Saturday, 16 July 2016

Michael Morpurgo comes to Wedmore

Pic of Wedmore Arts Festival poster on door and flowers either side

Hay Festival, London, Wedmore… The Wedmore Arts Festival staged a coup thanks to Hay Festival connections. I saw the world famous author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo, give a talk as part of the local festival.

Pic inside church with the author, organiser and audience of different ages
Asking questions after Michael Morpurgo's talk

Michael Morpurgo is one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers. I relished the opportunity to hear more about his work. He shared how he puts a story together with an enthusiastic audience ranging in age from 7 to 80. Some stories take 3 months; others can take 25 years. He weaves different experiences, anecdotes, facts and fiction together.

He went into detail on the various elements that came together to create The Butterfly Lion. It all started with the purchase of a second-hand book from a shop during the Hay Festival. He had been reading Chris McBride’s book on white lions on the train. He looked up to see the Westbury White Horse carved into the Wiltshire hillside.

A boring dinner party provided a fascinating, true World War One story about some circus animals. Then, he was stuck. He knew nothing about lions. He met Virginia McKenna of Born Free fame in a lift by chance one day. Now, he had his source for information about lions.

The story was still missing a voice. That voice came from his own memories of running away from school as a child. Now, the elements were all in place to write the story.

And where does Michael Morpurgo do his best writing? At a desk? No. Standing up at a lectern? No. In bed. Just like in a picture he saw of Treasure Island author, Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s by far the most comfortable place. You can even take a nap if you need one. Dreams can help.

One child asked why does the author write so much about wartime? Because all around him when he was growing up people were grieving about lost loved ones in the Second World War. He told how he used to get scolded by his mother for staring at a family friend whose face had been badly burnt in the war. He later wrote the story and sent it to him. The man replied that he remembered and appreciated him as the boy who looked at him. Others always looked away.

How did he start writing? It evolved. As a teacher of Year Sixes, he used to read other people’s stories at the end of the school day. He started creating and telling them his own stories. 130 books later and still writing…

There were many fans both young and old in the audience. A show of hands revealed that a surprising large number had read lots of his books. We were all urged to read more. The story of a ghost king and the local football team is on the way. Can you guess which king and which football team provided the inspiration?

Michael Morpurgo also spoke fondly of the Farms for City Children charity that he founded with his wife Clare. The village children perhaps could not imagine how lucky they are to live in the countryside with animals all around. War Horse was inspired by observing a badly traumatised boy who had lost the ability to speak. Yet, the words tumbled out as he stroked a horse on the farm. There is an unspoken connection between people and animals that can run very deep. Over 90,000 city children have now benefited from visiting the 3 farms.

The farms are an additional legacy to Michael Morpurgo’s life’s work.  His great talent is in making wartime events accessible to today’s children. Through his books children can understand the significance of events long before they were born. They can see the importance of remembering and respecting the sacrifices. And the importance of continuing to say ‘Never again’ to the next generation.

Wedmore War Memorial, St Mary's Church