“You know, I really don’t care if I’m not making as much money.” Michael Morpurgo delivers this sentence with a warm sincerity that characterises much of our conversation at the Oxford Union, and his talk on his trip to Gaza with Save the Children. We’ve settled on the topic of libraries, and I ask him how he feels about fellow children’s author Terry Deary (of Horrible Histories fame), who recently said that our belief that children have an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, is outdated and unjust.
Unsurprisingly, Morpurgo doesn’t agree. “I mean, it’s not accurate: every time a book of mine is taken out of the library, I get a little bit of money. So the writer is rewarded. But that argument misses the the point. The point is, from the start, if you favour those who have money against those who don’t have money (that is to say, those that do have money can access literature because they can go and buy a book, and the others can’t), well, that seems to me to be a society I don’t wish to belong to.
“Like so much of these wonderful things that were done all these years ago by Carnegie and people, the establishment of these institutions was done to make us a more civilised and equitable society, and what are we doing? We are now the fourth or fifth richest economy in the world and we can’t have libraries? Excuse me.”
You don’t need to spend long talking to Morpurgo to realise how emphatically he believes in the possibility of creating a fairer, and kinder, society; and, as a former primary school teacher, he grounds much of this belief in the “proper” education of children. I ask him how much he thinks his books can help to create this “more civilised and equitable society” — aren’t they, essentially, for fun?
“Of course it’s entertaining, otherwise they’re not going to turn the page. That’s really important. But the crucial thing is that when they turn the page they’re gaining all the time in knowledge and understanding. That’s the whole point of reading. That’s the whole point of going to the theatre. It’s broadening the scope of our imagination.
“The most important thing I think you get from reading when you’re young — and it’s a cornerstone of our existence — is you learn empathy. You learn about other people. So if you’re a boy, and you are reading a story which is told from a girl’s point of view, you really do gain something. If you are white, and you’re reading a story about a black community… all that is really very important, because we’re now in this world where everyone is moving closer and closer together all the time.”
Morpurgo resolutely believes in this idea of the proximity of different communities and often speaks of a desire to see conflict and barriers between cultures demolished. His pacifism is at the forefront of almost all of his numerous works: Billy the Kid, The Butterfly Lion, Private Peaceful, and War Horse, to name just a few, are all “books about — it seems like war — but actually about reconciliation and peace”.
It’s a theme that has run through Morpurgo’s life since a very young age.
“We’re all a product of our childhoods, and as I grew up, and in my teenage years, there was a wall being built across Europe, in Berlin, which played a big part in everyone’s growing up, because this seemed to be a wall that would be there forever. It was simply part of our geography.
“And then this miraculous thing happened. Almost out of nowhere people climbed on top of the wall and started knocking it down. And it did seem that everything was going to be possible in this new world, without walls. People were coming together. It was a miraculous time. I never thought the world could be this wonderful.
“It wasn’t many years later when I noticed, and we all noticed, walls being built across another land: this time between Israelis and Palestinians. Walls between peoples. Setting up physical barriers between peoples as a way of separating cultures. I decided, and I think a lot of people felt the same, that the only way that knot of mistrust and hatred could ever, ever be undone was through the children. And so I thought I’d try and write a fable about how — and I believe this — the only way you can resolve difficulties is through education. Through new generations who can find common ground when both sides are exhausted by the struggle, or realise the futility of it.”
This “fable” was 2010’s The Kites are Flying, a story about two children — one Palestinian, one Israeli — who are able to communicate with each other by flying kites with messages over the wall. It’s a touching, but undeniably romanticised, read.
Morpurgo is acutely aware of his own optimism, peppering many of his theories for social progression with “He says, idealistically” or, “I know some people think this is nonsense”. Is he just being naïve?
“I do know children very well. I do know how positive they are. It does work when you give children the chance. When you speak to children in Gaza, they say, ‘We don’t hate Israeli children, we hate Israeli soldiers.’ There is a lot of hope and understanding between those two groups. So I thought, write a story about that hope.”
Before he’s rushed off, Morpurgo has a chance to bring the conversation round again to education closer to home. “Mr Gove is going on about the teaching of history lately, and the rigour and the importance of it. Now, there’s something in what he says but he’s missing the point. Because the really important thing with kids is to get them enjoying it quickly. The stories in history are totally wonderful: the people who made it, their stories. And if you get the telling of it, that’s where you can really make a difference.
“So if you have a hotline to Mr Gove, would you please tell him: it’s the story, stupid.”