Tag Archives: Literature

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

IMG_2787 crop

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.

I James Blunt 2

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

A Right Royal Confusion

George V coronationGeorge V’s impressive coronation portrait
(picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Some time ago I received the following email from journalist and editor, Peter Dron, a regular reader of the HV Morton blog, who has a real eye for literary detail:

Hello Mr Taylor,

I am reading a 2006 edition of “In Search of England” and I am puzzled by a passage in Chapter Ten, in which Morton stops at Oakham Castle in Rutland. He is referring to the tradition which obliges members of the nobility passing through the town to pay a “tax” of a horseshoe. Various kings and queens were among those who had paid this tribute:

The tragedy of Oakham Castle is that King George V never paid the tax.

“’If only we could have got him!’ said the caretaker to me. ‘I believe he passed through on the railway once; but that doesn’t count! When the King came here, as Prince of Wales, he looked round and said, “Where’s Father’s!”’”

This book was supposedly published in 1927, when of course George V was King and the Prince of Wales was that buffoon who later became the Duke of Windsor. Can you cast any light on this mystery?

With best wishes,

Peter Dron

As always with matters-royal, I feel confusion about dates, especially at that difficult time for the nation. So I reminded myself, courtesy of Wikipedia, that George V ruled from 1910 to 1936 (having succeeded Edward VII). He himself, was succeeded by his son, Edward VIII (formerly Prince of Wales – the buffon!), who ruled from 20 January 1936 to 11 December 1936. Following his abdication he was succeeded by his brother, George VI, (formerly Duke of York) who ruled from 11 December 1936 to 6 February 1952.

Given that many of the sections in “In Search of England” were originally written as newspaper columns prior to 1927 (when the book was published) but none would have been published any later; the passage quoted seems to make for strange reading.

Edward VIII 1932The future Edward VIII in 1932
(picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Prince of Wales, who became the king mentioned in the excerpt can’t have been either Edward VIII or George VI as these both came to the throne after 1927 (and anyway, George VI was never Prince of Wales)

So that leaves us with George V himself, who would have been king during the writing of all the sections of the book and had been Prince of Wales from 1901 to 1910. I wondered whether HVM could have been referring to George V in both sentences, thus:

‘If only we could have got him [i.e. George V]!’ said the caretaker to me. ‘I believe he passed through on the railway once; but that doesn’t count! When the King [i.e. George V again] came here, as Prince of Wales [between 1901 and 1910], he looked round and said, “Where’s Father’s! [i.e. Edward VII]”’”

That explanation would certainly be factually possible but it is clumsy, and spoils the sense and flow of the paragraph and would suggest that both George V and his father Edward VII both managed to avoid the “tax”.

Alternatively, could this have been a tall tale from a wily caretaker spinning a plausible-sounding story to the tourists over the years in return for acclaim (and the occasional tip!). Another, more mundane, possibility was this might simply have been an error, in a rather complicated passage, which was never corrected.

I love a mystery, so I dug out some of my various editions of “In Search of England” and had a look. And pretty soon my search bore fruit!

In Search of England 1965 smallThe cover of the 1965 edition of “In Search of England

I compared the relevant passage in both a 1927 edition and a 1965 edition (ironically using a horseshoe as a paperweight) and they read as follows (with my annotations):

The 1965 edition reads as Peter’s original quote:

“’If only we could have got him [George V]!’ said the caretaker to me. ‘I believe he passed through on the railway once; but that doesn’t count! When the King [Edward VIII] came here, as Prince of Wales, he looked around and said “where’s father’s [George V]?”’”

Whereas the original, 1927, edition reads:

“’If only we could get him [George V]!’ said the caretaker to me. ‘I believe he passed through on the railway once; but that doesn’t count! As soon as the Prince of Wales [the future Edward VIII] came in here he looked round and said “where’s father’s [George V]?”’ We want a shoe from the King very badly, and we haven’t lost hope!

At last I could relax! It seems that HVM (or, more likely, an editor) went back, some time during the brief reign of Edward VIII, and changed the passage in question to fit the prevailing position. The removal of the last sentence “We want a shoe from the King very badly, and we haven’t lost hope!” is interesting in its own right – was this done at the same time, or after the abdication when its meaning and interpretation would have become so complicated (was it Edward VIII or the (by then) late George V to which it referred?) as to make it hardly worth the bother?

The editor in question obviously didn’t consider how confusing this would make the reading of the passage to future generations who otherwise might have been perfectly happy with it, knowing when the book was published!

Members may be interested to read another HVM blog article, “Call me a cab”, inspired by Peter Dron, about a little known piece of London architectural heritage.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This article was originally circulated as HVM Literary Notes – No.126 on 20 July 2014

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Filed under HV Morton, Quotations

“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

Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII (image courtesy of wikipedia)

Pope Pius XII
(image courtesy of wikipedia)

I am just reading HVM’s book “A Traveller in Rome” – AGAIN, and with much pleasure – and am interested in his views on Pope Pius XII which are very positive. This pope was very much defamed after the war – quite wrongly, but Morton published this in 1957! Possibly “they” decided to have a go at the Pope after this date – for what  he was supposed to have not done during the war. As it happens he did a great deal but had to be quiet about it. I can’t imagine Hitler taking much notice of anything he had to say about the situation, he would simply have shut him up one way or another.

Bearing that in mind I have put together the short piece that follows. Really, surely this should go on TV  like Bradshaw’s journeys by Michael Portillo on the train round the country, which are very interesting – but HVM knocks spots off old Bradshaw!

I once started to write a travel book of my journey round the Middle East and some time later read HVM – frankly I threw my stuff in the bin. The amount of sheer hard work and research – before Ye Internet – combined with his wonderful writing skills and connections to people wherever he went is, to me, genius.

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HV Morton, the celebrated travel writer, states in his book “A Traveller in Rome”, published in 1957:

There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonised that Pope Pius XII and the stories I heard about him made me anxious to see a man who will one day be numbered among the saints”.

The cover of "A Traveller in Rome"

The cover of “A Traveller in Rome”

Morton obtained a ticket for an audience at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer home, among thousands of others. His holiness appeared on the balcony, seated on a red and gold chair, an elderly, frail white haired man, wearing gold rimmed spectacles and  “radiating holiness”.

Even if I been unaware of his ascetic lifestyle and his saintliness,” HVM wrote, “I should have felt this. He is a thin aristocrat whose hands are of the thin and attenuated kind that El Greco loved to give to his saints. His face is slim and sallow, his eyes dark and deep set. He is so upright and precise in his movements that it is difficult to believe he is eighty years old.”.

HVM goes on to describe the Pope in more detail: He speaks eight languages, he says, and was the first Pope to have flown, to descend into a mine and to visit a submarine. In 1917 he carried to the Kaiser the offer of Benedict XV to mediate in the first World War. He knew Hitler before the last war and he was elected in 1939, on his birthday, when he was sixty three years old. An unfortunate time to become Pope indeed!

Morton does not comment on the Hitler connection which, of recent years, has been the cause of so much defamation of this Pope since, in 1957 – when “A Traveller in Rome” was published, the campaign to condemn Pius for not sorting Hitler out had not yet begun. At this audience the Pope gave a short speech and a blessing in several languages and clearly was hugely popular and much loved.

HVM later had a private audience with his holiness. It was a simple ceremony in which Morton received a blessing and, while down on one knee, found himself fascinated by the beautiful scarlet velvet papal shoes peeking out from beneath the hem of the Pope’s spotless white soutane. Again HVM states his belief that he was in the presence of a truly holy man, who led a frugal and ascetic life and who loved birds, keeping two pet canaries which he allowed to fly around his apartments in the Vatican.

With hindsight, looking back from the year 2014 at Morton’s pleasant and  fascinating account of his meeting with Pope Pius XII sixty years ago, it is relevant to mention the unjustified attacks this Pope has been subjected to since that time.

From around 1963 Pius XII has been accused of being a friend of Hitler and not speaking out against the Holocaust – this is not the place to discuss these accusations which, in any case, have already been strongly refuted. It is difficult to know what Hitler would have said or done had the Pope made a public denunciation of him anyway, but it is hardly likely that he would have taken any notice.

In the event Pius XII did much to help the Jews, as well as many other victims of the war, in a quiet and – of necessity – secret way for which he should be thanked instead of defamed. When HV Morton met his holiness in the 1950s, he perceived Pius XII as a man of goodness, holiness, courage, intelligence and concern for all. If negative and defamatory things were being said about the Pope in Rome at that time surely, as a writer who missed little in his travel books and researched his material thoroughly, HVM would have been aware of it.

Barbara Green, West Yorkshire

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An unusual HVM connection

HVM Society Snippets – No.163
(originally circulated to the HV Morton Society 25 January 2014)

“Jo went leaping down the stairs…”

An unusual HVM connection

Dear Fellow Mortonites,

Some time ago I received an email from someone who described themselves as “a middle-aged Welshwoman living in the English Midlands” who went by the name of Molly. She had spotted the HV Morton website and made contact.

Molly wrote, “I came to Morton initially because I was on a quest to read all the books referenced in  the Chalet School series, where a character is reading ‘In the Steps of St Paul‘. So I read this, loved it, told my 86 year old father, and it turned out that Morton had been a great favourite of his family in the thirties. Further, I found a cache of books on his shelves… I continued with ‘In the Steps of the Master‘, ‘In Search of England‘ (which I found just a little self-conscious at times) and am now thoroughly enjoying ‘In Search of Wales‘.

Chalet School is a series of 60 books set in a girls’ school, written by Elinor Brent-Dyer between 1925 and 1970. According to wikipedia the original school was located in Austria then, following the rise of Naziism, relocated (rather rashly, with hindsight, even for a fictional establishment) to the Channel Islands before moving to the British mainland and then finally back to the continent, this time to Switzerland. Although modern-day reprints are available they are often heavily revised and altered (presumably in the name of “political correctness“) and, as a result, many of the original editions are highly sought after and change hands for considerable sums of money.

Cover

As one would expect these days, these books have an internet presence including the polished and informative “Friends of the Chalet School” and “insanity sandwich” (now no longer updated) which has a web page listing every one of the books & plays mentioned in the Chalet School series – there is an enormous number of them, Molly certainly has her work cut out.

Molly informed me the passage in question was from “The Highland Twins at the Chalet School“. To give a little context, Jo (the ongoing heroine of the CS) has gone off to collect the eponymous highland twins from the station. She is going to look after them because the Admiralty have commandeered their Scottish Island for the duration. (it’s set in 1940).  Robin, who is roughly 17 years of age and ridiculously angelic – she is later to enter a convent – is reading Morton. The excerpt is as follows:

Jo went leaping down the stairs, and Robin, left to herself, glanced at her wristwatch which was lying on the bedside table. ‘Twenty to six. Jo will have to buck up if she means to be at Armiford station by half-past six. Not that I think it will do any good. Well, I’ll just have another chapter or so of “In the Steps of St Paul“, and then I’d better get out. But it’s not worth while going to sleep again.’ She pushed up her pillows, pulled a woolly round her shoulders, for her nightgown was sleeveless, and the morning air coming through the wide-open window was sharp, with just a touch of frost, and settled down to a half-hour of enjoyment.

As to why Brent-Dyer chose to have one of her characters reading “In the Steps of St Paul“, Molly has a theory: “My guess is that she hadn’t actually read it herself, and thought it was more  – shall I say – religious and less political/travel-ly/generally contemporary than it is…“. Seen that way, Morton’s work would be ideal reading material for the “ridiculously angelic” Robin, seeking a literal path to enlightenment by following in the steps of one of Jesus’s disciples.

I hope this has been of some interest to Morton completists such as myself. If anyone enjoys this sort of thing you might be interested in a previous article listing a few more quirky links, including the wonderful “Hackney Podcast“.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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HV Morton on the Kindle: Something which won’t be on my Christmas List!

This piece was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.128 on 3rd Ocstober 2011

It is 85 years since H.V. Morton made his journeys around England which became immortalised as “In Search of England”.  One of the most evocative passages for me is the point where he visits St Anthony in Roseland in Cornwall.  While staying with some hospitable locals Morton is invited to trudge up a muddy lane in order to experience the contemporary pinnacle of what we would refer to today as “information technology”: a valve radio.  He meditates on the marvels of this modern miracle and shares the amazement of the locals as he listens to the tinkle of coffee cups and the rhythmic thrumming of a dance band in the Savoy Hotel, hundreds of miles away in London.  Morton was clearly at ease with modern technology.

Kindle

So, it was probably not in the spirit of the great man when I felt a small shudder travel up my spine as I read on the Amazon web-site recently that this first of his series of travelogues is now available in a “Kindle” edition.  The Kindle is an electronic reader, a device claiming to be everything a book is and more.  The adverts show us pictures of actors laughing while whipping Kindles out of over-sized bags (“see how small and convenient it is”) and desperately trying to appear as if they are enjoying themselves while their Kindle is exposed to sand on the beach or being enthusiastically licked by the pet dog (“see how rugged and portable it is”).  With thousands of different volumes stored on a single device you need never worry about having to find a real book on a real shelf ever again – everything is downloadable on a whim.

Well, I’m afraid I am unable to share the enthusiasm of its promoters, hard as this will be for Amazon to bear, I’m sure.  It’s just that I love actual books too much; even the most battered volume in my collection means more to me than the blank, empty eye of an electronic reader ever could. The feel, look, sound and even smell of pages as they are turned beneath one’s fingers is a million miles away from the cold caress of a plastic screen while little computer sounds attempt to mimic the noise of real pages. My books are friends to me, good and convivial companions through life’s journey.  I know each one of them intimately, they represent a living connection with things past and present – people and places I have known and visited down the years (I just have to look at my copy of “In Scotland Again” to be taken back in my mind’s eye to a cottage on the Mull of Kintyre on the shores of Loch Caolisport).

To me reading a book isn’t just about reading words, it is a personal and sensual experience.  Each book, with its individual creases and imperfections, its fonts and layout has a patina, a character of its own that no electronic device could ever capture, no matter how ‘convenient’ it claims to be (although who ever complained that a book’s batteries have run down!).  Some may see me being a “stick in the mud” (as my mother would say) by not moving with the times and keeping up with the latest technology, but that’s not entirely true.  I love the computer age, I am fascinated with word processors, the internet, email and MP3 players.  But books are different, they are my technological line in the sand, “thus far and no further!” I say, and the electronic reader is, for me, a step too far!

Anyone wishing to know more about the Kindle edition of In Search of England should follow this link.

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

p.s. Peter Devenish of the HV Morton Society comments: “Morton certainly was interested in new technology, even in his later years. In his letters he described how delighted he was when TV came to South Africa; and he was as excited as a 15-year-old with the first landing on the Moon. Whether the Kindle would have been the “technological line in the sand” for HVM I don’t know but, with his great love for his library and books generally, I suspect he would have shared Niall’s view.”

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A few Morton Connections

I had just sat down to enjoy a delicious “Pizzetta” from the Glastonbury market, accompanied by a pickled gherkin and a handful of Greek olives, all washed down with a glass of Coolwater Bay Sauvignon Blanc when an excited squeak from the other-half announced that she had stumbled across another HV Morton-related link while surfing the information superhighway.

I say “excited squeak” – it was more of an “oh no, not again“-type expostulation to be quite frank. I’m afraid the dearly-belovéd doesn’t entirely share her patriarch’s passion for all things Morton – a failing of which I am happily tolerant; it takes all sorts to make a world after all and it behooves a good Mortonite to be forgiving of another’s shortcomings.

In Search of England 1952 edn

As it happens I already had in mind a post to air a few of the various connections I have come across recently concerning Morton, the vast number of which are a testament to his phenomenal popularity during the early and mid-20th century. An author, born some 120 years, ago who still regularly crops up on random internet searches has clearly had a tremendous impact on popular culture at some point.

What Alison had discovered was a brief but very significant reference to Morton’s “In Search of England”, the 1927 publication that arguably ushered in the period of his greatest popularity. The link is on a blog, entitled “Socks for the Boys!” by historian and author Alison Twells, featuring a series of excerpts from the diaries of the writer’s Aunt Norah who lived from 1925 to 2009.

The material on the blog gives a fascinating insight into the concerns, fears and everyday events of Norah’s life. Particularly interesting for me was the entry on the page with the heading “Hitler Trouble“, written when Norah was just 14 years old (by my calculation), which begins “31st August 1939: Ma & I went down for tea to Helen’s. Came back early. Went down to Hills & post. Started to read ‘In Search of England’ by HV Morton. Cold. Hitler trouble.

If you have an eye for detail you will not be surprised to realise that what comes next is not this young girl’s impressions of Morton’s travelogue; her reading is interrupted in no uncertain manner by the outbreak of the Second World War, as Hitler invades Poland, and Britain declares war on Germany over the course of the next three days. The day after war is declared Norah’s diary records the sinking of the passenger ship Athenia and ends simply with the comment “sunny“.

Alison Twells’s intention is to eventually publish a book based on her aunt’s diaries and I wish her the best of luck. If her blog is anything to go by this will be a worthy and enlightening project.

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HV Morton's London

I have no idea what the connection Morton has with hosiery but, after “Socks for the Boys!“, the second website on my list is called “Sockless musings from London“. The blog entry announces a “One a day audio challenge” and goes on to review “HV Morton’s London“, a compilation of his three earlier books “The Heart of London“, “The Spell of London“, and “The Nights of London“.

The reviewer, a Canadian writer who goes by the name of “Sockless“, obviously likes the book quite a bit judging by her comments, and reports it is her intention to share this out-of-print work by posting a section from it online every day for a year.

Sadly however, this is the only post on the blog, her project remains unrealised, and my comment about it remains unanswered. This is a great pity – if you are still out there Sockless I hope everything is OK and that you might return to your challenge at some point in the future.

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The final entry today (I think I’ve gone on quite long enough, don’t you!) is a bit of an oddity that I have sat on for some years. It is part of the Hackney Podcast, a series of recordings about the East End London Borough of Hackney. Hackney Podcast volume 18 is a wonderfully atmospheric soundscape, based around readings from “HV Morton’s London” interspersed with selections of street sounds and general goings-on over a 24 hour period, including disoriented clubbers, partying squatters, late night booksellers and market traders opening up for the day. There are also other historical and contextual readings about the area.

Whoever thought of doing this must have quite a vision – the works of HV Morton and the hustle of the modern-day east end wouldn’t necessarily be the most obvious things to put alongside one another but the melange really works and provides a real insight into what it must have been like for Morton as a young  journalist wandering the streets looking for people to talk to and places to see, to use as material for his newspaper column.

After listening to the full 30 minutes of this haunting work,  you are left with the impression that actually, despite superficial differences, Morton himself might well have recognised many of the kinds of people featured in the production and would have discovered much useful material for “HV Morton’s 21st Century London“!

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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