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Merry Christmas!

IMG_3487 Tor in WinterGlastonbury Tor in December snow

I would like to wish all members of the HV Morton Society and all readers of the HV Morton blog all the best for the festive season – have a Happy Christmas and a very Good New-Year.

This year I have chosen a section, kindly suggested by a fellow Mortonite, from HVM’s 1933 “A London year” (which was a revision of his original 1926 “The London Year” – note the subtly different title). It is among the best of Morton’s prose, a touching depiction of Christmas day, with suggestions of the hard times which had befallen London and the rest of the world between the writing of the two editions. There is also a clue to what made Morton different from others of his calling and how he achieved his intimate style and popularity – namely his knack of always looking for the humanity in any story.

Christmas Day in London

by HV Morton

A hush more peculiar, more significant and deeper than any hush of the year, falls over London. But it is merely a superficial hush. Actually it is one of the noisiest days in the whole year. Early in the morning the rigid and apparently silent streets are loud with the blowing of tin trumpets, the hooting of toy horns, the beating of kettle-drums, the winding of springs and the explosion of crackers. To the homeless wanderer, however, to whom all hearts turn on this day, London must appear to be wrapped in a self-contained silence. Self-contained it certainly is, for this is the only day in the year on which London has no public life.

The big hotels, in order to keep their doors open, must transform themselves into children’s parties and reproduce on an embarrassing and expensive scale the atmosphere that exists so simply and so beautifully in millions of little homes. Sometimes young reporters, torn from the bosoms of their families, are sent out on a cold unhappy tour of London on Christmas Day. And they all tell the same story. Bald old men, who ought to know better, are wearing paper caps in the Ritz. The Chelsea Pensioners are eating plum pudding. Patients in hospitals lie in garlanded wards. The homeless are herded in an atmosphere which is described as ‘jolly’. That is all that we have ever been able to extract from the most earnest and willing of explorers.

But I can never understand why the earnest young reporter takes the trouble to explore London in search of Christmas. He would do far better if he just stood outside the nearest house and described the lit interior seen through a gap in the curtains: the holly, the mistletoe, the bright children’s faces, the older faces on which Christmas has painted a brief, exceptional carelessness.

It is a day that never changes. It is the one day in the whole year in which London, splitting up into millions of self-contained family groups, is at peace with itself.

[A LONDON YEAR (1933) §4 pp 207-209]

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With best wishes once again for a Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year – Slainte Mhor!

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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A Canterbury Tale, by Elisabeth Bibbings

This piece was originally distributed as HVM Society Travellers’ Tales – No.26

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Looking down from an upstairs café window at the entrance to the Cathedral precinct, I amused myself imagining the crowds of a past time – the raucousness and smells of mediaeval Canterbury, the poke bonnets and stagecoaches of the rather more genteel Victorian era (I had just finished re-reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch“).

Seated at the café table with my long-suffering husband and me, was a man with dapper moustache and a notebook, his quick eyes observing everything he saw. The waiter didn’t seem to notice the pipe smoke, and the other café users seemed to be unaware of his presence.

We left the café and went through the archway to the Cathedral. Our companion’s eyes lit up at the soaring towers and he reminded me of how he had visited the heights of Bell Harry tower in 1939. He seemed scandalised when we were asked to pay admission, but when I explained that it costs £18,500 a day to run the Cathedral, he admitted maybe there was a need for it.

Once inside, the soaring heights of the nave drew our thoughts heavenwards. As the hour struck, a clergyman ascended the pulpit and led a short prayer for the troubles of the world.

stained glass

My friend, nursing his trilby (and glaring with outrage at a young man who had kept his cap on in ignorance), pointed out window after window of mediaeval stained glass, the deep blue colouring the pavement below. It was impossible to take in all the details, as Bible story and saints’ tale were depicted in miniature panels on windows stretching higher than we could see.  Only the mason and conservator would ever know the details of these wonderful windows.

We entered the shrine of the Martyrdom, and a guide launched into an enthusiastic description of how well Becket’s death was chronicled as he fell in the presence of the most literate men of the day – the monks. A recent sculpture emphasises the violence and brutality of the murder. Mr. Morton capped the guide’s tales with accounts of his own.

Well covered with Becket’s gore and smarting from King Henry’s penance, we moved on into the Crypt. Here was peace and the silence of centuries long gone by. At the back was a treasure house of secure glass cases, and I was hurried along to see the chalice and patten used by Hubert Walter on crusade in the Holy Land. It was an amazing artefact. “There is not a place to which this chalice travelled in Palestine that I do not know,” Mr. Morton commented. I also saw the mazer mounted with a yellow gemstone reputedly from Becket’s shoe, which came originally from the almshouses of St. Nicholas, Harbledown.*

We ascended (never did a Cathedral have so many different levels!) to the Quire.  Here delicate pointed arches give way to the architecture of Byzantium. Flame-coloured flower arrangements reminded us that the Sunday before was Pentecost. We sat and savoured the scene.

Interior

On further exploration, we found the tombs of Bolingbroke (Henry IV) and the Black Prince. We learned that Henry, because he was not a prince in his own right, (being the son of John of Gaunt) was anointed with holy oil (reputed to have been given by the Virgin Mary to Becket) to justify his being crowned King, after deposing Richard II.

By then, our feet were aching but our companion seemed indefatigable. He kept peering into corners, walking into chapels, saying “You must see this” and showing us ancient wall paintings or quaint memorials from the Kentish Regiment. Eventually I managed to coax him outside and we ended up, as every good visitor must, in the Gift Shop. Here, I left him explaining to my husband how in bygone ages, the shops of Canterbury sold little lead medals as souvenirs whereas now one could buy books, CDs, teatowels, rubber ducks complete with bishops’ mitre . . .

When I returned from making my purchases, my husband was alone.

Where’s Mr. Morton gone?” I asked.

I don’t know,” he replied.  “He said something about going back into the Cathedral.

Maybe if you go there, you will find him too, and he will enlighten your visit as he did mine.

Elisabeth Bibbings, Northamptonshire, England 12 July 2014

*  “I Saw Two Englands“, ch. 3, section 5.

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Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII (image courtesy of wikipedia)

Pope Pius XII
(image courtesy of wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of "A Traveller in Rome"

The cover of “A Traveller in Rome”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Green, West Yorkshire

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