A comfy chair, a bag of books, and Michael Morpurgo.
It sounds oddly like a book itself, doesn’t it?
Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time! was a talk celebrating Morpurgo’s newest book of the same name. The book is based on real events in his and his wife Clare’s charity, Farms for City Children, formed in 1976. After giving some background on what the charity provides, Michael started to read to us from his book, which surrounded a silent boy working on the farm. The story was incredibly heartwarming, and dealt with a serious theme that remains very relevant today: the child was one of the “Vietnamese Boat People”.
The Vietnamese Boat People were refugees fleeing from Vietnam after the Vietnamese War. We’ve come a long way since the Vietnamese War, but refugees are becoming more and more widespread by the day. Refugees who have lost their entire families to war; refugees who have no choice but to flee to a foreign country and try and survive. Mothers and fathers still have to put their children on boats and sent them away, hoping for the best; children still have to watch their parents disappear as they leave the warzone, probably wondering if and when they will ever see them again.
The stories we often hear in the news – stories of children who have come to another country, waiting for their parents, unwilling to accept that their parents will never come – are heartbreaking. It really puts life into perspective to turn on the news and see families being torn apart.
Our response to these refugees, however, is to treat them like something sub-human. I’ll never forget the news story about the people holidaying, approached by starving refugees begging for food, only to be turned away. The people holidaying were in the news complaining. Saying their holidays had been ruined. There is a reason these refugees are fleeing their own countries. They don’t come to other countries because they want to face the peoples’ disgusting prejudice. They come because they have no other choice. They come because they’re desperate.
So of course, the fact that the protagonist of Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time! is a small Vietnamese refugee who either can’t or won’t speak immediately struck a chord with me.
As its author read out the story, I felt a profound sense of sorrow, despite the beautiful story and the obvious love that’s been poured into it. It was amazing, and surprising, to hear someone actually viewing a refugee, not just as a person, but a person whose plight is pitied, and boundaries are respected. Nobody tries to make the boy speak in Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time! There are some points when other characters in the book wonder about his past, but they never force an answer.
After reading half of the story, Michael described the reasons he began writing children’s fiction. When he and his wife were both teachers, he told us that he observed how bored and tired the children always were. They didn’t enjoy literacy; they were too tired to enjoy it. One of Mopurgo’s fellow teachers, however, was determined to change this, and decided to allow reading time within the lessons for the children. Michael told us how amazing it was to him, that all of these children, who were usually so indifferent and so exhausted by everyday school life, could get so excited and enthralled with books. They loved stories – that much was clear. He found himself inspired by this new idea, and decided to dedicate his time to writing, to try and inspire children to fall in love with stories again.
It was absolutely fascinating to get an insight into how Michael Morpurgo’s mind works in the writing process. When asked where he gets his ideas, he simply said, “From people.” He went on to describe how often he might hear an inspiring conversation, or see an interesting person, and be inspired to write an entire story about it. When asked how he turns ideas into stories, he introduced a new way of writing.
Inspired by Ted Hughes, Morpurgo’s method of writing focuses almost entirely on thought. He told us that he will never write a story as soon as he gets the idea; sometimes, he’ll leave the idea to simmer for weeks in his brain, until it’s completely formed in his head. Only then will he write it down. If he ever gets “Writer’s Block”, Michael told us that the idea is almost never formed properly, and instead of forcing the story to come, he will return to his mind for what he calls “Dream Time”.
I’d never considered this method of writing before. I’ve always used Stephen King’s method – instead of staring at a blank screen, I just write whatever comes into my head, never forcing it, but allowing it to flow in “free-writing”. Dream Time is a whole new ball game, and I was surprised to hear that Morpurgo took twenty minutes to write the short-story version of The Fox and the Ghost King. It completely changed my perspective, and inspired me to start listening to conversations, and giving ideas time to develop in my mind rather than forcing it out.
Speaking of The Fox and the Ghost King, Michael discussing this book in particular was the highlight of the talk. When BBC Radio called him and asked him to write a fairytale inspired by Leicester City Football Club, Morpurgo was reportedly baffled. He’s not a football fan, he told us; what was he supposed to do with this? What followed was a perfect illustration of how fantastical an imagination this best-selling author appears to have.
First, he examined Leicester itself. What exciting things had happened in Leicester, he thought? What major thing had happened recently, involving a dead king and a car park?
Of course! King Richard III had recently been found buried under a car park. This got his mind thinking (Michael’s, not Richard’s). He could use this. But it wasn’t enough.
Leicester City Football Club, he told us, is called “The Foxes”. He began to put two and two together, and pondered what it is foxes like to do most. And then it struck him.
Foxes like to dig.
And so came The Fox and the Ghost King, a story involving a family of foxes, who also happen to be football fans, and the ghost of King Richard III. It’s such a wonderful, bizarre concept – definitely not what I expected. It’s brilliant that someone could be told to write a fairytale about Leicester City Football Club, and write one about literal foxes and ghosts of dead kings. It’s definitely not the first thought that would come into most people’s minds, which really highlights the creativity behind it.
The talk ended with questions. A lot of them were the same questions you hear all the time, but there was one that really caught my attention. What inspired you to write Kensuke’s Kingdom? From that question arose an entire story about a letter from a young boy, who wrote to Michael Morpurgo requesting a story. This boy spoke highly of Michael’s other books, praising them to the point of telling him that they were the best books in the entire world, much better than Harry Potter. There was, of course, a but. The boy criticised the female protagonist in one of his favourite Michael Morpurgo books, because the boy was a boy, you see, and was not a girl, so could Michael please write a book with a boy in it? Thus, Kensuke’s Kingdom was created.
The talk was, overall, heartwarming, humorous, and even exciting. Having Michael Morpurgo read to you makes you feel like a child again, but in a sunny, nostalgic way. A lot of people say you should never meet your childhood heroes. I think I speak for everyone in the theatre when I say that in cases such as this, that just isn’t true.
A special thank you to Michael Morpurgo. You can find out more about him here: https://www.michaelmorpurgo.com/
You can learn more about Farms for City Children here: http://farmsforcitychildren.org/