In the darkened nave of Durham’s cathedral, Michael Morpugo, Children’s Laureate, OBE, and writer of 130 novels talked about writing the First World War.
Journalist Caroline Beck, who chaired the event, said that Morpurgo ‘returns again and again to World War One as if there is unfinished business.’ Morpurgo certainly follows the thread of war throughout many of his novels, such as Friend or Foe, Adolphus Tips, Private Peaceful, and War Horse.
Morpurgo does not attribute his inspiration to a relative who fought in World War One, but to poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Edward Thomas. ‘They gave a sense of the pity of war’ said Morpurgo, ‘and the comradeship of men.’
Despite this, Morpurgo’s novels are characterised by their focus on working-class individuals, not the officer-class of the Great War poets. Morpurgo claims that anger partly motivated this decision; anger at the injustice that warfare is political and it was working-class individuals who were manipulated into giving their lives to fight an enemy they had never seen. In fact, some had never even travelled abroad before they were sent to war. The men who lived in Morpurgo’s Devonshire village hadn’t even visited Exeter, yet many died and were buried on foreign soil because of decisions made by greater authorities.
Morpurgo told a story about a man maltreated by the system that he came across in a museum in Ypres, Belgium, that influenced his novel Private Peaceful. Morpurgo read a letter sent to a soldier’s mother that said ‘we regret to inform you that your son was shot at dawn.’ He noticed a violent rip in the envelope, and imagined the mother’s dread opening the letter and then her grief at finding out that not only had her son been killed but he had been executed for cowardice.
After more research into World War One executions, Morpurgo discovered that all of them were unjust. The trials were only twenty minutes long, many of the victims were Irish, and one man was newly back on the battlefield after shell shock and his only offence was hesitation before an attack.
Morpurgo writes about serious topics in his novels, yet most of them are aimed at children. As a teacher, father, grandfather and, recently, a great grandfather, he is interested in the process of passing on stories to children. He wants to write at a level they would understand whilst stressing how important it is not to patronise them.
Although children would not cope with the devastation of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, nowadays ‘they know more than I knew when I was twenty one,’ said Morpurgo, ‘because the horrors of the world come into their bedrooms on their phones and through television.’ However, his war stories are still conveyed through the eyes of an animal to soften the blow. These characters take the child’s hand and lead them into the difficult territory of grief, longing, pain, and joy.
Morpurgo’s talk was made as beautiful as the setting by punctuating his serious stories with humour, just like how he writes his novels. There was a particular comic displeasure over the fame of War Horse. Before he read out a passage from it, he said ‘I should have picked another book, I am fed up with War Horse!’ and lamented that it was unknown for almost 30 years until it became a ‘pretty good’ play and a ‘pretty bad’ film. Finally, Morpurgo told a funny anecdote about his ‘unsupportive’ wife who was in the audience. Morpurgo writes two books a year yet, after his wife reads through his latest creation, her reaction is always the same. ‘It’s really good,’ she says.’ ‘But – ? asks Morpurgo, tentatively. ‘But, it’s just not as good as War Horse.’
Photograph: Durham Book Festival