A Modern Pied Piper

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It’s some time since I visited Michael Morpurgo in his riverside flat in Fulham. When we were working together on a book about his life I came here often, watching the tide rise and fall, and listening to the seagulls cry, as Michael reminisced. Now, a few years on, the place seems unaltered, and so does Michael. He’s still warm and welcoming, quick to smile, and with the deep courtesy that perhaps harks back to his days as a Sandhurst cadet. Only his voice has changed. It has deepened, and it sounds strained.

In 2017, Michael was working on two books, each of them very personal to him. The first, In the Mouth of the Wolf, was based on the life of his uncle Francis Cammaerts, who served with immense courage in the SOE during the Second World War, and who was decorated with the DSO, the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de guerre. The second, Flamingo Boy, also set during that war, in the Camargue in southern France, centres on an autistic boy, Lorenzo, growing up on a farm on the salt flats when the Germans come to occupy the region. Michael has a teenaged grandson who is autistic, and Lorenzo is directly drawn from him – his need for routine, his love of repetition, his intensity and sweetness. ‘For years and years, children like this were put away, hidden from sight,’ says Michael. ‘Yet these people cast a great light into other people’s lives because there is something elemental about them. The child that is in each of us is very visible in an autistic child.’

In November, the two books both well under way, Michael headed out to Ypres for a centenary commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele. ‘It was an amazing event. The Cloth Hall was lit up with extraordinary images of old soldiers. I had to retell the story as an old man looking back on how it had been to go to war.’ He was speaking to thousands of people, but his voice kept letting him down. Back in London, he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Ther

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About the contributor

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of The Tablet and literary advisor to the Royal Society of Literature.

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