Tag Archives: journalism

‘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

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, Book reviews, Literature

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

1 Comment

Filed under Biography, HV Morton