I first encountered HV Morton in the late 80s. While visiting Rome, my hosts lent me A Traveller in Rome, a quite late work, published in 1957 when Morton was well into his sixties. The perfect travel guide to London’s only rival as the world’s most historical city. I loved it. A few years later in Foyles I spotted a 1st Edition in very good nick and snapped it up for £30. The original price on the dust jacket was 25s.
It has taken me an awfully long time to read more HV Morton, unforgivable given how much he wrote about London. Earlier this year at the Guildhall’s London Maze event, I picked up a cheap second-hand copy of HV Morton’s London, published in 1940. It’s an anthology mined from three earlier books and journalistic pieces (for that was his profession) – dating back to the very early 1920s.
What a treasure. Lovers of HV Morton will know that he wrote like an angel. His prose is so evocative, you can almost smell, hear and taste the streets, bars and cafés of inter-war London. He was, of course, a near contemporary of Orwell: journalists could really write beautifully back then. I was struck by the similarities between Orwell’s description of a junk shop and Morton’s of a junk stall at a weekly market (Treasure Trove).
Morton was adept at getting right under the skin of London. Something of a night owl, he had the journalist’s bold inquisitiveness to open doors at all hours. Literally. One piece, An Open Door, describes in great detail the homeless taking shelter in St Martin in the Fields. Again, parallels with Orwell.
I may return to this particular item sometime in the future. But this week, it would be fitting to quote from this piece, Cenotaph, written presumably in 1924 or 1925.
More than six years ago the last shot was fired. Six years. It is long enough for a heart to become convalescent. Sharp agonies which at the time of their happening seem incapable of healing have a merciful habit of mending in six years. A broken love-affair that turned the world into a pointless waste of Time has ended in a happy marriage in six years. A death that left so so much unspoken, so much regret, so much to atone for, falls in six years into its pathetic perspective a little nearer Nineveh or Tyre.
I look up at the Cenotaph. A parcels delivery boy riding a tricycle van takes off his worn cap. An omnibus goes by. The men lift their hats. Men passing with papers and documents under their arms, attaché and despatch cases in their hands – all the business of life – bare their heads as they hurry by.
Six years have made no difference here. The Cenotaph – that mass of national emotion frozen in stone – is holy to this generation. Although I have seen it so many times on that day once a year when it comes alive to an accompaniment of pomp as simple and as beautiful as church ritual, I think that I like it best just standing here in a grey morning, with its feet in flowers and ordinary folk going by, remembering.
Henry Canova Vollam (HV) Morton (1892 – 1979) was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, the son of a newspaper editor. His professional life was mostly spent in London as a journalist, notably for the Evening Standard and the Daily Express. A highlight of his career, perhaps, was out-scooping the official Times journalist at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. His first book on London, The Heart of London, was published in 1925. Of his several dozen travel books, at least ten are focused on London, In Search of London (1951) probably being the most popular. HV Morton spent his retiremant years in South Africa.
There is a quite-recent biography, In Search of H.V. Morton (2004) by Michael Bartholomew, published by Methuen, also Morton’s publisher. There is a web site and society dedicated to the writer here.
I’ll post more HV Morton extracts whenever I’m stuck for an idea of my own.