Michael Morpurgo Q&A: “I could have been George Clooney”

The author talks re-runs of Would I Lie To You?, Clement Attlee and getting advice from Ted Hughes.

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Michael Morpurgo was born in St Albans in 1943 and began his career as a primary school teacher. He is best known for his children’s novels, including “War Horse”. 

What’s your earliest memory?

Waiting for the milkman’s horse and the rattle of the milk bottles on Philbeach Gardens, in postwar London. I loved the smell of that horse, loved the way he looked down at me from a great height. 

Who are your heroes?

Trevor Bailey, the cricketing all-rounder, who leapt in the air just before he bowled. When he was batting no one could get him out. He didn’t score many runs, but he blocked for England. 

What book last changed your thinking?

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay, the searing autobiography of a boy growing up unwanted, rejected and alone in the world. Once read or heard, never forgotten.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Clement Attlee. No bombast here, no high-flown rhetoric. He presided over a government determined to create a better, more equitable society.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The village of Iddesleigh, my parish in Devon. It has fewer than 100 inhabitants, a pub, a church, a chapel, and a village hall. Not a lot, but I’m an authority on what there is. 

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Elizabethan times. And I’d like to work in the theatre, please, at the Globe. 

What TV show could you not live without?

Would I Lie To You?, a show that fizzes with fun, wit and invention. And I thought I could tell stories! I watch repeats avidly. Sad but true. 

Who would paint your portrait?

My son, Sebastian. He painted a small and honest portrait of Clare, my wife, years ago. He saw her as she is, caught the calm of her perfectly. 

What’s your theme tune?

“Farewell to Stromness” by Peter Maxwell Davies. I seem to be saying goodbye a lot these days. Parting is such sweet sorrow. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When War Horse failed rather publicly to win a book prize, Ted Hughes told me to forget it, to be happy I’d written a fine book, and that I’d write a finer one, to just get on with the next one. I have.

What’s currently bugging you?

That bells were rung in celebration on 31 January. 

What single thing would make your life better?

The recovery of a dear friend from illness.

When were you happiest?

Scoring a winning try when I was 13. Or performing The Mozart Question with the Storyteller’s Ensemble. Or waking up this morning to see the fog lifting off the Thames – “Earth has not anything to show more fair”. Take your pick.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d be what my mother and father were – actors. I should have had the courage to do it. I could have been George Clooney.

Are we all doomed?

If we take the low road and go on messing up the world, then yes. But then such a species does not deserve to survive. But if we take the high road, as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg are encouraging us to do, then all shall be well. 

“Waiting For Anya”, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, is in cinemas now

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose

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