Michael Morpurgo

Casting His Storytelling Spell

4th July 2014

Michael Morpurgo casts his spell over generations of children and over Kathy Walton…

For all his Belgian ancestry and Italian surname, St Albans-born and Oxhey-raised Michael Morpurgo OBE is the perfect English gentleman, albeit one who seems to run on rocket fuel.

He greets me extremely graciously and then… whoosh, no sooner do I ask him about his surname and his Hertfordshire connections than he takes off, launching into an anecdote about his teenage years spent living in a Tudor hunting-lodge on Hampermill Lane, Oxhey Hall. Already, I am hooked.

But this is hardly surprising; after all, as a former Children’s Laureate and the author of more than 120 books, Morpurgo has been casting his storytelling spell on children and their parents for more than 40 years. Now 70, he describes himself as “oldish, married with three children, and a grandfather six times over.”

He will be talking about his latest piece of magic, Only Remembered, on 10 July at Merchant Taylors’ School, a place he used to walk past on his way to Moor Park station as a teenager.

Only Remembered is an anthology of recollections of World War I, introduced and edited by Morpurgo, with every contribution commissioned by him from friends, fellow writers and well-known people whom he chose because he knew that they would contribute “something interesting.”

The result is a spellbinding collection of poems, family anecdotes, illustrations and excerpts from letters and diaries, each one selected for what it means to the giver.

“I didn’t want to be prescriptive,” explains Morpurgo. “I felt it was far better and more important to ask writers, politicians and illustrators about their abiding image of World War I over the years. That way you get family stories that have been handed down from grandfathers and great-grandfathers.”

The book contains nearly 80 contributions from people as diverse as Ben Elton, The Duchess of Cornwall, Alan Titchmarsh, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Paddy (Lord) Ashdown and Jenny Agutter and explores what life was like in battle, at home and afterwards, as seen through the eyes of soldiers, children, women and the bereaved.

Predictably, some contributors chose the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but most, to Morpurgo’s delight, picked “the unfamiliar, which shines a new light on this episode of our history.” And these are all thoughtful, considered choices. “No one came straight back with their contribution, everyone went away and spent time thinking about it.”

The wait was evidently worth it as Morpurgo struggles (or is too much of a gentleman) to name his favourite piece. One particularly original entry he does mention is the final scene from Richard Curtis’s script for Blackadder, when despite his cunning plans, Blackadder and his sidekick Baldrick are ordered over the top, where they meet their death in a hail of gunfire – the scene, as it happens, that prompted more letters than any other in the series, with many viewers saying how moving they found it.

Another entry that Morpurgo says “really touched my heart” is Aunties by Raymond Briggs (of The Snowman fame), a moving depiction of the women left involuntarily single and childless by the War. Known as Aunty Flo, Madge or Eileen, Morpurgo remembers them fondly as women “who brought us up, who were kind and loved us, but who didn’t turn out to be our aunts at all.”

Morpurgo himself was raised by his half-Belgian mother and British stepfather, Jack Morpurgo, whose ancestors were Italian Jews. Morpurgo’s father, the actor Tony Bridge, emigrated to Canada in the 1940s after wartime service.

Morpurgo got on well with his stepfather and his natural father was rarely spoken about at home. “It was thought to be shameful to have a divorce in the family,” he says.

Morpurgo was 19 when he first saw Tony Bridge playing the convict Magwitch in the 1962 film of Great Expectations.

“We were gathered round the television one Easter and suddenly my mother grabbed my leg and said ‘My God, that’s your father!’ ”

Born in 1943, Morpurgo remembers post-war rationing, playing on bombsites as a child and hearing about his mother’s two brothers, one of whom – Peter, a promising actor – joined the RAF and was killed in 1941 at the age of 21.

The other brother, Francis, started out as a conscientious objector, but joined up after Peter’s death and became a successful agent with the SOE, when he was dropped into occupied France and escaped the firing squad.

“I had these two remarkable uncles who were my heroes and I felt this war was the anvil on which you could test yourself,” recalls Morpurgo. “Naively I joined the army, but after a year, I had ‘a moment’ and knew it was not for me.”

His ‘moment’ came during a particularly vicious ‘enemy attack’ at Sandhurst. In the heat of simulated battle, Morpurgo suddenly remembered all he had read about the Christmas truce of 1914, when German and British soldiers exchanged presents and played football together in No Man’s Land.

“It confirmed in me my resolve to make a more peaceful world,” he says.

He left the Army to become a primary school teacher, which proved the perfect outlet for his enthusiasm for unlocking the creative potential in both children and himself.

“I was very strict, but I would take my pupils to a nature reserve where for 30 minutes I would get them to listen, watch and connect. I then made them walk back in silence and write about the experience on their return. I would write about it too and then we would read out each other’s work. By looking, learning and listening, they found the power to write”.

Morpurgo’s love of nature and his affinity with children famously came together in 1976 when he and his wife Clare used her inheritance (she was the daughter of Penguin Books founder Sir Allen Lane) to set up the charity Farms For City Children, an initiative for which they were both given an MBE in 1999.

As well as giving some 75,000 deprived children a taste of the country, the charity’s pioneer farm, Nethercott House in Devon, also provided the inspiration for War Horse, Morpurgo’s elegiac novel about a boy who lies about his age so that he can join the Army and look for his beloved horse on the battlefields of Flanders in World War I.

Morpurgo admits that while the book didn’t sell well initially in the UK when it was published in 1982, its fortunes changed when it was turned into a hugely successful stage production by the National Theatre in 2007 and later into a film by Steven Spielberg.

Intriguingly, War Horse might never have been written had it not been for one wet evening at the end of a week’s visit to Nethercott by a class of Birmingham schoolchildren.

Morpurgo was preparing to tell the children a story in the barn, when he heard a voice in the yard. Standing in the drizzle in his dressing-gown and slippers was ‘Billy’, a desperately shy, withdrawn lad of nine, who had not uttered one word in two years at school. Thinking that no one else was listening, Billy was stroking Hebe, one of the mares and telling her everything he had done that day.

“It was remarkable,” recalls Morpurgo. “The teachers were in tears. Billy was completely at ease and Hebe somehow understood the child’s need for her to stay there. There was a lot of love between the two.”

As well as being moving and memorable, this gave Morpurgo the confidence to take an interesting and unusual narrative approach in his next book. “[It]… told me that it was okay to write a war story from the inside of a horse’s head, because they feel love, trust, pain and anxiety, just as we do.”

It’s a touching start to what turned out to be a compelling story. No gentleman could have put it better.

Michael Morpurgo OBE will be talking about ‘Only Remembered’ on Thursday 10 July at Merchant Taylors School, Northwood, at 7.30pm.

For tickets (adults £10, children £7.50, family £30) call see www.chorleywoodbookshop.co.uk or call 01923 283566. The book (usually £14.99) will be on sale for £10 on the night.

‘I Believe In Unicorns’ by Michael Morpurgo is at Watford Palace Theatre on Saturday 6 September. For tickets or more information, see www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk or call 01923 225671.

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