Interview: Michael Morpurgo

The very English former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo reveals his ‘strange connection’ to Jewishness.

By John Nathan, February 26, 2009
Morpugo: dilemmas

Morpugo: dilemmas

You do not get much more English than the children’s author Michael Morpurgo. He ticks all the upper-middle-class English boxes, and a few more besides. Born in Hertfordshire during the war, he went to prep school in Sussex, public school in Kent, then King’s College, London, where he read English.

His wife, Clare, is the daughter of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin publishers; and the names of their grown-up children, Sebastian, Horatio and Rosalind, could have been plucked from the pages of Waugh and Shakespeare. They live in Devon, where Morpurgo’s friend and neighbour was the late Ted Hughes, whose poetry is as deeply rooted in English countryside as any English oak.

It was with Hughes that Morpurgo originated the role of Children’s Laureate, a title currently held by Michael Rosen but which Morpurgo held between 2003 and 2005.

So when this most English of authors says in his RP English: “I have a very, very, strange connection to Jewishness”, the sentence arrives as incongruously as a Jew shouting “tally ho”.

Morpurgo’s books number well over 100, none more famous than War Horse, which the National Theatre has turned into one of its biggest hits and which transfers to the West End next month. And none more daring than The Mozart Question, which arrives at the New End Theatre, in North London, next week.

The one-man show, adapted by Simon Reade and performed by Andrew Bridgmont, tells the story of a Jewish virtuoso violinist called Paolo Levi — a sort of fictional blend of Primo Levi and Yehudi Menuhin — who has never performed Mozart’s music because his parents and other Jewish musicians were forced in the concentration camps to play Mozart to new arrivals destined for the gas chambers.

The story is the result of several strands in Morpugo’s life coming together. “I have had since childhood a deep love of music and Mozart,” he says. “And then 15 or 20 years ago I came across this ghastly use of music to do something that is so completely the opposite of what is sublime about Mozart. I found it horrible and haunting. The fact that people played this music because they had to and for this purpose bothered me for many, many years.”

Morpurgo’s stories are often inspired by dilemma. And the dilemma that led to The Mozart Question was how would a musician practise their art after using it to survive in the camps.

“It seemed to me there are two answers to this. One is that you go back to it with renewed vigour and you use music as your song of hope. Or, it would bring back such terrible memories that you would never want to go near it again.”

But Morpurgo never considered writing about this dilemma until one day in Venice, where much of his story is set. He came across a little boy in pyjamas, sitting with his chin on the handlebars of his tricycle, utterly enthralled by the 18th-century Spanish guitar music played by a busker.

“It was unbelievably moving because you sort of knew at that moment that a life could be changed. And I knew then that the only way those players in the camps could have played was by losing themselves in the music,” he says.

This image of a boy listening to a busker is central to Morpurgo’s book. Except that with Michael Foreman’s illustration, the boy’s striped pyjamas bears an eerie resemblance to the striped uniforms worn by his parents in the illustrations of the camp.

But the second strand that led to the creation of this story can be traced back to Morpurgo’s stepfather, Jack. “The Morpurgos were originally a rather wealthy Jewish family who came from Trieste in Italy, and one part of his [Jack’s] family went to Amsterdam and then went to South Africa,” he says. “My step-grandfather, rather interestingly, fought against the British in the Boar War and then for the British in the First World War. How history whips people around. Anyway, the whole family ended up in the East End like many Jewish people in the ’20s and ’30s, so my stepfather has a very interesting story to tell — which he never told.” It is a story still shrouded in mystery.

Mainly because Jack, a formidable intellectual who was history editor at Penguin, always denied his Jewish roots.

“I think he wanted to belong not to the tribe he came from but to the English tribe,” says Morpurgo.

“He denied his background. This particular secret unravelled very, very slowly. A member of my family did the research and found out that he [Jack] was Jewish. You can go to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, tap on the machine there and find out if anyone with your name died in the camps. And there are Morpurgos. But he became more and more adamant as he got older that he was not Jewish.”

Morpurgo’s latest book, due to be published “this or next year”, also touches on a Jewish identity to which this 65-year-old gentile stepson feels more connected than his late Jewish stepfather. It is called The Kites are Flying and it is about a Palestinian and an Israeli child who communicate with each other by flying kites from either side of the [security] wall that divides their peoples.

“I suppose I wrote that too because of my Jewish connection. One of the first times I read The Mozart Question out loud was at Jewish Book Week. And there I was, this gentile telling this Jewish story and having this story inside one part of my family — and that part denying it. So I have a very, very strange connection to Jewishness.”

The Mozart Question is at the New End Theatre, London NW3 from March 3. Tel: 0870 033 2733

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014