Blue Days at Sea and other essays by H.V. Morton ~ 1932. This edition: Methuen, 1932. Hardcover. 207 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
This is a slender book of very readable essays by that British one-man phenomenon of mid-20th-century journalistic travel writing, Henry Vollam Morton.
In 1910, at the age of 16, H.V. Morton left school to work for the Birmingham Express and Gazette, where his father was employed as an editor. Young Henry took to journalism as a duckling takes to water, and his rise in the newspaper world was sure and steady.
In 1923, Morton was present at the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and his scoop of the “official” Times reporter brought him much notice, resulting in a further impetus to his upward progress in his chosen career.
In 1926, after several collections of his travel columns had been published and received with approbation by the English public, Morton set off on a motor trip of the rural areas of the UK, frequenting pubs and country gatherings, and documenting in a strongly nostalgic, rose-tinted way the vision of “our England” that he found.
In Search of England was published in 1927 to immediate acclaim, and H.V. Morton rode the crest of its success for the following five decades, wandering (in a very focussed sort of way) hither and yon, throughout the British Isles, Spain, Italy, North Africa, and into the Holy Land.
With his reporter’s pass card in hand, Morton received entry into all sorts of places, and he followed up his visits with likeable articles and essays, a collection of which make up this particular book.
The leading essay in Blue Days at Sea, in length and importance, details Morton’s time spent on one of the Royal Navy’s largest battleships. He documents his awed introduction to the “floating city” of a massive naval ship housing over 1200 people, and pens generally admiring portraits of some of its various classes of officers, focussing on the lowly midshipmen (rejoicing in the nickname “snotties” among their compatriots), and touching on the others, up to the second-in-command Commander, and the lordly Captain. The regular seamen are occasionally mentioned, mostly as being “down there somewhere” in the bowels of the ship, but Morton doesn’t seem to hobnob with them to any meaningful extent.
This being in 1932, England is officially at peace, but the Royal Navy never relaxes, so ambitious war exercises – mock battles at sea – are frequently being carried out to keep everyone up to speed on operating their deadly ships. Morton’s narration of one of these exercises is fascinating, in particular when viewed with our future hindsight, knowing that only a few short years later those mock battles would be very real, and the torpedoes fully loaded instead of being benign duds.
A moving vignette regarding a funeral at sea caps off this section.
Once this patriotic sample of “Hurray, our England!” journalism is tidied away, Morton turns his hand to a series of humorous sketches regarding various stereotypical versions of the era’s women. The Wife, The Woman Nobody Knows, The Woman of Affairs, The Bad Girl, The Head Huntress…these are just a sampling of the rather stock characters Morton dissects. Modern readers will lift an eyebrow; period humour prevails, and with that excuse we must be content.
Travel pieces cap off the collection, giving glimpses of Rome and Egypt. A particularly good essay is a description of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s tomb in Rome. Well done as well are glimpses of the tourists’ experience of the Nile and the monuments of the long-dead kings, Morton standing well off to the side viewing his compatriots with a cynical eye.
Back to Victoria Station proceeds our writer, and “It’s good to be home.”
With the recent publication of several biographies of H.V. Morton (he died in 1979, still enjoying a mostly positive reputation as a true booster of All Things British, though he had been a resident of South Africa for the last three decades of his life), most notably this one, a rather critical light has been beamed into Morton’s private life, revealing the feet of clay of this one-time literary idol.
Apparently the man was a rather promiscuous womanizer, which comes as no surprise to me after reading the essays on women in this collection, the writer very obviously having a keen eye for the delights of the female form.
More damning are Morton’s pro-fascist views in the pre-War years, according to his private journals. In this he was in common company with certain other public figures of his time; one again must keep the context of the times in mind, for the horrors of the wartime atrocities were a thing of the future.
It is now rather the thing to sneer at H.V. Morton, for both his now-politically-incorrect attitudes and the consistent romanticization in his writings, but one can’t dismiss his wide appeal to his contemporary readers, and the fact that he was an excellent documentarian of places and people now lost in time.