The War Horse author's family at war: As children's writer Michael Morpurgo admits his sons don't talk to him, the extraordinary story behind their feud
00:32 GMT, 9 June 2012
Sad: War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, pictured with his wife Claire, has revealed his son's don't talk to him
According to the flyleaf of a new biography of the author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo, he is a national treasure who ‘has enchanted a whole generation of children’.
Murpurgo himself collaborated with the book, contributing short stories to run between its chapters and encouraging friends and family to co-operate with biographer Maggie Fergusson. Yet in her acknowledgements thanking scores of people for their assistance, two names are pointedly absent: the author’s own two sons Sebastian and Horatio, now well into their 40s.
Both flatly refused her request for help in assembling their father’s life-story.
This week on BBC radio’s early morning Today programme when the biography was published, presenter Sarah Montague introduced Morpurgo as someone ‘many parents know can reach children in a way that nobody else can’.
Then she added: ‘But from what we understand your own children are not speaking to you.’
Morpurgo, 68, did not deny it. He responded mysteriously that there were ‘differences in my family which I won’t go into’, and said that when his sons were born he was ‘overly young . . . rather immature’.
But he claimed he is a much better grandfather to his seven grandchildren than he ever was a father.
True, Morpurgo was only 20 when Sebastian was born, and 23 when Horatio arrived. But at the same time, this is a man whose life has been devoted to children. As well as spending several years as a teacher, he held the coveted title of Children’s Laureate.
He and his wife Clare, 70, eldest daughter of the late Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books, started up the charity Farms for City Children close to their home in Devon.
Their highly laudable aim was to give inner-city children a chance to experience the countryside, and the charity has now spread to Gloucestershire and Wales. Princess Anne is its patron.
So what on earth could have come between Morpurgo and his sons And why did it not have the same effect on his daughter Rosalind, the only one of his children happy to give Maggie Fergusson her recollections
Unmarried Rosalind, a charming young woman who lives in Exeter, suggested this week that the boys’ schooling might have been a factor.
Made it to the Big Screen: A scene from the film War Horse starring Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott
When Morpurgo was an English teacher, he became ‘so thoroughly disenchanted with private schools’ that he vowed never to work in one again. And yet, despite this, he sent his sons away to private boarding school, as well as Rosalind (whose name is chosen, like her brothers’, from Shakespeare’s plays).
‘Being sent away to school did put a distance between us and our parents,’ explained Rosalind yesterday, ‘but I was only away for a short time because I was always getting into trouble, so I came back and went to the local state school.’
Ironically, Michael’s anxiety to help other children may also have had a detrimental influence on the two sons’ relationships with their father. The book describes the early years of the children’s charity, started in 1976 when Morpurgo’s sons were aged 12 and nine, and Rosalind (adopted because they didn’t want to bring any more children into a ‘crowded world’), just a little younger.
Groups of children started being bused in from schools to muck out, milk cows, stack logs and feed calves and pigs and so on.
Much of Michael and Clare’s time ‘hitherto lavished on their own children’ was now spent, as the biography puts it, on ‘hordes of total strangers’.
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How it used to be: Picture shows Michael reading to Rosalind and Horatio in 1973
This from a man who has noted with passion that any parent ‘knows how important is that hour after the [children’s] return from school when all the problems and triumphs of the day need a sympathetic hearing’.’
When Rosalind was given a pony, she was forbidden from riding it where the visiting children could see in case they were jealous. Her toys were often taken for them to play with without consultation though she says she ‘didn’t mind’. Meanwhile, from the boys in their boarding schools came homesick letters.
To be fair, there were good times too. As the boys and Rosalind were growing up, they enjoyed happy family holidays that the biography describes. As in most families, the children were in their late teens before these holidays began to peter out. Later on, the boys’ weddings were also major celebrations involving the whole family.
Perhaps one has to look further afield to explain the rift between two boys and a father who is now unexpectedly rich and world famous thanks to War Horse, his dramatic story of a farm horse sent into battle in World War I, famously staged by the National Theatre and then made into a film by Steven Spielberg.
Pretty: Catherine Cammaerts, Michael's mother actress
Astonishingly, one intriguing theory centres on the figure of the brooding and self-regarding late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who played a significant role in Michael Morpurgo’s life and is mentioned on several admiring pages in the biography.
Hughes and his second wife Carol were neighbours of the Morpurgos in Devon and their friendship began one day in 1976 when Morpurgo came across the Yorkshire-born poet salmon fishing in the river Torridge.
Morpurgo, at that time a struggling writer, was overwhelmed at first just to be addressed by the great man.
Soon he and Clare were regular guests at ‘legendary hosts’ Ted and Carol’s dinners with their writer friends. And as the Laureate turned the conversation away from cares of the day to books and poetry, Michael ‘delighted in feeling out of his depth’, writes Maggie Fergusson.
She quotes him saying: ‘I loved just to listen to them, to lose myself in their discussions of Yeats, or Eliot, or Rimbaud. And often I would come away and look at the works they had been talking about and try to understand them myself.’
Michael Morpurgo’s humility does not end there: ‘Pretty well everyone, male or female, was in love with Ted,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘I think you can definitely call it love. He was our king — though there was no sense of subservience. Each of us felt this strong connection to him . . . Each of us, individually, wanted to be in his glow.’
It was while he was with Hughes, talking about writing for children at the end of one of those nights, that Morpurgo came up with the idea of there being a Children’s Laureate, and Hughes said: ‘You’re right, Michael. Let’s make it happen.’ Morpurgo held the post from 2003 to 2005.
All the Morpurgo children got to know Hughes very well, especially because of his habit of dropping in on them unannounced and unexpected, when they would abandon whatever they were doing and concentrate on him.
So it is not hard to imagine how Michael Morpurgo’s worship of his literary hero must have lurched when a crushing article on Hughes some time after his death in 1998, appeared in the intellectual arts magazine Arete.
The author flayed Morpurgo’s idol for being not only a boor but also ‘boring’ in his table-talk. It spat out the phrase ‘great man’ as a sneering epithet, and claimed that Hughes ‘badgered’, ‘brow-beat’ and ‘harangued’ people, had perverse political views, made use of rich neighbours to go fishing, and had the disagreeable table habit of going ‘on and on’.
Elite friend: The National Theatre held a salute for the Queen on the roof of Lasduns iconic building featuring Joey the War Horse, one of her favourite characters
What was obvious, whether readers agreed with its sentiments or not, was that it had clearly been written by a man who had known Hughes personally and for a long time — and despised him. Worse, for Michael Morpurgo, was the fact the author of the cascade of vitriol was his own son Horatio.
The impression was that Horatio — a cerebral thinker, novelist and sociologist who lives in Dorset with his Romanian-born wife Ioana, and whose most admired authors are George Orwell and Vaclav Havel — must have spent years almost simmering with rage at what he saw as his father fawning at another man’s feet.
The article read like the purging of all his exasperation and frustration at such subservience towards a man who, while a great poet, seems also to have been an intellectual snob who loved the sound of his own voice.
Through his philanderings, Ted Hughes — if unfairly — is widely held to have precipitated the depression and suicide of his first wife, American writer Sylvia Plath. He left her for another woman who later also killed herself as well as their child.
Even for Michael Morpurgo, who believes children should be shown the real world, with all its problems, and whose stories in more than 120 books are usually inspired by a dilemma with a dark centre, the role of Ted Hughes in his own family split could have been a plot too far.
Literary roots: Michael Morpurgo's father Anthony van Bridge was a famous actor
As for the elder son Sebastian, he now lives in Zagreb with his second wife Lada, an orchestral violinist, and their sons aged ten and seven.
His antipathy towards Morpurgo is thought to have much to do with the classic problem of a first son failing to fulfil the ambitions of a father who, according to sister Rosalind, ‘wanted him to make something of himself and pushed him very hard to do well’.
At home in Exeter, where she is studying for an Open University degree in French and Spanish, she explained: ‘Sebastian is a lovely person but he’s not a get-up-and-go kind of person. He’s always been very sensitive — over sensitive, really — and prefers to avoid issues.’
Whether he feels he failed his father one cannot say, because in Zagreb this week he declined to discuss the issue. He certainly got a good English degree from Trinity College, Dublin. His job He is an English teacher, just as his father was before writing books for children took him on the road to fame and fortune.
But this is not the only issue blighting his relationship with his father. The other, which happened at the end of the Nineties, was the break-up of his marriage to Olivia Stahly, a well-born French girl whose aunt once worked in the family as an au pair.
As the biography notes, the two families were devoted to each other and Morpurgo took a barrel of English beer to the jolly family wedding in France. Sebastian was 22 and he and Olivia would have four daughters, including twins,
Morpurgo ‘loved the Stahly family, and he loved France,’ writes Maggie Fergusson. He and his wife also loved their daughter-in-law, and felt the break-up was a tragedy. Friends say he saw it as an unnecessary failure.
As Rosalind said this week: ‘There was a lot of strain between my eldest brother and my dad because Sebastian was divorcing a girl they adored. It wasn’t that they didn’t like his second wife, but this takes time.’ Olivia, living in Paris, has never remarried, though she does now have a partner. She and her children remain close to Michael and Clare.
But despite the traumatic events that have certainly severed ties between the sons and their father, the cut-off is not quite as total as storyteller Michael Murpurgo suggests.
Horatio, who has a daughter aged six, has been sending emails and occasionally telephoning his parents. He and his wife came to his mother’s recent 70th birthday party in Devon.
And while Sebastian, whose musician wife is described by a relative as ‘the main bread-winner’, remains icy cool towards his father, he too is in touch from time to time. And yet neither he nor Horatio were prepared to offer their views about their father to his biographer.
‘It would be so nice if we hadn’t had these troubles,’ laments Rosalind, ‘but no family’s like that. It’s such a shame.’