I’ve an avid reader of H. V. Morton, who, during the 1930s, became the best-paid author in the world by writing travelogues — “In Search of England,” “In Search of Scotland,” etc. He was a gifted writer who wove history, local anecdotes, legends and an elegant style into all his books.
In May 1939, anticipating that war was coming, Morton set out on a road trip to enjoy a last glimpse of prewar England. Five months later, after war had been declared, he retraced his steps to see how England had changed.
His book, “I Saw Two Englands,” describes what he found. Incredibly, many things he said about war-time England apply to virus-time America.
“We have accepted the unthinkable with resignation. That is the distinctive quality of this age, and whether the future were to be bright or grim, this year in England would be like no other we had ever known.”
This characterization well-summarizes this year.
At a Wellington bomber factory, Morton asked, “How do you invent a bomber?” He was told, “No one really invents a bomber. All we do is to build up on what already exists, improve it, apply new theories and so on. All aircraft design is the accumulation and the application of experience.”
Viral vaccines and planes are developed the same way.
The war-time blackout “drove millions of people into their own homes. It killed the life of great cities at tea-time and filled them with an eerie silence and a mystery. . . . So frightening was it at first that even the burglars stayed at home.”
The lockdown has had the same effect on us. Early on, even criminals were afraid to leave home.
In Gloucester, however, Morton found young people flaunting the curfew.
“The streets were black as ink. . . . The pavements were crowded with young people walking up and down, surging, singing, cat-calling and whistling.”
Young people defying stay-at-home orders in order to party —some things never change.
The bewilderment and irritation the English faced over gas masks is reflected in our irritation with face masks. 1939’s “clap-for-your-carers” is echoed in our praise for front-line health workers. 1939’s incessant griping over government’s ineptness can be heard today round the clock.
Musicians performing for locked-in “flat” (apartment) dwellers has been updated to digital performances delivered over YouTube and Zoom.
Morton didn’t realize it, but what he found applies to any era in which ordinary people find themselves in life-changing and life-threatening situations.
At the end of his book, Morton told how his country had rallied to meet the crisis.
“People scarcely on speaking terms have come together. ... Danger has given us a common purpose. It has given us a meeting-place. ... It has made England almost ‘merrie’ again. It has blown to a flame smouldering local loyalties and traditions. It has roused the English genius for improvisation.”
The indomitable spirit Morton found in a war can be found today in a pandemic.
Kenny Chumbley, a lifelong resident of Rantoul, is a minister, author and publisher.