The world’s getting nastier, says the writer, and Britain no longer cares. So he’s hitting back – with a Gulliver’s Travels update that targets Trump, Brexit and the refugee crisis. Photographs: Jim Wileman
Michael Morpurgo has all the trappings befitting a prolific, bestselling and beloved children’s author. There is the National Theatre production (War Horse, still touring the globe) and its Spielberg movie adaptation; the stint as children’s laureate (a post he helped create); the gold Blue Peter badge and the knighthood. But as a vocal campaigner against Brexit, he is getting used to rather a different kind of reception.
“I’ve been spat at,” Britain’s storyteller-in-chief says nonchalantly over lunch at his local pub in an idyllic Devon village. “I went to Sidmouth folk festival – quite a peaceable part of the world, you would have thought.” The trouble began when he bought one of the “little blue badges with stars around it”. Clare, Morpurgo’s wife of 56 years, interjects. “No, it said, ‘Bollocks to Brexit.’”
“Well, it had stars around it!” Morpurgo says in mock indignation. As for the spitting: “It was horrible. I was very upset. [The man] looked at me with an unbelievable dislike. I can’t think of a time in my life when that would have happened. We’re almost coming to a civil war situation where there’s so much hate.”
When not putting his head above the parapet with newspaper articles and an appearance in what Channel 4 News called “the most polite Brexit debate ever”, Morpurgo can be found at home in bed, writing prolifically in school exercise books while propped up on a pile of pillows (inspired by his hero, Robert Louis Stevenson).
In his latest book, Boy Giant, he takes on the refugee crisis with an update of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. His Lilliput is one in which strangers are welcomed in and emperors have been replaced with storytellers. I tell him I found the first section – detailing 12-year-old Omar’s escape from Afghanistan, alone in an over-filled, sinking rubber boat – distressing. “I’m glad of that,” he says, unsurprised. After all, it is the adults who tend to come out of War Horse in tears.
“It’s a difficult line to draw, but I think one must err on the side of upsetting people. The minute you make it bland and you tie a yellow ribbon around it and say, ‘Actually it’s fine’ … well, it’s not. That is the reality. The rest of the book may be wishful thinking, but that’s what these children are living through.” Morpurgo resolved to write the book after seeing the body of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015.
“Just as when I wrote about the first world war, I don’t want anyone to feel comfortable,” he says. “It’s not entertainment. All literature should be, yes, life-enhancing, but troubling – at the end of the day it should be forcing you to ask questions. But I am sorry if it upsets you too much. Have another sip of beer.”
The book’s Brexit and Trump parallels are plain. Morpurgo’s favourite part of the story is when Omar turns a stone wall separating two peoples into a bridge. At one point, Lilliput’s elder stateswoman declares: “We shall fish together, trade with one another, be friends again as we always were for hundreds of years … There will be no more walls, no more flags, no more tyrants.”
In between sips of pea and ham soup, Morpurgo details his despair with the world. He ranges from the Grenfell Tower fire and Windrush, to the US-Mexico border and Kashmir. And he speaks of his first-hand experience in Gaza and the Calais refugee camp. We have turned, he says, into a “not-caring society”.
He concludes that there is no use pointing the finger at the “supremely arrogant” Boris Johnson. “This is our fault,” he says. “This is us. We’ve become a selfish people, an unkind people. I think this thing of kindness is very important. It’s thought to be sort of soft and a bit liberal to be kind. Well, no, it’s not. If someone is starving in the street, you feed them.”
Morpurgo believes we’ve become progressively less open-hearted in the century since the first world war, when Britain took in 250,000 Belgian refugees. “We were at war at the time, our backs against the wall, and I’m sure there were people who moaned about it, but the government took the decision that these people needed help.”
By world war two, hearts had hardened. Apart from taking in nearly 10,000 mainly Jewish children, Britain left the rest “to the tender mercies of these ghastly, ghastly tyrants and these fascists, when everyone who cared about these things knew what Hitler might do to the Jewish people.”
In the current crisis, it is believed that Britain hasn’t taken in anywhere near the proposed 3,000 child refugees from Europe. Morpurgo detects an empathy gap arising from the fact that, unlike almost every other country on the continent, “for 1,000 years, we have never been invaded. We do not know what it is like to be chased from our homes.”
The 75-year-old also details his anger at the 210,000 homeless children in the UK, some living in shipping containers. “There are still more than 2,000 children’s homes in this country. Unwanted children, in a society that professes to love children. In my old age, I’m thinking more and more about how appalling that is. And that’s what Swift was on about. It’s not good enough to go and pray in church and to sing All Things Bright and Beautiful. This is a cruel world – and it’s got no better.”
Morpurgo’s own upbringing was unconventional. While his father, actor Tony van Bridge, was stationed in Baghdad during the war, his mother fell in love with another man, Jack Morpurgo. Van Bridge returned to find “there was no place for him” and left the new family to get on with it. Despite this, the author was made to feel “quite secure” and looks at the state of modern childhood with a degree of dread.
“I think this business of being forced to grow up too quick,” he says, “is causing an awful lot of mental illness and difficulties. There’s so much that they’re having to deal with – whether it’s the shape of their bodies, or things being beamed into their iPads. [Abuse] used to be shouted across the street, and then it was gone. It wasn’t written down for the rest of the world to see. By and large, the adults could protect you from the worst of what was out there.”
Morpurgo, who failed his 11-plus and scraped a third-class degree, ended up at Sandhurst military academy, fuelled by praise for his “leadership qualities”, his “simplistic ideas of duty” and his love of a uniform. After marrying Clare at 19 – she is the daughter of Penguin books founder Allen Lane who sent his son-in-law’s handwriting to a graphologist, in the hope of proving he was a gold-digger – Morpurgo decided he believed in peace more than war and began teaching.
A frequent critic of the education policies of successive governments, he says if he were education secretary he would have children start formal learning at seven, eradicate exam pressure and have universal state education for all; private schools, he says, could be turned into specialist sixth-form colleges.
It was in front of the fire in the pub in which we’re sitting that Morpurgo dreamed up War Horse, after a conversation with a veteran of the trenches. “When I wrote the book, Clare loved it immediately,” he says. “And she’s never said anything was better, which is slightly annoying.”
However, it was three decades after publication before Hollywood made miraculous horse Joey world famous. Morpurgo had spent years insisting on picking up every phone call, quipping: “It might be Steven Spielberg.” However, he concedes that after the director did finally call, the 2011 film that resulted “was not as great as I’d wanted it to be”.
In 1982, War Horse failed to win the Whitbread prize for which it was nominated, with chairman of the judges Roald Dahl advising Morpurgo: “It’s a good book, but children don’t like history.” His neighbour, the poet Ted Hughes, took his crestfallen friend out for a consolatory tea in the Devon town of Bideford. “Winning is just as damaging to you as losing,” Hughes told him. “You’ve written a fine book and you’ll write a finer one.”
Does Morpurgo think he has? He winces, then smiles. “Every time.”
• Boy Giant: Son of Gulliver by Michael Morpurgo is published by HarperCollins on 19 September.