After perusing the blackboard menu, we move to the bar to place our order — the fish pie with vegetables and salad for me, smoked haddock soup with bread for Morpurgo. "We’ll think about pudding afterwards... See if there’s a bit of space left." The barman agrees. The bar is filling up with locals and visitors, and we take a table by the log fire in the next room.
We sip half-pints of Bays Topsail bitter from Paignton, the seaside town (followed by two more). The sun shines outside, casting light on the roof beams as we talk. The Duke of York is integral to Morpurgo’s life. Allen Lane was first drawn to Iddesleigh by a friendship with the Scottish poet Seán Rafferty and his wife Peggy, its former landlords. Morpurgo got the idea for War Horse one evening, sitting by the fire in the public bar, talking to a villager who had fought in the trenches.
High productivity is typical of Morpurgo, who has just finished another book, his own translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. His relentless pace contrasts with a slow start in writing, having been a primary school teacher who learnt his trade by telling his students stories. "I knew what touched them, and they were things that mattered to me, that I cared about. Grief comes into it, and loss, and being alone, and everything that children feel."
There was plenty of loss in his own childhood, as his biography by Maggie Fergusson records. His mother Kippe was named by her father, the Belgian playwright Emile Cammaerts, after the first village retaken by Belgium in 1918. She divorced Michael’s father, the actor Anthony van Bridge, after the war, later remarrying Jack Morpurgo, who was to become a Penguin editor. "We talk about trauma, but the trauma that their generation lived through, separated from those they loved... I don’t remember anything of the war, just how sad everyone was [afterwards]. A lot of sad people came to our house."
Our lunch arrives. My pie with a crisply browned potato crust is full of fish and is delicious; Morpurgo eyes it enviously and says he should have ordered the same himself, but dips into his chowder. The food does not really matter — sitting by the fire on a Friday afternoon is enough of a pleasure. It is a broad, blackened fireplace, with brasses hung on one end and a wooden horse’s head sitting by the grate. Later, when the fire gets low, Morpurgo throws on more logs.
Morpurgo was not as intellectual as his stepfather — "He was very, very clever and to some extent, we all failed him" — but he had one crucial skill. "I learnt to be — to escape from all sorts of things — an extraordinarily good liar." He once deceived school friends that the Queen was coming to tea at his house. "There was a wonderful pause when I felt all their faces looking at me. Just for a moment, they believed me and I loved that."