Category Archives: HV Morton in the media

“I, James Blunt”, by Kenneth Fields

HV Morton did much to support Britain and the Allies during the Second World War. He was one of only two reporters selected to cover the historic meeting between Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt, he served in a home-guard unit in his home village of Binstead and he risked life and limb to report on the London Blitz. Another of his contributions was the writing of the novella, “I, James Blunt”, told in the form of a diary kept by the eponymous Mr Blunt, in a fictional (but at the time all too possible) Nazi-Occupied Britain. Here Kenneth Fields, one of the foremost Morton scholars I know, gives us a little background to the story.

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“I, James Blunt”

a commentary, by Kenneth Fields

By 1941 the Ministry of Information, a government department that had been created at the outbreak of war, had grown to enormous size.

This propaganda organisation was concerned with all aspects of information management that was crucial to the national interest. It was given extensive powers, having control over the BBC, dissemination of information, press relations and news censorship. Its many separate divisions included a Home Intelligence Unit that prepared reports on the morale of the civilian population; a Films Division; and a Literary and Editorial Division that produced a range of booklets about the war. The Authors’ Section was housed in the University College buildings in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. For a period its head was novelist Graham Greene who worked alongside fellow writer Malcolm Muggeridge. With academic scepticism they both believed their work was of little importance and found the Ministry to be generally inefficient.

However, in spite of these misgivings Greene continued to take his duties seriously. One of his schemes involved approaching a number of well-known politicians and writers to ask if they would use their talents in writing a series of patriotic pamphlets and books. These famous names of the time included EM Delafield, Herbert Morrison, Vernon Bartlett, Dorothy Sayers, Howard Spring and HV Morton.

HVM accepted the challenge, returning to his home in Binsted, Hampshire to write what was destined to be his only published fictional work, “I, James Blunt”. In it he takes his reader forward to September 1944 to an England that has lost the war and is under Nazi rule. James Blunt is a retired tradesman who is living in the village of Foxton near Farnham (probably based on HVM’s own village of Binsted) and his diary reveals the terrible changes that the Occupation has brought. Dr. Goebbels is in charge of the Daily Express, all personal savings have been frozen and the Gestapo are ruthlessly enforcing the New Order in Britain. Buckingham Palace has a huge Swastika flag flying from its flagpole, Trafalgar Square has been renamed Hitler Square, Victoria Station is now Himmler Station, British workers are being transported to Germany and Scottish shipyards are building German warships to attack America. The fifty-six page paperback booklet ends with a message reminding the reader that the diary of James Blunt will remain fiction ‘as long as England condemns complacency.’

Graham Greene later recalled that Morton’s writing style was ‘a bit too popular to be good,’ and he needed to rewrite the booklet before publication, no doubt to make the aggressive propaganda message more apparent. But HVM, who had given his services free, so impressed Churchill with this publication that he was later invited to report on one of the most historic meetings of the war, which was later published as “Atlantic Meeting”.

Greene also pursued a similar theme with his story “The Lieutenant Died Last” that was published in Collier’s. This tale, that describes how a small band of German troops land in an English village prior to a full Nazi invasion, was later adapted by producer Alberto Cavalcanti for his classic film Went the Day Well that was released in 1942. And a more recent variation on the same theme was the popular film The Eagle has Landed.

Another important aspect in the battle to boost morale were the regular overseas short-wave broadcasts by the BBC. During these war years HVM gave regular talks on the African Service and wrote accompanying articles in the overseas BBC magazine, London Calling. In July 1942, to coincide with the publication of his booklet in the USA and Canada, he wrote about ‘James Blunt in Occupied Britain’. Here he explained the reason why he had written what was seen by many to be an unpleasant booklet full of gloom and despondency. He said that he firmly believed that the allies would win the war but it was important that the public were reminded of the real penalty of defeat.

(This article was originally circulated as HVM Collectors’ Note – No.6, on 22nd April, 2004)

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The BBC Listener Magazine, 7th June 1945

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.247, 8 December 2019

The BBC’s Listener magazine was published weekly from the 16th January 1929 and was described by the Guardian as one of the most distinguished publications in British journalism. It was intended to expand on the topics of various BBC broadcasts in a way that wasn’t possible in the programmes themselves or in the BBC’s listings magazine, the Radio Times. In its early days it was an eclectic publication which reflected the BBC’s cultural ideals but changes in society were mirrored by a change in editorial policy as ownership of the magazine was taken out of the BBC’s hands in the late 1980’s. As a result of this change and increasing competition the publication ceased production in 1991, after a total of 3,197 issues.

In the summer of 1945, shortly after Germany’s surrender at the end of the second world war in Europe, the 7th of June edition of The Listener was delivered to the MacKenzie household at number nine (price threepence). I have no idea who the MacKenzie family were or in which street number nine was but I am forever grateful to them as, nearly 65 years later, their extremely well preserved copy of volume 33, number 856, found its way to me in Glastonbury (price – a lot more than threepence), complete with their name and number written in pencil at the top right corner of the cover.

As if to illustrate how little some things have changed, the first article of this edition (on page 619) is entitled The Levant: its People and their Problems. Section one, The Place, is written by popular travel writer of the time and recognised authority on the region in question, HV Morton.

It is perhaps not one of HVM’s finest pieces of writing but nevertheless it is fascinating to see him simply as part of popular culture, someone who had done so much to bring the countries under discussion to the attention of readers in Britain and the US, commenting on the affairs of the day in the same way that others, including Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop, would do in later editions. Of course, Morton had recently also contributed to the allied war effort in the middle east and North Africa by publishing his condensed (“light enough to be carried in a haversack”) volume “Middle East” and later another similar paperback version, “Travels in Palestine and Syria” which was specifically intended for issue to the troops in that region.

The cover of Morton’s “Middle East” depicting a window overlooking Aleppo.

I have included the text below for your interest along with a few pictures and advertisments from the magazine which give a feel for the time it was written as well as adding to the enjoyment of looking back at history in this way!

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The Levant: its People and their Problems
I—The Place
By H. V. MORTON
(from: The Listener vol. 33, no. 856, 7th June 1945)

SYRIA and Palestine are, geographically speaking, one. Syria is the north; Palestine is the south. They are much the same to look at; a thick central spine of barren mountains sloping away on the east to a vast desert and on the west to fertile plains washed by the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Syria is much larger than Palestine (which is only a little narrow strip of a country), but the greater part of Syria is desert stretching eastwards for about two hundred miles to the Euphrates and Iraq.

When you leave Galilee and start to climb up the Syrian frontier you see ahead of you a grand mass of mountains topped by Mount Hermon wearing a white cap of snow. This mountain dominates the whole country and snow lies on it all the year round. At the frontier you see a little stream tumbling out of a cavern. This is the eastern source of the Jordan, which flows south through Palestine into the Dead Sea. And when you cross the frontier you are in Colonial France.

Now history. Syria has always been the trackway for migrations and for every conqueror who has ever broken loose. The Egyptian Pharaohs marched across it from the south; the Babylonians and the Assyrians from the east; Alexander the Great came across it from the north. So did the Romans, the Crusaders and the Turks. This means that Syria is scattered with the most wonderful collection of ruins you could find anywhere, from vast temples like Baalbek and complete ruined cities like Palmyra, to the superb castles which the Crusaders built on the tops of the mountains. And they built them as if to last for ever.

Palestine is the land of the Gospel; Syria is the land of the primitive Church. St. Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. He gained new vision in the Street called Straight, which is still to be seen in that city. The Church that was at Antioch was the first missionary Church (by the way Antioch is now part of Turkey but geographically and historically it is Syria). Another wonderful sight in Syria is about a dozen complete desolate Byzantium cities lying out in the sand. And there is the lovely ruined Church of Kalaat Semain built round the pillar on the top of which St. Simon Stylites spent his life. Syria was the home of those strange early ascetics—the Pillar Saints.

Now the towns: what are they like—Beirut is the great port. It is a large white city on a fine bay, with the Lebanon rising at the back. Damascus: a city of minarets and domes in the middle of a large flat orchard, sometimes ablaze with apricot blossom. Commerce and bargaining are in the very air. You have only to admire a carpet in the bazaar to find it in your bedroom on approval when you get back to the hotel. Aleppo: a lovely Arab city with a bright little chromium-plated French town built round it. But go into the dark covered bazaars of Aleppo and you slip into the Arabian Nights. In the plain of Aleppo are clusters of strange Arab villages. Each house is a mud cone painted white. The villages look like clusters of fifty or a hundred eggs in an egg-rack—if you can imagine such a sight. When a polite Arab invites you inside to drink a cup of coffee you discover that these mud houses are as clean as a Dutch dresser. Homs and Hama are two purely Arab towns on the railway. They are always full of camels and donkeys and street markets. They smell of the Eastern Desert. Then there is Tripoli, a big port north of Beirut and Lattaqieh (where the tobacco comes from) and Tyre and Sidon.

One leaves Syria with an impression of great brown mountains, vast sandy deserts, sunny orange-groves near the sea, old gentlemen in Turkish fezes smoking hookahs under palm trees, silent, dead cities, ruined temples built of the most lovely honey-coloured stone, minarets, domes, and busy cities full of life and colour.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor

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Great British Car Journeys

A30 in 1928

An aerial view of the A30, in 1928, much as Morton would have known it.

An HV Morton Society member from Warwickshire, England, wrote to me a couple of days ago to let me know about a television programme which mentions HV Morton and, especially since my wife had also spotted it, I thought I would spread the word!

The programme is Great British Car Journeys and stars Peter Davison and Christopher Timothy, two old actor friends and veterans of one of my favourite TV drama series, All Creatures Great and Small (the story of James Herriot as a young veterinary surgeon in the north of England).

Great British Car Journeys is broadcast in the UK by Channel Four Television and the second episode (the one in question) is an English road-trip, undertaken in Davison’s rather classy Morgan car, travelling from Central London to Land’s End in Cornwall on what used to be known as the Great South West Road or London Road, depending I imagine on which direction you were travelling but, since 1920, has been known rather more prosaically simply as the A30.

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The cover of the Folio Society edition of “In Search of England

The two travellers stop, as Morton did, at the Warren Inn en route, at which point Peter Davison, who is seen clutching the Folio Society edition of “In Search of England“, reads the section from Morton’s work which refers to the legendary fire at the Warren Inn. This fire, when Morton was writing, had supposedly been lit contiuously for one hundred years. The present landlord told the same story, meaning the fire has now been lit continuously for nearly two hundred years. One can only wonder how they manage to sweep the chimney without serious burns!

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The Warren Inn (photo courtesy of MG)

On their journey they manage to recreate (rather erratically) the first ever motor vehicle journey in England which took place in 1895 (three years after Morton’s birth!) and which was closely followed by the very first motoring offence as the new car immediately smashed the then national speed limit of 4 miles per hour! The viewer is also treated during the episode to many delightful photographs and videos of motoring in England in the 1920s and 30s which give a real impression of the sort of scenes that Morton must have witnessed while on the road as he travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain in the interwar years.

Information regarding the series can be found on the Internet Movie Data Base. The programme itself is available to watch online for the next few weeks, but I have a feeling this may only be available to UK residents.

I’ve watched it twice already!

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.235 on the 14th February 2019

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The Whirligig, by D’Egville

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I was surprised and delighted to come across this little gem recently on a certain well known online auction site. It is a set of three caricatures by ‘D’Egville’, entitled Whirligig. They have been cut from an unknown newspaper or magazine and according to the person selling them they date to around 1928.

The first sketch features a Lady Askwith, with the caption ‘You can’t be too kind to maids’:

Lady Askwith small

N.B., this is not the better known Lady Asquith, wife of the British Prime Minister rather, according to thepeerage.com, she is Ellen (née Peel), Lady Askwith CBE, who died in 1962. She was a writer, sub-editor and war worker; former wife of Henry Graham, and later wife of 1st Baron Askwith. Although apparently a noted socialite, other sources reveal her to be most unpleasant individual – a fully signed up member of the eugenics socity who spoke out strongly against the keeping alive of children from ‘weak minded mothers’.

The second features Miss May Edgington, with the caption ‘Marriage is not a brilliant joke’:

May Edginton small

According to Wikipedia, May Edginton (originally Helen Marion Edginton, 1883 – 1957) was an English writer of over 50 popular novels which often portrayed escapes or solutions for heroines in unhappy domestic situations.

But it was the third cartoon which most interested me. It features our very own HV Morton striding through the crowds, hat on head, cigarette in mouth with socks and suspenders proudly and quite surreally on display, an indication of how familiar Morton would have been to a popular readership at the time and how much a part of everyday life and culture he was. The caption reads ‘The world should be delivered from the horror of trousers’:

HV Morton small

It took quite some time to track down details of the artist himself but I hope you agree it was time well spent, d’Egville is a most interesting character:

Alan Hervey d’Egville FRGS FCI (1891-1951) was a cartoonist, caricaturist, illustrator and writer, the son of Louis d’Egville of the Academy of Dramatic Art who taught dancing and deportment to royalty.

Educated in Berkhamsted (Hertfordshire, England) and in France, Germany and Spain, he studied motoring at Daimler, Paris and taught the tango at his father’s academy before working as private secretary to the chairman of Rolls-Royce. He later subscribed to Percy Bradshaw’s Press Art School.

Enlisting as an interpreter on the outbreak of World War I, he transferred to the Intelligence Department, later becoming Chief Intelligence Officer, 4th Corps and being mentioned in dispatches. After the war he attended art school and went on to write travelogues and to publish his humorous sketches and caricatures widely in Europe and the US including in Bystander, Pan, Sketch, Passing Show, Men Only, London Opinion, Tatler, Le Rire, Humorist, Punch, and others. During World War II he joined the security service, rising to the rank of Major. Following the cessation of hostilities he continued to publish in a variety of journals as well as writing scripts for Fox films, illustrating books, and working in advertising as a commercial artist. He was an enthusiastic skier and much of his work dealt with this subject.

(Sources: “Biographical Sketches of Cartoonists & Illustrators in the Swann Collection” By Sara Duke and “The Dictionary of 20th-century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists” By Mark Bryant).

Although the caricatures are amusing in their own way I’m afraid I havent a clue as to the significance of the ‘Whirligig‘ title or the meaning of the various bizarre captions. In a nutshell, I don’t get it! Although in all likelihood they had obvious and probably hilarious significance to a 1920’s audience their meaning is totally lost today. I am not aware that Morton ever advocated a society without trousers, even in jest! If anyone is able to enlighten me I would be most grateful.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor

(Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.225 on 3 June 2018).

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Dewar McCormack interviews HV Morton

Antique silver microphone in orange light uid 1172391

In HVM Society Snippets – No.192, distributed in September last year (and now available on the blog) the featured article, from the 1974 Cape Town Weekend Magazine, made mention of HV Morton being the subject of a series of half-hour television interviews by one of the South African Broadcasting Company’s star broadcasters, Dewar McCormack.

And that is the subject of today’s post – an interview by Dewar McCormack of HV Morton. At least that’s my best guess – there is a slight element of mystery surrounding the interview.

The original cassette tape was sent to me by the author of Morton’s official biography, “In Search of HV Morton“, Michael Bartholomew, after an appeal I made a while back for audio-files featuring HVM. I am more grateful to Michael than I can say for his generosity in sending me the tape, I know he went to some considerable trouble to find it after it had temporarily disappeared, as these things do!

In Search of HVMIn Search of HV Morton” by Michael Bartholomew

The original recording from which the tape was made was in the BBC archives and the tape was labelled: Interview with D McCormack, BBC, June 75. After a deal of googling I failed to find a likely candidate of that name working for the BBC in 1975 who might have interviewed Morton. It must be – particularly given we know HVM was the subject of media interest in South Africa at the time – the interviewer is Dewar McCormack and the original interview was done by the SABC, possibly sold for distribution to the home market by the BBC, and then happened to end up (happily for us) in the archives. If anyone knows anything to the contrary I would be delighted to hear from them.

Being a computer whizz-kid (not!) it took me a mere twelve months or so to finally work out how to convert the audio recording to digital form and edit out some of the lengthy gaps in it. Once I’d done that it was a simple matter to transcribe it and make it available to all. It is a short piece and begins, quite unusually, with Morton himself speaking and with no introduction or context. It is clearly a fragment from a longer piece so inevitably leaves one wondering where the rest is and how it could be got hold of. One of these days when I have a bit more time I will trot along to the BBC archives myself and try to find it:

Interview with D McCormack, BBC, June 75. Length – 2 min 49 seconds, file size 2,642 KB

Morton: I was a rather lonely little boy (I was an only son) and (laughs) I was always wandering off alone and exploring things and discovering things. My sister reminded me once that I was in the habit of stopping when we were out on walks and saying “Stop! On this very same place, if you dug down, down, down, down, down, down; you might come to a Roman.” I’ve always been interested and always been curious and I’ve always been fascinated by history.

Before I write a book, I make a long list of all the people who are likely to appear in it – men and women – and I then make a chart of their lives and these charts are quite big, sometimes five foot square and I like to be able to say “oh, yes, Julius Caesar was born at that particular moment”. Then I look along the chart and see who else was alive at that moment, who else was just about to die, who else was just about to be born, and it gives one a great sense of history.

McCormac: I suppose every writer encounters his share of difficulties, his own particular ‘ration’ of problems. What’s the most difficult aspect of your writing?

Morton: Well, the wind and the weather, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated by weather conditions. From going to see remote places on the southern coast of Turkey, for example, and an island which I’ve never yet seen, called Crete, where wind and gale conspired to keep the place a secret from me.

McCormac: What is the genesis, so to speak, of this present book?

Morton: My book “In Search of England” was published… well, jolly nearly fifty years ago (laughs) and it’s gone on in various languages all over the world and it occurred to Methuen that they would like to make a selection from it and produce it in the most modern way which they have done, I think very attractively.

McCormac: This embraces just the England book, nothing more?

Morton: Yes, but it’s going on to the others – to Scotland and Ireland. And I think I ought to say that since these books were written nearly fifty years ago they have never been out of print!

HV Morton's England smallKeen Mortonites may have guessed the subject of the interview is the publication, by Eyre Methuen, of “HV Morton’s England” on 5 June 1975. This is a delightful, large-format volume edited by Patricia Haward with many photographic illustrations in colour and black and white, which comprises extracts from “In Search of England”, “The Call of England” and “I Saw Two Englands”.

It is readily available second hand and makes an excellent introduction to Morton’s works as well as bringing some of the places he described in the 1920’s to life and showing how they have changed (or in some cases stayed the same) over the years.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

(This post was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.199)

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