I bought a bunch of used books at my local Anglican church about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been working my way through the ones I decided to keep. The nice part about doing this kind of thing is that I invariably end up with loads of books I would never have bought anywhere else. Lesser work by authors I’m already familiar with (such as Barnaby Rudge or Silas Marner) and books by writers I’d never heard of before lead the list.
Today’s entry is of the second kind. When I picked up In Search of England, by H.V. (Henry Volland) Morton, I had never heard of book or author. But I can’t resist a book which promised a tour of the English countryside, so I saved it as a keeper.
It was a good choice. The first thing I noticed is that, unlike Laurens van der Post, who was a workmanlike writer with an emotional bent that makes his work special, Morton is a virtuoso of the pen whose broad historical background made me (as a writer), shake my head in admiration.
But even if he’d been a lesser mortal, the subject is so charming that it would have warranted a place on my shelves.
The story is an account of an automobile journey that Morton undertook around 1926 (the book itself was published in 1927) which started in London and followed, roughly, the contour of England (it ventured into Scotland only following an interesting historical anomaly and only for a few miles).
Avoiding many of today’s tourist traps, the narrative focuses on the villages and unique quirks that make England so special. The Furry Dance in Helston (there are no people dressed as animals, strangely), and the Chester Rows are prime examples, as are churches large and small and the Bristol Camera Obscura, which I need to write a detective story about.
Of course, he also covers the larger stuff such as Bath or Hadrian’s wall, but he does so with a historian’s eye to minutiae that others would simply pass by. In each place, he endeavors to tell us something that the average tourist would never learn… and it’s wonderful.
The most poignant part of it all is when he stands on Hadrian’s wall and looks out over Scotland. You can almost feel the weight of the Roman Empire pushing on your back, and the darkness of the unknown ahead. Immensely good writing.
As a travel journal, it still holds up today. By concentrating on things with roots deep in history, Morton manages to avoid the problems of old guide books. He almost doesn’t mention hotels, gas stations or other stuff that have been superseded by modern life.
It was only after I finished reading and went onto the internet to investigate his life did I learn that both Morton and his “In search of…” series were (or are, depending on your interests) very famous.
Morton, it turns out, was the journalist on the scene when King Tut’s tomb was first opened, and managed to scoop the Times. In 1923 scooping The Times was a big deal… and Morton became an instant celebrity. That’s the kind of serendipitous discovery you never make when buying on Amazon or B&N… and it means I’ll continue to peruse the shelves of unlikely places for overlooked gems.
And the series? It was a bestseller in its day and is still in print today.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with hundreds of published stories to his name, as well as several books. His latest book is perfect for anyone who loves to discover relatively unknown quirks of distant cultures. It’s called Pale Reflection, and Morton would have loved it. We think you will, too, so check it out here.