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 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