Some people say you should never meet your heroes; you are bound to be disappointed. I met one of my heroes today (or yesterday when you read this), Michael Morpurgo and I was not disappointed – far from it. Having heard that our sponsor had withdrawn funding, he immediately offered us an interview.
We had arranged to meet in the garden of The Duke of York pub in Iddesleigh, Devon, where he had talked with Wilf Ellis all those years ago and had thought about the possibility of a horse acting as a neutral observer to comment on the universal suffering of war. And so the character of Joey had first taken shape, followed later by stage and film adaptations of ‘War Horse’ under Tom Morris’ and Steven Spielberg’s direction respectively.
I arrived an hour early, as you do when you have an appointment with your hero. The landlord, Trevor, spoke so warmly of him that gradually my nerves began to settle.
Now, here is the measure of the man. The interview did not start with a list of achievements Michael Molpurgo had received or work he was producing. Instead he asked about how things were at The Blue Nib, how we were managing and what the future held for us – and then shared laughter as we both agreed that working in the arts is never dull and always a little hand to mouth.
The interview was wide-ranging but the chief focus was the value of children’s literature. It should never be termed ‘just children’s literature.’ There is a prestige to children’s writing and a joy in watching children find their own voice. A master storyteller, he recalled the ways in which his stories were created with such passion and clarity that I had to remind myself that I really ought to get on with the business of asking the next question. He was already weaving his spell.
Michael Morpurgo defines himself as a story maker rather than a writer. It is a more spontaneous term. His concern is to make things true. His current mission is that, between 3.00pm and 3.30pm on every school day, children will become immersed in story making: the writing, the reading and the telling. Libraries, he argues, are as important as hospitals because they are a source of stories and of strength, safeguarding the health of the mind and helping us to understand ourselves.
Ever generous, he gave The Blue Nib a scoop too. On Sunday (2nd August), he will be recording fourteen of his poems for Decca at Abbey Road Studios with Olivia Coleman. These poems will link the separate sections of the Kanneh-Mason family’s interpretation of Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Carnival of Animals’. They will also be recording ‘Grandpa Christmas’ with music by the Kanneh-Masons again, together with their version of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ to conclude. It will, in Michael’s words, be ‘a joy in my heart.’ The CD will be available just before Christmas. What a wonderful present that would make. And remember, you read this first in The Blue Nib. Thank you , Michael.
A source of great pride to him and his wife, Clare, is his charity, Farms for City Children. The farms are closed at present because of the pandemic. They need funds to continue their valuable work when they are allowed to reopen once more. Next year he will be publishing ‘Over The Fields And Far Away’ with Harper Collins – a collection of nine stories about city children, the animals they meet and how their lives have been changed by nature. You can find out more about his charity here.
My full interview with Michael Morpurgo will appear in our next issue of The Blue Nib, Issue 43. Although the interview was scheduled for forty minutes, we spoke for over an hour. He would accept no payment. We are all volunteers at The Blue Nib and so he said he would be a volunteer too. What a kind, generous man. As he raised his hat in farewell and walked off in the light summer rain, joking with fellow villagers and exuding such warmth , I suddenly felt very hopeful for our precarious little world of the arts. It may be difficult, funding may disappear at a moment’s notice but if we have champions like Michael Morpurgo at the helm, we will survive. Why? Because when we write and when we create, we, as he explains so poignantly, ‘catch life and have breath’ – we bring things into being and share those wonders with others.
I was moved by my interview with Michael Morpurgo in ways I had not anticipated, feeling empowered to write and to create too. I hope you will feel the same as I did when you read the full interview in Issue 43.
Here’s a brief taster:
CM: We’re at ‘The Duke of York’, with its links with ‘War Horse’. Is there more to your association with the place than that?
MM: Well it’s interesting really because as with all these things, as you know, stories grow up on stories. They come out of nowhere and the original reason that we’re here is unbelievably literary, which might appeal to your readers. My wife is called Clare and her daddy was a publisher, a great publisher, probably the greatest of the 20th century, Allen Lane, who started Penguin books. He knew the lady (this is bizarre) who ran this pub in the 1940s, just after the Second World War. He was up in London, doing his publishing and she was running the Windmill nightclub. She was the Publicity Director. She was called Peggy Rafferty and she and Allen Lane were good friends, how good we don’t know, but good friends and just after the war was over, Peggy Rafferty decided to come down to Devon and buy this pub with her new husband, a man called Sean Rafferty, who was a considerable poet, someone who might be known in literary magazines. Sean and Peggy ran this pub for 25 years or more, worked hard, got in the Good Food Guide. He was behind the bar and hated every moment, I think, but she loved it.
Anyway, way before that, Allen Lane had this daughter called Clare who I think was a bit of a pain in the neck and needed occupying during the school holidays so he said to Peggy, ´Can I bring Clare down to look at the place with a view possibly to her coming and having holidays with you, on her own, because she’s an independent little girl’ And Clare loved it. Her little room’s up there (he points across the garden to a window on the second floor) and looks out across the way. So, she had a room there and came back every holiday between the age of about 7 and 12. This was her home and she got to know all the people round and about on her walks about the place and loved it to bits. Peggy looked after her as best she could but in a sense, in the nicest possible way, wanted her to be out, during the day, walking and walking and walking, not hanging around the pub and getting under the feet of the guests. So, that’s what she did; she’d put on her wellies and off she’d go.
She was the one who discovered this place and her love for it which years and years later made us come here to start ‘Farms for City Children’ which is our project. Our reason for starting up was because she had had this extraordinary experience here: a little girl growing up here and finding out about not just farms but about nature and little creepy crawly things. She was a suburban girl. It was all strange to her. People were friendly, and would give her lemonade and sticky buns and she’d groom the horses and feed the calves and she became this wandering child in the days when you could do this in the 40s and 50s. So, then we thought of setting up, as teachers, ‘Farms for City Children’ because we thought children needed more than a classroom – the countryside is a wonderful classroom, use it. Her daddy died in 1970 sadly and when he died he left us some money. So, she thought she’d put the money where her mouth had been and bought a big house, Nethercott House, outside the village here and invited schools from the Inner London Education Authority and they started coming and coming. That was 45 years ago and we’ve got 3 farms now and 100,000 children have been so that’s the story behind this place although I know it’s known for War Horse now.
We moved down here in 1976 and were strangers. The people who ran the pub knew Clare very well so introduced us to everyone. I’d come along to the pub as you do and meet people. I happened to meet, by pure accident, one of the three men I was told had been to the First World War, who were then octogenarians and they lived in the village still. One of them I found sitting by the fire, a bloke called Wilf Ellis. I knew who he was and a bit about his story, that he’d been to the First World War, so I started asking him about it and he said, ‘I was there with the ‘orses’ and he started talking about being there and the things that happened to him as a 17 year old boy and the fact that the horse was his best friend without question because he could say things to this horse that he could never say to his friends about fear, about longing and all these things. So the whole idea of a relationship between a young soldier and a horse started there and of course there was a sale in 1914 on the village green of local farm horses to the army.
So much that was part of the history of this place I used in the story, which is what I do anyway. That’s how I do writing. I’m not brilliant at fantasy, I tend to grow stories out of history or memory or other people’s stories. Never, if you like, out of the nothingness. You need a proper imagination for that like Philip Pullman’s got or Lewis Carroll or someone like that. Anyway, this pub has become a little bit associated with War Horse but it has a much longer history as far as we’re concerned.