Review: Michael Morpurgo in conversation with Maggie Fergusson

Michael Morpurgo and Maggie Fergusson in conversation 2

An evening with Michael Morpurgo and Maggie Fergusson kicked off the second week of the Arts and Humanities Festival to an almost-full Great Hall. At this joint event with the Royal Society of Literature, hosted by the RSL’s Chair Anne Chisholm, those lucky enough to be in attendance were treated to an incredibly revealing conversation, which touched upon war, family break ups and grief, but also the joys of writing and reading.

Speaking intimately, Fergusson – who recently authored Morpurgo’s biography – shared the ups and downs inherent within the process of life writing. I found it remarkable that Fergusson was given such free access to the Morpurgo family – in person, and through their old letters and photographs – perhaps especially because her subject is still alive, as there is certainly danger in digging around in the past. What happens if what you thought was your history is actually fabrication? How do you cope with coming face to face with personal letters from your parents? How do you ‘live’ with your own biography, when personal facts, long-known to you, are combined with new discoveries that you had never before understood as part of your make-up, and so perhaps up until now, had no impact on your being?

Indeed, through her detective work and research across various archives, Fergusson and Morpurgo were to discover that treasured family legends were not quite what they seemed, along with many revealing details surrounding the relationship between Michael’s mother, and his step father, Jack Morpurgo. Of course, what Morpurgo had known before the biography process about his parents, and his experience of the aftermath of war, he admitted had always preoccupied his writing, but Chisholm pressed the biographer and her subject to discuss the emotive impact of the biography itself. Morpurgo though appeared quite reserved as he described how he was able to quietly reflect upon and then absorb new ‘pasts’ as he learned them, which I found astonishing, and, in a contrary way quite moving.

One particular story indeed elicited sympathetic gasps from the audience, as we heard how Fergusson had discovered that an uncle, long believed to have been a brave war hero who had flown his damaged plane to a crash landing whilst his crew parachuted to safety, had actually died in a tragically mis-manged take-off far from enemy fire. Yet Morpurgo described not feeling any sort of anger or disappointment, but simply an echo of the grief his family had felt before. The conversation moved on to discuss how writers can turn these emotional experiences into stories, and whilst the audience were encouraged to share in the nostalgia, we were not invited to linger. Fergusson and Morpurgo spoke incredibly candidly on various discoveries equally as emotive, yet avoided mawkishness with the frankness of their evaluations of the process.

Michael Morpurgo and Maggie Fergusson in conversation

Later into the evening, as an excellent example of how tales and histories are synthesised by authors, and morph into something new, Morpurgo noted how he had found a new and fruitful way of writing when asked to create short stories in response to Fergusson’s biography. Fergusson actually incorporates Morpurgo’s work between her chapters, interweaving facts and fictions: an excellent reflection of Morpurgo’s life, as he described it, as so much of a weaving of family myth, his memories, and ‘what really happened’. You’ll just have to read the book to see what sort of impact the biography made on Morpurgo’s authorial style, and how these stories evolved!

The question and answer session turned the conversation towards Morpurgo’s writing process, and also resulted in some very happy moments. When asked about his influences, Morpurgo spoke at length about his time as a teacher and how this influenced his writing, noting that children are excellent critics as ‘if they are bored you’ll soon be able to tell, with them picking their noses or shuffling about’. Being able to watch interactions between children and animals at his farm, he admitted, also plays an enormous part in his story writing process. He noted that he is able to combine these witnessed moments with stories from the news to create incredibly powerful stories – with Shadow being a particular product of this combination of experiences, researched knowledge, and imagination. Laughs and exclamations of joy were elicited from the audience as Morpurgo described how a small mute boy, after a week at Morpurgo’s farm was overheard confiding spiritedly to a horse.

The final spine-tingling moment of night came when Chisholm invited Morpurgo to sing John Tams’ “The Year Turns ‘Round Again” one of the folk songs rewritten for the War Horse play. With the portrait of a young Morpurgo hung above, and the author singing on stage, the refrain resonated with new meaning around the hall: “The snow falls, the wind calls/ the year turns round again/ And like Barleycorn who rose from the grave/ a new year will rise up again”. And indeed, the audience were completely enthralled by this finale – at least that is what I will take the rapturous applause to signify!

Michael Morpurgo signing books

The evening ended on an especially warm note, as King’s alumnus Morpurgo was kind enough to stick around and sign books for the dozens of fans in attendance, many of them current students of his alma mater.

The RSL have just announced their Winter Season, where more fellows will be speaking on a range of subjects. Take a look at www.rslit.org for listings.

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