Bowling along

Kitty Hauser

  • 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.

In Search of England made Morton’s name, and his fortune. The book spawned a new genre of British travel-writing, nicely described as ‘motoring pastoral’ by David Matless in Landscape and Englishness (1998). Motoring is imbued with an almost celestial quality in this very British yoking together of nostalgia and modernity, as if the car, for those with the means to own one, had opened up a gateway to arcadia. Morton’s travelogue appealed directly to the middle classes for whom car ownership spelled freedom and status. The freedom enjoyed by Morton’s lone motorist is social as well as geographic; In Search of England offers a dream of total access, to landscape and class alike – no village is too inaccessible, no home, however humble or grand, out of bounds. Not the least of Morton’s achievements was his promotion of the fantasy of motoring for all on empty roads, a fantasy on which the embryonic industry was quick to capitalise. The idea that the car could open up an old country for the motoring ‘first-footer’ was exploited successfully by Shell, whose interwar advertising featured imagery of idyllic and often deserted historic sites, coupled with exhortations to ‘See Britain first with Shell.’ Morton gave the impression of being the first to have seen England: the question of how each and every one of his readers could follow suit without causing a pile-up was a question both he and Shell skilfully avoided.

In Search of England is regularly cited in the academic literature on Englishness that burgeoned in the 1980s and 1990s as a locus classicus for a popular and deeply conservative vision of the English landscape between the wars, drawing as it did so expertly on existing myths of national identity and history. Not until now, however, with Michael Bartholomew’s biography, has much been known about Morton. Bartholomew’s book is an unexpectedly enlightening read. It turns out that the narrator of Morton’s travel books was an invention of their author, whose own life, personality, views and habits were what Bartholomew (rather charitably, here) describes as ‘complicated’ and ‘often disagreeable’. In the preface Bartholomew confesses to having had a ‘slightly guilty taste for the arcadian fantasy’ peddled by Morton; yet what he found in his personal papers and unfinished memoirs obliged him – with a gentlemanly but genuine distaste – to present Morton as the appalling individual he appears to have been.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Morton was a very wealthy man, earning £30,000 a year from his books, which by now included In Search of Scotland, In Search of Ireland, In Search of Wales, five books on London and a trilogy on the Middle East. The vision of a precious and enduring land which Morton’s books had done so much to promote found a new purpose in Home Front propaganda, and Morton himself was mobilised. Supported by the Ministry of Information he set off once again around England in October 1939, writing up his travels as ‘England is Ready’ in the pages of the Daily Herald. This series, together with another, slightly earlier one, became a book, I Saw Two Englands (1942), in which the country is shown ‘sound as a bell’, facing up to war. Morton was also commissioned by the MOI to write a book imagining the horrific realities of everyday life in a Nazi-conquered Britain (this found form as a novella, I, James Blunt). And in the summer of 1940 he wrote an article for Country Life entitled ‘The New “Merry England”’, in which he describes the invigorating camaraderie of Binsted, his home village, where he was the commander of the Local Defence Volunteers.

Privately, though, Harry Morton had other thoughts. The men in his platoon were ‘ungrateful yokels’, his domestic staff ‘the last of the pampered and leisured class’. ‘I loathe the very word Democracy,’ he wrote, in a not uncommon outburst in his diary, ‘yet that is what we are supposed to be fighting for.’ Before war broke out, Morton confided to his diary that ‘the only policy for this country is friendship with Germany.’ And as the invasion of Britain seemed imminent, Morton wondered whether defeat wouldn’t be just deserts for a country that had given itself over to ‘flabby socialism, pacifism, financial exploitation, softness and general slackness’. A Nazi invasion would at least relieve him of a ‘blood-sucking’ Jewish business associate. ‘I often ask myself,’ he wrote in his diary in April 1941,

why I love England so much. There is so much I detest about her: our Labour leaders, the crude, uneducated, spoilt lower classes, the Jews. And yet how small a thing this is compared with the grand sweep of history which is England, the green fields, the quiet rivers, the dark woods and the chalk downs, a lovely country inhabited by a race that is true and good at heart, brave and resolute, and, as human beings go, honest.

It’s passages like these that reveal the uncomfortable proximity of what Terry Eagleton has called the ‘demonic’ and the ‘angelic’ versions of ‘blood and soil’: of, respectively, Fascism and conservative reaction. This is the dark side of the English arcadia – or a powerful version of it – described with uncommon candour.

Morton’s privately held political views seem to have been sharpened by his tax bills, as well as the inconveniences of war: the effrontery of billeting, the decline in standards at the Savoy and the Waldorf, the calling-up of his gardener (‘the last straw’). His own class position had always been ambiguous, and evidently the source of some (largely unspoken) anxiety. Uncertain of his social standing as a professional journalist who had attended neither Oxbridge nor public school, Morton remained loyal to a caste-based social hierarchy which was being dismantled just as he was gaining access – or so he hoped – to its upper echelons. Even more irksome, this dismantling was being done in the name of a Democracy which he was funding through his taxes, and for the sake of which he was expected to defend his country and suffer the privations of war. ‘I prefer to think we are fighting for England,’ he wrote, ‘not for a political catch-word.’

In 1948, Morton and his second wife, Mary, sold up and moved to South Africa, having safely transferred nearly £70,000 to a Cape Town bank account. ‘I am glad to get away from Socialist England,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘where the idle and the worthless and the lazy set the pace and where the industrious and the enterprising are plundered and insulted.’ On an earlier trip, Harry and Mary had found a little town thirty miles east of Cape Town where ‘coloured boys on bicycles were delivering the groceries,’ and ‘coloured nursemaids were wheeling out the children,’ while here and there were ‘people who ought to have been in Cheltenham – ex-colonels with spaniels, English matrons, and a pretty English girl on horseback’. Here the Mortons settled in the year in which the Pretoria government institutionalised apartheid. South Africa seemed to preserve all that was best about prewar England, but with better weather and a more compliant servant class. On the few occasions Morton visited England he was depressed by the ‘droves of lower middle-class people without hats’ and the way that ‘the natives’ (he meant black people) were ‘everywhere, hideous and arrogant’. In 1957 he spent some time in Oxford trying to get his son Timothy a place at the university. Not only was he ‘disgusted’ to see an African prince introduced as ‘Your Highness’ at an All Souls reception, his attempts to predispose a Lincoln don in his son’s favour were snubbed. ‘This sort of thing upsets me,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘After all I have got a certain standing.’

No wonder Morton’s memoirs were never completed, although Methuen repeatedly encouraged him to write them, and he did make a start. The gap between his narratorial voice and his personal opinions and gripes was just too great. His travel books were necessarily democratic in both their market and their tone: ‘Never before,’ he wrote in the introduction to In Search of England, ‘have so many people been searching for England . . . More people than in any previous generation are seeing the real country for the first time.’ His books addressed precisely those middle-class people (with or without hats) that he privately despised. Morton seems to have faced other difficulties, too, in writing his memoirs. According to Bartholomew, his service in the First World War was a subject on which he maintained a certain embarrassed silence – he was demobbed without ever going to the Front. And how much could he reveal of a busy extramarital sex life, conducted with mixed pride and self-loathing, and recorded in an extensive annotated list of conquests? We learn from Bartholomew that In Search of England is dedicated (complete with romantic poem, written by the author) to a woman with whom Morton was having one of his longer-lasting affairs. Here she is addressed by her initials, as ‘T.C.T.’, while in the dedication to The Heart of London she is ‘S.D.W.’, which stood for ‘semi-detached wife’. Bartholomew chides Morton for his treatment of his wives – especially his first wife, Dorothy, whom (rather unimaginatively) he both idolised (she is his ‘White Soul’) and repeatedly betrayed. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about Dorothy herself; for all we know she was enjoying her own semi-detached husband in Dulwich during Harry’s frequent absences.

There are a few hints, in Morton’s books, of his developing political views, and the racism that was to make South Africa under apartheid his natural home, but they are rarely expressed directly (notwithstanding the odd remark about a feckless beggar, overtaxed squire or grasping Jew). It is clear that, like Kipling and Rider Haggard, Morton considered cities to be places where families risk a descent into ‘racial anaemia’, and that racial regeneration can only – and must – take place in the countryside. In his much-cited essay on ‘“Constable Country” between the Wars’ (1989), Alex Potts has shown how in the 1920s ideas about racial purity were transferred onto the landscape; In Search of England marks a key moment in this transition. This is why, in Morton’s formulation, England – the ‘real’ England – is to be found outside its cities: the sturdy survival and fecundity of the countryside he visits is a coded racial resilience, at risk from the enervating effects of urbanisation.

On the whole, though, Morton’s politics are sufficiently well-hidden for Peter Mandler, in The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home (1997), to call him ‘no reactionary’ (on the grounds of his move, in 1931, to the Daily Herald), and his England a ‘relatively liberated and democratic version of the Arts and Crafts countryside’, in which the imminent demise of the landlord class is accepted rather than bemoaned. Bartholomew’s book does not so much undermine Mandler’s assessment as warn against making too easy an equation between the author and the writing voice he created. Morton was an expert ventriloquist, able to turn out a story to almost any specification, and for almost any paymaster. Just a few years before he was expressing in his diary his distaste for the ‘spoilt lower classes’, he was capable of writing with considerable feeling about the plight of the slum-dwellers of England’s industrial cities, in the Labour Party pamphlet What I Saw in the Slums (1933). Morton was primarily a jobbing journalist, without any of the imperatives of conscience felt by his more committed contemporaries, whom, it seems, he held in a mixture of contempt and awe. In a telling detail, Bartholomew describes how, when Morton appeared on the BBC’s Brains Trust during the war, he repeatedly deferred to the views expressed by the other panellists. His politics were not so much a coherent agenda as a series of reactions to events, most of which he kept to himself and his wife, as he battened down the hatches and saw out his years re-creating historical battles with toy soldiers, building miniature castles for his pet mice and scouring the papers for news of the decline of the country he had left behind.

The parts of Bartholomew’s book that look at Morton’s earlier years – before the great success, the tax bills and the sidling up to Fascism – shed other kinds of light on the books that were so popular. We learn, for example, of his early love of the theatre – especially Frank Benson’s Shakespeare Festival at Stratford – and music hall. It comes as no surprise that Morton, who always placed his soliloquising narrator centre stage in his travel writing, and who turned every landscape into a theatrical set, should have wanted at the age of 17 to become a great actor. Also illuminating is his interest in archaeology. His first big break as a journalist came in 1923, with the chance to report on the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb for the Express. He got the idea for In Search of England – or so he said – on the way home from Luxor, and it’s hard to resist making a connection between that spectacular materialisation of a semi-mythical realm, and Morton’s own ‘discovery’ of a fabled England just a short detour from the Great North Road. This fascination with antiquities began as a schoolboy in Birmingham, and continued after he moved to London. In the years before the First World War he used to visit a shop in Wandsworth run by the antiquary G.F. Lawrence, where he bought small Roman artefacts from a stock that was constantly being added to by navvies, who would arrive every Saturday with ancient fragments uncovered in the course of excavating sites for new buildings in Cheapside or Leadenhall Street. These experiences contributed to Morton’s sense of the immanence of the past in the present: he had the habit – like a rather more anodyne (and cheerful) W.G. Sebald – of seeing a landscape historically, from the Peddar’s Way in East Anglia to the Isle of Portland, where he looks at the quarries from which the geologically ancient stones of St Paul’s Cathedral, Regent Street and the Cenotaph were dug.

Bartholomew’s biography came out in time for the unveiling of a blue plaque honouring Morton in the place of his birth, Ashton-under-Lyne; its nastier revelations were ‘completely dismissed by everyone present’, according to a report given to the H.V. Morton Society, formed in 2003. But then Morton didn’t invent the myths he tapped into; and arcadia was never the exclusive preserve of the reactionary middle classes, even if they patrol its bounds as if it were.