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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“I Saw Two Englands” – then and now

One of my favourite of Morton’s works is his “I Saw Two Englands”. Originally published in 1943 this was a record of the Two Englands witnessed by Morton on his travels around the country before and after the start of World War II.

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Setting out on 15th May 1939, at a time when, according to Morton, “… the laurel wreath [Prime Minister] Chamberlain had worn since Munich was becoming rather shabby” and it was widely recognised armed conflict with Germany was inevitable, Morton devotes the first half of his book to an account of a nation on the eve of war. The second half is set after the start of hostilities, beginning on October 17th of the same year and continues the tour, with the country still presided over by its ineffectual leader as the war machine gathered pace and an incredulous England was beginning to unite in the face of adversity.

Morton describes the grim, calm determination of a nation which has been brought to the brink but isn’t yet sure of what to expect. His closing paragraph summarises the prevailing mood during the so-called ‘phoney war’, as he finally sets out for home at the end of November:

So upon a winter’s day I returned from my journey through war-time England, vaguely disturbed by the apathy of a nation that lacked a leader, a nation that was not even half at war, a nation sound as a bell, loyal and determined, war-like but not military, a nation waiting, almost pathetically, for something — anything — to happen“.

This appraisal is followed by a postscript written twelve months after the start of his journey which describes how things have indeed begun to happen, with a vengance. Dunkirk, the blitz, the Battle of Britain have all galvanised the nation to action and life on the home front has changed almost, but not quite, beyond recognition. Morton describes English villages reverting to their war-like pasts, as in mediaeval or even Anglo-Saxon times, “… ordinary men have run to arms in order to defend their homes“. This included Morton himself who in the final pages stands watch from the church tower in Binstead village where he commands a Home Guard unit.

War, says Morton, “… has brought us face to face with the fact that we love our country well enough to die for her“.

I saw Two Englands illus Tommy ChandlerThe cover of the 1989 edition

Some time ago a fellow member of the HV Morton Society drew my attention to a special edition of “I Saw Two Englands”. This was published, twenty-seven years ago now, to mark the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II and is presented in a lavish, full colour, large format volume. The work has been revisited and photographed by Tommy Candler, and it was suggested that as the original book purports to show how England was just before the War in case it changed utterly and also to portray it in a state of readiness for war, the photographs add a valuable extra dimension by showing how it is has managed to stay the same.

Bunyan barnJohn Bunyan’s Barn, near Bedford, photographed by Morton (left) and Candler (right)
I saw the Moot Hall on the village green where Bunyan danced so sinfully

Candler is a superb photographer and her compositions illustrate Morton’s prose perfectly. Through her eyes we are treated to a contemporary view of much of what, half a century before, HVM had described and had been illustrated by the photographs in the original, allowing the reader to compare then with now.

CrookmakerThe crookmaker of Pyecombe photographed by HV Morton.
His art now employed for decorative purposes in the later photograph by Candler.

Candler also selects archive pictures for the later sections and we become privy to scenes which would not have been permitted in the original but were detailed in the text as Morton portrayed a nation gearing up for defence. A tank factory, groups of German POW’s (according to Morton they were, despite having launched torpedoes against our ships, “average looking fellows”) and a flight of Wellington bombers (likened by HVM during their construction to living creatures with veins and arteries of red, white, yellow and green cables) making a banking turn over rural England are all brought to life, adding extra an extra depth.

img216A tank factory somewhere in England.
Bending over their machines the men might have been pupils in some gigantic technical school

The 1989 edition of “I Saw Two Englands” is readily available second-hand at heart-breakingly modest cost and is well worth keeping an eye out for. It would make a handsome edition to any collection of Mortoniana and is of course, well on the way to becoming an historical arefact itself!

For further reading there is a contemporary review entitled In Search of the Real England by R. Ellis Roberts in The Saturday Review of May 1st, 1943. Another review can be found on the worthwhile books blog whose motto is “Keep calm and read classics“.

With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This article was originally distributed on 9 January 2016 as: HVM Society Snippets – No.196.

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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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Trooping the Colour, by Kenneth Fields

London Year, A (from Kenneth 6-6-15)

… the big piebald drum horse…

Today, the 13th June, London celebrates The Queen’s official birthday with that much-loved military parade and march past of Trooping the Colour.  It is an annual event that has taken place in the city since 1820 and whose history stretches back to about 1700.

H.V. Morton wrote about the ceremony in 1926 in “The London Year” and in June 1929 he wrote the following feature for the Daily Express. At this time the nation was anxious about the declining health of King George V who was too ill to attend the ceremony:

§

THE UNSEEN PRESENCE OF THE KING

————

MOVING SCENE AT THE TROOPING OF THE COLOUR

———–

AND A COMEDY

By H, V. MORTON.

When I was walking up the Mall yesterday to see the ceremony of Trooping the Colour, I heard a woman scream. This is, of course, the most arresting sound in Nature.

Down the Mall, hell for leather came a Guard’s officer mounted on what appeared to be a likely Derby winner. His bearskin was over one eye, and his chin strap over the other. He had long ceased to say with Jorrocks, “Come up you ugly brute!” and was doing the only possible thing a man can do on a runaway horse – holding on and retaining his stirrups.

How cruel is human nature! A smile passed over the faces of his Majesty’s Guards. They blew bearskin out of their eyes and winked gravely. The public were more sympathetic: they seemed to know that this sort of thing happens now and then even to mounted officers. All save the inevitable London wit who clapped his hands and shouted: “Now then ‘Unter’s Moon, where are you a-goin’ to?

LORD LONSDALE

A little higher up the Mall I saw Lord Lonsdale, buttoned into a tight frocked coat and looking like one of the last great Victorians, as he smoked one of his inimitable cigars on the roof of his house in Carlton-House terrace. Two Cockneys below gazed up at him curiously:

E’s got a jolly face, aint e?” said one of them.

And now for the parade…

Against the perfect background of the Horse Guards the Household Troops stand ready to give their ancient birthday gift to the King. The Foot Guards stand in double lines in two blocks, one facing the Horse Guards and the other at right angles facing south. The massed bands face the Admiralty. In a corner, with their tails to the discreet little back-garden of No 10, Downing Street, are the band and two troops of Household Cavalry: the sun on their breastplates.

The Duke of Connaught, upright in the saddle, as a man of fifty, rides on the parade ground with the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, and Lord Lascelles. Behind come generals, state officials and the military attaches of foreign powers. The women admire the supposed Italian with blue feathers in his helmet and a sash to match. The ceremony begins.

You will read that the King was absent. This is not so. The King was present in the thoughts of every man and woman.

MASSED BANDS

Now the massed bands march and counter march. The four drum majors swagger in front in their gold-laced coats and black velvet caps. There is the “ruff of a drum.” The escort for the Colour moves out. The ensign receives the Colour. The troops salute it and come to attention. Then the Colour is trooped, that is to say it is borne at the slow march all along the lines, while the band plays “The British Grenadiers.

Then the march past. It is a magnificent sight. The Foot Guards pass in slow, then in quick time. There is the rum-tumming of cavalry drums, and the big piebald drum horse, whose reins are attached to his rider’s boots, moves out massively and leads the jingling march past of the cavalry.

The Duke of Connaught, with the princes a pace behind him, takes the salute beneath the arch of the Horse Guards. The troops reform. They present arms in three crisp movements and the bands play “God Save the King.

It is the most emotional “trooping” the Colour has ever known. Everyone is thinking not of the gorgeous military show, but of the sick-bed in Windsor Castle. And as the troops march down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace a royal salute cracks out from Hyde Park and the church bells ring.

I heard a woman say: “When I saw that picture of him in the ambulance – you know when they took him down to Bognor – well. I couldn’t help crying. The King. Somehow you don’t think of the King being ill – do you?

Beneath all the pomp and splendour of an official birthday London remembered not the Field-Marshall’s uniforms but the sick bed, not the monarch but the man.

_____________

U.S. WARSHIP’S TRIBUTE

Warships were dressed in all naval stations at home and overseas in honour of the King’s birthday. Salutes were fired in garrison towns and in most places the troops were given leave for the rest of the day. Among the ships dressed at Plymouth was the U.S. flagship Raleigh.

Church bells were rung and flags flown in practically every town of the Empire and a torrent of messages of congratulations was sent to Windsor Castle. The King sent a message of thanks for the greetings of the citizen’s of London, which he received through the Lord Mayor, Sir Kynaston Studd.

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.185

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ANZAC Day

Flags

“The Gallipoli peninsula curves like an elegant forefinger over the Dardanelles, the thirty three mile waterway which through the centuries has linked the rulers of Constantinople with the Mediterranean world… The forts commanding the Dardanelles were… the key defenses for the Ottoman Empire, protecting the capital, 120 miles to the east.”

From chapter two of “Kemal Attatürk”, by Alan Palmer, 1991, Sphere Books ltd, London

A century ago today, an expeditionary force of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and other Allied units set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula in order to secure the passage to the Black Sea. Their ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Terrible losses were suffered by the allied forces as they fought together against the Turkish Army, commanded by the Grey Wolf – thirty four year old Mustafa Kemal Attatürk of Anafarta, appointed a full Colonel only two months previously.

Such was the loyalty, bravery and fortitude of the forces who fought in the nine-month long campaign; a year later, on 25 April 1916 – while the First World War still raged – the Gallipoli campaign was commemorated for the first time as ANZAC day. Marches were organised in London, Australia and New Zealand. A London newspaper headline dubbed the combatants “The Knights of Gallipoli“. Later, in 1934, Attatürk himself described the allied fallen as heroes.

And in 1933 journalist and travel writer HV Morton wrote, in his book “In Scotland Again”:

“There is one grand virtue in a stormy night. If you are late enough you are at once admitted to that snug little room which exists at the back of every Scottish hotel, where a vast fire is always burning and where a glass of special whisky waits for favoured guests.

“The landlord was a young Scotsman who had fought in Gallipoli. We talked of Chocolate Hill and Suvla Bay and then, of course, we became local, and I was told the legend that Burns wrote ‘Scots wae hae’ in this hotel…”

This was the first book of Morton’s I had ever read and all those years ago, sitting infront of a peat fire in a cottage in Ellary on the west coast of Scotland, as I looked at his words they transfixed me with their immediacy and gentle understatement. I was so moved I determined to find out more about this author who had so eloquently brought the world around him to life by the deceptively simple trick of portraying it through the eyes of ordinary people, unaware they were living in extraordinary times.

Today we commemorate, with thanks, those who fought at Gallipoli, the heroes of Chocolate Hill and Suvla Bay and the rest.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England, 25 April 2015

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.182

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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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