Michael Morpurgo: “Animals, like children aren’t in a position of power as we are as adults, and it is our duty to care for them”

Michael Morpurgo (OBE 2006, MBE, Children’s Laureate 2003-2005), was born 5th October 1943 in Hertfordshire. By the age of two Michael had been evacuated to Cumberland, only later moving back to London, and then to Essex. His book, The Butterfly Lion, suggests his unhappy experiences at one of the boarding schools he attended in these earlier years. At one stage Michael trained for the British Army at Sandhurst. He left Sandhurst after a short while and went on to study English and French at Kings College London, leading to his step into teaching, and eventually working at a primary school in Kent. In 1976 Michael and his wife Clare, started the charity ‘Farms For City Children’ (FFCC), which, in the last 30 years has seen over 75,000 children from urban areas across the UK live and work on one of the Morpurgo’s three farms. The charity aims to provide children from inner city schools with the chance to live and work on a real working farm with their class and teachers. Michael and Clare live in Devon. They have three children and seven grandchildren.

Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo

Hi Michael,

Having been lucky enough to have seen the stage shows of your books, Private Peaceful and War Horse (the film of which is due out January 2012), and with you being one of the most popular authors with our customers, World of Books is thrilled to be able to interview you, so a huge thank you Michael!

Q: Ok, so how does a day in the life of Michael Morpurgo play-out?

-If I’m at home and not away doing a talk or travelling, I tend to write in the morning when I am a bit fresher. I have breakfast with my wife and then go over to where I write in a special Japanese style tea-house in the garden. I always write sitting on a bed, with lots of cushions supporting my back and my notebook on my knees. I will write until lunchtime, and then try to answer the mail. There are more and more letters from readers everyday. Often I will go for a long walk in the afternoon in the fields and woods around our home. It really helps to have this time for the stories to weave themselves in my head.

Q: World of Books thinks it’s fair to say that no-one can really predict what your books will be about, or where they will be based. They range from the modern English countryside (Out of the Ashes), to 21st century Afghanistan (Shadow), and even to China and the Himalayas (King of the Cloud Forests). Why do you do this? How important do you think it is to set your stories all over the world?

– My stories come from all kinds of inspirations- from people I meet, newspaper articles, things I hear on the radio, and often from my travels. I don’t consciously set out to set my stories in different parts of the world, but I know I see my own country now at least to some extent through the prism of having been elsewhere. For instance, I don’t think I ever understood how lucky I was to be born in this country until I saw the poverty in India when I was 16. I have used my travels hugely in the stories that I write. So travels to Spain, to Andulcia inspired me to write Toro Toro, travels to Ireland inspired me to write Twist of Gold and The Ghost of Grania O’Malley, travels to France inspired me to write Joan of Arc of Domremy and Anya. A visit to the Pyrennees in France gave me the back ground for The Dancing Bear and a visit to Venice made me write The Mozart Question and JoJo the Melon Donkey.

Q: As we’ve already mentioned both War Horse and Private Peaceful have been made into stage shows (both of which we’ll admit had us in tears!). War Horse is currently still playing at The New London Theatre, to sensational acclaim, and Private Peaceful is a one-man show currently touring the UK. Have you seen the shows? How much input did you have? And, how strange is it knowing that your dreamed-up worlds have become a theatrical reality?  

– I have seen the National Theatre’s War Horse countless times and the Private Peaceful show. I can’t claim any of the credit for the theatre adaptations of War Horse and Private Peaceful, though I did offer advice and suggestions where I could. It was the director

War Horse

War Horse

Tom Morris’ mother who originally discovered my book and urged him to read War Horse.   He did, and so began a sequence of events that would transform the fortunes of War Horse.  At first, I have to confess, I was sceptical.   How on earth could a convincing drama of the First World War be made using life-size puppets of horses?   Pantomime horses came to mind all too easily. But this was the National Theatre. There were some tense moments during the previews when it was obvious that the play was too long, even clumsy in places, but in the end they got it together somehow. Press night was a triumph. I love theatre and always have so it is truly wonderful to see my books transformed for the stage. And it’s not just War Horse and Private Peaceful, there have been theatre adaptations of Why the Whales Came, Kensuke’s Kingdom, Toro, Toro and The Mozart Question.

Q: A rather random one! When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

– When I was younger I desperately wanted to be a rugby player. I loved rugby – still do. I was much better at rugby than English at school.

Q: Your charity ‘Farms for City Children’ (FFCC) has obviously welcomed many children over the years. What was your main motivation for starting this work?

– It was after being a Year 6 teacher in a rural primary school in Kent. I felt that at best only half of the children were benefiting from their education, were on the road to fulfilling their potential.   I knew as their teacher, that I was, with their parents, enabling them to get the best out of their time at school.  But the other half were failing.  Their parents were failing them too and I was failing them.   These were the children who came from homes where there were no books, where people didn’t talk much, where television and materialism ruled. The few hours we had with them at school were, I was sure, having very little positive effect. These children were on a road to nowhere, and most of them were beginning to know it already, beginning to resent school, beginning to give up.

Farms for City Children

Farms for City Children

My wife  Clare and I began to try to work out how this situation might be changed. We felt that what children needed most was to feel needed, and this had to happen young.   They had to feel that their contribution was important, that they mattered.  Self-worth was the key.

So rather idealistically, naively, we moved from Kent to Devon.  With money left to Clare by her father, Allen Lane who began Penguin Books, we bought a farm, a large Victorian manor house, and set up a charity.   A year or so later the first children came, from Chivenor Primary School in Birmingham, led by a teacher called Joy Palmer. With her and her team, with the neighbouring farmers, the Ward family, we pioneered a programme of work designed to extend children in every way possible out on the farm, physically, mentally, emotionally, intellectually. They would become the farmers, work alongside their teachers and the Ward family, and me, and Clare, so that they could be involved in every aspect of the farm, within the bounds of safety. Children spend a full working week on the farm, whatever the season and the weather – milking, feeding sheep, moving them, lambing them, feeding pigs, hens, geese, ducks, turkeys,  mucking the animals out, bedding them down, feeding them, caring for them.   They dig potatoes, plant trees, pick blackberries and apples, make apple juice.  They fetch hay and straw, mend lanes, make bonfires of hedge-trimmings, dig thistles, clear the river banks of rubbish, pick stones of the fields to fill the gateways.   It is hard work, real work, and they know their work is essential and important, that it matters to the animals, to the farm, that it simply matters.  They matter.

Q: What has been the most rewarding experience about FFCC?

– It must be seeing the transformation in some of the children from the beginning of the week to when they leave.  They appear to have a new confidence, attitudes and work habits change, relationships with friends and teachers can be cemented, awareness of their place in the world, of the ecology of the countryside, of where their food comes from, of the need to look after the environment because they know it belongs to them now, it is theirs to care for. Perhaps it might have an effect on them long-term. For me, it’s all education can hope to do.

Q: Your latest book, Little Manfred, tells the story two children who one day meet two Gentlemen, one of whom was a German prisoner of War. The gentlemen are visiting England for the World Cup Final, but spend time telling the children of their war-time memories. Eventually the story and the importance of a wooden Dachshund dog, who has been donated to the Imperial War Museum, is understood. How do you feel about this new book? And what can people who haven’t read it expect?

– I am very fond of Little Manfred. I was able to work with my friend and fellow writer and illustrator Michael Foreman. We have done many books together including Kensuke’s Kingdom and The Mozart Question.  We were originally approached by the Imperial War Museum who wanted to publish an original piece of work to accompany their exhibition ‘Once upon a Wartime’ about classic war stories for children. They asked me to think about writing about one of the exhibits in the museum and I hadn’t been that keen on the idea. But one day I went along to the museum with  the other Michael and they sat us down and brought out a little wooden toy dog – a dachshund – that had been made just after the Second World War by a German prisoner of war. He hadn’t gone home immediately after the war ended in 1946 but had lodged with a family in Kent. He had made the toy out of apple wood from the apple crates. He had obviously become very of the English children he was staying with, and them of him. He sent the dog and a letter back to the family from Germany. The letter and the dog were both a gift of reconciliation but also an appeal for food as conditions in Germany were harsh just after the war. We were both really touched by this wonderful object and the letter and wanted to explore this further. So it’s a story about war but also about reconciliation and friendship.

Q: Michael, the majority of your books tell the tales of the world through the bond between human and animal. Why do you do this? And what animal character has stuck with you the most?

– I am really interested in the relationship between animals and humans. Animals are sentient, intelligent, perceptive, funny and entertaining. We owe them a duty of care as we do for children. Animals, like children aren’t in a position of power as we are as adults, and it is our duty to care for them. I think they often bring out the best in us because they listen without passing judgement and accept us for who we are without prejudice. For some people, this can be the most important relationship – a loving and uncomplicated one.  I think my fascination with animals also came partly from my life and my experience with Farms for City Children. Watching the children who came to the farm and the animals they were caring for and living amongst, I was inspired to write many of my stories including War Horse. The animal character that has remained with me the most would probably be Joey from War Horse. Joey is my wife’s favourite too and that means a lot.

Q: If you could give one message/word of advice to children and young people, what would it be?

– It would probably be to try and live a full and interesting life, drink in the world around you.

Q: Are you looking forward to the film of War Horse (we certainly are!)? The stage show uses incredibly intricate puppetry to convey the horses, how does it feel knowing you will be seeing real horses telling the story?

War Horse Puppetry

War Horse Puppetry

– It’s amazing and I can’t wait to see the finished film. I did go and see them filming some of the scenes with horses on location. I am totally confident that Stephen Spielberg will do a wonderful job. He is one of the greatest storytellers we have ever known. What is extraordinary is his range of interests and abilities.

Q: And finally, here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. By sourcing a large amount of our books from charities, we are also able to support their cause, often sending books out to developing countries and recently to UK based Army barracks. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?

– Absolutely. It’s one of the wonderful things about a book in its real physical form that you can hand it on to someone–someone who you think will enjoy it or benefit from reading it in some way.

Don’t forget to check out Michael’s newest book Little Manfred (released 9th June 2011). And, if you’ve never read any of his books, or just fancy returning to an old favourite why not visit our site and have a browse?

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