Category Archives: Travel

“What I Saw in the Slums” … a little known aspect of HV Morton

In 1933 HV Morton’s writing appeared to undergo a sea-change with the publication of a little known volume called “What I Saw in the Slums“. While reviewing this work for the online magazine Albion, I became fascinated by what might have prompted this change of heart. Why would a writer who, up to that time, had made his fame and fortune chiefly by writing uplifting travelogues suddenly take it into his head to turn instead to some of the worst, most deprived areas of urban England and lay bare what he found there at the height of the Great Depression.

The article below is not the review but is a second piece which resulted from my musings about the change of direction HV Morton appeared to have taken. I am most grateful to Peter Devenish and Kenneth Fields for answering my enquiries on the matter as well as to the authors of Morton’s biographies – “The Life of an Enchanted Traveller” by Kenneth Fields and “In Search of HV Morton” by Michael Bartholomew – for helping me weave a few loose threads into a vaguely coherent whole and construct, to my satisfaction, the story of an important period in the life of HV Morton.

Additional information was obtained from “Writing Englishness: 1900-1950” edited by Judy Giles and Tim Middleton.

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The cover of "What I Saw in the Slums"

The cover of “What I Saw in the Slums”

Anyone who has encountered the works of HV Morton, even briefly, will probably think of him as a chronicler of the brighter, more positive aspects of British life between the wars, with his various travelogues of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. If any criticism is to be made of his works it is his tendency to skirt around the harsher realities of life – he liked to keep things light-hearted. Anyone delving further into his background will come to realise that, although his views were kept largely private, Morton’s politics were distinctly conservative and right-wing.

Nothing in life is simple of course and sometimes, just when you think you know all there is to know about someone, they can still surprise you. Morton produced his early travelogues during ten fruitful and, initially, happy years spent working at the Daily Express newspaper, owned by Lord Beaverbrook. When Morton first joined the Daily Express in 1921 Beverly Baxter, who had been responsible for head-hunting Morton, reported he had been warned, with ominous foresight, by Morton’s previous editor at the Evening Standard, that his new recruit “… was gifted, but would give me trouble” [See HVM Society Snippet – No.146].

Slums 1Slum Playground for the “Coming Generation” – one of the photographs by James Jarché

Nearly a decade later, at the start of the 1930’s this prediction began to come true. Considerable personal success for Morton and an increasingly turbulent home-life started to drive a wedge between journalist and paper. Relations began to cool between him and Baxter, by then Editor in Chief, even though ironically it had been Baxter himself who had first encouraged Morton to begin his journeys around Britain, even going so far as to suggest the title In Search of England, thereby playing a large part in establishing the very fame which was now forcing them apart.

At the same time a rival paper, the Daily Herald – left-wing organ of the British Labour Party and Trades Union Movement and almost the polar opposite of Beaverbrook’s highly conservative Daily Express – was trying to improve its image. Owner, Ernest Bevin, and new publishing partners, Odhams Press, were striving to move the publication “up-market”, make it more competitive and put it on a firmer financial footing. One of the means they employed was to recruit star reporters (for lucrative salaries) to the staff, and so it was that HV Morton’s itchy feet led him in this unexpected direction in March 1931.

On a more personal level, according to biographer Kenneth Fields, Morton seemed to feel a need to step out of his comfort-zone and “… could no longer ignore the terrible poverty and unemployment that was evident throughout Britain. Unlike the Express, which he believed had become obsessed with rich celebrities, working at the Herald now gave him the opportunity to write about the life of the working-man“.

The first product of this unlikely pairing was conventional enough; another in Morton’s series of travelogues, eventually published in book form as “In Search of Wales“. What followed next though was a completely radical departure for Morton. “Labour Party Pamphlet VII” grew out of a series of columns he had been commissioned to write for the Herald in 1933 and was published under the title “What I Saw in the Slums“.

To hold a copy of “What I Saw in the Slums” in one’s hand is, quite literally, to hold a piece of history. This pamphlet was never modernised or re-published in the way that better known, later texts such as Priestley’s “English Journey” or Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” were, so its very pages are part of the period about which they were written.

Understandably therefore, particularly since it was published in soft-back, very few copies have survived to the present day, despite the weighty feel of the publication suggesting it was printed on good quality paper. This makes it one of the rarest, and most collectible of all Morton’s works, and it was my “Mortonian Holy Grail” for a number of years before I finally bagged a copy on E-bay, thanks to a heads-up from avid Mortonite, John Baker.

Slum room“This Single Room is the Home of Husband, Wife and Three Children” –
reads the caption to this photograph of some of the
appalling conditions witnessed by Morton and Jarché

When it finally arrived, my copy was so fragile that I had to repair it with archive-quality adhesive tape and then labouriously scan the entire volume onto my computer in order to produce a facsimile reading copy. After all this, at long last I finally managed to read it and it didn’t disappoint – the wait was well worth it!

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My review of “What I Saw in the Slums” for Isabel Taylor’s online magazine Albion was published a few months ago in the ten year anniversary edition, and can be found about half-way down this page. I hope to be able to publish it in full on this blog in a few month’s time.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor 20 August 2014

(This article was originally circulated on 15 February 2014, as HVM Literary Notes – No.121)

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Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Travel

A Canterbury Tale, by Elisabeth Bibbings

This piece was originally distributed as HVM Society Travellers’ Tales – No.26

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Looking down from an upstairs café window at the entrance to the Cathedral precinct, I amused myself imagining the crowds of a past time – the raucousness and smells of mediaeval Canterbury, the poke bonnets and stagecoaches of the rather more genteel Victorian era (I had just finished re-reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch“).

Seated at the café table with my long-suffering husband and me, was a man with dapper moustache and a notebook, his quick eyes observing everything he saw. The waiter didn’t seem to notice the pipe smoke, and the other café users seemed to be unaware of his presence.

We left the café and went through the archway to the Cathedral. Our companion’s eyes lit up at the soaring towers and he reminded me of how he had visited the heights of Bell Harry tower in 1939. He seemed scandalised when we were asked to pay admission, but when I explained that it costs £18,500 a day to run the Cathedral, he admitted maybe there was a need for it.

Once inside, the soaring heights of the nave drew our thoughts heavenwards. As the hour struck, a clergyman ascended the pulpit and led a short prayer for the troubles of the world.

stained glass

My friend, nursing his trilby (and glaring with outrage at a young man who had kept his cap on in ignorance), pointed out window after window of mediaeval stained glass, the deep blue colouring the pavement below. It was impossible to take in all the details, as Bible story and saints’ tale were depicted in miniature panels on windows stretching higher than we could see.  Only the mason and conservator would ever know the details of these wonderful windows.

We entered the shrine of the Martyrdom, and a guide launched into an enthusiastic description of how well Becket’s death was chronicled as he fell in the presence of the most literate men of the day – the monks. A recent sculpture emphasises the violence and brutality of the murder. Mr. Morton capped the guide’s tales with accounts of his own.

Well covered with Becket’s gore and smarting from King Henry’s penance, we moved on into the Crypt. Here was peace and the silence of centuries long gone by. At the back was a treasure house of secure glass cases, and I was hurried along to see the chalice and patten used by Hubert Walter on crusade in the Holy Land. It was an amazing artefact. “There is not a place to which this chalice travelled in Palestine that I do not know,” Mr. Morton commented. I also saw the mazer mounted with a yellow gemstone reputedly from Becket’s shoe, which came originally from the almshouses of St. Nicholas, Harbledown.*

We ascended (never did a Cathedral have so many different levels!) to the Quire.  Here delicate pointed arches give way to the architecture of Byzantium. Flame-coloured flower arrangements reminded us that the Sunday before was Pentecost. We sat and savoured the scene.

Interior

On further exploration, we found the tombs of Bolingbroke (Henry IV) and the Black Prince. We learned that Henry, because he was not a prince in his own right, (being the son of John of Gaunt) was anointed with holy oil (reputed to have been given by the Virgin Mary to Becket) to justify his being crowned King, after deposing Richard II.

By then, our feet were aching but our companion seemed indefatigable. He kept peering into corners, walking into chapels, saying “You must see this” and showing us ancient wall paintings or quaint memorials from the Kentish Regiment. Eventually I managed to coax him outside and we ended up, as every good visitor must, in the Gift Shop. Here, I left him explaining to my husband how in bygone ages, the shops of Canterbury sold little lead medals as souvenirs whereas now one could buy books, CDs, teatowels, rubber ducks complete with bishops’ mitre . . .

When I returned from making my purchases, my husband was alone.

Where’s Mr. Morton gone?” I asked.

I don’t know,” he replied.  “He said something about going back into the Cathedral.

Maybe if you go there, you will find him too, and he will enlighten your visit as he did mine.

Elisabeth Bibbings, Northamptonshire, England 12 July 2014

*  “I Saw Two Englands“, ch. 3, section 5.

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In Search of Australia

This article first appeared as HVM Society Snippets – No.166

On the first of April, 2005, an HVM Society Bulletin from Peter Devenish claimed the discovery of a previously unknown HV Morton title: “In Search of Australia”. Sceptics in the ranks smelt a rat (or would that be a possum?), particularly given the date of this astonishing announcement. When Peter revealed his April fool prank some days later, relief and amusement abounded in equal measure!

Recently however I have come across evidence which shows, incredibly, “In Search of Australia”, written by HV Morton, was at one time discussed as a serious possibility.

For the following article I am deeply indebted to the Australian National Library’s fascinating “Trove” archive, containing over one third of a billion (!) online pieces, including books, journals, newspapers, maps and music. Trove is described on its web site as an “exciting, revolutionary and free search service”. The fact that it is also highly addictive isn’t mentioned, so be warned – I have spent many a pleasurable hour idly browsing though this rich source of material, greatly to the detriment of domestic duties!

With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

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HV Morton seems to have been held in some esteem in Australia, so much so that on 5th November 1935 a letter was written by one E. Phillips Danker, Brookman Buildings, Grenfell street, Adelaide, South Australia, to the Adelaide Advertiser as follows:

ADVERTISING AUSTRALIA
INVITATION TO H. V. MORTON PROPOSED: To The Editor

Sir— As a practical scheme for advertising Australia, and incidentally our own State Centenary, I wish to suggest that Mr. H. V. Morton, the well known and entertaining travel- writer be invited to this country for the purpose of compiling a book on Australia. Mr. Morton has ‘discovered’ England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland (the latter twice), and has worked London to its limits. He has visited Palestine and now, we might presume, is looking for fresh fields to conquer. I think it is therefore very possible that he would accept an invitation for the Discovery of Australia. The publication of a book by such a popular author, while being a sound financial proposition for himself, would arouse interest overseas which would undoubtedly have a beneficial effect upon this country in the matter of potential trade investment, and tourists. For our own part, to see ourselves as others see us is always of value. Although we, in connection with our Centenary, should be the prime movers, invitations should also be extended by the other States. The fact that this book might not be published in time to influence Centenary visitors is unimportant, and is not the main issue

I am, Sir, &c,

This suggestion came at a fortuitous time for not only was South Australia holding its state centenary celebrations in 1936, but celebrations for the 150th Anniversary of the Commonwealth of Australia were due to be held in 1938, the same year as the Empire Games were being hosted in Sydney, New South Wales.

The impression from press clippings at the time suggests a strong feeling that Australia should use this opportunity to allow the wider world to know and appreciate what she had to offer as a country, and invitations were made to foreign film-makers and authors, of which HVM was one, to come to visit Australia in order to help with the development of this idea.

From what I can gather from the Trove archive, E. Phillips Danker’s suggestion was taken up and discussed, until a column in the paper summarised opinions on the 5th of November the same year, thus:

“… Both support and criticism of the suggestion were received yesterday from literary men in Adelaide. Mr. R. Irwin, representing the Friends of the Public library, said that if a man like Morton were to come to Australia and see the country, he would be bound to write about it. He appeared to see the best side of the countries he visited, yet his pictures were true to life. He would be a splendid man to get to South Australia for the Centenary. Mr. W. H. Langham, of the Public Library Board, said that he saw no objection to inviting H. V. Morton to visit Australia, but he did not think that the writer would accept an invitation. Morton appeared to excel in writing about countries with a history and tradition, a tradition in which he himself was steeped. He would hardly risk his reputation in discovering a new country like Australia. ‘We do not want discovering,’ Mr. Langham added. ‘What we want is criticism, such as might be dealt us by a writer like Aldous Huxley.’”

Then, on Monday 20 July 1936, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) carried this article on page 11:

150th ANNIVERSARY.
Book by English Author Suggested.

“Mr. A. W. Hall, of Springwood, has written to the Minister in charge of Australia’s 150th anniversary celebrations (Mr. Dunningham) suggesting that Mr. H. V. Morton, writer of “In Search of England” and “In the Steps of the Master,” should be invited to Australia for the 1938 celebrations and provided with every facility to write “In Search of Australia.”

Landmarks 0116

Two days later, a letter with a somewhat more partisan flavour appeared from W. E. Fitzhenry, the Secretary of the Fellowship of Australian Writers who (understandably, given his position) felt if anyone was going to publicise Australia to a wider world, it should be an Australian. The title “In Search of Australia” seems now to have become firmly embedded in the popular imagination:

“… if those who are responsible for the 150th anniversary celebrations do decide to sponsor a work of such nature, there would be no need to go to the expense of importing a writer from overseas. We have in Australia a number of excellent descriptive writers who could be trusted to capture the spirit and beauty of their country equally as well as H. V. Morton has captured the spirit and beauty of his country in “In Search of England.” If we are to have “In Search of Australia,” let it be written by an Australian author. In case Mr. Dunningham is giving serious consideration to Mr. Hall’s suggestion, I recommend that he should weigh the claims of Nina Murdoch, Frank Dalby Davison, J. J. Hardie, Will Lawson, S. Elliott Napier, Archer Russell, William Hatfield, Frank Clune, and Ion Idriess, to mention just a few Australian authors whose names readily occur to me. Lovers of Australian literature will be able to name many others who could present the Australian scene as no stranger to our shores could.”

A week or so later came a response from one H. Macpherson:

“… surely most people will agree that H. V. Morton is the only one who will go in search of Australia, and find it, as surely as he found England, Scotland, Ireland, etc. He will not go in search of notoriety, and Australia and the world of readers will have a truthful account of his search. There is only one H. V. Morton, and Australians will see “themselves as others see them.”

– I am, etc.,”

An anonymous columnist summarised both positions on 1st August 1936 but came down in favour of a foreign author:

“The Australian National Travel Association’s invitation to the famous author of ‘In Search of England‘ is of the same character as the scheme whereby well-known American writers recently came here at the initiative of the association. The primary purpose of such invitations is to secure writers of high standing in their respective countries whose descriptions of Australia will reach a wide public there… For this purpose the merit or knowledge of Australian writers is little to the point, since they have not created a great personal public of British readers. The author of ‘In Search of England‘ has achieved this feat in the most striking way by the outstanding excellence of his various travel books. Certainly no Australian writer, and probably no other English one of the same kind, could command such a wide and attentive audience in the British Isles with a book upon Australia.

“An oversea author can also bring to our country a fresh vision and a new outlook, perhaps discovering beauties of which even we ourselves are not completely aware. For what do they know of Australia who only Australia know? It is quite possible that we ourselves, in such a case, may not always be able to see the wood for the trees… An experienced traveller like Mr. Morton also brings a trained observation and a breadth of view obtained from wanderings in many lands. He can thus avoid the superficial or distorted criticism of the country and people “down under” from which we have sometimes suffered at the hands of some oversea visitors in the past… Thus we hope that Mr. Morton will honour us with a visit, and we can promise him a warm welcome when he arrives ‘in search of Australia.'”

On the 4th of August, this invitation was confirmed, in The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.):

H V. MORTON MAY VISIT AUSTRALIA
Guest of Travel Association

“Mr. H. V. Morton, whose articles “In the Steps of St. Paul” are appearing in ‘The Argus,’ may visit Australia late next year or early in 1938.

“He has been invited by the Australian National Travel Association. The chairman of the association (Mr H. W. Clapp), who is also chairman of the Railways Commissioners, said yesterday that Mr. Morton had been invited to visit Australia as the guest of the association, and he had replied that he hoped to be able to accept the invitation before long.”

Australia uid 1039743

Interested parties didn’t have to wait long, and on 10th August, The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser (NSW), announced:

“Mr. H. V. Morton, the well-known travel writer, has accepted the invitation of the Australian National Travel Association to visit Australia early in 1938. “In the Steps of St. Paul” written by this noted writer, is at present appearing in the ‘Record.'”

Enthusiasm grew during the month of August with a column in “Advocate” (Burnie, Tas.) hoping that Tasmania would get a mention in the proposed work and stating, “… somehow I feel there would be much in our ‘Tight Little Isle’ to capture the fancy of H. V. Morton, who sees beauty and that which is very human all around.”.

The Australian Women’s Weekly of 15 August wrote, of Morton:

“His inimitable travel books have a flavor of their own, and as he is a keen observer and writer of infinite gusto the Australian scene should appeal to him… Australia is in need of the right publicity overseas, and visits by men of the calibre of H. V. Morton can do much to present us in a correct light to the rest of the world.”

Then, inexplicably, as far as I can gather from the Trove archive, things go disappointingly silent. It isn’t until nearly four years later, in 1940, that a series of short paragraphs start to appear in various newspapers across the country, of which this, from the Kalgoorlie Miner (WA), on Saturday 3 February, is typical:

Publicity for Australia
AUTHOR’S PROPOSED VISIT Sydney, Feb. 1.

“Mr. H. V. Morton, the well-known British travel writer, will visit Australia after the war to seek material for further works. Mr. Morton has informed the Federal Government that he would have come here at once had the war not occurred. The Minister for the Interior, Senator Foll, said tonight that the Ministry would give Mr. Morton every assistance he might require. Mr. Morton is best known for his ‘In Search of . . .’ series of books…”

So it appears that plans for HVM’s visit “down under” were delayed to the point where war intervened, after which both Britain and Australia had other, more pressing, priorities.

The archive shows that HVM continued to contribute articles to various Australian newspapers throughout the war (“Night watch over England”, “Truth about army cooks”, “They man the beaches and the tanks”) and afterwards (“The Good Old (Pre-Austerity) Days”, “A pineapple problem”). The proposed visit, hailed so enthusiastically in the summer of 1936 and postponed to an unspecified time after the war however, seems never to have materialised; HV Morton never did venture “in search of Australia” – and I think that’s a great pity.

Further reading:
There are three fascinating video clips of Australia’s 150th Anniversary celebrations here.
… and some photographs from South Australia’s State Cenenary here.

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Filed under Magazine Articles, Travel

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.

IMG_3356 crop small

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.

IMG_0278 copy crop med

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.

IMG_3564 crop

“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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Filed under HV Morton, Quotations, Travel

HV Morton: Travelling into the Light

In the Steps of Morton in the Moor
(or, “I’ve had a ride in a Bullnose Morris!”)

being the story of the recording of a BBC radio 4 programme presented by John McCarthy, produced by Stephen Gardner, entitled: “H V Morton: Travelling into the Light”, broadcast on Friday Sept 21st 2012 at 11.00am (originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets no’s. 140a and b).

Anyone who wishes to hear the broadcast can do so, until roughly September 2013, using the BBC’s “Listen Again” facility on this link: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mqr4t

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Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all

Prelude:

On the 22nd of June I was approached, via the HV Morton website, by Stephen Garner of BBC Radio 4 who announced he was making a programme about HV Morton. He said the broadcast was intended to “to retrace one of Morton’s journeys as featured in the book In Search of England and mark the differences which have taken place in England since its publication whilst reflecting on his memoirs and diaries, discovering the life and personality of this intriguing and charismatic man whose influence continues to this day“. Cunningly, he also made complementary remarks about the web site and suggested it would be useful to have me along on the recording which was scheduled for some time in August. Well, how could a lover of both Radio 4 and an admirer of Morton resist such an opportunity (or indeed, such flattery) – I agreed to help by return of post.

In subsequent correspondence I discovered that the programme was to be presented by John McCarthy, the well known journalist who was also a lover of Morton’s writings and of Devon, which he had visited many times as a child. As we got closer to the time of the recording the date was set for Tuesday the 21st of August, when we were to visit 3 locations in Devon to recreate parts of chapter 5 of “In Search of England”. The actual broadcast was finally scheduled for 11.00am on the 21st of September.

I was asked if I could track down a Bullnose Morris car of the sort driven by Morton which could be included in the programme as this was an aspect of the journey which they wanted to explore – and a recording of its Hotchkiss engine during an interview would make for excellent radio!

This task proved somewhat tricky, almost impossible in fact, as I was told repeatedly by everyone I asked that the amount of notice was insufficient and besides, this was the height of the motor show season when many owners would be tied up with other things. Finally however, and to my great relief, Malcolm McKay of the Bullnose Morris Club, showing incredible patience in the face of my repeated pleadings, came up trumps by personally phoning the few members in that area who didn’t have email so hadn’t been contacted earlier. It was one of these, the last on his list infact, who finally answered my call.

I managed to book the day of the recording off work in order to visit each of the three scheduled locations to get a feel for how the programme was to be made to mark the occasion for the HV Morton society by giving this account. I had also been asked to take part myself by giving an interview.

I arranged a photographic unit (my wife Alison, to whom I am incredibly grateful, acting above and beyond the call of duty!) to record the day for posterity and before we knew it the day had arrived.

The day arrives, controversy at Widdicombe:

“… I saw Widecombe! A line of tiny, white thatched cottages lying in luscious hedges, a hollow full of thick green trees, the tall grey tower of a church above them, a village green, an inn; and over the roofs, whichever way you look, the smooth, bald heads of the moor making a curve against the sky”

HV Morton – In Search of England 1927

We set off from Glastonbury at 8.00am on Tuesday 21st August and made excellent progress heading South West to our first destination, Widecombe in the Moor, where we were to meet Stephen and John. We got off to a lovely start, the weather was beautifully warm with fleecy clouds in the sky and patches of sunlight on the tors as we got closer to Dartmoor. Finally we were treated to the magnificent approach to Widecombe itself, down a steep road to a collection of cottages at the bottom, dominated by a large church, surrounded by a patchwork of green fields, each bounded by neat dry-stone walls. We arrived in the centre of the village which, unlike so much on the modern tourist trail seemed utterly unspoilt. With the pub, the tea-room and the village shop all completely in keeping with the rest of the village, we felt that we had actually stepped right into chapter five of “In Search of England”. Surely this had to bode well for the rest of the day to come.

We had arrived about 9.45am so had some time to spare which we spent meandering around and taking a few photographs. During our wanderings we met, leaning on a walking stick of indeterminate direction, a robust and merry silver haired gentleman with whom we had a most pleasant chat while we waited. Morton’s “Uncle Tom Cobleigh” made flesh to be sure!

Pretty soon a small blue car appeared from the end of a little lane and out stepped John McCarthy with notebook in hand and Stephen Gardner clutching armfuls of audio equipment. They had both stayed in the Warren House Inn the previous night.

Hands were shaken and we were introduced properly to “Uncle Tom” whose real name it turned out was Tony Beard, retired farmer, broadcaster, historian and past president of the Devonshire association, otherwise known as “The Wag from Widecombe” who, as the local expert, was here to be interviewed for the programme.

John McCarthy and “The Wag from Widecombe”

Tony guided us to the beautiful church yard set at the bottom of the green bowl of fields and moorland all around us. John and he sat on a low bench, Stephen presented the microphone, and the interview began.

Well, I suppose controversy makes for good journalism but I don’t think anyone was expecting it when Tony’s first comment, delivered in his lilting Devonshire accent, was to the effect that, having read Morton’s section on Widecombe, he was of the opinion that Morton had never even visited the place.

This assertion was based on the report of the white thatched cottages which Morton describes as he approached the village in the mid 1920’s after having visited Cornwall. Tony, born in 1936, stated with great certainty there had never been white thatched cottages in the village so Morton’s account couldn’t be authentic.

As I looked around (once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor!) I noted the cottages in view were indeed of dark, ruddy, Dartmoor stone. I also recalled however, several cottages we had passed on the way (and later we were to see many other similar ones) which although not actually in Widecombe itself were close by, and which were of a pale stone or even whitewashed, and thatched to boot. Morton would certainly have driven past such dwellings on the way to Widecombe nearly a century ago, and they may have caught his eye as being typical of the region therefore worth including in his account. Perhaps a combination of a changing village landscape and a touch of artistic license might account for this apparent anomaly, who can say.

The interview progressed well despite this slightly wobbly opening with John, an admirer of both Morton and Dartmoor, managing to keep things light and with Tony imparting many fascinating facts about the village and its legends, people, history and landscape. By way of compensation perhaps for his initial remark Tony conceded happily that he had particularly enjoyed Morton’s description of the charabancs bringing tourists to the village at the time of his visit, something he himself remembered from years gone by. At the conclusion (and after some prompting from the producer) Tony suggested that John should see the prison at Princetown next (in fact they had been there the day before and done interviews at that time, such is the magic of broadcasting!).

In fact we were off now, not to Princetown but to the village of Bow, near Exeter for the highlight of the day (for me anyway) when we were to come face to face with a real live Bullnose Morris…

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part 2…

The Bullnose Morris:

“He asked me where I was going in that little blue motor-car.”

HV Morton – In Search of England 1927

We arrived just after 11.00am at the house of Nicholas Rhodes, owner of a two seater “sports type” Bullnose, circa 1923. This would have been similar to Morton’s (also a two seater), the most obvious difference being the colour of the body work which in this case was a deep maroon rather than blue as Morton describes his car. Other parts were a mixture of polished brass and gleaming chrome with a varnished plank of pine which served as a dashboard into which instruments were set, screwed or nailed apparently at random.

There was a large clock which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a mantelpiece, which Nicholas assured me was extremely accurate but only twice a day! Next to the clock was an old fashioned brass light switch which in turn was set next to a large brass lever. The driver’s foot-well was stuffed full of more impressive-looking levers and pedals of unfathomable purpose. The eponymous Bullnose shaped radiator was surmounted by a device of brass and clear glass within which was set a tiny indicator needle I was informed was a thermometer, to give the driver an idea of engine temperature.

Finally the moment had arrived and, after John McCarthy had been for a spin and done his interview, it was my turn to play. Without such modern luxuries as doors it was was one foot on the running board and a low hop over the gunwale to get settled into the somewhat small passenger seat. As soon as I had a decent grip on the brass handles inside the car (which seemed to be the nearest anyone got to seatbelts in the 1920’s) we were off into the byways of Devon.

The Bullnose Morris in full flight

The first thing that struck me was the impression of speed as we bowled along at what felt like a considerable rate of knots. Doubtless this feeling was enhanced by the precarious nature of the ride; open topped roof, no seatbelt and a worrying proximity to the solid walls of those notoriously narrow lanes; but actually we did seem to be going at quite a lick for such a tiny and venerable old vehicle. We whizzed along, frightening passers-by with the rich whine of the engine and the rattle of the superstructure, at one point bellowing a hearty good morning to a lady and her Jack Russell terrier as we roared past leaving them pressed into the hedge in our wake. It was all I could do not to shout “Poop poop!”.

As we drove Nicholas told me a little bit about the car which Morton, in his original Daily Express articles had christened “Maud” to lend a little light hearted colour to his accounts. The Morris-Cowley Bullnose was the most popular car of its day, being turned out at a rate of 10,000 per year at peak production in the 1920’s. It toppled the spindly Model-T ford from its premier position by virtue of being simpler to run and to maintain and went on to become the real “people’s car”, a direct precursor to the Minis and Morris Minors of the modern age.

Accordingly it suited Morton’s needs perfectly, lending a popular touch to his accounts as he set out to encourage a love and understanding of the countryside as the road network improved and personal transport developed and became affordable. According to Nicholas the car was also incredibly robust and when I mentioned Morton had taken “Maud” to the Scottish Highlands at a time when the roads in that region were even more wild and untamed than they are now he replied that he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same today. Apparently the Bullnose is “built like a tank” underneath.

Finally, with a roar and a waft of petrol we were back and shooting up the drive into the garage where, despite a frantic flicking of the big brass switch, the Bullnose obstinately continued to rumble and shake, and pour out a rich exhaust. I was told by Nicholas that this “running on” was because the magneto was failing to earth (I nodded politely at this, even though my understanding of things mechanical is approaching zero). It was only when he turned a tap under the dashboard to cut off the fuel supply that the racket finally subsided. Was this, I wondered, a case of “hysterical engine” as reported by Morton?

After politely declining the offer of a cup of tea and promising to send on photographs of the occasion we hopped back into our decidedly more mundane steed of the road and headed North, on the long trek to Clovelly.

Clovelly, the interview and home:

“Somewhere a donkey brays; and you walk slowly up the hill.”

HV Morton – In Search of England 1927

Clovelly harbour at low tide from Morton’s “In Search of England”

Clovelly harbour today – a very well preserved village!

We arrived at Clovelly just before 2.00pm, somewhat later than scheduled. Stephen and John had already descended to the harbour to continue the recording and, after contacting them via the wonders of the mobile phone, we were shown past the reception point and through into this most precipitous of villages. It was the first and almost certainly will be the last time I have ever been able to say “Let me through, I’m with the BBC”!

After a precarious wobble down the steep cobbled street towards the harbour, taking in donkeys en route, we arrived breathless at the bottom, where I prepared to hold forth on the subject of my favourite author. Having now driven around 150 miles in hot Summer weather my old pate was becoming somewhat addled as we walked round the harbour wall to find a spot which was quiet enough to conduct a recorded interview yet still had enough background noise to lend a bit of atmosphere. A small part of me was beginning to question the sanity of my bright idea of following the recording all day as it processed around Devon.

Nevertheless I hope I acquitted myself passably well and managed to convey some of the reasons for my love of Morton’s works and the role of the HV Morton society in trying to promote the man and his writings, as well as talking a little bit about Morton and his Bullnose Morris into the bargain. How much of it will make sense when played back or, in fact, will survive the editor’s scalpel remains to be seen. Responses are always so difficult when one is put on the spot in-front of a microphone; it’s always so easy to think clearly after the event about what it might have been better to have mentioned or indeed, not to have mentioned.

Stephen, who did the interview, was first class however. The questions were straightforward and he managed to put me at ease as the consummate professional he clearly is.

Finally it was the parting of the ways, after a quick chat with the people responsible for marketing Clovelly in the competitive tourist business and a quick photo of John and me against the beautiful (and, yes, still “quaint”) harbour. Everyone shook hands with a feeling the day had gone well and then it was that weary, but oh so picturesque, climb to the top of the village, a quick ice cream from the gift shop and back into the car to begin the journey home to Somerset.

A career highlight – John McCarthy gets to be photographed with the coordinator of the HV Morton Society!

So, all things considered, a great day out which I wouldn’t have missed for all the tea in China. Tiring certainly and occasionally a little nerve racking to one unused to being interviewed and unversed in media techniques but a once in a lifetime experience for me. I now have a greatly increased respect for those professionals who do this sort of thing every day for a living, as well as for those amateurs we see being interviewed on the news from time to time who seem to come across so well; not at all like my tongue-tied ramblings!

The highlight of the day for me was without doubt whizzing precariously through the country lanes in a Bullnose Morris, getting a real, first-hand idea of how Morton might have felt, all those years ago, as he set out on his adventures, leaving his beloved London and going “In Search of England”.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, UK
17 September 2012

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