Three men in our village survived the First world war

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Few writers can match the success of Sir Michael Morpurgo. A critically acclaimed author that has drawn inspiration from Dartmoor, and in doing so, he has lit the fuse of a literary renaissance.

From a quiet tea-house in a quaint Devon garden, Michael talks about his early life. “I grew up in both the country near Bradwell in Suffolk but also London near Earls Court. I remember playing in bombsites just after the war because they made the best playgrounds.”

Surely this tranquil tea-room doubles as a literary man-cave, a perfect place to get some writing done? “I write upstairs sitting on a bed, with lots of cushions supporting my back. I mostly write in the morning and then go for a long walk in the fields around our home in the afternoon with my wife Clare. It really helps to have this time for the stories to weave themselves in my head.”

Michael was born into a literary family. His stepfather was a publisher and he was surrounded by books growing up. “We didn’t have walls in the house where I grew up; we had bookshelves. It was a house built of books.” It wasn’t until he became a primary school teacher that he started writing. Reading to his class of under 5’s, it didn’t take long before he realised he could write his own stories.

“They were tired and uninterested, I realised that what I was reading to them just wasn’t any good. So I went home that night and wrote up something of my own. The children seemed to like it and when the bell went at the end of the day, they didn’t want to leave.”

Michael’s ‘father’ went off to war in 1943; he didn’t know about his real father until he was in his late teens. “I didn’t know my father Tony Bridge at all as I grew up. My parents separated when I was very young. He was a fine actor, on stage and in film and still acting eight months a year in his eighties. I had never even seen a photo of him, though I was aware that there was this ‘other’ father who wasn’t there. In those days, a divorce was such a shameful thing that no one ever talked about it.”

It was Christmas day when Michael sat with his family to watch Great Expectations. Christmas that year would offer an unexpected surprise – not an unwanted present but the chance revelation of his father’s identity.

“One Christmas when I was 19, we were watching Great Expectations on the television as a family. Magwitch appeared suddenly on the screen. My mother grasped my arm and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s your father!’ So the first time I saw my father, he was a convict. I was trying to look through his make-up to find out what the hell he really looked like.”

Dartmoor, and the wider Devon countryside have been a major influence for Michael, with his books such as War Horse and Farm Boy drawing direct inspiration from Dartmoor’s rugged beauty. Michael, as it happens, has a particular fondness for Brent Tor, climbing to the church, “especially with mist swirling all around” – I’m told.

It wasn’t just the Devonshire landscape alone that inspired Michael’s amazing story War Horse. It was its inhabitants. Much of the story came from talking to three old locals in The Duke of York in Iddesleigh. “There were three men in our village who survived the First World War. Wilf Ellis, Captain Budget and Alfred Weeks.

It was talking to these three men and listening to them recounting their time in the war, tales of the trenches, the machine guns, the snipers, the mud, the whizz-bangs and the wire. Wilf Ellis told me how he was gassed and hospitalised and how his life was spared by a German soldier, of the horses who died the same way as the men in their millions, of the fear and the relief when it was all over. I knew even as they were talking, they were passing on their stories to me.”

The wife of Wilf Ellis, Dorothy, was the last living World War I widow, having passed away this year aged 97 in Iddesleigh. Did Dorothy Ellis recount her life with Wilfred?

“She never talked about Wilf before or after he died. Wilfred only talked that one time in the pub about his time at the front in the First World War. I bought an oil painting from Wilf of a racehorse in a stable, looking out of the picture at me. The horse was called Topthorn, who later, in my mind’s eye, became Joey’s friend in War Horse. So Wilf influenced the making of that book a great deal, one way or another.”

War Horse has since become one of the most successful plays of all time, breaking box offices records at the National Theatre. A further adaption to screen, directed by Steven Spielberg, was also met by rave reviews. The news that his book would hit the West End wasn’t initially met with enthusiasm. “At first I was sceptical. I wondered how a convincing drama of the First World War could be made using life-sized puppets of horses. Pantomime horses was the first thought. But this was the National Theatre and surely they knew what they were doing.” The success of the play is arguably unrivalled. War Horse is set to return to the National Theatre, ten years since it first opened.

A friend and neighbour in North Devon was the seminal poet Ted Hughes, with whom Michael founded the Children’s Laureate. With twenty years having passed since his death, I wondered about their relationship. “Ted was a great friend, he gave me one of the best pieces of advice and I’ve never forgotten it. He told me I would write a better book after War Horse didn’t win the Whitbread prize and I was so despondent and felt like giving up. He said to me, “You’ve written a fine book Michael but you’ll write a finer one.”

Michael’s literary cannon reaches far beyond War Horse. In a recent book An Eagle in the Snow he wrote about Adolf Hitler surviving the First World War after a British soldier had him in his sights. Was this book based on Pte Henry Tandey VC? “A friend of mine, a history producer at the BBC told me the incredible story of Henry Tandy VC, the most decorated Private soldier of the First World War. He was obviously a remarkably brave solder who, time after time, rescued people under fire.

‘But the most remarkable thing of all happened in one of the last battles of the War, in Sept 1918 – the battle of Mercoing, an action for which Tandy was awarded his Victoria Cross. It was after the battle was over and won, that a lone German soldier appeared out of the smoke. They were about to shoot him, when Tandy stopped them. He simply waved the German away and told him to go home. He spared his life. This German soldier later turned out to be Kaporal Adolf Hitler.”

Michael’s stories have often been told through the lense of conflict, an area normally off limits for children’s reading. Today, children’s books face more competition than ever. Addictive video games and enslaving digital devices demand their (and our) attention. Can the power of stories still capture young imaginations, especially when competition from technology is so abundant? “Certainly children can be too reliant on technology but that doesn’t mean to say that technology is a bad thing. It just exists and we can’t get away from it. There is a connection between the reader and a book which is irreplaceable. I’m not against technology but think that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. One can support the other if used in the right way. I do believe stories can still capture the imagination and storytelling can be in lots of different forms – plays, films”.

When not busy writing Michael still finds time to read. “I’m reading The Odyssey, a new translation by Emily Wilson. I was forced to read this as a teenager and hated it. But this translation invites you in. I started reading it on holiday in Ithaca recently.”

And as we all have our favourites, what would be Michael’s favourite new book of the last few years? “I was given a wonderful book of short stories, ‘Love me Tender’ by Jane Feaver. They read as passages from a loosely woven novel about a contemporary rural community. With great insight and sensitivity, beautifully
crafted, acutely observed, Feaver charts the loves and lives of country people. Short stories are often underrated, and this collection is wonderful example of the genre.”

Over the years, Michael has won countless awards and accolades, but there is one particular award that stands out. “The first one I received was an MBE, and Clare got one too at the same time. It was for our work in setting up the charity Farms for City Children. And since that has been very important in our life together, I think that gave me the most pleasure.”

Founded by Michael and his wife, Farms for City Children in 1976 is a charity that gives kids in urban areas the chance to spend a week on a farm, living and working together in a rural environment. Having lived in both a rural and urban environment, Michael has first-hand experience of the benefits of reconnecting with farming. Nearly 100,000 children have now visited the farms.

“The benefits are enormous and can be totally life changing. Those that struggle in the classroom can shine in a different environment, so it is a real leveller.”

FeaturesLocal Life