To give him his full name Henry Vollam Canova Morton (or HVM as he is often referred to), was Britain’s foremost travel writer during the period between the wars, hailed at the time as “the world’s greatest living travel writer”.
Morton was born in the North of England in 1892 and died at his home in South Africa in 1979. His career began as a journalist, initially in Birmingham and later in London. He continued taking journalistic commissions throughout his career but he is best remembered for his books, many of which grew out of his regular columns in the Daily Express during the 1920’s and 30’s.
His first big journalistic “scoop” was covering the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923. Subsequently his output was prolific and, in fact, is still being catalogued to this day. Morton eventually wrote up to fifty books and countless other articles for magazines, newspapers and journals. He wrote on such diverse subjects as the coronation and other Royal events or the best way to use a Leica camera and even produced one work of fiction (“I, James Blunt”) but the bulk of his work was given over to accounts of his travels; first around London, then England and the rest of Great Britain, and later in Europe, the Holy Land and South Africa.
The immense popularity of his works was due in large part to the style of his prose. Morton had an incredible eye for detail, writing from the point of view of the “little person”, making it very easy for the reader to identify with both the narrator and the characters he meets on his travels. He also contrives to lend a sense of romance and drama to even the most mundane events. For instance, in his 1951 “In Search of London” Morton is at his evocative best as he waxes lyrical about a simple flock of pigeons startled by the twin jets of the fountains in Trafalgar Square as they are turned on first thing in the morning:
“The pigeons, which have become as plump and pampered as the pigeons of St Mark, took panic at this daily event and, exploding upwards from every corner of the square, performed a couple of turns round Nelson before they settled down again to bow on their mulberry-coloured feet to kneeling provincials with bags of peas.”
At the same time he is a master of the “broad sweep”, managing to portray historical events and details of his adventures in an entertaing and accessible way. As Morton himself said, “History can be the most boring or the most exciting of all topics, and, having been bored by it in childhood I have had to make it interesting to myself in later life”. He even manages to make architecture interesting!
Morton writes in a style often referred to as the rural idyll, painting an uplifting and positive image of the world that he found around him in a light hearted and readable manner. In some ways this is an idealised, even romanticised view but it is a view which never the less, readers have always had a great appetite for. Some analysts trace the movement as far back as Jacobean times; it is seen in the literature of Hardy and Wordsworth, the music of Vaughan Williams and Elgar and it still continues today with modern authors such as Bill Bryson, publications such as “Country Life” and even on our television screens with popular programmes such as “Escape to the Country”. The strength of this appeal should not be underrated and Morton catered for it wonderfully.
Of course, as one would expect, there is more to Morton than simply the whimsical, gentleman narrator portrayed in his travelogues. The “real” Morton behind the character; while charming, witty and extremely well read; was also a hard working, canny, professional writer who – in common with many a professional journalist – had his “racier” side. It is however, for his writing, offering as it does a window into a living past, that he is still remembered and so greatly admired.
Niall Taylor October 2012