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War Horse author Michael Morpurgo kicks off Monmouth Literary Festival

June 22nd, 2016

War Horse author Michael Morpurgo praised Monmouth’s three senior schools for uniting to create a unique literary festival when he headlined their event last night.

The charismatic novelist ignited a love of storytelling in people of all ages when he spoke to a packed audience at the town’s Savoy Theatre, kicking off the third annual Monmouth Literary Festival.

Organised by pupils from Monmouth School, HMSG and Monmouth Comprehensive, the venture continues to go from strength to strength.

Discussing its success before his show, Mr Morpurgo said: “Having the schools mix up like this is what’s wonderful about the idea. The notion that we are all separate is one of our problems in society. I like young festivals, especially ones started by young people.

“I’ve liked Monmouth when I’ve driven through it – I actually visited HMSG 15 years ago. I liked it then and I thought it would be very interesting to see it now.”

Revealing the key to writing convincing tales, Mr Morpurgo gave the crowd a fascinating insight into his inspiration for War Horse and Private Peaceful, and read excerpts of his work.

morpurgo5“Stories come from truths,” he said.

“An old man who had been in the First World War once told me that his horse had been his best friend when he was away at war. He told me ‘I could say things to that horse that I could never say to another human being’.

“The man had been a master of foxhounds – he wasn’t that kind of person, he really meant it. I’m a war baby myself, I grew up with the pain of war in my mother’s eyes. I write about what I know about and what I care about.”

Backstage, Mr Morpurgo, who established the life-changing charity Farms for City Children with his wife Clare in 1974, talked about why he often features animals in his books.

“It’s not the animals themselves I like, but the relationship – both good and bad – that we have with them,” he said.

“The good comes from the respect, confidence and trust they teach us, and then there’s the opposite. The killing of their habitat, the way in which we have dealt with them.

“There’s an instinct between animals and us which is there when you’re very young.

“There was an 11-year-old boy on one of our farms recently who wouldn’t go near the sheep and goats at first and now he won’t leave them alone. All of his fears about animals have gone and he now has a healthy respect for them.”

Incredibly, War Horse wasn’t successful until 25 years later when the National Theatre adapted it for the stage, when “everyone suddenly thought it was a good book.”

Wearing his trademark red jacket, Mr Morpurgo exuded warmth and enthusiasm as the audience intently hung onto his every word.

“Every single one in this room tells stories,” the compelling writer said, proving his point by asking everyone who had ever told a lie to put up their hands.

“The first great lie I ever told convinced me that I could tell stories and get away with it. The most important thing is that the listener believes what you’re saying. I was about eight, coming back home for my summer holidays on a train from East Grinstead where I was at boarding school, which I hated.

“I was with lots of other boys and we were all happy to be going home. Then they started asking each other ‘what are you doing in the holidays?’, ‘I’m going to Spain’, ‘I’m going to France’.

“It was my turn to answer, and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

“’What are you doing, Pongo?’ – that’s what they used to call me.

“So I slowly looked at my watch and said ‘I really hope the train’s going to be on time, because the Queen is coming to tea’.morpurgo3

“There was a wonderful silence. And it was the first time I thought ‘the telling of a story is about how you tell it.’”

Reading from My Father is a Polar Bear, which draws on his childhood memory of first seeing his real father on television, the former teacher demonstrated how emotive storytelling is when you write from personal experience.

He told the audience: “I feel absolutely sure that my father acted on this stage.

“I grew up in a family of actors. The war came along and broke up marriages because men were away. My mother and father split up and I didn’t see him for a very long time afterwards.”

Following his talk, Mr Morpurgo answered questions from the audience with amazingly sharp wit and good humour.

One 10-year-old girl asked why his novels talk about death so often, saying she had stopped reading them because they made her too sad.

He replied: “That stuff happens in life. I don’t write to entertain you, to please you, to make you happy.

“There are other books for that.

“The best writing helps you discover more about ourselves and about the world around us. There’s a lot of sadness in the world and a lot of joy. When you’re three there are books that just focus on making you happy and that’s right. The Tiger Who Came to Tea doesn’t eat the family afterwards.

“But when you get to a certain age you know this world is a difficult and complex place – maybe you need to know that tigers are being wiped out on the planet as we speak. There comes a time in life when we must take things on board.”

Getting a great laugh from the crowd, he finished, in jest, with: “When you’re ready, read my books. Until then read someone else’s rubbish.”

The Monmouth Literary Festival runs until June 29.

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