Sunday, November 14, 2021

In Search of HV Morton, by Michael Bartholomew

This is a very good biography of a very successful writer and pretty awful human being. Michael Bartholomew brilliantly teases out the real man from the literary persona, effectively providing biographies of two people: the real Harry Morton and the invented HV.

Morton's most famous work is In Search of England (1927), in which he escaped London for excursions in a bull-nosed Morris. Bartholomew makes the point that the title suggests this England had become hidden or lost and so had to be sought through its countryside and history. He goes on that this struck a chord in a nation still reeling from war. He also points out that the final destination in the book, a village in which Morton finds this England, is almost certainly a fiction. As he says, there's a subtle but important difference between a myth and a lie... I'll return to this when I reread In Search of England.

Bartholomew is aided by a wealth of evidence which any researcher would envy (me included). HV Morton published more than 40 books, almost all of them non-fiction, often recounting his adventures with wry, self-deprecating insight. Many of the books were collections of reports for newspapers (and, later in life, features for glossy magazines), with telling differences between what was originally printed and what was then revised. That would be quite enough, but Bartholomew also had access to a 200-page unpublished autobiography written in Morton's last years and a collection of diaries and correspondence ranging right back to his earliest days. This means the biographer is able to compare a diary account of a formative experience with how Morton chose to remember it a half-century later, and then contrast this with the version put in print. There is even a dated list of Morton's sexual conquests, totalling some 100 different individuals, with "wh" marking those that he paid for, which Bartholomew matches against the other details in his timeline.

There are plenty of gaps in the record - missing diaries, absences in what Morton tells us - and Bartholomew is good at deducing connections, motives, feelings. He also tells us when it's his own speculation by adding "I think", as well as saying when nothing firm can be said. Literary biographies can all too often be an annotated list of published works, reductively pinning down real events that inspired the writer, as if writing is little more than copy and paste. Bartholomew achieves something very different - and better. Morton is more than simply a witness: we come to understand the creative act, even in non-fiction. There is careful research beforehand, skilled observation at the time, a period of reflection to put things in perspective, and then craft in the actual process writing - from moulding loose events into a story, to the striking turns of phrase, the well-chosen idiom or analogy, and the deftly worked light humour.

A good example of this use of different sources is what Bartholomew can tell us about a particular photograph, chosen for the back of the dust jacket:

The photograph is also included in the plate section of the book, with the following caption:

"The opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923 -- Morton's first big break as a reporter. The photograph was taken by the Times photographer. Under armed escort, treasures are being removed from the tomb. The figure leading the way is the official archaeologist, Howard Carter. The figure on the extreme right, furtively shadowing the party and taking surreptitious photographs, is Morton. When the photograph was published in The Times, Morton, the interloper, was cropped from the image."

The next plate is the front page of the Daily Express for 17 February 1923, with Morton's coverage - "Pharaoh's Coffin Found" - the first headline. Bartholomew follows the thread of Morton's early passion for archaeology and friendship with antiquarian GF Lawrence, how this helped him get the Tutankhamun gig (the Express determined not to let the Times have a monopoly on the story), the effect this trip had on Morton and how it all tied in to the historical perspectives in his later books.

It's interesting to read that, while waiting to be sent out to fight in the war, Morton was stationed in Colchester and involved in some excavations of Roman finds there. This was also true of the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. There's no mention of Wheeler in this book, or of Morton in Jacquetta Hawkes' biography of Wheeler, and perhaps they never overlapped in life. Yet it strikes me that these womanising rogues had a lot in common, and Wheeler had a similar way of making direct connections to the ancient past. During excavation of Maiden Castle in the 1930s, Wheeler's brilliant deductions about the stages of a Roman siege were informed by his own battlefield experience in the war. Yet I wonder if the two men would have been at cross purposes: Wheeler using modern experience to unpick the truth of history, Morton looking to the past to provide a modern fiction... I'll keep an eye out for references to Wheeler in Morton's books.

Bartholomew has an eye for wry humour, such as when he details a break-in at the office young Morton was renting with a friend so that Morton could write a novel and the friend a play. 

"The project petered out, before Morton had completed chapter one, when a burglar broke in and made off with the kettle, tea and biscuits, but disdained to steal the manuscripts." (p. 82)

We also quickly get a sense of Morton's character, his presence in any room. While I envy Bartholomew his wealth of evidence, I wonder how much he enjoyed the time spent with his subject. Morton's insecurities and womanising are exhausting from the off but the racism creeps up on the reader. True, his travel writing is full of caricatures - there are often salt-of-the-earth yokels or idiot Americans for his narrator to converse with - but Bartholomew is good at showing how often Morton plays against easy stereotypes and presents a more complex view... at least in his published writing. In private, he's often shockingly racist, continually sympathising with the Nazis during the war and then emigrating to South Africa just as the apartheid regime came in.

Bartholomew confronts this head on and at some length: 

"For him to to have persisted with a rosy view of fascism, long after others had seen the light, indicates more than naivety." (p. 172)

He also points out the contradictions in Morton's prejudice: this man who made his name celebrating England actually despised much of its people and ways of doing things. Morton sympathised with and admired the Nazis and assumed they'd win the war, and yet was also a dedicated leader of a Home Guard unit, expecting to die with his men in token, doomed resistance to the inevitable invasion.

There are other ironies, such as - "improbably", as Bartholomew says - when the Labour Party published a pamphlet by Morton, What I Saw in the Slums (1933), with a foreword by party leader George Lansbury. Bartholomew makes the case that George Orwell surely read this ahead of his own, better known, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and even argues that of the two, Morton is the more sensitive and egalitarian.

"Morton's own descriptions of women are just as powerful [as Orwell's], and are less patronising. He writes, for example, of women who strive to put a symbolic barrier between their home and the even more squalid street beyond, by whitening the doorstep: 'Thousands of horrid doorsteps, worn as thin as wafers in the centre, are whitened or raddled. Every time a door opens you see a woman cleaning something.' What I Saw in the Slums is an impressive little book." (p. 147)

Bartholomew is no less impressive. There's lots that's uncomfortable in Morton's life - or parallel lives - but the story is well told. Note to self: this is how it's done.

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