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Group Reads Archive > September 2013 - In Search of England by H.V. Morton

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message 1: by Ally (new)

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Welcome to the September non-fiction group read of...

In Search Of England by H.V. Morton In Search Of England by H.V. Morton

Enjoy!


Susan | 774 comments I did not manage to read the fiction choice this month, but I am glad I read this. I loved the way the author was not afraid of showing his own personal prejudices and emotions. I have to admit I laughed when he entered Wigan, "expecting the worst" and named Norfolk "the most suspicious county in England." It did mean you knew that when he said he liked something, he really did like it. With modern sensibilities, you are never really sure whether people mean what they write or not!


Nigeyb I agree with your comments Susan. HV Morton has a very distinctive voice, and he makes his preferences explicit.

He was an early pioneer in the travel writing genre and, as one critic has it, it's "travel writing at its best. Bill Bryson must weep when he reads it."

The book is an absolute delight. The best travel writing inspires the reader to want to go and visit the places described. I came away from this book with a list of places to visit, or revisit. I was also inspired to look up many of the places he visited online. Many still look every bit as charming as H.V. Morton's descriptions.

H.V. Morton was writing at a time when people were less mobile. Interestingly he still describes traffic jams in the Lake District, and seems to encounter American tourists wherever he goes. He also stumbles across many old customs and skills that would have been in their death throes at the time he was writing, for example he describes flint-knappers in Norfolk, a skill that was already all but extinct.

Morton's writing is frequently sublime. It is fairly obvious that the reality cannot have been quite so perfect and that he must have made up some of the account. As the trauma of World War One started to diminish I suspect many readers wanted this type of pleasing portrait of England as a place of tradition, stability, history, country lanes, village greens, outstanding beauty, quirky characters and traditional pubs serving warm ale and cheese. The book's conclusion perfectly illustrates this romanticised view:

"I went out into the churchyard where the green stones nodded together, and I took up a handful of earth and felt it crumble and run through my fingers, thinking that as long as one English field lies against another there is something left in the world for a man to love.

'Well', smiled the vicar as he walked towards me between the yew trees, 'that, I am afraid, is all we have'.

'You have England', I said."


It is interesting to consider the extent to which it is acceptable to embellish or romanticise accounts of travel. For me it matters not a jot and I have no hesitation in recommending this delightful book. I hope many BYTers read this - it's a perfect BYT era book.

I look forward to hearing what the rest of you make of it.


Greg | 330 comments Nigeyb wrote: "I agree with your comments Susan. HV Morton has a very distinctive voice, and he makes his preferences explicit.

He was an early pioneer in the travel writing genre and, as one critic has it, i..."


You are all so fortunate to have England at your doorstep! Envy from the other side of the world.


Nigeyb Greg wrote: "You are all so fortunate to have England at your doorstep! Envy from the other side of the world. "

It's a gorgeous place that's for sure. Crowded.... but gorgeous.


Greg | 330 comments Nigeyb wrote: "Greg wrote: "You are all so fortunate to have England at your doorstep! Envy from the other side of the world. "

It's a gorgeous place that's for sure. Crowded.... but gorgeous."


And crowded with excellence in all the creative disciplines, music, painting, literature, drama/theatre. What is in that soil??!!


Susan | 774 comments I think it is being an island. We are small but well formed :)
Not sure whether anyone listens to R4's "Books and Authors" podcasts, but they are currently doing different literary landscapes - they have done a programme on Cornwall, the Lake District and Belfast so far. Really interesting and should be available on the R4 website or itunes.


Greg | 330 comments Susan wrote: "I think it is being an island. We are small but well formed :)
Not sure whether anyone listens to R4's "Books and Authors" podcasts, but they are currently doing different literary landscapes - th..."


Susan, serendipity, while read at lunch The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, Wednesday 4 April 1849, he states, while the French shall never make good Shakespearians, "The English are all Shakespeare - he virtually made them everything they are!"
Turn this statement on it's head and say, could any BUT the English have produced Shakespeare?


message 9: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I think Queen Elizabeth (and the other Tudors?) wanted to establish England and Wales as one nation, separate from French influence and Catholic influence. Shakespeare and the other playwrights of the time were writing at the right time, in the right place to be a leading part of that. Plays were watched by all classes of citizens. They combined courtly entertainments about kings and famous classical figures (which ordinary people are unlikely to have seen before and were French or Italian in origin) with the tradition of mummers plays (which ordinary people did see, but were heavily church influenced) and the Welsh bardic tradition (which addressed issues of the day using long, poetic, historic parallels). Shakespeare was the best at that fusion, so he helped make the country what it is, but he could only have done so in Elizabethan England. (Attempts to draw Scotland and Ireland into the one nation were less successful and Wales has re-established its separate cultural identity since then.)


Susan | 774 comments "There's a statistical theory that if you gave a million monkeys typewriters and set them to work, they'd eventually come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. Thanks to the Internet, we now know this isn't true."
Ian Hart, in the Sunday Herald (30 December 2001)


message 11: by Greg (last edited Sep 04, 2013 04:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 330 comments Val, well said. And, Susan, yes it is good when they can dispel an… is it an urban myth, whoever thought that one up about monkeys and typewriters?.
Thinking on what I said about Shakespeare, I'm sure that language is an imperative, the English language is the magic element. The language is malleable, flexible.
Another factor is the structure of the institutions. I posted this link earlier somewhere but I think you would find this very interesting about the structure of English institutions. A series of four lectures by Niall Ferguson titled The Human Hive. They're free podcast download. I've had these for a while.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jmx0p


message 12: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 330 comments Back to H. V. Morton, a few years ago I asked a friend who is from England, why are British writers like Morton and Thomas Bodkin, writers of the first half of the twentieth century, why they are such beautiful, (for want of a better term) writers. My friend replied it was because they all studied English literature at university. I ask, if so, what has changed, that writers today have a less graceful style?
I am interested for your thoughts on this one.


message 13: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val Now they study creative writing instead.


message 14: by Greg (last edited Sep 03, 2013 04:44AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 330 comments Val wrote: "Now they study creative writing instead."

Do we blame James Joyce, as we blame Marcel Duchamp for Ready-mades?.


Susan | 774 comments Publishing has changed so much recently. Creative writing has certainly dampened creativity and made so many books seem pedestrian and routine. I certainly like the books from our BYT era, where publishers were a little more willing to take a chance. If you want to read a depressing novel about the reality facing modern authors (although parts are actually very funny!), I would recommend Zoo Time.


Nigeyb Very interesting Susan. I hadn't realised appreciated that change. I'll look out for Zoo Time.

Greg, I have no insights to offer, however I agree that there seemed to be more truly magnificent English language writing in the first fifty years of the twentieth century than in the present day.


message 17: by Val (last edited Sep 04, 2013 09:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I wouldn't blame Joyce, his writing is very carefully styled and elegant, although not particularly graceful.

Evelyn Waugh thought everyone was taught how to write at school (rather than university). Public (private) schools and grammar schools used to set pupils a lot of essays, which meant everyone had to form an opinion on any subject the teacher thought of for that day and be able to express it coherently, and they got plenty of practice in doing so. This did not mean every pupil wrote well, but nearly all of them could write lucidly and the ones who got high marks could also write elegantly.
I think this style of writing was then applied to journalism and travel writing just as much as it was to novel writing.

I do like a lot of modern authors and some of them do still write with the same elegance as the pre-war authors - Alan Hollinghurst and A S Byatt spring to mind immediately. The emphasis in most literary fiction has moved away from style towards characterisation and mood perhaps and popular fiction towards an emphasis on plot, getting on with the story.
I can not at the moment think of any contemporary travel writers like Morton, James / Jan Morris and Alastair Cooke may have been the last of them. Of course we travel to places a lot faster than we did then, so maybe most people do not want to read leisurely travel writing, when a "Lonely Planet", "Michelin" or "Rough" guide (or in-flight magazine) can tell them all they want to know in ten minutes and television programmes have taken the place of travel writing for vicarious travellers.


Susan | 774 comments I may be wrong, but I thought I read somewhere that the only independent travel bookshop in London has closed. The internet has changed things certainly and travel itself is different. This book is a glimpse into a vanished world, but utterly charming.


message 19: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 330 comments Val wrote: "I wouldn't blame Joyce, his writing is very carefully styled and elegant, although not particularly graceful.

Evelyn Waugh thought everyone was taught how to write at school (rather than universit..."


Val, the Joyce comment was tongue in cheek, being glib, not serious. I probably lost it with my reference to Duchamp. It's an old artist joke which relates to a 'found' object like an old car tyre being claimed as a piece of art. When we see that, the saying goes, "Duchamp has a lot to answer for".


message 20: by Greg (last edited Sep 04, 2013 05:20PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 330 comments Susan, Nigeyb, and Val, - to clarify, I was specifically referring to style, not quality. There are demographically more brilliant writers alive today than were in the first half of the 20th century. I think a writer like H.V. Morton could write about anything and make it interesting. The fact that his subject is England will ensure this book will probably never be out of print. I've only seen part of the south of England, London and Salisbury Cathedral and it was an experience reading part of the Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral, and a day in Cambridge before I read In Search of England. So the first part of the book particularly resonated with me.

Back to the point of 'style' in writing, in our era I think the style is generally more matter of fact and blunter. Things today don't have the style anything like the '20s to the '60s. Cars, clothes, architecture, and writing. I could be wrong, it's dangerous to generalise.


message 21: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I do understand what you are saying Greg (this time). Style is only one aspect of writing quality. I do think it is an aspect which is emphasised less now than it was in the first half of the twentieth century and that the emphasis now, thanks to creative writing courses, is on characterisation and mood (sometimes called 'voice' in first person novels).
It is quite possible for writing to be both stylish and banal. Morton gets perilously close; if he did not write in such an elegant style, the book would have little appeal or charm.


Nigeyb Val wrote: "It is quite possible for writing to be both stylish and banal. Morton gets perilously close; if he did not write in such an elegant style, the book would have little appeal or charm."

Interesting comment Val.

You are suggesting that without HV Morton's elegant style the book would be unappealing. I hadn't considered that before.

The writing style is a big part of the book's charm, as you say. That said, I think a book written covering the same route, written at the same time, but without his elegant style, would still have some appeal, for me anyway.

What also made the book interesting for me was considering the way he had made the book so very romantic and sentimental. As I mention above, I think this was a conscious approach, he was a journalist after all, and was borne out of the need of many readers to be reassured that, after the sacrifice of WW1, England remained a place of tradition, stability, history, country lanes, village greens, outstanding beauty, quirky characters and traditional pubs serving warm ale and cheese etc.

The book works on so many levels. However, as with all good travel books, it made me want to go and visit, or revisit, the places he wrote about.


message 23: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I don't think a book written by a less elegant author would appeal to me as much, and, although I can see why 'romantic and sentimental' was attractive at the time, it would have me reaching for the sick-bag.


Nigeyb Val wrote: "...although I can see why 'romantic and sentimental' was attractive at the time, it would have me reaching for the sick-bag. "

Yes indeed. Actually I thought In Search Of England was unashamedly romantic and sentimental. Well sentimental at any rate, and a romanticised version of England. Pandering to the needs of his readership for post-War reassurance. In a sense anyone who enjoys it, buys into that conceit. It's interesting to contrast it to, say, The Road to Wigan Pier which although written ten years later could, I suspect, just as easily have been written in 1927 and gives a very different account of England.


Barbara Finally getting around to reading this one. It's very romanticized and "quaint" like Clovelly, but a very enjoyable read. I loved his visit to Widecombe. I learned the grey mare song in elementary school in California and found it interesting to read about the real place, with all of Morton's allusions to the song. I don't know England at all, so I have no idea how much of Morton's England remains. I suspect that, like Tintagel, his England "is to be found only within the covers of a book."


message 26: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Thank goodness for books then!


message 27: by Val (last edited Dec 31, 2013 12:40AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val It still exists, there are plenty of quaint old villages for tourists to stay in for holidays and take souvenir photographs. Many of them are completely depopulated outside the holiday season though, because the quaint old village locals can't afford to live in them. Morton's romanticised version of England was not the whole picture even when he wrote about it.

I grew up in Dorset, which is a strong contender for England's prettiest county. Here are some pictures for calendars and biscuit tins: (I didn't take them.)
http://www.pbase.com/moorlands/dorset


Nigeyb Wonderful to see this thread getting revived. Thanks for your review Barbara. I agree with Val, that it is still quite possible to find the England that Morton reveals to his readers - however, and as I state above somewhere, there's a number of different Englands that all exist concurrently. You can pursue your own narrative - whatever that might be.

Thank goodness for books indeed Sarah.

Dorset is absolutely delightful Val - one of my favourite counties. A strong contender for England's prettiest county though? One of many that could lay claim to that particular crown. I enjoy them all!


message 29: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val Dorset has none of the industrial bits H V Morton would drive swiftly past with barely a mention (especially considering Bournemouth was still part of Hampshire at the time). It does have lots of small villages with thatched cottages around village greens, downland with small farms and hedges separating the fields and the Jurassic Coast. The only major changes since Morton's time are that the quaint village pubs are more likely to serve you something small and expensive on a large plate than a ploughman's lunch and a pint of cloudy cider and that several of the villages are nearly empty in the Winter.


Nigeyb All very true Val. Dorset also has Billy Bragg residing in Burton Bradstock - one village that doesn't seem to suffer from out of season emptiness.


Nigeyb

I am currently reading English Journey by J.B. Priestley in ...

....a new special edition of this timeless classic featuring a contemporary perspective from broadcaster and best selling author of Pies and Predjudice, Stuart Maconie.

I think it makes a fascinating companion piece to In Search Of England by H.V. Morton. I'm only about 40 pages in however it is already clear to me that it retains quite a bit of the charm of In Search Of England however this is further enhanced by a large side order of realism and hard-nosed opinion.

Like H.V. Morton's book, this was enormously successful when it was published and has never been out of print.

English Journey is subtitled...

English journey being a rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England during the autumn of the year 1933 by J.B. Priestley.

Interestingly it was Victor Gollancz who commissioned two pieces of English travel writing from two gifted but very different writers. One was The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, the other was English Journey.

Here's a bit more about English Journey...

In 1934, JB Priestley published an account of his journey through England from Southampton to the Black Country, to the North East and Newcastle, to Norwich and home. In capturing and describing an English landscape and people hitherto unseen in literature of its kind, he influenced the thinking and attitudes of an entire generation and helped formulate a public consensus for change that led to the formation of the welfare state.

Prophetic, profound, humorous and as relevant today as it was nearly 80 years ago, English Journey expresses Priestley's deep love of his native country and teaches us much about the human condition and the nature of Englishness.


Here's the thing, this edition, with the original text, is illustrated with over 80 modern and archive photos. It's a really beautiful thing and the sort of loving treatment that some of H.V. Morton's work would really benefit from too.

Not only that, the praise lavished on it, is very fulsome...

The finest book ever written about England and the English
Priestley never wrote better
A masterpiece

I'll keep you posted with my progress.


message 32: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 330 comments In HVM's In Search Of England, he covers the more picturesque side of England. In The Call of England Morton covers cathedrals and factories and rag markets.
He says in the introduction, "In the earlier book (In Search of England) I deliberately shirked realities. I made wide and inconvenient circles to avoid modern towns and cities." The Call of England "is an attempt to give a more general view of England, town and country."
I really like the look of this, the bits I've read.


Nigeyb ^ Thanks Greg, that's both interesting and helpful.


I'm especially interested to learn that HVM acknowledges he "deliberately shirked realities" and "made wide and inconvenient circles to avoid modern towns and cities".

I suppose it had to have been a conscious strategy.

Your words make me keen to read some "naked" HVM where he doesn't hold back on the darker aspects of what he observes. That is where, so far at least, JBP seems to score highly...

JBP acknowledges queues of unemployed men outside the Labour Exchange in Southampton and that there is a depression going on.

Apparently, though I haven't got to it yet, he refers to fascism and other political movements - but - and like HVM - that doesn't reduce the obvious affection he has for his native country, and the simple, accessible and beautiful style.


message 34: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val Victor Gollancz would not have wanted Morton's sanitised England, however beautifully written, whereas the Daily Express and Lord Beaverbrook did.


message 35: by Nigeyb (last edited Feb 27, 2014 06:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb ^ That's probably very true Val.

I am very intrigued by all that I have read about Victor Gollancz. He seems like an inspirational and exceptional character. I must seek out a good biography one of these days.

A good overview here:
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/...

Getting back to your comment that "Victor Gollancz would not have wanted Morton's sanitised England, however beautifully written, whereas the Daily Express and Lord Beaverbrook did. "

Lord Rothermere and the Mail, on the other hand, would probably have said "no" to all three (JPB, Orwell and HVM).

Lest we forget that in 1934, and whilst JBP was writing English Journey, Rothermere wrote an article entitled "Hurrah for the Blackshirts" in January of that year in which he praised Mosley for his "sound, common-sense, Conservative doctrine", and suggested "Young men may join the British Union of Fascists by writing to the Headquarters, King's Road, Chelsea, London"

That said, the Mail's support ended after violence at a BUF rally in Kensington Olympia later in 1934. Although Mosley and others were convinced Rothermere changed his position after pressure from the paper's Jewish advertisers.


Nigeyb Greg wrote this in the May non-fiction nominations open thread and I thought it was as good a reason as any to revive this thread.....

Greg wrote: "A while ago I set up a Hot Read for In Search Of London by H.V. Morton. As a prompt/urge/exhort/entreat I nominate this book for a group read."

^ Bravo Greg. I still have this on my shelf waiting the right moment.

In Search Of England was a delight


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