Michael Morpurgo – plus goose and, in the background, Joey the horse – at the launch of the ‘Lifetime in Stories’ exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Meeting a Master Storyteller

25th August 2017

Meeting a Master Storyteller

‘Don’t pretend. Tell your own tale. Speak with your own voice.’ The words of Michael Morpurgo, reproduced in a new exhibition devoted to his astonishing output of stories for young readers, are uncompromising and passionate. Jill Glenn finds out more…

Michael morpurgo is everything you’d expect a children’s author to be: avuncular, twinkly-eyed, direct, even a little bit gruff. And patient. Very, very patient.

I watch him at the launch of A Lifetime in Stories at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, and I’m struck by how composed he is, and how tolerant, as photographers fire off dozens of shots and batter him with instructions: ‘Look this way, Michael… turn your head, Michael… to the left… to the right… smile at the goose, Michael.’

‘Smile at the goose’ must be one of the oddest instructions ever issued at a photocall – but it takes us straight to War Horse, Morpurgo’s classic World War I novel, about farm boy Albert and his horse Joey, sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Left behind in Devon, too young to enlist, Albert misses the horse so much that he embarks on a mission to the trenches to find him and bring him home. Brilliantly adapted by the National Theatre to become an award-winning play (a new tour starts next month) and turned into a film by Steven Spielberg, War Horse is perhaps Morpurgo’s best-known work, although it’s the tip of a literary iceberg that now stands at around 130 books.

He’s won the Children’s Book Award (chosen and voted for entirely by children) a record four times, for Kensuke’s Kingdom, Private Peaceful, Shadow and, earlier this year, An Eagle in the Snow. Several of his works have been adapted for stage and/or screen, and it’s something that pleases him immensely. “I love seeing my books made into plays and film, especially if it is a wonderful production… Adolphus Tips was brilliantly reinterpreted for the stage by Emma Rice – as 946 by Kneehigh… and Private Peaceful, which was adapted by Simon Reade for stage and screen, directed by Pat O’Connor. I would love to see Kensuke’s Kingdom on screen and the film is in development now. Another book close to my heart is The Butterfly Lion. It has been a play but I would love to see it made into a film.”

So prolific is he that I imagine that he must have several projects on the go at once, but he says not. “When I’m writing, I try not to have more than one story in my head.”

His manuscripts and papers are now cared for by Seven Stories (The National Centre for Children’s Books) in Newcastle upon Tyne, which has created the Lifetime in Stories exhibition. Morpurgo hopes it will give young visitors new insights into what it means to be a writer. He’s impressed with the way the information has been put together and presented, and confident that many will leave thinking: ‘I could do that… I’ve got a story to tell’. Later he emails me wonderful advice (reproduced in the red panel below) for a child who wants to be a writer.

The title of this really absorbing exhibition has its own significance: a lifetime in stories, not a lifetime of stories. The latter is true, too, naturally (Morpurgo has been writing since he was in his 20s, and recalls being read to by his mother as one of the greatest happinesses of his childhood) but what’s key is how he immerses himself in the process. He lives ‘inside the story’, getting to know the characters as if they were close friends. He calls this ‘dreamtime’, saying ‘I am a grower of stories. I am a weaver of dreams, a teller of tales.’

As well as inventing new narratives, he also loves retelling classic stories. He’s coming to the local area as the guest of Chorleywood Bookshop (10 September) in connection with the publication of the fabulously named Toto: The Amazing Dog-Gone Story of the Wizard of Oz, and tells me how much he enjoys reinterpreting an existing story, such as Hansel and Gretel or Pinocchio, in his own voice, as if the ‘listener of today’ was right in front of him. It’s about using language that will be readily understood, but holding onto the tone and rhythm of the original text – if there is one. He doesn’t consider himself strictly bound by every detail of the old story either, but works to make it meaningful, exciting and alive, both to himself and to a modern audience. “When I am writing a retelling I do feel in some way that I am like an actor,” he explains. “The story is not mine, but I am the one living it, interpreting it. So I tell it as I see it, as I feel it. I really enjoy this feeling.”

In fact, he says, it’s the retellings, where he can think himself into the character, that give him the most enjoyment (“pleasure probably isn’t the right word to use of writing…”). With Toto, it was his publisher, Ann-Janine Murtagh at Harper Collins, and the illustrator and friend Emma Chichester-Clark who suggested the story of the Wizard of Oz. “It is a wonderful and magical tale, funny, frightening, and strange, but I always felt that there was one character who had little part to play in the story.” We know and love Dorothy, he points out, but her little dog Toto accompanies her on her adventures, providing her with comfort and company, and we never know what he thinks of all that is going on. “He just gets carried around a lot. So I thought… why not tell the story again, but through Toto’s eyes?”

It’s just the sort of idea to appeal to a child: a familiar tale retold in a quirky, vibrant way. It’s a given, of course, that reading is A Good Thing, and Morpurgo’s articulation of why is understandably thoughtful. “Fostering a life-long love of stories for children can ultimately contribute to enriching chidren’s lives and life chances. The benefits are many and on-going throughout life – the widening and deepening of knowledge and understanding, the ability to empathise, to explore and discover, to be comforted, excited, provoked and challenged, to spur confidence and creativity.”

Despite his success as a writer, and his belief in the power of the written and spoken word, it is another activity entirely of which he is most proud: one linked to the ‘life chances’ to which he has just referred. “My greatest achievement, greatest ‘story’ if you like, was founding the charity Farms for City Children over 40 years ago with my wife, Clare.” The project enables children from inner cities to spend a week working as farmers, living with their teachers and classmates on one of the charity’s three farms in Devon, Gloucestershire and Wales. “They milk the cows, collect eggs, dig the land and clear ditches – everything that a real farm needs. It’s hard work but rewarding and they feel part of the land and the countryside.”

Morpurgo lives in Devon now, and is attuned to the rhythms of the countryside, but he was born in St Albans, and grew up in London. Being sent away to school – first to Sussex and then to Kent – was miserable for him: it’s not surprising that the motif of a child alone or an outsider suffering is prevalent throughout his work. He acclimatised as he grew older, and learned to find pleasure where he could; he loved rugby, and singing, and regrets very much that he discontinued the latter when he left school. “I was in the choir… a treble at first, then bass when my voice broke. We practised at Canterbury Cathedral. Singing in that glorious cathedral with up to eighty other people gave me a sense of the beauty of church music at a young age. It’s something I’ve never forgotten.” After a gap of over four decades, five years ago he began again, singing and performing with a folk group; he even gives the odd solo from time to time. It seems a fitting hobby for someone whose whole life has been about communication, about sharing, about enriching.

As a former teacher and as a parent, Morpurgo has always been committed to trying to pass on a passion for stories. “When you read a story you love to a child or that the child loves, you hold hands through an adventure, have a tiger for tea, go for a walk in the woods together with a Gruffalo, find out together what the ugly duckling really is. You live the story together and imagine it together.” It can be transformative.

‘An Afternoon with Michael Morpurgo’, hosted by Chorleywood Bookshop, begins at 3pm on Sunday 10 September at the Barbirolli Hall, St Clement Danes School, Chorleywood. Adult/Child tickets are £15 and include a copy of Michael’s new book ‘Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz.’ Accompanying adult/child: £5 (no book included). Michael no longer signs books but he will be delighted to meet attendees and pose for a photo afterwardas.

Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories continues at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, until 25 February 2018

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