Penelope Lively

His own best story

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Michael Morpurgo

Maggie Fergusson

Fourth Estate, pp. 307, £

A biography that is also a collaboration with its subject is something of a novelty. Here, Maggie Fergusson writes the life, while Michael Morpurgo contributes seven stories, each springing from the subject matter of the preceding section.

Fergusson has previously written an excellent biography of George Mackay Brown, so has now moved from a detached consideration of a person no longer alive to work on and with someone very much around and active (who had himself proposed the idea of the book). In other words, this is a very different sort of project— and it could be said right away that this is no hagiography. Fergusson is much too subtle a writer for that, and what she has done is to present, with tact and insight, a man who is clearly complex, ferociously energetic, idealistic, not always easy to get on with, but — at least in the words of his friend Philip Pullman — ‘a truly good man’.

Morgurgo likes to think of himself as a storyteller rather than a writer, and stresses the affinity with the theatre and love of being on stage: ‘It’s what I feel I should be doing.’ His mother, Kippe (somewhat oddly named after a Belgian hamlet), had been to Rada and then in repertory before being swallowed up by motherhood and a suffocating marriage. His father — as opposed to his stepfather, Jack Morpurgo, whose name Michael was given as a child — was a professional actor. His grandfather was a Belgian poet — ‘Belgium’s Rupert Brooke’ — hence the Belgian hamlet, of patriotic significance in the first world war.

So the stage connection is there, within the family, and along with it a family story that upstages most others — callous, self-sacrificing and sad. Tony Bridge, father of Michael and his brother, returned from the war to find himself effectively booted out of the way by Jack Morpurgo— good-looking, witty, glamorous, faintly rakish — who had taken a violent fancy to Kippe. There was a divorce; Bridge felt it best to remove himself from his sons’ lives, and emigrated to Canada. Kippe carried a burden of guilt for ever; Michael, as a schoolboy, found himself looking at his father on the television screen — playing Magwitch, in a Canadian adaptation of Great Expectations.

So, a childhood with a backstory that must have resonated always. And Morpurgo’s adult life is also striking: early marriage to Clare Lane, fatherhood when he was only two years out of school, a brief spell at Sandhurst, then soldiering chucked in favour of teaching — a fortunate decision that must have driven much that was to follow.

The young Morpurgos were cushioned by Clare’s income from a family trust — she is the daughter of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin; a combination of high-minded beliefs and a way with children seems to have prompted the formation of their charity, Farms for City Children, based at the mansion in Devon that they bought in 1974 and with which they are still closely involved. It was — is— a generous and imaginative endeavour, bringing inner-city children to share farming life, to experience what they could never otherwise know.

Eventually writing took over from farm life and an exalted form of social work. Morpurgo has written over 100 books, but his career as a writer plodded for years before publishers began to take note of the name. Well, they do now; the success of War Horse as a National Theatre production and a Spielberg film, and of books such as Shadow and Kensuke’s Kingdom, have made him famous — and rich. He no longer needs to feel in debt to the Allen Lane resources.

Fergusson has done her subject proud, skilfully evoking both the high and low points of a busy and productive life. Morpurgo’s own ‘story’ contributions are sometimes an expansion of the narrative and at others a riff on what has gone before, with a particular fondness for ghost appearances, some more effective than others. This combination is an original idea, and the stories nicely complement the unfolding life. But in the last resort the most compelling story is just that — as told by a masterly biographer.