I joined the army because of an uncle, and became a teacher because of another uncle. They were both my heroes. Uncle Peter was 20 when WWII broke out, and he died when his plane crashed in Cornwall, aged 21. He was a RADA actor and he was acting around the country, and the war came and killed him. My Uncle Frances was a pacifist and a teacher. When war broke out, he said, ‘No, I don’t want to do this.’ But when his brother was killed, he joined up and ended up being a secret agent in France and became this extraordinary hero. Then after the war, he went back to teaching.
Teaching reminded me of who I had been when I was very young. I liked that, because there’s something rather fresh and open-hearted about young people. They’re not closed off by the difficulties of life and I responded to that. I also instinctively wanted to pass on to them what I knew was interesting, what I liked. And I did like stories and I did like poems, so I started reading to them.
When I chose stories that I really liked myself and read these to children, there was this wonderful silence. They lost themselves in the story completely, and I thought, ‘This is the most magical thing – that human beings could communicate like this through someone else’s story.’ I ran out of good stories to read, so I started making up my own. That is the root to my story-telling. I really wanted to hold children’s attention. To have them rapt in a story...
You don’t need to talk down to children. I could just look them in the eye and tell them the story I wanted to tell because I knew that they were as deep or as troubled or as interested and as sensitive as I was. There is an honesty, strangely enough, about telling fiction.
Children should have an enriched life. I realised that when they are very young, things should happen to them to enable them to find the potential in themselves. In other words, education should never be narrowing, and it shouldn’t be formulaic. It should be creative – the more your experiences of life when you are young, the more chance you may have of making the best of yourself. In a way, that is what led to my wife and I starting Farms for City Children.
The education system is moving rapidly in the wrong direction in this country. It’s all about testing and punishment, and the punishment is failure. If you teach for a test, and if the children you teach fail it, you create two things: you create failure with them and you’ve made a failure of the method that you used.
Children learn empathy through seeing what upsets other people and it’s important to understand that. Empathy is what literature is all about. Children don’t respond in the same emotional way as adults. When I go to the play of War Horse in London, I sit there with 1,000 or so people – parents and grandparents and children down to about the age of eight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child cry, but I’ve seen hundreds of their elders cry. I think children feel it just the same. They also feel the fact that mum or dad or grandpa’s in tears, and they’ve never seen grandpa in tears before. Adults understand the significance of war, about the cruelty and pity of it, and many older people have memories of having lived through it. And the older you get, of course, the more you understand your own mortality. It’s not that children don’t grasp it – they respond to the story differently.
I like to speak of Farms for City Children as the best story I ever wrote – it has been going for 40 years and we’ve had about 90,000 children spend a week on one of the three farms. Only I didn’t write it myself. This is a story that my wife Clare and I put together, when we were these rather idealistic and naive people from the 60s, who decided that children needed more than a classroom. We wanted to do something for children that is so arresting and so enriching that it becomes part of who they are. So we bought a large Victorian house in the middle of Devon, with a real farm, and brought kids down from Bermondsey in London, from St Pauls in Bristol, wherever – inner city areas – to experience something that they’d never experienced before that they didn’t think was part of their world.
It’s important to give children the opportunity to work, and it’s very important for them to feel that their work is valued. The farm gives them the challenge of it being difficult, sometimes unpleasant even – cold, hot and smelly. But also an understanding that something is more important than what THEY feel about it – which is the animals and looking after the animals. That comes first: ‘you’re the farmer’ – children are brilliant at role-playing and they understood that.
It’s wonderful to be lying in your bed at 8 o’clock in the morning and hear the trailer trundling along the lane with 12 children and the farmer, all going to feed the calves.Then I hear their voices in the fields when they’re walking back – it goes on. We did it for 25 years, hands-on. Milking the cows and feeding the pigs and feeding the calves with the children – that’s what you have to do when you run a charity, because you can’t afford to pay anyone, so you do it yourself. We did that for 10 years and another 15 years in a slightly different guise, but still going out every day, and I was writing my books in between. The satisfaction that’s come from that has been immense.
The Farms for City Children On Angel Wings.
A magical retelling of the Christmas story by Michael Morpurgo. Performed by Michael and actress Nandi Bhebhe on Tuesday
8 December, 7pm at St John’s Smith Square, London, SW1P 3HA. Accompanied by Voices at the Door singing Christmas carols and directed by Simon Reade.