Michael Morpurgo recalls the tales that shaped him
Over the course of a career that has spanned more than 150 publications, writer Michael Morpurgo has returned to one theme more than any other: war. This year sees the publication of two new books about the second World War, both inspired by personal connections, and the revival of an Irish production of Private Peaceful, a stage adaptation of his 2003 novel, which unfolds on the frontlines of the first World War. Reflecting on a life in stories over more than 30 years, Morpurgo admits that this dominant preoccupation was surely inevitable.
“War is the history I was born with,” he says, speaking over the telephone from his home in Bristol, and with the ease of the well-practised storyteller he recalls the childhood narrative that shaped him.
“I was born in 1943,” he says, “and my first impression of the world was of a bombed place. My first image of the war itself was a one-legged soldier in a smart blazer decked out with medals sitting on a wet pavement, begging. I was four or five years old. So I was born into that history. The fog of war itself had lifted but the debris was all around me.”
There was a personal aspect to that history too. “My family,” he continues. “We were part of the collateral damage. My parents married during the war, but my father was deployed to Baghdad and my mother took up with someone else. This was quite common: the family divorce rate in the UK went up four times after the war. So in all sorts of ways the world that I grew up in was shaped by the legacy of war – what it does to the flesh, what it does to society – and you don’t easily set these things aside. The narrative of your childhood stays with you forever, and if you become a story maker, it will emerge, whether you like it or not. So much of your growing up is defined by the stories you hear; they are what holds families together.”
Morpurgo’s most recent book, In the Mouth of the Wolf, draws from a family story he never thought he would tell.”In my family,” he elucidates, “the stories were of my two uncles, Pieter and Francis. There was a picture on the mantelpiece of Pieter, who was in the RAF. He was only 21 when he was killed. I never knew him, but in some ways he was the most important member of my family, because he never changed; he never grew old. My other uncle, Francis, was a teacher and a socialist, and before the war he was a committed pacifist. He said he wouldn’t fight, so he was sent sheep farming; he would make his contribution to the war effort through the production of food. But after Pieter’s death, while he was holding his first, newborn, child, he suddenly thought ‘I can’t stand to one side while other people protect my baby’, so he joined up, and because he spoke French, he was sent to special operations and became a secret agent. The exploits [that followed] were like something from a comic book.” Francis was eventually captured by the Gestapo, but managed to escape in the most unlikely conspiracy of coincidence and luck.
Although his uncle rarely told the story himself – “he saw himself first and foremost as an educator, not a war hero” – Morpurgo was always fascinated by Francis’s previous life. “I always wanted to tell it, but it is a family story, so it wasn’t just mine to do with as I pleased.” When he was introduced to the French illustrator Barroux, whose graphic novel In the Line of Fire was created after he found the diary of a soldier from the first World War in a skip on a street in Paris, he told him the story and a collaborative project was born; one that allowed Morpurgo to “tell this nonfiction story in a fictional way”.
Morpurgo’s first responsibility, however, was to his family, not his readers. “When you are writing from your life, your family’s life, you have to ask permission, to make sure that they are happy for the story to be told. Because Francis was a pacifist and not enthralled by the war, I felt a big responsibility that it should not just be a derring-do book, a novel of war fun.”
Barroux’s pencil drawings are crucial to cutting through any ideas of military mischief by providing a gritty visual realism to counterpoint Francis’s extraordinary escapades. As Morpurgo sums up, in a sentence that might well be used to describe any of his historical novels, “there is really nothing glamorous about war.”
Flamingo Boy, which was published this year, is also set in France during the second World War, in the Camargue region, where native flamingos have been chased away by the inhospitable climate of the war. Its protagonist is Lorenzo, an autistic teenager who struggles to be understood by his community. The book was also inspired by Morpurgo’s own family: his 15-year-old grandson has autism.
Morpurgo “didn’t know anything about autism until my grandson was diagnosed [with the condition], and that is probably the same for most people. I realised the world can be a hostile and terrifying place for someone with autism. I began to think about how he will need a particular kind of love and support all throughout his life. He will grow older but his autism won’t change, and the need for reassurance and repetition will always be the same.”
Again, Morpurgo had to consider “that there were real people, whom I love dearly, involved in the story, so I had to discuss it with them. They were happy for me to write the book, and to talk openly about my grandson: it helps to create more awareness among people, like myself, who will have no real connection to the subject matter until it has an impact on their own life.”
‘‘ I learned to tell stories by standing at the top of the classroom: the children would immediately stop picking their noses and looking around the room
The historical frame offered itself easily to Morpurgo. Storytelling is just one of the ways he maintains intimacy with his grandson, and Flamingo Boy is framed as an exercise in storytelling. It opens in contemporary France, where a teenager, Vincent, is recuperating in the house of a local Camargue woman, who entertains him with her stories of the war: the fleeing flamingos, and young Lorenzo, the village outsider, who provided her with an unlikely refuge when the Germans invaded the town. Despite the generation gap, the stories connect deeply with Vincent, enabling him to make sense of elements of his own life too.
For Morpurgo, such human connections are the true power of great storytelling. It was while working as teacher after leaving the army – “I felt obliged to enrol at Sandhurst”, he says, “it was a family legacy, but it was not mine” – that Morpurgo first began to understand the power of stories.
“If you write about something you really care about, there is an element of intimacy, of confiding. I learned to tell stories by standing at the top of the classroom: the children would immediately stop picking their noses and looking around the room. What you are saying
is, ‘Here is my story. Hold my hand and I will take you through it.’ ”
The capacity for live storytelling to transport the listener t has made Morpurgo so willing to have his work adapted for the stage. He is particularly fond of Simon Reade’s version of Private Peaceful, a one-man show that “is pure, mesmerising storytelling. The intensity is increased by the fact that the actor is living the story on stage for you, and by the fact that you are surrounded by people – from eight years old to 80 – who are as immersed in it as you are.”
Morpurgo still performs his own stories in a variety of capacities, occasionally in a classroom setting, but more often in a formal context. His public appearances at literary festivals and events are as likely to take the form of concerts as readings, with musicians and folk singers providing an added dimension and atmosphere to his stories. “Well, my parents were actors,” he says wryly, “so there is probably a bit of that in me.”
More than a bit, it would seem, because all of a sudden he is regaling me with his Hitchcockian impulses. He has appeared in the stage adaptation of War Horse around the world, checking in on the well-travelled production while dressed as a farmer in the market scene. Now is that not the best story you have heard all day?
Left, Shane O’Regan, who plays some 30 characters in Private Peaceful. Right, an illustration from In the Mouth of the Wolf by Barroux. Inset left, Michael Morpurgo.