My First Job: Michael Morpurgo, recent Children's Laureate, recalls his days as a soldier
Thursday 08 December 2005
Michael Morpurgo, children's author, was an officer-cadet at Sandhurst.
"I should have been a Field Marshal by now!" he laughs. Instead, he is the author of 107 books and, in May, finished his two-years as Children's Laureate. It is not other ranks, but ranks of children, that he will be addressing next week at the Unicorn Theatre in London and at Glamorgan University's GlamLit festival.
The nearest he gets to military matters these days is the touring play adapted by Bristol Old Vic and Scamp from his story Private Peaceful. At the Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham, this week, it tells of unjust executions in the First World War. But, as a teenager, Morpurgo liked marching in the corps of King's School, Canterbury.
Since he was "a frightfully good chap" and not gifted intellectually, he agreed with his stepfather and mother that the army would be just the thing. In 1962 he left school and went to Sandhurst. It was an invaluable experience. He was mixing with people from very different worlds: the more deprived parts of Glasgow, for example. Instead of today's bullying, he found the army a place of camaraderie and support.
Yet, within 24 hours, it hit him: "I knew that I did not want to spend my life playing at war." Soldiering was no longer a clear-cut matter of fighting evil Nazis. He married at 19, and his wife, the daughter of the Penguin founder Sir Allen Lane, also thought that the army was not the way to spend one's life. Halfway through the two-year course he decided to beat a strategic retreat from Sandhurst.
"I told my company commander of my decision and had to go before a board of five or six officers who did their best to persuade me to stay. I found it very painful." Yet he had made up his mind. Instantly the exit procedure was activated. He felt as if banished from a family.
He went to university and became a teacher and, at 30, a children's writer. Oddly enough, he believes that for him the army was a safe option, a move from one structured environment (public school) to another. If he had been braver, he might have followed his parents onto the stage. "I'd probably have been a playwright - Shakespeare! - by now," he laughs.
Michael Morpurgo is appearing on Monday at the new Unicorn Theatre, London SE1, and on Wednesday at the GlamLit Festival, University of Glamorgan (details on 0870 990 1299)
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