H.V. Morton (1892-1979) came to public attention as the reporter who scooped the story of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Afterward he became known as a travel writer, initially in England and the Holy Land, but later in other countries. In I Saw Two Englands Morton writes of the summer just before World War II began and of the first few months after it started.
Rumors of war were imminent in May of 1939 and Morton set out to see England “one last time.” In his traveling and journaling, he is never in a hurry. He offers descriptions, bits of history, and occasional philosophizing as he visits each city. His prose is gentle and lyrical. (“The contours of the Sussex Downs are as restful as a day in bed.”) But modern readers may find his meandering to be nerve-wracking.
In September of 1939, war was officially declared and Morton began another set of travels - to observe the effects of the war on the English:
It happened to me at Peterborough. I was sitting in a restaurant which overlooks the market place. The old town hall, lifted on its Sixteenth-Century columns, stood immediately below me, and I sat there watching people queue up outside it. Each one held in his hand a small cardboard box; inside the box was the State’s gift to its children – a gas mask. Somewhere inside the building the citizens were having their masks tested so that they might face the future with confidence. They were an ordinary-looking crowd. Some were smiling, others were just dull or impassive, and no one could have guessed that they were candidates for survival in a mad world: they looked like people waiting for a bus, not a cataclysm. (p. 186)
He recounts the disappointment of the English people during the first months of the war. Massive evacuations of women and children seemed to have been for nothing when the promised air raids never came. In those pre-Churchill days, Morton decried the lack of a full-blooded leader who would have given blow for blow, and have expressed the contempt and indignation that existed in England for tyrants and aggressors. (p. 281)
Little did he know that the Battle of Britain was just around the corner and that Britain’s “phony war” was about to become astonishingly real. This book is recommended for anglophiles and WWII buffs who like stories of the homefront. (But if you are looking for a quick, exciting read, you’ll want to pass on this one.)