University made me fall in love with stories again - Michael Morpurgo, OBE

Michael Morpurgo is the best-selling author of over 130 books for children,
including Private Peaceful, War Horse, The Butterfly Lion and Kensuke’s Kingdom.
Michael’s latest novel is An Eagle in the Snow, published in autumn 2015 by Harper Collins. 

Can you tell us about your educational background?
I went to primary school at St Matthias on the Warwick Road in London, just after the war, but was soon sent off to boarding school in Sussex – the Abbey, Ashurst Wood. I was there for six years, hated being away from home, loved rugby and singing. Then I went off to a school in Canterbury, the King’s School, where I got more used to being away from home and still loved rugby and singing. We wore strange uniforms, wing collars, black jackets, boaters. And when I was older I got to wear a scarlet gown, which made me feel very important.

What did having the opportunity to go to university mean for you? Did gaining a degree from King’s College London open doors?
I didn’t go straight to university but chose the army instead, and went to Sandhurst, where officers are trained. I liked the uniform, the good food and the friends I made, but hated being shouted at, and decided army life was not for me. I met and married my wife, Clare, when we were really young, because we loved one another, and had children really young, three of them. Then I went off to university at King’s College London, to start all over again. It was at King’s that I came into contact with some of the classic stories such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I loved them and have never forgotten listening to one professor who used to sit on the edge of the desk and read to us with incredible passion. It made me fall in love with stories again that I hadn’t connected with since listening to my mother read when I was a child. I got my degree in French and English – just – and decided to become a teacher.  

What took you from teaching to writing? What inspired you to become a children’s author?
I loved reading stories to the children, and they seemed to like it too. We were teaching at a little village primary school in Kent, at Wickhambreaux, when I ran out of other writers’ stories to read, so started making up some of my own.

War Horse is a well-loved and celebrated novel for many. Where did you get the inspiration for it?  
Clare and I have lived in Iddesleigh, in Devon, since 1975. It’s home, and I love it, and it’s where I belong. It’s where I know. My children have grown up here, my grandchildren come here. It’s the place I like to be when I’m not travelling around doing book things. And because I know it so well, I write about it a lot. That’s why I wrote War Horse, which is based pretty much here, on a Devon farm. I wrote that particular story from meeting an old soldier, Wilfred Ellis, thirty five years ago in the Duke of York pub down the road, when he told me about going to the First World War as a young man.

And that in itself is all part of being in Devon – you get an idea of the rhythm of life. How we all have our place or time on this earth. There’s the church, and you maybe get christened there, and you may get married there, and you may end up in the graveyard there. I know the people who planted the trees and ploughed the land, where they live and where they work. And you don’t know that until you stay in the place long enough. It’s England as it has been for 1,000 years. It’s quite a literary part of Devon. Ted Hughes, who was a great inspiration to me and an early encourager of my work, was a neighbour until his death in 1998, and the Torridge, at the end of my lane, which is one of the country’s great salmon rivers, is the setting for Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter.

Do you have a favourite author/book?
My favourite book is The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. I have been much helped in my own writing by many friends and writers, but especially Ted Hughes. He became a good friend, and was a great inspiration to me to keep writing when I was finding it hard.

Of which part of your career are you most proud? What has been your greatest achievement to date?
I always say that my greatest story is Farms for City Children. When Clare and I were both teachers, and trying to decide what was lacking in the lives of the city-based primary school children we taught, we realised that one important factor was a deep experience of the English countryside especially ‘the working countryside.’

The children learn hands-on where their food comes from, so, by the end of a whole week, they go back knowing what an extraordinary place the countryside is, knowing about planting, harvesting, milking, mucking out, feeding the animals, herding sheep. First of all some find it strange – because it smells different, it looks different, and it can be a bit frightening when the wind blows and the owls hoot at night. They see a wild rabbit. Not one that’s in a pen in a pet shop, but a wild rabbit in the field, or a hare, and fish jumping in the river. Those things which are part of the wild world, which are so important and which they don’t forget. It can be their first introduction to so much that’s new, and that’s what’s amazing about it.

This year, you and your wife Clare celebrated 40 years of Farms for City Children. Why is involvement in philanthropic activities, in particular those related to education and young people, so important to you?
40 years on there is even more need for children to experience nature as the vast majority of people in this country now are urban. They’re surrounded by high rise buildings, and tarmac, and noise, so this is a completely new world for them.

Children come down here and smell and experience the country. 99% have never seen darkness before, as it is at dawn. A lot of them don’t know where berries come from, or where their milk comes from. They don’t know what work it takes to produce it – so they actually join in and help. These are not lessons you can pick up by looking at the telly, or by drawings on boards or making little notes on the clipboards. They’re doing it themselves and that’s what’s really wonderful about the experience.

What do you see as the most pressing social issue for young people in the UK today? What do you see as the key to tackling this problem?
I have been working recently on a short WWF Climate Coalition Film, I wish for You, with actors Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake.1

It was based on a letter I wrote from a grandfather to his granddaughter and sums up my answer to this question: ‘If I have learnt anything in my long life, it’s this. Our earth is a living breathing being, and we must hurt her no more. We are using her up, fouling the air and the sea, making a dustbin of the land, a sewer of the oceans, a graveyard of her creatures. We have to learn to love our earth again, love her as much as I love you and you love me. For you and I, we are a part of this living planet, part of our earth’s great family.’

Michael's interview is taken from IntoUniversity's summer 2016 edition of aspire, our termly newsletter. Read the full edition of aspire here.  


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