Category Archives: Literature

“I, James Blunt”, by Kenneth Fields

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

“I, James Blunt”

by Kenneth Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Greetings!

In the Steps of the MasterThe 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”.

img543 - A Bethlehem Mother, from In the Steps of the Master snip“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.”

§

A very happy Christmas and a good New Year.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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Under Waterloo Bridge by Rob Jeffries

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?”

“Yes”

“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

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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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Protected: 2003-12-17 – The very first HVM bulletin

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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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Great British Car Journeys

A30 in 1928

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

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

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

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

In Search of England folio soc small

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

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

Warren-House small

The Warren Inn (photo courtesy of MG)

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

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

I’ve watched it twice already!

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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

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