A Rescued Book, Famous Skeletons, and a Problematic Author

A Traveller in Southern Italy - H.V. Morton

Every so often, if you have a lot of books, it is a good idea to get rid of some (if only to free up space for more books). Of course figuring out which books should go isn't always an easy process. So when my dad thought he'd go through some of our books and started making a To The Used Bookstore pile, I knew I'd need to hop in and save a few things. (He's done this before and more than 50% of the books he was ready to get rid of were ones that belonged to me or my mom - and we're both big on rereading. Needless to say there was a big "wait, what are you doing" conversation.)


A Traveller in Italy (1964) wasn't a book I'd have thought he'd put in that pile though. It's hardback, nicely bound, and belonged to a great aunt of mine who I'm still fond of remembering. She always had interesting taste in books and I still enjoy a lot of her choices. She'd underlined text on some of the pages - but not all the way through, making me think she set it aside to finish later (I can relate).


After I read the following quotes I knew I was going to keep this book:


p 16, part of a discussion on the people of Milan and what they wear:


"...surely the disappearance of the hat is one of the most curious social changes of our time. I can remember a more conventional age when a bare-headed person was stared at in the streets and laughed at by rude boys. Whether the hatlessness of the world, for all countries are now alike in their bare-headed crowds, is the successful work of the No Hat Brigade, which operated before the First World War, or whether it is due to other and more complex forms of emancipation, I don't know, but hatlessness is now so general that the ancient trade of hatter will someday surely become extinct."


p. 22-3, in the Ambrosian Basilica, Milan - reliquary of the crypt

"...As I stood shivering, I noticed a glimmer of light under the high altar. I walked towards it and, descending a flight of steps, entered a crypt where a number of old women dressed in black were waiting for early Mass to begin. They looked like a secret society or a gathering of primitive Christians. The verger hurried down with a bunch of keys. He unlocked the altar-piece in four places, and with four different keys, and this was then revealed as four painted steel panels which he cranked down into slots or grooves. As he did so, he revealed the object they had concealed and protected. As this came into view, the old women fell upon their knees and crossed themselves, for they were in the presence of one of the world's most awesome survivals.

All I could see at first was a sheet of plate-glass, but when the verger switched on the lights a gruesome and extraordinary sight sprang into view. Three clothed skeletons were lying side by side upon a bed, or bier, within a crystal shrine, the central skeleton resting upon a higher level than those on its right and left. This was my first sight of the bones of S. Ambrose, whose remains have been preserved in the basilica since his death in Mediolanum in AD 397. An antique mitre rested upon the saint's skull, upon the finger-bones were red episcopal gloves, upon the skeleton feet were golden slippers, and in the crook of the arm-bones lay a crozier. The skeletons on each side are those of the martyrs, S. Gervasius and S. Protasius, of whom little is known except that they were Roman soldiers said to have died for their faith long before the time even of S. Ambrose. Ambrose, who was a law unto himself, exhumed these martyrs and placed their bones in his basilica at a time when the Latin Church forbade the removal of saintly bones. This was, therefore, the first translation of relics into a Western Church, for the custom did not become general until after the desecration of the Catacombs many centuries later."

When I went to Italy back in the 1980s I saw multiple saints bodies in various churches. And while the idea of a skeleton in a church was new to me, I got used to it, and then it really interested me. Mainly because I like the idea of remembering the dead - I think in the current century we're a bit too into hustling the dead quickly out of sight and then ignoring cemeteries, for all sorts of reasons. Also I'm frankly interested in how such artifacts hold up through time. Some of these skeletons are very elaborately dressed, and finding out when the textiles were made and on what occasions the body would/could be redressed is fascinating. Well, to me anyway.


Of course, I immediately wanted to see what this crypt looked like (I can NOT resist googling this sort of thing). I didn't manage to find any images of the unlocking/opening of the altar, but I did find some of Ambrose and the martyrs.


Saint Ambrose - on that wikipedia page if you scroll down you'll see a small image of the skeleton/reliquary. If you want a much larger image (includes the martyrs), here you go.


Interior and Exterior of the Basilica - scroll down past the Milan Cathedral images.


Altar of St Ambrose - I'm not at all sure if this is the same altar mentioned in the quote, but it's the most famous and often mentioned due to the artwork. Lots of details of all sides of the altar at that link.


If you've read much of my blogging you'll quickly know that the whole question of whether this is the altar that opens, and how it works (I'd love to see the mechanics of it), immediately fascinated me. Yes, I've resisted falling into hours of googling - barely.


Anyway after those quotes I decided I was definitely hanging onto the book - I liked the author's style of writing and choices of history that he shared. I also noted that the author had written several books on London and the UK, which sounded like ones I should track down too. And then I read his wikipedia page.


(I'm about to post more quotes. Short version: author has problematic beliefs about race, etc. Also warning: references to child abuse, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. No details, just links.)


Author: Henry Vollam Morton


From his wikipedia page:


"...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 Tutankhamon by Howard Carter in Egypt.


A biography, by Michael Bartholomew, based on Morton's private papers, titled In Search of H.V.Morton was published by Methuen in 2004. Reading of Morton's private diaries and memoirs reveal that he was a Nazi sympathizer. On February 1941 he wrote: "I must say Nazi-ism has some fine qualities" and, "I am appalled to discover how many of Hitler's theories appeal to me". In another entry he described the United States as "that craven nation of Jews and foreigners". His private writings also reveal that he was a frequent adulterer."


An article quoted in that wiki, a book review of the Bartholomew biography:


A Very English Hypocrite, by Max Hastings, The Telegraph 6 May 2004


"...His photograph on the jacket of Michael Bartholomew's book shows a figure closely resembling Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. Yet in truth, as this book shows with copious evidence from Morton's unpublished diaries and memoirs, he was more fitted to play Frankenstein's monster. The shrewd, amiable lone traveller of Morton's narratives emerges in real life as a thoroughly nasty piece of work - vain, cynical, misanthropic, deeply anti-Semitic, with a penchant for grotesque sexual adventures.


...He himself achieved early success as a journalist on the Daily Express and was a favourite of Lord Beaverbrook. Like most of Beaverbrook's proteges, at the outset he was searched and relieved of scruples and principles, leaving him free to display superb reporting skills. Morton quickly perfected the art of producing heartfelt accounts of events before they took place, and composing moving interviews with people who did not exist.


...he broke his journey in Paris for just long enough to dash from the station to a brothel for a ten-minute coupling, before rushing back to his train. All this sort of stuff he recorded in his private papers. His widow must have disliked him greatly, not to burn these after his death.


If the sexual passages were merely undignified, Morton's political views were repellent. He hated socialists, and indeed democracy. "I must say Nazi-ism has some fine qualities", he wrote in February 1941. For nationalistic reasons he did not want a German victory in the Second World War, but he believed the Fuhrer had sound ideas about Jews and Bolsheviks. "I am appalled to discover how many of Hitler's theories appeal to me", he wrote - fortunately for his reputation, not for publication. Even America is dismissed in his diary as "that craven nation of Jews and foreigners".


This is not the first author I've read that has beliefs I not only don't share but have a feeling of disgust for. Not the sex part so much, the political and racial attitudes are what I'm focusing on. And I'm probably extra sensitive about it now due to the recent articles and blog posts on Marion Zimmer Bradley (more links) (Warning: child abuse). I'd never gotten around to reading Bradley's books - but after reading what her daughter and son have had to say, I definitely couldn't read them now. I've had similar feelings about Woody Allen's work - not due to the recent abuse allegations, but the fact that he had an affair/relationship with a girl who was essentially his adopted daughter. (One of my parents is adopted, so that colors my perspective.)


I also read a lot of older fiction and whenever I come upon something racist (to choose just one example of the problematic), even as an aside, I always think "WHY has no one mentioned this in any of the reviews?" Because those instances make me wince and automatically change how I feel about the characters in the story and the author, no matter how well respected. My most recent example of WTF is still the G. K. Chesterton Father Brown story God of the Gongs. (That link's to my review, not the story.) Completely ruined how I'll forever view that detective clergyman.


So I'm immediately glad to have the heads up on Morton. I don't have a particular scale of how I feel about the many things I consider problematic, and where I set the "nope can't read." I am however curious to see if there's any way Morton has put any of his views into his travel books - because it does seem odd that it took until 2004 for Morton's beliefs to be known.


When I do find something in a text - like the racism example - I feel it's something that should be called attention to in a review - it's not enough to just say "well, that's how things were then." I think it's very important not to brush it aside. These instances always bother/upset me - but I've come to believe that's a good response. I've read too many essays written by people who've been hurt by those slurs to think that they're harmless now that they're "part of history." If these instances are never mentioned by modern reviewers then the assumption is that those readers aren't noticing it because it somehow doesn't touch them - perhaps because the slurs aren't aimed at them? But it shouldn't take something that directly hurts you to make you empathetic. ...That's my opinion anyway.


The problem of Morton making up parts of his supposed nonfiction - well, I wasn't expecting historical accuracy, even though the book has a bibliography, simply because of the dates during which he was publishing. Doesn't mean I like it, but the nonfiction of a lot of older work is something you always doubt. For instance, when I read any of the autobiographies and biographies prior to the 1970s I always assume there will be some if not many mistakes, and often massive chunks of "uncomfortable" history left out. And that goes for nonfiction as well. (The only reason post-1970s books are different is because I can usually find some article online about inaccuracy in the texts. It's not that I expect them to be more factual - I just expect to be able to find the critiques more easily.)


I've actually been meaning to write more about "problematic authors" - I was going to call them racist authors, but the Bradley articles made me realize that the scope is a lot wider. I'll be rethinking how to write on that, and maybe eventually get back to it. Because I've always had a list of "authors I've read, found out unpleasant things about, and then felt differently about." Another one of my way too long list titles.


Anyway, I'm still keeping the book, for the moment. We'll see if I find anything unpleasant is scuttling around in the text (or the subtext?) as I read the rest of it.


It is an interesting experience to reread those first quotes I posted from the book and think about how my perception of the author changed once I learned more background. (I also realize I did a sort of parallel thing with ignoring the dead and ignoring racism in old books. Didn't plan that. If I had then I'd have come up with a catchy segue between the two to show it off. Heh.)


If you want to peruse a bit of Morton's work yourself, here's one you can read online: The Call of England (1936).