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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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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. There was an operation, followed by radiotherapy. ‘I cancelled everything for six months.’ Well, almost everything. For most of us, recovering from cancer would mean taking leave of absence from work and putting our feet up. But for Michael it’s very hard to stop. Ever since he was a schoolboy, he has packed into an average day what most of us would manage in a week. In an early love letter, his wife Clare told him how much she loved his ‘six selfs [sic]’. He’s a writer, of course, but also an entrepreneur, whose charity, Farms for City Children, has given more than 100,000 inner-city schoolchildren a taste of what it’s like to live and work on a farm. He’s a performer, who feels most at home on a stage. And he’s a crusader, who uses his fame to help him fight for the causes he holds dear. He couldn’t down tools completely without going into a decline. One thing he was certainly not going to cancel was an appointment at Buckingham Palace to receive, alongside Ringo Starr, a knighthood – though as it turned out it was an oddly underwhelming occasion. ‘I was slightly disappointed that they didn’t say, “Arise, Sir Michael.” You know when you go to a school prize-giving it’s celebratory – people clap, there’s some laughter, there’s a lovely atmosphere. I was hoping it might be like that. Instead, everyone sat in absolute silence – it was like church, like the C of E at its most dour.’ Nor was he going to turn down opportunities to write. As the radiotherapy started, he received two irresistible offers – the first to write a novella based on Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman; the second to translate Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. ‘So I got the bit between my teeth, and wrote and wrote and wrote.’ As the radiology machines at the Marsden whirred and clunked around him, he concentrated hard on words and stories: ‘I think it was the best way of recovering.’ For generations of children, Michael Morpurgo has been a kind of Pied Piper. No one is sure exactly how many books he’s written, but there are over 150 of them, and they are said to have sold, in total, more than 35 million copies. Many have become classics – Private Peaceful, which follows a First World War soldier through the last night of his life before he is executed for cowardice; Kensuke’s Kingdom, the story of a small boy washed up on an island in the Pacific; Why the Whales Came, set in the Scilly Isles in 1914. And then there’s War Horse. One evening in the late 1970s, Michael walked down to the Devonshire farm, Nethercott, to which he and Clare have welcomed inner-city children for over forty years. In the yard, he spotted a lad of about 8 leaning over the stable door talking to a horse. He’d been warned by his teachers that this boy was acutely shy and liable to take fright if asked a question. And yet here he was chatting fluently to a horse who seemed, in turn, to be listening. Watching them, Michael had an idea. He would write a novel set in the chaos of the First World War and narrated by a horse, Joey, who would witness the horror from both sides of the trenches. The rest is history. War Horse became a stage play which ran for eight years in the West End and has now played in eleven countries to over 7 million people. In 2011 it was released as a Spielberg film. What is it about the two world wars that keeps drawing Michael back? Both are beyond the scope of his memory, and yet the Second World War changed his life forever. In 1945, when Michael was 2, and his father, Tony Bridge, was still away serving in the armed forces, the suave, clever, bullying Jack Morpurgo walked into his mother’s life and seduced her away from her husband. Though they went on to have two children together, Michael’s mother Kippe was racked with guilt for the rest of her life. When she died in 1993, Michael says, she was convinced that she had ‘failed in the eyes of God’. Michael is a naturally buoyant character, but the batsqueak of grief that runs through almost all his work has its roots, perhaps, in Kippe’s anguish. From what age, I wonder, does he think children should be exposed to sadness in literature? ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve got a feeling that before the age of 9 they won’t understand it and may indeed be traumatized. It’s vital that they shouldn’t be. But there’s a big “however”. I think it’s fine that children grow up knowing the wonderful and glorious things, but they have to understand that there’s evil in the world, and in each of us.’ He tells the story of how, in 1910, the editor of The Times asked readers to answer the question: ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ And G. K. Chesterton wrote back, ‘Dear Sir, I am.’ ‘He was right,’ says Michael. ‘If we keep pointing the finger at others, we’ll get nowhere.’ You might infer from all this that Michael, at 75, is something of a tortured soul – but you’d be wrong. Naturally upbeat, he is a doting father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who found his star early and has followed it with extraordinary devotion. ‘It’s a wonderful thing,’ he says, ‘to count your blessings. I do it more and more. I’ve lived to this point in good health. I’ve had happiness and contentment, done what I wanted to do, lived in comparative peace. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Providence has smiled on me, that’s for sure.’ Our hour together is drawing to a close. I’m aware that children up and down the country would have paid good pocket money to have had this time with Michael – and I’m aware that he needs to rest. As he leads me to the door, speaking perhaps more to himself than to me, he tacks on a final reflection. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve had a superabundance of joy.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 60 © Maggie Fergusson 2018


About the contributor

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

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