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Michael Morpurgo: ‘When you read to a child you don't know what memories you leave’

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When children’s author Michael Morpurgo spent an evening reading stories by his fireside to a group of youngsters who were visiting his farm, he didn’t dream that 30 years later he would be collaborating on a musical project with one of them, writes Alex Spencer.

One of the boys, Dominic Fyfe, remembered the trip so fondly that, as an adult working with the Kanneh-Mason family of musicians who were looking for a poet to accompany them on their new project, he immediately thought of Michael.

Now the children’s author has penned a series of poems to be read in between the beautiful music of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, which the Kanneh Masons recorded.

MIchael Morpurgo (55833185)
MIchael Morpurgo (55833185)

He is set to take part in a performance of the piece with cellist Clare O’Connell and actor Natalie Walter at an event for the Cambridge Literary Festival later this month.

Michael said: “I’ve never really written poetry before and I wouldn’t have done unless I’d been asked, and I rather like that. If you’re 77 and someone asks you to do something you’ve never done before, you respond very positively because someone else has said, ‘You can do this’. I always wanted to be a poet and never have been. I’m a storyteller really. And when I asked this wonderful man Dominic Fyfe who runs projects at Decca why he chose me I was very surprised.

“It really came about because of an extraordinary family of musicians called the Kanneh-Masons who wanted to play together and make a CD of music for children. And so they thought they would do the Carnival of Animals, and they knew that in previous performances of Carnival of Animals there had been some kind of poetry in between the pieces to illustrate it. Ogden Nash had done it and others but they really wanted a fresher recording.

“Dominic came to me and I discovered later it was because he’d come down to the farm where I live in Devon, as a primary school child of nine about 30 years ago.

“My wife Clare and I have a charity called Farms for City Children and we have school visits to our farm throughout the year. We have been running it now for 45 years. And one of these small children came from a school in London, and was Dominic Fife.

Carnival of the Animals by Michael Morpurgo (55833188)
Carnival of the Animals by Michael Morpurgo (55833188)

“Anyway, he reminded me that when he was a small boy of nine he’d sat in front of the fire during his stay and he had listened to me read a story, and he’d always remembered it, that moment in front of the fire holding his hot chocolate in his pyjamas with all the others, most of them going to sleep. So because of that memory, I was the first person who came to his mind to do these poems.

“Isn’t that wonderful? And so I did, and I enjoyed it so much. In fact, I wrote double the number of poems he wanted me to write because I was so enthusiastic about it.

“I was hugely moved when he told me, because when you write a book or when you read a book to a child you don’t know what memories you leave behind.”

The poems were turned into a book, illustrated by Michael Foreman, and these are the works he will be performing at the Cambridge Literary Festival.

Michael says: “I’m convinced that a parent, teacher, grandparent or I as a writer, can with one performance, one reading, change a life. I believe that’s the whole point of education – to try and create moments if you can. If it happens, a kind of magic sets in and then you create a reader for life. And it just happened.

“I think this is one of those moments which you don’t forget. It has simply convinced me again how important teachers are as storytellers, to the lives of children, and that everyone should have access to a library and access to great teachers and parents who read to them.”

Michael and Clare Morpurgo founded Farms for City Children at Nethercott House in Devon in 1976. The charity offers urban children from all over the country an opportunity to live and work together for a week at a time on a real farm in the heart of the countryside.

Something that really struck me is how connected children want to be with animals and with nature

It aims to offer children a chance to experience a different life and to learn more about where their food comes from. And part of every day is story time.

Michael says: “I worked as a teacher for nine years and my favourite time of the day, between three and half past, was story time.

“I think it’s partly because I was more enthusiastic about it and everything else.

“I was teaching Year 6 and something wonderful happened, this extraordinary silence that somehow I’d never experienced in the classroom before; this intensity of all being locked into the same story. I understood it was extending the emotional connection, and I knew something important was happening. It took a long while before I realised just how important it was and how much children need this. It’s just one of those great discoveries. One of those moments, I think for both a teacher and certainly for a storyteller and hopefully for most children.”

He added that the stories he noticed children enjoy the most are the ones about animals, and especially the relationship between an animal and a child.

He explains: “Something that really struck me is how connected children want to be with animals and with nature. I think I’ve always known it, which is why we set up Farms for City Children all those years ago. But the books that seem to touch children that resonate are the ones where there is a close relationship between a young person and an animal.

“I’ve been very fortunate that because of this farm project, I’ve been able to witness children close up with animals for the first time in their lives. And seeing the response, both of the animal and to the child, is very moving.”

Michael Morpurgo: The Carnival of Animals, at The Cambridge Union and online, Sunday, April 24 at 2pm.

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