Michael Morpurgo – The Best Christmas Present in the World

photo credit: The Guardian

The Kings Hall in Ilkley was packed full of excited faces both young and old awaiting the arrival of storyteller supreme Michael Morpurgo to the stage.  The tickets were snapped up having seen that one of the kids favourite authors would be a short train hop away, but I’d not looked at the programme of what he would be doing so we had a lovely sense of anticipation guessing how the hour in his company would unfold.  It was interesting to see that there were 6 mics and some music stands on the stage together with a printed copy of Good King Wenceslas on our chairs, giving a clue that it would not simply be a Q&A session with Michael or him discussing his books.

On strode Coope, Boyes and Simpson an English folk a cappella ensemble followed by Michael in his trademark red suite carrying a hardback notebook ready to tell us a tale.  Now the boys book club branched out earlier this year by reading some children’s literature, namely Shadow, by Morpurgo and two things that struck me about his writing was his clever use of a vehicle to explore his stories (usually an animal) and the fact that he does not patronise his readers in any way.  This enables him to tackle some very big themes with intelligence and emotional integrity.

It was lovely to hear Michael tell the story of The Best Christmas Present in the World, drawing the audience into the story through the purchase of an old desk that he wanted to renovate over the Christmas holidays but while doing so he found and old sealed box.  Curiosity gets the better of him and he breaks the seal to find a letter written on Christmas Day by a captain in the trenches at Ypres.  The letter goes on to tell the story of how British and German forces famously laid down their arms to come together in no mans land to play a game of football.  The story is powerfully and delicately told and conjures up both the horror and folly of war but also that no matter how much the “enemy” is demonised they are in many case the same as us, a fact ably demonstrated as Jim Mcpherson, a teacher from Dorset, clambers over the trenches to come face to face with his counterpart a cellist from Dusseldorf.  They share rations, chat about wanting peace and how they wish that the war could be settled by a game of football.

The story unfolds through the storytelling of Morpurgo interspersed with songs sung in English, French and German.  I was unsure at first on this mix but it proved increasingly powerful and became a really unique duet between the choir and Morpurgo.

The letter was sent home by Jim to his wife Connie and the narrator sets out on Christmas morning to see if he can find her and to deliver the letter back to her (The Best Christmas Present in the World).  Connie is found, alone, 101 in a nursing home the staff explaining that she never has any visitors.  Her eyes light up as the letter is read to her “I knew you’d come back she says” at which point the whole audience is conducted by Morpurgo in a rendition of Good King Wenceslas which was a powerful and touching moment.

Jim’s fate was sealed on boxing day 1914 as he led a charge on a German machine gun post and was killed, his body never found but lying still beneath the blood soaked earth of Belgium.  The narrator travels out to Ypres to walk in Flanders Fields and to find the spot where the football game took place and to say out loud to Jim that there is now peace, that he was loved and remembered still.

I’m so glad that I knew nothing about what was going to unfold in this hour of breathtaking storytelling, and whilst it is not yet Christmas time this was an incredibly uplifting but poignant tale.  Spellbinding storytelling.

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