Sunday, December 05, 2021

HV Morton's London

Having read Michael Bartholomew's biography of HV Morton, I'm now on to Morton himself. HV Morton's London is a collection of three earlier books, The Heart of London (1925), The Spell of London and The Nights of London (both 1926), first published together in 1940. Mine is an 18th edition from 1949.

Basically, they're vignettes from all round the capital, edited versions of Morton's column for the Daily Express. He visits Big Ben, goes back stage at the Old Vic, sits on more than one night-time riverboat on the look-out for suicides. There are flea markets and dances, a tour of the Royal Mint, a boxing match, a gambling den and much more. At one point, he's in the tower at Croydon Aerodrome, gazing across the Surrey fields to the twin towers of Crystal Palace - and somewhere in between, my old home.

At his best, Morton has access and insight so that it feels authoritative. Quite often, though, he gives full rein to whimsy, allowing himself to imagine the conversations - the whole lives - of people he merely glimpsed in passing, many of them salt-of-the-earth Londoners he names "Alf". More than once I was left thinking, 'But how could you know this?' or 'How could you have overheard?', so it lacks the authenticity of my friend Miranda Keeling's observations of real life.

At worst, Morton is misogynist and racist. His wandering eye falls, for example, on a pretty girl, but he assumes she is Jewish and will therefore soon grow fat. Another time, he describes the Chinese community in Limehouse as monkeys and is baffled by evidence that the men might be good to their wives. They allow him into their homes and bars; the threat of violence is all imposed by Morton. All of this stated quite openly, and shared in the popular press. It's not merely shocking; it is not the London I know.

Morton's is a strikingly dirty and polluted London, full of junk markets and rag fairs, worthless rubbish even sold from the windowsills and steps of the crumbling tenements. Almost every description of a landmark is shrouded in mist. One particular smog comprises,

“Many flavours. At Marble Arch I meet a delicate after-taste like melon; at Ludgate Hill I taste coke. … Everywhere the fog grips the throat and sets the eye watering. It puts out clammy fingers that touch the ears and give the hands a ghostly grip.” (p. 25)

The landmarks, too, are sooty. Viewed from the clock tower that houses Big Ben, he spies Nelson's column,

"stood up jet black like a cairn above the mist of a mountain top" (p. 160).

This juxtaposition of the modern and the mythic is a favourite trick of Morton's - wowed by a room in which Dickens once stood, or sounds that might have been familiar to Romans. It can get a little repetitive and yet his interest in the ancients can often provoke his most evocative writing, such as this from a visit to Cleopatra's Needle:

"Did you know that beneath the famous stone is buried a kind of Victorian Tutankamun’s treasure, placed there to give some man of the future an idea of us and our times? Did you realise that the London municipal authorities could do anything so touching? … In 1878 sealed jars were placed under the obelisk containing a man’s lounge suit, the complete dress and vanities of a woman of fashion, illustrated papers, Bibles in many languages children’s toys, a razor, cigars, photographs of the most beautiful women of Victorian England, and a complete set of coinage from a farthing to five pounds. So the most ancient monument in London stands guard over this modernity, rather like an experienced old hen, waiting for Time to hatch it.” (p. 78)

Again, he can't resist playing this against aching modernity:

"I stood there with the tramcars speeding past and the criss-cross traffic," (p. 79). 

But it's a spot I know very well, and those tramcars are from a lost world.

In describing how omnibuses have changed within his own memory, Morton reveals what else is different (as well as his usual predilection for women's underthings):

“In 1925, when this was written, London omnibuses had open roofs, and the seats were protected by black tarpaulin covers which travellers could adjust in wet weather. Nowadays the London omnibus is an enclosed juggernaut and wet seats are things of the primitive past. Also, the Strand has changed since 1925. It has been widened in parts, and it is no longer an exclusively masculine street. Silk stockings are probably now more in evidence there than pith helmets and spine pads [from the imperial outfitters].” (p. 34n)

This throng of Londoners heading out into the Empire he finds straightforwardly heroic, but anything of that world coming into London is straightforwardly threatening. In Morton's view, all foreigners are at best suspect; often they're also monstrous. Then, while out on the Thames at 2 am, he spots, “a queer fleet at anchor” in Limehouse: 

“‘The smallpox boats,’ said the sergeant [giving him this tour]. ‘They are always fitted up ready to take patients [arriving in ships] down to the isolation hospital in the event of any outbreak.’” (p. 400)

It's not as if the capital is otherwise a bastion of good health. There are no gyms or joggers in this London. Morton's description of conditions in the few free hospitals in a time pre-NHS is gruelling, for all he admires the good-hearted people running such charity. He also visits St Martin's by Trafalgar Square, where the homeless men offered shelter are divided into three types: ex-prisoners with a grudge against the world; those who won't work; and,

"those who went to the war as boys and came back men with boys’ minds" (pp. 42-43).

There's pity for these wounded men, but no sense that they are owed something more by a grateful nation. That contrasts with the dead of the same conflict. Morton passes the six year-old Cenotaph, that "mass of national emotion frozen in stone", where,

"A parcels delivery boy riding a tricycle van takes off his worn cap [as he passes]. An omnibus goes by. The men lift their hats. Men passing with papers and documents under their arms, attache and despatch cases in their hands—and the business of life—bare their heads as they hurry by." (p. 19)

That's all the more poignant given when this edition was compiled. Morton's first introduction to these three books was written in August 1940, addressing fellow imperilled Londoners. His theme is the pride and interest the Second World War has ignited in their city as it faces devastation.

"Men who in former years hardly knew where their town hall was to be found, now sleep there regularly, and have become familiar with many a municipal mystery. Men and women, to whom a fire hydrant was once a technical term which cropped up occasionally in the newspapers, can now draw you an accurate map of the water-supply of their district. Countless diligent wardens know by heart streets which, until recently were an untracked wilderness to them, although they lived just round the corner." (p. vii)

A second introduction, written in February 1941, is for American readers. London, he informs them gravely,

“has experienced the mass raid; the single nuisance raider; the high explosive raid; the fire raid; the mixed h.e. and fire raid; the raid directed against docks and warehouses; and the raid directed, apparently, against Wren churches and hospitals.”

But there are broadly two types of air raid: day and night.

“When London is raided by day, people no longer rush into shelters and cellars at the first note of the siren, as they used to when they were new to bombing.” (p. viii)

Instead, Londoners look around for signs of alarm or haste, but the traffic otherwise continues. Yet, hyper-vigilant to all sounds and senses, they will suddenly scatter. Night raids are another matter - altogether more tense and exhausting, even before the bombs come.

"As darkness approaches people become restless and begin to think of getting home before the black-out. Shops and businesses close early in anticipation of ‘siren time.’ Dusk falls, and the streets empty. It is not a pleasant experience to stand, say, in Bond Street, the pavements deserted except for anxious groups round the bus stops, every taxi-cab either occupied or else driven by a man who cannot take you back where you wish to go because he is himself trying to race the black-out to the other side of London." (p. ix) 

Despite the hardships, Londoners have met hardship - says Morton - with their usual stoicism and good cheer. He tells us about ordinary City clerks who've been transformed into lions, the "man of books" who became a man of action. There's a mug of tea with the wardens, sharing tales of their modest heroism night after night. It's all good propaganda, these honest, good people remaining quietly dignified despite the ravages of war.
"The task of such civilians in war is infinitely more difficult than that of the soldier, who is a single-minded man trained to fight with others and untrammelled by any struggle to maintain the normalities. … Most gallant, and tragic, are those others who have been bombed out of flats and houses, some of them losing everything they possessed. The ability to ‘double-up’ with relatives and friends in times of misfortune, formerly an exclusive habit of the poorest classes, is now a general tendency. Admiration for those who have no homes, who spend their nights in other people’s shelters, and turn up at their offices in the morning to carry on as usual, is beyond expression.” (p. xix)
But one line is haunting. It's surely meant to reassure, yet in a book that is testimony to all that stands to be lost.
"The result [of the Blitz] is a grim city, a shabby city, a scarred city, but not a devastated city, except round and about Guildhall, where several famous streets have been burned to the ground.” (p. x)

Friday, December 03, 2021

My Mum recently asked how many books I've written, and I realised that I didn't know. That then led to a conversation with my boss Julian Bashford at Visionality, who suggested that I might get some benefit from having my own website.

So, is where you'll find a list of things I've written in the past 19-and-a-bit years as a freelance writer.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Blake's 7: The Terra Nostra

I've script edited one of the three Blake's 7 audio stories that make up The Terra Nostra, a new set out in January 2022 from Big Finish. It's all the wheeze of that criminal mastermind Peter Anghelides; my job was to offer notes and criticism without him having me shot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Long Game, by Paul Hayes

Loved this deep dive into how exactly Doctor Who came back to TV in 2005, talking to many of those involved including Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter and Lorraine Heggessey. It's a story I thought I knew pretty well but Hayes has covered all sorts of stuff that was completely new to me - not least the key role played by my old friend Daniel Judd in sorting out the issue of rights.

I especially like where Hayes presents conflicting published accounts of what happened to the people involved in an effort to get at the truth - and his acknowledgment that sometimes people remember the same events differently. He's also very good at placing Doctor Who in the wider context - of changing BBC politics, of BBC and British television more generally, and of imported drama from the US such as The X-Files and Buffy. The result is a sense of myriad separate forces all pulling in similar directions - Doctor Who was always going to come back in some form, none of the other options quite as good as what we got. There are no villains and yet it's thrilling to relive the sensation as the stars gradually align...

As Hayes says, the book seems especially timely what with the recent announcement that Gardner, Tranter and Russell T Davies are taking over Doctor Who once more. But how brilliant, how satisfying, to find an original story to tell and make the familiar new.

Oh, and joy of joys, a small-press book with an index. This is definitely a book I'll be coming back to... 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

This largely autobiographical novel was first published in 1847, the same year that Anne's sisters published the better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, though it's thought this was the first to be written. 

A business investment goes wrong, putting pressure on the already limited means of the Grey family. To help her parents, Agnes takes a job as a governess for a wealthy lot. Her first, young charges are unruly and cruel: at one point, Agnes kills some wild birds rather than allow them to be tortured. The wayward behaviour is blamed on Agnes and she is dismissed, but she has the resolve to try again. Her second position is as governess to older children, who are no less spoilt or unruly. One is playing off various suitors, enjoying the attention and the chance to turn them down. This contrasts with Agnes, who modestly admire the virtues of a young parson...

It's a less dramatic book than those by Brontë's sisters, or Anne's own The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In those books, first impressions are often deceptive, and we only uncover a person's true character in time. Here, things are much more as they appear - the good are always meek and modest and good, the bad seem unlikely to ever find redemption. That lack of twists may come from the fact that this isn't a heightened, gothic fiction but grounded in real experience: it is thought that the novel is based on Anne's own diaries.

The violence, the threat, the powerlessness, all feel horribly real. There's also no climactic event - a fire or a storm or whatever - to bring about reckonings for all involved. Towards the end, Agnes speaks to another woman trapped in her own awful life and can only advise her to weather it as best she is able. There is no escape.

Agnes gets a happy ending but the author quickly passes over marriage and children, it being outside her own lived experience. For all she mentions further challenges, it's where the book slips into fantasy - poignantly, given that the model for Agnes's husband is thought to be a curate Anne knew who died the year her book was published.
"We have had trials, and we know that we must have them again; but we bear them well together, and endeavour to fortify ourselves and each other against the final separation—that greatest of all afflictions to the survivor. But, if we keep in mind the glorious heaven beyond, where both may meet again, and sin and sorrow are unknown, surely that too may be borne..."

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila is stationed at Isca Dumnoniorum (modern-day Exeter) but longs to get back to his home - and the good weather - in Clusium (in modern-day Tuscany). Then his garrison are attacked by Britons, including those Marcus considered as friends. Wounded, Marcus cannot continue as a soldier, which means he can't make enough money to return home. In considerable pain, mental and physical, he is well supported by an uncle and some new friends, and in time develops a plan. He will undertake a dangerous quest to discover what happened to the Ninth Legion, who - with Marcus's father among them - went missing somewhere north of York...

I'm not sure what I expected from this children's classic, my copy a 50th anniversary edition embossed in gold, but assumed it would be a stirring tale of heroism in the Roman army. Instead, its hero is quickly hobbled and forced out of his job, and spends the rest of the book as a misfit. The consequence is a far more interesting book: Marcus can guide us through 2nd-century Britain from two perspectives, having known the privilege of a position in the army and now as an underdog. We get a rich, layered portrait of the Roman province and the land beyond Hadrian's wall, with Rome itself a distant yet powerful influence. 

It means Sutcliff can have it both ways, sympathising with Roman characters and with the subdued, resentful Brits. There's no particular sense that the Romans are right or wrong to occupy Britain, no great feeling from the author that Britons ought to rule themselves. Colonisation is simply the way of things, which seems striking and odd now. I wonder how odd it felt when the book was first published in 1954 when Britain still had colonies - they were increasingly in the news - and also where Sutcliff stood on things. Is it a twist to show Britons being colonised, or suggesting that colonisation has always been (and always will be) with us?

Perhaps the most telling moment is when Marcus adopts a wolf puppy and then, once its old enough to fend for itself, takes it out of the city and sets it free. His hope is that the wolf will remember his kindness and return "home" of its own volition. A comparison is made to Esca, a former slave granted his freedom who remains on good terms with his former master. Sutcliff is shrewd enough to show the awkwardness and resentment that linger long after this, yet it's solved by a few words from the former master, telling Esca not to be so insufferably proud. 

At stake throughout is honour: for Marcus, no longer able to support himself financially; for his father and the lost Ninth Legion; for Esca. We understand these stakes for all they're an alien system of values - and I think that's what makes The Eagle of the Ninth so effective. The plot is fairly slight and straight-forward, a trek north and back again to fetch a particular object. And yet it's a journey through an ancient, foreign land that feels credible, comprehensible, tangible - since we can flip to the glossary at the back and map the Roman names onto modern British cities and towns.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Gallifrey's Most Wanted - Runcible Report #24

Doctor Who: The Cold Equations starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen
I'm a guest on the Gallifrey's Most Wanted podcast, chiefly chatting to hosts Jeff and Ross about the trilogy of Doctor Who stories I wrote starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen. But there's also some stuff about my new Sherlock Holmes novel The Great War and much more besides. You can listen to the podcast here: