‘War Horse’ writer Michael Morpurgo on Brexit and the art of grief
“Mud on the road — who’s responsible?” was one item at February’s meeting of the parish council of Iddesleigh, a tiny village near Dartmoor first recorded as Edeslege in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book in 1086. Perhaps the culprit was the farmer’s tractor that filled the narrow Devon lane on my way to lunch with Michael Morpurgo.
The council minutes are posted close to the Iddesleigh village green, outside the thatched and whitewashed 15th-century Duke of York public house. Inside the pub, Sir Michael, newly knighted in the New Year’s honours list, much-garlanded author of the hugely successful children’s book, play and film War Horse and more than 100 other books, resident of Iddesleigh for four decades, points to another clue.
It is a group of black-and-white photos of men from the village in the pub in the 1940s. One is Sir Allen Lane, co-founder of Penguin Books and Morpurgo’s father-in-law, whose links to Iddesleigh brought the writer and his wife Clare to buy a farm nearby. Most of the others are farm workers in jackets and caps, with ruddy outdoor faces and mugs of beer clutched in broad hands.
“There were once 60 farm workers living in the village; now there are none,” he says as we look at one photo. “There are one or two old people who worked on farms, but farmers do most of the work themselves now. They have tractors and baling machinery. They employ some to cut hedges and do ditches, but those come in from far away. So these people, in a way, were the last.”
Morpurgo is among the best-loved of British children’s authors, along with JK Rowling and Philip Pullman. His peculiar talent is for conveying emotion with unflinching simplicity and directness. Heartache and pain are frequent companions to his young characters in historical settings — in War Horse (1982) and Private Peaceful (2003), the trenches of the 1914-18 war; in Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea (2006), the era after the second world war when orphans were sent to live in Australia.
At 74, Morpurgo remains urgent: he talks rapidly and, when animated, as he often gets, his cheeks glow, his liquid blue-grey eyes shine and he waves an arm to illustrate a point. “To us, he was always Mr Flamingo,” says his narrator in one story about a Morpurgo-esque teacher. “It went with his pinkish complexion . . . There was a sense about him too that he might just take off and fly at any moment.”
Flamingos feature in his new novel Flamingo Boy, whose hero is an autistic boy based on one of his grandsons. He has another book drawing on his family history out in May. In the Mouth of the Wolf recalls the lives of two uncles: Pieter Cammaerts, who served in the Royal Air Force and died in an aircraft crash in 1941; and Francis, who was at first a pacifist, then fought undercover in France with Krystyna Skarbek, a fearless Polish agent.
After perusing the blackboard menu, we move to the bar to place our order — the fish pie with vegetables and salad for me, smoked haddock soup with bread for Morpurgo. “We’ll think about pudding afterwards,” he suggests; “See if there’s a bit of space left,” the barman agrees. The bar is filling up with locals and visitors, and we take a table by the log fire in the next room.
We sip half-pints of Bays Topsail bitter from Paignton, the seaside town (followed by two more). The sun shines outside, casting light on the roof beams as we talk. The Duke of York is integral to Morpurgo’s life. Allen Lane was first drawn to Iddesleigh by a friendship with the Scottish poet Seán Rafferty and his wife Peggy, its former landlords. Morpurgo got the idea for War Horse one evening, sitting by the fire in the public bar, talking to a villager who had fought in the trenches.
High productivity is typical of Morpurgo, who has just finished another book, his own translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. His relentless pace contrasts with a slow start in writing, having been a primary school teacher who learnt his trade by telling his students stories. “I knew what touched them, and they were things that mattered to me, that I cared about,” he recalls. “Grief comes into it, and loss, and being alone, and everything that children feel.”
There was plenty of loss in his own childhood, as his biography by Maggie Fergusson records. His mother Kippe was named by her father, the Belgian playwright Emile Cammaerts, after the first village retaken by Belgium in 1918. She divorced Michael’s father, the actor Anthony van Bridge, after the war, later remarrying Jack Morpurgo, who was to become a Penguin editor. “We talk about trauma, but the trauma that their generation lived through, separated from those they loved . . . I don’t remember anything of the war, just how sad everyone was [afterwards]. A lot of sad people came to our house.”
Our lunch arrives. My pie with a crisply browned potato crust is full of fish and tastes delicious; Morpurgo eyes it enviously and says he should have ordered the same himself, but dips into his chowder. The food does not really matter — sitting by the fire on a Friday afternoon is enough of a pleasure. It is a broad, blackened fireplace, with brasses hung on one end and a wooden horse’s head sitting by the grate. Later, when the fire gets low, Morpurgo throws on more logs.
Morpurgo was not as intellectual as his stepfather — “He was very, very clever and to some extent, we all failed him” — but he had one crucial skill. “I learnt to be — to escape from all sorts of things — an extraordinarily good liar.” He once deceived school friends that the Queen was coming to tea at his house. “There was a wonderful pause when I felt all their faces looking at me. Just for a moment, they believed me and I loved that.”
Jack Morpurgo maintained his own deception — the name Morpurgo was Jewish, but he never acknowledged his ethnicity. “They were a very distinguished family — scientists, doctors, poets. They all came from Trieste, and many of them ended up in the camps.” Morpurgo’s half-brother Mark once researched the family history and confronted Jack with the evidence. “Mark came back to him and said, ‘This is who we are, Dad.’ He replied, ‘Nothing to do with me.’ ”
In Flamingo Boy, Morpurgo makes use of two experiences. The first was getting to know his autistic 15-year-old grandson Laurence. “It’s been an eye-opener for me. I never comprehended what it was like to have a child like that. I am moved by, and interested in, the potential in all these children and him; what makes him anxious, or feel relaxed.” The second was taking a holiday in the Camargue and “just thinking, one day, the people who farm in this place are really isolated and [severely autistic children] can’t really go out in the world alone.”
The book is set during the wartime occupation of the region, when German soldiers, like Roman invaders before them, lived in a marshland fort and hated the mosquitoes. “I thought it was an extraordinary story of the passing of ages and that interested me, because history always does . . . With me, it’s always like that. It’s not deliberately weaving, it’s things that I come across that seem to work together.”
This instinctive approach led to his most famous book, War Horse, when he got talking in the pub to a local called Wilf Ellis, who owned a shop in the village. Before that, his only knowledge of the first world war had been gleaned from the poems of British army officers such as Siegfried Sassoon. “I just said, ‘I gather you were in the war, Wilf’, and he said ‘Yes, I was there’, and he started talking and he didn’t stop.
“Wilf told me how at 16 he’d gone off to war and found himself in the trenches and been gassed. He’d had his life spared by a German in a trench who could have killed him but didn’t, all sorts of things. I was sitting there listening to somebody who hadn’t been an officer. It wasn’t great poetry or a great play, it was someone who had actually been there, and God, I listened.”
Morpurgo’s faith in visceral experience led him and his wife to Iddesleigh in 1975, using her inheritance to buy a farm and bring children from city schools to stay for a week and see nature. They hoped to “wake them up, really, from the stupor of alienation. They’re disconnected from the world around them and sometimes from each other . . . These kids have never seen buzzards in the air, wheeling above each other. They’ve never seen a heron lifting off the river. They’ve never seen a salmon jump.”
More than 3,000 children now pass annually through three farms owned by Farms for City Children. One was April Bloomfield, the chef whose New York restaurants have won Michelin stars. She visited from Birmingham as a child and was enthralled to find, Morpurgo says, “that potatoes and lettuce grow here, and this is where milk comes from”. On a recent trip to New York, she took the Morpurgos to dinner: “She said, ‘You’re sitting here because I learnt about milking cows on your farm.’ ”
The poet Ted Hughes lived near Iddesleigh — there are photographs of him in the pub — and the Morpurgos became close friends with Hughes and Carol, his wife after Sylvia Plath. “We would get gloomy sometimes but Ted always told me, ‘Remember, if there’s one child feeling this place, stomping through puddles and looking up at the stars for the first time, he won’t know a wonderful thing is happening but it will soak into his life, one way or another.”
We have been so rapt in conversation that the moment for the promised pudding has passed. I sip coffee as he reflects on the ageing of Iddesleigh. “There’s a strange heart to this place. It’s quite a sad heart because a lot of people who live here are old . . . but they look after each other, there’s no one alone in the village.” The hurdle is getting the young to remain: “You can make a living farming but you have to work extremely hard . . . the lanes are narrow; it’s inconvenient; it’s wet.”
What about Brexit? I ask. Older, rural voters were among its strongest backers and North Devon voted Leave by 57 per cent. Across the table, Mr Flamingo takes flight. “When I get over the sadness, do you mean?” he asks sharply. “I think it’s the worst thing to happen politically in my lifetime. I remember [the 1956 invasion of] Suez as a child and that was the first time I thought, ‘Something is really wrong here.’ I believe that Brexit is a profound misunderstanding of who we are.”
The morning after the 2016 referendum, he recalls, “I walked up the lane to see a guy who was mending a roof for us. He said, ‘You don’t look happy. What’s the matter?’ I replied, ‘Well, I just lost.’ He said, ‘You didn’t vote to stay in, did you?’ I said, ‘Yes, you?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t want to be ruled by the Germans.’ That answer was pretty clear to me — the echo of the war and not being able to grow away from our past.”
But you’re the one who writes about wars with Germany, I point out. “I’m also the person who writes about reconciliation,” Morpurgo retorts. “You will find that in every single one of the books that I’ve written about war, it’s not finally about war; it’s about the gaining of peace. How is it done? It’s about two people shaking hands in the middle of No Man’s Land.’ ”
It is personal for Morpurgo. Not only was his grandfather Belgian, but “my children have all married European people, from Romania, from France”. He is no Brussels idealist. “There is a bureaucracy that is not voted for: the Brexit people had a lot of right on their side. But we also have a Europe devoted to peaceful coexistence through trade and culture and understanding, all the important European values. And I feel we’re turning our back on that.”
He still mourns. “I thought what this country had rather wonderfully done was to take off the cloak of empire and to understand that we are a European nation. Like the Roman empire faded, our empire faded, and we could grow up. English is our greatest asset and it’s a European language. It came from Latin, French and German to make English. We are part of this thing.”
The fire has dimmed and Morpurgo has work to do, but we turn finally to In the Mouth of the Wolf, illustrated by the French artist Barroux, and one story it recounts. For years, the Cammaerts told themselves that Pieter had died heroically, trying to guide a damaged RAF plane back from France. In fact, the plane was flown by someone else and simply overshot its runway. Like the myths and deceptions common in any family, the story was a comforting illusion.
“I could imagine my grandmother trying to explain that he died a hero’s death, he was in a plane . . . It so easily, easily happens. Afterwards, we often make people out as heroes when their deaths were squalid and horrible. You have somehow to tell a story around it to make it less so.”
But Pieter’s death also helped to spur Morpurgo’s uncle Francis out of his pacifism. In his old age in France, he told Morpurgo about the moment he resolved he had to fight, as he held his first child in his arms. “He told me he realised, ‘Other people are out there fighting for the life of my baby and I’m sitting on my principles and being a sheep farmer. I can’t do that any more.’ ”
Morpurgo readies to leave and put on the beret in which he arrived at the Duke of York. His British uncle went to fight alongside the French resistance and a Polish agent to defend a Europe that was in mortal peril. “You can bring that back to Brexit,” he says defiantly. “We are allowed to change our minds.”
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator