Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2020

In the Steps of St Paul, by H.V. Morton

Amongst all the misery caused by Covid, not being able to travel seems a comparatively trivial hardship, but we Australians are great travellers, and I’ve got very itchy feet.  Reading travel books seems like pouring salt on the wound, but In the Steps of St Paul is painless.  Published not far off a century ago in October 1936, it’s about a lost world anyway. The contemporary Middle East bears no resemblance to the places HVM visited, and travel there is fraught with complexities. One can’t read HVM’s introduction without a wry smile…

The modern traveller who takes the Acts of the Apostles as his guide-book, as I have done, journeys into a part of the world which once enjoyed the unity of the Roman Empire and is now divided among many nations.  Where he is held up at national frontiers, to pass onward under a different flag and among men who speak under a different tongue, St Paul moved forward over a Roman road, speaking Greek all the time.

It follows, therefore, that travel was easier for St. Paul than for those who follow him, for the great commercial highways along which he moved, and the famous ports from whose harbours he sailed, are no longer the main highways of the world.  What was to St. Paul a progress along the best-known roads of the Roman Empire, becomes, to the modern traveller, a series of explorations from the beaten track.  The harbour of Antioch is desolate, and Ephesus is a nesting-place for the stork.

Though I’ve been a member of the H.V.Morton Society for years, have read several of his travel books and collected many more, I’ve never read a biography of HVM so I don’t know if he was religious or not.  But as it says at Who is H V Morton? he had a lifelong passion for archaeology and ancient history, and it was the brilliance of his eye witness account for the Daily Express of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923 which made his name as a journalist.  It makes sense that retracing the journeys of St Paul would have made a fascinating quest, especially at a time when so many ancient sites of Christian religious significance were unknown to most people.  And though some of what he writes would now offend modern sensibilities, I can understand his scathing contempt about the destruction of ancient monuments and artefacts because of religious intolerance.  I imagine he would have been livid to witness the looting of Baghdad museum during the 2003 American invasion of Iraq too.

In the course of four journeys, HVM visited Palestine (then under British administration, which — being an imperialist — HVM thinks is a good thing), Syria, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Rhodes and the City of Rome.  It all takes place before the age of mass tourism, and he travels by boat, train, hired car, a sand-cart and on foot.  His eye for detail is prodigious, and his pen-portraits of the people he meets make them unforgettable.  The photo at left is of Father John, who presides over what remains of the Church of St Paul at Caesarea, described as a squalid collection of houses and a mass of ruined walls where little was left of the thriving Roman city but fallen stones and the neglected remains of a Roman theatre.  As HVM explores the area with his hospitable guides, a horseman topped a rise of ground…

He sat in an Arab saddle and his bridle was a single strand of rope.  He wore a pair of striped trousers which had once, in some inconceivable past, belonged to a morning coat.  His grey shirt was open at the neck and his feet in Arab slippers were thrust into bucket stirrups.  He carried a shot-gun slung across his back.  But the most remarkable thing about him was his face, which was as dark as an Arab’s.  It was a lean, brown face, with the straight nose seen in classical sculpture.  His beard grew away from the lips and stood out crisply.  His hair was looped up at the back in a gigantic knot that would, if unbound, have fallen below his waist. This impressive person came riding towards us, an odd mixture of brigand and saint. (p. 358)

It turns out that it’s Father John, who had seen a hare in the corn and hoped to catch it to serve to the Bishop of Caesarea who was coming to stay with him, despite the fact that there is no congregation at Caesarea because there were no Christians.  Father John holds Sunday Service entirely alone.  The reader can sense HVM’s pity and dismay when he writes that it was the most pathetically poor little church he’d ever seen, and it was also the only Greek church he’d ever seen without an ikonostasisAnd when he sees Father John’s distress about the desecration of the holy vault below the church — said to be the prison of St Paul — he subsequently intervenes.  He writes to the Palestine Government requesting that a competent antiquary be sent to inspect the building and is pleased to report that pending the purchase of the vault by the Greek Orthodox Church, steps have been taken to prevent it being used as a stable for donkeys and mules by the farmers who had bought it!

The book is full of fascinating snippets like this.  He notes, for example, that it is goats that have made the Mediterranean barren, and he advises writers that noise is more productive than silence.  He tells the story of Marc Antonio Bragadino, hero of the siege of Famagusta, and his grisly end at the hands of Lala Mustafa.  He’s very impressed by the modernisation of Turkey and the way in which centuries of tradition have been overturned by Ataturk.  He tells us about the ferocious sheep dogs that wear collars with four-inch iron spikes as a protection against wolves, and a page or two later, about his sense of awe at being in Galatia where the Gospel of Christ was proclaimed for the first time in Syrian Antioch, and where the first Gentile was baptised in Pisidian Antioch — making this the site where Paul, having been rejected by the Jews, turned to the Gentiles and set his missionary path towards a universal church.

I was fascinated to learn that the Colossus of Rhodes never straddled the harbour though it’s often depicted that way, and although it was destroyed in an earthquake in 226BCE, the remains were still there in the water and people used to amuse themselves trying to fit the thumb within a handspan.  The reader can tell that HVM is very unimpressed that when in the 7th century Rhodes was captured by an Arab force of Muslims, who melted down the statue and sold the bronze.

This post is too long already, but I’ll finish up with this striking excerpt, reminding me of something David Malouf wrote about in On Experience. We cannot ever un-know things once we know them, and these things colour our experiences and ideas whether we want them to, or not.  Anyone who’s ever ventured to Naples will relate to this, I am sure…

As a ship enters the Gulf of Naples, the attention of its passengers is concentrated on the smoking cone of Vesuvius.  In the intervals between eruptions, there is something about Vesuvius which suggests a locomotive peacefully smoking in a railway station.  You expect, at any moment, the sudden violent puff which precedes noise and movement; and this, I think, is what everyone subconsciously awaits when eyes are fixed in fascination on the slow clouds of smoke and on the long, backward plume of grey.

The smoke of Vesuvius is something that St. Paul did not see as the Castor and Pollux sailed across the Gulf to Puteoli.  The volcano was at that time a harmless-looking mountain whose southern slopes were thickly covered with vines, and in its shadow Pompeii and Herculaneum were laughing their last years of life away.  When Paul sailed past Vesuvius, less than twenty years were to elapse before the lava flowed and hot cinders fell; Drusilla, the young wife of Felix, with whom Paul had talked, was to perish in the horror of that August night. (p.382)

You can still buy a copy of In the Steps of St. Paul, though even if it’s illustrated it won’t have the charm of the sepia photos and the quaint maps that grace my first edition.  But the words will be the same…

And that’s it for 2020, we’ll see what 2021 brings in the way of books!

Image credit: Remains of St Paul’s Church, Caesarea: opposite p.368, photographer presumably HVM himself.

Author: H V (Henry Vollam) Morton
Title: In the Steps of St Paul
Publisher: Rich & Cown, 25 Soho Square, London, 1936 (first edition hardback)
ISBN: none
Source: personal collection, purchased for $22 ages ago.


Responses

  1. I was delighted to read your account of In the steps of St Paul. I used to ejoy reading HV Morton when I was a child – I have never imagined there to be an HVM society – but it makes sense. There is a 2004 biography of him, but I expect you know that. It never seemed to me that he was particularly religious – or at least he was not evangelical about his beliefs. I haven’t read the biography, but apparently it places him as an anti-semite and nazi sympathiser.

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    • I can believe it about him being anti-Semitic because there is occasional casual comment that makes me bristle, and of course he’s cross with the Jews in this one because they rejected Paul and caused his execution by the Romans, but a Nazi sympathiser? As you know if you read my thoughts about I, James Blunt, he wrote propaganda for the Brits during the war, and from what I remember of I Saw Two Englands, he was devastated by the bombing.

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  2. This sounds fascinating Lisa! I have just come from a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches music about there being no mention of music in the New Testament yet music features constantly in the Old Testament and we were wondering why. She thinks it is because the people who wrote what we know as the New Testament had become more interested in rules, yet music must have featured prominently in the times Jesus of Nazareth was living. Anyway, sorry, I digress!

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    • That’s fascinating…
      I wonder…
      The Jews as we know have a wonderful tradition of music, you only have to go to a wedding or a funeral to know that. Even if, as HVM says, the Jews were actively hostile to the new religion, the Christians probably went on using ‘their’ music just as, according to HVM, there were aspects of Jewish ritual that the Christians kept in the same way that they repurposed the old pagan celebrations to create Christmas &c. Perhaps they didn’t mention this in the NT because they didn’t want to stir up trouble for themselves?

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  3. Yes I wish we had had longer to talk this morning – she’s also been studying the women in the Gnostic gospels and how prominently they figure there. (My friend is not religious).

    I studied a course on the Psalms some time ago, run by an American Roman Catholic priest who had a particular interest in them – the Christian churches have adopted the Psalms but of course they have a particularly Jewish attitude towards things (such as the need for God to act immediately in times of crisis, since there was no belief in an afterlife where things would be better) and when you listen to them set to music they’re glorious. There’s no way this music would not have been around in the time of the early Christians. My friend teaches harp, and as she said, whenever Jesus went to a party or gathering, music in the form of the lyre and singing and dancing would have been the norm. I had never thought about it before this morning, and then came across your review and thought, how interesting! Neither of us knew the answer to the problem! You make a good point about not stirring up trouble perhaps. I might ask my Jewish friends about it!

    I wish I had travelled to this part of the world, and things being as they are with covid, I don’t know if/when I ever shall – sigh.

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  4. A most interesting account, thank you. I also enjoyed the comments. I was in Eastern Turkey a few years ago, and found it fascinating “following” the biblical characters – though I did see Abraham’s birthplace in 2 different places. Your account inspired me to order the book.

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    • One of my friends has been to Iran on a tour, but she had to cover up which I absolutely will not do. I don’t mind putting on a hair covering in a temple or covering my shoulders in a church but I will not cover up my whole body to walk the streets because a patriarchal society still stuck in the Middle Ages says I have to.

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      • When I visited Iran I did not have to totally cover up. I wore a headscarf, normal trousers, with loose shirts. To be able to experience the history and beauty of Iranian architecture and art it seemed a small price to pay. I was initially inspired to visit Iran when I read Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron. I took the book with me to Iran, and found that a lot of what he wrote was still very relevant today.

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        • That’s another one to add to my wishlist, thank you!

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  5. Thanks Lisa, another book I will have to read! I do have it on my shelf, and it does have the beautiful sepia photos and maps. My copy is a 1937 Methuen publication.

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    • Fantastic! I’m curious about the publication history of this one, I’d never heard of Rich and Cown so I’m wondering if they were a small outfit that agreed to publish something that was of specialised interest, and that Methuen took it on when it turned out to be a bestseller?

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  6. Sounds glorious, Lisa. I have read Morton (and possibly still have some of his books somewhere in the house). I love old travel books, despite the occasional problematic material, because they’re a way to travel in time as well as place. Shall have to see if I still have any Morton…

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    • This one felt much longer ago than the other ones I’ve read about his European travels… the 1930s used to feel not so long ago because it was when my parents were children, but now that they have passed away, the 1930s seems only a decade away from a century ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Happy New Year. Loved this post. I will look for a copy.
    10 years ago I was very fortunate to go on a similar trip called In the Footsteps of St. Paul .
    It was with a Melbourne tour group. We Started in Malta and finished it in Turkey. I still think of it with great pleasure and learned so much about the spread of Christianity around the Mediterranean. Thanks for all your writing this year

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    • Hello Patricia, and thanks for your kind words:)
      That would have been a great trip… unfortunately Turkey has swung away from tolerance in recent years and their persecution of Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk because he refuses to deny the Armenian genocide is emblematic. I belong to PEN Melbourne, and have sent a number of letters to their authorities about the persecution and detention of writers… The worst thing about this is that Turkey is doing it despite wanting to join the EU which insists on freedom of speech, so one wonders what things would be like without that brake on their activities.
      Have a happ(ier) new year! Lisa

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  8. Loved your opening paragraph here, Lisa. Spot on about Aussies and travel, and about reading travel being ok.

    I was reading another blog grumbling about loss of liberty and not being able to travel, and I made the point that while I hale not being able to travel too, it is a privilege that many never have, so it’s low, really, on things to grumble about. Still…

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    • So true. This is the year that we would normally be going to Europe and the UK, we save up so that we can go every five years, and somewhere else in between. We start thinking about the next one before we’ve even unpacked from the last one, and that planning sustains me over the years between trips, always something to look forward to. And now, well, we can’t even think about it because it just seems impossible for an indeterminate period of time.
      Ah well…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I know … we just have to be, as my mum would say, “thankful for small mercies”. At least we are as safe here as it is “almost” possible to be.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Lisa, your review inspired me to read this book, and I am glad I did. As you say, fascinating snippets are given, and at times I felt I was with Morton. Maybe, because I had been to Turkey several years ago and having a wonderful guide then, and as in this memoir, it was nice to be taken back.By the way, my Methuen publication also has the same cover as your book. And, I too have never heard of Rich and Crown.

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    • I’m so glad!
      He really makes you feel as if you are there with him, and yet it’s all so long ago.
      The publication is a bit of a mystery, I might see if some of my friends in the HVM society know anything about it.

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  10. I have read and collected HVM for years and I’m also a member of the Society . A Facebook follower too . The biography of HVM is most illuminating about Morton’s working life, his beliefs , his serial infidelities and his reasons for leaving England and settling in South Africa at the height of apartheid . Morton was first and foremost a journalist and he wrote what sold newspapers and then eventually his travel books . I love his use of language but not his real character or politics . The real Henry Vollam Morton was never the character in his books .

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    • Yes, this is always the risk when we read an author bio: we find out things that we’d rather not know about a beloved author. (I’m reading a bio of Graham Greene at the moment, and am not best pleased to learn about some of his personal history either.)

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