Category Archives: HV Morton

Churchill and the Movie Mogul…

… and HV Morton!

John Fleet is a documentary film maker who joined the HV Morton society in November 2017. At the time he told us he was nearing completion of a film about Winston Churchill and his voyage on the HMS Prince of Wales for the Atlantic Charter meeting. He was hoping to use a passage from Morton’s book “Atlantic Meeting” in the film and was trying to decide who would make the best voice-over artist for the readings. I was pleased to be able to help by pointing him to a few of the recordings of Morton’s voice that are available online.

The first edition cover of HV Morton’s “Atlantic Meeting”.

Yesterday I heard once more from John with some very positive news:

Dear Niall,
I hope you are well. I have been enjoying receiving the updates from the HV Morton society. He is indeed a fascinating writer and I am trying to find time to read more.
As per our previous exchange, I have now completed a documentary film called
Churchill and the Movie Mogul, which includes a substantial and poignant passage from HV Morton’s “Atlantic Meeting”. It involves a film-showing that Morton attended with Winston Churchill.
I thought it might be worth flagging up to members that the film is now on BBC iPlayer and will be available until October 25th. Without giving too much away, the HV Morton passage represents a vital part of the narrative.
You can find more details about the film here: www.januarypictures.com
I do hope this is of interest
[no question of that! Ed] and I send you all my best wishes,
John

Unfortunately, from past experience, it is likely that folks outside the UK will be unable to access the BBC iPlayer streaming service but John has promised to keep us posted if the programme ever becomes available further afield.

I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the programme myself but I wanted to get this bulletin out in time for people to watch it online before the deadline of the 25th of this month. I have already received an unsolicited report about it from HVM Society member Richard Maund however, who reports it is a ‘fascinating biopic’. I would be most interested to hear if anyone else has other comments on John’s work, described by critics as ‘expertly crafted’ and ‘captivating’.

(Originally issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.240)

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In Memoriam – Peter Devenish

It is with great sadness I have to announce the death, at age 79, of Peter Devenish on Wednesday the 18th of September. Peter was the instigator (with Kenneth Fields) of the HV Morton Society and my predecceor as coordinator. He was the face and voice of the society for most of its existence and what he didn’t know about HVM wasn’t worth knowing.

The HV Morton Society was founded in 2003 to commemorate Morton and to push for a commemorative blue plaque to be erected in Morton’s home town of Ashton-under-Lyne. It was largely through Peter’s dogged determination that the campaign succeeded, despite a degree of opposition, and the HVM Society grew from that moment, becoming one of his greatest passions.

I first came to know Peter in 2005 when I joined the society and was immediately struck by his courteous and gentlemanly manner which shone from his plentiful society bulletins and every email he sent. Peter D was a mentor and friend to me, my life has been the richer for knowing him and I am saddened, more than I can say, by the news of his passing. My only regret is that, being separated by several thousand miles, I was never able to meet him face to face and shake his hand.

As well as his extended family, who he was always proud to share photographs of, Peter loved books and language and HV Morton in particular. I felt this quote from Morton, resurrecting an old adjective which could just as easily refer to Peter as to HVM and which Peter included in the society’s very first post in 2003 was particularly apt in the circumstances:

I am a librarious person. And I like the word. It suggests someone curled up in an easy chair surrounded by books. It suggests someone rising librariously from his chair to cast a librarious eye over the shelves before returning librariously to his chair to remain out of circulation for the rest of the day.”

Peter had many friends, all across the globe and typically, even in his last months, he was as concerned about being unable to continue his many correspondences as he was with his own circumstances. According to his son, Luke, Peter was chatty and cheerful right until the end, a gentleman with the hospital staff, who all adored him.

I will miss his regular, cheery emails and his reassurances about matters concerning the organising of the society – I can hardly believe I won’t be hearing from him again. Needless to say there is a great deal of similar sentiment from the HVM Society membership following the bulletin which broke the news. I have reproduced a few comments here to give just a glimpse of how greatly respected Peter Devenish was and how much his loss is mourned.

“He was my friend from schooldays on and I will miss him. He was a true gentleman, we had great times, especially enjoying our search for HV Morton as a retirement project.” (PW)

“Thanks to Peter, our long-time friend and frequent correspondent, we and countless others have found enrichment, enlightenment and lasting enjoyment in the works of HV Morton. It is comforting to know the HV Morton Society Peter founded lives on – a fitting tribute and lasting memorial to a valued friend.” (JL)

“I will miss Peter so much, he had a special place. I remember the warm welcome to the Society when I joined all those years ago, and the delight of becoming friends with someone I knew I would never meet. I really wish I could go to his funeral!” (EB)

“Peter was honest and a thoroughgoing man of the world in all things. We send our condolences to his family which we both called “The Clan”; we will miss the family photos which he shared, his genial and incisive researches and our discussions of world happenings and travel which so unfailingly awakened his curiosity and civilized assessments. He will be missed for as long as we continue to celebrate HV Morton’s wide-ranging intelligence and knowledge, and for many of the same reasons of amity and keen interest in the doings of men which Peter possessed in such memorable abundance.” (JC)

“What very sad news. When I joined the HVM Society it was Peter who welcomed me, and I felt as if I knew him.” (LHJ)

“Oh dear, oh dear, dear, dear! Somehow, stupidly, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I still have a childish belief that bad things don’t happen to good people, but they do – with regularity… What a loss to humanity, another gentle soul gone.” (DH)

“From ‘discovering’ the mere fact of Morton whilst marooned on an unfurnished canal boat, it was Peter’s enthusiasm and erudition which expanded my horizons and appreciation of Morton’s skill. I shall raise a glass of Tullibardine to him.” (RW)

“I am saddened to learn of Peter’s death. I hope that there are libraries in Heaven.” (GL)

“May Peter rest in peace – I hope he and HV are now reunited and have a lot to talk about together!” (JC)

“So long Peter. A great inspiration and friend.” (JB)

“I’m very saddened by this news. I corresponded with Peter on numerous occasions, especially in the early days of my membership of the HVM Soc. He was always witty, warm and encouraging. A lovely man.” (MP)

“A Morton man through and through… a sad loss.” (RM)

Both personally and on behalf of the HV Morton Society I would like to extend deep condolences to Peter’s family and his many friends. A loss to humanity indeed, if there were a few more like him around, the world might be a better place.

With sympathy,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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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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HV Morton and the American Tourist

LI0258 copy

HV Morton was in the habit of using caricatures of certain groups of individuals as foils for his carefree narrator, enabling him to make a point in a lighthearted way, in keeping with the nature of his travelogues. The travelling salesman came in for a bit of stick on occasions, as did the ‘yokel’. But one of his favourites was the hapless American Tourist. Morton would paint him as naive and well-meaning, camera in hand, shutter clicking and uttering phrases such as ‘gee’ and ‘say, mister’. He would generally have daughters with names like Maisie, who would refer to him as ‘Dad!’ Well, that’s the male version certainly; of the female version, HVM was generally more complimentary. These unsuspecting individuals would provide ample opportunity for Morton’s traveller to expound fulsomely on a variety of topics as the reader pictures with amusement his assumed look of Old World superiority, the Tourist looking on, basking in his erudition.

However, in the years between the wars when Morton was writing about the British Isles, the world was growing steadily smaller. His books were such great successes in his mother-country, inevitably the lure of the even more lucrative American market began to exert its pull in a way that must have been difficult to resist. Morton was approached by North American publishers, with a view to expanding his readership (and his bank-balance) on the other side of the pond and the first US edition of “In Search of England” appeared as early as 1928 from publishers including the National Travel Club, and McBride, both of New York, and later Dodd, Mead and Co., also of New York.

But what to do about all those references to the American Tourist? All very amusing to a homespun readership certainly, but how would his irreverence be taken in the United States, already well on its way to supplanting the British Empire as the global superpower to be reckoned with? One can only imagine the mental gymnastics which must have gone on and the negotiations which must have been had prior to the publication of the first US edition.

We can get an insight into the thought process from the introduction Morton wrote to a 1935 revised US edition of “In Search of England”, published by Dodd, Mead and Co. and featured below for your interest. It seems at one point he considered expunging the offending references altogether but in the end decided that a bit of ‘context’ in the introduction might do the job instead. This introduction makes fascinating reading – never has back-pedalling been undertaken so elegantly. As you read it you will see that Morton has apparently always thought of the American Tourist as ‘loveable’ and ‘part of the English scene’ and he explains how he really misses them, now that the post-First World War travel boom was over.

And well might Maisie’s ‘Dad’ have responded, ‘Pull the other one, Limey!’

In Search of England - Dodd, Mead and Co - copy

The cover of my Dodd, Mead and Co. edition of “In Search of England

‘Introduction to the Revised Edition

‘WHEN Messrs. Dodd, Mead and Company asked me to revise for the United States this new edition of “In Search of England”, I was faced with the task of reading the book. I had no idea, when I wrote it some years ago, that the book would become a best-seller.

In fact, I never thought of such things. I just wanted to put down on paper the day-to-day impressions of a high-spirited journey over the roads and through the lanes of England. But, in the inexplicable way these things happen, “In Search of England”, with no assistance from the critics, began to sell all over the English-speaking world.

‘Reading it again at the request of Mr. Dodd, I am delighted to discover that it possesses two of the qualities by which I judge a book of travel: it deals sincerely with the unchanging and abiding things, and it is flavoured, but not too highly, by the time in which it was written.

‘This brings me to the only serious criticism I have received from readers in the United States. These criticisms are always the same. “Why,” I am asked, “do you draw such revolting Americans? All Americans are not vulgar. All Americans are not Babbitts. No Americans talk the kind of slang you put into their mouths.” And so forth.

‘I have received so many letters in this strain that my first reaction to Mr. Dodd’s revised edition was the desire to cut out every American in the book. But, as my pen hovered over these “guys,” I could not bring myself to do it. They are part of the English scene as it was when the book was written.

‘I went in search of England during that brief, golden age after the War when the Rue de Rivoli was an American possession, and when every English cathedral city received its daily quota of visiting Americans. These travellers were drawn very largely from a type that had never before strayed so far from home. Money had suddenly come their way and they were out to see the world. They did talk slang, and they did observe a lovable naivete which is faithfully reproduced here and there in these pages. For instance, the man encountered in Peterborough, who was making a cultural tour of Europe, could not be met with anywhere to-day, but he was an interesting phenomenon during the post-war travel boom. Therefore I ask my readers to understand that I am not setting up characters in any way typical of a nation, and if I were writing this book to-day not one of these people would appear in it, because they have ceased to brighten the rural life of England; much, I confess, to England’s regret.

‘But the England of these pages is still the England of to-day. The changes that have taken place are purely superficial. No Cornish farmer now listens to radio from London with a primitive valve set, and the old Mauretania has ceased to slip into Plymouth Sound.

‘Nevertheless the ancient background of the picture is unaltered. Jack Blandiver still kicks up his heels against the bell in Wells Cathedral, and Hadrian’s Wall still runs its solitary course into the mists of the northern fells.’

H. V. M., London, 1935.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

(this article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.195 on 3rd December 2015)

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The Father of the Dog

A vocation as a veterinary surgeon has its fair share of highs and lows. It is a privilege to be able to assist animals and those who care for them but there are also those occasions when sadly the time comes when it is no longer possible to do more. At this point it is both a blessing and a painful duty sometimes to be able to offer help by means of a final act of kindness.

Here is an account by HV Morton of just such a heart rending situation as he illustrates both the pleasure and the pain which we willingly enjoy and endure when we take an animal into our hearts.

It is from Chapter 8 of “In The Steps of the Master”, first published in 1934. Early in the chapter Morton describes how he came across a dog, a Saluki, lying in the dust in the village of Banias, dying of hunger. Unable to walk, she was covered in flies. Morton writes “… her eyes were lost in a world of unutterable pain… I had never in my life seen an animal in such a ghastly condition”.

Angered and profoundly moved but unable to help her himself Morton instead prevails upon “a nice, gentle Arab in an old suit of khaki” whose job it was to sweep out the shrine at El Kedir, and gives him ten shillings to look after the dog and try to restore her to health. He promises to return then departs to continue his travels with mixed feelings as to whether he has acted for the best.

Sometime later, having thought of the starving Saluki of Banias every day since, to the bewilderment of his driver, he disrupts his intended route and makes a return visit, desperate for news of her:

In the Steps of the Master

… as soon as I appeared the whole village gathered round, but not with the grim, hard expression which terrifies nervous tourists: they were all laughing and smiling, and a cry went up “Abu kelb, Abu kelb!” which means “Father of the dog.”

The Arab is a great hand-shaker. I went round the group shaking hands, telling the driver to ask them how the dog was.

“Come and see, O Abu Kelb!” was the reply.

And a crowd of bare-legged little children went running up between the mud walls announcing the great and spectacular news that “Abu kelb, the father of the dog,” had returned.

I was led to the squalid little hovel behind the mud walls. The crowd was so great that we had to shut the gate, but the children climbed up on the wall to watch. A white mare was tethered in the yard. A douanier, whom I had not seen before, came out of the house, dressed in a pair of khaki breeches and a grey army shirt. He shook me warmly by the hand, explaining in French that he was a lodger in the house, but had unfortunately been out on duty when I had been there before. Now, however, how happy he was to make my acquaintance! How glad he was that I had come back…

All the time the douanier bubbled with affability and I gazed round for the dog, but could not see her. My heart sank. So she was dead! Perhaps it was just as well. But I was too familiar with the habits of the Arabs to ask any questions. All would be known in time.

The douanier, it appeared, was an Armenian from Aleppo. He had a great affection for England. He had learnt English from a priest at a mission school in Aleppo. Ah, if some day he could go to London! He would like that very much… So he rattled on. Then the crowd parted and the man who sweeps out the shrine of El Kedir came up with the Saluki.

I could hardly believe my eyes. She could stand! Her hind legs trembled woefully and her tail, bare and mangy, was still well down. But her eyes had lost the fear of death, although they were still full of pain.

The Arab had made her a little coat from a pair of khaki trousers and he had bound up the wounds on her forelegs with pieces of rag. The Armenian explained that he had bathed her wounds with wine and oil the remedy which the Good Samaritan used on the wounded traveller.

The dog seemed to know in some way that I was the cause of her present well-being and she did something which completely finished me. She walked up to me and just rested her bruised muzzle on my knee. I decided at that moment that, grotesque and blown out with starvation as she was, wounded, mangy and sore, I would somehow take her home with me to England.

I thought how extraordinary it is that a show of interest and a little money can make so much difference to any living thing. The poor creature that a week ago had been stoned and kicked about was now a feature of the village. She was the protege of the rich, mad, Englishman.

I asked the Armenian what would happen if I did not take her away.

“This man,” he replied, pointing to the Arab; “will look after her as long as you pay, but when you stop paying he will turn her loose, because he is too poor to buy food for her.”

I told him of my intention of taking the dog to Jerusalem. He shook his head. The Palestine Customs would not allow her to enter in her present condition. But if I got an order from the Government? I suggested. Yes, it might be done.

So we agreed that they should continue the feeding and the bathing of the dog, and I handed out some more baksheesh.

“That is the name of the dog,” I explained. “I shall call her ‘Baksheesh’ ”

This was a joke that everybody understood!

I went off, promising that I would either call again at Banias or send someone in my name to take “Baksheesh” into Palestine. And as I went off I heard the children shout ing “Abu kelb!”

Weeks later I got a letter which read:

My dear friend, Mr. Morton, I am verry glade I get a great satisfaction by this relation which commenced with a dog. You can be able for its hospitality. I brought a big jar of sea water from Sidon by which I wash it evry day, morning and evening. Now it is better than bifore. I hope that we will not forget ourselves, and I am allways redy to execute your commissions. Excuse me for my mistakes, be cause the last war of Turkey in 1930 wich resulted after two years with all Christchen immegration has destroyed our futur and high life. God be with you till we meet.

JOHN.”

It was from the excellent Customs Officer at Banias. So he was bathing the dog with water from Sidon.

That sounded excellent.

In a few days I was able, through the kindness of the Palestine Government, to get poor “Baksheesh” through the Customs and into the kennels of the S.P.C.A. in Jerusalem, an organization that, although dying for lack of money, is striving hard to make the Arab understand that animals can feel and suffer.

The report was encouraging. I saw myself taking “Baksheesh” for walks in Hyde Park and for long tramps over the Sussex Downs. Then one day I received a letter saying that she was dead. She was too weak to stand treatment.

“Knowing how much you cared,” wrote Mrs. Reynolds, a member of the Society, “I have buried her in my own garden, where you can think of her sleeping among the rock flowers.”

When I was near Banias again I made a detour to thank John for all his kindness. The Arabs and the children crowded round my car with cries of “Abu kelb!” looking and peering into the car for “Baksheesh.” I told them she was dead.

“It is the will of Allah!” they said.

And they looked at me with the respectful sympathy due to any man who tries to defy the inscrutable will of God. Even John, the Good Samaritan, said it was a good thing, and that when I went to Aleppo he would give me two much finer dogs. Even he did not understand that the crucified eyes of poor “Baksheesh” had marked her out from all the other dogs upon this earth.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor,
Glastonbury, Somerset, England (Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.217).

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Tut-ankh-amen’s Gold: Into the Land of Egypt

I hope you will forgive me when I say I am feeling a little pleased with myself at the moment. I have just managed to acquire one of the rarest examples of Mortoniana there is!

A large booklet in heavy-weight paper, its silvery front page bears the title ‘EGYPT‘, written in blue letters which are shaped from stylised papyrus bundles. The cover is enclosed between protective transparent sheets of blue plastic and the whole thing bound with spiral wire. It measures approximately 315 mm (12.5 inches) in height by 235 mm (9.5 inches) in width and comprises 31 unnumbered pages. From the style and content, it appears to be aimed at attracting tourists to that ancient land, particularly American, English and French tourists.

The first section is an introductory article by HV Morton entitled Tut-ankh-amen’s Gold: Into the Land of Egypt. This is laid out on four pages, each decorated on one margin with depictions of the art and heiroglyphs of Ancient Egypt in blue. The text is very similar to sections on pages 55 to 57 of Morton’s book “Middle East” (published by Methuen, London, on 5 June 1941).

Unfortunately, just to temper my joy, my newly acquired copy has obviously got a little damp at some point in the past – the metal binding has rusted and, most frustratingly, the pages of Morton’s article have stuck together in places and when pulled apart again some of the text has been lost.

However, nothing is too much trouble for the HVM Society so, looking for all the world like extreme archaeologist, Indiana Jones, (only without his rugged good looks and Hollywood lifestyle), I held the pages up to a strong light source and managed to peer through them, despite their thickness, in order to get an idea what the missing sections originally said. Eventually I was able to make a transcript of the piece for the archives.

The second section comprises ten poems by Ali Asir-El-Din interpersed with several stock photographs depicting Egyptian scenes (the photographs are by: M.C. Salisbury, G.W. Allan, Alban, Photo Kodak Egypt, H.J. Fresco, Royal Egyptian Air Force, and the Egyptian Museum Cairo).

I haven’t been able to find much about the poet, google is unusually tight-lipped about him. And, although I am no judge of poetry, the reason for this may be, at least from the examples published here, that he is no Shakespeare, in truth he may barely even be a McGonagall I’m afraid. Here’s an example:

BY THE NILE

The swiftly running river,
Moonbeams a-quiver
Within the trees

A white form, gowned and slender,
Eyes dark and tender,
And lips that please…

… and so on.

Drawing a (mystic) veil over this dodgy doggerel, the next section is a page of prose by a Claire Cowell (again, nothing seems to be available on the internet to suggest who Ms Cowell may have been), eulogizing the wonders of Ancient Egypt.

After this we have three illustrated maps depicting the course of the river Nile and the principal transport routes from Wady (now spelled Wadi) Halfa north, through Abu Simbel, Assuan, Thebes and Luxor to Cairo and the Nile Delta.

After a single page left blank for notes by the traveller the whole work is rounded off with a page of information for the benefit of the visitor: a list of routes by which to journey to Egypt, as well as exchange rates, hotels, taxis, hints concerning clothing considered suitable for the climate and a list of spots likely to be enjoyed by the tourist.

The booklet was designed and printed by Editions Mayeux, Paris and bound by Reliure Integrale Bree France et Etranger. In the opening article Morton mentions his witnessing of the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb fourteen years previously so, since he was sending despatches from the tomb-site to the Daily Express in February 1923, presumably the booklet was published around 1937, although no specific date is given on the booklet itself. Morton presented a number of on-board lectures for the Hellenic Travel Club from 1935 to 1939 on cruises to the Middle East and it is possible the booklet is associated with one of the tours.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England, 5 July 2017 (with gratetful thanks to Peter Devenish and O.H.)

(This article was originaly distibuted as HVM Society Snippets – No.215)

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Travel in War Time

Travel in Wartime p 01 small

Apparently there is a sporting event being held somewhere, in which British cyclists have been doing quite well. Gripping as the saturation coverage is, during discussions about the finer points of the Omnium and particularly when anyone attempts to explain the rules of the Points Race to me, I find my thoughts drifting, inexplicably, to things Mortonian.

HVM was a keen cyclist in his youth, frequently taking to the lanes and exploring the countryside near his boyhood home, in the halcyon days before the Great War. He is of course more famously known for his motoring trips between the wars around Great Britain in the seat of his little blue Bullnose Morris car which, in a whimsical moment, he named Maud. But his travels, and those of others motoring for pleasure were severely curtailed with the advent of the Second World War and the introduction of petrol rationing. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good as the saying goes though, and the restrictions on motor travel were a boon to riders and manufacturers of the humble bicycle, who were able to take advantage of the now virtually clear roads.

In 1940 or thereabouts the Birmingham Small Arms company, which manufactured bicycles as well as sporting guns, began to publish an advertorial-type brochure called “Travel in War Time” and to give it away free when people wrote to them for their latest catalogue featuring the “Streamlight” range of bicycles.

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As you can see from the image above, the author was HV Morton; as they say in the introduction, BSA hoped it “might be regarded as an entirely new chapter in his brilliant series ‘In Search of England‘ etc.“. The fact it might also help boost sales would be an added bonus of course.

The pamphlets, each comprising twenty pages and some 2,200 words, must have been produced in their thousands but they had soft-covers, held together with a single, large stitch at the binding fold and sadly, very few have survived. Thus they are one of the more collectible pieces of Mortoniana which can be found.

There is inevitably an element of Morton having to make a virtue out of necessity in his writing as he puts on a brave face and makes a show of bemoaning people who, in the days before petrol rationing would travel carelessly – “They would think nothing of ‘getting out the car’ and speeding for fifty miles in order to eat a bad dinner in some remote place, when they could have had a good one by remaining where they were.”  You can almost hear the gritted teeth as he writes, “It was all part of the tendency, which seems bent on leading the world back to barbarism, of allowing the machine to control us, instead of controlling the machine ourselves.

Pic 03Two happy cyclists take tea in what looks
like the village of Dunster, in Somerset

As he endeavours to present petrol rationing and wartime restrictions as, not a hardship, but a welcome relief from the dangerous and reckless days of the motor-car – “the emptiness of the roads, and the fact that life goes on very much the same as usual, is a measure of the unnecessary movement which was so characteristic of the nineteen-twenties and ’thirties” – there are hints he may actually have derived a degree of genuine, nostalgic pleasure from his first time in the saddle for twenty years. “I never imagined that once again a bicycle would be my treasured and constant companion, as in those days of youth, when it was always summer” we are told. At times he seems to have been positively reinvigorated, “Of the thrill of free-wheeling down a hill, I could write much, but perhaps the most I can say is that at such a moment twenty years slide from a man’s shoulders as if they had never been. In that splendid flight a man feels absurdly young again…“. Clearly with a bicycle in the garden shed there was no need for a fountain of youth!

And, being the writer he was, Morton leaves us with an uplifting closing paragraph, patriotically weaving the humble bicycle into the deep fabric and culture of Britain itself, and hinting at what might be lost if things don’t go well in the years to come, as he describes how those machines which are to be seen “… leaning against a churchyard wall or propped outside a village inn, tell of a love for good and honest things. They suggest freedom and simplicity, two precious things, and they suggest also that those who travel on wheels desire to understand the story of our own beloved and ancient land.

How long HVM continued to travel by bicycle once hostilities had ceased (or, indeed, once he had written the pamphlet) I cannot say, but this small booklet is a delight which captures the feeling of the age of “make do and mend“. And, as a bonus, there isn’t a single mention of lycra or the latest athlete to have “podiumed” (eugh!) to be found between its covers – enjoy the rest of the Olympics!

With warm wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This post was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.207

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