The Suffolk lad who grew up to be honoured in the Smoke

ILLUSTRATOR Michael Foreman has every excuse – should he need it – for feeling a little discombobulated.

“Last Saturday I did a talk there and afterwards people came along with books to sign, and so I was standing in my mother’s shop, behind the counter, signing away. And, of course, the last time I was in such a situation I could barely see over the counter! It’s very weird. They had a replica of the outdoor loo, as well, which was quite a feature . . . with a life-size drawing of myself sitting on it!”

The exhibition has already been extended to mid-April and, because it’s been such a hit, there’s talk of it staying open until June. “They’ve had record attendances, and so they’re thrilled with it.”

War Boy: The Michael Foreman Exhibition came about because the museum wanted to do something about the Second World War that was child-friendly. “They were selling War Boy in the museum shop” – his autobiographical account of childhood on the Suffolk coast – “and so thought they would base a bit of it on that. Then it grew and grew, and in fact they realised the book told more or less everything they wanted to tell.”

It shows, for instance, how life in a small town dramatically changed. Other themes include rationing, coastal defences and air raid precautions.

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Michael’s book War Game also provides inspiration, following four friends from the fields of Suffolk who sign up and find themselves in appalling conditions in France during the First World War. It’s based on the author’s uncles, who died in the fighting. The exhibition includes their medals, and original Foreman illustrations from both early and recent work.

It features, too, his artwork from Billy the Kid, written by Michael Morpurgo and telling the fictional story of a Chelsea Pensioner whose career as a footballer was interrupted by war. Visitors can handle a real Chelsea Pensioner’s uniform and learn about the strong links between soccer and the Army.

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Michael Foreman feels youngsters identify with his work because they consider events from a child’s perspective and feature aspects central to their lives and knowledge: such as sweets, wandering about on cliff-tops, and thinking about butterflies and nettles.

It’s a rare old time for the Suffolk-born illustrator, whose first picture book has been republished by Templar to mark its 50th anniversary. The General, written by Janet Charters at the height of the cold war, was published in 1961.

What an honour to see it reissued.

“Well,” laughs the man who became a full-time art student at the age of 15, “it’s a privilege to still be here! A friend of mine said it can’t be often that a writer is still around for the 50th anniversary of his first book.”

Come, come, Mr Foreman. You might be 72 tomorrow – happy birthday – but that’s young these days.

“Well,” he concedes, “I went to the doctor this morning and he told me I’m perfectly in shape; so I should feel full of the joys of spring!”

Maybe that’s down to all that clean Suffolk air as a child.

“I think it was rationing! It was a very healthy diet.”

In that first book, the collaborators, who had met at St Martin’s School of Art, told the story of a general who wanted to become the most famous soldier in the world. One day he fell off his horse, lay in the grass, was struck by the beauty of nature, pledged never to harm anything again, disbanded his troops and worked to make his country the most beautiful in the world. Best of all, his new philosophy was noticed by General Nicolai Marcovitch from the East and General Custard from the West. Both become converts.

War is a common theme in Michael’s work. His view of conflict as ultimately futile has essentially been proved right, hasn’t it? And, come to that, his environmental views, encapsulated in the 2006 book Mia’s Story. He was flying in to Santiago, Chile, when he noticed the land between the city and the Andes mountains was smoking with rubbish dumps. He later explored the dumps and made friends with folk living there, noting how they survived by recycling waste. The artist even scavenged scraps of paper to make sketches.

“The truth is that somehow I felt, all along, that children would understand this more immediately than many adults, because it seemed so blindingly obvious.

“Television has been a great advantage, in that children get to hear about everything that happens in the world. It’s not watered down or sweetened in the way it was before TV, when maybe parents would protect them from the realities of the world. They soak it up. So that, I felt, gave the opportunity to do books about any subject, because it was all within a child’s knowledge. They might not have experienced it first hand, but at least they knew it was happening.

“So there was no subject that was off limits – although the way the subject was treated was extremely important, of course. You want to leave them with hope at the end of the book, and a feeling that they could do something about it. With the environmental things, I tried to keep it down to a child’s scope: to feel that they can take part in this and, in a little way, make a difference.”

For all the sense that adults are messing things up, there are indeed strong veins of hope in his work.

“My first memory – and it’s the first picture in War Boy – is a bomb coming through the roof.” (It was at Pakefield, when he was three. It crashed through the bedroom ceiling, missed the sleeping lad by a few centimetres, bounced on the floor, hit the wall, landed in the fireplace and burst into flames. His brother had just enough time to extinguish the blaze and stop the house catching fire.) “That’s kind of pessimistic . . . but it missed me and ended up in the fireplace: extremely optimistic! So I have been blessed, and therefore I’m optimistic.

“When we did The General, we thought that if we saw the end of next week we’d be lucky, because there was this threat of instant mass destruction. And, then, that didn’t happen. People got together; the generation of children around when The General came out was the generation that pulled down the Berlin Wall. So that got better.

“When I first went to America, the southern states were still segregated; now they’ve got a black president. So it’s not all doom and gloom. Things do move along – though we do still go from one catastrophic war to another. But I think there is an understanding that eventually they’ve all got to start talking.”

When Michael and I last spoke – in the summer of 2005, when a DVD of War Game was published – the Iraq war was two years old and the Afghan conflict hadn’t become the tragic impasse it is today. Does he despair at how things are turning out?

“I think it’s unfortunately borne out all the fears and mistrust I had initially: a compete and utter catastrophe, and certainly hasn’t improved security anywhere in the world.

“It’s more confusing than the old cold war, because then it was Left and Right, and now it’s partly religion and partly social – a complete mixture. And, unfortunately, it’s just done in an extremely clumsy way. Even when they tried to help in Haiti, they came in like an invasion.”

You mean the Americans?

“Well, I didn’t want to say that! I remember when I was a boy, I loved America and the idea of America. I loved the music, the literature, the movies – the whole thing. They’ve just got it wrong. Well, not ‘they’, but some of the people at the top. The heart is good, but . . . I don’t know.”

The thing particularly upsetting him at the moment is children’s books, specifically those aimed at little girls.

“It’s like women’s liberation never happened! You go into a bookshop and you get a whole section of pink books, with glitter and god knows what sprinkled on the front of them. It’s all ‘little princesses’ and books about make-up. The books are sold as products, rather than literature; and it’s all about ‘getting stuff’ and getting to look like somebody else.”

It fuels envy and unhealthy competition, he fears.

“It’s sad that major publishers are pushing out this stuff and that the major book chains are stocking it, at the front of the shop, and little independent bookshops that used to be in business because they loved books are being pushed out.”

On a happier note, the next book to be published with his name on it has a local link. Not Bad for a Bad Lad is written by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by t’other Michael, and inspired by Hollesley Bay, near Woodbridge, where prisoners and heavy horses have a tradition of co-existing in relative harmony.

Said lad is sent to Borstal. When he starts work in the prison stable with Suffolk Punches, and finds it therapeutic, something begins to change . . .

It’s due out in the summer “and is our 25th book together”, says Michael F, who told Michael M about the former Suffolk Borstal and the horses.

The illustrator still has family in Suffolk and is not an infrequent visitor. He has a brother in Pakefield who goes fishing every morning at six o’clock “and is a bit of a star on Radio Suffolk on Sundays. ‘Bernard of Pakefield’ rings up and tells a couple of jokes. . .”

n War Boy: The Michael Foreman Exhibition is at the National Army Museum in Chelsea.


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