There have been a handful of interviews on My Tonight From Shrewsbury that I’ve really wanted to flag up and get everyone to read. The ‘Gerry Hendry Last Days of Shrewsbury Prison from the Governor’s Perspective’ interview was one of them, and this - from ex Children’s Laureate and multi-award-winning children's author [including the highly acclaimed War Horse] - is another.
I met Michael Morpurgo early last Saturday evening, on the sunniest day since I don’t know when. It was Children's Bookfest weekend, and I'd left the Square heaving with small children. We sat backstage at Shrewsbury School’s Allington Hall, and Michael told me about his own childhood. His mother read to him when he was a child. This, he says, was his greatest stroke of luck. The rest of his childhood, which was spent in post-war London, was bleak. The war had had a lingering effect. The grown ups were low. They were traumatized and sad. 'But the one thing I did have, you know, was freedom.’
I remember that freedom as well. I, too, grew up in London in the aftermath of World War II. Michael leaned back in his chair, remembering those days. He talked about the power of radio, the power of books and that wonderful thing called ‘playing out’. In those days, children rambled freely or simply played together in the streets. ‘There weren’t so many cars in those days,’ Michael said. He remembers bombsites, and other kids out too and all of them roaming about.
In contrast, however, was Michael’s school life. ‘School was regimented,’ Michael said. ‘And now it seems we’re going back to that again. Back to the tests.’ All the lovely stories and poems were out. Words were for punctuating and spelling. That was all. Instead of listening and dreaming, Michael said, they had learning and reciting. And everything was a competition.
‘The one thing I learned in school above all others,’ Michael said, ‘was how to fail. My schooldays were dominated by fearfulness.’ School was a place for punishments, humiliation and fear. Michael also learned to daydream, spending his time trying to see through the window to the world outside. But something inside him finally gave up.
At seven and a half, Michael became a boarder. Now the importance of succeeding became paramount. Michael discovered that he was good at two things, one of them sport, the other singing. Michael became a member of the school choir, thus pleasing everybody from teachers to parents. It also enabled him to take coach trips out into the world, off to village halls for concerts, with welcome glimpses of the world outside school.
‘There were rewards for doing well,’ Michael said. ‘And I bought into that system of rewards. The art of survival – that’s what growing up into the adult world was all about. You either had to fight it, or go along with it and keep your thoughts to yourself.’
Back at home, Michael had a mother and step-father who admired success. He found himself caught up in seeking their approval. As long as he had it, life was happy and comfortable. He was aware that his family was different to others, but couldn’t have explained why. His mother was divorced, which had a stigma attached to it in those days. She had children by different fathers, though all of them now had the Morpurgo name. In public, they were ‘the Morpurgo family’, but Michael describes them as a family full of secrets. It wasn’t until he was twenty-six that he met his real father. ‘The Morpurgo family, as presented to the world by my parents, was a myth,’ Michael said. ‘I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but it all felt slightly odd.’
Even so, Michael spoke with respect of his parents. He didn’t want to judge anything they did. They were brought up in different times, he said. His mother came from a Christian Scientist family. There was great pressure on her to become an academic, but she became an actress instead. Then there was her marriage failure, and her desperate struggle to hold everything together for her children as well as herself. ‘It was an interesting childhood,’ Michael said.
Many children’s authors, it seems, myself included, have had interesting childhoods. I remember one book reviewer reckoning that writers with ‘damaged backgrounds’ shouldn’t be allowed to write for children. In that case, I reckon, most of us would need to be shut up. What was it, I wanted to know, that Michael most wanted to give children when he wrote for them - and indeed, when he met and talked to them? Before our interview, I’d stood on the side of the stage whilst Michael talked to a young lad who’d won a competition for writing about his favourite Michael Morpurgo book. It had meant the world to the lad to meet Michael, but I’d say it meant the world to Michael, too, to meet the lad. He made him feel special because, to Michael, he plainly was special.
And yet Michael meets and talks to so many children. In the last couple of months alone, this is his second visit to Shropshire, and on both occasions tickets have sold out and venues have been packed. ‘What I want for children,’ Michael said, ‘was what I didn’t have myself – a sense of being good at something, and of worth.’ It was important to feel that one could make a contribution, he insisted. ‘If a child can’t do that, it’s alarming at how early an age anger and alienation can start building up.'
A sense of mattering – that was what it all came down to. And the sooner that could be nurtured in children, the more able they’d be to build up the strength to survive and fulfil themselves. That’s what Michael said, and it was one of the reasons why - as well as being Patron of Shrewsbury’s Children’s Bookfest – he was also National Chancellor of the Children’s University.
It was in my capacity as Shropshire’s Chancellor that I was there on Saturday, interviewing Michael. Shropshire’s Children’s University has been going for only a couple of years, but already a large number of schools - some in the county’s most deprived areas - have become involved and 4,000 children are actively using the Children's University's ‘Passports to Learning’. The Children’s University has already held two Gold Graduation ceremonies in conjunction with Birmingham and Keele Universities, and a third is booked. In total eleven graduation ceremonies have been held in schools across the county, involving over five hundred graduates, and four more ceremonies are planned for June. Shropshire’s Children’s University is developing its relationship with other Children’s Universities across Europe. It'll shortly be hosting its first series of Children’s University lectures.
I’m proud to be involved with an organization like that, and Michael is as well. As he sees it, the Children’s University is all about making education part of life. ‘Life as a university,’ he calls it. It’s not about going to school and passing tests, but about personal interests and personal efforts, about children and adults coming together to make things happen, about children living what he calls ‘learning lives’.
We talked about the celebratory nature of Children’s University graduation ceremonies. I’ve presided over a number of these by now. Most outstanding for me has been the Gold Award ceremony at Keele University that had parents and children alike [and indeed one awestruck Chancellor] lying in the university’s star-dome on a guided tour through space. The excitement of young children, capped and gowned, receiving awards for out-of-school educational activities chosen by themselves, is wonderful to behold. Michael said that collecting stamps on the Children’s University’s ‘Passports for Learning’ is the exact opposite experience to what he went through at school, where fortnightly mark-readings ceremonies ended up, more often than not, in detentions for minus marks and frequent canings when the minus marks mounted up.
‘It’s important,’ Michael said, ‘for children to have adults in their lives who are not there to punish them for failing at things, but are keen to get alongside and do things with them.’ They needed adults who’d make education special for them. The best teachers did this every day, of course - but it didn’t always happen, and that was why the Children’s University was so valuable.
Michael plainly knew what he was talking about here. He started his working life as a primary school teacher. It wasn’t until his late twenties that he began to write. He wasn’t one of those writers - like Jacqueline Wilson for example - who knew from the word ‘go’ what he wanted to be. ‘But that’s all right,’ he reckoned. ‘One should be able to find one’s own pace. People should be given space. Life’s not a rush’
Outside the door, the buzz of a growing audience could be heard. Faces popped round the door, then disappeared again. But for Michael, life here too at the Children’s Bookfest was not a rush. I said how interesting I found it that he hadn’t been a writer from a young age. In school, he was told he didn’t have an imagination. Creative writing was regarded as two sides of paper filled with words. As long as they were tidy, punctuated and well spelled, the job was done. In fact, Michael said, ‘I wasn’t even sure back then what imagination was.’
Michael achieved what he did because he was helped. ‘I was lucky,’ he said. ‘When I needed it, the right support came along. And that’s what the Children’s University can be for children. Maybe they won’t have a teacher who’ll encourage them, or a friend who’ll come along and say the right thing at the right moment. But the Children’s University can do that for them. And then they’ll be lucky too.’
By now, it really was time for Michael to get ready to go on stage. The buzz of voices through the door was growing louder by the minute. Did Michael have a message for the children of Shropshire’s Children’s University, I asked. For the longest time this most talkative of men sat in silence. Then he leaned forward and said, ‘It’s important to find your own way. The Children’s University can take you on a long walk. It’s the long walk of education, and you’ll discover your path that way. Sometimes the walk will take you uphill and your legs will ache and you’ll become tired and breathless and not want to go on - but you should. Then sometimes there’ll be wonderful days, the sun will be out, everything will be lovely - but that’s not the end, because you and I know that it’ll rain again. But you have to keep on walking. You have to make that start. You’ve got to get out and walk.’