Morpugo bares his teeth over child detention

Novelist hopes lastest work will prick PM's conscience over Yarl's Wood
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The Independent Online

He is best known as the globally acclaimed children's author behind the West End play War Horse. But Michael Morpurgo is set to turn political campaigner to take on the coalition government over its stalled pledge to end the detention of children in immigration centres.

The writer wants to meet David Cameron to urge him to end the controversial practice, in line with the Liberal Democrats' election manifesto. Morpurgo intends to give the Prime Minister a copy of his new novel Shadow, the tale of an army sniffer dog which highlights the plight of asylum-seekers. The book, which was published last week, lays bare the horrors of being detained in the infamous Yarl's Wood immigration centre in Bedfordshire, which campaigners insist is a prison in all but name.

Morpurgo, a lifelong Liberal voter, is aghast that the coalition has rowed back from its promise to shut the centre. He wants a "big, loud commitment" from Mr Cameron that he will shut down Yarl's Wood, just as President Obama has promised to close the terrorist detention centre in Guantanamo.

"I want to take a book to him and ask him to read it. I know this is a sensitive man. I know that he is essentially a kind man. I would like to appeal to that side of him, that good side that is there in all of us – and I'm sure he's got it in abundance – and ask him to really cut through the bureaucracy of the 'yes, no'. Say 'yes', and then do it. Be 'can do' about it," Morpurgo said.

As with many of the his books, from War Horse to The Butterfly Lion, Morpurgo bases his tale on an animal but uses it to highlights the human condition. In Shadow, he was inspired by the true story of an Australian sniffer dog that disappeared while out on patrol with soldiers in Afghanistan. The novel's dog turns into a lifeline for a young Afghan boy and his mother who are fleeing the brutality of life in the war-torn country. Although they eventually make it to Britain, where they live happily for six years, the authorities ultimately want to send the pair home via a lengthy stint in Yarl's Wood.

Morpurgo, 66, was inspired to write the book after seeing Juliet Stevenson perform last year in Motherland, Natasha Walter's shocking play about the detention centre. "It shames us that this place still exists. It's simply monstrous," he said, adding that shutting it down was the "kind of thing that frankly costs nothing".

He continued: "We're not talking about, 'Do we keep Trident?', we're not talking about national security. We're simply talking about respect for fellow human beings. The notion that children who live here can be put behind bars, behind barbed wire when they are convicted of nothing, when they've never even been through a criminal process.

"The notion that we have these vans that turn up at dawn and rip people away from their homes. These aren't people who have lived here for two weeks. Some of them have been there for five or six years. They've got lives, they've got friends. And to do that seems to me to be nothing short of monstrous. Any society that condones that, or simply goes along with it, or keeps quiet about it, certainly has no right to judge any other society."

In a striking reminder that children are still being detained at Yarl's Wood, the Ahmeds, a Saudi Arabian family, including four children aged between three and 13, were yesterday due to be deported from the UK, barely 48 hours after immigration officials took them from their home in Cardiff.

While they awaited their fate, Morpurgo was uncomfortably celebrating the launch of Shadow in a London restaurant. "I was sitting there, eating my wonderful Italian beans, thinking, 'Well here I am, I've written a book about it, but what have we got to celebrate?' There is nothing to celebrate. When they're out, that's the time we can celebrate. They are still behind lock and key and they are being sent back in this inhumane way."

Writing Shadow was something of a departure for Morpurgo as it deals with a contemporary issue, whereas most of his stories are about past events. He compared the "universality of suffering and the futility of war" in Shadow with War Horse, which describes the imaginary story of a young boy's desperate search for his horse in the deadly chaos of the First World War. "It's no different, except that that war was then, and this war is now, so it's somehow more political [to write about it]," he said.

Although he wrote War Horse more than 25 years ago, back when he was known more for setting up his Farms for City Children project than writing children's novels, the book is still keeping him busy. In August, Steven Spielberg began filming an adaptation of the book, and Morpurgo hopes to have a small part.

"I'm hopeful of a Hitchcockian walk-on. Something really, really small. All the big parts have already been cast," he said. He would be following not only in his parents' footsteps – both were actors – but also his own: on the last night before the War Horse play transferred from the National Theatre to London's West End, Morpurgo played a Devon resident in a crowd scene. The movie, which will star Emily Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch, is due out next year.

The author is sticking with war for his next book, a novella called It's All Over which he is writing to go with an Imperial War Museum exhibition next year about how children's literature has dealt with war.