The Man who immortalised Hilaire Belloc.
Picture the scene: an English town centre sometime in about 1930. It is a bright summer’s day and there are many people walking in all directions. Suddenly a man in early middle age stops abruptly by a pillar box, causing those behind him to halt in surprise. Greater still is their wonderment when the man starts to converse with the pillar box: “Are you alright my little man? Don’t worry we will soon get you out.” A concerned and curious crowd gathers round the man whose whispered conversation into the slot of the pillar box was by now causing considerable consternation. The fire brigade is called. Their arrival causes the crowd to look in the direction of the fire engine, with its ringing bell and brightly helmeted and uniformed crew. It is a distraction that allows the man the moment he needs to slip away, crossing the street to view his high jinks from a safe distance. There was, of course, no man in the pillar box. The prankster was J.B.Morton, one of this country’s most celebrated journalists and one time Ferring resident and close friend of Sussex writer and poet, Hilaire Belloc.
John Bingham Morton (1893 – 1979) was a casualty of World War One. Having survived the Battle of the Somme, he was invalided out of the army, suffering from ‘severe shell shock,’ what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Before the war he had dabbled in writing and in poetry, and this, he decided was the only work he could do and keep his sanity. He took himself to Fleet Street (in the days when all the major national dailies were actually situated in that one street). Having made an appointment with D.B.Wyndham Lewis, the literary editor of the Daily Express, Morton “burst open” the door to Wyndham’s Lewis’ office, causing the other journalists to stop their work and peer up from their typewriters. Morton presented a “bucolic figure,” armed with a “gnarled walking stick,” which he proceeded to bang sharply on the floor several times, “Flaming eggs,” he declared, “will no one rid me of this stinking town?”
Such an entrance may have caused other editors to call for security, but Wyndham Lewis saw in this young man some potential and offered him a job. Wyndham Lewis himself had been writing a column in the Express called ‘By-the Way,’ a commentary on the war, the home front and raising public morale, and asked Morton to help write these columns. Wyndham Lewis was struck by the young man’s way with words and how effortlessly witty phrases and puns came to him. Morton refused to learn how to use a typewriter and wrote all his copy by hand on Basildon Bond writing paper, an eccentricity his indulgent editor seemed prepared to accept.
By 1924, Morton was so established as an Express journalist that the editor decided to try him out with his own column to be written under the pseudonym, ‘Beachcomber.’ Morton wrote all his columns a week in advance, and never spent more than a couple of hours on each one, leaving lunchtime and afternoon to the serious business of going to the pub and engaging his friends with tall stories and personal anecdotes of doubtful authenticity.
Colleagues remembered Morton laughing out loud as he wrote and getting up and doing a little dance after he completed a paragraph that particularly pleased him.
Commenting wryly upon the day’s news was Beachcomber’s speciality. Remarking on what we might now call ‘austerity,’ he wrote that “Economy,” was “cutting down other people’s wages.” After a series of court cases that raised serious concerns about there being miscarriages of justice he wrote: “justice must not only be seen to be done but has to be seen to be believed.”
He variously berated new inventions, motorists, socialists, public schools, and pretentious art. He wasn’t too keen on pretentious poetry either; reflecting on one of ‘the ‘modern’ poets of the time he wrote: “it is being said of a certain poet that though he tortures the English language, he has never yet succeeded in forcing it to reveal his meaning.”
Sometimes he just chose to be absurd, such as the time he took aim at those who loudly proclaimed their meat-free diets: “vegetarians have wicked shifty eyes, and laugh in a cold calculating manner. They pinch little children, steal stamps, drink water, favour beards.”
Behind all the humorous roistering there was a sadder, more reflective man. Sometimes he let the mask slip, although the slip was immediately overlain with humour. On one occasion, a work colleague not being able to find Morton, found a note on his desk: “Out of my mind. Back in five minutes.”
Morton met Hilaire Belloc by chance in 1922. Morton had moved to the village of Rodmell in East Sussex, where he had some friends. One of these friends had a friend called Peter Belloc, who Morton came to know and like very much. Peter Belloc introduced Morton to his father, Hilaire Belloc then living at Shipley, near Horsham. From that very first meeting Morton was hooked: here was a man who seemed to know more than other men and whose unashamedly Catholic and anti-modernist views, held with such conviction, deeply affected Morton, who was looking for profound meaning in life beyond his proven ability to mock and castigate the things and people he did not like.
Morton married an Irish doctor, Mary O’Leary, in 1927, to whom he was devoted, and for whom he gave up his hard drinking ways, if not the pranks and the raconteuring. Belloc remained devoted to his wife, who had died in 1914, and this fidelity, even in death, may have influenced Morton in his own faithfulness to his wife. After the Second World War, John and Mary moved to Dublin, “to escape the Labour government.” After only a couple of years, they returned to England and settled in Ferring. They lived in a house on the southern corner of Beehive Lane and Sea Lane. It was from here that Morton wrote his articles and his books, including, in 1955, his Memoir of Hilaire Belloc.
Several worthy, well researched and engaging biographies have been written about Hilaire Belloc, but none (in this writer’s humble opinion) come as close to revealing the real man, ‘warts and all,’ as the one written by J.B.Morton. It is almost as if Morton introduces us in person to Belloc and invites us to join the two of them as they laugh, swagger and enjoy each other’s company. However, amidst the jollity, there is a more sombre tone, and Morton, in the manner of Boswell with Dr. Johnson, records the wisdom and insights of Belloc, including his deepest meditations on death and loss.
Belloc had written a lot about Sussex. Morton saw that the hills, villages and people of Sussex – the country people, were deeply embedded in Belloc’s heart, and through this abiding affection, he revealed his love for England. This evocation of Englishness as a collection of inter-linked localities rather than a monolith nation are never more apparent than in Belloc’s poems, including The South Country –
If ever I become a rich man, or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house of deepest thatch to shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung,
And the story of Sussex told.
Worthing gets a mention in Belloc’s best known of Sussex books, The Four Men, (adapted for the stage by Ann Feloy and performed to packed venues in Sussex, most recently on a tour by Conn Artists in 2018). The Worthing mention is not entirely respectful. The characters in the book are discussing a distressed ghost that haunted a house at Dial Post. Eventually the exorcists banish the poor tormented soul to “the Marine Parade at Worthing, where no one noticed him.” It was during a speech in Worthing in 1912, that Belloc, recently retired from the House of Commons, declared he was “glad to be quit of the dirtiest company it has ever being my misfortune to keep.”
By the time Morton met Belloc, the older man had already lost his wife to illness and his son, Louis, to the Great War. In 1941, Belloc’s second son, Peter, who had befriended Morton, died serving his country in World War Two. Belloc knew grief and the way he coped greatly impressed Morton: “His conviction that to resent unhappiness is not only unintelligent, but a waste of time, was very salutary.” Both happiness and unhappiness are part of the human condition and one is meaningless without the other.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Morton travelled extensively with Belloc around Europe, sometimes with Belloc at the helm of his beloved old yacht, The Nona. Frequently they sailed in and out of Shoreham and Littlehampton harbours. Morton has left us a vivid description of Belloc in late middle age, always in motion and always ready for debate and argument –
“To get a picture of him on such occasions, one must see a square-shouldered, thick-set figure, dressed in black broadcloth, black hat, black tie and stiff collar. He carries a very old portmanteau. His pockets are stuffed with papers. He moves rapidly, with an aggressive half run, half walk, his feet shuffling along the ground. He will be cursing as he goes along, but in the merriest fashion.”
Morton also tells us what he gained from his friendship with Belloc –
“But my happiness in his friendship was based on something more important than community of interest; on the man himself. You could disagree with him, you could be annoyed or fatigued, but you could never be bored. He kept you at your highest potential, physically and mentally. He whipped you up the whole time, transmitted his enthusiasm, and entertained with a mixture of learning, wit, wisdom, fun.”
Perhaps what Morton learned most from Belloc was humility; not contrived self-regarding humility, but one born from the conviction that the best a person can do comes not from themselves, their ego, but from the Divine, from God. It was this faith that tempered the more conceited and boastful aspects of Belloc’s personality –
“Belloc had the virtue of humility. He had pride, but no vanity. It was his conviction that it is ridiculous to be conceited about a good poem or a majestic piece of prose, because the writer is only the tool used to produce a certain effect. Inspiration comes to him from outside himself, not from within. He was grateful for praise, but when it was fulsome, he treated it as a joke, and he liked to read it out, with gusts of laughter, extravagant compliments paid to him by critics. On the many occasions when I heard a friend compliment him on a piece of work, he said, ‘That’s very kind of you.’ and he was obviously uncomfortable if the compliment went on too long. ‘Hero-worship is intolerable,’ he used to say. This attitude was due partly to his highly developed sense of humour, which is only a sense of proportion, and keeps one sane and balanced. But it was more to humility, to the conviction, which I have mentioned, that a man is a fool to give himself airs, and to take credit for what he has written. He loved to boast, but the boasting was of that outrageous kind which nobody takes seriously….”
Morton wrote only one more significant work after his memoir of Belloc, a biography of Marshall Ney, the most heroic of all Napoleon’s generals. Was this book also a subliminal tribute to Belloc, who was himself half French and an expert on military history? The book on Ney was published in 1958. Morton continued to write his Beachcomber column in the Daily Express until November 1975 and it was still written by hand on Basildon Bond writing paper! The death of Mary in 1974 hit him badly and he was clearly losing his writing abilities of old, which is presumably why the Express dispensed with his services. Losing a column he had written for 51 years must have been a hard blow for a man who had given his life to writing.
His last days at Ferring were sad. His friend, Richard Ingrams remembered Morton became “hard going” and “uncommunicative.” He missed the company of his wife, but also her practical abilities. Morton did not know how to even boil an egg. In those last months at Ferring it was said he lived on a diet consisting entirely of jam sandwiches. Eventually he had to go into a home, where he addressed all the female residents as “Mary.”
After his death in 1979, his papers were either lost or destroyed and his Ferring home demolished (a modern house now stands on the site). Yet people should be remembered for their lives and not their deaths. Evelyn Waugh said that Morton had “the greatest comic fertility of any Englishman.” And G.K.Chesterton described him as “a huge thunderous wind of elemental and essential laughter.” It may be said that writing gave hope to that young shell-shocked serviceman in 1916, and his friendship with Hilaire Belloc gave him purpose and focus beyond mere wit and satire.