“My god it is stunning.” Michael Morpurgo tailed off as soon as the singing began, transfixed by the glorious sound filling King’s College Chapel, in Cambridge. It was nearing Christmas, and Michael, actress Juliet Stevenson, and vocal ensemble Voices at the Door were about to perform in a children’s concert at the chapel. Before the children’s author set aside an hour or so to talk to me about his life, work and inspirations. This esteemed author accolades includes, the former Children’s Laureate, multiple award- winner, author of ‘War Horse’ and my personal favourite, ‘Butterfly Lion’
“I feel pretty proud today,” Michael’s voice was one of kindness yet authority. “I was walking down the street with my wife Claire and I said, ‘It’s an extraordinary thing to be in a place where such music has been created and such education has taken place.’”
Michael begins by talking about his early years, as a teacher, before he was a dedicated writer himself. He explains how he also prized above all else the importance of writing and storytelling. He wanted to enthuse the children through stories, so that they could understand the magic, “I found it was so good for them (the children) to find themselves in words, to find confidence in words, to find power in words.”
In this way, the “transition” from teacher to writer, as Michael tells it, wasn’t really a transition at all, “as you know part of being a teacher is communicating and I suppose the best teachers communicate what they know best and love best.”
Michael continued, “I knew the whole point of story telling was to have children completely focused on the story, to be completely lost in it.” But once this wasn’t happening with the story he was reading out, so he began to improvise one. He ended each school day with a cliffhanger and by the end of the week, his class were hooked.
“There were 34 expectant faces, expectant minds; so I really committed myself to this story. The story was ordinary beyond belief, but because I told it in such a way that I loved it and became lost in it and became each character, they got completely lost in it too. There was that wonderful thing, that you get so rarely, which was just a complete silence and I thought, ‘That’s just the response you want’. So I said I’ll finish it tomorrow, but I didn’t, I carried on all week, and made it like a soap.”
“It got to Friday afternoon and the Head Teacher was in there because she had heard about the story that Mr. Morpurgo was telling, and she came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Michael, that was quite wonderful. You should write it out and give it to me on Monday morning.’ Like a teacher tells you, give it to me on Monday morning. She knew someone that worked at MacMillan and sent it off. A month later I suppose, I got a reply saying, ‘Mr. Morpurgo, we liked your story. Could you write 5 more and we will pay you £75.’ I was on a teachers’ salary, and £75 was huge. And also I thought, someone wants something I have created? This is extraordinary.”
This mythical and original story telling has continued to be the way Michael communicates. Many books and years later he still has classrooms full of children hooked on his every word.
The stories that have been enjoyed throughout our childhoods can now be found in many different forms. You can read Butterfly Lion on your Kindle and you can watch Warhorse online. He still writes everything by hand and doesn’t own a Kindle. “I worry of course about some uses of these machines, the short route that there is between this and so-called knowledge, with sites like Wikipedia, where, if you like, ‘lazy research’ goes on, and children learn to be lazy because of that. Whereas to go to a book and look it up is to force yourself to focus on it – I mean the great scholars who came to this place [Cambridge], did their work with books and it is not such a bad way!”
But although he remains ambivalent about the uses of technology, he does celebrate their gravitas as a means to reading and education. “In the end, I welcome with open arms anything that enables children to read, I don’t care what form it comes in. Clearly, it has to be arranged that the people who write and create the books get to still receive an income from it – that’s the deal, it’s their work and that’s important. But it’s in a way just as important that those children who haven’t grown up in a book culture, but have grown up in a technology culture, use the means that they like to access great books.”
Michael passionately believes in the power of stories, and for stories to be read, there must be accessibility to books for all. He is a vocal about the urgent responsibility we have to keep libraries open, for those who cannot afford endless new books or Kindles.
“Libraries are important mostly because they are community places for people who want to learn more about books, learn more about the world, it’s a gathering place for knowledge, and understanding” and shutting them down is “shutting [down] that avenue towards knowledge and understanding for large, large numbers of people.” Michael is insistent that reading is sustenance, and the no reading brings “alienation and despair.”
For Michael there is a great link between visceral experience and the written word. He wishes for the children in the class to get lost in a story, and he wants to transport every reader “(to) a place they have never been to before (one that) is full of wonder.” However, when Michael as a teacher asked children to write about their experiences in life, and to state what made that day different, he discovered they had very little to write about. This is when Michael and his wife started Farms for City Children.
“They didn’t do anything with their lives, they didn’t look, they didn’t listen, they didn’t feel, they sat in front of the television when they went home. So my wife and I decided was that these children needed a huge injection of life experience, very, very young.” They opened a farm in which the children wouldn’t just watch but became involved with the farm; they sowed crops, fed animals, became involved with the process of life itself: “they would understand that the work mattered more than they did, the animals mattered more then they did.” It is this experience outside of themselves that Michael describes as urgent: not entirely happy, sometimes difficult “out in the wind and the rain”, but one that for these reasons becomes satisfying.” It [gives] them a sense of their own value, and that they [can] contribute.”
After 40 years, the three farms that the charity owns are still going strong, and a huge 130,000 different children have come through them.
In hearing about his own influences, it is clear what is important to him as a writer. He speaks of an intimate friendship with Ted Hughes, “We were very good friends, we just happened to live in the same place in Devon, just 5 miles away, he fished in the same river, and we became really good chums”
“He and I would exchange manuscripts, he’d send me a poem at Christmas and I would send him a story. Of course, he was the great master and I was sat at his feet.”
He talks about what he gained from Ted Hughes as a writer, “I learned from him was the magic of the music in words, and what language can do to convey what you are writing about, the power of language. This is what I aim for in my writing, and I don’t feel I can ever fully achieve.”
And similarly it is the power of writing as a tangible experience that he cites in another great influence. Robert Louis Stevenson’s’ work. As with the children he wanted to transport with stories to somewhere new, he talks about getting lost in Stevenson’s’ storytelling, “I wasn’t conscious of anything else except being the person in the story”
“That’s the quality of the writing. His storytelling is amazing, but it is the quality of the writing, he manages to bring you right into the story, you can see the people, you can feel the landscape, and you can almost taste the salt sea spray. It’s the writing.”
Michael’s advice for budding writers is therefore unsurprising given his philosophy for writing based on living and experiencing. In a similar vein to all his words, these reflect a beautiful simplicity.
“Don’t be in a hurry. Read, read, read; listen; keep your ears open, your eyes open, and above all your heart open, so that your antennae are out the whole time. Go places; meet people; listen to people, and then I think write a few lines every day, not a diary, not a journal, but just two or three lines every day to remind you why that day was different. It can be some little quip you heard on a bus, or some desperately sad thing that’s going on in your life, or somebody else’s life. I was looking across the river this morning and I saw the cows lying down and the mist around them. You can paint those moments in words; it’s what you’ve got.”
After all these books and all these experiences, I asked the author what his proudest moment is. “Its funny, pride is such a strange word, it’s not really what I…” Michael paused. “I have an enormous satisfaction in the smallest thing, the smallest thing being communicating stories that I love to other people and feeling at the end that they love it too. We have an intimacy of communication, which is emotional, it’s intellectual, it’s the best thing that human beings can do with and for each other. If I’m ever really proud, it’s when I believe that has worked. It may not happen, but when it does…” And his voice trailed off again; and it seemed as though that that magic of connection was entirely possible.