I spent last evening completely entranced whilst Michael Morpurgo regaled me with stories of sinking ships, desert islands and derring do.
That I was surrounded by eight hundred other fans was little matter; each of us was under his spell. That the audience ranged in age from eight to eighty caused this story-teller little difficulty. With incredible mastery, he told the same story to the children but painted a different picture for the adults.
He began with the story of the Lusitania. He told us that the German Embassy took out a newspaper advertisement in 1915 warning Americans not to travel aboard a British ship through British waters at time of war. He told us that the British vehemently denied that the Lusitania carried munitions and held that civilian ships could never be targeted. He told us that a German U-boat torpedoed that civilian ship, eleven miles off the coast of Kinsale (that’s about forty miles from where I am sitting now). He described the explosion, the panic as two thousand passengers clambered on deck, the struggle to launch lifeboats as the ship listed. He told us that the ship disappeared in eighteen minutes. ‘That’s about the length of time that I’ve been talking to you’, he said. I glanced at my watch and it was, exactly, eighteen minutes since he had begun to speak.
He recounted the story of a fisherman who he met in Kinsale. Rowing out in an attempt to rescue survivors the man came upon the ship’s grand piano floating on the sea. On top of the piano was a small girl. He brought the girl safely ashore.
Michael Morpurgo said that, although he tried, he couldn’t discover that girl’s identity. He made us imagine what that little girl saw. And, if she closed her eyes, imagine what she heard. He made us think of what the fishermen saw. The sort of images that are familiar to us now, through twitter and Facebook. One thousand, one hundred and ninety-eight men, women and children were drowned that night within sight of land.
Just a few years ago, divers went down to the wreck and found many tons of weapons and ammunition.
As it happens, Husband’s Grandfather was one of the men who rowed out to gather in survivors that night. He was awarded a medal and went home with one of the Lusitania’s lifeboats. That’s all I know, which seems a shame.
The second story was a true story of a young, soldier who did the right thing at the end of World War 1. Private Henry Tandey VC was well-respected, brave, lucky and loved by his pals. The story goes that, on September 28th, 1918, as the dust cleared after the taking of Marcoing, France, a young German soldier wandered into Tandey’s path. The soldier was disoriented and Tandey showed mercy. He held his hand up to stay his fellow soldiers and waved the young man away.
Private Tandey retired to normal life and long believed that sparing the young German’s life was his proudest moment.
Until 1938, when a newspaper came looking for him and informed him that the young German remembered him and the young German was named Adolf Hitler.
We queued for an age to shake the writer’s hand. I hope that my daughter will remember last night. I hope that she will pass on her books to her children, perhaps even her grandchildren, with the words, ‘I met him, you know, I shook his hand’.
Michael Morpurgo has had a space on our shelves for many years. Now, he holds a special place in our hearts.