Thursday 1 August 2013

Morley and Mee

A strange and rather wonderful thing happened on Radio 4 this week. I found myself listening to the Book at Bedtime and enjoying it! What's more, it's a new title - a novel by Ian Sansom (whom I'd never heard of) called The Norfolk Mystery. At first I took it to be a deft, well written and very amusing period comedy (it's set in 1937) - but now it turns out to be a murder mystery (I guess the clue was in the title) and I'm rather disappointed, being no fan of the whodunit. However, I shall definitely keep listening - it's on through next week too...
The Norfolk Mystery begins with one Stephen Sefton newly returned, thoroughly disillusioned and fed up, from the Spanish Civil War, and finding himself stony broke and at a loose end. Answering a strangely worded ad in a newspaper, he finds himself taken on as amanuensis by 'Professor' Swanton Morley, an omnivorous intellect, indefatigable writing machine and all-round powerhouse, who has spent his life turning out works of popular education and patriotic uplift in phenomenal quantities. He is now embarking on a history of traditional England in the form of a series of books about the counties. Beginning with Norfolk - and The Norfolk Mystery is to be the first of a series of mysteries titled The County Guides. Thirty-nine more to come? Why not?
Here is Ian Sansom's sales pitch for The Norfolk Mystery:
'I have written another book.
Like all of my other books it probably won’t be stocked in your local Waterstones.
There will be no reviews. You will not find it in airports.
I will not be interviewed by Mark Lawson or Mariella Frostrup.
I will not be attending literary festivals. Or giving readings.
There is no Facebook page. And I'm too tired to tweet.
Basically, frankly - I'll be totally honest - there is no publicity.
For what it's worth, here's my pitch: it's a good book. You might like it.'
I like the cut of his jib...
The inspiration for Swanton Morley is surely the phenomenally productive Arthur Mee, who, like Morley, embarked on a series of county guides, under the title The King's England (they're still around, often turning up in second-hand bookhops). Mee described this project as 'the first census of the ancient and beautiful and curious historic possessions of England since the motor car came to make it possible...' Among his other products were two hefty anthologies which I remember having around the house in my boyhood - Arthur Mee's Book of Everlasting Things and Arthur Mee's Book of One Thousand Beautiful Things, both illustrated, as I recall, with plates that showed a marked predilection for 18th-century portraits (English and French school).
But enough of that. The Norfolk Mystery may be a whodunit but 'it's a good book. You might like it.'


  1. And let us not forget Arthur Mee's mighty Children's Encyclopadia, in twenty (?) volumes - the backbone of my education.

  2. And indeed the Children's Newspaper, which staggered on to 1965!

  3. 'He had no aptitude for chemistry, mechanics, or geometry, and as an editor he imagined that present-day pupils might have been equally unattracted by these subjects. Hence his disinclination to the use in his publications for the young of technical terms common to most schoolboys of today. Never would he use such words, for example, as “diameter” or “circumference,” but always width, and so many feet or yards round. If a technical term was not familiar to him, he argued, then it might be unfamiliar to thousands of others, both adult and juvenile. The practice had its disadvantages in lack of precision and directness, but Arthur had ever in mind the one who might not know and might be gravelled by technicalities.'
    From Ernest Bryant's biog of Mee.
    Lovely word, 'gravelled'...