Michael Morpurgo, the former Children's Laureate and author of the hit play War Horse, is squeezing in one last interview and photoshoot before setting off for a month's holiday in Europe – by rail, because he and his wife disapprove of flying except when strictly on business. Now in his late sixties, rubicund of face and unfailingly obliging in manner, he still brims over with new ideas, describing them in the no-nonsense, slightly clipped tones of someone who had once trained as an Army officer at Sandhurst before quitting to become first a teacher and then a writer. For the past 35 years he has lived just outside Iddesleigh, a village set in the deep Devon countryside bordering the River Torridge, which over the years has provided him with some of his most treasured walks.
A former neighbour and close friend living in nearby North Tawton, up to his death in 1998, was Ted Hughes, whom Morpurgo first encountered fishing on the same river which he loved. Hughes, in turn, had been firm friends with the brilliant but tortured writer Henry Williamson, who lived locally and died in 1977. It was this author's Tarka the Otter that most inspired Hughes as a boy, and Hughes later described it as "a holy book, a soul-book, written with the life blood of an unusual poet". And now, to complete this circle of creative companionship, Morpurgo has provided an introduction to a new edition of Williamson's other great nature novel, Salar the Salmon, written in 1935 and set, once again, on the River Torridge. So what is it about this stretch of water that has inspired these three generations of writers?
Although born and educated in south London, Williamson became a passionate country-man after surviving the First World War. Looking for the peace of mind that eluded him in his troubled domestic life, where he was sometimes referred to within his own family as "Tarka the Rotter", he spent long hours fishing from the river bank while keeping a close watch on the wildlife around him. Hughes, whose "Pike" is one of the great poems of the 20th century, was also a committed angler. Does Morpurgo, with his phenomenally high writing output have the time to be a dedicated angler too?
"People have tried to teach me. Ted Hughes tried to teach me. But I was hopeless; I haven't the patience. You really need to not care about catching the fish, and I could never see the point of that. But when I did manage to catch a little something on a few occasions, I never liked the business of killing it. Both Ted and Williamson, while loving and respecting nature, were essentially hunters, understanding that death is part of the wider cycle. I am happy just to be by the river and not fishing at all, because people like them have taught me how to look deeper and more closely, just as the other great nature writers and poets have done. They have the genius to convert the background into the foreground."
So what else other than fishing – or not – might this river have had to offer? Williamson wrote Salar the Salmon during the height of his admiration for Hitler, whom, incredibly, he once described as "the only true pacifist in Europe". There is an uneasy reference in the text to Salar's "racial purpose". Fully approving of Hitler's pre-war plans for afforestation and agricultural reform, Williamson seems to have drawn all the wrong lessons from the nature he so loved. How could this be?
"That's because he and the Nazis were looking for something about which they had already made up their minds. But Williamson's far more enduring message, and one that's echoed in Ted's poetry, was about the way that humans and nature are part of the same system. We are intimately connected, and if we do the dirty on nature, it will eventually repay us in kind. All his life, Ted was struggling to understand the elemental connection between ourselves and our fellow creatures. Anyone reading his poetry or taking up one of Williamson's wonderful books must come away with the idea that nature is something with which we must co-exist, rather than try to dominate."
Does this turn Williamson and Hughes into prophets as well as writers? "They did indeed see early harbingers of what we are all now coming to see, about the harm we are doing to our planet and the peril we face unless we change our ways. We have been brought up to believe that we are superior to everything else out there and could do with it more or less what we liked. But now we are starting to realise that we are in this together – humans and nature. We depend on each other for our survival. You can no longer separate the two."
Will this become an increasingly important message in Morpurgo's own writing? "Well, I hope it has been for some time. I wrote Why the Whales Came, where three friends defend a beached narwhal from human destruction, 20 years ago. And in Kensuke's Kingdom, published in 1999, the old Japanese soldier left alone on the island for decades after the end of the last war makes clear that the fish in the sea are not just for humans to prey on. They also have a life of their own that deserves respect. The children who read the book seemed to understand this, and given half a chance I believe they could still put the imbalance right. And that's the message I would like to pass on to my grandchildren. There is hope."
So what about farming, and the three very successful Farms for City Children he and his wife Clare founded, more than 30 years ago? "Farms are difficult. If you give animals a decent life, fine. That is how we have lived until recently. But if you are talking about beef cities and battery hens, then no. Once again, it's really all about respect. I have loved all this volcanic ash stuff. It's absolutely right that occasionally nature should remind us that we are not always the masters, and there could always be an eruption or tidal wave just to press the message home. And it's a message we desperately need to listen to. I have just come back from the Scilly Isles and the Orkneys. The people there really understand that there are moments when nature will take the upper hand and they will simply have to wait until the gale, fog or whatever has abated. But that's a lesson people living in towns have less opportunity to learn."
Salar the Salmon does not possess the same narrative drive as Tarka the Otter, which has now lent its name to a local long-distance footpath, the Tarka Trail. But it is still a splendid story – lavishly illustrated with CF Tunnicliffe's original, meticulous etchings – about the brave Salar and his successful evasion of otters, predator fish and once, almost fatally, human anglers. It features other animals too, from Old Nog the heron to Garroo, a 15-year-old cannibal trout; and various humans, most notably some tough Devon poacher-fishermen, constantly at war with 'errin 'ogs (porpoises) and interfering water bailiffs.
It is Williamson's eagle-eyed perceptions of natural life that make the book the classic it is. No poet himself, he nevertheless writes so poetically that, for Ted Hughes, speaking at his memorial service, there would always be "some phrase, some event, some glimpse, that made the hair move on my head with that feeling. In the confrontations of creature and creature, of creature and object, of creature and fate – he made me feel the pathos of actuality in the natural world."
The peace of the river is going to be additionally important for Morpurgo when he returns from holiday. He has already had a cordial meeting with Steven Spielberg in London to discuss the forthcoming screen version of War Horse ("A very nice man, really interested in listening to stories"), and more visitors from DreamWorks are expected in Devon before filming starts in August.
Meanwhile, An Elephant in the Garden, a novel set in Dresden during the Second World War, will be published this summer, and another, The Whole Story, about an Afghan refugee boy and a dog, is due in November. And on previous form, there will surely be others, too, from an author who, far from showing any signs of settling into honourable retirement, seems now to be at his most productive and creative.Reuse content