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

Ghosts of London small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niall Taylor

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A meditation on Morton – and Bill Bryson, by Elisabeth Bibbings

More notes from a small island

Over Christmas, I was given the latest book by the wonderful Bill Bryson. “The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island” celebrates both the 20-year anniversary of his first British book (“Notes from a Small Island”) and the fact that he has just been made a British Citizen (about time too, he’s been an honorary Englishman for years in my book).

However, this time, though I kept annoying my husband by giggling helplessly while reading in bed, and though I gave Mr. Bryson a full 5-stars on my Goodreads review (www.goodreads.com for every bibliophile), I didn’t quite agree with him all the time.

Witness the following quote, from his Dartmoor visit:

‘I had just finished reading “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton, which is always described as a classic, presumably by people who have never read it because it is actually quite dreadful. It was written in 1927 and consists largely of Morton motoring around England and slowing down every twenty miles to ask directions of a besmocked bumpkin standing at the roadside. In every village he went to, Morton found a man with a funny accent and f***-all to do, and had a conversation with him. . .

‘The impression you get from ISO England is that England is a cheerful, friendly place, peopled with lovable halfwits with comic accents, so it is a little ironic that the book is so often cited as capturing the essence of the nation. An even greater irony is that Morton eventually soured on England because it wasn’t fascist enough for him [ouch, and not true – Ed]. He moved to South Africa in 1947 and lived the last thirty-two years of his life there, forgotten by the world but happy to have servants he could shout at.’

Well, you can’t win ‘em all! Perhaps someone could write officially on behalf of the society to Mr. Bryson and put him right about HVM’s reasons for leaving England? Actually, the thought that there really was an H.V. Morton Society would probably call forth another rant, like the one about the ‘Water Tower Appreciation Society, a Society for Clay Pipe Research, a Pillbox Study Group, a Ghost Sign Society and a Roundabout Appreciation Society’, which features earlier in the book.

Anyway, why was Morton so inclined to write about ‘England as a cheerful, friendly place, peopled with lovable halfwits’? For an answer to that, I turned to a rather more gritty book, which I also enjoyed just after Christmas. “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, a falconer, describes her relationship with her goshawk Mabel, and how Mabel helped her overcome her grief after losing her father. To really appreciate this book, one needs to have read “The Sword in the Stone” by T.H. White, another amateur falconer, who Macdonald consistently refers to, comparing his clumsy attempts at training a goshawk with her own.

T.H. White was a contemporary of Morton, and Macdonald explains that during the ‘20s and ‘30s (when Morton was writing his travelogues), there was a great movement of people wanting to go back to the land, back to their roots. There were lots of events like midnight rambles and excursions deep into the countryside, and a great revival of country arts and crafts as people sought to forget the Great War and rediscover their national identity after the bloodbath which had decimated the nation. It struck me, reading this, that that is the background from which all Morton’s travel books that we love so much (even if Mr. Bryson doesn’t) have sprung. Nearly a century ago, Morton was capturing the feelings of the age – that Great Britain was still great, and its countryside and its characters were why people had fought and died. Nowhere is that more evident for me, than in the poignant first half of his 1939 “I Saw Two Englands”, when he realises that the England he loves so much is under threat in an even worse way than from the First World War.

So there you go, Mr. Bryson – Morton was a man of his time and upbringing, just as you are a product of yours. He may wax more lyrical than your bluff style, but one thing is true – he loved England in his own way just as much as you do.

‘I have said it many times before, but it really cannot be stated too often: there isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside of Great Britain. It is the world’s largest park, its most perfect accidental garden. I think it may be the British nation’s most glorious achievement.’ (“The Road to Little Dribbling”, p. 381).

I’m sure Morton couldn’t have agreed more.

Elisabeth Bibbings

Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.198, 20 February 2016

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‘In Search of H.V. Morton’, by Michael Bartholomew

In Search of HVM

Methuen, London, 2004. 248 pages with illustrations, notes and index. Also now available in paperback. From major booksellers and on-line through Amazon UK, etc.

The first and most important thing to say about Michael Bartholomew’s “In Search of HV Morton” is that this is an excellent read. The text flows, it is accessible and, unlike some biographies, it has a good structure and narrative. The reader is taken from Morton’s childhood, cycling around the lanes of Warwickshire and discovering a passion for place and history through his journalistic career, finding his niche as the foremost travel writer of his time and then, finally his gradual disillusionment as England began to take a different direction from the country he had known and loved.

Early in the work Bartholemew takes time to explain the distinction between the droll, urbane narrator of his tales (‘HV’ Morton) and the real man (‘Harry’ Morton) behind the books. Morton’s contemporaneous diary writings are contrasted with his works of literature throughout as a device to move through Morton’s life and explore the motivation behind both narrator and author. Any reader coming to this work hoping to read about the simple, solitary, companionable traveller of Morton’s books is in for a disappointment. Like the top rate journalist he was, Morton knew how to deliver precisely what his audience wanted and went to great lengths to maintain the illusion and charm of his books by keeping a low public profile. Fortunately for us (and perhaps less so for the reputation of ‘HV’) Morton left a large number of notes in the form of diaries and half written memoirs which formed the basis for much of Batholomew’s book, enabling his story to be told.

This account of the life of Morton is even handed and largely non-judgemental (despite the occasional spin placed on some of Bartholemew’s words by other reviewers).

Bartholemew obviously admires Morton’s talents as a master of descriptive prose and he presents Morton’s questionable political views as more naive and simplistic rather than anything more sinister; ‘more prejudice than politics’. Morton’s womanising and racism are presented, mostly in the form of extracts from his diary, and the reader is left to judge for him or her self. We are told of a man who, while privately contemptuous of the direction Britain was taking at times, was prepared to put his talents to work, on occasion for no financial return, to support the governmnent in its efforts during the war. Morton wasn’t without a social conscience and his 1933 social commentary “What I saw in the slums” is compared favourably with the better known “Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell; Bartholomew suggests that Morton’s depiction of women in the slums is ‘just as powerful and… less patronising’ than Orwell’s. We are told of Morton’s quiet bravery – castigating himself in his diary on the one hand for his cowardly feelings during the London blitz yet, despite his fear, going into the city to cover stories for his paper. At a time in Britain’s history when invasion appears imminent Morton writes about the distinct possiblility of being killed defending his village against the Nazi foe while at the same time is enraged as his gardener is enlisted into the armed forces.

This book is a sympathetic, ‘warts and all’ portrayal of the real man behind the public persona; above all it is a balanced account. It is direct and unstinting, delivering praise and criticism alike where they are due. By the conclusion any Morton admirer will be the better for having read it and will have an understanding of the real depth behind both ‘HV’ and ‘Harry’.

Niall Taylor

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HV Morton’s International Appeal

No, no, put those wallets away – despite what you might think from the title, this is not a request for charitable donations!

I recently came across this flyer, tucked inside a 1935 edition of HV Morton’s “In Search of Ireland“, which gives marvellous insight into just how widespread this author’s popularity was.

In Search of Ireland flyer p 1

The front of this single sheet of paper is an advertisment for HVM’s best selling, “In the Steps of the Master“, published in October 1934, which it describes as “The World’s Best Seller” and suggests, at 7/6 (seven shillings and sixpence – that’s 37.5 pence in today’s currency), it would make the ideal Christmas present. It also features a retouched, monochrome reproduction of EA Cox’s original cover and informs us that already, only a few months after publication, it has sold a fifth of a million copies.

Interesting enough you would think, but it was the reverse of the flyer which really grabbed my attention.

In Search of Ireland flyer p 2

On the face of it, just a mundane order form, telling readers where to send their postal orders to secure that festive gift; but on closer inspection there is a review of the book which is of particular interest:

In Search of Ireland flyer p 2 crop

This review of “In the Steps of the Master” is written in Maori!

Being nothing if not obsessive, I transcribed the text:

February 1935                                                      Te Marama Rua o

KO TE ENUA APU E TUATUA NEI

Kua tae mai i te tima meile i topa akenei tetai buka ou “Ko In the Steps of the Master” te ingoa Papaa, ko te ingoa Maori “Ko te rua tapuae o e Pu”. Kua tataia tei buka e tetai tangta Beritane “Ko H.V. Morton” tona ingoa, na teia buka i akakite mai i te tu o te ingoa na eia buka i akakite mai i te tu o te enua ko Kanaana ou i teia tuatua.

Kua roa tona aerenga na roto i te enua e i roto i tona buka kua tata aia i te au mea e manganui tana i kite ana e i akarongo katoa. Kua aere atu aia ki Ierusalem ki te ngai anau anga o Iesu, ki Nazareta e ki te au ngai e manganui tei kite tatou i te au ingoa i roto i te Tuatua Tapu. Kua aere atu aia i te tautai ki runga i te roto i Galilea e kua kite katoa aia i te tangaa ravarai tei tautai i te pae tai mei te au tangata Cook Islands te tu, koia oki, te rave nei ratou i te rama e te auri katoa.

… But, unsurprisingly, it meant little to me. So I turned, in hope, to an online translation service, and discovered Google have recently included Maori in the list of languages it features. With a smug smile of satisfaction I entered the text and pressed “translate” and, hey presto!:

Have come from a team meile past a recent book your “In the steps of Master of the “name conflict, the English name” The two steps you Pu “. Has written a book tangta Beritane” The HV Morton “his name, in this book reveal the name of the stand and he books reveal the standing of the country and Canaan your Tairiiri.

Has his ways in the country and in his book he wrote the many things he saw his faith as a whole. Approached He Ierusalem to where Jesus’ birth, and Nazareth to the where we see many of the names in the Scriptures. He approached the fishing on Lake Galilee and found All he has to use all the fishing sites from coast humans Cook Islands stand, that is, they do the candle bar.

So, there we have it, as clear as mud. To be honest I think I had a better chance of understanding the original!

But even without being able to understand the full meaning of the text, it still gives a perspective on HVM’s immense appeal at the time and remains for me a fascinating piece of Mortoniana. It also provides a small snapshot of Morton’s life at a time of considerable change for him as, although the book containing the flyer is published by Methuen, the advertisment is for a book published by Rich and Cowan, to whom Morton had transferred his allegiance in 1933. They continued to publish his works until 1937 when they suffered bankruptcy, at which time Morton was persuaded to return to Methuen once more.

In the unlikely event that any readers are familiar with the Maori language I would be very grateful if anyone was able to cast any further light on this unique review. Not least because I would dearly love to know what it means to “do the candle bar” – it sounds like fun!

Niall Taylor

This article was originally distribued as HVM Literary Notes – No.127

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