From the horse's mouth

2nd March 2012 at 00:00
To write, you have to 'listen to people', says Michael Morpurgo. The former teacher tells Helen Ward how a chance meeting in a pub helped inspire War Horse, now an Oscar-nominated film

The Oscars awards ceremony is one of the great spectacles in show business: the red carpets, the designer gowns, the adulation of the crowds. But while California blazed with glamour on Sunday, in rural Devon it was night-time and Michael Morpurgo was asleep.

Morpurgo is the author of War Horse, the book that inspired the wildly successful play and the Steven Spielberg film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards this year. "I've done enough red carpets recently," Morpurgo says cheerfully. "It's all fun that ballyhoo, but ballyhoo it is."

The former children's laureate is delighted that the work of those involved in the film has been recognised, even if they lost out to the likes of silent film The Artist and Hugo. He is proud that his slow-burner - the book was published in 1982 - has become so successful. But what pleases him most is that the story has touched so many people: not just children but adults, and not just here but around the world.

He did attend the world premiere of the film in New York. In America, they take their red carpets very seriously and he was assured that War Horse's red carpet was really long. Longer, it was said, than Harry Potter's. "Then, when we came out of the party, it was past midnight and the carpet had gone," he says. "It was just like Cinderella."

Morpurgo is right that the Oscars are ballyhoo, but they survive because we love being told stories and Morpurgo is one of the best storytellers in the world.

In 1947, actress Kippe Morpurgo would sit on her 4-year-old son Michael's bed and read to him. Edward Lear's The Jumblies was a favourite: "They went to sea in a Sieve, they didIn a Sieve they went to sea". Then she would say goodnight and Michael, scared of the dark, would lie in bed remembering the smell of her face powder and the light, comforting words.

He loved stories then, but things changed once he started school. There, writing was about getting things right or wrong. The top of the loop of the l (he sweeps his arm up) had to touch the line, there were no more stories and every time he got things wrong, it confirmed his feeling that he could not write.

Morpurgo is now 68. In his book Singing for Mrs Pettigrew, a collection of memories and stories, he says that he was a boy who was "round-faced, red-faced with jug ears and sticky-up short hair". His light-brown hair is now tamed, his eyes are friendly and invite questions, his hands large, open and expressive.

He has written about the unhappiness of boarding school but acknowledges that his education - a prep school and later the King's School, Canterbury - was privileged and gave him a confidence that he is grateful for. "I wasn't at all successful academically," he says. "I excelled on the rugby field and I was in the choir and I loved all that. But I'd given up reading almost entirely." Almost. He remembers his tutor, Sidney Sopwith, handing him some Wordsworth with the advice: "You ought to know there are other things in life besides rugby. There's Wordsworth. Read this."

Morpurgo, then 16, did read it, and he loved it. "He gave me a feeling that I did have a brain," he says. "But it stayed with me, that sense of inadequacy about writing, until I started teaching. It was when I was trying to get kids to write that I started."

He loved primary teaching, spending eight years in the classroom, and has never lost that interest in education. He is now involved in numerous charities that inspire children to read and write, including the Wicked Young Writers' Award, English Pen's Readers and Writers programme and Bag Books.

Writing from experience

Long before War Horse rose to worldwide fame, Morpurgo's books were staples in primary classrooms and he was one of the loudest voices campaigning against the way writing was taught and tested - even, as children's laureate, sitting a key stage 2 Sats test himself (he got a level 5).

Morpurgo has no doubt that politicians are well meaning in wanting children to enjoy Dickens and to be well read. But he thinks that prescribing books does not make pupils enjoy them. He remembers, at age 8, being given Oliver Twist to read by his stepfather, Jack, then an editor at Penguin Books and later to become a professor of American literature at the University of Leeds. Morpurgo now admires Dickens - but at the time he preferred Enid Blyton.

"A reading habit can't be forced," he says. "What successive governments have not realised is how difficult a teacher's job is. Nothing is harder, nothing is a greater challenge." Writing, for example, is not about sitting your pupils down in front of a blank page and giving them a prompt and 45 minutes. When Morpurgo was teaching, he drew on BBC school radio programmes and, in particular, Ted Hughes' Poetry in the Making - a series designed to help teachers to teach poetry. Morpurgo loved the idea that you have to get children's minds working before they start writing.

"We'd go to the local nature reserve and watch herons," he says. "Then we'd walk back and I was quite strict: they couldn't say a single thing to anyone, but had to think. Then they would go into the classroom and start writing. I would sit down and write with them."

He read out the children's work because he wanted them to know it was worthwhile. He was also scribbling down stories by now - "doodles", as he describes them. But the first book he published was Children's Words, a collection of children's writing (including a contribution from the young Daniel Day-Lewis).

By then he had married Clare Lane, a fellow teacher and the daughter of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. The couple had three children and were living in Kent, when, in a turning point, they moved to Devon and started the charity Farms for City Children, with a premise similar to their teaching philosophy - to give children memorable experiences.

"In order to write, it is not enough to have a thought," Morpurgo says. "You have to live an interesting life. You have to read books, newspapers and magazines. You have to meet people, talk to people and listen to them. You have to keep your eyes open and your heart open. It is that well of stuff that life has gifted you that you can then draw upon."

That was the approach that led to War Horse. In the book, Joey, a farm horse, is sold to the Army during the First World War - as millions of horses were - and Albert, the son of his owner, goes searching for the horse, determined to bring him back.

Morpurgo has written about the many inspirations behind the book: his mother, Catherine Noel Kippe, was always known as Kippe. She had been named after a Belgian hamlet that was the site of a First World War battle. Morpurgo had also seen a painting of horses stuck in barbed wire as the British cavalry charged up a hill. And he was moved by a boy, Billy, who had visited Farms for City Children and was tongue-tied in front of people but talked freely to one of the horses.

And then there was a time in the village pub when an old man asked him what he was writing about. He replied, the story of the First World War, as seen through the eyes of a horse. In Singing for Mrs Pettigrew, he describes how the old man's eyes filled with tears. It turned out that the man had been there in 1916 with the horses. "He talked for hours about the horse he'd loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat," Morpurgo says. "Afterwards, I went back home, sat down and wrote my first novel about the First World War, War Horse."

The book was published in 1982. It was nominated for the Whitbread Book Awards but did not win. He was consoled afterwards by the poet Ted Hughes, a neighbour, who said that he had written a fine book and would go on to write a finer one. He did. He went on to write more than 100 books - and has won the Whitbread Children's Book Award, the Nestle Smarties Book Prize, the Red House Children's Book Award and the Blue Peter Book of the Year. By 2004, he had become the third children's laureate - a role he had helped to create with Ted Hughes - and was invited on to Desert Island Discs.

"Tom Morris, the associate director of the National Theatre, was looking for a family show and for a way to use these puppeteers," Morpurgo says now. "His mum listened to Desert Island Discs, heard me and told him to read War Horse."

The National Theatre production that resulted - now showing at the New London Theatre - became a huge hit seen by thousands including Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg's producer, who called the director and told him about it. He flew to London to see the play and decided to turn it into a film. It premiered in New York last December.

And it all comes back to a chat in a pub 30 years ago. "You don't start to write by sitting down with a pen and paper," says Morpurgo. "That is important for children to learn. It happens by taking notice of the world around you. If you don't ask questions and don't listen, how on earth will you find out about other people's lives? That day, I happened to listen to the right person."

War Horse facts

The film's budget: $66m (#163;41.6m) (estimated)

Takings: $133.5m.

10 horses played Joey in the film.

Oscars: the film was nominated for best picture, best art direction, best cinematography, best original score, best sound editing and best sound mixing.

The book War Horse sold more copies in a fortnight after the film release than it did in the 25 years after it was first published.

It sold 50,000 copies between 1982 and 2007. It sold 60,000 in the first two weeks of January when it topped the best-seller charts.

The National Theatre's production opened in 2007. It is now on in London, New York and Toronto and opens in Melbourne later this year. It has won five Tony Awards.

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