Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2020

I, James Blunt, by H V Morton

As Bill from The Australian Legend remarked just recently, the provenance of second-hand books is sometimes almost as much fun as the contents. I owe my discovery of this rare little booklet by the great travel writer H V Morton (1892-1979) to Niall Taylor from the H V Morton Society…

Members of the society receive regular bulletins from Niall and other contributors, and these are now available online at the HVM blog. It was in January this year that Niall posted a reprint of an article by Kenneth Fields which had originally been circulated as HVM Collectors’ Note No.6, on 22nd April, 2004.  The article (which I urge you to read by following that link) was about HVM’s role in producing propaganda for the Ministry of Information during WW2.  I, James Blunt is a slim novella published in 1942, and it’s rare now because it is so fragile, printed under wartime regulations on soft paper and with a very soft cover.  I did a search and was lucky to pick up an affordable copy from New Zealand that was advertised via AbeBooks.

This is from the dustjacket blurb:

The Diary of James Blunt will remain fiction as long as England condemns complacency and brings to times of good news the same high courage and resolution which inspire and unite her in her darkest hours.
It is September 1944. James Blunt, a retired tradesman living near Farnham, is one of the millions of Britons suffering under the Nazi heel. In secret, he keeps a diary. Through his eyes we see the Gestapo at work in an English village, German troops goose-stepping past Buckingham Palace, the whole face of Britain unrecognisably altered by humiliation and tyranny.
‘James Blunt’s diary’, says H V Morton, is dedicated to all complacent optimists and wishful thinkers, and to those who cannot imagine what life would be like if we lost the war.’

The novella is only 56 pages long, but it makes for fascinating reading.  It is set in what was in 1942 the very near future: five months after the Capitulation in 1944 with Britain now learning the reality of Nazi Occupation.  James Blunt is a veteran of the First World War.  He is devastated by Britain’s defeat and is very worried about his family.  His wife Elsie was killed in the Blitz, and he has a daughter called Marjorie and two grandchildren called George and Ann.  While the children are now of an impressionable age and must start in one of the new German primary schools for indoctrination, Marjorie’s husband Jack works in a shipyard taken over by the Hermann Göring Company.  His record as a trade unionist makes him very vulnerable because they are always the first to disappear.  Blunt is also anxious about his sister Elsie, whose imprudent letters put them both at risk now that the Gestapo has complete control of the Post Office. 

Along with overt signs of occupation which include removing the word ‘Royal’ from everything, hanging Swastika flags everywhere and renaming all the places that alluded to British victories (such as Waterloo and Trafalgar) with the names we in our time have come to despise (such as Himmler, Goebbels and of course Hitler), there is now a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion. No one dares express opinions in the pub, reporting on the appalling suicide rate is forbidden, and the presence of German officers demanding identity cards on pain of severe punishment makes any venture away from home perilous.  For those of us who have read a bit or seen films or TV series about the Occupation of France, these tyrannies are familiar.  What makes it ghastly is that they take place in a country that has always been proudly independent and with which we in Australia identify for historical reasons.  Even if you have no love for Britain and her own conquering empire, reading this little novella is a salutary experience, once you realise that every one of Britain’s ‘possessions’ would be have been subject to the same tyranny.  (I learned on my recent holiday in New Caledonia that New Caledonia refused to submit to Vichy law and that Australia supported their refusal to acquiesce to fascism.  We might not have been able to do that had Britain capitulated, and we should never forget that Britain stood alone against Nazism with America pragmatically waiting in the wings for far too long).

I am fascinated by books written contemporaneously with war, when the author had to live with the immediacy of warfare and could have had no idea what the outcome might be.  Irene Nemirovsky is a powerful example of this, writing vividly about the evacuation of Paris in the wake of the Nazi advance, and — with no knowledge of how long this war was to last — about the complexity of living with an occupying force and an enemy soldier billeted in the house.  She was not to know that the Nazis would catch up with her and that she would perish in Auschwitz.  H V Morton, when he was writing this novella in 1941, would have had good reason to be pessimistic.  The authenticity of his writing is what gives it power: like my parents, their family and their friends living through the Blitz and watching Europe fall, he expresses the fear that gripped them day by day. Although they did not know the full horror of the Nazi regime, they knew what had happened in France and they knew how vulnerable Britain was.  They knew they were alone against a powerful foe and until December 1941, they knew that American isolationism offered no assistance.  HVM wrote this story because he knew how vitally important it was to sustain morale, and he was asked to do it because the Ministry of Information knew how popular he was, but still, I wonder just how convincing it might have been when the situation looked so dire.

Fascism is on the rise in Europe, and populism in Britain and the US hasn’t helped. I, James Blunt is an unsubtle piece of propaganda that expresses a profound truth, that we should—those of us in democracies—cherish the freedoms that we have, because if we don’t defend them, one day it might be too late.

PS I am making an unenthusiastic visit to the eye specialist this afternoon, with the possibility that he may wish to do a ‘procedure’ there and then.  I have no idea whether this might affect my reading and writing, but I hope that normal service will resume ASAP.

Author: H V Morton
Title: I, James Blunt
Cover design: not acknowledged, but impressive because it places the individual first and foremost, with the emphasis on the word ‘I”
Publisher: Methuen and Co, 1942
ISBN: None, pbk, 56 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Hard To Find Books NZ via Abebooks, $50.00 AUD


Responses

  1. All the best with your medical procedure. Anything to do with the eyes is never pleasant. I had my cataracts done last year and all good.
    What an interesting book and so important to read first hand experiences of that awful time that our parents lived through. I am deeply concerned about the state of our political culture both here and internationally. The embedded disinterest in serious discussion can be disturbing particularly when it’s from people educated and privileged.

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    • Well, it looks like cataract surgery is on the cards, being done a little earlier than is strictly necessary so that at the same time he can tinker with something else that does need to be done promptly. LOL I shall make sure I schedule proceedings so as not to interfere with important things here!
      #Musing I don’t suppose we could know without asking someone who’d been through both experiences, but I wonder if the sense of dread we are all feeling about the bushfires and how they are only going to get worse, is a bit like the sense of dread felt by those who lived through the Blitz.

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  2. I hope all goes well with your trip to the eye doctor.

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    • He seems confident that he can do the kind of miracles that seem to be required! and it’s only day surgery, he says!

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      • Awesome. Eyes are so precious. I have had a few issues with eyes because of an autoimmune disease (currently in remission) so I am exceptionally grateful for the skills of eye doctors.

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        • Yes, me too. Though they’re a bit sore now after all the drops and poking about, so I’m going to spend the rest of today vegging out with French films on SBS:)

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  3. Good luck with the eye op, Lisa, I hope everything goes well. And thanks for the reference to the article – ‘I, James Blunt’ is a very special volume, and not just because it is so rare. All the best, Niall

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    • Thanks, Niall, it was a real pleasure to read this little book, I was so lucky to get my hands on it!

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  4. Firstly, good luck with the op and hope it goes well.

    Secondly the book sounds fascinating, and I wish I could get hold of a copy. Alas, it ain’t cheap round here, but I shall keep an eye out. I’ve liked his travel writing in the past so am very intrigued….

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    • Thanks:)
      I think the book would be much more expensive in the UK where all the collectors are. His work is very collectible, but I have been quite lucky here in Australia because his books occasionally turn up in country Op Shops and second-hand stores where people don’t know about him. So I have been able to buy everything that’s in my small collection for very reasonable prices. I have told The Offspring that when I go to The Great Library in the Sky he is not to chuck ’em all out but to take them to an antiquarian bookshop for valuation!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This does sound like a fascinating read.

    For a moment there I was surprised that you were going to be reading about contemporary singer James Blunt!

    Good luck with your surgery. Hopefully he does perform that miracle you mentioned before.

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    • LOL Marg, you know me too well for that…
      I’d never heard of the singer!
      So….
      I just Googled him now, and wow, he is totally gorgeous (even all wet in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xU4wN8WbTfE).
      Not at all how I imagine the James Blunt in the book…

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  6. I must say that I knew Morton couldn’t have been writing about the current James Blunt, but the name did give me a start nonetheless!

    I loved Morton’s dedication “to all complacent optimists and wishful thinkers”. I am an optimist, but I hope I’m not complacent nor a wishful thinker. I do try to do my bit!

    I liked your comment about enjoying books about war written during it. That immediate knowledge provides a special perspective doesn’t it. (Bill, with his dislike of historical fiction, would agree!)

    Finally, I’ve read all the comments and know now the result of your ophthalmologist visit. I really hope that he can work wonders for you. Sore eyes are such misery – in addition to the obvious impact on important things like reading.

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    • LOL Sue, I may have inadvertently brought new readers to the blog if they search this name!
      I’d need to do more research than I’d want to, to know whether this was written in response to people expressing defeatist views. I know that there were always the fascists among Brits, who tried to prevent the war in the first place, but there were also people for whom memories of the WW1 were traumatic as well as those who felt a deep-seated distrust of the politicians who led them into what was a stupid unnecessary and prolonged war. But I’d guess that although the prevailing narrative then as now was of stoic endurance in the service of defeating a great evil, there would have been an undercurrent of people wanting to end the war as the French had done, because they thought there was no hope of defeating Germany. After all, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been realistic to suppose that without Russia or the US, that they *were* doomed.
      LOL I have made it very clear to the specialist that my reading has to be his first priority, (and I thank my brilliant optometrist Randal Lamont for being so quick to refer me at the first sign of trouble).

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  7. I’m even later to the party than Sue this time, and I have three or four of your posts ahead of me so I’m guessing, no procedure. I used to read a lot of WWII books but nearly all of them, from distant memory, were written in that period 1945-55. None I can think of that were written during and about the War, let alone envisaging failure. My favourite, Stand Easy, was written by soldiers waiting to be demobbed. As Sue says, history by people who were there.

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    • Was Stand Easy about Australian soldiers or British ones? I used to think that when Germany surrendered it was all over, and everyone could go home but it wasn’t like that at all. First my father was in training for deployment in the Pacific War, (and saved from that by the atom bomb, which is awful to think about) and then he was put to work removing fittings from troop ships being restored for civilian use. He didn’t actually get out of the army for ages.

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      • Stand Easy, and some following volumes, were Australian, published by the DoD I suppose. They used to be quite common in second hand shops.

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        • Ah yes, of course, I remember now. They would be collectors’ items now, I suppose…

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