I thought readers might appreciate the following article, taken from the Cape Argus of 21 November 1968. It’s not often we hear from Morton’s wife, but in many ways she was a bit of a power behind the throne!
Featured today in our series on the women behind well-known men Mrs. MARY MORTON, wife of the author, Mr. H.V. Morton. By Neville Woudberg
The wife of a writer needs to be a confidential secretary, a psychiatrist, top-class typist, a cook, an income-tax wizard and be prepared to work for no salary, according to Mr. H.V. Morton, famous for his ‘In Search of…’ travel books.
“I know, because I am fortunate enough to have such a wife,” he told me at his home in Somerset West last week.
Mrs. Mary Morton is his severest critic: “She always suggests I cut the best bits,” he quipped, “but she is usually right.”
“Writers are often temperamental and they need wives who will understand their many moods. It has happened that after writing all day I decide the copy is not up to standard and tear it all up. Mary even understands that.”
When Mr. Morton starts his day’s work he writes in long-hand. After a few hours, however, he switches to the typewriter. Mrs. Morton types all the manuscripts.
“Actually, I am probably the only one who can understand his scrawl,” she said. “Even his typed manuscripts are so heavily changed that if you’re not used to them you’re in trouble.”
Once the manuscript is typed, they go over it together. Then the printers send galley proofs and they each go through a copy, marking any errors they pick up. Once that chore is completed they wait for the page proofs and go through the same process.
“But I reckon the toughest task is the indexing,” Mrs. Morton said. “An index is essential for a travel book but to produce it one has to go through the book with a fine-tooth comb.” She even fills in his income-tax returns.
Mrs. Morton was born in China and stayed there until she was eight, when her parents sent her to school in England. Her father was a tea merchant.
“Those days in China were fabulous,” she said. “Foreigners really lived in style. We had a huge home with a staff of about 18. We had our own tailor, laundry, etc.”
Mrs. Morton travels with her husband and at the moment they are preparing for a trip to Sicily. “We’ll be constantly on the move,” she sighed, “and I know I’ll be glad to get back to Somerset West. Don’t misunderstand me. I love these trips, but I also love my home.”
Sometimes it is necessary for Mr. Morton to visit a country three times before he has all the information he requires for a book. It was on their second such visit to South Africa that the Mortons decided to buy their 50-acre farm at Somerset West.
They also grow all their own vegetables. “That’s Mary’s job,” Mr. Morton laughed. “She supervises that side of the business.” Mrs. Morton took me to a little room off the kitchen, where there were two huge deep freezers. They were packed with frozen vegetables.
“Enough to keep us going for a year,” she said. “See that tomato puree? It’s been frozen since last year.”
Cooking is her special love. “Do you know that she has 150 books on cooking and that she actually reads them for pleasure,” Mr. Morton said.
“Well, you can always learn something new,” his wife retorted. “Cooking is either a chore or an art. For me it is an art.”
Mrs. Morton does most of the cooking at home herself and she always cooks when they have guests.
“Normally I prepare the meal the day before so that I’m not in the kitchen for too long when the guests arrive,” she explained. “I think South African foods are excellent. Often when we have visitors from England I serve bobotie and they regard it as an exotic dish. American food is most practical.”
For relaxation she likes reading – biographies and detective stories, and admits that unfortunately she does not have much time for serious reading.
What does she do when she is on a trip with her husband? “She’s jolly useful,” Mr. Morton cut in, “particularly in Arab countries, where she is able to get into the harems and find out all the scandal and juicy bits of information.”
She also gathers side bits of information, which she passes on to him. People often pester her husband “and she is most successful in dealing with them.”
“We have our share of excitement on our travels,” Mrs. Morton said. “Once, when we arrived in Athens to gather information for ‘In the Steps of St. Paul’ we landed in the middle of a revolution.
“We were being driven into the city when the driver suddenly turned into a barracks. There were soldiers all round. We had no idea whose side they were on or even what the revolution was all about.
“The driver jumped out of the car and started to tell the soldiers that my husband had pledged his support for their side. He was then called on to address the crowd which had gathered.
“Now what was he to say? He waffled on about poetry or something and when he had finished he was given a terrific cheer. “Next day a local newspaper carried a long ‘report’ on the speech. It certainly was not a review of his views on poetry but his supposed support for one side (whichever it was) and a lot of other propaganda.
“It certainly is an exciting life and I love every moment of it.”
This article was originally circulated as Society Snippet 093 on 2009-01-04. With thanks to VJ for tracking it down!
In the late fifties H.V. Morton departed from his more personal style of travel writing when he teamed up with the American Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and the Armenian-born photographer Yousuf Karsh. Together they produced two volumes, “This is Rome” (Hawthorn Books, New York, 1959) and “This is the Holy Land” (Hawthorn Books, New York, 1961) that were described as ‘pilgrimages in words and pictures’.
These two books were published in the USA, UK and Canada. They were, respectively, the second and third in a series of four books published by Hawthorn Books of New York. The other two titles in the series were: (the first) “This is the Mass” (1958), as celebrated by Fulton Sheen and described by Henri Daniel-Rops, photographed by Yousuf Karsh, and translated by Alistair Guinan; and (the fourth) “These are the Sacraments” (1962), by Fulton Sheen, again with photographs by Yousuf Karsh.
You may be interested to know than in recent years a campaign has begun that is hoped will lead to the beatification of Fulton Sheen, which is the route to sainthood.
Fulton John Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois in May 1895, his grandparents having originated from Ireland. He grew to become a brilliant scholar but he turned down a university scholarship to follow his vocation into the priesthood, being ordained in 1919. He went on to receive a degree in Canon Law in America followed by a Doctorate at the University of Louvain in Belgium. Then, after spending a period as a priest in a rural parish, he began teaching at both the Catholic University of America and at St Edmund’s College, Ware, England. He had substantial links with the UK, being a friend of G.K. Chesterton.
The covers of three special editions
During this time it became apparent that he had a great gift for communication, which has resulted in him now being regarded as one of the greatest preachers of the last century. In 1930 he began the Catholic Hour broadcast on radio which ran for twenty-one years, and on Easter Sunday 1940 he spoke on the first televised religious service in the USA.
But he is perhaps best remembered for his series of 129 programmes of Life is Worth Living, which went out in the 1950s, and his anti-communist message. In 1951 he was consecrated as a Bishop of the Church and on his retirement in 1969 the Pope appointed him Titular Archbishop of Newport in South Wales.
Although outwardly he was a serious person he was also very fond of humour and laughter, so no doubt he shared many a joke with H.V. Morton during their whistle-stop tours through Rome and the Holy Land. He died aged 83 in 1979, the same year in which HVM also died.
In 1999 the late Cardinal O’Connor of New York formally initiated the lengthy process that may in time lead to Fulton Sheen’s sainthood.
(This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.29 on 19 October 2004)
I was lucky enough to spot this copy of Illustrated Magazine for sale online and even luckier to be able to acquire it before anyone else got to it! On arrival I discovered it was in a very fragile state so I photographed it and archived it post haste but I thought you might be interested in hearing about it.
The subject is the 25th wedding anniversary of King George VI and “his queen Elizabeth“. The central article is written by HV Morton and I have enclosed it below along with a few pictures and adverts to give an impression of the journal. As ever with publications of this age it is the advertisments which give a real feel for the times. Everything from constipation cures to budgie seed and catarrh pastilles (to prevent your husband catching a cold!) to invitations to join the women’s land army all reflect the anxieties and interests of the day.
In the article, Morton demonstrates his expertise by giving a ‘broad-brush’ view of history as he recounts a potted overview of the 25 years of the King’s marriage which, as you would imagine, were some pretty turbulent years. He describes Britain between the wars as it was at the time of their marriage, “an agitator called Adolf Hitler [who] was frequently in trouble with the police“, the birth of their children including the future monarch HRH Queen Elizabeth, the coming of the wireless and the later bombing of Buckingham Palace in the blitz. Morton also mentions the abdication of Edward VIII which resulted in George’s surprise elevation to the throne in 1936 – a difficult subject that HVM handles like the expert he was.
It is a testament to Morton’s hard work and popularity that there are still unexpected articles like this to be found and to thrill us even after all these years.
Silver Wedding Yearby H. V. MORTON
(Photographed by William Vanderson)
On this April 26, King George and Queen Elizabeth will have been married twenty-five years. As they drive on Monday to St. Paul’s, the memories of the years will flood back, years of happiness, years of war. And now the nation will rejoice in this Silver Anniversary of a King and Queen who have become so much a part of our everyday life.
Since the King and Queen were married twenty-five years ago, a new generation which includes their daughter, Princess Elizabeth, has, to the astonishment of its elders, come of age. Looking back upon this quarter of a century to the royal wedding day in 1923, what do we see?
In 1923 George V and Queen Mary had still many years to reign. The war with the Kaiser’s Germany had been over for five years, and the ex-Emperor, who had just married a second time, was exiled in a country house on the Dutch-German border. In England the emotions of the war, the memories of the trenches and the gaps in family circles were the background to life.
Men still talked of the Somme, the Aisne and the Marne. Although the land fit for heroes was still invisible to the most searching gaze, there was a widespread hope that the League of Nations was the instrument that would end war for ever.
Once a year, in November, the nation gathered in a mood of raw emotion round the Cenotaph and at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, which were then new features among the sights of London.
Some English names of the time, whose owners are no longer with us, spring to mind: Asquith and Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, Austen and Neville Chamberlain, French, Haig, Beattie and Jellicoe. British occupation troops were still in Cologne and also in Constantinople. Statesmen were still holding conferences in Europe.
The French had marched into the Ruhr to secure the non-payment of reparations by the beaten foe. Germany was an uneasy republic, and an agitator called Adolf Hitler was frequently in trouble with the police. All Italy was giving the Roman salute under Mussolini, who had been in power for six months. Lenin was alive in Russia, where Leningrad was still called Petrograd.
Although there were a million and a half unemployed in Britain, and bands of ex-soldiers roamed the pavements with musical instruments, there was a feeling in the air— the good old English feeling—that everything would come out all right in the long run The great exhibition at Wembley was nearly ready—the giant stadium was in fact complete—and the country was full of American tourists who had come to see what England looked like after the war. The Blue Train ran every day from Calais to Monte Carlo and it was a smart and daring deed to fly to Paris in a Handley Page.
In 1913 the new invention of wireless broadcasting was going ahead. The “cat’s whisker” and headphone sets were being replaced by valve sets fitted with a loudspeaker. Whenever anyone acquired one of these new sets friends were invited to drop in and hear it.
Films were still silent and were shown to the sound of continuous piano or orchestral music. A Chinese game called mah-jongg swept the country. In this year, 1923, Sergeant Murphy won the Grand National. Papyrus won the Derby and Oxford won the Boat Race. There was tremendous excitement all over the world! when the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in Egypt and the golden coffin of the pharaoh was discovered.
Lilac Time was at the Lyric; Hassan with golden-voiced Ainley at the Haymarket; The Last Waltz with Jose Collins at the Gaiety, and R.U.R.—the play that gave the word “robot” to the language—at the St. Martin’s. The country was said to be dance mad. Night clubs and cabarets, with floor shows were the rage in London.
A catchword, which was a hangover from the previous year when Professor Emile Coué came here to preach auto-suggestion, was, “Every day in every way I get better and better.” Women looked like bundles because the waistline had descended to the hips, and cloche hats, like inverted basins, occupied every female head.
The social historian, glancing back to this period, will note as one of the most remarkable facts that the strength and popularity of the monarchy in Britain was no idle or servile phrase. The war which had shaken half the thrones of Europe had the effect of bringing the Crown and the people closer together in this country. George V and Queen Mary had presided over the nation during the first year of real sorrow and adversity it had known for generations, and, the war over, they continued to identify themselves with every aspect of the nation’s life.
The King in silk hat and frock-coat, or full-dress uniform, and the Queen in a powder-blue toque, and with umbrella or parasol, were the two most familiar and popular figures in the country. Their four sons and their daughter, who were children when the war began in 1914, were now old enough to deputize for their parents; and the greatest affection, here and overseas, was reserved for the gay young Prince of Wales. Everything he did or said was world news. His hatred of publicity and photography only endeared him the more to the millions of people who demanded to know everything he did.
The genuine affection in which the Royal Family was held may have surprised George V, who, from a severe, punctilious monarch, mellowed and sweetened in his later years into the father of his country. In the years to come the radio was to discover in him the most perfect broadcaster of our time. Once a year the King’s rich and guttural voice was carried, regally affectionate, into every home on Christmas Day, offering kind words and good advice.
This then was something of the general background of life when in 1923 the young Duke of York was the first of the King’s four sons to marry. He was well liked everywhere although he had been completely overshadowed by his elder brother. The Duke had served at the Battle of Jutland and later, as a group commander in the R.F.C., had taken his pilot’s certificate. He was a good enough tennis player to figure at Wimbledon. It was reported that he was seriously minded, and those who knew saw in him a notable resemblance to his father.
His marriage was popular for two reasons. It was not a foreign alliance. He had fallen in love with a charming British girl, the daughter of an ancient Scottish family. Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She did not feature in the social gossip of those times or belong to what was known as the “smart set” or the “bright young people.” All the general public knew of her was that she was content to live a country life as one of a large family, spending most of the year in Hertfordshire and moving in the autumn to the famous family seat in Scotland, Glamis Castle.
When people saw her photograph in the newspapers and noted her clear, frank eyes and her smile, they said to themselves that she was just the kind of girl the Prince of Wales ought to marry— just the kind of girl, in other words, who would be a perfect future Queen! That was the second reason why the wedding was popular. It seemed that the Duke of York had given an admirable lead to his elder brother.
The wedding morning of Thursday, April 26, was grey and damp. To the disappointment of the crowds, the Guards who lined the Mall wore greatcoats, and when the royal carriages came bowling along from the Palace the Life Guards wore crimson cavalry cloaks. But as the bells of Westminster pealed out after the service, the struggling sun appeared for the first time, and cheers greeted the Duke and Duchess of York all the way as the wedding landau took them from the Abbey to the Palace. Who could have guessed that those mighty cheers greeted the future King and Queen?
For the next thirteen years the Duke and Duchess of York lived a busy public life. The year after their marriage they paid a State visit to Northern Ireland, and late the same year went to East Africa on a visit that was half mission and half hunting trip. In April, 1926, there was rejoicing throughout the Commonwealth when the Duke and Duchess became the parents of a daughter.
Princess Elizabeth was born in Bruton Street, at the London home of her maternal grandparents, and she was baptized in Jordan water at the Private Chapel, Buckingham Palace. Her arrival in the world appeared to set the seal upon a marriage that was obviously a happy one.
Leaving their child, then barely six months of age, in the charge of Queen Mary, the Duke and Duchess left the country for six months on a visit to New Zealand and Australia. In Canberra the Duke opened the new Parliament House and the couple returned to England in the summer of 1927.
At home the Duke of York, whose interest in industrial history and factory life was a serious study backed by an extensive and well read library, made a series of tours through industrial England, more complete than any ever made by a member of the royal house. Much of his spare time was occupied with the Industrial Welfare Society and in a summer camp at the seaside where every year he entertained hundreds of boys.
Speaking of the opening of this camp, where he was so often pictured in shorts and sweater with his young guests, he once said: “I look forward to that day from one year’s end to another.” And people, opening their newspapers and watching the newsreels of that time, knew that the cameras had not lied when they showed the Duke merrily staging “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree”—with actions!
In 1930 Princess Margaret was born at Glamis Castle and for the next few years tremendous interest was shown all over the world in the lives of the two little princesses. The London home of the Duke and Duchess of York was 145 Piccadilly, near Hyde Park Comer, a house that was badly blitzed during the war.
There was a time which all Londoners will remember—between 1930 and 1936—when every head on every omnibus that passed along Piccadilly turned towards No. 145 in the hope, often realized, of catching a glimpse of the princesses at the window of their nursery. There were other days at Windsor, with the band playing and the geraniums glowing in the flower beds, when the public saw with delight the old King and Queen Mary with their two grandchildren.
To anyone who lived through those times it seems in retrospect that they contained an unusual number of sunny days. Yet, looking back upon them seriously, and in the light of present knowledge, how full of omens and steadily mounting peril they were! Germany, no longer the battered republic of the twenties, was a land of marching men under Hitler. Italy, not to be outdone, was building Roman archways in North Africa and preparing to gas the Abyssinians. Still the statesmen held conferences and hoped that everything would come out all right in the end, as indeed the country did, too.
The year 1932 was a year of appalling depression and unemployment here and in America. That was the year suicides threw themselves from skyscraper windows, the year of the Means Test, of hunger marches on London. It was the year of the Ottawa Conference and the Disarmament Conference and the Lausanne Conference. It was the year F. D. Roosevelt was elected President in America; the year everyone went mad about Amy Johnson, the airwoman; the year Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly the Atlantic; the year the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped.
The tempo of those days was set by Germany. In 1934 old Marshal Hindenburg died and Hitler then came to supreme power. This was a year of deaths and assassinations. The Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated by the Nazis. King Alexander of Jugoslavia was assassinated. Albert, King of the Belgians, died while mountaineering, ex-King Alfonso of Spain died after a motor accident. In this year there was a plebiscite in the Saar which, of course, decided to return to Germany.
Hitler, no longer the shabby figure in an old raincoat, blossomed forth in uniform with a swastika on his arm and he was always surrounded by shouting, chanting figures in brown shirts with uplifted arms. In this year the first Jewish refugees began to arrive from Germany.
In 1936 the old King died to the accompaniment of a nation’s sorrow. George V was symbolic of an age, and with him that age ended and a new one, whose portents were only too clear and too terrifying, was ready to begin. The Prince of Wales was proclaimed King as Edward VIII, but soon afterwards came the news of his abdication. Thus, in a few weeks of crisis, the Duke of York, with who knows what trepidation, saw himself suddenly faced with the ordeal of the Crown.
Those who have written books about him say that at first he hesitated from the modest fear that he would not be acceptable to the nation, or that he was not fit to assume the kingship, but when it was pointed out to him that it was his solemn duty to step into the place his brother had left, he hesitated no longer, and with his Duchess by his side he solemnly dedicated himself to his new task.
If the nation had been drawn to him before, the mood now changed overnight to one of admiration and respect. It was with a feeling of sorrow and regret that we said farewell to a prince of spirit and great promise, one whose services to the Commonwealth were beyond compare, but at the same time it was with a feeling that life had become normal again that we saw King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with their daughters upon their Coronation Day in 1937.
It would be necessary to go far back in history to discover an occasion when a king ascended the throne in this country under more trying and ominous circumstances. To have done so after the abdication was in itself hard enough, but to become King in a world that was obviously moving towards war demanded the highest courage and resolution.
The splendour of the Coronation was hardly over when their Majesties set out on a visit to France, followed later by a visit to Canada and the United States. By this time the humiliations of appeasement were complete and war was only a matter of time. That time came in September, 1939, and then for years a veil of necessary secrecy was drawn over the King, the Queen and their daughters.
But behind the curtain of secrecy precautions the King and the Queen embarked upon a wartime life that still further endeared them to their people. They did not send their children abroad as many of their subjects did, and they kept the Royal Standard flying at the masthead of Buckingham Palace, a sight that cheered London on many a dreary day.
It is something of a revelation to read an admirably written book entitled “The Royal Family in Wartime”, which was published in 1945 and is, so far as I am aware, the only account in existence of the wartime life of the King and Queen.
“The second year of the war began dramatically for the King,” it is there stated, “who held an investiture in Buckingham Palace during an air raid on September 3—the first time British subjects had been decorated by their king under bombardment from the sky. . . . On September 9 Mr. Morrison came to the Palace in his capacity as Minister of Home Security, and told the King of the distress in the East End after several severe attacks in which many homes had been destroyed and heavy casualties inflicted.
“The King immediately replied that he would go in person to the affected areas, and he set off immediately, with little formality and only the shortest and most scanty preparation, on the first of many scores of visits to scenes of devastation that he and the Queen were to make together or separately. . . . But by going directly, as he so often did, to the scene of raid damage and walking through the debris in the streets where unexploded bombs and land mines might still lie concealed, the King—at the cost of the peace of mind of the officials who were responsible for his safety— was now setting a new standard of monarchy.
“This, after all, was the work of the supreme representative; his people had been struck by the enemy, their homes wrecked and their dear ones killed; and the King saw it as his paramount duty to be immediately among them, bringing the assurance that the whole of their countrymen, for whom he alone could speak, were with them in sympathy.
“On that first visit to the bombed out victims in the East End nothing in the King’s manner conveyed any hint of his knowledge that at that moment a time bomb weighing 250 pounds was lying in his own home at Buckingham Palace and might explode at any minute. It did, in fact, explode the next day. . .”
Buckingham Palace was bombed nine times during the war, and suffered in the last year both from the V1 and the V2. The first time the King and Queen were in the Palace when it was hit was at 11 a.m. on September 13, 1940.
Their Majesties, hearing the enemy planes overhead, looked out of the windows in time to see a string of five bombs come down, wrecking the Chapel and smashing a hundred windows. Two days later a bomb which did not explode crashed through the Queen’s apartments to the ground floor.
When their Majesties appeared, as they so often did, in tube shelters, rest centres and dugouts, they were able to talk with those they met not only with sympathy and confidence but also with fellow feeling. Their visits to shipyards and factories took them all over the country. The King went farther afield. He paid six visits to the Fleet at Scapa Flow. He was constantly in the front-line stations of the R.A.F. observing both Fighter and Bomber Commands in action. He paid five visits to the battle zones, to North Africa, Italy, Normandy and finally to Belgium and the Netherlands. He saw more actual battle than any king since George II, who was present at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.
Although so little was allowed to appear at the time, the country, especially those parts that were suffering, knew that the King and the Queen were never absent when their presence could bring courage and help. The photographs which show them picking their way through still-warm damage, talking to shelterers in every type of shelter, inspecting A.R.P. and N.F.S. units with the dust of conflict still upon them, must be the most remarkable series of pictures ever taken of a king and queen.
It has been their task to take the prestige of the Crown and to maintain it as it was in the reign of George V. In this they have been successful. That they have been able to do so in an ago of revolution is a tribute to their goodness and their sense of service. They have also brought Crown and people even closer together during the war years, and in doing so they have shown the virtues of a monarchy that is above politics but not above kindness and understanding. There was never a time, even during the last reign, when a closer human relationship existed between the people and the occupants of the Throne.
King George is also the first king to inherit not an Empire but a number of self-governing, free nations scattered all over the world. In this Commonwealth force and obedience have been replaced by loyalty and sentiment. The King is not a king emperor in the old sense, but a king of many separate countries linked to the mother country only by their affection for the Crown. In this the Sovereign is unique in the history of kingship.
And now, fortunate in their marriage and truly wedded to their people by their own qualities and by shared experience, their Majesties will drive in state to St. Paul’s upon the twenty-fifth anniversary of their wedding. Their daughters, who disappeared from view as little girls when the war came, to emerge now as graceful and charming young women, will go to church with their parents, and those who see them, and remember them as little children watching the buses in Piccadilly from a nursery window, will marvel how swiftly time has flown.
It may appear to some incredible that the little “Princess Lizbet” of, it seems, only yesterday, is now a happy young bride with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, by her side.
The two princesses have certainly not been born into a fairy tale. Their childhood has been spent in a bitter and tragic world, and almost the only touch of splendour and regality they have known was their recent tour of the Union of South Africa.
Of all the figures who will be seen on the day of the Silver Jubilee, one who will arrest the eye and call forth the admiration and affection of every man and woman who remembers the last Quarter of a century is Queen Mary. If it may be said that George V handed on a sense of duty to his son, it is surely from his mother that he inherits a courage that has placed a new authority in his manner and has held him on his course during the difficult years since his accession.
Queen Mary may feel upon April 26 that the many sorrows that have touched her are redeemed by the sight of King George VI and his queen Elizabeth as they kneel in London’s great church upon this milestone in their lives.
(This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.266 on 9 September 2020)
The dustjacket, by EA Cox, of HV Morton’s “In the Steps of the Master”
For this year’s Christmas bulletin I have taken the liberty of slightly condensing a passage from chapter four of “In the Steps of the Master” in which Morton, with his usual lyrical flare, contemplates some of the distinctions between the traditional European representation of Christmas and what might actually have taken place in ancient Palestine. I am grateful to Stephen Twist who suggested the idea.
In Bethlehem, Morton encounters a door – so low it requires everyone who enteres to stoop – set in a massive wall. On the other side of the door is the Church of the Nativity, “the earliest Christian church in use to-day, and more or less as it left the hands of its builders”.
“A Bethlehem Mother”, photograph by Mary Morton
From there he descends to the cave beneath the high altar which, as he puts it, “tradition claims as the spot where Christ was born”. The exact location is marked with a star, surrounded by a Latin inscription.
“As I stood in this dark, pungent cavern I forgot, I am afraid, all the clever and learned things written about the Nativity by German professors, and I seemed to hear English voices singing under a frosty sky:—
“O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
“How different is this dark little cave under a church from the manger and the stable of one’s imagination! As a child, I thought of it as a thatched English barn with wooden troughs for oats and hay, and a great pile of fodder on which the Wise Men knelt to adore “the new-born Child.” Down the long avenues of memory I seemed to hear the waits singing in the white hush of Christmas night:—
“While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The Angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone around.
“There was a rhythmic chinking sound on the dark stairs. A Greek priest, with a black beard curled like that of an Assyrian king, came slowly into the cavern swinging a censer. The incense rolled out in clouds and hung about in the candle flames. He censed the altar and the Star. Then, in the most matter-of-fact way, he genuflected and went up into the light of the church.
“… The grotto was full of little children, silently standing two by two on the stairs. They came forward, knelt down and quickly kissed the stone near the star. Their little faces were very grave in the candle-light. Some of them closed their eyes tightly and whispered a prayer.
“No sooner had the last of them gone, than I heard the chink-chink of the censer; and into the gloom of the Grotto of the Nativity came again a Greek priest like an Assyrian king.”
The floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge, complete with police launch.
Henry Vollam Morton is one of my favourite authors. He was a widely travelled journalist and from the 1920’s through to the 1960’s he recorded his wanderings in a series of beautifully written travel books. His style was simple and elegant. He wrote short descriptive chapters about anything that took his interest and his legacy is a fascinating insight into a society that was rapidly changing from the old ways to the world that we know today. His books on London in particular, written between the wars, shine a fascinating light on a city that we will never see again.
H.V. Morton’s “The Nights of London”
Morton seems to have had a particular affinity for the River Thames and its police force proved to be a rich source of material for him. He wrote about them on more than one occasion. In his book “The Nights of London” he recalls a visit he paid in the 1920’s to the floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge (now Tower Pier RNLI Station – the busiest in the country) and the conversation he had with the sergeant on duty. As a retired Thames police officer myself who served for many years at Waterloo Pier, I can almost feel the ghosts of serving officers past looking over my shoulder as I read his words – and my, how times change.
“I know of few more dramatic places in London than the Suicide Room of this police raft; the bed ready, the bath ready, the cordials ready. The little dinghy with the rubber roller on the stern, its nose pointed to the dark arches.”
Waterloo Bridge in July 1937, as seen from Cleopatra’s Needle and complete with contemplative young lady (The floating pier can just be seen under the arch on the left).
The sergeant being interviewed recalled one particular rescue. “We heard a splash and we were there in a second. She was a good looking, nice spoken young girl but she did want to die. I have never seen anyone who wanted to die so much. She fought and told us to go away. What right have we got to come and interfere with her private affairs?” The sergeant went on to describe how the ensuing struggle almost led to the small boat being swamped by the river before they managed to land her at the pier at around 3am. This sad tale then took a twist that plainly amused Morton.
The floating pier with Somerset House in the background
The sergeant described how they needed to put this attractive young lady in the bath to warm her up and apparently in those days a police matron needed to be summoned from Bow Street police station to deal with female patients. But, on this occasion, she was not available to attend. This left the police crew with an awkward problem – after all, the officers on duty were all unmarried men and not used to such jobs as undressing young ladies. Morton queried the sergeant that surely it would have been ok to assist the woman in these exceptional circumstances but our shy and bashful young sergeant was adamant, “You can’t be too careful, how did we know that she would not turn nasty for having her life saved and complain that she had been treated disrespectfully?”
Thames Police rescue someone from the river (not the young lady in question!)
Fortunately for all concerned this tricky problem was resolved. It seems that the police pier in those days employed a “Handy Man” called Sam, and Sam was quickly summoned and informed that because he was the only suitably qualified man present (in that he had at some point in his life been married) He would have to undress the patient – a task he apparently performed without question.
Struggling to suppress his amusement that London’s finest, so often accused of callousness, could be so demure in its behaviour Morton completed his interview with a last few questions:
“And is that the end of the story?”
“Did she complain?”
“No, she didn’t”
“And why did she jump?”
“I think it was love”
As Morton left and walked along Victoria Embankment he wrote “I glanced back from the Embankment and saw the Thames heavy with the secrets it has carried to the sea these thousand years; and in the sky was a remote half moon lying on the curve in a ridiculous and careless attitude, as if London did not mean anything.”
This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.170 on 1st August, 2014
On the morning of Saturday the 2nd August 1941, at a time when the fate of free Europe hung in the balance, HV Morton was summoned to a meeting with the Minister of Information in London. The reasons why were not disclosed, but the author was certain only events of great importance could have caused such exceptional activity from a Government department during a Bank Holiday week-end.
A few days later, barely having had time to pack, Morton, along with fellow journalist Howard Spring (the only two journalists to be selected to provide eye-witness testimony of what was about to unfold), was aboard British battleship the Prince of Wales as it raced across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. They were in the company of a group of other warships and some of the highest ranking Government and military officials of the day including the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill himself. This daring convoy, under constant threat of U-boat and aerial attack, was heading for one of the most important meetings of the Second World War. At their destination, an anchorage off the small fishing village of Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay, Churchill was to hold talks with none other than US President Franklin D Roosevelt in what came to be known as the Atlantic Charter meeting, after the eight point document which was hammered out between the respective parties.
The rest, quite literally, is history and Morton later recorded the events for posterity in his book “Atlantic Meeting”, published on 1st April 1943. It is no exaggeration to say that this coming together of great minds helped turn the tide of the war and provided a framework for the formation of the United Nations in the years following.
The Atlantic Charter Foundation is a group established to commemorate and celebrate this event and their website has much useful information including lists of participants, the ships involved, and photographs of objects and locations pertinent to the subject. In 1976 Parks Canada recognized the closest parcel of land to the site where the warships moored during the meeting as a National Historic Site.
Interestingly, Chartwell, Churchill’s former country home in Kent is now a National Trust property and, I am told, has a copy of Morton’s “Atlantic Meeting” in a showcase in one of the rooms. So that’s another location on my “places to visit” list!
With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, UK
(Originally issued as HVM Society Snippets No.242)
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)
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.
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.
Originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.198, 20 February 2016
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!’
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)