Bestselling author Michael Morpurgo gave a talk at Dartington Hall at the weekend in front of hundreds of adoring fans.
The event, part of Dartington Trust’s ‘an evening with’ series, attracted more than 250 people who braved the cold weather to hear the much-loved writer of children’s books talk about his life and work, and the charity he runs with his wife Clare.
Best known for novels like War Horse and Private Peaceful, Morpurgo spoke about the writing process and the importance of inspiring young people.
“The key is that they feel a part of this world - make them feel useful,” he said.
He recalled his own childhood, saying he hated primary school, which only taught children to copy, spell and punctuate correctly. Consequently he never showed any interest in books until a teacher helped him to discover the magic of the written word.
“One day he gave me a copy of the collective works of Wordsworth and he asked me to choose two poems in the book and just read them aloud. I did, and it was the first time I heard music in words.”
Morpurgo recounted his early years as a teacher in Kent and thanked the school’s head for encouraging him to become a writer, describing his novel ‘The Butterfly Lion’ as the “first decent book I wrote”.
Speaking about the writing process, he revealed that thinking about the complete aspect of a story came long before sitting down to write it.
He said: “I don’t spend most of my time writing at all, I spend most of my time dreaming it up.”
War Horse was a case in point as he felt he did not have the confidence to write the story from the horse’s point of view until he saw a troubled boy at his farm who had not spoken at school for two years.
“The boy stepped forward into the rain, put his hand out to the horse and he started talking, and all these words started pouring out - there was trust between the two,” he said
The details of War Horse came about after a chance encounter with a World War One veteran in a pub. “He told me what it was like to be 17 and go into the army...the battles, the (barbed) wire, the mud and the dying,” he told the audience. “Then he started talking about his horse and he told me that he could not tell his pals about what he was really thinking, about how scared he was.
“Instead he spoke to the horse last thing at night. He said ‘you know? he listened’.”
Morpurgo also revealed that a child who went to one of his charity’s farms came to see him more than 30 years later to tell him that he had become a successful illustrator in his own right. He went on to create the artwork for the cover of the writer’s latest book, Tales form Shakespeare.
Morpurgo spoke at length about his charity.
Farms for City Children enables young people from disadvantaged communities to experience the adventure of working together on the couple’s farms in the heart of the British countryside.
Morpurgo and his wife started the project in 1976, and since then more than 100,000 children, mostly from deprived areas in Liverpool and Manchester, have been to one of the charity’s three farms, one of which is in Devon, “learning how to collaborate and endure the heat and the cold,” he said.
“Education is about discovery,” he said.
Former teacher Jess Fitch said her interest in his work began when she started reading his books to her young daughters.
“He deals with political themes in a way that children can cope with; he doesn’t dumb down. I’ve also got a lot of time for the farm work that he does,” she said.