Michael Morpurgo - On Angel's Wings, A Concert at Exeter Cathedral
PUBLISHED: 17:05 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013
A reworking of the Christmas story by former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo was the basis for a charity concert at Exeter Cathedral to raise money for Farms for City Children and the Exeter Cathedral Millennium Fund
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without stories, and Michael Morpurgo, former Children's Laureate, has told hundreds of them over his 35 years as a children's author. But being one of the most popular children's authors ever isn't Michael's only accomplishment. Together with his wife, Clare, they established the charity, Farms for City Children 30 years ago, and this Christmas the two aspects of Michael's life will come together at a special charity concert at Exeter Cathedral. Michael, together with actress Juliet Stevenson, the Dean of Exeter and a young actor called George Meyrick, will be giving readings from Michael's book 'On Angel Wings', interspersed with heritage carols from acapella group Coope, Boyes and Simpson, who specialise in researching and performing the sorts of carols and songs that would have been sung hundreds of years ago.
"Basically," Michael told me, as we stood in the middle of a Devon country lane near Iddesleigh, "the book is a reworking of the Christmas Story. Having been involved in farming, via the charity, for the last 30-odd years, something had never quite rung true to me regarding the traditional telling. It seemed to me that there wasn't a cat's chance in hell that a group of shepherds would up and leave their flock unattended in the middle of the night and troop off to Bethlehem, no matter how wondrous an event they were going to witness. So, I came up with the idea that they left a shepherd boy behind to mind the sheep when they left. Now, this seriously hacked off the young lad. Having heard him vent his frustration, Gabriel appeared once more and agreed that it wasn't quite fair he had been left behind, so he flew him off to Bethlehem on his back, leaving his Heavenly Host behind to double as shepherds for the night.
"We launched the book last year in London in a similar manner, and the event was such a success that we decided to repeat it, in Exeter this time, with proceeds being split between the Exeter Cathedral Millennium Fund and Farms for City Children."
Michael became a children's author as a consequence of being a primary school teacher. "I was always good at telling stories and my headteacher at the time was very supportive, urging me to get them written down," he said. One hundred and seven books later, his stories are still enthralling children, and the charity he set up with his wife has been touching children's lives in a much more tangible way than books ever could. "Although I was enjoying teaching, I was increasingly finding that the sort of education we were offering on a daily basis wasn't really reaching certain children. As teachers, we knew that positive experiences learned through physical activity, whilst very young, had a very beneficial effect on this type of child. So, we came down to Devon, where my wife's family originated, and formed a wonderful partnership with a farming family next door to our house at Nethercott."
Over the last 30 years that partnership has seen 40 children and their teachers living and working on the farm for a week at a time during term, experiencing a way of life and a sense of achievement they would never get in a city. "They do a proper job of work, grafting for six hours a day and rotating between activities. It makes them realise where their food comes from and that the countryside is this wonderful place which is theirs as much as anyone else's and that they have a responsibility for it. The main thing is that they leave after putting in the hardest week of their young lives feeling good about themselves. They leave with a sense of self-worth and a feeling that they matter, which has a tremendous effect on their later attitude to learning. Teachers have told us time and again how much difference they have perceived in the children after spending a week on the farm."
Over the years there have been more private success stories than can be recounted but one publicly witnessed story stands out in Michael's mind. "We had a group down from Birmingham, including a young lad with a terrible stutter. It was so bad that he hadn't actually said a word in school for two years, his teachers said, and we were advised not to ask him any questions because it would cause too much upset. He worked away on the farm, keeping himself to himself. Then, on the last night I went outside for a breath of air. It was dark but there was a single light on in the stable with a horse poking its head out, and there was this boy, who hadn't spoken a word in public for all that time, chatting away nineteen to the dozen to the animal." That, Michael, told me, was a very emotional moment for everyone concerned and a complete vindication of everything that Farms for City Children stands for.
The charity operates all year round during term times, even during the winter period.
"The Christmas term is always something pretty special and we try to give the children the best experience they can get. We have a tree, a big Christmas feast with turkey and all the trimmings, and games - everything a child would expect at this time
For the last two years Nethercott has also put on a fundraising Christmas Fair, with the tree specially decorated by the children who happen to be staying on the farm at the time. The farm children have usually gone home by the time the event takes place, but it is a popular Christmas event for local people, with entertainment, carols and craft stalls for late present buyers. This year's event will take place at 6pm on 14 December. The charity now has three farms, one at Nethercott, one in Pembrokeshire and one in Gloucestershire, which all make the Christmas occasion a week to remember for the children who go there.
One thing is certain, the charity event at Exeter Cathedral will be an outstandingly different kind of carol service to remember, and one that will be popular with young and old alike.
Tickets for the concert are available from the Cathedral Shop (01392 211080 and are priced at 10 for the nave and 5 for the side aisle.