Who is HV Morton?

HV Morton (1892-1979)

Henry Vollam Canova Morton (or HVM), was Britain’s foremost travel writer during the period between the wars, hailed at the time as “the world’s greatest living travel writer”.

Morton was born to Margaret and Joseph in the town of Ashton-under-Lyne in North-West England. He cut his journalistic teeth training as a cub reporter with the Birmingham Gazette, where his father was Editor-in-Chief. Later he relocated to London where he wrote for Empire Magazine, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail. With the close of the First World War during which he served with the Warwickshire Yeomanry Morton set his foot on the international stage with an eye witness account for the Daily Express of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923.

He eventually wrote up to fifty books and countless other articles for magazines, newspapers and journals. Morton wrote on such diverse subjects as the coronation and other Royal events, the best way to use a Leica camera (he was also an expert photographer) and was comissioned by Winston Churchill to help the war effort through his writing and reporting. In a 1936 newspaper article he spoke out in condemnation of Mussolini’s attacks on Abyssinia in the 1930s, describing them as “gangster attacks”.

But it is for his travelogues that Morton is best known. His first book, “The Heart of London” (1925), was a collection of his Daily Express articles about aspects of the capital, and marked the begining of an enduring love-affair with the city he described as a “splendid theatre” where “the comedy and the tragedy of the human heart are acted day and night”.

In Search of England”, published in 1927, was an account (again originally a series of newspaper articles) of his travels around England in a little blue Bullnose Morris car, and quickly became a best seller. It was followed by a companion work, “The Call of England” (1928), and other volumes describing journeys through Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Pursuing a lifelong passion for archaeology and ancient history, Morton also wrote of his visits to the Holy Land, and later to Spain, Italy and South Africa. Many of his books are still in print to this day.

The cover of HV Morton’s “The Call of England” by F Gregory Brown

Morton’s style:

The immense popularity of his works was due in large part to the style of his prose. Morton had an incredible eye for detail, writing from the point of view of the little person, allowing the reader to identify with both the narrator and the characters he meets on his travels. His colleague at the Daily Express, Collie Knox, said of him at the time,

“Harry Morton is a wonderful writer. He has the gift of description tremendously developed. He will attend a national ceremony with every other newspaper star writer, and will notice that a shy little woman in black with a medal ribbon pinned on her breast is sobbing in a corner. While the other writers will concentrate on the obvious highlights, the pomp and splendour, Harry Morton will hang his story on the little woman in black. Instantly she will stand out as the central figure and she will live before the reader.”

HVM also contrives to lend a sense of romance and drama to even the most mundane of events. For instance, in his 1951 “In Search of London” Morton is at his evocative best waxing lyrical about a simple flock of pigeons startled by the twin jets of the fountains in Trafalgar Square as they are turned on first thing in the morning:

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

At a time when Britain was a mainly rural country on the threshold of widespread industrialisation and urbanisation Morton was one of very few writers to record it and its rapidly expanding road network by the novel means of the motor car. His journals are an almost unique snapshot, a window into the living past of a nation which for better or worse will never be seen again.

Morton is best described as portraying a rural idyll – an uplifting image of the world that he found around him – in a light hearted and readable manner. In some ways this is an idealised, romanticised view but it is one which readers have always had a great appetite for. Some analysts trace the style as far back as Jacobean times; it is seen in the literature of Hardy and Wordsworth, the music of Vaughan Williams and Holst and it continues with modern authors such as Bill Bryson, publications like Country Life Magazine and television programmes such as Escape to the Country. The strength of this appeal cannot be underrated and at the height of his popularity, with the mechanised horrors of the Great War so painfully fresh in public memory, Morton catered for it wonderfully.

The man behind the narrator:

As one would expect, there is more to Morton than meets the eye and behind the whimsical, gentleman narrator of his travelogues there was a hard working, canny, professional writer. He was a creature of his time, a product of the Edwardian certainties of class, sex and race and consequently some of his views make uncomfortable reading for modern ears. Certain commentators, in particular Max Hastings, have found it profitable to point out Morton’s darker side to the exclusion of everything else that is known about him. His right wing sympathies (described by biographer Michael Bartholomew as “more prejudice than politics”) and frustration with some aspects of British society in particular have landed him in hot water.

Despite the naïve political philosophisings of his private diaries there is no question that Morton loved his native land dearly, however he may have criticised it at times. When the crunch finally came Morton was prepared to put his life on the line during the Second World War. He commanded a Home Guard unit at a time when invasion of Britain seemed a near certainty and noted in his diary the possibility of his dying alongside his comrades in defence of his village against Hitler’s forces.

Author and journalist Andrew Marr addresses this contradiction which beset not just Morton, but significant numbers of the British people at all levels of society who desperately wanted to put the War to end all Wars behind them. In the preface to his book “A History of Modern Britain” Marr states, “It is easy to feel appalled and bemused by the enthusiasm of so many intelligent British people for Mussolini and Hitler but there was more to it than cowardice and racism. There was an important yearning for government that actually worked – that ended unemployment, built big new roads, developed modern industries and, yes, made the trains run on time”. Marr goes on to make the point that it took the Second World War to make democracy fashionable; a feeling we take for granted today.

There is, as in everything, a balance to be struck here. It is important that HV Morton’s shortcomings are recognised as well as his accomplishments but also that his works are are allowed to stand on their own merits. Morton’s so-called flaws are by no means unique among others of his and later times and pale into complete insignificance compared with some of the revalations of the modern age. He wasn’t perfect (is anyone?) but regardless of his feet of clay we are all the richer for having him and his legacy.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

22 responses to “Who is HV Morton?

  1. Alex in Leeds

    Ooh hello, thank you for adding me to your blog roll. I have a stack of Morton reviews to be posted this year and I look forward to learning more about HVM here too. 🙂

  2. Maund

    By Jiminy Niall,you are a busy Mortonian aren’t you? How on earth do you find the time for looking after old ladies cats & canaries,your hedges,wife,domestic obligations et al…your enthusiasm is impressive for which I am most appreciative.Thank you,Richard Maund.

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  4. Maggie

    2020.. from a Northern lass in lockdown with feisty cat…
    Reading a 50p copy of In Search of England (Penguin reprint 1961) Loving it. Henry V Morton`s observational prose is great escapism from the Covid 19
    fog which surrounds us. Who said “the past is another country” How true.

    • Thanks, Maggie, 50p second-hand volumes are the best, it never seems quite right somehow, reading a modern reprint of Morton’s works! And yes, he is absolutely the best antidote to lockdown and covid blues.

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  6. Steven J Cihomsky

    I very much enjoy his book A traveler in Italy. Excellent stuff!!!

  7. GAVIN OBRIEN

    JUST READ IN SEARCH OF SOUTH AFRICA AND WHAT A WONDERFUL AND EVOCATIVE BOOK IT IS . MY PARENTS AND THEIR 3 YOUNG SONS EMIGRATED CO CAPE TOWN WHERE WE SETTLED , WERE SCHOOLED AND GREW UP , OFTEN TRAVELLING BY CAR WIDELY TO MANY OF THE PLACES DESCRIBED IN THE BOOK AND MY OLD MERMORIES OF THAT OLD FASHIONED AND NEMLY EVOLVING CHANGES WERE WONDERFUL TO READ AGAIN . MANY OF HIS VERY ACCURATE AND PRECISE DESCRIPTIONS OF PEOPLE AND PLACES WERE SO WELL , AND OFTEN AMUSINGLY WRITTEN . WILL READ MORE OF HIS WORKS .

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  9. In which book does he describe the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb?

  10. Paul Steeples

    Interesting,a family friend was M V Morton who ran a prep school in a decaying Victorian Seminary building in Burgh-le -Marsh ,Lincolnshire
    Then became deputy headmaster at the RAF benevolent college for the children of RAF members in Blackheath
    He died in Brampton Suffolk whilst a lay minister in the CofE and is buried in the local churchyard
    However Mike is never mentioned in
    accounts of his fathers life
    He deserves better

    • Thanks for this, Paul. Michael has featured in a couple of HV Morton Society bulletins in the last year or so. He was very highly thought of from what I can gather, you are privileged to have known him.

  11. Carol Garnett

    My first experience of HVM was buying In Search of England at a local book fair. I was so enchanted I have since collected everyone of his books. I read and reread them and they never lose their wonder and delight fir me.

    • Thanks, Carol, they are a truly timeless delight!

      • purser01

        I totally agree with your comments. I am always amazed at the wealth of historical facts and events which he includes. From the Victorian elite going down to the crypts to rummage among the bones of their ancestors to the smuggling of a corpse from Holland by chopping the body into three. I always wondered how they severed it.

    • I know how you feel Carol, I envy you your collection.. I first read “Waters of Rome” from the library. This so enthralled me that I read other works as I came across them. Mainly from book sales when I started collecting them. I now have most, but not all I am afraid to say. They now are hard to find in New Zealand. May I ask you a favour. I came across a reference to him being at the opening of the Tutankhamen site, in one of his books on the Middle East. Now I cannot find it. Do you recall where it is?

  12. michaeledavies

    Morton does indeed write captivatingly and it’s interesting to note that he has persuaded you that England was on the brink of industrialisation and urbanisation in 1926. The 1851 census shows that 50% of the population already live in towns and cities like the one where he was born. And the reason people left the country for the town was because life was better there! Morton is very readable but the England he describes was already gone if indeed it ever existed. JB Priestly’s English Journey pub 1934 is perfect to read alongside Morton for balance. They were near contemporaries but Priestly was a socialist and Morton in his private writings supported Hitler.

    • Thanks, Michael. In my defence what I actually wrote was that the country was on the threshold of “widespread industrialisation and urbanisation”. Of course you are correct, the country was already heavily industrialised by 1926, it was the encroachment into rural areas which so upset Morton, particularly with the development of the road network and affordable transport. In later texts he shows he is not unaware of the irony that he himself was one of the major prophets of this movement.
      Morton’s view of British rural life was an idealised one, I don’t think you’ll find any argument with that here. But that is not to deny the importance of the ancient tradition of the Rural Idyll in the popular imagination to which Morton responded so sympathetically. After the horrors of the First World War there was a desperate need in many to affirm just what the country had been fighting for, and it wasn’t the factory floor or urban backstreets but green fields, bosky lanes and a deep history. All writers, travel-writers included, have an agenda and so did Priestley. If you’d like to read my take on both Morton’s and Priestley’s view of the country you might like to have a look at this article – https://hvmorton.com/2016/02/20/three-books-two-authors-two-englands/. They were not only contemporaries by the way, they were members of the same club!
      Morton’s diary entries are naive and inconsistent, his biographer describes his views as “more prejudice than politics”. I’m not aware he was ever recorded as having supported Hitler or British fascists even though, in common with many in Britain at the time, he expressed sympathy for fascism. Despite this he was under no illusion that in victory the Nazis would “show no mercy to people like myself”, presumably a reference to his ethnicity.
      He wrote with certainty that every effort must be made to defeat Germany and said he would rather die than be conquered by them. At one point during the war he was offered the chance to relocate with his family to the USA, out of harm’s way but, even though tempted, he refused insisting he had to stay to “do one’s little futile bit” for his country. Morton served with the Home Guard and was prepared to put his life on the line in the event of a Nazi invasion, noting in his diary the distinct possibility of his dying alongside his comrades in defence of his village against Hitler’s forces – “The odds are that I shall die at Binstead cross-roads”.
      Furthermore his skills as a writer were also put to good use in supporting the war effort (occasionally without payment) both on the home-front and on the front-line. “Atlantic Meeting”, “I James Blunt” and “Travels in Wartime” were all part of this contribution, not to mention his many articles in newspapers across the world supporting the war effort.
      He was by no means a one-dimensional, card-carrying Nazi, the truth, as ever, is more nuanced than that. He loved his country, was prepared to fight to defend it and dreaded the idea of invasion. It is also my belief he was pretty certain that Nazi racial policy would have seen him and his family transported early in the proceedings in such an event.
      Thank you again, Michael, for raising these points and giving me good reason to delve further into the life and writings of HV Morton!

      • MichaelDavies

        Thank you Niall for your thoughtful and interesting reply. I won’t argue with you about Morton’s politics as I’m far from an expert, and I haven’t read his biography – but you might be interested in this article https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/hv-morton-terrific-writer-terrible-man/ This is where I found some of the Morton quotations which led me to my view.

        We will have to disagree on whether or not nostalgia is a positive or negative national sentiment!

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