Memory man

Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo - Credit: Archant

Michael Morpurgo talks to BETH MAY in the Duke of York pub, Iddesleigh, about his latest book, Only Remembered

Alan Lane, Michael Morpurgo's father in law, founder of Penguin Books and a great lover of Devon, no

Alan Lane, Michael Morpurgo's father in law, founder of Penguin Books and a great lover of Devon, now buried at Hartland - Credit: Archant

Anyone, of any age, who has read Michael Morpurgo’s acclaimed War Horse, seen the stage show or watched the Spielberg blockbuster will have been captivated by this harrowing, heartfelt story of boy and horse that, so poignantly records the importance of horses during the First World War.

The Devon-based author, whose inspiration for War Horse was the stories he heard in his local village of Iddesleigh, has always been fascinated by war and wartime stories. As a former teacher, keeping those stories alive for the next generation has become his life’s work.

With this in mind it should come as no surprise that in 2014, the year marking the centenary of the First World War, Michael’s latest release is a collection of stories, poems, plays and pictures about the Great War. Only Remembered is, however, a book with a difference.

The Duke Of York at Iddesleigh, Michael's local pub and now a regular stopping off point for those o

The Duke Of York at Iddesleigh, Michael's local pub and now a regular stopping off point for those on the War Horse trail - Credit: Archant

This isn’t a novel that will take you on a thrilling adventure with mesmerising characters and a happy ending. This is a profound compilation of stories and experiences of real life soldiers, families and loved ones that lived through the First World War, and some who never came home.

Michael decided to collect these extracts from friends, family, politicians, fellow writers, Royals, actors, illustrators and presenters. In fact, anyone who responded to his call has their extract included in this timely anthology.

Only Remembered, Michael says, is a book for people of all ages and is full of spine tingling memories, newspaper extracts, touching photographs, song lyrics, poems and anecdotes, many of which have never before been seen in print. Michael was keen for each person to have the opportunity to express their own memories of the war in their own unique way - and each piece tells a different story.

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“At the beginning of this year, there were some people who made pronouncements about how we should mark the centenary of the First World War. When I heard this, I thought that the way in which we mark the centenary is really up to us as individuals.

“So many people have connections with the First World War; going right back through a family or the places they live and stories they have heard, and everyone will remember it how they want to remember it, and it will be different for everyone.”

“So we decided to ask real people, diverse people; teenagers, politicians, writers, historians and illustrators to pass on their stories in their own way, recalling the things that really stuck out in their mind.”

The result is a book that includes contributions from many different walks of life. Michael says: “Every soldier who went to war could have had a mother, a brother, a sister, a lover. We all grieve the same. Soldiers left from France, Germany, Italy, America and New Zealand and many didn’t come back.

“There are the names of six soldiers on the war memorial here in our small village of Iddesleigh. We were not alone. That would have happened everywhere.”

The importance, Michael believes, is that the stories get passed on to a younger generation to help them understand how and why the war happened, and what it was really like to live through it. As with many of his stories, he wants readers to really think about our own connections with war, to be able to tell our own stories in the future, so they live on and don’t get lost over time.

“I’ve lived 70 years in comparative peace. I’m used to it and I take it for granted. That’s the problem we have. In other corners of the world they are fighting each other. We take our own peace and freedom for granted. We need to remember how we did this and how this thing, this war, happened and how it ended. We shouldn’t revel in it, but remember what it is that these people went through in both world wars, in order to allow us to live the way we do now…and how lucky we are.

“The best kind of history there is, is when it comes from your own family or your own town. When children themselves reach back to find out what happened in their own family history it’s just wonderful. If this book encourages people to ask about their family’s own connection to the war, that’s the best thing that can come out of it.”

The names of contributors to the book include actors Jeremy Irvine and Joanna Lumley, broadcaster Simon Mayo, Lord Paddy Ashdown, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, playwrights Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and Sir Tony Robinson.

And what about Michael’s own contribution? He adds a piece translated from the French book, On Les Aura by Barroux, from a recently discovered diary of an unknown French soldier as he goes to war and into action in 1914. He likens it to the simple stories he was told by local Devonshire characters in the Duke of York, in Iddesleigh many years ago - the very stories that lead to the creation of War Horse.

Michael will be talking about his anthology, Only Remembered, and his forthcoming novel, Listen to the Moon, at this year’s Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival on Saturday, 20 September at 4.30pm. It is the second time he has appeared at the festival, and explains it is one of his favourites.

He reveals: “I love the location by the sea and of course the festival president, Dame Hilary Mantel, as well as the other talented authors who will be appearing. It’s great for Devon.”

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