Category Archives: Quotations

In Praise of Simple Fare

“How, I wonder, have I refrained so long from praising bread, cheese and beer, the most delicious, satisfying food that can pass the parched gullet of a wayfarer! Fat men in saloon cars can nose the French menus for Sole Colbert or Bordelaise, and for the many dishonest hashes devised by otherwise honest English cooks, but when I am hungry and the white road lies behind me mile on mile, give me bread, cheese and beer.”

HV Morton, “In Search of England” (1927), chapter 7, section 3

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September 28, 2013 · 9:52 am

Illustrated Magazine’s “Coronation Record Number”

Illustrated Coronation issue

There have been 38 coronations in England since William the Conqueror of Normandy was first crowned at Westminster on Christmas day, 1066. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second in 1953 following the sadly premature death of her father, King George VI.

On 13th June, 1953, Illustrated Magazine produced a special souvenir edition for the Coronation (a “Coronation Record Number”) to provide, in the words of the editorial, “a full pictorial record of the epic day on which the Queen dedicated herself to the service of God and of her peoples” in the hope that it would “perpetuate for you and your children the memory of June 2, 1953”.

This special edition featured contributions from authors including Sir Compton Mackenzie – “Words from the Heart” – and HV Morton – “A Queen’s Glory Outshines All” – the text of which was transcribed by Kenneth Fields on 2nd June 2011 and can be read in full here: http://www.hvmorton.co.uk/hvmsoc/LN99-101.html#LN100.

Morton’s article begins:

“My seat in Westminster Abbey gave me a perfect view of the objects I wished to see: the Coronation Chair, the Throne, the Chair of Estate and the Royal Box behind it. Nothing else mattered. It was upon that floodlit space before the High Altar, covered with a golden carpet, that the Queen would be anointed and crowned.”

IMG_2781 crop smallWith hints of the central portion of “In Search of London” from two years earlier, and its detailed description of the history and origins of Westminster Abbey, Morton takes us in a broad sweep from the Plantagenets, through St. Edward the Confessor and Henry III, to the present day. With his love of the linguistic, he points out that the ancient word for “Coronation” was the “hallowing, or the making holy, of the monarch”. As the piece continues, he harks back to the Coronation of this new Queen’s father, on 12 May 1937 which he also witnessed, and reported on for the Daily Herald.

The Coronation is, at heart, a communion service and Morton acknowledges this in the closing paragraph of his carefully crafted article as he notes simply:

“Kneeling side by side, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh took Holy Communion. Then, to a great pealing of bells and the sound of cheering, with the music playing and the trumpets blowing, Queen Elizabeth II went out from her hallowing, the Crown upon her head and the sceptres in her hands.”

Measuring 13.5 by 10 inches, the magazine is an evocative time capsule, capturing the feelings and aspirations of the time, both in the reverential tone of the articles and in the multitude of advertisements it features. Everything from rainwear, Ovaltine, bicycles and Bird’s Custard is promoted with a respctful Coronation theme.

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There is even a small advert for “Cuxsome, Gerrard & Co. ltd, Carnation Corn Pads” – for people suffering after standing for hours in the crowds perhaps – and for “glorious” Agfacolour film – just incase anyone was less than satisfied with mere black and white for this special occasion. My favourite is this full colour cartoon from the brewers of Double Diamond beer. Their well known slogan “A Double Diamond works wonders” is wonderfully borne out as a patriotic gentleman is elevated above the cheering crowds atop a teetering tower of beer bottles.

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Other slogans in this edition have fared less well with the vagiaries of time and an evolving language. One wonders just when it dawned on Mars, the manufacturers of Spangles boiled sweets, that the, then innocent and charming, phrase “Spangles, the sweet way to go gay” had finally run its course and become a less than effective means of enticing children to part with precious pocket-money!

The editorial, with justifiable pride, makes considerable mention of the many photographers who contributed to this important edition. The highlight however, (apart from possibly the cover photograph) surely has to be this central photograph, the first one ever published of the coronation in colour, taken by James Jarche who also contributed many photographs to Morton’s books and articles over the years.

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This sought-after and delightful magazine is well worth keeping a look out for. It is occasionally seen on the web pages of second-hand book sellers for reasonable cost and would make an important addition to anyone’s collection of Mortoniana.

A BBC article on the anniversary of the Coronation can be read here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22729342 and a selection of photographs of the day taken by the Magnum Photos agency can be seen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-22709637 (they feature Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall who crossed the pond for the occasion and some appalling weather).

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
2 June 2013

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Blue Days at Sea – a review

I have just finished reading “Blue Days at Sea and other essays” by HV Morton. While attending an enormous conference set in a magnificent edifice of concrete and glass, this slightly battered little book made perfect reading. It was a good companion to me in largely anonymous crowds as I carried it around to read between lectures and in coffee bars and restaurants, Morton’s highly readable style provided much welcome light relief from the subject matter at hand just as its slightly shabby cover contrasted pleasingly with the slick, plush interiors of the venue.

Blue Days at Sea, medium

The first thing I was looking forward to knowing more about was the unusual title. I had a vague idea the book was about the sea but was puzzled about the origins of the title. On opening the book I discovered that it is taken from a poem entitled “Romance”, by a young Robert Louis Stevenson. The first verse is given before the book begins:

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

“Blue Days at Sea and other essays” was first published in1932 and is dedicated “To All Who Serve on the High Seas”.

The book is a collection of short essays and vignettes, many of which are original, others having previously appeared in the Daily Express, the Sunday Express and the Daily Herald. It has nicely managed structure and form and is laid out in three broad sections – starting in serious and sombre mood in the section “About Men”, shifting into lighter gear for “About Women”, and offering a touch of introspection and a hint of the exotic as Morton travels far and wide across Europe and North Africa in “About Places”, until the final joy of coming home – “to a country which has no need to chain nailbrushes to a lavatory basin” – rounds off the collection.

The section titles are applied fairly loosley. In fact “About Men” concerns life in the Royal Navy, being an account of a period Morton spent as a journalist with the fleet, assigned to a ship referred to as HMS Impenetrable (although there is no reference an actual ship of this name anywhere to be found on the internet), initially anchored at its the base in the Cromarty Firth and later, during deep sea exercises and weapons training. These chapters clearly portray the great respect the author has for the personnel he encounters. We read his affectionate descriptions of the various manly goings-on and eccentricities he comes across, from the young “snotties” in the gun room to the god-like Captain on the bridge; all the time managing to convey a state of constant readiness, a willingness to face adversity and of extreme, calm and considered professionalism. These chaps, Morton seems to suggest, will get the job done, come what may, and still be back in the ward-room in time for a tot of rum and a round of “Priest of the Parish” before bed-time.

After the thrills of high speed manouvers in the Atlantic we are taken to the other extreme where, in the languid setting of a mediterranean naval base, the reader is given a touching account of the death and burial at sea of humble, loyal, Stoker Davis. Again Morton paints a picture of reserve and British stiff upper lip –

“‘Hullo! Where’s the wedding?’, asked a friend, nodding at the flowers.
“‘It’s Stoker Davis,’ replied the engineer commander, finishing his drink. ‘Dead.’
“‘Bad luck… What are you drinking?'”

HMS Dreadnought on manouvers

HMS Dreadnought on manouvers

The next section, “About Women”, while tending to the patronising as might be expected in a book of its time also reveals refreshingly modern attitudes in places. “The Wife” for instance, while describing the subject’s love affair “with a dress in a shop window”, also has a swipe at the husband as he is taken to task for not appreciating the work performed by his better half. The author also expresses disapproval of the husbandly hold on the purse strings which would have been the norm at the time. In another chapter Morton describes a business woman as she delivers financial advice to a male client to the accompaniment of simpering comments from a couple of “chaps” at the next table, “By Jove, pretty hot stuff that!”. To be fair, this isn’t Germaine Greer but in its day it must have been a bit of a revalation, particularly coming from a male author.

The reader is treated to a touch of pathos with the mysterious “Woman Nobody Knows” and a little light humour with “The Bad Girl” (a disconcertingly modern-sounding account of 1930’s “yoof”) and “The Head Huntress” ruthlessly stalking the jungles of London Society in dogged pursuit of a suitable marriage for her daughter.

The final section, “About Places”, starts in the tourist office with an account of the “Man of the World” who works there (and isn’t all he seems!), before Morton is off, across the globe with tales of his travels as he visits Paris, sees snow in Rome, rides across the Sahara on Ferdinand the Fiery Steed and encounters a link with the past – a proud man fallen on hard times – as he relates the touching story of Mr Snap in Cairo. There are several chapters concerning Rome, including an account – of interest to any Scot worth his salt – of a visit to the final resting place of Charles Edward Stewart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, at his tomb in the Church of St Peter. Morton gives a moving account of the life of the Young Pretender, contrasting the romance and chivalry of his youth with his sad fall from grace in later life. The romance of House of Stewart, he observes with disconcerting insight, is “the appealing romance of misfortune wedded to good looks”.

Then, after stopping off for a spot of night fishing in the seas around Capri where he is horrified by the throes of an expiring calamaro (or squid), it is back home once again with a loving homage to homecoming in the form of an account of the Dover to Victoria train as it takes Morton back to “reliable” London, a city populated entirely by “splendid men and beautiful women”. He is realistic about the fleeting nature of such feelings of elation after long weeks spent travelling abroad but nevertheless he notes the railway platform at Dover harbour as a symbol of something he would be willing to fight to defend in the event of war. I wonder if he could have guessed that only a few short years later he, and millions of others, would be called upon to do just that.

“Blue Days at Sea and other essays” is an engaging assortment, demonstrating Morton at his strongest as he explores a wide range of moods and emotions, all the while rooted in the everyday happenings of the world of the 1930’s. Once again Morton’s exquisite use of pace, structure and language reveals intimate details of life overlooked by grander, more self-important accounts elsewhere, and even today, after the best part of a century, we can still delight in it.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, England
5 March 2013

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Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Quotations

Mortonian Meanderings: “In Search of Cuckoo-Land”

Walking in to work each morning gives me time to think, to get away from the ubiquitous Information Technology that surrounds us all these days.

Today I am musing on some recently aired, light hearted grumblings about the country I live in and, specifically, whether images, conjured by authors like HV Morton, merely feed impressions of an idealised fantasy world (let’s call it “cuckoo-land”) to readers with a rose-tinted view of somewhere that is always just around the corner, forever out of reach.

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Cuckoo-land?

Is it right or wrong to fuel this alleged delusion, does such a delusion even truly exist? It’s certainly food for thought.

Locking the front door behind me, I step out onto a road which bears the name of an empire whose citizens, some two-thousand years ago, walked the same route and allegedly grew vines on the now frozen slopes above, and moored boats in the valley beneath, before the marshlands were drained to make way for productive green fields. Many a time, in the hope of uncovering Imperial Artefacts, our family has staged excavations in the front garden, only to encounter broken pipestems, fragments of pig trotter and shards of Edwardian crockery.

I am most envious of my daughter who I have just packed off, blinking and pale-faced at this unaccustomed hour, on a school trip to visit what the English refer to as the Mother of Parliaments, at Westminster. I wonder if I reminded her frequently enough to take plenty of photographs which I can purloin for future Morton-related projects?

I trudge on, swathed in warm and weatherproof garments, the cold nipping fiercely at any extremities injudiciously exposed to the elements, my breath billowing ahead of me. I imagine myself to be a stealthy ninja warrior, only my eyes visible, as I stalk the silent streets in search of my hapless quarry. To anyone with a more rational outlook I am more like the Michelin Man, after he’s let himself go a bit.

This morning the sky is clear and blue, something I’m sure I haven’t seen for months. Everything – red-brick houses; old, stone bridges;  even the slumbering, hollowed-out shells of former industry – is given a pleasant hue by the warm colours of the rising sun.

There is a smooth, flattering cover of frost over field, hedge and fence, lending an unblemished, slightly unreal quality to mundane things – even parked cars are transformed into works of art, courtesy of this freezing makeover. Looming out of the low-lying mists along the banks of the meandering river below are the tops of the highest trees, groping upwards, like skeletal hands; and tall, disembodied chimneys from a lost industrial past – which JB Priestley and HV Morton would probably have spat teeth at and ignored respectively – but which now, softened by the passing of time, are part of our landscape, history and culture and have become as familiar as old friends.

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As my walk continues, I realise the everyday world around me has been elevated to Turneresque heights – a dignified and distant silvery etching of trees, higgledy-piggledy houses and little hills which is suddenly astounding. I try to imagine it captured, frozen and in a frame, gracing the most exalted of art galleries.

It is part of the human condition that only after months of mud and mire, of rainfall and floods are we able to appreciate mornings like this – without the proverbial “rough”, we cannot enjoy the “smooth”. We need the contrast. But it’s difficult sometimes to avoid becoming preoccupied by the “rough”. It requires effort to appreciate what we have on our own doorstep, to be able to count our blessings and “see things with new eyes” – as those infuriatingly smug “New-Age” types are wont to say. It is too easy to become bogged down with the ordinary, the minutiae, the every-day blandness.

Misery and depression, death and destruction, murder and mayhem all sell newspapers (or their e-equivalents) far more readily than good news. So we have to look hard for that good news – the little chat with Tony the taxi driver down the road as he tells me his cat is much better now, thanks; a chance meeting with a grumpy lorry driver in day-glo yellow, who has probably been on the road since the crack of sparrows’ knee-caps, but who can still be persuaded to raise a smile when the driving skills of those Kings of the Road, the artic. drivers, are remarked upon in complimentary manner.

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“In the early morning before the sun is strong, a man standing on this hill looks down, not upon the neat flat pasture lands of the Vale of Avalon, but upon Avalon, an island again, rising from a steaming sea of mist… the mist rises from the fields as if it were the ghost of that sea which covered the valley in the age of legend. In the cold wind that runs before the dawn a man looks down upon this faint, moving veil, watches it writhe in spectral billows over the land, steaming upward in faint lines in the high places and so exposing the darker objects beneath which, in this hushed hour, seem almost like the bones of heroes, or the hulls of legendary barges sunk in some old poem.”

HV Morton, “In Search of England”, chpt 6

This country is different – it couldn’t be anything else (nor should we truly wish it to be) – from that of nearly a century ago. It is no longer (if it ever was) the place described by Morton’s amiable narrator, as he bowled along in his little car. True, nowadays bad things happen and times are tough, but they are not nearly as bad or as tough as they were (and were shortly to become) in Morton’s day, regardless of the alluring optimism of his travelogues. This country is still a pretty good place to be, if one can rise above the petty clamour as HVM did in his day, and I would still recommend it highly as a place to visit or to stay. We live in a cynical age, when it’s difficult to admit to being content with one’s lot, and we are all much more inclined to grumble than to eulogise. One book which claims to be a modern successor to Morton is in fact entitled “Mustn’t Grumble”, although in it, by all accounts, the author does indeed grumble, quite a lot.

If there is a heaven (and I’m yet to be convinced), it may not just be be a place where things are pleasant and comfortable, but one where we are able to appreciate that which is pleasant and comfortable without the need for the unpleasant and uncomfortable – now that would be a trick!

Until then I’ll continue to take life as I find it, one day at a time, and endeavour to appreciate the things around me more.

As I arrive at work I see the daffodils in the flowerbeds around the front-door are in bud – pioneering spears of lime-green, courageously poking out of black, frozen soil – Spring is in the air. It won’t last of course!

Now I need to hope I can find a spare moment, when I can sit down to catch these fleeting snippets of thought before they are snowed under with everyday normality – amateur writers, who needs them!

Niall Taylor February 2013

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HV Morton on Whisky

Originally distributed to the HV Morton Society as: HVM Society Snippets – No.151

IMG_5061 copy small“The whisky had uplifted them… It had given them wings.”
(from “In Scotland Again” chapter 6, section 9)

Product placement is nothing new. John Mills was sipping his “Ice Cold” Carlsberg in Alexandria a lifetime before James Bond inexplicably started flashing his omega ® watch and nokia ® phone – logos placed strategically for all to see – across the big screen and mysteriously eschewing his traditional vodka Martini (shaken, stirred or otherwise), in favour of the same well known (if somewhat out of character) Scandinavian lager, favoured by Sir John.

Surely, such mundane contrivances would have been beneath Morton. Never the less, it has occured to me, if he wasn’t being sponsored by Talisker then he was missing a trick!

Morton wrote his books in the days when a malt whisky was something very special, to be savoured and enjoyed, as one might a rare work of art. The drinking of a single malt was a mark of distinction; hoi polloi were condemned to make-do, as best they could, with mere blends.

These days, with any number of malts so easily accessible from the shelves of the nearest supermarket, something of the mystique is being lost. Thus it is a wonderful reminder of times gone by to read of Morton’s reverence for what is clearly his favourite whisky – with its hints of peat fires and sea salt and a strangely endearing, almost medicinal, tang.

It is Burns’ night, and many a lover of Scotland – adopted, native or otherwise; at home or abroad – looks forward to raising a glass to celebrate the brief but colourful life of their country’s great national poet, Robert Burns. I thought, on this occasion, a passage from Morton’s “In Search of Scotland” might be appreciated. It is from chapter 10, section 5, after the narrator has offered a lift to a wandering highlander, soaked during a mountain storm, on the road to Crianlarich. As the weather lifts, the sun comes out, a little gold cloud dances over the head of Ben Dorian, and Morton writes:

“I remembered that I had in my bag a bottle of Talisker whisky, that remarkable drink which is made in the Isle of Skye and can be obtained even in its birthplace only with difficulty. This seemed to me an occasion. When my companion saw the bottle of Talisker he ceased to leap about and, becoming solemn, he said:

“’Talisker? Ye don’t mean to open the bottle? It’s a shame to waste it; but, man it’s a grand whisky!’

“We settled down.

“He had a tin mug in his rucksack; I had one of those idiotic so-called drinking cups which you place firmly on a stone with the result that the whole thing telescopes and spills the liquor. We poured the amber-coloured Talisker into our mugs, and descending to an amber coloured burn in the heather we let a little ice cold water into the whisky.

“There is, so it is said, a time for everything, and the time for whisky is after physical fatigue in the open air among great mountains. This Talisker drunk below the great, windy clouds in the shadow of Ben Dorain was different from the whisky which a man drinks in his club as Lachryma Christi drunk in the shadow of Vesuvius differs from the same wine in Soho. This drink filled us with good nature and enthusiasm.

“My friend, perched picturesquely on a stone told me a lot about himself. He was something in a city. He always spent his holidays in his native highlands. He loved to wear the kilt for two to three weeks and to run wild in the heather. As the Talisker burned in him it lit fires of patriotism, and I listened with delight as he spoke of his love for the hills and the glens and the peat-hags and the great winds and the grey mists.”

Talisker

I like to think, just occasionally, the odd bottle of that “amber-coloured Talisker” might have found its way to Morton, sent from a grateful distillery owner across the water, in return for services rendered. Call it part of the angels’ share.

“Freedom, friendship and whisky gang thegither” (Robert Burns).

With grateful thanks to Jim Leggett, of the The Bahamas

With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
23 January 2013

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Merry Christmas!

Originally distributed as HVM Society Membership Notice 2012-12-24

Just a short note, dashed off between rain, floods and disastrous mince pies, to wish all admirers of HV Morton and book fans generally, wherever you are and of whatever religious persuasion you may be, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I tried hard to find a suitable quote from HVM about Christmas or winter, but couldn’t find anything which struck quite the right note. I did however come across this celebration, by Morton, of  the “bookmen” – which is to say “the book readers, the book hunters, the book tasters, the book maniacs…” who haunt the bookshops of the bustling Charing Cross Road, London – that captured the mood and I thought might be appreciated by librarious persons during the festive season:

“Lost to the world that touches their elbows as they stand there, the bookmen pry and pore into the books, looking and seeking and sometimes even finding. I love to remember the hours I have spent there, perhaps on spring mornings, sometimes in winter, oblivious of cold feet, when the shop doors open to the warning ping of a little bell, and often in the evening when the lamps have been lighted and the titles shine out splendidly in gold, behind the plate-glass windows.”

from “In Search of London”, 1951, chpt 10

Finally, anyone who, like me, will be raising a glass of  the old uisge beatha at the turn of the year can take comfort in the knowledge that, according to this web-site, the top three books to read while drinking whisky are all by HV Morton.

Sláinte mhaith!

With seasonal best wishes,

Niall Taylor
24 December 2012

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On the switching on of the fountains in Trafalgar Square

“The pigeons, which have become as plump and pampered as the pigeons of St Mark, took panic at this daily event and, exploding upwards from every corner of the square, performed a couple of turns round Nelson before they settled down again to bow on their mulberry-coloured feet to kneeling provincials with bags of peas.”

HV Morton, “In Search of London” (1951)

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July 28, 2009 · 8:40 am