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Friday, 13 July 2012

“I Go out Into the Fog and Enter an Incredible Underworld. The Fog has Turned London Into a Place of Ghosts…” Or: Appreciating H.V Morton:

This year will be one of the biggest in recent memory for London, and if you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr you may know that I have another passion aside from Victorianism – and that is London. Whilst the nineteenth century is, of course, my favourite time period for the city, I will consume information and literature from any era of London history.

Some great authors of London work that are amongst my favourite are Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock, Roy Porter and, possibly (In my opinion) the best – H.V Morton.

H.V Morton (like another excellent London writer who I can’t quite call Victorian – Virginia Woolf) was born in the nineteenth century, in 1892, but wrote his vast amount of travel articles, books and newspaper columns between 1925 and his death in 1979. London featured heavily in his early work, and I think what attracted me to the writing of Morton is the fact that the period in which he wrote about London – the 20s to the 40’s – is a particularly favourite period of mine for the city.

Throughout this period London went through many and vast changes, with, of course, the onset of World War II leading to many of them, but also the increase in motorized traffic, the first ever Commonwealth Games (Then called the British Empire Games) the battle of Cable Street, the 1948 Olympics, great smogs (as we shall see below), the Festival of Britain, post-war regeneration, immigration and the resulting racism, the wedding of our present Queen to Prince Phillip, not to mention four different monarchs – including the first voluntary surrender of the English crown in the country’s history, when Edward VIII abdicated in order to be with Wallis Simpson, and throughout this period, Morton wrote.

H.V Morton
But once I started reading Morton’s work, the attraction went deeper. The beauty of his writing is that virtually none of the above events are mentioned, and instead he wrote exclusively about the city itself. (The only event above that I know of Morton mentioning is the War.) And so, Morton’s writing is a kind of poetic time capsule of what London was like during these years; not necessarily society, but the actual landscape of the metropolis. He scrutinized the changes that had occurred, harked back to the way things used to be, commented on the present life of London and also looked to its future.

But as I read more and more Morton, I realized exactly what it was that I liked about his pieces on London the most, and that is that as a person with a passion for London, H.V Morton writes about London in a way that I wish that I could, but I have neither the verbal dexterity nor the affable charm to be able to do so. 
His passion for the city is summed up with this quote From Morton's introduction to the 1925 publication of his first book The Heart of London:

"… when I ask myself why I love London I realise I appreciate that which is London - a thing very like family tradition for which we in our turn are responsible to posterity - and I realise that I am every day of my life thrilled, puzzled, charmed and amused by that flood tide of common humanity flowing through London as it has surged through every great city in the history of civillisation. Here is every human emotion. Here in this splendid theatre the comedy and the tragedy of the human heart are acted day and night."

So, who was H.V Morton?

Niall Taylor, of the H.V Morton society, is a man far better equipped than me to explain, and has written this wonderful introduction to H.V Morton:

Henry Vollam (HV) Morton was a best selling journalist and author who was born in 1892 in Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire. He was gifted with the craft and discipline of the professional journalist by his journalist father, Joseph and a deep and abiding love of history and story telling by his Scots mother, Marguerite. Morton's love of literature was further enhanced by an early interest in the theatre, particularly in the works of Shakespeare which he performed in an amateur capacity while his love of his native land was taking root in the country lanes of Warwickshire and Staffordshire as he spent many happy hours cycling the length and breadth of his local countryside as a youth.

Morton spent his childhood near Birmingham and, in 1910, while his father was editor in chief of a Birmingham newspaper group 'Harry', as he was known to his family, began his own literary career, first as a junior reporter at the Birmingham Gazette, later working at the paper where his father presided.

A decline in family fortunes proved a blessing in disguise as Morton moved to London in 1913 to pursue his career, working for a variety of publications including the Empire Magazine and the Daily Mail. After serving as a Cavalry officer in the Warwickshire Yeomanry during the First World War, Morton returned to journalism, this time under Lord Beaverbrook who proved a great influence over the young reporter. During this period Morton was rapidly becoming a household name with his regular columns in the Daily Express but he got his first real 'break' on the international stage in 1923 when he covered the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen for his paper, successfully breaking the cosy monopoly between the authorities and The Times newspaper, eventually managing to steal 
the scoop from under them! Bouyed by the success of this journalistic coup Morton began writing a column which would shape his career for the rest of his life. Since before the great war Morton had developed a great love of London and he now turned his hand to a series of essays about his beloved city which were published in the Express. His eye for detail, the personal touch and his love and understanding of 'place' made his works unique and very quickly his readers took him to their hearts. He describes himself at the time as an "acquisitive young reporter... allowed to wander at will into the highways and byways" who never failed to find subjects to write about. This deceptively simple approach to writing served HV Morton well for the next forty six years and his career went from strength to strength. 

Morton however wasn't quite so naive as he might have endeavoured to appear in his writings and his eye was always firmly on the future. The unprecedented popularity of his contributions to the Express may go some way to explain how this shrewd young reporter was able to secure full copyrights to all his articles as he went on to publish them in book form with Methuen, and in 1925 his first book, The Heart of London was published. It was quickly followed by two additional volumes compiled from the same column over the next 
eighteen months.

The success of his 'London' columns soon developed into a similar series of popular Daily Express articles, this time exploring the country at large, taking his newly acquired Bullnose Morris car, which was to become his trademark, along the rapidly developing road network of initially England then later Scotland, Ireland and Wales. These works too were ultimately published in book form, beginning with In Search of England in 1927. His popularity increased with every publication until he became the best selling travel writer of the period; In Search of England is still in print to this day.

Morton continued to publish in the decades that followed and his later works included travelogues of Spain, Italy, South Africa and the Holy Land, all the while maintaining his familiar style of light hearted inquiry and cunning observation, always with an eye for what we would call today the "human angle". Not for Morton a dry account of heroic architecture or local history, he was typically more concerned with the little old lady at the back of the crowd and he would go out of his way to talk to such people, elevating their stories to poetic heights. Morton did indeed describe heroic architecture - he had a particular love of ecclesiastical buildings, and he also had a great interest in local history but he would always deal with such things in his own special way, bringing the subject alive with his simple, descriptions and touching words. He was, on the whole, happy to leave political and social commentary to contemporaries such as Priestly and Orwell but when, on occasions he turned his hand to publications with a message he did so extremely well, speaking out against social injustice and later helping the war effort with publications such as What I Saw in the Slums, I, James Blunt (his only work of fiction) and Atlantic Meeting.

In the years following the close of the Second World War, during which he had served in the Home Guard, Morton became increasingly disillusioned with the country of his birth, which he percieved as being more and more at odds with the one he believed he had known and loved and written about. Finally, in 1948 he emigrated with his family to South Africa where he lived until his death in 1979 at the age of 86. Morton loved South Africa and was happy there, occasionally regretful and not without the odd bout of homesickness but his prolific output of books and articles continued, including another volume on London, In Search of London. He continued his international travels too while researching for new books and made frequent visits to Britain to cover events such as the death of King George and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth for a variety of publications and journals.

His personal life wasn't always straightforward - "HV" Morton, whimsical narrator of his travelogues and "Harry" Morton, husband, father and career author were certainly not one in the same person to those that knew this deeply private man. His character has its contradictions, his life was complicated at times and he certainly lived it to the full according to his extensive diaries and notes which have been incorporated into two biographies. 

Morton was however the master of his chosen craft and, some would say, still unrivalled as a travel writer. He is a unique link with the past, born in the Victorian age, growing up in Edwardian high society and forging a career in the modern age; all the time recording what he saw around him from the smallest detail to grandest events unfolding on the international stage. His writing is vivid, always readable and sympathetic to the subject at hand. His popular works are simple in style as he effortlessly brings history to life and takes a willing reader along with him on his journeys uncluttered with any hidden agenda other than to achieve "an understanding love for the villages and country towns of England".

For further information on HV Morton and the society set up in 2003 to encourage an interest in his works as well as provide a means for the exchange of views on his life and works, please visit the website at
                              - Niall Taylor (webmaster for the HV Morton society)

Sources and further reading:

H.V. Morton: The life of an enchanted traveller, by Kenneth Fields (Self-published; November 2003, revised April 2009) [available from]

In Search of H.V. Morton’, by Michael Bartholomew (Methuen, London, 2004. 248 pages with illustrations, notes and index. Also now available in paperback. From major booksellers and on-line through Amazon UK, etc.)

Before proceeding I’d like to thank Niall for the wonderful article above, and urge you to visit his website to learn more about H.V Morton.

Now, onto two of my favourite articles from Morton’s vast cannon of work:

The Dead City, from The Nights of London, 1926:
Two o’clock in the morning at the Bank….
Arc lights burn over empty streets. It is so cold, so quiet. The Lord Mayor of London asleep behind the Corinthian columns of his dark, island house; the lieutenant in charge of the Bank Guard (soothed by traditional port) asleep opposite behind the eyeles frontage of Soane’s stone money-box; the constables of the Royal Exchange asleep in the suburbs, their cocked hats on the bed-posts, their silver, Elizabethan bears above white sheets…dreaming of Gloriana, perhaps, who made them, or of scrubby little office boys who live on apples and leave the cores to plague their lives.

This is the Bank; the busiest scene by day in London; by night the most desolate, most forlorn! A forest has at night a hidden life; even the Sahara and the Libyan desert seem to pulse with a queer vitality under the stars, but the City of London, made by man and deserted by its creator, dies each night. Dead as Timgad, it seems; as uncanny as its shuttered trance as some lost city of old times discovered standing in silence under an indifferent moon.

I stand by the Duke of Wellington, gripped by the silence of this so recently crowded stage, feeling in some small way the horror of being the last man on earth.

A black tom-cat of great girth and dignity comes down from Cheapside into Poultry with an air which suggests that he is the managing director of London Limited. He alone treads roads which a few hours since would have meant annihilation; leisurely he comes, as if savouring the solitude, as if purring in the silence. He stands a moment lost in thought, and then slowly crosses the road – Cheapside to his tail, the Royal Exchange to his whiskers, the Bank to his left, the Mansion House to his right – the only living thing in the core of London’s sleeping heart!

In the desolation of the Bank at two a.m he is an event.
‘Puss-puss,’ I whisper.
He considers me and rejects me in the manner of cats. What right have I to be messing about in the coverts scaring the quarry? He walks to the Royal Exchange, and is lost round a corner. I wonder whether he will hunt the rat over those stones from Turkey on which London found her fortune.

A taxicab spins across from Queen Victoria Street; one of those curious unbalanced motor-sweepers releases its brushes and hums beside the kerb in Poultry, going slowly into lamplit solitude like an ugly garbage beetle.

I meet a policeman in Cornhill; another one in Gracechurch Street.
London must have felt like this during the great plague; these silent locked buildings and these dead avenues! A square mile of solitude where once was such throbbing life, where London behind her wall lived and slept, married, died, and was buried. There can be no such things as ghosts, or the empty City of London would be full of thin, mist-like clouds every night, clouds with faces in them, peering, wondering.

Who could resist going on past the Monument to London Bridge?

London Bridge deserted, twin rows of lamps over the dark river, and – such a heart-catching beauty of London lost in a faint night mist, picked out with pin stars of light, the Thames in movement round the jutting piers, barred with gold fish scales of lamplight, and, to the right, a great splendour of grey spires, and dark stones…London asleep! No sound but that of a stray, petulant siren downstream; no movement in all London but an approaching red tug light on the Thames, the rush of lit water and a sudden puff of steam from the Canon Street railway bridge; a white cloud lit with red flame for an instant and then lost…

This is the time to see London, to love London, to make promises to London, to pray to London, to plead with London; for London now, grotesquely, seems all yours in loneliness, for once in the twenty-four hours harmless, unable to hurt or bless…lost in a dream.

I go down Lower Thames Street, where the cats are all in love, sitting crouched low, face to face, whirring inside with savage sonnets, advancing, retreating, eye to eye. I come to the Tower of London, which lifts grey walls and bastions in the night. One small window only is lit; a tiny square of gold high up in a turret. The mind fastens to it. I think of a knight hurriedly arming in the stone room and his horse ready below…I think of a yeoman warder with neuralgia! Such a speculative little window in a London night!

I creep to the wicket gate and peer in at the sleeping Tower of London. A shadow at the gate moves. I see the light run on steel;
‘Who goes there?’
The Tower is awake; that is the discovery of a City night! The Tower is as it always was; a fortress locked with a password, locked by the King’s keys, slipping back into medievalism every night prompt at ten.
‘Who goes there?’
in the voice of the sentry at the wicket gate is the Voice of our London coming down, with a slight touch of indignation, over eight hundred splendid years. 


Ghosts of the Fog, from The Heart of London, 1925:
Fog in London. Men are like flat figures cut in black paper. All things become two-dimensional. Carts, motor-cars, omnibuses are shadows that nose their way painfully like blind beasts. The fog has a flavour. 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 eyes watering. It puts out clammy fingers that touch the ears and give the hands a ghostly grip.
Children alone love it. They press their small faces to window-panes and watch the lights like little unripe oranges going by in the murk. A taxicab becomes something ogreish; a steam-lorry is a dragon spitting flame and grunting on its evil way. Men who sell things in the streets become more than ever deliciously horrible and blood-curdling; they never arrive normally; they loom; they appear, delightfully freezing the blood, howling their wares like the lonely wolf in the picture book.

I go out into the fog and enter an incredible underworld. The fog has turned London into a place of ghosts. At one moment a man with a red nose and a moustache like a small scrubbing-brush appears with the startling suddenness of an apparition. There must be millions of such men with exactly similar moustaches, but this one is segregated from the herd. He seems unique in his isolation. I am quite prepared to believe he is the only one of that type in the world. I want to examine him as a learned man examines an insect on a pin. He seems a rare and interesting specimen. I want to cry “Stop! Let me appreciate you!” But no; in a flash he goes, fades – disappears!

There comes a girl, pale and beautiful – much more beautiful than she would be on a fine day, because the eyes are focused on her alone! She has the allurement of a dream, or a girl in a poem.
What is this in Oxford Street? Two motor-cars locked together. Fifty grim, muffled ghosts stand round watching and blowing their noses. On any day but a foggy day it would be a mere nothing: an excuse for a policeman to lick his pencil and write in a book. Today it is a struggle of prehistoric monsters in a death-grip. So must two clumsy, effete beats of the Ice Age have fought locked in each other’s scaly arms.

“Hi, there, put a bit of beef behind it….Come on, mate – heave!”
Deep, angry voices come from the grey nothingness. A girl ghost says:
“Oh, isn’t it awful? My eyes smart like anything.”
Two big yellow eyes bear down on the scene. Men ghosts jump about in the road. They shout, they wave a red light, the monster with the two blazing eyes swerves, there is a vision of a red-faced man in a peaked cap and his gloved hands on a steering wheel:
“Keep your rear lights on, can’t you! You ought to be in the cemetery…that’s where you ought to be and that’s where you’ll blinkin’ well end!”

He passes on with his message.

In Finsbury Square a crowd of ghosts watch ten devils. Men are putting down asphalt. Today they are not men: they are fiends pushing flaming cauldrons about. The roadway is a mass of tiny, licking, orange-coloured flames. The devils take long rakes, and the little flames leap and jump and fall over and between the prongs of the rakes like fluid. Red-hot wheeled trolleys, with a blasting flame, beneath them are dragged backwards and forwards over the roadway, heating it, licking at it, and roaring like furnaces.
The wind blows the flames this way and that way, lighting up the faces of the men, glittering on their belt buckles and making their bare arms fire colour.

The ghosts stand with white faces watching. More ghosts come. One little ghost has a peaked cap and an urgent message in a patent leather pouch. He stays a long time.

Near the bank I come face to face with the greatest optimist of this or any other age. Here is a man entirely obscured by fog standing on the kerb making a tin monkey run up and down a piece of twine. Think of it! If you are sad or broke or things are going wrong, think of this man selling tin monkeys in a thick fog.

“How many have you sold?” I ask him.
“Fower,” he says.
Four tin monkeys sold in a thick fog.
Marvellous! Incredible!


I hope that H.V Morton’s work will one day become as popular as it deserves to be, and that, if prior to reading this post you had never heard of him, you will feel inspired to find some of his work! I know there is an appetite for his work out there, as one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written on this blog involved a Morton article about Victorian Lamplighters, which you can read here.

My thanks again go to Niall Taylor for his work on this article.


  1. I love HV Morton. I was lucky enough to go to Rome a few years ago, and got so much more out of the trip, thanks to Mr Morton's 'A Traveller in Rome.' The antiquities became 'real' instead of just something to stand and pose in front of for a photograph. I have copies of most of his books now.

  2. Brilliant. I have all his London books and he paints such vivid pictures of the era that you can't help but imagine the streets you walk and the landmarks you see as they would have been then, in the days when men tipped their hats to each other and the streets were lit by gas.

    Thanks for the comment, much appreciated!