Category Archives: HV Morton

The Father of the Dog

A vocation as a veterinary surgeon has its fair share of highs and lows. It is a privilege to be able to assist animals and those who care for them but there are also those occasions when sadly the time comes when it is no longer possible to do more. At this point it is both a blessing and a painful duty sometimes to be able to offer help by means of a final act of kindness.

Here is an account by HV Morton of just such a heart rending situation as he illustrates both the pleasure and the pain which we willingly enjoy and endure when we take an animal into our hearts.

It is from Chapter 8 of “In The Steps of the Master”, first published in 1934. Early in the chapter Morton describes how he came across a dog, a Saluki, lying in the dust in the village of Banias, dying of hunger. Unable to walk, she was covered in flies. Morton writes “… her eyes were lost in a world of unutterable pain… I had never in my life seen an animal in such a ghastly condition”.

Angered and profoundly moved but unable to help her himself Morton instead prevails upon “a nice, gentle Arab in an old suit of khaki” whose job it was to sweep out the shrine at El Kedir, and gives him ten shillings to look after the dog and try to restore her to health. He promises to return then departs to continue his travels with mixed feelings as to whether he has acted for the best.

Sometime later, having thought of the starving Saluki of Banias every day since, to the bewilderment of his driver, he disrupts his intended route and makes a return visit, desperate for news of her:

In the Steps of the Master

… as soon as I appeared the whole village gathered round, but not with the grim, hard expression which terrifies nervous tourists: they were all laughing and smiling, and a cry went up “Abu kelb, Abu kelb!” which means “Father of the dog.”

The Arab is a great hand-shaker. I went round the group shaking hands, telling the driver to ask them how the dog was.

“Come and see, O Abu Kelb!” was the reply.

And a crowd of bare-legged little children went running up between the mud walls announcing the great and spectacular news that “Abu kelb, the father of the dog,” had returned.

I was led to the squalid little hovel behind the mud walls. The crowd was so great that we had to shut the gate, but the children climbed up on the wall to watch. A white mare was tethered in the yard. A douanier, whom I had not seen before, came out of the house, dressed in a pair of khaki breeches and a grey army shirt. He shook me warmly by the hand, explaining in French that he was a lodger in the house, but had unfortunately been out on duty when I had been there before. Now, however, how happy he was to make my acquaintance! How glad he was that I had come back…

All the time the douanier bubbled with affability and I gazed round for the dog, but could not see her. My heart sank. So she was dead! Perhaps it was just as well. But I was too familiar with the habits of the Arabs to ask any questions. All would be known in time.

The douanier, it appeared, was an Armenian from Aleppo. He had a great affection for England. He had learnt English from a priest at a mission school in Aleppo. Ah, if some day he could go to London! He would like that very much… So he rattled on. Then the crowd parted and the man who sweeps out the shrine of El Kedir came up with the Saluki.

I could hardly believe my eyes. She could stand! Her hind legs trembled woefully and her tail, bare and mangy, was still well down. But her eyes had lost the fear of death, although they were still full of pain.

The Arab had made her a little coat from a pair of khaki trousers and he had bound up the wounds on her forelegs with pieces of rag. The Armenian explained that he had bathed her wounds with wine and oil the remedy which the Good Samaritan used on the wounded traveller.

The dog seemed to know in some way that I was the cause of her present well-being and she did something which completely finished me. She walked up to me and just rested her bruised muzzle on my knee. I decided at that moment that, grotesque and blown out with starvation as she was, wounded, mangy and sore, I would somehow take her home with me to England.

I thought how extraordinary it is that a show of interest and a little money can make so much difference to any living thing. The poor creature that a week ago had been stoned and kicked about was now a feature of the village. She was the protege of the rich, mad, Englishman.

I asked the Armenian what would happen if I did not take her away.

“This man,” he replied, pointing to the Arab; “will look after her as long as you pay, but when you stop paying he will turn her loose, because he is too poor to buy food for her.”

I told him of my intention of taking the dog to Jerusalem. He shook his head. The Palestine Customs would not allow her to enter in her present condition. But if I got an order from the Government? I suggested. Yes, it might be done.

So we agreed that they should continue the feeding and the bathing of the dog, and I handed out some more baksheesh.

“That is the name of the dog,” I explained. “I shall call her ‘Baksheesh’ ”

This was a joke that everybody understood!

I went off, promising that I would either call again at Banias or send someone in my name to take “Baksheesh” into Palestine. And as I went off I heard the children shout ing “Abu kelb!”

Weeks later I got a letter which read:

My dear friend, Mr. Morton, I am verry glade I get a great satisfaction by this relation which commenced with a dog. You can be able for its hospitality. I brought a big jar of sea water from Sidon by which I wash it evry day, morning and evening. Now it is better than bifore. I hope that we will not forget ourselves, and I am allways redy to execute your commissions. Excuse me for my mistakes, be cause the last war of Turkey in 1930 wich resulted after two years with all Christchen immegration has destroyed our futur and high life. God be with you till we meet.

JOHN.”

It was from the excellent Customs Officer at Banias. So he was bathing the dog with water from Sidon.

That sounded excellent.

In a few days I was able, through the kindness of the Palestine Government, to get poor “Baksheesh” through the Customs and into the kennels of the S.P.C.A. in Jerusalem, an organization that, although dying for lack of money, is striving hard to make the Arab understand that animals can feel and suffer.

The report was encouraging. I saw myself taking “Baksheesh” for walks in Hyde Park and for long tramps over the Sussex Downs. Then one day I received a letter saying that she was dead. She was too weak to stand treatment.

“Knowing how much you cared,” wrote Mrs. Reynolds, a member of the Society, “I have buried her in my own garden, where you can think of her sleeping among the rock flowers.”

When I was near Banias again I made a detour to thank John for all his kindness. The Arabs and the children crowded round my car with cries of “Abu kelb!” looking and peering into the car for “Baksheesh.” I told them she was dead.

“It is the will of Allah!” they said.

And they looked at me with the respectful sympathy due to any man who tries to defy the inscrutable will of God. Even John, the Good Samaritan, said it was a good thing, and that when I went to Aleppo he would give me two much finer dogs. Even he did not understand that the crucified eyes of poor “Baksheesh” had marked her out from all the other dogs upon this earth.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor,
Glastonbury, Somerset, England (Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.217).

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Tut-ankh-amen’s Gold: Into the Land of Egypt

I hope you will forgive me when I say I am feeling a little pleased with myself at the moment. I have just managed to acquire one of the rarest examples of Mortoniana there is!

A large booklet in heavy-weight paper, its silvery front page bears the title ‘EGYPT‘, written in blue letters which are shaped from stylised papyrus bundles. The cover is enclosed between protective transparent sheets of blue plastic and the whole thing bound with spiral wire. It measures approximately 315 mm (12.5 inches) in height by 235 mm (9.5 inches) in width and comprises 31 unnumbered pages. From the style and content, it appears to be aimed at attracting tourists to that ancient land, particularly American, English and French tourists.

The first section is an introductory article by HV Morton entitled Tut-ankh-amen’s Gold: Into the Land of Egypt. This is laid out on four pages, each decorated on one margin with depictions of the art and heiroglyphs of Ancient Egypt in blue. The text is very similar to sections on pages 55 to 57 of Morton’s book “Middle East” (published by Methuen, London, on 5 June 1941).

Unfortunately, just to temper my joy, my newly acquired copy has obviously got a little damp at some point in the past – the metal binding has rusted and, most frustratingly, the pages of Morton’s article have stuck together in places and when pulled apart again some of the text has been lost.

However, nothing is too much trouble for the HVM Society so, looking for all the world like extreme archaeologist, Indiana Jones, (only without his rugged good looks and Hollywood lifestyle), I held the pages up to a strong light source and managed to peer through them, despite their thickness, in order to get an idea what the missing sections originally said. Eventually I was able to make a transcript of the piece for the archives.

The second section comprises ten poems by Ali Asir-El-Din interpersed with several stock photographs depicting Egyptian scenes (the photographs are by: M.C. Salisbury, G.W. Allan, Alban, Photo Kodak Egypt, H.J. Fresco, Royal Egyptian Air Force, and the Egyptian Museum Cairo).

I haven’t been able to find much about the poet, google is unusually tight-lipped about him. And, although I am no judge of poetry, the reason for this may be, at least from the examples published here, that he is no Shakespeare, in truth he may barely even be a McGonagall I’m afraid. Here’s an example:

BY THE NILE

The swiftly running river,
Moonbeams a-quiver
Within the trees

A white form, gowned and slender,
Eyes dark and tender,
And lips that please…

… and so on.

Drawing a (mystic) veil over this dodgy doggerel, the next section is a page of prose by a Claire Cowell (again, nothing seems to be available on the internet to suggest who Ms Cowell may have been), eulogizing the wonders of Ancient Egypt.

After this we have three illustrated maps depicting the course of the river Nile and the principal transport routes from Wady (now spelled Wadi) Halfa north, through Abu Simbel, Assuan, Thebes and Luxor to Cairo and the Nile Delta.

After a single page left blank for notes by the traveller the whole work is rounded off with a page of information for the benefit of the visitor: a list of routes by which to journey to Egypt, as well as exchange rates, hotels, taxis, hints concerning clothing considered suitable for the climate and a list of spots likely to be enjoyed by the tourist.

The booklet was designed and printed by Editions Mayeux, Paris and bound by Reliure Integrale Bree France et Etranger. In the opening article Morton mentions his witnessing of the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb fourteen years previously so, since he was sending despatches from the tomb-site to the Daily Express in February 1923, presumably the booklet was published around 1937, although no specific date is given on the booklet itself. Morton presented a number of on-board lectures for the Hellenic Travel Club from 1935 to 1939 on cruises to the Middle East and it is possible the booklet is associated with one of the tours.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England, 5 July 2017 (with gratetful thanks to Peter Devenish and O.H.)

(This article was originaly distibuted as HVM Society Snippets – No.215)

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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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The secret portrait of Prince Charlie

IMG_3866 crop smallBen Nevis

In chapter eight of “In Search of Scotland” HV Morton takes his leave of Inverness to travel south-west, following the path of the Caledonian Canal, that majestic marriage of geology and human endeavour. He is en route to visit two towns whose names ring out like a clash of steel down the centuries from a most turbulent and bloody period of Scottish history – Fort Augustus and Fort William.

After spending a night of Jacobite revelry in Fort Augustus, his journey continues through what he describes as the “real” Highlands. “The heather” he writes, “was like spilt claret on the high, smooth slopes of the hills; the thick woods were stained with autumnal colour; there was a flash of lake water between the trees and the splash of mountain streams falling from the heights.

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The Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge

Finally, passing Spean Bridge (where now stands the Commando Memorial), Morton arrives at his destination, a settlement referred to, in their native tongue by the Highland Clans it was built to impress, simply as An Gearasdan – The Garrison.

Fort William crouches, with an air of pretending to be the end of the world at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest and most famous mountain in the British Isles…

Sadly, the original garrison has been completely obliterated by a now disused aluminium smelting plant.

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Glen Nevis

Morton makes the traditional pilgramage from the town, up Glen Nevis and finally up all 4,406 feet of the Ben itself, wearing town shoes which gradually disintegrate as his climb continues. Finally he returns to share the tale of his trek with fellow veterans of the hike, ensuring instant popularity by comparing Ben Nevis favourably to the Swiss Alps, the Libyan Hills of Egypt and the Aures Mountains in Africa.

The following day Morton sensibly decides to spend a quiet day in town – presumably after having bought some more shoes! His account of his visit to the West Highland Museum fascinated me so, when I was in Fort William with the family a few years ago, I made a point of visiting it.

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“The little West Highland Museum” as HVM describes it

Morton describes in some detail one of the highlights of the visit for me, the secret portrait of Prince Charlie. The “portrait”, from a period when allegiance to the Stuart cause was punishable by a quick death (if you were lucky), is painted on a wooden board which, according to the notes by the display cabinet, was further disguised by being used as a casual tray for drinks. Morton describes it as being “… daubed with paint in a half circle. It looks like the palette of a rather careless painter”.

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The painting is housed in a glass cabinet up some very creaky stairs on the first floor of the museum, and is unrecognisable as a picture, just as Morton reports, until it is viewed with a special cylindrical mirror made especially for the purpose and placed at the correct point on the board. It is not at all easy to get the correct angle and focus, but with patience finally the tiny picture can be seen by viewing the ‘blob’ as it is reflected in the mirror. With even more patience the Young Chevalier, in all his glory, can be photographed.

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Bonnie Charlie revealed!

One can just imagine the tray being brough forth during clandestine gatherings and, as HVM writes, “… you call to mind oak-panelled dining rooms and candles lit, a warm glow over family portraits, a guard over the door, and the company rising to lift their glasses to the cause that was fated to be lost”.

With warm wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This post was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.183 on 9 May 2015

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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’.

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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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Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Travel

HV Morton on the television

In this bulletin we take a look at a particularly personal piece of Mortoniana.

The newspaper clipping below was sent to me by founder-member and Morton biographer Kenneth Fields. Kenneth informs me it was originally sent by HVM to his sister Piddie in 1974 and later passed on to Kenneth by Jo Walters, Morton’s niece. Kenneth points out that Morton’s age is corrected in his own hand – even at the age of 82 (or 83) this was a journalist who wanted to get the facts correct!

HVM on the radio

By way of background, it seems South Africa had no television until 1976 and this article was an account of the preparations by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) for their television network. They proudly declare they have (by 1974, when the article was written) accumulated 50 hours of programmes ready to be broadcast.

The person who was to interview Morton was Dewar McCormack, head of the English service of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in Cape Town. He was described by Pamela Coleman (who ran the SABC equivalent of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour with him as her boss) as a good-looking man in a craggy, Robert Mitchum sort of way, a part-Irish South African who had travelled around and done a stint broadcasting in New Zealand. An old-fashioned, professional broadcaster, he was friendly but stern and didn’t approve of ‘larking about’!

The print of the scan is quite small so I have transcribed the relevant section:

The Cape Times Weekend Magazine, Saturday, July 20, 1974

SHOW SCENE

Television: a taste of things to come
by Ian Forsyth

He’s an old man now, 83 [HVM has corrected this to 82 in his own hand! Ed.]. And he sits in his study, inevitably book-lined, remembering – for SABC television. As a television personality, Robin Knox-Granger, manager of the SABC television service, thinks he’s “just tremendous”.

This television personality of South Africa’s pre-television era is Author-journalist H.V. Morton who lives at Somerset West. And some time after January 1976 South Africans will see six programmes in which Morton talks of things that fascinate him and memories he has of a lifetime of writing and reporting.

He is interviewed for the English television service by Dewar McCormack at half hour stretches.

It’s very, very seldom, if ever that you get someone who can just sit and talk and be interviewed in this way,” Knox-Grant told me in Grahamstown this week. “Once, perhaps twice only, we have had to stop the cameras, and this was only for technical reasons – for cut-ins, where you have to move to something which he has been talking about and will show you. He comes across superbly. You can just sit and watch him without any kind of interruption.”

Knox-Grant and a television team travel from Johannesberg to Somerset West for their filming sessions, which almost never exceed the allotted 30 minutes of time for which the programmes are scheduled. And it is only a small facet of the work now being done by the television service,  which now has about 50 hours of viewing material available for English and Afrikaans viewers – about 25 hours for each language…

Many thanks go to Kenneth for providing us with this delightful insight into HVM’s later years.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.192 on 26 September 2015

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Collie Knox Remembers H.V. Morton

by Kenneth Fields

Perhaps the most important milestone in HV Morton’s writing career was his period at the Daily Express during the early twenties. His colourful articles on the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb had put his name on the front page of the newspaper for the first time, and this quickly established him as a star journalist. Fortunately we have a number of fascinating personal observations of him at this period from the writings of his colleagues.

The following is taken from “It Might Have Been You” (Chapman and Hall, 1938), the autobiography of Collie Knox (1897 – 1977). Collie Knox had joined the staff in the news room at the Express in 1926 in a junior position, after a short but eventful military career. He recalls that ‘In those days the offices in the Express looked out on Shoe Lane, a dingy little street from which came sounds of hammering most of the waking hours.

shoe lane

… Often when I was in a tussle with some refractory copy and Wilkins was demanding how much longer I’d be, such gods as H.V. Morton and Hannen Swaffer descended from their thrones and entered the news room. With longing eyes I gazed at them. For here indeed were names with which to conjure. They were in receipt of more money per week than I earned in a year….. Would I ever be like them? Would anyone ever nudge his – or indeed her – neighbour and whisper, “That’s Collie Knox, you know”? My copy was forgotten and I followed these men with envious eyes as they stood surveying the room. Lords of all they surveyed.

‘Harry Morton is a wonderful writer. He has the gift of description tremendously developed. He will attend a national ceremony with every other newspaper star writer, and will notice that a shy little woman in black with a medal ribbon pinned on her breast is sobbing in a corner. While the other writers will concentrate on the obvious highlights, the pomp and splendour, Harry Morton will hang his story on the little woman in black. Instantly she will stand out as the central figure and she will live before the reader.

‘I remember once Morton was sent to write the experiences of a man who had climbed to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. When I read his description the next day in the paper I literally felt giddy… so vivid is his power of writing.

‘His books sell in millions, and he is unequalled in his own field. He remains the same quiet, charming man. Unspoiled. I knew that Baxter had a few tussles with H.V. If he did not think that a story was worthy of his time or his talent, he would refuse to go out on it. Baxter once said that he would rather deal with a temperamental prima donna than with H.V. when he was in that mood. But Baxter was eminently capable of dealing with any prima donna. He could wheedle a cork out of a bottle.

After six years at the Daily Express Collie Knox moved to the Daily Mail where he established himself as a popular columnist, musical lyricist and a patriotic writer during the Second World War. In his anthology, “For Ever England” (Cassell –1943), he includes an extract from the postscript of HVM’s “I Saw Two Englands” (Methuen -1942) which he named The Vigil Splendid. This outstanding example of HVM’s descriptive writing vividly explains what it was like to live in England during the Battle of Britain.

With best wishes,

This article was originally distributed on 21 November 2015 as HVM Society Snippets – No.194

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