Sir Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Wish for You’
It was a real honour to welcome Sir Michael Morpurgo to the stage of the magnificent Sheldonian Theatre, to deliver our Peter Roberts Memorial Lecture, kindly hosted by the Oxford Literary Festival.
It was a truly outstanding event. Those who attended the beautiful Christopher Wren-designed theatre, in the heart of Oxford, were treated to a very special, unique performance by Sir Michael who delivered the lecture with tremendous feeling, drama and humour. He ended his lecture by singing and received rapturous applause and a standing ovation. I urge you to read the full text of his speech at the end of this blog and to watch the recording of the event here.
As always, the lecture was in memorial to Compassion’s late founder, Peter Roberts MBE, a former dairy farmer who gave up farming to dedicate his life to ending factory farming.
Peter was a visionary. He could see how factory farming was not only cruel to animals but had profound consequences for our health and future survival. Ahead of his time, decades ago, he was forecasting Farmageddon; the threat to a sustainable society as a result of the shift to factory farming – the industrial farming of animals. He very clearly saw in the 60s, that the need to move to nature-friendly, animal-friendly, regenerative farming and redress our over reliance on animal sourced foods, would be crucial to ending the cruelty and restoring the countryside to a balance with nature. He founded Compassion in World Farming in 1967. Starting as just a backroom protest, it has grown into a powerful global movement, achieving profound and enduring advancements in farm animal welfare.
On reaching the stage, former Children’s Laureate Sir Michael Morpurgo talked about his love of animals and nature. His sadness at the loss of so many species as a result of human impact and about his charity, Farms for City Children.
Farms for City Children is a wonderful charity enabling children from disadvantaged communities to experience the adventure of working together on our farms in the heart of the British countryside. Michael talked with great emotion, about the importance of encouraging children to develop a relationship with the natural world, his passion for animal welfare, and the importance of humane and sustainable farming.
But let Sir Michael do the talking and please do read the full text of his speech below…
In closing, a heartfelt thank you to Sir Michael, to the wonderful Sally Dunsmore of the Oxford Literary Festival who generously host us each year, and to all the animal and nature lovers, who continually stand up for the voiceless who share this planet.
Sir Michael’s speech:
I wish for you. Compassion in World Farming event.
On the brink. Sixty harvests. I wish for you.
We are on the brink. That’s for sure. But there are good stories to tell. Red kites have been saved, otters too, ravens as well. Conservationists have pioneered sustainable fishing in Lyme Bay in Dorset. Compassion in World Farming, The Soil association, continue their wonderful work, as does the World Wildlife Fund, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Client Earth, Greenpeace, and many many others. Our cars are becoming less polluting, our energy is coming more and more from sustainable sources. We are turning away from fossil fuels. We are using more renewables. It is happening. People, individuals, have made these things happen, devoted their lives to it, changed their lives for it, for our fellow creatures, for the good earth, for us.
But even so, we know we are struggling and failing to reduce global warming at the rate we have to. It is hardly surprising. Coal fired power stations are still wreaking their havoc in countries all over the world. We still fly around the world, as if there’s no tomorrow. We spew raw sewage into our rivers and seas as if there’s no tomorrow. We use millions of tons of plastic and throw it all away, like there’s no tomorrow. (We make wars like no tomorrow). We still drive too often, when we could easily walk or cycle or use public transport. We seem addicted to greed and speed, and comfort and convenience.
For too long humanity has been squatting on this good earth, sucking it dry, poisoning it and stifling it. We know it and we are changing. But It’s all too slow, and it’s late. Not too late, we hope, but urgent, critically urgent. So no more prevaricating, no more procrastinating, no more excuses, and most certainly no more denial. For the planets sake, for our children’s sake.
Are we down hearted? No!
Then all together sing, and let your voices ring.
Are we downhearted? No.
Cheering words from an old popular song, from the days of the First World War, from times even darker than our own. And songs and poems help, to raise spirits, to help us feel we are not alone in our despair, in our sense of hopelessness, powerlessness. We need songs and poems and stories, to sing them, read them, hear them, write them, to help us hope beyond, think beyond, to rejoice together, or grieve or be angry together, to unite to change the world for the better. So my talk, will not have just one voice, but many, spoken and sung, if you’re lucky. And that must be good.
This, by Ted Hughes, sets the tone of what I have to say.
My own true family.
Once I crept in an oakwood – I was looking for a stag.
I met an old woman there – all knobbly stick and rag.
She said: ‘I have your secret here inside my little bag.’
Then she began to cackle and I began to quake.
She opened up her little bag and I came twice awake –
Surrounded by a staring tribe and me tied to a stake.
They said: ‘We are the oak-trees and your own true family.
We are chopped down, we are torn up, you do not blink an eye,
Unless you make a promise now – now you are going to die.
Whenever you see an oak-tree felled, swear now you will plant two.
Unless you swear the black oak bark will wrinkle over you
And root you among the oaks where you were born but never grew.’
This was my dream beneath the boughs, the dream that altered me.
When I came out of the oakwood, back to human company,
My walk was the walk of a human child, but my heart was a tree.
Ted Hughes played a hugely important part in my life, in the lives of our family, as a neighbour and dear friend, a writing and teaching mentor, as an inspirational supporter and founding patron of the educational charity my wife Clare set up in 1974, nearly 50 years ago.
She called our project Farms for City Children. Her idea, born of her own love of nature and the countryside as a child, was to help create a world in which all children, especially those living in the inner cities, had the same opportunity she had had, to experience the countryside and farming at first hand, to feel they belong there, as she had, that it was theirs to love, as she had. And theirs to care for too, as she has. She has always treated nature as family. She wanted all her children to be able feel like that, especially those who had not had the opportunities to discover nature, the countryside or farming, at first hand, to feel they belong there, that they are part of it, theirs to cherish and care for as she had.
She has always treated nature as family. She wanted all children to feel that close connection, and especially those that had little or no opportunity to discover the countryside or farming themselves.
I think she had this sense of compassion, this notion that opportunity should be there for all of us from her father Allen Lane. He believed we should all have the chance to read and enjoy books, that they should be as near free as possible.
So in 1935 he founded Penguin Books, that cost 6p each, affordable for almost everyone. He thought it was their right. And he was right. Clare believes it’s the right of every child to enjoy nature, to feel part of it, that is the their world, theirs to love, theirs to care for. I believe the same.
Clare, aged about 7, in the 1940s, was fortunate enough to find herself wandering free, where her wellies took her, in a hidden corner of England, ‘down the deep lanes’ of Devon, as Hughes later called them, through the woods and farms, along the valley of the river Torridge, where the writer Henry Williamson had walked before her, where Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon lived. She met the farmers, groomed their horses, fed their calves, collected eggs from under their hens, talked with them, sat in their kitchens, listened to their stories, learnt of their bond with the countryside, understood early on in her life, the importance of what Thomas Hardy had called ‘the old association’; that elemental connection, going back centuries, between humankind and farming and the countryside, the fields, the hedgerows and the forests that our ancestors helped to create.
Our friend and neighbour, Sean Rafferty, poet and sage and gardener, wrote, towards the end of his long life, about the children who came to stay on the farm. He lived down the lane and worked with the children often in the walled vegetable garden, digging potatoes with them, picking raspberries and apples, showing them bugs and butterflies and birds, listening to their questions and observations.
‘Children come to the farm in winter and summer, in all seasons, in all weathers.
Calves are born, foxes kill the chickens, sheep are dipped and shorn: and all this is not something which they just watch – they are involved. THEY feed the hens, hiss at the geese, walk back up the lane from the milking parlour in the evening up a dark lane without street lights, hear owls hoot in the night and are afraid.
Now, more than ever, it matters that children can experience life in the country. This is a generation that will be told repeatedly of ecological disaster; will be told that the earth itself is threatened. For some of them the earth will not be a globe in the classroom or a map on a wall, but a Devon farm where they scuffled leaves along the farmtracks, and broke the ice on the puddles in the lane.
When they are told of polluted rivers it will be one river, which has had its share of pollution, where they first saw a trout jumping and a wading heron, and plastic bags caught in the branches to mark the level of the last great flood.
Last spring two children went down to the river at dusk to watch for badgers. They did not see a badger, but they did see two young otters at play, something many people born and bred in the country have never seen. It was as though Nature herself were choosing her champions.’
Sean Rafferty and the writer Antoine de St Exupery never met, but they had much in common. In The Little Prince, Antoine de St Exupery’s iconic book, Le Petit Prince, the Little Prince is full of questions, endlessly curious.. A child he may seem to be, but like many children, he is a source of great wisdom and understanding. He has deep insight into human foolishness, and wickedness, and recognises we grownups for what we are, knows our vanity, our duplicity and hypocrisy, our greed, for what it is. Rafferty and St Exupery, realised, as did Rouseau before them of course, that the key to the sustainability of the planet and our very existence on it, are the children. They have to feel it is their family home, know that it is theirs to cherish, theirs to care for.
And do you remember, I wonder, the Little Prince,s touching and overwhelming love for the rose he has himself planted and grown and cared for, and watered and protected, how that single rose is more important to him than any other rose, or all the roses in the world could ever be? The Little Prince understood that the more you know and love and respect nature, whether it is a fox or a rose, the closer you are to it, the more you live in harmony with it, the more fulfilling your life will be, and the life of the fox and the rose too, and the more you will feel your sense of belonging and responsibility to your planet, the planet that you share with the rose and the fox.
Let me tell you of a farmer the Little Prince would have loved, our farming hero at Farms for City Children. David Ward. David Ward and his family have been the partners of the Farms for City Children charity all of the 50 years. David has done more, I suspect, than any other farmer in this country to introduce farming and wildlife to children, to open eyes and ears hearts and minds. Some 40,000 children, at the first Farm for city Children at Nethercott in Devon, have lived and worked alongside David on the farm for a week of their young lives. They have fed and checked the sheep with him, morning afternoon and evening, helped with the lambing, driven sheep to new pasture. They have milked cows with him morning and evening. They have mucked out calf sheds, spread fresh straw with him. It’s a working farm and they worked alongside a real farmer, our David.
They have picked apples with him, planted trees with him, collected logs with him. They have seen salmon rising on the river, with him, watched buzzards mewing overhead, stomped through mud and snow with him, made hay with him. They learnt from him a love of the countryside, and how important the farm and his animals were to him. Compassionate and kind, a farmer and a man with a heart of gold. He inspired and encouraged other farming families to join us in our attempt to introduce more urban children to farming, the countryside and nature, so now there are three farms for city children, one in Devon, one in Gloucestershire and Treginnis in West Wales. There should be many more – and one day there will be. There must be. It should be a right of passage for every child, a vital part of what our children do and experience at school.
After a lifetime of dedication to his family, to his farm and to these children, David Ward died suddenly, and far too young, on the 9th December. He shone a light into all our lives, and will not be forgotten.
As they know all too well in Compassion for World Farming, it is the soil itself that has all too often been taken for granted. We now realise and understand what it does, how it feeds us, how historically we have poisoned it with chemicals, enslaved it, exhausted it, and eroded it. But I don’t think we can truly understand the importance of soil, feel any real connection to it, unless we have dug it, smelt it, planted and grown in it, harvested from it, know that we have been fed from it. The urban children who come to the farms have done that, dug it, smelt it, planted it, harvested from it. They know. And they won’t forget.
Hear the words of Seamus Heaney, in his poem…..
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground;
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump, among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug. The shaft
Against the inside knee, was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away,
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould. The squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
And Seamus Heaney did dig with it, with his pen, did he not? and to great and wondrous effect. Do not let me hear that old sad cry that writers and poets cannot change the world. Each of us can do that, writer or poet or farmer, you or me.
Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and Philip Lymbery, and Antoine de St Exupery, and Sean Rafferty, and many more, Henry Williamson, and Thomas Hardy, Alice Oswald, and Katherine Rundell of Oxford, have all dug with their pens, and in doing so, shone a light on the world of nature as they saw it and see it. Their visions help us to look again to discover. They enrich our lives, change our lives, lives that can and do change the world. I have tried in my own storymaking to follow in their footsteps, to do the same.
Care for the world about us should be right up there with literacy in our schools and our family homes. They go hand in hand. Which is why I wrote this poem-letter, to all children and grandchildren, and to you, meaning every word, wrote it with all my heart and soul, in the fervent hope that some of you or many might start digging in whatever way you can.
Have you ever seen a picture of us, of this earth of ours from space?
We are a bright blue bead spinning through infinity.
A beacon of light.
But one day, if we do not care for her, this good earth of ours will be as arid and lifeless as the moon.
The life of this world is as fragile as you are, as I am, as trees are, as butterflies and bees and birds are, as worms and frogs are.
If I have learnt one thing for sure in my long life – getting on for 80 now, and that’s old – it is this: this good earth is a living breathing being, and we must hurt her no more.
We are using her up, fouling the air and sea, making a dustbin of the land, a sewer of the oceans, a graveyard of her creatures.
We have to learn to love her again, as much as I love you and you love me. For you and I, we are part of this living planet, part of earth’s great family. And we are her guardians too.
So I wish for you, for all children, for all of us everywhere, a new world, without war and waste, where you will be able to breathe in good clean air, and drink from clear bright water; a new time when we grow and eat only what we need, no more, learn to share all we have, so that no one anywhere goes hungry again.
I wish no tree ever to be cut down without planting three more in its place. I wish for you a world where, in flying our planes, driving our cars, heating our homes, in our endless striving to be ever more prosperous, ever more comfortable, we do not overheat the planet, do not melt the ice-caps, raise the oceans, and so bring down famine and flood and fire upon ourselves.
I wish for you a world where the whale and the dolphin, the turtle and the jellyfish, can live the life of the deep, undisturbed, in seas unpolluted, those same seas, where we have paddled and played so often.
I wish for you a world where the elephant and the lion, the tiger and the orangutan, can live wild and free – never locked up and imprisoned simply for our curiosity and entertainment, but left to themselves in their forests, left to roam their plains and their deserts, left to live their lives in peace.
These we have loved together: the sea, the trees, the blackbird, the robin, the wriggly worm, the jumping frog, the good soil we dig in, the moon, the stars, our whole wonderful world, rolling through space.
So, dear ones, look after all we have loved together, live always in rhythm, in harmony with this earth. Then all my wishes will come true for you, and all shall be well.
But all shall be well, only if we make it well. There’s a lot of healing to do, a lot of loving.’