Wednesday 20 June 2018

Historia Interviews: Michael Morpurgo

Clare Mulley talks to HWA Honorary Patron, Michael Morpurgo, about the extraordinary family history that inspired his latest book.
On 17 August 1944, Michael Morpurgo’s uncle, Francis Cammaerts, was scheduled to be executed. He and two colleagues had been arrested by the Nazi German occupying forces in southern France, who rightly suspected that they were special agents, sent in to arm and organise the French resistance. Having had ‘an ominously good meal’ of vegetable soup, that evening the three men were marched across the prison courtyard towards the football ground, the place used for executions by firing squad. As the sky darkened with a summer storm, they were surprised to suddenly be herded the other way and into a waiting Citro├źn. Once round the first bend, the car stopped to collect a solitary figure, standing silhouetted against the white wall of an isolated farm building. It was Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born female special agent who worked with Francis in the field. Unknown to him and the other men, a few days earlier Christine had begged the local resistance to rescue them. After their refusal, she had cycled the 20 kilometers over to the prison, planned, and pulled off the apparently impossible rescue on her own…
A few years ago, not long after my biography of Christine, The Spy Who Loved, had been published, I met Michael Morpurgo at the Harrogate History Festival where he was talking in his capacity as the Honorary Patron of the Historical Writers Association. I asked him whether he might ever write the story of Francis and Christine, their love affair, resistance work, and Christine’s dramatic rescue of the men. Michael told me that he had published almost 800 stories, but this one was too close to him. Last month I went to the launch of In the Mouth of the Wolf, Michael’s latest book, which finally tells the story of Francis, his brother Pieter, and Christine. We met again, a few days ago at Ognisko Polskie, London’s Polish Hearth Club, to talk about why Michael finally chose to share this tale.
‘This story has been at the back of my mind all my life,’ Michael told me, at least ‘since I was six years old.’ Michael was about seven when he first met Francis. Knowing only that his uncle was a great war-hero, and finding him ‘immensely tall’, Michael found him very daunting. ‘Francis was a one-off, very strange. He did not behave like other uncles. He commanded a room whenever he came in. Very handsome. Very impressive. Difficult to talk to’.
Despite this, Michael was deeply inspired by both of his uncles; Francis and his younger brother Pieter, who had joined the RAF and was killed in action early on in the war. When he left school Michael even joined the army, ‘because the story of these brothers was so strong in my head. I was not a very deep-thinking eighteen year old’, he laughs, and he left again pretty swiftly, ‘never having had to go to war, thank god.’ His change of mind about his vocation came during winter training exercises in 1962. Michael tells even this like a story waiting to be written. ‘It was freezing’, he begins, ‘there was snow on the ground and in the trenches, and the enemy’ – in fact some Argyll Highlanders – ‘would cheerfully have killed and eaten us Sandhurst cadets. They shouted at us all night, and in the morning I had an epiphany… I suddenly realised that what I wanted to do was talk to people, not shoot at them. So I left the army.’ Nonetheless, his time as a cadet gave him an understanding of the military that he would later find very useful in his writing.
Like Francis before him, Michael then became a teacher, and the two men found each other again, discussing education. Over time Francis spoke more about his own life. It was his knowledge of the courage of the French people who hid and supported members of the resistance during the war that enabled Michael to write his book about the French occupation, Waiting for Anya, with real integrity.
Francis now also spoke about working with Christine. She had been parachuted in to serve as the courier with his resistance circuit in the south east of France in the summer of 1944. The previous courier, Cecily Lefort, had been arrested some weeks before, and would eventually be killed in the gas chambers. Christine was the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in the war, and had already operated behind enemy lines in two different theatres of the conflict; in Eastern Europe; and Egypt and the Middle East. She had a reputation both for courage and for getting results. Francis immediately knew that he could trust her, and simply told Michael that it was Christine ‘who made it work.’ What he did not talk about was their love affair. ‘They fell in love extraordinarily quickly’, Michael told me. But Francis was married, and all he would later say was that ‘it is possible to love two women at the same time’.
Michael says he feels indebted to his uncles for many things, not least for having given him the debate of his life, ‘do you or don’t you do what they did, serve and fight?’ Michael believes he would have made the same choices at Pieter, the uncle he never knew. Francis started the war as a conscientious objector, and it was these differences that gave Michael his way into the story. He only dared to write the book after Francis had died, involving his family all the way, sending them drafts. Luckily, he says, ‘they are broadminded’.
In the end, the story of Francis and Christine was one that Michael felt he had to write. ‘History is the most important subject in the world, and the most ignored,’ he told me. ‘There is very little curriculum interest in it. Children are not being taught the story of the story, the development of history. You can start wherever you like, that doesn’t matter at all.’ Michael has told tales from all over the world, and across time, but ultimately, he says, ‘this is the story that I am connected to the most. I grew up during the Second World War. I played in the ruins, and there really was an old soldier with one leg at the end of the street. It was a dark and gloomy London, full of sadness. It was like some monster had come… This war had not just knocked down houses, burnt bodies and taken off flesh, it had also affected my own family.’
Michael and I had chosen to meet in the Polish Hearth Club in London, because last year the club commissioned a bronze bust of Christine, which now lives there on public display. The portrait was sculpted by my husband, Ian Wolter, an award-winning artist, using every photograph of her that I could find, including crime scene pictures released to me under the Freedom of Information Act. At the foundry, we added a handful of Polish and British earth to the bronze, so Christine is literally cast with the soil of her native and adoptive countries. What was it like to finally come face-to-face with Christine, I asked Michael. ‘Very strange,’ he hesitated, ‘to see the face that meant so much to Francis, but who none of us were ever able to meet’.
This is not the place to let you know what made Francis change his mind and fight in the Second World War, or even how Christine saved him and his colleagues-in-arms in a French field in the late summer of 1944. There are books out there for that. As a piece for Historia, I will simply pass on Michael’s passionate belief that, whatever the subject, you ‘have to tell a story that matters to you. If you are not really passionate about the subject then don’t tell it. If it hurts, it hurts. If it’s about war, it will hurt. You look people in the eye when you tell a story… just write.’

Michael Morpurgo’s In the Mouth of the Wolf, illustrated by the brilliant French artist Barroux, is published by Egmont.
Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved, the Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, is published by Macmillan and has been optioned by Universal Studios.
  1. Clare Mulley with Michael Morpurgo at Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth Club in London, 2018. Photo © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
  2. Francis Cammaerts & Krystyna Skarbek aka Christine Granville
  3. Clare Mulley with Michael Morpurgo at Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth Club in London, 2018. Photo © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
  4. The stories of Francis; In the Mouth of the Wolf, & Christine; The Spy Who Loved
  5. Ian Wolter’s sculpture of Christine at Ognisko Polskie. © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
Article originally published on the Historia Website here

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