Michael Morpurgo in conversation with Clare Morris

Michael Morpurgo in conversation with Clare Morris

Michael Morpurgo (Sir Michael Andrew Bridge Morpurgo, OBE, FRSL, FKC) is an immensely popular and much-loved author, poet and playwright, although he prefers the term ‘story-maker’. Perhaps best-known for ‘War Horse’, a story which tells of the experiences of Joey, a horse sold to the army in the First World War, Michael Morpurgo has published well over 100 books. He is passionate about the importance of literature as a means of helping you to ’look beyond yourself’.

He and his wife, Clare, established the charity ‘Farms For City Children’ in 1976, with the aim of providing children from inner-city areas with experience of the countryside. The charity now has three farms.  To date, 100,000 children have appreciated the benefits of living close to nature by staying on these farms.

I met him in the garden of The Duke of York pub in Iddesleigh, Devon, not far from his home. We spoke for over an hour. He wanted to hear, first of all, about our work at The Blue Nib. The interview below starts as I conclude my explanation and we begin to talk about ‘War Horse’.

In our wide-ranging discussion, we explore his books, his craft, his early experiences, his friendships, his belief in the value of children’s literature, his charity work and his hopes for the future. I have included subheadings in this interview to direct you to key areas of our conversation.

My interview with Michael Morpurgo was a rare, unexpected gift, for which I am immensely grateful. I am sure you will be too.

Clare Morris

Editor of The Write life

The challenge: ‘to get people reading from a very young age’

MM: So the idea is to keep it going?

CM: Yes, it looks as if we can get back on track with publishing four magazines a year.

MM: And it’s an important year for that too so you can take a deep breath and continue planning. Well that’s the challenge of it, that’s for sure, to get people reading from a very young age.  All power to you. I think it’s lovely to find other people batting on the same wicket as I’m on. You don’t realise until you meet them, so it’s very nice.

CM: Thank you because it’s obviously very close to our hearts to create a platform for emerging writers.

MM: So, you’re in Devon, aren’t you? Do you know this pub?

CM: Well, I was going to ask about that. It was going to be my first question.

MM: Well, fire away. We’ve got about forty minutes. Is that alright?

CM: Yes, that’s wonderful.

‘War Horse’: ‘stories grow up on stories’

CMWe’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 what he was doing with 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 Seán Rafferty, who was a considerable poet, someone who might be known in literary magazines. Seán 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 whole 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, about a mile 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 horses.’ 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. And we still live here; we’re not going to go anywhere else now. Actually, it’s very strange that in the pandemic it’s one of the safest places in the world you can be. So, we’re very lucky.

‘War Horse’: ‘the seed corn for building confidence’

CM: Did you realise, when you wrote ‘War Horse’, that it would be so successful?

MM: No, well, at the time, I’d never had any success at writing; I’d just finished books, that’s all the success that I thought was possible. I earned a few pounds from it but never very much, I had one or two things that were reprinted, most that weren’t.  I had one or two really interesting, small things which were the seed corn for building confidence because writing is so much about confidence. Without that you really can’t even finish the first page. I wrote one or two little stories for an education series for Macmillan, when I was a teacher. Very often writers begin that way. You write for the children you teach, which I did. I tried out my story telling with them. I grew in the classroom when I was teaching. Before we came to live here and started the project, while we were in Kent, I taught for about eight years at the coal face and they never learned any Mathematics or anything like that, they just learned to write. We spent a lot of time reading other people’s things, poetry. I remember particularly a book by Ted Hughes called ‘Poetry In The Making’. I tried to encourage them to find their voices, their own confidence, that they had something to say and following what Ted had said, you look and you listen and you feel and you keep yourself  open and vulnerable. That’s the way you drink in the world and then you’ve got something to write about.

And what did we find when we got down here?  Ted Hughes lived about five miles away from here. He became the President for ‘Farms for City Children’ and I got to know him through that. By the time ‘War Horse’ came along, we’d got to know him quite well.

But going back to the whole business of did one know – no, not a clue. I was hopeful but one or two people said, ‘Yes but it’s sort of like ‘Black Beauty’ isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Well in one sense it is, the horse tells the story but that doesn’t matter. There are lots of books written by writers where the writer tells the story and it’s alright to do what they do, so I can write one as if a horse has written it.’

‘War Horse’: ‘so I decided, let that horse speak the story’

I did get the idea for that, no, not the idea, the confidence to be able to do that, because it is a pretty silly thing to do. Here was I trying to set out to write a story about the First World War and the whole purpose of my writing the story was not to write another war book. There are many, many books about war and almost always they are written from one side or the other. My idea was to try to write a story, if possible, from all sides so that it was a story of the universal suffering of the First World War. So, I decided then that you needed a neutral observer and because of this conversation I’d had with Wilf Ellis, I thought OK, we’ll let the horse be the neutral observer. All sides had horses; they all used horses, so I decided, let that horse speak the story and be the neutral eye.

I was very frightened at the beginning because it was a risk. You can be ridiculous if you’re not careful, doing this sort of thing. It could have been very sentimental but to get away from that, I had to be convinced myself that it wasn’t sentimental. I had a little incident which happened where the children come at Nethercott (Nethercott House, one of the Farms for City Children), just down the road. There was a little kid from Birmingham who had had major problems with speaking. There had been some trauma and he didn’t speak all week. The teacher said, ‘Well, he just doesn’t speak. He’s been with us at school, he never speaks. Don’t ask him questions, Michael, because he might run back to Birmingham because he gets very frightened if he’s made to try to speak – and then it shows other people that he can’t or won’t. Don’t make him.’ So I was as tactful as I could be and I noticed he never said a word all week, not to the teachers, not to his pals. He had pals but they were all silent pals really. They treated him, I think, as if he was dumb and deaf. There was nothing nasty about it, that’s how they took it.

‘War Horse’: ‘that horse valued the trust that this boy was giving’

I came in one night to read them a story, Thursday night, the night before they went home, a dark November night, cold, and I walked into the stable yard behind this big Victorian house and there was a horse leaning out of the stable, Hebe she was called, and this boy was there, Billy. He was in his dressing gown and his slippers and it was raining so I was about to say to him, ‘Billy, go inside’ and then, before I had a chance to speak, I realised he was talking – and he was talking to the horse. So he was standing under the head of the horse, if you can imagine it, with his hand up on the side of the horse’s face, just resting there, not patting, just resting, and talking, talking, talking, talking, nineteen to the dozen, there wasn’t a hesitation. So, I thought the teachers have to see this. So I went and fetched the teachers. We all crept round through the vegetable garden and we stayed hidden in the garden and we listened to this boy talking to this horse about all the things he’d done that day, just flowing and flowing and flowing. Then I noticed something which was even more important than that and that was, and this is where a lot of people leave me and don’t believe it, and that was that the horse was listening. And I sensed, and I’m sure I was absolutely right, that that horse valued the trust that this boy was giving, the affection, the love, whatever you want to call it, and stayed there and listened and of course didn’t understand a word but understood what was going on in the boy’s heart. And it was important. They had created a relationship together.

 I’d often heard my wife, Clare, and others, when they were with the horses in the stables, talking to the horses and, to start with, I remember thinking, that’s stupid, you know, but actually that calms the horse, that’s part of the person that you are. Anyway, that’s why I wrote it but I didn’t expect, to answer your question properly, anything to happen except the book would come out. It nearly won a prize, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and didn’t win it. Some other beggar won it.

‘War Horse’: ‘it’s not a children’s book because children don’t like history’ (Roald Dahl)

It’s funny, I don’t know if you know this but among the people who were judging it was a man called Roald Dahl, you might have heard of him. Well, Roald Dahl was the chair and after it was all over at this dinner, on telly it was, I was called up by him, the finger beckoned like this (he crooks his finger). Well, he was the Great Master – not as far as I was concerned, I mean I rated him but I didn’t rate him that highly. He called me up and said, ‘Well it’s a good book, a very good book, but it’s not a children’s book because children don’t like history.’ I said, ‘OK, well, there we are.’ The Master had spoken and of course, it’s completely wrong. It depends how you tell the story, that’s the truth of it. But anyway, there you go, it didn’t win. But in a way that was a blessing because to win a prize quite young is not necessarily a good idea. It was a disappointment and the book sat there for 25 years. It never sold more than a couple of thousand a year maximum.

The hardback, I have to tell you this because it’s a lovely story – the hardback had a wonderful cover by a great illustrator called Victor Ambrus, he was Hungarian but lived here all his life. He was also responsible for Henry Treece’s illustrations for Puffin – he does history terribly well and he did a beautiful cover for ‘War Horse’, the best cover, I think, that’s ever been, in the first edition in hardback. If you go into a rare bookshop now, you’ll find it, if you’re lucky, you’ll find it for sale, but it’s extraordinarily rare , not because the book is totally brilliant but because so few copies were printed and so few people bought them. The current value of a first edition of ‘War Horse’ is £1,500 … which is twice as much as I got paid for writing the entire book. So, it’s quite fun. I love all these things.

‘War Horse’ on stage and screen: ‘a big light shone on it’

Anyway, the reason of course it shot to fame 25 years later was the National Theatre; it wasn’t Spielberg, it was the National Theatre and a wonderful man called Tom Morris. He was looking for a way of using some amazing puppeteers.

Anyway, at the centre of this play are these puppets, huge life size puppets, designed by Handspring Puppets from South Africa. Tom Morris was a director there and wanted to use these people for a major play. Puppets as you know tend to be peripheral, accompanying the main actors. So, he was looking for a story that had an animal at its heart but centre stage and his mother heard me speaking on ‘Desert Island Discs’, wittering on about ‘War Horse’ a bit and thought it was interesting. She happened to be in an Oxfam bookshop a few days later and saw an old paperback copy of ‘War Horse’, picked it up, read it, thought it was good, rang up her son and said, ‘You know you were looking for a horse story or an animal story, try ‘War Horse’’. So, he did what his mother said.

Then of course it became flavour of the month for a bit and then Spielberg came along, saw the play because his producer was in London by accident with a horsey daughter who wanted to see the play. They went in, liked it, she rang up Spielberg, he came over a week later and within a year you have a film – that only happens with Spielberg, it’s just extraordinary. And, of course, because of that it was suddenly a best seller in New York, it was a best seller in London and here’s this book which had been sitting around for 25 years, no one even looking at it – it’s very funny. It just shows you what the whole thing is down to: it’s good fortune to get published and it’s good fortune if a book gets noticed. You can only do so much with publicity. Someone’s got to pick it up and run with it. Reviews help, of course they do, but it’s not the same thing as a big light shone on it. A play can do that, a film can do that and I’m very, very grateful to both Tom Morris and Steven Spielberg because of course the book is now widely read, translated into, I don’t know what it is, 50 languages. In a way you get known as ‘The War Horse author’ and I don’t mind that. It’s really lovely that there’s one book at least, which has leapt up and away from the others. I’d far rather it was known for something rather than for nothing and it helps the other books. It all helps the other books to get published.

Early influences: ‘poems that were visceral in some way’

CM: I was going to ask about ‘Private Peaceful’ as well.

MM: Of course, it’s set in this village.

CM: Yes, teachers, in their teaching schemes, will progress from ‘War Horse’ to ‘Private Peaceful.’ I wonder, when you were writing ‘Private Peaceful’, did you have the idea that that’s what teachers would do or did you see the books as stand-alones?

MM: Oh, complete stand-alones. I mean, I was interested of course because of ‘War Horse’ in the First World War but I was interested before that. Again, it’s interesting with your questions because they go back further than that, and the reason I’m interested, I suppose, in the subject of conflict is because when I grew up as a teenager, the first poems I ever liked were the War Poets. There was Owen, there was Sassoon, there was Edward Thomas. They were the first poems that meant something. I didn’t really like poems about daffodils, aged 16. They really didn’t do it for me, do you know what I mean? But poems that were visceral in some way, about the human condition, however dark it might be, I thought, ‘I can identify with that.’

I went into the army for a bit, for a year, so I had a glimpse of what it was to be a soldier, the camaraderie and also what might happen if you get out there and do it for real. I left pretty quick and went into teaching, marginally less dangerous, and in a way, I wouldn’t say I was conditioned but I certainly was prepared for that meeting that I had with Wilf Ellis in the pub and there, of course, I was speaking for the first time in my life to a real veteran and not just someone who’d interpreted it for a play or a film or anything else. That was an extraordinary moment.

‘I’m sure it’s the same for every writer, you just come across stuff’

With ‘Private Peaceful’, because I’d already had this dip into the history of the First World War and the conditions of the people who lived with it, I went to Ypres in Belgium. I’m sure it’s the same for every writer, you just come across stuff, like I came across Wilf Ellis in the pub. When I was in Ypres, I went to the museum. There’s a museum there called ‘In Flanders Fields’, which is about the best interpretive exhibition of war that I know. I came out of the museum very moved by everything I’d seen and heard. It’s the war from all sides; it’s not about the British or the Belgians or the French or the Americans – it’s about all of us who were involved in that horror. In that sense, that’s one of the things I really liked about it. It wasn’t like going to the Imperial War Museum which is so much about us. This is about the whole thing.

‘Private Peaceful’: ‘the tear is what made me write the book’

As I was coming out, I saw this frame on the wall and there was a scrappy looking piece of paper in it and an envelope and I just happened to glance at it. It was a letter, written, well, typed by an officer, a lieutenant, to a mother, a Mrs Someone, didn’t know who, and on the envelope there was the name and the address. The letter said, ‘We regret to inform you that your son, Private So and So and the number, was shot at dawn for cowardice on such and such a date.’ Signed, that’s it. Then there was this envelope which had been opened out so that you could see the tear and the tear is what made me write the book because I just thought, hang on, this woman had stood on her doorstep, I think it was in somewhere like Salford, and she’d opened the envelope with a bit of a tear and what was in that envelope was to destroy her life and the life of her family.  I thought this is just extraordinary. I felt very passionately that to shoot a man for that sort of thing was just awful and I went to the man who ran the museum, a man called Piet Chielens who’s a great authority on the First World War, and I said , ‘Do you have, by any chance, anywhere I could read a trial  of these people?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’ve got twenty of them downstairs.’

So I went and looked and I read the trials of these soldiers. There were over 300 shot for cowardice or desertion. Two because they fell asleep while on guard. I thought to myself I must read those so I took three or four of the photocopies back to the hotel. I read them that night. I read three out of the four. When I read them, I realised they were less than half an hour long … for a man’s life. You could tell when the people started with the questions that they’d already made up their mind. Far too many of them were Irish or Black and you realised there was an agenda here. Also, you could see the spikes; just before an offensive, these trials were taken much, much more seriously and there were more people condemned and of course it was to encourage other soldiers not to do the same thing. Anyway, I thought, let’s take one of these people, I didn’t know who. I didn’t take one of those cases.

‘what an extraordinary name’

I just took one soldier, I grew him up here in the village of Iddesleigh. He’s a farm worker’s son, his family lives near to the village, where I live in my cottage. They ring the bells here in the church, that’s the whole sort of place he grew up in and he and his brother love the same girl, it happens, and they went off to war together. It’s the story of these brothers and they’re called Peaceful because of a graveyard outside Ypres. It’s called the Bedford Cemetery, which is, I think, 5 miles outside. My wife and I were walking, which we do from time to time. In fact, we make it rather a religious thing; when we go there, which we’ve done a lot, we don’t just go and have a nice Belgian meal, we tend to go to one of the graveyards. This one we were just driving past, so we said, ‘Let’s go to this one.’ There were about 3000 graves there, I think. We were just walking along in the graveyard and my wife said, ‘Look, what an extraordinary name, Private Peaceful.’ So, we went to Piet Chielens and I said, ‘Do you know anything about this Private Peaceful, who had died, 26, I think?’ He looked him up, no family enquiries, nothing like that, so I said, ‘In that case, I suppose it’s probably alright to borrow the name, isn’t it?’ So I did.

Then shortly after the book was published, I got a letter from someone called Peaceful. I think they live in Southampton. He was a relative of theirs. They didn’t mind at all, they were fine about it but then a remarkable thing happened, truly remarkable. They discovered that the name on the grave had been spelt wrong. The real soldier had two ls. My soldier, who’s now a fiction, had one. And what did they do? What are they called, the organisation that looks after graves?

CM: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

MM: The War Graves Commission. So last year, we went over and had a ceremony where they replaced the gravestone with his proper name which would not have happened without the book.

‘Private Peaceful’: ‘when the world changes, it’ll be through education’

There’s another thing that doesn’t happen without the book. I know when the world changes it’ll be through education, nothing else.….what’s really wonderful is that many, many schools have picked up on that book. As you say, it’s read in Secondary schools quite a lot and they make a trip specially out there on coaches from all over England and that’s one of the places where they visit, Private Peaceful’s grave. I was doing something for the BBC, 3 or 4 years after ‘Private Peaceful’ came out. It had attracted a bit of attention and so they wanted an interview. I did a radio interview in another graveyard, not the same one, and I was standing there with a sound recordist and someone else with a camera and this coach turned up. A huge coach and it said Epsom on the outside. Then about 50 kids, teenagers, 15 years old, poured out, making quite a noise, so we had to stop recording. I got a bit cross because as they came into this graveyard, they were making a lot of noise and I thought the teacher should have quietened them down, calmed them down and I was about to say something when an extraordinary thing happened: they did calm down and quieten down but it was because of the place.

They all walked off in twos and threes, no one was giggling, no one was laughing. They were just walking around and the teacher noticed me because I was wearing a red jacket, which I wear sometimes, and said, ‘Are you the person that wrote ‘Private Peaceful’?’ and I said, ‘Yes, well, that’s the reason we’re here. But he’s not buried here.’ She said, ‘I know, we’ve just come from Bedford Cemetery. We’ve made Private Peaceful our Unknown Soldier and read the book because it’s important.’ The teacher was really enlightened. She said, ‘There’s no point in reading about the millions and the millions. That’s not interesting. What’s interesting is one soldier. Because we’ve read this book, it’s one story, we know it’s fiction based on the experience of so many, Private Peaceful is our Unknown Soldier. So when we came here, we found his grave and back at school we had made a wreath and we’d written letters. It was drizzling a bit so we’ve wrapped it all in cellophane and you can go there and see it.’  And so I did. I went there and saw it and it was extraordinary. These people had been there and they’d left their letters that they’d written to Private Peaceful. It was lovely; so, in a sense you could see the consequences of writing a book like that which is a great privilege for a writer: to be able to physically see it.

Music: ‘I’ve no idea why music seems to get through to people in the way it does. But it does.’

CM: Could I ask about the ending of ‘Private Peaceful’?  The use of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ – it’s so defiant and haunting. Whenever I hear the tune now, it just brings me back to the book.

MM: Oh, it’s ruined that particular children’s song for you.

CM: No, no, it hasn’t; it’s imbued it with something else. I’m just wondering about the importance of music in your work.

MM: Ah it’s huge, really huge.

CM: What does it give you?

MM: I liked singing when I was little. I played the violin extremely badly but I did like singing in the choir. I went to a very musical school in Canterbury, a place called The King’s School, Canterbury. The music was just extraordinary, so I was immersed really in music, and at home as well. I fell in love with Mozart at a very early age. Yes, music does imbue the stories and I do a lot of concerts now. There’s a book I wrote called ‘The Mozart Question’ – do you know the book?

CM: Yes

MM: We do a concert with a group, a quartet, and we play the music that might have been played – and was played – in the concentration camps. There is an enormous power in music.

It’s interesting, just at the moment, how music and stories have meant a great deal more in this lockdown than they’ve ever meant before. I think everyone’s sick of series on television because it flows over your head, but there’s something about music which is immersive, and it touches places. I’ve no idea why music seems to get through to people in the way it does. But it does. Its power is amazing. I hope words can do it sometimes and certainly the association of words and music.

Music:that’s what I love, when music and words come together in tone and in power’

Funnily enough, I’ll tell you something I’m doing just now, literally now, oh this is a… what do you call it?… a scoop. I don’t think anyone else knows about this. I’m going off on Sunday to do a recording at that studio in London, you know where the Beatles did their stuff, the Abbey Road Studios. I’m doing it for Decca and I’m doing it with an extraordinary group of players, all of whom are from one family. He’s called Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his entire family. They are going to be playing ‘Carnival of the Animals’.

CM: Saint-Saëns.

MM: And they asked me to write 14 poems to go in between the pieces for this recording we’re going to make. So, I did that and they seemed to like it. They also, because it’s a CD and it has to be a little bit longer, chose a book of mine called ‘Grandpa Christmas’. This group, all kids, these amazing people, the Magnificent Musical Seven, I think of them as, they chose music to weave through ‘Grandpa Christmas’ which they’re going to play. I’m going to read that and Olivia Coleman is going to read the poems with me in the first part. So, in a way, to answer your question, that’s what I love, when music and words come together in tone and in power, which is what I hope we’ve done. And I think they’re going to finish it bizarrely, wonderfully bizarrely actually, with their own arrangement of ‘Redemption Song’ by Bob Marley. It’s one of those CDs which is going to be out for Christmas. Anyway, you know.

CM: Thank you!

MM: I didn’t tell The Daily Mail first!

Early Development: ‘I’m a story-maker’

CM: Could we backtrack to your own development as a writer, early on. When did you first realise that you were a writer?

MM: I never did really. I still don’t. I’m a story-maker. I’m quite spontaneous about it really and I don’t necessarily like the words ‘author’ or ‘writer’ because actually what we all are from Shakespeare to Bob Dylan, we are all story makers.  We tell different stories and we tell them in a different way and that’s, finally, what we are. So, I make stories, I tell tales.

I got into it because my mum used to read me stories when I was very little, which I loved.  I hated books at school because they made you do comprehension and they made you have spelling tests and they made you have punctuation tests – I walked away from literature until I was well out of my teens. I read only what I had to read for O level and A level, played rugby and that sort of thing. It was only when I found myself in front of a class of children and telling stories, not reading, just telling stories that I heard or wanted to tell, that I suddenly found there was an enormous power in this, which is the same power that my mother had when she was reading to me and I remembered it. To be fair, I’d had one or two teachers through my school years who had also had this same power and particularly at university. I remember at university, there was one teacher called Garmonsway. This was at Kings College, London. He was teaching us ‘Beowulf’ and he would sit on the corner of his desk, in his tweedy old suit and puff his pipe, and just read it. He read it like my mother read it, with enormous conviction and passion, not like a teacher. He was telling us the story because he loved it and that’s what came across with my mother. That’s what I’d do with the children in my Year 6 class at Wickhambreaux Primary School. I told stories either from the page or ones that I’d made up but I told them with complete conviction. I told them as if it was true and made it true for them and I loved doing that. It gave me more and more confidence when I was telling them.

Writing: ‘it’s a matter of confidence and habit’

I had a wonderful headteacher called Mrs Skiffington who came in to listen to me one day because she’d heard about my storytelling, in the playground I think or it had been reported to her; so she came and sat at the back. Afterwards she said, ‘That was really good, Michael. You should write it out and give it to me on Monday morning.’ So I did. I wrote it out and gave it to her on Monday morning. She knew someone who worked at Macmillan and said, ‘You should send the story off.’ I sent the story off and I got a reply. They said, ‘We really like your story. Would you write 5 more and we’ll pay you, I remember, £75.’ So, I thought, eat your heart out, Roald Dahl. Anyway, that’s how I got started.

Honestly, it’s a matter of confidence and habit.  This lockdown’s been very interesting. What am I now, 77, and I’ve never written so much, so hard or so intensely in all my life. Well, most of the time it’s because there’s no option. I’ve been in my little bubble down the road, not seeing anyone for five months and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. So, I’ve retold the tales of Shakespeare, as Lamb did, all those years ago, in my own way. I’ve written lots of poetry and short stories. It becomes what I do every day and, without it, I feel rather wretched.

CM: So what’s your typical writing day like? Is there one?

MM: I can actually tell you. There’s no typical writing day but I can tell you what’s happened during lockdown. I do all my writing in the morning, I don’t get dressed, I don’t shave, I just have a bit of breakfast and then I just go and sit in my bed, which is where I scribble and write until about half past twelve. Then I might get up, not necessarily, take my jimjams off and get dressed, make myself a little bit respectable, have lunch. Then, in the afternoon, it’s rest time for a couple of hours, then a walk down to the river, Tarka’s river by the way, the River Torridge, where so many great poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney and others have walked. I think a lot about that when I’m down there, do a lot of thinking, then I watch a film in the evening or something like that – and that’s my day. It’s been very, very, very regular, not going out at all, of course. Everyone’s brought us everything because we’re the oldest people in the lane and people have been so kind, really, really lovely; so much so we’re feeling rather spoilt and we’re finding it rather difficult to climb back into the real world, which we’ve got to do. But that’s my routine and generally speaking, that’s how it should be.

My slight problem is that if you do bring out books, there’s a kind of a compulsion that you should go out and market them, for festivals and schools and stuff like that, which normally I quite like doing but I do live miles away from everyone and it’s a long, long way to go places. I’ve travelled this country for the last 20 years up and down, up and down, sometimes to no effect at all. Sometimes it’s lovely but it’s up and down. It’s very hit and miss, these festivals and school visits. I’ll do less now, there’s no question of it, because I did find it very exhausting. My wife finds it exhausting too because she comes with me if she possibly can and she prefers to be home. That’s one thing we’ve learned, we both prefer to be home. I think the routines will change. I’ll do more sitting here and going for walks. That sort of thing.

‘War Horse’: ‘I’ve had time to think it through and it’s got a better ending’

CM: You’ve got some books coming out in the Autumn, haven’t you? Could you tell us about those?

MM: Ah yes, there’s one interesting thing. It’s probably just the publishers squeezing the juice out of something but they felt, and I think it’s true, that it would be quite nice to have a ‘War Horse’ adaptation for younger children. So, it’s a huge illustrated book and done in the kind of illustrations they would like.  It’s a simplified story, changed a bit, improved actually; it’s the best version of the story because I’ve had time to think it though and it’s got a better ending, I think. Anyway, so that’s coming out. It’s just called ‘War Horse’, published by Egmont Books.

CM: That’s a teaser, better ending.

MM: Better ending. It’s taken a long time, it’s taken a really long time to get a better ending, hasn’t it, really? With the play, the ending is OK, with the film, well, I’ll say nothing about the ending but this particular one, it’s the best. Then there’s a book called ‘Owl or Pussycat?’, published by David Fickling Books. It occurred to me that when you first go to Primary School, whatever happens at that school for all children, it’s the first time. Everything is a first at a Primary School and for me it was the first time I fell in love, aged 6. I never really told the story but it was also the first time that I was ever in a play. The school put on a play every Christmas time and this year it was going to be ‘The Owl and the Pussycat.’ I got lucky. Because my mother read to me such a lot, she read me poems as well. She had read me ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and it happened to be my favourite poem and so I knew it by heart. When the teacher read it to the whole class, she said afterwards, ‘Do any of you know that poem?’ I said, ‘I know it by heart.’ And so she said, ‘Do you, Michael. Could you stand up and say it then?’

So I did, and she was so pleased that, when it came to casting the play, I was Owl and here’s the thing: the girl who was chosen to play the Pussycat was this girl I was in love with. I hadn’t told her that, but I was. So, we did the play and I’m not going to tell you what happened. It was a disaster. Naturally. And we didn’t make it up, it really was a disaster… and to have a disaster in front of 200 people…But the interesting thing is that I’ve been back to the school. It’s called St Cuthbert’s with St Mathias and it’s on the Warwick Road in London. Still there, still the same building, still the same parquet floor which is in the story. So I dedicated it to the children and they come down to the farm now. The kids from the school now come down to the farm. So, we’ve made a sort of relationship there. I’m going to launch it in the very hall in which the play was performed, let’s get this right, in 1950. So, that’s coming out with wonderful illustrations.

New Titles: ‘more exciting really is the connection to the story I first told you’

In a way, just as exciting, but more exciting really, is the connection to the story I first told you. My main publisher is HarperCollins and I haven’t got a book coming out with them, I’ve got some paperback things but I haven’t got a new book coming out. The story is that I was approached by Puffin Books, because it’s going to be the 80th anniversary of the founding of Puffin Books and of course the person who founded Puffin Books is my father-in-law, Allen Lane. That is why they approached me and said, ‘Would you do something to celebrate? Would you write a story? Maybe about a puffin.’ So I couldn’t refuse, the wife would have been a bit upset. I was very flattered to be asked and I’d done one or two things for them before anyway. So, I thought, yes, and I’ve written the story. It’s called ‘The Puffin Keeper’ and it’s about the Isles of Scilly and a lighthouse and an old man who keeps the lighthouse and rescues some people from a ship coming in from America, a great four-masted schooner, all those years and years ago. He rescues people and brings them back to his island, to his lighthouse and one of them is a small boy. It’s the story of the relationship between this old lighthouse keeper and this boy. After he’s been rescued, they pick him up the next day and the others that have been rescued, his mother included. The lighthouse keeper has noticed that this little boy has spent quite a lot of time looking at all the pictures on the wall of the lighthouse, which he’s painted. Every single one is of a boat, a ship. It’s in the style of a naïve artist from St Ives, it’s modelled on him. Anyway, the boy’s got his eye on one painting and the old man notices this. It’s a tiny painting, and he gives it to him. It’s all done on wood. The boy takes it and it becomes a sort of talisman; he keeps it all the way through his life. So, we follow this boy through his life until he’s a man. I try to link it back to the main story because Allen Lane had two brothers who he founded Penguin Books with, one of whom was called John. I think he was his favourite brother. John was killed in the Second World War. He went down in an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, when it was torpedoed so there is someone in the book who is called John Lane and he does go down. He’s a friend of this young boy when he grows up and joins the Navy. The boy finally comes back to see this old man and it’s all really about what this old man has done with his life, what the boy has done with his life, who is now a man, and how … I won’t tell you that or you won’t buy the book. Anyway, I’m really pleased about that and there’s this CD coming out. It’s going to be an interesting Christmas.

Point of View: ‘I try to make the animal catch life and have breath’

CM: In your stories, nature, the environment, animals play such an important part and often you’ll take the point of view of the animal, like Joey, like Toto, How do you approach that?

MM: With a bit of a joy in my heart really. I’ve done it with all these poems for ‘Carnival of the Animals’. Quite a lot of people just write poems about animals out there. Most of these poems, in fact all of them, I’ve written from the inside of the animal, looking outwards.

CM: So how do you achieve that?

MM: Well, I suppose the truth of the matter is that these poems are really about us, they’re not really about the animals at all, but don’t tell anyone else that. Each one is a take on how it is we treat and use and love and abuse and exploit animals. They’re not just sweet little poems, they’ve all got a bit of an edge to them. In the Saint-Saëns poems there are two about a donkey. One of them is a wild donkey, very proud of his freedom, and the other is a working donkey, who does not like to be despised because he’s working. He gets whipped, he gets beaten and there are flies to deal with but he’s up. And at the end of the day, he says, ‘When you next see a donkey, you’re looking at a diva. No one else sings like a donkey.’ I try to make the animal catch life and have breath but through a conversation with us.

Ted Hughes: ‘he brought not just expertise but prestige to children’s writing’

CM: I like that. Thinking about poetry, I was going to ask about your friendship with Ted Hughes and Seán Rafferty. How important were those friendships to you as a writer?

MM: Huge, they were huge. It was a tiny little village and there were three of us that were writers. Hughes was a great, great writer. Rafferty was a great writer but comparatively unknown and I was writing children’s books. We were having dinner once a week and we’d meet at the pub and the number of dinners we had was no one’s business. We really got to know each other well. Seán and Ted would give us poems and I’d give them stories. They were both mentors for me, there’s no doubt about that and a source of encouragement when you get down. Finally, we were encouraging each other. They talked, the two of them, in depth about Yeats and people that they’d known and read and loved. They talked a kind of a conversation which was highly literary. We had one evening at our cottage, it was just extraordinary, where there was Stephen Spender, Basil Bunting, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, all round the table. You just sat there listening.

But then, in times of difficulty, when I was stuck at one particular point, I got a lot of advice from Ted. When ‘War Horse’ didn’t win the Whitbread Prize, he took me out. We had a lovely trip out to see bookshops in Bideford and he sat me down for tea. He didn’t say a word about it all day until teatime and then he sat me down and said, ‘Oh yeah, about last night, the Whitbread stuff, don’t pay any attention. Prizes are nothing. They’re not good for you if you win them. They’re not good for you if you lose them. Just write the next book at forget it.’ He said, ‘’War Horse’ is a great story. You’ll write a greater one.’ So he did that kind of double-edged thing of encouraging you when you needed it most. He was a very genuinely kind man and he really cared about young writers – and that’s what I was; I was in my thirties.

He was very involved in the Arvon Foundation, getting young people to write. He was passionate about it.  He judged the Daily Mirror Children’s Writing Competition for years and years and got colleagues like Seamus Heaney particularly to come in. He brought not just expertise but prestige to children’s writing. Of course, he and I between us started the Children’s Laureate thing and that was after a dinner at his house. We’d probably drunk too much and I said, ‘Well, you’re a flamin’ Poet Laureate, why can’t we have a Children’s Laureate too? That’ll lift the spirits of everyone in children’s literature.’ He stopped and said, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea. Who will we go to?’ and he made a list of all the people to go to: Waterstone, someone royal who could launch it. By the time the first Children’s Laureate was appointed, which was Quentin Blake, Ted Hughes had died, which was sad, so he never saw it come to fruition. He’d be thrilled to bits now because we’ve had ten.

CM: You were the third.

Children’s Literature: ‘they’re actually cracking good stories and we love them’

MM: I was the third. It was a flippant remark to start with but it is what children’s books always needed. It’s been provided by many, many terrific writers and also the times, I think. People have understood that we enrich children’s lives, give them life chances which they wouldn’t have otherwise and that books bring you knowledge and understanding. That’s spoken now. There are certain people like Philip Pullman and J K Rowling, whose names are part of the adult world as well and that’s really important because some adults tend to patronise children and children’s writers. ‘Oh, it’s just for children.’ Well, if you think now about the writers out there; when the theatres were working, you could walk around the West End and a good third to a half of all the productions were from children’s books. People have finally realised that they’re actually cracking good stories and we love them. That was never the case before. The Children’s Laureate has helped that because for two years of an illustrator’s life or a writer’s life or a poet’s life, they give themselves to this idea that it’s important so that parents and teachers and education ministers and politicians have realised that literature is not for the few.

CM: So that kind of title then is important and useful, important because it’s useful?

MM: Yes. It’s very important if you use it right.

CM: How do you use it right?

Stories: ‘Story-making, storytelling should be a part of every day of a child’s life’

MM: Well, everyone uses it differently, Quentin Blake, when he was Children’s Laureate, very deliberately set it up to show illustration as one form of art which is usually hidden round a corner somewhere, but he went to the National Gallery and you had his pictures interspersed with great art and it is great art. There’s that awful thing, that it can’t be because it’s only for children – but it is actually. Time after time now, that’s what people have done. They’ve taken their own fix, I suppose, on what was needed. The ownership of books was very important to Anne Fine. She decided that it was very important that kids owned books because it’s something you can take home and it becomes you. I did the making of stories and the enjoyment of stories, the listening to stories. So, I travelled the world, literally the world, Russia to South Africa, reading stories to people and to children and to students and to teachers, trying to inculcate in people a huge enthusiasm for telling stories to children. I’m still on my mission. My mission is that every child should have half an hour at school at the end of the day. From 3 – 3.30pm in every Primary School, they should be reading a story or being read a story or writing a story. Story-making, storytelling should be a part of every day of a child’s life. Only in that way do you inculcate in them a love of books and of course it’s got to be inculcated into the teachers as well. They do that at college, so we’re working on it. It’s work in progress.

CM: So you would say that’s your principal responsibility?

Libraries: ‘they are as important…as hospitals’

MM: Oh completely. I think for all children’s writers, that’s what we do. We’re doing all we possibly can to spread the word. When you close a library, you shut off a child’s mind. That’s effectively what you do. They are as important, and I sense this is a big statement, as hospitals. Hospitals are dealing with the body, libraries are dealing with the mind. If you shut off a library, you are shutting off, for those who need it most, their source of stories, It is through stories that you find out about yourself, it improves your mental health, your self-esteem. It helps you climb out of loneliness.  All these things can happen in a library. That is just as important as getting yourself checked out at a hospital. Just at the moment, I know we’re absolutely focused on getting ourselves healthy but we are going to learn, if we haven’t learned already, that the health of the mind is not just about taking a pill or going to tell everyone your troubles. It is about understanding yourself through stories, through poetry and the life of others and the world around you. All this helps you look beyond yourself. That’s the richness of it.

2021 Publication: ‘Over The Fields And Far Away’ (HarperCollins)

CM: In your email you said you were mid-novel.

MM: That was just to put you off. I say that to everyone and then I heard that you lived locally and so that was alright. I was trying to avoid another Zoom or something.

No, I’ve finished a series of short stories, the working title of which is ‘Over The Fields And Far Away’ and it’s a story of kids who come to the farm but in nine stories. They’re all set on the farms where the children come to from the cities. It’s the story of their lives and what the farm means to them and each one is different – different animal, different child, different place. I’m very passionate about it because our project is closed down at the moment. Because of the pandemic, we can’t have children. So the charity is looking into a big black hole, like all charities and businesses are. It’s going to be some while before the children can come down again so we’re raising funds like crazy. That’s what my wife has been doing because we just need to keep going until the children come back. We had the same with the Foot and Mouth disease, we were shut down for nine months. The children come, they pay something; it’s not much but it keeps us going. We’re a charity anyway, so we’ve got to go out there and raise funds which is what we’ve been doing. Part of the reason I’ve done these stories is to raise funds for ‘Farms for City Children’.

CM: Who is the publisher?

MM: HarperCollins

CM: So that’s ‘Over the Fields and Far Away’ published by HarperCollins, thank you.

MM: That’ll be next year.

CM: So, what’s next for you then?

MM: You sound just like my publisher!

CM: Oh, do I really? Oh sorry.

What’s Next: ‘I’m heading for a pause now’

MM: What’s next? I think the truth is I’m going to write a novella of some sort, I’m not quite sure what it’ll be. I’m thinking about 3 or 4 different subjects but at the present moment, well, I’ve been writing all these retellings of Shakespeare, which was wonderful – I mean just to live with the stories of Shakespeare for three months is just terrific, very good therapy. With that done and with my stories done, I’m looking to write a novella but I’m heading for a pause now. I’ve got another book coming out. I’ve got so much coming out but I’ve got a book coming out next year which is the last novel I wrote and is set in Greece. I’m not sure what it’s going to be called yet but it’s all written and done. It’s about Ithaca and what I’m quite pleased about is that it’s the story of the life of one girl, Elena. She grows up in Australia, knowing she’s Greek, which a lot of people do in Melbourne, and she comes back and finds her home and also someone who visits  her from time to time in Australia but lives on Ithaca. She finds out through this woman really the whole story not just of her life, this aunty of hers, but also about the history of that whole island, through the eyes and the life of this woman. Anyway, it’s all done but they keep wanting to change the title.

Well, that’s grand. I hope that’s what you needed.

CM: Oh, it is. Thank you so much, this has been wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Thank you. Thank you from all of us.

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. That was wonderful Claire,
    such a great interview, allowing Michael to cover many subjects, all interesting and adding more to our knowledge of his world. Do you live in the same area? I knew the late John Fairfax who was friends with Ted Hughes and was co-originator of the Arvon Foundation. So it was good to hear Michael talk about that. Thanks, Richard Plantagenet

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