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Michael Morpurgo: how a horse changed my life

09 January 2012

Both the stage show – and now film – of Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse have propelled the storyteller into a role way beyond that of children’s author: his determined views on the rights of children are listened to far and wide. Here he talks candidly to Paul Hoggart about how his own early life forged his beliefs.

A black and white photo of 2nd Indian Cavalry WW1 in the Battle of the Somme
2nd Indian Cavalry WW1 in the Battle of the Somme. Shutterstock.

Joey the horse changed Michael Morpurgo’s life. He had been a successful children’s writer for more than 30 years, his catalogue never out of print. Then six years ago, the National Theatre picked up on one of his old stories, War Horse, and took the then-bizarre decision to recreate it for the stage using life-size puppets.

The rest is recent showbusiness history. The release of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation is imminent, and an adaptation of another Morpurgo book set in the First World War, Private Peaceful, is in production – and Morpurgo is being seen by the world at large for the sage he is. The effect has been ‘huge’, he says. ‘Suddenly people want to know what you think.’ When it comes to the rights of children today, they couldn’t ask a better person.

A duty to help children 

We meet over lunch in a London hotel. A former rugby fanatic and Sandhurst dropout, the 68-year-old writer still has an imposing frame. He wears a suit of dark pink denim which hints at a legacy of Seventies Bohemian idealism, though the clipped RP of an army officer lurks under the surface. His manner is gentle, kindly, self-deprecating. But the soft speech masks real passion. He cares a great deal about the lot of children: how we should educate them and nourish their lives.

In 2010, Save the Children sent him on a controversial visit to schools in Israel and Gaza. He gave the most recent Dimbleby Lecture, highlighting the plight of child victims of political conflict around the world and tough asylum rules here. He has become a familiar and authoritative voice speaking out for those too young to have a voice for themselves. But then Michael Morpurgo has strong feelings about our duty to help children live fulfilled lives. Shaped by the unusual circumstances of his own childhood, and matured by years of writing and charity work, his views seem especially relevant now.

'Fathers are much more engaged now'

Those views have more than a personal edge. He was the child of a ‘broken’ marriage at a time when that was still considered a shameful secret. Morpurgo was separated from his biological father in infancy: I wondered what he thought about David Cameron’s comments pinpointing absent fathers as a prime source of social ills. This issue, of course, was brought into violent focus by the August riots.

‘It’s the language these people use that is wrong,’ he says. ‘The principle that a kid needs a mother and father to grow up with who will bring care and love into their lives is right. What’s wrong is to say they should be forced to do so. Society will evolve slowly. It is happening.

‘Fathers are much more engaged now than they were when I had young children. I focused on my work, and fathers are less prepared to do that now. I look around and see kids out with their fathers at weekends. Some might be divorced, but let’s not be cynical! I know this is a middle-class thing at the moment, but the middle classes are widening and people are living up to those aspirations more and more.’

A good male role model in the family 

For Morpurgo this is part of a wider issue. ‘Sometimes Cameron says things that are very important. It is vital to have a “Big Society”, but actually it is already there. There are people working their socks off, giving their lives in voluntary ways or in the jobs they do the whole time. When you claim to invent it, that provokes antagonism. We should encourage people to join in more, but we can’t go around saying “I’m the Prime Minister and I’m telling you!”

‘It’s like Mr Gove [Education Secretary] saying you’ve got to read 50 books a year. It doesn’t work. Next they’ll tell you what not to read, and that’s really wrong. People get too prescriptive. The great thing is to talk philosophically about the importance of a good male role model in the family, but to beat people over the head with it is not the way it is done.’

How was he was affected by his family circumstances? ‘My parents were at RADA together,’ he explains. ‘They were good actors, too. But my father, Tony Bridge, went off to war, fathering two boys [Michael and his older brother Pieter] during his short leaves.’ While Tony was serving in Iraq, his mother fell in love with Jack Morpurgo, one of the first editors at Penguin Books and a distinguished academic historian.

The doors have opened up now 

‘My father got one of those letters and was given compassionate leave to try to save his marriage. When he realised he couldn’t he came, I think, to a rather beautiful decision. “I don’t know my children and they don’t know me. I’m not going to hang around and be the father that needs to see them.” When my mother remarried, my name was changed to Morpurgo. I didn’t meet my real father until I was 19.’

So when did he discover that he was not Jack Morpurgo’s son? ‘Quite early, I think, bit by bit. The important thing in my upbringing was that you just didn’t talk about it. It would have offended everyone around you, including my mother. She felt this was not part of her life. She didn’t want to be reminded of it. “Let’s not go there. It causes trouble.” That’s what has changed. The doors have opened up now. You’re entitled to ask questions and to expect answers.

‘As a kid growing up, I put those questions out of my mind because it was too troubling. I’m a product of my time. I have a half-brother and sister, and I knew people came to the house and called us Morpurgo and two of us weren’t, but my brother and I didn’t go there.’

Families with step-parents and step-siblings

I asked him if he ever wanted to say, ‘I’m not Morpurgo, I’m Bridge!’

‘I never had the courage to do that. At times in my teenage years when I was cross enough with my stepfather I might have. But my father had no reality. I had no sense of who he was or that he had anything to do with me at all. It’s sad really, but that’s how it was.’

I ask how he feels about the fact that so many children are now brought up in families with step-parents or step-siblings? ‘It’s become more natural,’ he says. ‘It’s massively sad when families split, and the damage is almost inevitably visited on the children unless it’s sensitively done, and that’s really hard. But people are becoming accustomed to this much more.

‘The great thing is that the children aren’t alone. There are other kids at school with stepfathers and stepmothers and that’s good because you don’t feel so isolated. The other thing is that there are plenty of people who have two parents who are pretty ghastly. One good parent is a great deal better than two wretched ones!’

A 'brutal' prep school 

Michael had survived a ‘brutal’ prep school, ‘by becoming good at the things the school wanted me to be good at,’ he says, ‘which was rugby and cricket and being a good chap.’ He was such a good chap at The King’s School in Canterbury that they made him head boy.

‘We had a wonderful head, Fred Shirley,’ he recalls, reflecting on the importance of positive adult influences on shaping children’s futures. ‘It’s whoever picks you up and walks you along the road. They told me, “You’re a leader”. I was an outdoorsy sort of chap.’ The Royal Military Academy beckoned.

Road to Damascus

He might have been even more ‘a product of his time’ and indeed, his social class, if it had not been for the influence of his wife Clare, the Quaker-educated daughter of Jack Morpurgo’s boss, Sir Allen Lane, the visionary founder of Penguin Books.

‘At first I loved Sandhurst. I was very good at it. But then I got lucky. I met a girl who started asking me questions like, “Why are you doing this? What’s your problem?” Clare showed me that life was worth thinking about and not just doing.’

On exercises one night just before Christmas, he started thinking about the trenches in 1914 when the British and German troops played football in no-man’s-land. ‘I won’t call it my “Road to Damascus” moment, but it changed my mind.’

The joys of storytelling 

He quit Sandhurst, ‘in disgrace,’ he says, took ‘a very poor’ degree at King’s College, London and trained as a teacher. It was working in state and independent schools in and around London that he discovered the joys of storytelling.

‘I started writing because I was telling the kids stories and enjoying it. You can get through to children who have virtually nothing with storytelling. I’ve discovered the same thing in Soweto and Russia.’

When Sir Allen Lane died, the couple decided to use Clare’s inheritance to do something positive to enrich children’s lives. ‘They were simply not getting what they should from their education. No matter what their background, their boundaries were not being pushed intellectually, physically or emotionally. The most important thing is enrichment, being able to make a contribution, a feeling of self-worth.’

They bought Nethercott in the mid-Seventies, a large Victorian house by Dartmoor, and lived there with their two sons and one daughter. Here they began their charity Farms For City Children, which they still run today, where children from a deprived urban environment can come and work with animals. Now he writes in a ‘Japanese tea-room’ in the grounds (actually modelled on a Saxon chapel near his childhood home at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex).

War Horse 

First published in 1982, War Horse was inspired by conversations with First World War veterans. Since the National Theatre adaptation, he has worked with leading figures in stage and screen and enjoyed visiting the stables of The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery who advised Spielberg’s cast. Despite his ease with the horse that stars as Joey, Morpurgo confessed he has never liked riding. ‘At Sandhurst I kept falling off, but I have learnt about horses through watching my wife and daughter.’

Does the former Children’s Laureate think things are better or worse for children than they were when he was young? ‘In general, massively better. There is a lot more affection and children have more room for their aspirations. What’s terrible is this huge gulf between the well-educated and the ones who are not really being given a chance in life.

‘There are millions of children who don’t read when they leave primary school. We need smaller classes. With fewer children, teachers have personal contact. That absolutely works. If we want that we can have it. It’s not that difficult really.’ Mr Gove, take note.

He has had a rich and fulfilling adulthood and his new-found recognition suits him well. ‘I’ve never done anything that wasn’t a leap in the dark,’ he muses on his life, ‘but I’ve been absolutely lucky. I’ve landed on my feet each time.’

War Horse (Egmont, £6.99), Private Peaceful (HarperCollins, £6.99). The film War Horse is out now on DVD.

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