coast humans Cook Islands stand, that is, they do the candle bar.

So, there we have it, as clear as mud. To be honest I think I had a better chance of understanding the original!

But even without being able to understand the full meaning of the text, it still gives a perspective on HVM’s immense appeal at the time and remains for me a fascinating piece of Mortoniana. It also provides a small snapshot of Morton’s life at a time of considerable change for him as, although the book containing the flyer is published by Methuen, the advertisment is for a book published by Rich and Cowan, to whom Morton had transferred his allegiance in 1933. They continued to publish his works until 1937 when they suffered bankruptcy, at which time Morton was persuaded to return to Methuen once more.

In the unlikely event that any readers are familiar with the Maori language I would be very grateful if anyone was able to cast any further light on this unique review. Not least because I would dearly love to know what it means to “do the candle bar” – it sounds like fun!

Niall Taylor

This article was originally distribued as HVM Literary Notes – No.127

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“What I Saw in the Slums” … a little known aspect of HV Morton

In 1933 HV Morton’s writing appeared to undergo a sea-change with the publication of a little known volume called “What I Saw in the Slums“. While reviewing this work for the online magazine Albion, I became fascinated by what might have prompted this change of heart. Why would a writer who, up to that time, had made his fame and fortune chiefly by writing uplifting travelogues suddenly take it into his head to turn instead to some of the worst, most deprived areas of urban England and lay bare what he found there at the height of the Great Depression.

The article below is not the review but is a second piece which resulted from my musings about the change of direction HV Morton appeared to have taken. I am most grateful to Peter Devenish and Kenneth Fields for answering my enquiries on the matter as well as to the authors of Morton’s biographies – “The Life of an Enchanted Traveller” by Kenneth Fields and “In Search of HV Morton” by Michael Bartholomew – for helping me weave a few loose threads into a vaguely coherent whole and construct, to my satisfaction, the story of an important period in the life of HV Morton.

Additional information was obtained from “Writing Englishness: 1900-1950” edited by Judy Giles and Tim Middleton.

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The cover of "What I Saw in the Slums"

The cover of “What I Saw in the Slums”

Anyone who has encountered the works of HV Morton, even briefly, will probably think of him as a chronicler of the brighter, more positive aspects of British life between the wars, with his various travelogues of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. If any criticism is to be made of his works it is his tendency to skirt around the harsher realities of life – he liked to keep things light-hearted. Anyone delving further into his background will come to realise that, although his views were kept largely private, Morton’s politics were distinctly conservative and right-wing.

Nothing in life is simple of course and sometimes, just when you think you know all there is to know about someone, they can still surprise you. Morton produced his early travelogues during ten fruitful and, initially, happy years spent working at the Daily Express newspaper, owned by Lord Beaverbrook. When Morton first joined the Daily Express in 1921 Beverly Baxter, who had been responsible for head-hunting Morton, reported he had been warned, with ominous foresight, by Morton’s previous editor at the Evening Standard, that his new recruit “… was gifted, but would give me trouble” [See HVM Society Snippet – No.146].

Slums 1Slum Playground for the “Coming Generation” – one of the photographs by James Jarché

Nearly a decade later, at the start of the 1930’s this prediction began to come true. Considerable personal success for Morton and an increasingly turbulent home-life started to drive a wedge between journalist and paper. Relations began to cool between him and Baxter, by then Editor in Chief, even though ironically it had been Baxter himself who had first encouraged Morton to begin his journeys around Britain, even going so far as to suggest the title In Search of England, thereby playing a large part in establishing the very fame which was now forcing them apart.

At the same time a rival paper, the Daily Herald – left-wing organ of the British Labour Party and Trades Union Movement and almost the polar opposite of Beaverbrook’s highly conservative Daily Express – was trying to improve its image. Owner, Ernest Bevin, and new publishing partners, Odhams Press, were striving to move the publication “up-market”, make it more competitive and put it on a firmer financial footing. One of the means they employed was to recruit star reporters (for lucrative salaries) to the staff, and so it was that HV Morton’s itchy feet led him in this unexpected direction in March 1931.

On a more personal level, according to biographer Kenneth Fields, Morton seemed to feel a need to step out of his comfort-zone and “… could no longer ignore the terrible poverty and unemployment that was evident throughout Britain. Unlike the Express, which he believed had become obsessed with rich celebrities, working at the Herald now gave him the opportunity to write about the life of the working-man“.

The first product of this unlikely pairing was conventional enough; another in Morton’s series of travelogues, eventually published in book form as “In Search of Wales“. What followed next though was a completely radical departure for Morton. “Labour Party Pamphlet VII” grew out of a series of columns he had been commissioned to write for the Herald in 1933 and was published under the title “What I Saw in the Slums“.

To hold a copy of “What I Saw in the Slums” in one’s hand is, quite literally, to hold a piece of history. This pamphlet was never modernised or re-published in the way that better known, later texts such as Priestley’s “English Journey” or Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” were, so its very pages are part of the period about which they were written.

Understandably therefore, particularly since it was published in soft-back, very few copies have survived to the present day, despite the weighty feel of the publication suggesting it was printed on good quality paper. This makes it one of the rarest, and most collectible of all Morton’s works, and it was my “Mortonian Holy Grail” for a number of years before I finally bagged a copy on E-bay, thanks to a heads-up from avid Mortonite, John Baker.

Slum room“This Single Room is the Home of Husband, Wife and Three Children” –
reads the caption to this photograph of some of the
appalling conditions witnessed by Morton and Jarché

When it finally arrived, my copy was so fragile that I had to repair it with archive-quality adhesive tape and then labouriously scan the entire volume onto my computer in order to produce a facsimile reading copy. After all this, at long last I finally managed to read it and it didn’t disappoint – the wait was well worth it!

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My review of “What I Saw in the Slums” for Isabel Taylor’s online magazine Albion was published a few months ago in the ten year anniversary edition, and can be found about half-way down this page. I hope to be able to publish it in full on this blog in a few month’s time.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor 20 August 2014

(This article was originally circulated on 15 February 2014, as HVM Literary Notes – No.121)

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Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Journies

Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII (image courtesy of wikipedia)

Pope Pius XII
(image courtesy of wikipedia)

I am just reading HVM’s book “A Traveller in Rome” – AGAIN, and with much pleasure – and am interested in his views on Pope Pius XII which are very positive. This pope was very much defamed after the war – quite wrongly, but Morton published this in 1957! Possibly “they” decided to have a go at the Pope after this date – for what  he was supposed to have not done during the war. As it happens he did a great deal but had to be quiet about it. I can’t imagine Hitler taking much notice of anything he had to say about the situation, he would simply have shut him up one way or another.

Bearing that in mind I have put together the short piece that follows. Really, surely this should go on TV  like Bradshaw’s journeys by Michael Portillo on the train round the country, which are very interesting – but HVM knocks spots off old Bradshaw!

I once started to write a travel book of my journey round the Middle East and some time later read HVM – frankly I threw my stuff in the bin. The amount of sheer hard work and research – before Ye Internet – combined with his wonderful writing skills and connections to people wherever he went is, to me, genius.

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HV Morton, the celebrated travel writer, states in his book “A Traveller in Rome”, published in 1957:

There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonised that Pope Pius XII and the stories I heard about him made me anxious to see a man who will one day be numbered among the saints”.

The cover of "A Traveller in Rome"

The cover of “A Traveller in Rome”

Morton obtained a ticket for an audience at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer home, among thousands of others. His holiness appeared on the balcony, seated on a red and gold chair, an elderly, frail white haired man, wearing gold rimmed spectacles and  “radiating holiness”.

Even if I been unaware of his ascetic lifestyle and his saintliness,” HVM wrote, “I should have felt this. He is a thin aristocrat whose hands are of the thin and attenuated kind that El Greco loved to give to his saints. His face is slim and sallow, his eyes dark and deep set. He is so upright and precise in his movements that it is difficult to believe he is eighty years old.”.

HVM goes on to describe the Pope in more detail: He speaks eight languages, he says, and was the first Pope to have flown, to descend into a mine and to visit a submarine. In 1917 he carried to the Kaiser the offer of Benedict XV to mediate in the first World War. He knew Hitler before the last war and he was elected in 1939, on his birthday, when he was sixty three years old. An unfortunate time to become Pope indeed!

Morton does not comment on the Hitler connection which, of recent years, has been the cause of so much defamation of this Pope since, in 1957 – when “A Traveller in Rome” was published, the campaign to condemn Pius for not sorting Hitler out had not yet begun. At this audience the Pope gave a short speech and a blessing in several languages and clearly was hugely popular and much loved.

HVM later had a private audience with his holiness. It was a simple ceremony in which Morton received a blessing and, while down on one knee, found himself fascinated by the beautiful scarlet velvet papal shoes peeking out from beneath the hem of the Pope’s spotless white soutane. Again HVM states his belief that he was in the presence of a truly holy man, who led a frugal and ascetic life and who loved birds, keeping two pet canaries which he allowed to fly around his apartments in the Vatican.

With hindsight, looking back from the year 2014 at Morton’s pleasant and  fascinating account of his meeting with Pope Pius XII sixty years ago, it is relevant to mention the unjustified attacks this Pope has been subjected to since that time.

From around 1963 Pius XII has been accused of being a friend of Hitler and not speaking out against the Holocaust – this is not the place to discuss these accusations which, in any case, have already been strongly refuted. It is difficult to know what Hitler would have said or done had the Pope made a public denunciation of him anyway, but it is hardly likely that he would have taken any notice.

In the event Pius XII did much to help the Jews, as well as many other victims of the war, in a quiet and – of necessity – secret way for which he should be thanked instead of defamed. When HV Morton met his holiness in the 1950s, he perceived Pius XII as a man of goodness, holiness, courage, intelligence and concern for all. If negative and defamatory things were being said about the Pope in Rome at that time surely, as a writer who missed little in his travel books and researched his material thoroughly, HVM would have been aware of it.

Barbara Green, West Yorkshire

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