War sto­ries

Michael Mor­purgo re­calls the tales that shaped him

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - MICHAEL MOR­PURGO WORDS BY SARA KEAT­ING ■ Flamingo Boy is pub­lished by Harper Collins. In the Mouth of the Wolf is pub­lished by Eg­mont. Pri­vate Peace­ful is at the Gai­ety Theatre from May 29thtoJune­2nd

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.

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