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Christmas Greetings!

In the Steps of the MasterThe dustjacket, by EA Cox, of HV Morton’s “In the Steps of the Master

For this year’s Christmas bulletin I have taken the liberty of slightly condensing a passage from chapter four of “In the Steps of the Master” in which Morton, with his usual lyrical flare, contemplates some of the distinctions between the traditional European representation of Christmas and what might actually have taken place in ancient Palestine. I am grateful to Stephen Twist who suggested the idea.

In Bethlehem, Morton encounters a door – so low it requires everyone who enteres to stoop – set in a massive wall. On the other side of the door is the Church of the Nativity, “the earliest Christian church in use to-day, and more or less as it left the hands of its builders”.

img543 - A Bethlehem Mother, from In the Steps of the Master snip“A Bethlehem Mother”, photograph by Mary Morton

From there he descends to the cave beneath the high altar which, as he puts it, “tradition claims as the spot where Christ was born”. The exact location is marked with a star, surrounded by a Latin inscription.


“As I stood in this dark, pungent cavern I forgot, I am afraid, all the clever and learned things written about the Nativity by German professors, and I seemed to hear English voices singing under a frosty sky:—

“O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

“How different is this dark little cave under a church from the manger and the stable of one’s imagination! As a child, I thought of it as a thatched English barn with wooden troughs for oats and hay, and a great pile of fodder on which the Wise Men knelt to adore “the new-born Child.” Down the long avenues of memory I seemed to hear the waits singing in the white hush of Christmas night:—

“While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

“There was a rhythmic chinking sound on the dark stairs. A Greek priest, with a black beard curled like that of an Assyrian king, came slowly into the cavern swinging a censer. The incense rolled out in clouds and hung about in the candle flames. He censed the altar and the Star. Then, in the most matter-of-fact way, he genuflected and went up into the light of the church.

“… The grotto was full of little children, silently standing two by two on the stairs. They came forward, knelt down and quickly kissed the stone near the star. Their little faces were very grave in the candle-light. Some of them closed their eyes tightly and whispered a prayer.

“No sooner had the last of them gone, than I heard the chink-chink of the censer; and into the gloom of the Grotto of the Nativity came again a Greek priest like an Assyrian king.”


A very happy Christmas and a good New Year.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England


Filed under Christmas, HV Morton, Literature, Quotations

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.


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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Filed under Connections, HV Morton

The Catholic Herald’s 1936 review of “In the Steps of St Paul”

The Catholic Church has always had a commitment to the preservation of literature. This continues to this day, to our great benefit, in the transcripts of the London-based Catholic Herald – its entire content, from 1935 to the present day, having been scanned, digitised, tagged and extracted to give a fully searchable archive. What an invaluable resource this is for anyone interested in modern history, particularly since currently the archive remains free to view.

The cover of the 1936 edition of “In the Steps of St Paul”

You can imagine my pleasure when I stumbled across a review, from 1936, of HV Morton’s “In the Steps of St Paul” entitled “Follow H. V. Morton — But Read St. Paul” by one of The Herald’s regular contributors, Father CC Martindale SJ (1879-1963) (SJ stands for the Society of Jesus, which is to say the Jesuits). Fr Martindale was a Catholic convert, Oxford scholar and renowned Jesuit author.

The transcription suffers only slightly as a result of minor inaccuracies in the Optical Character Recognition process and the digitised text is easy to read. To eliminate any doubt about the actual content, however, the original, scanned versions of the pages are provided for reference alongside the transcript.

The tone and language used in the review is delightfully “of its time”. Martindale opens politely enough with the hope that Morton’s book will sell well, but then launches into some fairly outspoken criticism. There is none of the non-judgemental, cautious, oblique (some would say sly) language we are so used to seeing in literary criticism these days. The Reverend Father says what he feels, and no mistake: Morton made his journey in the wrong order, he stuck too closely to his chosen title, he excluded the epistles and, what’s more, Martindale suggests Morton may not even be in possession of the sort of mind required to assimilate all the literature essential (in Martindale’s view) to the author of such an undertaking.

Having said all this and hinted at, “many other details we might have challenged” Martindale, rather euphemistically, “proceed[s] to recommend whole-heartedly every part of this book which is strictly true to the title”. And in truth the author does appear pleased with many aspects of Morton’s book as an exposition of St Paul, surely the greatest of all Christian missionaries. Martindale approves of Morton’s “light hearted” tone and his description of “Arab proverbs; quaint anecdotes; adventures anxious and comical” as they are “lavished upon us with profusion”.

HV Morton’s “In the Steps of St Paul” is still in print. For further details click the thumbnail to visit Methuen’s website.

In his closing paragraph, Fr Martindale, ironically sticking extremely closely to the title of his article, impresses upon readers they should certainly follow Morton “In the Steps of St Paul”, suggesting enthusiastically that they will be “astonished, amused, touched, awestruck, frightened, inspired”, but they should read St Paul.

I, in turn, would recommend that you read Martindale’s article! It is an enlightening piece of contemporary writing and gives a view of how Morton and his works were perceived by some at the time. Interestingly, it also tells us that the Church was not unequivocally happy with Morton’s writings on the Holy Land; something which these days, is difficult to comprehend when religious bodies seem to be falling over themselves for the type of popular appeal that Morton was able to lend.

Niall Taylor 5th November 2012

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