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Their steam-powered nostalgia trip was to celebrate their new picture book, Flying Scotsman And The Best Birthday Ever, which has just been published, ahead of the LNER Class A3 4472’s centenary in February. Morpurgo’s memories of his youth are suffused with billowing smoke. When he was “a little person”, the author was taken by his Auntie Bess to marvel at passing engines near his home in London’s Earl’s Court.
And it was a chuffing locomotive that would dispatch him to his Sussex boarding school. “My own private Hogwarts Express, it was,” he says. “Except, sadly, it was real. I hated the journey one way because that was the place you said goodbye to your mum and there were always tears. Then, of course, there was the opposite of that when we came home. It was the most joyous day of your life.”
Having written some 150 titles that have sold more than 35 million copies, Britain’s master storyteller has finally turned his attention to the romance of thundering steel, after being asked by Foreman, his collaborator of almost 30 years. Like Elton John and Bernie Taupin, they never create in the same room.
Morpurgo’s stories arrive by email and Foreman – who compares the exercise to ping pong – gets to work. The illustrator’s life can equally be measured out in steam journeys. His father worked in Suffolk loading goods onto trains. It meant Foreman and his mother got cheap tickets. He would climb aboard every Saturday to go to the football in Norwich and recalls a steam train jaunt to the Festival of Britain in 1951. “I love being on a train,” says Foreman, in his living room in Putney, southwest London. “You sit back and relax, look out of the window, and you can daydream. And you get ideas from what you see, but daydreaming is just brilliant.”
He lays out his library of mini sketchbooks from over the years, heaving with notes and drawings scribbled while peering out of carriages passing through Vietnam, Mexico, Siberia and Peking.
Morpurgo, meanwhile, can actually date his birth as a spinner of yarns to an epiphany on a schoolboy steam trip. He remembers returning home for the holidays aged about eight, and his friends listing the exciting countries they were going to visit. “And I knew I wasn’t going anywhere because we were short of money. So I remember wanting to keep my end up a bit by having something interesting to say.
“I had a little Timex watch, which I’d been given for Christmas a couple of years before, and I looked at it in front of these 12 little boys in the carriage and I said, ‘Well, I hope the train’s on time because the Queen is coming for tea at five o’clock.” And then I looked up, and to my amazement, they were all absolutely wide-eyed and believing every word I’d said. And I thought, ‘This is good, this is really good’.”
The author of the Platinum Jubilee-themed There Once Is A Queen (illustrated by Foreman) actually met Her Majesty just eight years later, as a tongue-tied cadet accompanying her on her tour of India – and again in his 60s, sitting next to each other at lunch talking about their shared love of horses.
The new story aptly pays tribute to the women who kept the railways running during the Second World War. Foreman won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrated memoir War Boy, in which he told how an incendiary bomb came through the roof into his bedroom when he was asleep aged three, miraculously landing in the fireplace. While Morpurgo – who saw his story War Horse turned into a film directed by Steven Spielberg – was born in 1943 while his father was serving in Baghdad. By the time he returned, his wife had fallen for another man, Jack Morpurgo, who would become Michael’s stepfather.
Conscious of the meticulousness of trainspotters, Foreman made sure to perfect every detail of the Flying Scotsman, in 1934 the first steam locomotive to reach 100mph.
He pored over books posted to him by the National Railway Museum in York and sent his watercolours back to ensure he had got the scale right. Morpurgo came up with the idea of the Children’s Laureate with his friend and Devon neighbour, Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, after “fulminating about the whole way that children’s books were ignored”. He remembers when he told people he wrote for youngsters. “And they’d turn and look in the other direction, no interest at all. There is interest now.”
Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever is published by Thames & Hudson, in association with the National Railway Museum priced £12.99
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