- In Search of H.V. Morton by Michael Bartholomew
Methuen, 248 pp, £18.99, April 2004, ISBN 0 413 77138 5
Between 1925 and the mid-1960s, H.V. Morton sold nearly three million copies of his travel books, from The Heart of London (1925) to A Traveller in Italy (1964). Most popular of all were his volumes on England, especially In Search of England, first published in 1927 and already in its 29th edition by 1943. If his books now end up in charity shops alongside discarded copies of the F-Plan Diet or John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, it’s because the shimmering and peaceable ‘England’ he promised is not, after all, to be found waiting at the end of a deserted lane, or, if it were, we’d never know, because we’d be stuck in a traffic jam on the M5.
In Search of England came out of a series Morton wrote for the Daily Express in 1926. It is an account of a journey around England in a Bullnose Morris, written ‘without deliberation by the roadside, on farmyard walls, in cathedrals, in little churchyards, on the washstands of country inns’. Its tone is jaunty, as the narrator leaves London and reels at whim in his two-seater down country lanes and past historic sites in search of an essential and timeless England. It is a quest to find in reality the England that existed as myth for a war-ravaged generation; the village at dusk, smelling of woodsmoke, surrounded by green fields; the thatched cottages and rambling gardens; the time-worn historical monuments. This was the land ‘worth fighting for’ in the propaganda of both world wars. That Morton apparently found it, many times over, in the course of his travels (reaffirming it in every new edition), reassured readers that it really was out there, even if it might not be visible to those living in cities or their ever-expanding suburbs. What Morton demonstrated to his predominantly urban readers, with a deceptively casual air, was that this England – the ‘real’ England – was just a car journey away, down an inviting and empty country road.
The book’s title evokes those 19th and early 20th-century quests to find Troy or Atlantis. It suggests that England is a place often heard of, but never before visited; and when the narrative seems to stumble on somewhere that had only been read or dreamed about, the book pulls off very successfully the ideological trick of the materialisation of myth. Time and again, as if by chance, the narrator comes across a scene which is the living embodiment of a legend, or an individual who is the personification of a literary or folkloric ‘type’: Rydal Water is a sight, ‘hiding round a corner’, to ‘pull a man up sharply and fling him on his knees’. In a Devonshire pub, Morton meets an ‘old granfer’ with no teeth, who is ‘the typical old man for whom I have been looking since I struck Exmoor’, whose conversation would have been understood by ‘any man of the period of Simon de Montfort’, although not, alas, by Morton himself. A modicum of realism ensures the text is read as reportage. Here the accompanying photographs help, as does the occasional moment of comic bathos, when indigestion spoils a view, a local dialect is comically incomprehensible or a particularly celebrated location (Clovelly, for instance) fails to meet expectations (it’s just too quaint). Major contemporary events and conflicts barely disturb the narrative, although Morton expresses some concern about the decline of agriculture, the break-up of ‘ancient estates’ and the over-taxation of the landowning class. You might think that a journalist going in search of England in the year of the General Strike could hardly ignore this blot on the landscape, yet it casts the faintest of shadows on the pages of In Search of England. The devastating effects of the First World War aren’t evident, either (as they are, for example, in J.B. Priestley’s English Journey of 1934), although the war was the invisible source of the book’s success.