Friday 7th of August 2020
All in a day's work

Michael Morpurgo & Farms for City Children

A gala performance of War Horse, attended by 1000 children to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Farms for City Children, the charity founded by Clare and Michael Morpurgo, took place on February 25th at the National Theatre.

Soon after this performance, after completing a record-breaking 8 year run in London, playing to over 8 million people worldwide and the recipient of 25 major awards, Joey was put out to pasture for a well-earned rest ahead of a nationwide tour in 2017.

James Backway in War Horse at the New London theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

James Backway in War Horse at the New London theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

The Gaitpost spoke to Michael Morpurgo about his inspiration for Farms for City Children, meeting Joey for the first time and his writing day.  

“I’m an early riser – I always have been and get up before my wife, Clare. I make her breakfast, usually some fruit and yoghurt and depending on whether we are in London or Devon, love to look out over either the Thames or Okement rivers and contemplate the day ahead before the phone starts ringing.

We spend two thirds of our time in Devon and it is my writing place. After breakfast I go out to the Tea House, my studio if you like, and still in my pyjamas pile the pillows up behind me on the sofa, draw up my knees and rest my notebook on them, just like Robert Louis Stevenson used to do. I stay in my pyjamas until midday as it extends my dream time for writing.”

Accidental author

I was a teacher in a primary school and discovered that the best way to get all the children involved was to read a story – it was the only way to get 35 children focused on something altogether. One day I was reading the children a story that didn’t flow well. I felt that the children were not engaged with the words I was reading.

I went home and told my wife that I felt the children had been bored, that the book was getting between the children and me. My wife suggested I wrote my own.  I lay awake that night thinking of a story and went in the next day and at some point the children began to focus. I got quite a buzz out of it – describing the people and places and thought this was terrific. The Head teacher heard about my stories and one day came to listen and liked it. I got a very lucky break and Macmillan published my first novel, It Never Rained, and that gave me the confidence to feel like I could do this.  It is a bit like riding a horse. There are all sorts of uncertainties but you have to lose yourself in it and then your confidence grows.

Farms for City Children offers children from all over the UK the opportunity to live and work for a week on a real farm in the heart of the countryside. For many urban children this opportunity to live close to nature is something that stays with them forever. The experience can be life-changing, giving children in their formative years the chance to encounter something totally positive, challenging and rewarding.

Children learn social and emotional development through teamwork, self-worth through rewarding work and completion of tasks, and about the importance of healthy eating and where their food comes from.

 

Michael Morpurgo 2

Michael Morpurgo

 

 

Inspiring the next generation

Back then, my wife and I were teachers and had taught enough to know there was only so much you can teach in a classroom. The majority of children in the country were urban, living with traffic and concrete. They knew nothing about the countryside except maybe Old Macdonald Had A Farm from rhymes or how their food was produced.  There were an awful lot of children who were not being successful at what they did in school. They had no experience of life outside of the city and as teachers and parents we felt we had to help these children to make the best of their lives.

My wife fell in love with Devon and I loved living by the North Sea in Essex and we both had a fascination for the countryside having never lived there for very long. But what made us both contented was the life in the countryside. We had both enjoyed wonderful experiences in the country and believed it was the children’s right to experience it as well.

We felt we had to put the children in touch with their planet, to learn what it takes to make their food and the hard work that goes in to the land.  We were very young, and maybe a bit stupid, but my wife was left some money and we bought Nethercott House in Devon.

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We knew this was where we wanted Farms for City Children to run from and since 1976 we have had over 90,000 children through the programme. The greatest thing that you can give children when they are young is the belief that they can do something, the self worth to be useful and on a farm there is work like that everywhere.

You can clean a shed or groom a horse and see you have done well. All the time the children are on our farms, their work is being admired and critiqued in order for them to learn.

Lunch break

Lunch is my favourite meal of the day. I go for along walk after lunch and think about what I have written. I’m now 72 but try to walk between 2 and 5 miles around the farm and in to the village.

Treasured inspirations 

My inspiration comes from nature and from the children who visit the farms. I am in a wonderful position in that I have lived my life watching urban children, wide eyed with wonder at what they are seeing and experiencing for the first time. Children respond very spontaneously whether through fear, joy or wonder.

If a child is helping a farmer lamb, it may well be the first time the child witnesses life and maybe death. It is not difficult to be inspired when I am watching the children’s relationship with the countryside grow.

 

 

Literary influencers

There are two writers who continue to inspire me. I wasn’t a great reader as a child. I preferred rugby but the first book I ever truly loved was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. When I first read it, I felt that I was inside the book. I was Jim Hawkins, on the Hispaniola living the adventure.  Stevenson was a brilliant writer with I also loved his Travels with my Donkey and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Later in life when I moved to Devon, I became greatly inspired by the work of Ted Hughes. He became President of Farms for City Children and I knew how important his experience of wandering the Yorkshire Moors had been to his poetry.  His language is so strong and gets under my skin.

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Credit James Ravilious

Credit James Ravilious

How was the need for educating city children about farming, the countryside and food production changed over the 40 years?

It has become more urgent that is for sure – the more we live in cities the more detached we become from the countryside. All those years ago, there was a butcher and a baker on every high street and you would see sacks of flour and people making bread, a connection to how and where our food was made. All that has gone now.

Supermarkets offer food as a commodity – there are no pictures of sheep and no reference to an animal having lived a life. We know the climate is in trouble, the damage being done to other creatures, water problems – we know all that but you aren’t going to convince the next generation, who are going to have to look after it, unless they invest in it.

They need to love the countryside when they are young and enjoy wonderfully enriching experiences that stay with them: fish jumping, hide and seek in the trees. If there is no connection, how will things ever change – the next generation needs to live it, breathe it and want to change things.

 

WAR_HORSE_UK_TOUR_LAUNCH Michael Morpurgo and Joey_386

Meeting Joey

I had a gradual introduction to Joey because when the National Theatre first decided to put on the show, they showed me a giraffe puppet. Bit by bit, as the production came together, the creative team made a maquette of Joey to see how he would work and he slowly but surely came to life.

His engineering is extremely intricate. The puppeteers studied the anatomy of the horse in depth. They weren’t horse people and wanted to be sure Joey would be realistic. They studied the work of George Stubbs to see how the muscles and tendons had to work and also the horse’s temperament.

Two years later when the rehearsals began, I saw Joey come on stage for the first time. I was blown away – within moments of seeing him I knew he was utterly believable both artistically and creatively. It was a magical moment.

Top tips

Finally, do you have any story writing tips for children studying for exams over the Easter holidays?

All I can do is say what I do. It is very difficult to make a story quite quickly – as writers we have the great luxury to think about it, come back to it and change things. Under exam conditions, things are very different.

My first bit of advice when faced with an exam paper of essay titles is to choose the one that you really care about.  Caring is important because if you don’t care, you write rubbish.

And my second tip would be that your next step is to find a voice – who is going to tell the story, will it be in the 1st person or 3rd person? Then go for it. Don’t worry about it having an ending. Let it flow so the story makes the ending.

 

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A big thank you to Michael for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to us. We look forward to seeing Joey back on stage in 2017. If you a parent reading this and would like your children to experience the ‘muck and magic’ that is the hallmark of Farms for City Children, why not suggest a school trip to your class or head teacher. 

There are lots of events throughout this special anniversary year where children can meet Michael.

Visit www.farmsforcitychildren.org or www.michaelmorpurgo.com to find out more.

For information about the War Horse 2017 tour visit: www.warhorseonstage.com 

Tickets are on sale now

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