With so much to do, constantly piling up things to do and leaving them to do themselves, rushing down to the museum when yet another soul does not turn up or gets a proper job, and gazing at the laptop in in effort to think of something sensible to say about yet another dead soldier, running to the shops for urgent supplies, all this leaves little time to read! Of course you will say watching all those football matches at night, wandering the streets in a daze or just bloody laziness also plays its part but I must state that this is not the case! OK, well it might play a teensie wee part but whatever the reason the only place I get peace to read books these days is in the bathroom! There is indeed little else to do there of course and while imitating a Knight of the Bath there is great pleasure in soaking away the muscle pains while recreating the little gray cells that desperately require recreating!
So in the smelly box that constitutes the escape from the world I have a pile of books, all half read, that get attention from time to time. Usually at the top lies the number one bestseller, bought from a charity shop, that has gripped my little minds attention and is devoured before I add the Eau de Cologne. The top book recently is an old one, put together in the 1930's by one of the great travel writers, and later South African dweller and racist, Henry Canova Vollam Morton. 'In the Steps of the Master.' (No I don't know how he got the name either!)
During the early 20's H.V.Morton began writing a 'London Life' column for a the 'Daily Express,' his father edited the 'Birmingham Mail,' so that's where he learned the trade. These were so popular they soon appeared in book form, 'In Search of London,' 'In Search of England,' 'In Search of Scotland.' By the thirties he was in the British mandated Middle East. While the book gives the impression he spent some time alone wandering around it transpires he had his wife with him (they divorced in 1934 and he soon found another) and he made several trips in all at various times to complete his project. Whatever, the finished results are excellent travel documents at a time when travel in that area of the world was popular among those with money. It was easier and safer as all came under the control of the British, God bless the Empire (stand to attention while reading this part!). What once pleased a population unable to travel as they were only paid £3 a week also spoke to ex-servicemen who saw action or service under the Crown in this part of the world. The popularity has never waned as now they speak to us of a time so long ago yet just a short time back. The changes in a mere 80 or so years are phenomenal!
Beginning in Jerusalem Morton walks where Jesus walked, allowing for two thousand years of change, several major sieges, and tourist guides who can show you exactly where Jesus bought his shopping. The Holy Sepulchre is of course the place to visit. I went there just before the first Gulf War in 1990 and it was so quiet I was alone, bar from a nun working there, inside the tomb itself. Normally it was more like Morton's time, crowded! Later after travelling around he watches the Easter ceremonies from the various groups based there. Elaborately dressed, incense, candles, parades, and languages used that go back to Jesus day. Not my idea of a Sunday morning but there you are! The British Police were out is force, as Israeli police are today as one wrong word, one misuse of a fellow monks lamp could lead to rioting. Those candlesticks make great weapons among the beloved! A walk over the Mount of Olives, Bethany, the River Jordan and on to the Dead Sea. The descriptions he gives are captivating. Much of his route would be impossible today. The road to Jericho offers us the English traveller at his best. He stops the car at one point to remove his coat as it was getting to hot, just think, in that heat he was driving while wearing a coat! In Jericho he is confronted by a Cocker Spaniel! Following this arrives a man in plus fours and tweed jacket, the British governor of the town. He was awaiting the British version of Pontious Pilate, they were going shooting don't ya know! Soon his eminence arrived in large black car, suitably dressed for the grouse moor and off the went leaving Morton to wander over the ruins of ancient Jericho.
Via Gaza and the Philistine country Morton wanders north via Samaria as was and stays at the Sea of Galilee. Clearly enjoying this part of the trip he stays a few days, even persuading fishermen to take him out fishing so he can watch their manner of catching fish, then still as Peter and his mates would have used. For the writer and many of his audience these places would have been well known through bible stories most likely heard as children at Sunday School. For the man himself it led to a better understanding of the bibles accuracy, often objected too by those who at that time had no chance to travel to research. Everyday happenings, very unlikely in the modern world, could be seen, reflecting biblical stories and making them real. The advantage of the 1930's tourist was the unspoilt land, population changes, building and war has changed much since then.
The author moves on through Lebanon, under French control at the time, then to Damascus even standing by the tomb of Saladin the Great. Morton offers great praise to this considerate opponent of the murderous Crusaders but appears not to realise Saladin may not have seen him in the same light. The tale takes us down to Machaerus, one of the astounding fortresses built by Herod the Great and later the place where Morton concludes Salome danced before Herod Antipas and was rewarded with John the Baptists head on a plate. He might be right. There again after the hard slog to get there, accompanied by a member of the tough and efficient Arab legion his mind may have been taxed a wee bit. Ending with a trip to Petra, the town cut from the rock, he returns for Easter at Jerusalem.
On his travels he encounters Arab politeness and danger, wonders at the poverty of so many living among the ruins of biblical places and crusader castles, and on one occasion saves a dogs life to the wonder of the Arabs who would let it die because it was 'only a dog.' Morton's biblical conclusions are often reasonable considering what was known at the time. His writing is easy, and enjoyable, occasionally bringing wry humour out of the situation he finds himself in. Years ago I read this book and it made me want to visit these places. How different things were in 1990, how much more so today! Books such as this cover not only the area as it was live so to speak in 1933 or so but take us back hundreds and thousands of years to what happened there before. Then the book seen from our today takes us forward again to yet another world, it is possible it might even take us into the future if read with an open eye.
Radio 4 Morton prog (30 minutes)