Two Michaels, the plumber and a bad lad

The 25th collaboration between two big names in children’s fiction has a firm local flavour – being set on the coast, in an isolated prison, and featuring a Suffolk Punch. Steven Russell spoke to the men weaving their magic with words and pictures

“As soon as he said ‘horses’, I thought ‘Ha! Michael Morpurgo!’ I called him and we had a little chat over the phone.” The illustrator is a long-time friend of writer Morpurgo, known for stories such as The Butterfly Lion, Billy the Kid and War Horse – the latter now a successful West End play. “The thing that fascinated me was this idea of young ne’er-do-wells from the East End of London ending up in that area (rural Suffolk) and working with these huge animals. Obviously Michael spotted this and went away and did a lovely first draft, and that was the start.”

The resulting tale, Not Bad For A Bad Lad, marks the friends’ 25th major literary collaboration. It takes the form of a man in his mid-60s, born during the war, telling his grandson his life story – warts and all.

Keener to play on out-of-bounds bombsites than apply himself in the classroom, he is written off by the head teacher as “a brainless, useless, good-for-nothing waste of space” and at 16 finds himself at Hollesley Bay Borstal, thanks to a hiccup in his fledgling career in thieving and burglary.

Happily, the nearby stables – home to Suffolk Punches – offer a lifeline and a boost to his self-esteem. Some kind words, honest graft and one gentle giant in particular help put a life back on the rails.


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It’s a theme close to the heart of Michael Morpurgo, a former teacher aware of the positive power of a word, a gesture, a good deed or a show of faith.

He says the literary union with Michael Foreman is wonderful. “He’s not one of these people who just illustrates: he’s a writer himself; a storyteller himself. From time to time he comes across a story that he thinks I could write I won’t say better than him but, maybe, because I’ve been in that kind of territory before, perhaps he thinks it’s a world I understand well.

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“He said ‘Wouldn’t it be an interesting idea if we set a story about a kid growing up when we were growing up and getting into trouble in much the same way as children do today?’ They get into a vortex of difficulty that leads to more difficulty. We had a good long chat about it.

“I think the conclusion we came to was that if the story was to have any sense of purpose, rather than just being sentimental tosh about a horse and a boy, it would be a story about the people in our lives who make a difference to us – that could be a parent, it could be a relation, or it could be a teacher – and how important it is that something is said at some particular point which gives the child a sense that they’re special and important.”

At the heart of the prototype tale lay a true experience from Michael F’s own schooldays, “which he said was the first time he ever felt good about himself – an extraordinary thought, really. It made him feel, he said, about 10ft tall. Of course, I took that on: when the boy is made to feel special when he is in the Borstal and meets this old bloke looking after the horses”.

Michael F explains. “Early in my first term at Pakefield Primary (near Lowestoft) our teacher, Miss West, stood close behind me in ‘singing lesson’. Then she tapped me on my shoulder and said I sounded like a frog at the bottom of the well and that I should never sing again. I was five years old. At the end of the lesson she saw how upset I was at the early demise of a singing career, so she made me ‘Drum Cupboard Monitor’ – a position of prestige and it came with a badge!

“My job was to unlock the cupboard and lay out all the instruments before the music lesson began. I always kept the biggest drum for myself. You will see that the ‘other Michael’ has subsequently inflicted this early trauma upon the young Bad Lad.”

There’s a lesson there, isn’t there, in the way we treat youngsters? Put them down and we sow problems; raise their sense of self-worth and good things can flow. “Certainly the problems are timeless and the solution for children who do not feel good about themselves is as it ever was: being told by some adult that they’re ‘all right’,” agrees Michael Morpurgo.

In the 1970s he and wife Clare launched a charity allowing children from inner city areas to experience life in the countryside by visiting one of three farms: in Devon, Gloucestershire and Wales. Over 34 years, 75,000 kids have enjoyed a working holiday.

“One of the inspirations for the story, I suppose, must be that I have this firm belief as an educationalist that, if you give children enriching experiences when they’re young, you can change lives. It can be a book, something said by a teacher, a week on a farm – anything. The point is that you have to put in a child’s way something which they’re really going to grasp, and thus feel a sense of belonging and achievement.

“As we know, there are probably millions of rather disenchanted and alienated children growing up in our society, surrounded by quite a lot of ugliness of all sorts – people-ugliness and building-ugliness, surrounded by concrete – and I can’t see how you can change lives if that’s all they feel: out of it, not connected with it, and not feeling in any sense that this is a wonderful world to live in.”

The tragedy is that young children who start “failing” at primary school run a very real risk of continuing to fail during the rest of their formal education. “Somehow you have to break that cycle. Unless you set it up, it won’t happen. You can’t just do it in the classroom, however good the teacher is.

“If you do have amazing experiences when you are seven, eight, nine or 10 – the opportunity to spend time in the countryside, working with animals and feeling that you can work with adults who value your contribution – the chances are you can break through.

“Education can do that wonderfully well; injecting that spark. I suppose it’s like shining a light: the child looks up from the ground, sees the light, and says ‘OK, this is for me.’”

Michael M says he was gripped immediately by the premise of the book.

“I usually take my time. I have a period of weeks and months when I weave a story in my head – I call it my dream time – and in this particular case it happened rather fast. I was very fired up by this story. It felt like one of these marvellous fables in which children find what they need, and I thought it rather important.

“I went on holiday and took the idea with me – two summers ago now – and was on a boat trip. I wrote it all in two days. The boat was lovely, but quite boring, and I was lying there on the bed, knees drawn up, and scribbled the story in draft. Then, when I got to where I was going, I read it and thought ‘This has got a bit of something’, tweaked it a bit, got back home, put it on the computer and tweaked it again.”

With two-dozen joint projects already under their belts, the two Michaels have a well-developed relationship in which they can talk things through, make suggestions and settle on what needs to be done.

“We’re far too old to take offence!” laughs Morpurgo. “We never do cause offence, anyway, because I think we are in tune and we do love the same sorts of stories, have grown up with the same sorts of stories, so we chime, I think.”

He’s happy to leave matters illustrative to Michael F.

“He’s one of these people with a wealth of experience and certainly doesn’t need any guidance from me! Once it’s done, we have a little nitpicking time. I think I arranged for the boy to pinch a motorbike, and Michael came back and said ‘There’s a particular car I want to draw . . .’ So the boy pinched a car. Things like that we bat back and forth. I tell him which I think are the best pictures. He’ll tweak something here or there. He’s very professional and works very fast.”

And vice-versa . . . Michael Foreman says his collaborator “writes very good ‘pictures’. He’s very visual and a wonderful storyteller. He doesn’t waste time with lots of ‘talking heads’ and they tend to be adventures: people out doing stuff”.

When it came to the settings for most of the illustrations, though, Michael F simply knew he had to visit Hollesley Bay so he could visualise the place. He’d never been before, though he has vague childhood memories of a Boys Brigade weekend somewhere pretty close.

“A lady in Suffolk” – early years librarian Jo Dixon – “was really good at getting me invited up there to give a talk to the prisoners. So we had a session there in the library, with a whole lot of prisoners of different ages and back-grounds. When you speak to children, one of the things they ask is ‘How much do you earn?’ One of the prisoners said ‘How much do you earn . . . and where do you live?’ Everyone fell about laughing.

“In going, of course, I could see inside the place, although most of it has been built since the period we’re writing about. It was really the setting and layout I wanted to see – the relationship of the prison to the landscape and how close it was to the sea. As it developed, Michael then wrote extra bits. I wanted to have him (the boy) riding ‘free’ on the beach, for instance, which wasn’t in the original draft.

“The landscape was inspiring. The prison’s ‘up’ slightly higher, and you look down and can see the sea in the distance. For boys from the East End of London, that must have been rather funny.”

Of course, life in a Borstal in the 1960s wasn’t cushy. Michael Foreman wanted to speak to someone who’d been there at the time and was put in touch with a former “boy” who gave him an insight about what it was like arriving on your first day, and the strict regime. “As it is in the book, that’s more or less the way this chap described it to me.”

Thus there’s an unwarranted “ten of the best”, with a cane, for the fictional Bad Lad – “worst beating I ever had” – a two-mile run each morning, and bricks to lay in all weathers. The food is disgusting and, at night, one of the fellow young offenders cries himself to sleep in the dormitory. Our inmate says: “Some nights I turned my face to the wall and just wished I was dead.”

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending . . .

Michael F chuckles as he remembers another famous former inmate of Hollesley Bay – the author and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Jeffrey Archer, who found himself in the open prison seven or eight years ago for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

“Funnily enough, I’ve got to do an evening event with him in a month from now. I don’t know whether to raise that or not!

“Strangely, too, when he was in there, he bought a picture of mine to use as his Christmas card! It was from The Wind in the Willows. It was Mr Toad, when he was in prison!”

n Not Bad For A Bad Lad is published by Templar at �9.99. ISBN 978-1848773080

The Hollesley Bay story

THE justice system and farming (including Suffolk Punch horses) have been inextricably linked at Hollesley Bay over the years – but that’s not the whole picture.

One piece of the jigsaw is that the Barthorp family, major landowners, used to exhibit Suffolk horses. Another is that a professor, Robert Johnson, ran a training centre on the estate. At the end of 1886 it became part of Colonial College and Training Farms Limited – a college to train gentlemen in agriculture before they emigrated and took their skills to other parts of the empire.

Not long after the turn of the century the college found itself in the hands of the receiver and was picked up in 1906 by the Central (Unemployed) Body for London. It was reinvented as a farm colony for the capital’s jobless, with each worker given a house and the land with which to become self-sufficient.

In 1938 the Prison Commission acquired Hollesley Bay to train young offenders under the Borstal system.

It was an open Borstal, with the boys doing a variety of jobs on a farm or in a workshop, complemented by educational training and plenty of exercise.

In 1982 Warren Hill opened as a “closed” facility for young offenders, alongside Hollesley Bay open prison. Today, many of the adult inmates from the open prison work on the 200-acre farm.

The Suffolk Punch Trust Limited was formed in 2002 to take the Colony Stud at Hollesley prison into private charitable ownership. The trust aims to maintain the breed through the largest and probably the oldest stud farm for Suffolk Punch horses in the world.

Paint the world with colour!

COULDN’T help noticing that Michael Morpurgo used a word – frit, as in scared – that we sometimes hear spoken in Suffolk by older folk who grew up in rural parts. Is it used elsewhere?

“I think it’s a country word, you know,” he says. “(Poet) Ted Hughes was a neighbour of mine down here in Devon and would use it – and he was from Yorkshire. I think it’s a country word.

“It’s rather a good one. When these words are remote, and people don’t commonly use them, I think ‘Put it in!’ Publishers will always say ‘Children won’t understand it.’ Of course they will! They’ll just think you’ve spelt it wrong! They get the context; and then they’ve found another word they can use themselves.

“It’s a beautiful language, and the broader you can make it for children, the more they will be fascinated by it.”

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