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“Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, a review.

Ghosts of London small

Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, First published by Methuen, London, 16th November 1939

This little known work of Morton’s comprises 30 chapters including the explanatory introduction and twelve gravure plates illustrating some of the subjects. Each chapter is an essay in its own right (although two sets of two chapters are conjoined by closely related subjects) describing the Ghosts of the title, namely the ancient customs and rituals of London which even at the time of writing were well on their way to becoming endangered species that Morton felt moved to preserve in print before they disappeared altogether.

According to the introduction, they were compiled in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, having been written some time in the late twenties and thirties, presumably as Daily Express articles. The theme, according to the author is ‘the continuity of London’s existence’ and to ‘remind us of certain permanent values’ which even at that time Morton seems to have realised were changing and slipping away from the country, and from him.

img427 Yeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey GoL smallYeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey

This work is a testament to what London and by extension Britain stood to lose in the coming conflict, particularly (and remarkably prophetically) with the new threat of war in the air and the mass aerial bombardments which had already seen Madrid, Barcelona and Warsaw brought low. This book is a rallying cry not to arms but to the past, an invocation of the nation’s ‘spiritual reserves’ at a time of dire need.

After an introduction stark with contemporary intrusions as the capital prepares for war – gas masks and barrage balloons, empty streets and sandbagged buildings – the reader is plunged as it were into ‘deep-time’ in a series of chapters which invoke a reassuring sense of solidity, permanence and order. Even though the reason for their existence may be obscure or even, in some cases, non-existent, at least the Ghosts endure.

The reader gets the distinct impression of Morton in his element as he describes his various chosen topics. Chapter one opens with an account of ‘Charlie’s day’ where the restoration of Charles II after the fall of the English commonwealth is celebrated by schoolboys wielding oak apples and attacking one another with bunches of stinging nettles, something which would in all likelihood be an arrestable offence these days!

Later Ghosts are even older. The traditional horn-blowers of the temple, for example, keep alive a tradition dating back to the crusades while the curfew bell may date as far back as Alfred the Great. The shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella, Maundy Money and the Lambeth dole where elderly ladies receive half a crown from an ex-quartermaster-sergeant by virtue of an act of generosity by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century are all discussed in lively detail while en route Morton stops off to celebrate snuff and herbs, leeches and eye lotion and narrowly avoids an encounter with a red dragon.

Harking back to his account of the history of Mayfair which appeared in a detailed pamphlet in 1927 to celebrate the building of the Hotel of the same name, Morton casts a new light on Shepherd Market, the last surviving remnant of the original May Fair before it was hemmed in by houses and eventually banned.

The Tower of London features in several chapters and, in a modern twist on an ancient tradition, Morton gives an account of the Ceremony of the Keys from the point of view of the radio broadcasts which he himself gave to the nation every year for several years at the request of the broadcaster 2LO, later known as the more familiar British Broadcasting Corporation.

He shares a beer with the bell ringers of St Paul’s after hearing how Big Ben had to be recast following a disastrous trip down from York and lends a sympathetic ear to Hansom Cab drivers, night-watchmen and some of the few remaining lamplighters of London, who he refers to as ‘leeries’, from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem ‘The Lamplighter’.

img428 The Lamplighter GoL mod small ‘There’s not many of us stick lighters left… but here and there a few of us still muster for the evening

By the end of the account the reader is left with an insight, not only into some of the ancient history of London but also into HV Morton’s mindset too. In selecting his subject matter he has given us a tantalising glimpse into the mental world he inhabited and the things he valued, many of which were destined to be swept away not just by the aerial bombardment he predicted but afterwards too, by misguided urban planners and a changing political and social landscape.

Whether Morton liked it or not society was evolving, in many ways for the better, becoming more inclusive, more egalitarian, but also more centralised, and committee led. Old-fashioned respect came to count for little and the ‘ruling classes’ were obliged to find new roles for themselves in a weakened, post-war Britain as the nation itself adjusted to a new, more subordinate role in a post-imperial world.

It is sad to consider that less than ten years after publication of “Ghosts of London”, as the old ways gave way to the new, Morton, finding it impossible to reconcile his views with what was happening around him in his native country, had left it for good, finally settling with his family in South Africa.

Niall Taylor

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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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‘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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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.

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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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