Henry Canova Vollam Morton FRSL (known as H. V. Morton), (26 July 1892 – 18 June 1979) was a journalist and pioneering travel writer from Lancashire, England. He was best known for his prolific and popular books on London, Great Britain and the Holy Land. He first achieved fame in 1923 when, while working for the Daily Express, he scooped the official Times correspondent during the coverage of the opening of the Tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in Egypt.
Morton’s vignette In Search of England (1927) became a bestseller, and was the first of many In Search of… series books to follow, including In Search of Wales (1932).
In his book, In Search of Wales Morton begins by describing the process as ‘not easy’ given that “the Welsh people possess that surest of all retreats from the outsider, their own language.”
On his visit to Carmarthen Morton came across what he described as a very unusual site akin to ‘a gigantic upturned beetle walking on its hind legs or it might have been a huge performing turtle’.
Morton was a brilliant writer, journalist and historian. In one line he linked his experience with the upturned turtle with that of Julius Caesar who he said would have instantly recognised it as ‘the coracle of the Ancient Britons’. Morton had been in Ireland and had met the men who fished from ‘curraghs’. He was a well-travelled man for those times. His mode of transport for driving around the British countryside was a ‘Bullnose Morris’.
Ever on the hunt for gems to inform the reader Morton describes the lot of the coracle man writing: “I went down from the bridge and talked to the man. He told me that there are perhaps a dozen coracle fishermen on the Towy. It is an hereditary occupation, son succeeding father; and no interlopers are admitted. The fishers pay a tax of £3.4d, a year for their licences and are permitted to net salmon during the season.
Morton’s journalistic style is evident throughout the book and it really is a pre dated version of Whicker’s World or Palin’s Travels.
Morton describes Carmarthen as “The most vivacious market town I had seen in Wales. I heard more laughter and saw more smiles in the streets of Carmarthen than I had in any town in the Principality.”
Morton sets off on his way towards Llanelli. His first impression of the town is not flattering, but he soon uses that curiosity and investigative urge to scratch beneath the surface of a heavily polluted industrial town at the time.
Morton describes first seeing Llanelli thus:
I had been travelling for some miles through the Carmarthenshire county when, topping a hill, I saw lying before me a black town with smoke over it and chimneys rising above the long streets of grim, slate-roofed houses. This town looked like a crazy intrusion. It stood up, rather horrible and gaunt, but all around it was open country.
Upon his first impression of the towns folk he wrote: I passed groups of men in blue suits with cloth gaps on their heads and neck-cloths round their throats. The mark of the town was on them. The stamp of the machine was on them.” As always Morton put aside his initial observations and having met and spoken to local men he described them as quick, intelligent, well-spoken, humorous and kindly.
Morton’s writing is extremely rich and descriptive. It gives the reader a real sense of being there. Describing the process whereby scrap metal was turned into salmon tins he wrote:
“For one moment you see a slab of armored plate, a bit of bedstead and a bicycle wheel trying hard to maintain their identities in the heat; then slowly they lose colour, sink, and are lost in the bubbling steel… So a furnace accepts a mouthful of food.
“Through the glasses I see a moving, bubbling cauldron of white-hot soup. The steel is boiling. Sometimes great chunks like pink icebergs fling themselves out of it for a second and sink again. The thing is a star in flux, like matter being forged in heat, like the beginning of a world.
Suddenly the darkness is lit by a brilliant light, showers of sparks arch themselves, and a hissing stream of liquid steel comes gushing from the furnace to fall into the cauldron. As it spills over the iron rim of the cauldron it looks like pinkish milk; as it settles it is a beautiful incandescent tangerine colour. The power locked up in it is terrible. If it disobeyed the devils in goggles and burst its red-hot banks, we should be dead or maimed for life in two seconds. The heat of it as we stand twenty yards away is almost unbearable. The molten steel rises slowly in its giant pot. A scum forms on it. Sparks skate over it. Bubbles of steel open and shut their eyes. The stream of red-hot metal ceases. The sparks give one last firework display and sixty-five tons of steel for salmon tins have been safely decanted.
Next Issue: Morton talks about his journey to Penclawdd. ‘They come from a heavenly protuberance on the Welsh Coast known as the Gower Peninsula and their daily search for cockles is one of the most remarkable sights in Wales’.