Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Magwitch and Michael Morpurgo: Sue Purkiss

At the weekend, Michael Morpurgo was on Saturday Live on Radio 4 talking about his new book, A Medal For Leroy. The novel, said Sian Williams, deals with 'war, injustice, and families leading secret lives', and Morpurgo went on to explain some of the real life stories which fed into the book.

Part of the inspiration came from the story of Lieutenant Walter Tull, an outstanding soldier who was promoted to Lieutenant during the First World War. The reason this is especially noteworthy is that Walter Tull was black: his father was from Barbados, his mother from Kent. According to regulations, it was not permitted for anyone of mixed race to be promoted - but Tull was such a good soldier that he blew that particular rule right out of the water.

So far, so interesting. But it was the unfairness of what happened next that particularly aroused Morpurgo's indignation. Tull was recommended for the Military Cross - but for unknown reasons, he never received it. Then, many years later, the Imperial War Museum wanted to put up a statue of him, but was refused permission by the local council. Morpurgo, outraged by these injustices, wanted to write about Tull's story in some way. Others had already done so; there is a television play by Kwame Kwei-Armah and a Barrington Stoke book by Michaela Morgan, entitled Respect! (2005) So a straight re-telling wasn't what was needed; nevertheless, the story of Walter needled away and demanded to be explored. I haven't read A Medal For Leroy, so I don't know exactly how he uses it - but I suspect that he used the medium of fiction to right a wrong - to see that in a sense, Tull did finally receive his medal.

One of the characters in the book is a boy growing up without a father in post-war London - as Michael Morpurgo did: and he went on to tell an extraordinary story about his own family. When Michael's father, Tony Bridge, came home after the war, he found that his wife had fallen in love with another man. He did not know his two young sons, and they didn't know him, so he generously decided to set his wife free. After the divorce, he left for Canada where he became an actor, saying that if and when his sons wanted to find him, he would make himself available to them. Divorce was rather shocking at that time: the two boys were brought up by their stepfather and took his name, and their real father was hardly spoken of.

Fast forward to an eighteen year old Michael, sitting watching the 1962 film of Great Expectations with his mother beside him on the sofa. The film reaches the terrifying moment when Magwitch, the convict, leaps out at Pip from behind a gravestone. At which point Michael's mother declares dramatically - and accurately: "Oh my God, that's your father!"

Again, without having read the book, I don't know exactly how he uses this incident, or how closely the character of the boy in the book is modelled on himself. It's an interesting business, this of how you create character. Someone has said that every character is an aspect of the writer him or herself (I can't remember who said it - I hope someone will remind me!) - presumably the basis of this is that you can never truly know another person, so you are your only resource - even if you don't realise this. Some writers will stoutly assert that they never base their characters on real people - "We're FICTION writers - we make it all up!"

I'm not sure about this. My first book was called Spook School, so you can probably imagine what it's about and what kind of story it is. Possibly my favourite character was a chain rattling, head-removing bully of a ghostly teacher called Sir Rupert - here he is, on the cover. I thought I'd made him up. Then one day I was in a school reading out a passage where he shouts at a class - and suddenly, I absolutely recognised his voice. He was none other than Sid, my old biology teacher, scourge of Ilkeston Grammar School.. He wasn't really one for the caring, sympathetic approach; if your notes weren't up to scratch, he simply scrawled a big red R over them, which meant, he told us with evil alliterative relish, ROTTEN RUBBISH - REPEAT! So I hadn't made Sir Rupert up after all - I'd just turned Sid into a ghost, popped him into a Tudor costume, and given him a few nifty little tricks to enable him to be even meaner and nastier to the unfortunates in his charge. (Spookily enough, Lynne Chapman's depiction of Sir Rupert bears an uncanny resemblance to Sid.)

Sometimes, of course, you know that, to a degree, a character is based on a real person - and this brings with it its own difficulties. The book I'm writing at present has a character who is in some sense based on my father. Note the way I hedge this notion round with qualifications. Harry Pilgrim goes through many of the experiences of the young Bob Course. He is taken prisoner before Dunkirk and spends the rest of the war in captivity; he does some things that Bob did, like making hooch out of potatoes and working in a forest and on farms. His background is the same, and he looks very similar. But Harry is not Bob. How could he be? I can guess at how Bob may have reacted to some of the situations I put Harry into, but I don't know if I've guessed right - and it doesn't actually matter whether I have or not: provided that what Harry does is true to Harry. (I only hope it is!)

Is it easier to base a character on a real person? I don't know. It's easy to use the face and figure and mannerisms of someone you've seen but don't know; then you have a cloak of verisimilitude to clothe whatever you want. But to write about someone you know - that's really not so easy. Maybe it's a way to find out that you know that person far less well than you thought you did - which may be all sorts of things: instructive, disturbing, intriguing.

I shall certainly be interested to find out what Michael Morpurgo has made out of his source material. Perhaps, in the end, what we all do is a little bit as Yeats describes in  his sad but beautiful late poem, The Circus Animals' Desertion:

                    ...Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

I'd question the description of the heart as a 'foul rag-and-bone shop' - he must have written that on a very bad day - but I know what he means. Would that I could express a thought - any thought - even a tiny fraction as well!


Joan Lennon said...

This is interesting stuff and not least because I am struggling with a character who is drawing on so many sources he's a bit of a cameleopard - thanks for posting!

Katherine Langrish said...

That's a fascinating post, Sue - thankyou!

Sue Purkiss said...

Glad you liked it, Kath - and good luck with the cameleopard, Joan!

Lynne Garner said...

It amazes me how writers can hear, read or see something that really strikes a cord and niggles at them until it has to be made into a story.

Paeony Lewis said...

Interesting. I've now written a character that has some of my mother's traits and it's a good thing she will never know!

adele said...

Very interesting post but I disagree about the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I LOVE that line!

Smile said...

do you know how to blog a writer you like?

Anonymous said...

i am reading one of Michael Morpurgo's books right now and i love it: Elephant in the garden! it's awesome bit i would suggest girls would like it more than boys actually! and the age group would be 9-70yrs old! I REALLY LIKED THAT BOOK!