Tag Archives: I James Blunt

“I, James Blunt”, by Kenneth Fields

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

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“I, James Blunt”

a commentary, by Kenneth Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under HV Morton in the media, Literature, Wartime

“I, James Blunt” – propaganda, fiction or both? by Elisabeth Bibbings

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This article was first issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.174 on 11 November 2014

This summer, I was browsing (yet again) in a secondhand bookshop, and found a delightful volume of Paul Gallico short stories (famous of course for “The Snow Goose”).  In this book, he reproduced some of his best magazine stories, and also had written an interesting preface to each one, telling how the story came to be created.

One such story was called “Thief is an Ugly Word”, (produced in Cosmopolitan during the Second World War).  The story told how the Nazis, to fund their war effort, turned to peddling stolen art, mostly using Fascist sympathisers in Argentina.  There was truth behind the story, and Gallico explains how the truth came to be spelt out in this fashion:

“During the war (in America) there was created at the behest of Washington, the most astonishing propaganda agency which met in New York, called the Writers’ War Board. . . its function was simple and easy to understand. When the psychological warfare boffins in Washington needed a writing job of any kind, the problem was dumped into the lap of the War Board in New York which found the right author in the shortest possible time and got the job done.  This would be in the guise of short stories, novelettes, newspaper articles or even circulars and pamphlets.  It worked . . .Propaganda in fiction is useful only when the characters and the story are thoroughly beguiling, interesting, or exciting and entertaining.  [He goes on to say that the story must be good or else the nugget of information you are conveying won’t get through – like “sugarcoating the pill”.]

“If this strikes you as a devious way to go about an exposee and if you might be inclined to say that a factual and documented article . . . might have been more effective, you would be wrong.  It is a fact, startling perhaps in its implications, that fiction has a far greater propaganda value and gains far more credence amongst readers than actuality.  I need refer you only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the results it achieved. A truth becomes far more vivid and active and lives in people’s minds to a much greater extent when fictionalised than when presented merely as fact.  People like to be told a story.”

From the collection “Confessions of a Story-Teller“, published in 1961.

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This reminded me of Morton and his one fictional work “I, James Blunt”.  For those who haven’t read it, it is a diary of an ordinary man living in Nazi England, after Germany has won the war.  It grimly describes day-to-day life including living in fear that someone with a grouse against you may turn you over to the authorities – which is what happens to James Blunt in the story.  It’s about the only work of Morton’s that I don’t particularly want to re-read and re-re-read.

But was this written in the same way as Gallico’s tale?

Kenneth Fields, HVM Society historian, writes in his book “The Life of an Enchanted Traveller” that the Ministry of Information did the job of the American Writers War Board.

“Its many separate divisions included a Home Intelligence Unit that prepared reports on the morale of the civilian population, a Films Division and a Literary and Editorial Division that produced a range of booklets about the war. The Authors’ Section was housed in the University College buildings in Gower Street, Bloomsbury and for a period its head was novelist Graham Greene who worked alongside fellow writer Malcolm Muggeridge. With academic scepticism they both believed their work was of little importance and found the Ministry to be generally inefficient.

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

It was as a result of his work for this Division, that Morton was chosen, along with Howard Spring, to write up the account of Churchill’s summit with Eisenhower which you will find in his book “Atlantic Meeting”.

I agree with Gallico that fiction makes for powerful propaganda.  Morton has the Union Jack banned, Waterloo Station becomes Goebbels Station, (names of British victories being erased from history), houses crumbling and the suicide rate soaring.  The Hitler Youth Movement is planned to be rolled out in schools.  Children will be educated in German.  All this carefully written to stiffen the morale of the British public.

Morton finishes his sombre novella with these words, “Fortunately the Diary of James Blunt will remain fiction as long as England condemns complacency and bring to times of good news the same high courage and resolution which inspire and unite her in her darkest hours.

As we remember those darkest hours, and those who fell in them, and those who did not fall, but fought on with that same courage and resolution – may we also spare a thought for those who fought Fascism with the weapons at their command – the typewriter and the pen.

With best wishes,

Elisabeth Bibbings

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Filed under Armistice day, Magazine Articles, Remembrance