Category Archives: Literature
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.
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
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.
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!
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
From time to time the HV Morton blog has featured articles of general literary interest, not necessarily directly connected with Morton himself. There follows one such piece from high-flying, motorbike riding, whiskey drinking, international photo journalist Jim Leggett, a long-standing member of the HV Morton Society formerly of Glasgow (a Scottish city to the west of Edinburgh), now resident in the US of A!
In all seriousness, we are privileged to have this contribution from such an experienced and accomplished journalist on a fascinating, little known subject.
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England.
I was in the remarkable old Tennessee town of Franklin covering the Southern Whiskey Society annual event. During my explorations I discovered this historic building, a survivor of the historic Battle of Franklin, one of the most decisive in Civil War history, more details of which are covered on an adjacent plaque:
Old Factory Store
In 1799 Franklin founder Abram Maury sold lot 20 to Joseph McBride. By 1825 Dyer Pearl, Thomas Parkes and Joseph L Campbell operated a steam powered cotton and grist mill on East Margin and owned lot 20 upon which was built a brick store in the Greek revival style, complete with 4 distinctive Doric columns supporting a Grecian pediment. Other antebellum owners included Anderson and Baldwin (1833), Plunkett & Parkes (1843). On December 12 1862 U.S. Brig. Gen. David Stanley ordered the machinery at the factory and the stones of the grist mill destroyed but he spared the factory store after taking four wagon loads of flour and a wagon full of whiskey.
Williamson County Historical Society 2005
I was delighted when bookseller Joel Tomlin introduced me to the magic of gold leaf hidden images, not the least of which are said to have been of erotic subject matter in some ancient volumes! You can find detailed history on the art, legend, and prolific usage of fore-edge painting on the internet, so I will not try to explain better than you will find there.
One can imagine relaxing, secluded in this comfortable chair, a glass of Tennessee whiskey in hand, with unlimited time to pursue literary inspiration among the vast collection of mostly Southern history books Joel Tomlin has accumulated in this modern-day Old Curiosity Shop. I even pulled out three volumes entitled “Old and New Edinburgh”, 1863, by James Grant of which I possess numbers two and three, volume one having been presented to acquaintance Sean Connery, who has it at his Bahamian home!
As in the steps of Morton, I always seek the untold story, this being the kind of discovery Morton himself would have elaborated on in great detail. Indeed, I plan to get it into my next yarn for American Whiskey Magazine.
I am sending other photographs of similar gold leaf images trusting Mortonites may be as enchanted by the discovery as I was!
Indeed something new every day!
“Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, First published by Methuen, London, 16th November 1939
This little known work of Morton’s comprises 30 chapters including the explanatory introduction and twelve gravure plates illustrating some of the subjects. Each chapter is an essay in its own right (although two sets of two chapters are conjoined by closely related subjects) describing the Ghosts of the title, namely the ancient customs and rituals of London which even at the time of writing were well on their way to becoming endangered species that Morton felt moved to preserve in print before they disappeared altogether.
According to the introduction, they were compiled in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, having been written some time in the late twenties and thirties, presumably as Daily Express articles. The theme, according to the author is ‘the continuity of London’s existence’ and to ‘remind us of certain permanent values’ which even at that time Morton seems to have realised were changing and slipping away from the country, and from him.
Yeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey
This work is a testament to what London and by extension Britain stood to lose in the coming conflict, particularly (and remarkably prophetically) with the new threat of war in the air and the mass aerial bombardments which had already seen Madrid, Barcelona and Warsaw brought low. This book is a rallying cry not to arms but to the past, an invocation of the nation’s ‘spiritual reserves’ at a time of dire need.
After an introduction stark with contemporary intrusions as the capital prepares for war – gas masks and barrage balloons, empty streets and sandbagged buildings – the reader is plunged as it were into ‘deep-time’ in a series of chapters which invoke a reassuring sense of solidity, permanence and order. Even though the reason for their existence may be obscure or even, in some cases, non-existent, at least the Ghosts endure.
The reader gets the distinct impression of Morton in his element as he describes his various chosen topics. Chapter one opens with an account of ‘Charlie’s day’ where the restoration of Charles II after the fall of the English commonwealth is celebrated by schoolboys wielding oak apples and attacking one another with bunches of stinging nettles, something which would in all likelihood be an arrestable offence these days!
Later Ghosts are even older. The traditional horn-blowers of the temple, for example, keep alive a tradition dating back to the crusades while the curfew bell may date as far back as Alfred the Great. The shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella, Maundy Money and the Lambeth dole where elderly ladies receive half a crown from an ex-quartermaster-sergeant by virtue of an act of generosity by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century are all discussed in lively detail while en route Morton stops off to celebrate snuff and herbs, leeches and eye lotion and narrowly avoids an encounter with a red dragon.
Harking back to his account of the history of Mayfair which appeared in a detailed pamphlet in 1927 to celebrate the building of the Hotel of the same name, Morton casts a new light on Shepherd Market, the last surviving remnant of the original May Fair before it was hemmed in by houses and eventually banned.
The Tower of London features in several chapters and, in a modern twist on an ancient tradition, Morton gives an account of the Ceremony of the Keys from the point of view of the radio broadcasts which he himself gave to the nation every year for several years at the request of the broadcaster 2LO, later known as the more familiar British Broadcasting Corporation.
He shares a beer with the bell ringers of St Paul’s after hearing how Big Ben had to be recast following a disastrous trip down from York and lends a sympathetic ear to Hansom Cab drivers, night-watchmen and some of the few remaining lamplighters of London, who he refers to as ‘leeries’, from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem ‘The Lamplighter’.
‘There’s not many of us stick lighters left… but here and there a few of us still muster for the evening’
By the end of the account the reader is left with an insight, not only into some of the ancient history of London but also into HV Morton’s mindset too. In selecting his subject matter he has given us a tantalising glimpse into the mental world he inhabited and the things he valued, many of which were destined to be swept away not just by the aerial bombardment he predicted but afterwards too, by misguided urban planners and a changing political and social landscape.
Whether Morton liked it or not society was evolving, in many ways for the better, becoming more inclusive, more egalitarian, but also more centralised, and committee led. Old-fashioned respect came to count for little and the ‘ruling classes’ were obliged to find new roles for themselves in a weakened, post-war Britain as the nation itself adjusted to a new, more subordinate role in a post-imperial world.
It is sad to consider that less than ten years after publication of “Ghosts of London”, as the old ways gave way to the new, Morton, finding it impossible to reconcile his views with what was happening around him in his native country, had left it for good, finally settling with his family in South Africa.
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
Methuen, London, 2004. 248 pages with illustrations, notes and index. Also now available in paperback. From major booksellers and on-line through Amazon UK, etc.
The first and most important thing to say about Michael Bartholomew’s “In Search of HV Morton” is that this is an excellent read. The text flows, it is accessible and, unlike some biographies, it has a good structure and narrative. The reader is taken from Morton’s childhood, cycling around the lanes of Warwickshire and discovering a passion for place and history through his journalistic career, finding his niche as the foremost travel writer of his time and then, finally his gradual disillusionment as England began to take a different direction from the country he had known and loved.
Early in the work Bartholemew takes time to explain the distinction between the droll, urbane narrator of his tales (‘HV’ Morton) and the real man (‘Harry’ Morton) behind the books. Morton’s contemporaneous diary writings are contrasted with his works of literature throughout as a device to move through Morton’s life and explore the motivation behind both narrator and author. Any reader coming to this work hoping to read about the simple, solitary, companionable traveller of Morton’s books is in for a disappointment. Like the top rate journalist he was, Morton knew how to deliver precisely what his audience wanted and went to great lengths to maintain the illusion and charm of his books by keeping a low public profile. Fortunately for us (and perhaps less so for the reputation of ‘HV’) Morton left a large number of notes in the form of diaries and half written memoirs which formed the basis for much of Batholomew’s book, enabling his story to be told.
This account of the life of Morton is even handed and largely non-judgemental (despite the occasional spin placed on some of Bartholemew’s words by other reviewers).
Bartholemew obviously admires Morton’s talents as a master of descriptive prose and he presents Morton’s questionable political views as more naive and simplistic rather than anything more sinister; ‘more prejudice than politics’. Morton’s womanising and racism are presented, mostly in the form of extracts from his diary, and the reader is left to judge for him or her self. We are told of a man who, while privately contemptuous of the direction Britain was taking at times, was prepared to put his talents to work, on occasion for no financial return, to support the governmnent in its efforts during the war. Morton wasn’t without a social conscience and his 1933 social commentary “What I saw in the slums” is compared favourably with the better known “Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell; Bartholomew suggests that Morton’s depiction of women in the slums is ‘just as powerful and… less patronising’ than Orwell’s. We are told of Morton’s quiet bravery – castigating himself in his diary on the one hand for his cowardly feelings during the London blitz yet, despite his fear, going into the city to cover stories for his paper. At a time in Britain’s history when invasion appears imminent Morton writes about the distinct possiblility of being killed defending his village against the Nazi foe while at the same time is enraged as his gardener is enlisted into the armed forces.
This book is a sympathetic, ‘warts and all’ portrayal of the real man behind the public persona; above all it is a balanced account. It is direct and unstinting, delivering praise and criticism alike where they are due. By the conclusion any Morton admirer will be the better for having read it and will have an understanding of the real depth behind both ‘HV’ and ‘Harry’.