Michael's Mission

16th May 2003 at 01:00
As a prime force behind the creation of the Children's Laureate role, Michael Morpurgo is a fitting holder of the title. The newly appointed advocate for young people's literature tells Heather Neill about his plans to counter a curriculum obsessed with testing

It is easy to imagine the newly appointed Children's Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, striding about the Devonshire countryside where he lives pursued by a swarm of stories buzzing for attention like bees. Every so often he grabs one and turns it into a book for children, still humming with life, but uniquely his own.

It isn't quite that simple, of course, but the award-winning author, announced as the third holder of the laureate title on Wednesday (May 14), is prolific: the 97th Morpurgo opus, Private Peaceful, is about to join the others, although he doesn't yet know if this one might find a place on an adult shelf instead. About a soldier condemned to death for cowardice in the First World War, it is moving, evocative and gripping, an account of a life lived simply but in turbulent times. He says: "I hope it will be one of those books which are for everyone."

The pleasure of sharing books, of not making a significant distinction between adult and children's literature, will be a crucial theme of his laureateship and was one of the reasons the post was invented in the first place. The idea was cooked up five years ago with his friend and neighbour, the then Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.

Morpurgo describes in Hughesian terms how he first met the famously private poet while fishing one day in 1975: "He came darkly out of a river. And you know how impressive he could be; how he could fill a room, let alone when he was looming up from a river bank." The friendship was consolidated when Morpurgo was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award one year, but didn't win. "Ted came over and said, 'Come on, we're going out for the day', and he drove me around and we had a cream tea. He used to show me every book, offering each in the same unconfident way that left room for you to help him - bizarre." In turn Hughes encouraged Morpurgo in his first efforts and they even produced a book together about life on a Devon farm, All Around the Year.

One evening after dinner in 1997 Hughes was saying he disapproved of the way people divided his work up. "He said he considered his books for children as important as the ones for adults and we began talking about the way children's literature is cast on one side." Part of the Poet Laureate's job is to spread awareness of poetry. They agreed on "the importance of having a bard close to the leader of the tribe" and realised this would be good for children's books as well, to have someone appointed officially to speak up for them.

In no time, Lois Beeson (a respected administrator Hughes had worked with), Waterstone's booksellers, Chris Smith, the then culture secretary, and Princess Anne had been contacted and the idea of the Children's Laureate took off. Ted Hughes died in October 1998, before the illustrator and picture book author, Quentin Blake, was appointed for the first two-year stint. Blake was followed by the novelist, Anne Fine, with each proving a powerful advocate. And Morpurgo?

He has enormous enthusiasm and energy and can't wait to begin. Sitting in the comfortable thatched house near the village of Iddesleigh that he shares with his wife, Clare, or over lunch in the local pub or out in the fields on a smiling spring day with teeth in the wind, he talks and talks, full of stories, ideas, autobiographical anecdotes - and a passion to change the test-obsessed curriculum.

This is at the centre of his plans; Morpurgo is neither simply a theorist nor a literary dreamer. Once a primary teacher, he still visits schools often and is incensed by what he calls "filleting" of books for analysis.

Reading is for sharing and for pleasure. "I couldn't do SATs. I'd fail," he declares. He can write fast when fuelled by passion - Out of the Ashes, written as a young girl's heart-rending diary in response to the foot and mouth epidemic, which raged perilously close to home, took a mere 10 days to write, and was published within six weeks in summer 2001, by Macmillan Children's Books - but completing a story to order in exam conditions he regards as impossible.

The reason for our excursion into the fields is to meet some Year 4 and 5 children from St John the Baptist school, in the London borough of Hackney.

They are staying at nearby Nethercott, one of the three establishments that make up Farms for City Children, the charity he and Clare set up almost 30 years ago.

"Hello, Michael," they shout, and gather round to describe the morning's mucking out and the calf that was born yesterday. Their teacher, Bridget Learmouth, is a Nethercott regular and knows the value of these visits for children who might not otherwise leave London. "They have a lot of new experiences here. A tree is just a tree until they find there are many types. They learn to co-operate, to work with animals and each other, and they have the opportunity to hear Michael read a story - a lot know him as an author already. We regard coming here as a priority." Morpurgo likens the experience to an arresting story. "A week here is like a good book," he says. "You can lose yourself." More than 30,000 children have benefited in this way so far.

For his part, Morpurgo says he couldn't have written anything if it hadn't been for the inspiration provided by children. His first efforts were for his pupils. Then there were his own three (and now six grandchildren) and the visitors to Farms for City Children. He sometimes tries out work in progress on these and might make adjustments if he observes any falling off in attention. He always reads his work aloud in any case before it is despatched to the publisher.

Morpurgo is his stepfather's name. "My real name's Bridge - not nearly so impressive, especially after Quentin Blake and Anne Fine." He says he first saw his father when watching a black-and-white classic serial on television." It was Great Expectations. My mother suddenly grabbed my arm when Magwitch appeared and said, 'That's your father'. I didn't meet him until I was 19."

From the first, it seems, it was one story after another. Boarding school was not a happy experience. "It was usual for middle-class boys of my age," he says now, a youthful 60, looking back, but he once wrote a revealing autobiographical snippet for a TES Write Away booklet recounting an attempt to escape. His mother was an actress, and performing seems to be in his blood. His friend and collaborator, the artist Michael Foreman, reckons the thespian background, his storytelling ability and primary school experience make him an ideal choice for the laureateship.

Morpurgo describes his relationship with Foreman as almost like a marriage; they frequently think along the same lines and often can't remember which of them had the original idea for a book. "When we're together, we're always cooking things," says Foreman. Arthur High King of Britain and The Sleeping Sword (recently published in paperback) are particularly impressive examples of their collaboration, both titles set in the Scillies, where Morpurgo spends several weeks a year, and both testifying to their shared interest in Arthurian legend.

Foreman reckons the marriage reference is flattering given the strength of Morpurgo's partnership with Clare. Here, too, there are stories worthy of fiction. The two met 41 years ago on holiday in Corfu ("slightly set up by our families") and married in secret ("at her 21st birthday party Clare covered up her ring with Elastoplast"). Clare Morpurgo is the daughter of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin. "Shall I tell you something awful?" she says, not in the least cast down. "My father gave me The Hobbit to read and I didn't like it much, so that's why Penguin don't have it."

"Now you know why she didn't inherit Penguin," puts in her husband gleefully. "Just as well. We'd never have started Farms for City Children and I wouldn't have written all those books." There will be less time for writing books during the next two years. Morpurgo does so sitting propped up in bed in homage to a picture he once saw of one of his heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson. ("It was always my ambition to write stories that will engage people of seven, 17 or 70. Stevenson could do that.") There are four films of his books on the boil. He is especially pleased about Kensuke's Kingdom, which has been picked up by the BBC. This is about the strange encounter on a Pacific island between a Japanese Second World War soldier and a stranded teenage boy.

Morpurgo is pleased that Private Peaceful will be published during his laureateship ("You'd want it to be a good one") and plans to write something "about the length of The Butterfly Lion", a charming, moving book for younger children, set in Africa. Otherwise he intends to dedicate the next two years to the job of promoting children's books and influencing what happens in schools.

Michael Morpurgo is delighted to hear about The TES's campaign to boost creativity in the primary school and immediately offers his services.

Meanwhile, he has some objectives of his own. "I would like all Year 6s to leave with a folder, commented on but not graded, recording all the writing, music, art and drama they have done. A child needs to say, 'This is me'." He advocates a compulsory course on children's literature for trainee teachers and he would like to persuade the powers that be to put more emphasis on wide experience, less on testing.

As for personal ambitions: well, being elected a fellow of his old college (King's College London) was pretty good. "I loved it. I got such a dreadful degree and there I was with all the clever people getting their firsts."

He's won his fair share of awards, so what's left? The ultimate Morpurgo ambition is an appearance on Desert Island Discs - "your life in music; there's nothing else like it". Are you listening, Ms Lawley?

There will be a gala performance of Why the Whales Came, based on Michael Morpurgo's book, at the Polka Theatre in London on June 6. Proceeds to Farms for City Children. Tickets: 020 8543 4888. Morpurgo's main fiction publishers are Egmont, Collins and Random House

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