This is not a quiz question, the initials of a secret society or a code. They are the initials of three writers who loved their country and wrote eloquently about it. Despite their radically different backgrounds, they still share things in common.
They are better known as John Ronald Ruel Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien), Henry Canova Vollam Morton (H.V. Morton) and John Boynton Priestley (J.B. Priestley).
J.R.R. Tolkien and H.V. Morton
Tolkien and Morton grew up in Birmingham despite being born in different locations. Tolkien in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa, and Morton in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire (He unfortunately passed away in Somerset West, Cape Town, South Africa).
They were both born in 1892 – Tolkien in January, Morton in July. Tolkien was left an orphan at a young age after his father died when he was 3 and his mother when he was 12. His guardian was Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest. Tolkien was enrolled at the prestigious King Edward VI’s School in Birmingham in 1905. He was living in Edgbaston, a suburb of Birmingham at the time. At school, Tolkien and three friends set up a semi-secret society, given the acronym TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society).
In the 1911 census, Tolkien and his younger brother, Hilary were boarders with the Irish owner of a whisky distillery living at 4 Highfield Rd, Edgbaston. John was described as a ‘schoolboy’ even though he was 19; he went up to Oxford the following autumn.
Morton also went to King Edward’s, but he decided to leave at 16 to pursue a career in journalism (it was a conscious decision). He was living with his parents on Alcester Road, Moseley, Birmingham and worked as a student-reporter, specifically on newspapers. Morton’s father, Joseph, was the Editor-in-Chief of the Birmingham Gazette at the time and this was where Morton cut his journalistic teeth. Tolkien and Morton were living just two miles apart in 1911.
In 1923, The Daily Express newspaper sent H.V. Morton to Egypt to witness the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamen. This was a journalistic scoop for Morton, beating the Times newspaper reporter, and such a feat gave him international recognition.
A few years later, Morton wrote a series of articles for the Express newspaper based on his travels around England in his bull-nose Morris car. These were collated into a book called In Search of England, published in 1927. I have a copy of the 14th edition with its foxed pages. It is a wonderful account of life in England during the 1920s. The glories of the English countryside had become more accessible through tours by motor coach and the increasing affordability of motor cars.
“The roads of England, eclipsed for a century by the railway, have come to life again…” says Morton’s introduction. “A healthy countryside is necessary to a nation…” he continues.
This sentiment may have been echoed by his fellow Brummie. Tolkien was brought up in the English countryside. Sarehole was then a small Worcestershire village, later subsumed into the Birmingham conurbation. He developed a great love for nature. His mother had taught him botany as a child.
“Sarehole, with its nearby farms, its mill by the riverside, its willow-trees, its pool with swans, its dell with blackberries, was a serene quasi-rural enclave, an obvious model-to-be for … Hobbiton and the Shire” says Brian Rosenbury, in his critique of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Another writer, born two years after Tolkien and Morton, was J.B. Priestley. He travelled through Birmingham in the autumn of 1933 and was writing down his impressions, recording “what one man saw and heard and felt and thought”. His book English Journey was published in 1934.
Priestley was born in Manningham, Bradford in 1894 and was the son of Jonathan Priestley, a headmaster. His mother passed away when John was only two.
J.B. was a grammar school boy who left at 16 to work as a clerk for a wool company in Bradford. Like Tolkien, Priestley saw active service in the First World War. He was severely wounded when he was buried alive by a trench mortar.
In 1933 Priestley was already a successful writer. The Good Companions, his 4th novel published in 1929, had given him international status. He was also relatively wealthy with a house in Highgate, London and a 17th century manor house on the Isle of Wight.
But he was a restless soul and wanted to shake the cosiness of his life by investigating what was happening ‘where they made things’ in the Midlands and the North of England. He had arrived in Birmingham on the coach from Coventry. This was the same city that Tolkien had reimagined as Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. He goes on to describe the social conditions he encounters there and elsewhere in his journey around England.
J.B. Priestley already had much success with his plays, his poetry and his novels. In English Journey Priestley meets a young ‘citizen of Birmingham’ who is clearly down on his luck. He offers to carry Priestley’s bags to the hotel. During their walk, the writer extracts a great many details of the man’s life. This was a knack Priestley had in common with H.V. Morton who, no matter where he was, managed to meet the most interesting people and write down their stories.
J.B. Priestley developed a new theory of time, explored in his play Time and the Conways written in 1937. The play introduces the idea of time as being a metaphysical construct whereby past, present and future are linked.
Morton’s only novel, I, James Blunt written in 1942 was commissioned as fictional propaganda for the British Government. It describes England after a Nazi victory and is classed as ‘future history”. Len Deighton was inspired by Morton’s novel when writing “SS-GB”.
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Similarities between the three writers
All three writers had a sense of nostalgia in their writings.
Morton and Priestley were travelling around an England which was changing rapidly. They may not have had a premonition of impending war, but they were trying to capture an era before it was dismantled by change. Tolkien saw his boyhood home of Sarehole spoiled by the encroachment of men and machinery.
This is mirrored in The Lord of the Rings as Frodo envisions the destruction of the Shire. He failed to recognise how industrialisation improved the lives of ordinary people. In The Lost Road he writes “..men are ceasing to give love or care for the making of things for use or delight”. Tolkien had served in World War 1 and was at the Battle of the Somme. There he had witnessed the barbarity unleashed through technological prowess.
Whether looking back to a time before cheap travel or describing the present social conditions by experiencing them as they looked forward to their immediate futures, all three writers played with time.
Their contributions to English Literature have definitely stood the test of time.