The street I grew up on: Michael Morpurgo, 78, author of War Horse and former children’s laureate shares memories of Philbeach Gardens, London SW5
I spent my early childhood in a first floor flat in Philbeach Gardens near Earl’s Court in post-war London. We played football, war games and conkers on the street and in what was left of the house next door, which was a bomb site.
Milk was delivered by horse and carriage and I went shopping with my mother Kippe and proudly have the ration book with me.
The food we ate was simple, but I remember apples with a label on the bag that said ‘From the people of Canada’. Since then I have loved Canada.
I’d spend my pocket money on lemon sorbets at the candy store on the corner. An old soldier would be sitting outside.
Michael Morpurgo, 78, (pictured) War Horse author and former children’s laureate shares memories of Philbeach Gardens, London SW5
He had a cap on the floor for money and a feisty Jack Russell. I was afraid of the dog, but of something else, much more. If you got close you could see that one of his trouser legs was folded neatly over a stump.
In many houses there were memorials because someone had died. In my case, my uncle Pieter, who was in the RAF, had died at the age of 21 when his plane crashed.
His picture was on the mantelpiece and I remember my mother crying on his birthday.
My mother, whose father was from Belgium, was an actress and read to my brother Pieter and me, brought the Just So Stories and poems of Walter de la Mare to life, played all the roles and added accents. But when I went to my first school, St. Matthias around the corner, I started hating words and books.
Michael (left) aged six and brother Pieter in the street outside the flat they lived near Earl’s Court in post-war London. The children played football, war games and conkers in the street and in what was left of the house next door, which was a bomb site
It was no longer about the music of the words or the excitement of the story, but about spelling, punctuation, handwriting and keys, and if you didn’t get it right, detention.
My handwriting was spidery and blotchy, and I still can’t spell very well. I did win a book in school as an award, which I still have – I got it for something called ‘effort’.
One Christmas day, our teacher wanted to put The Owl And The Pussy-cat on stage and our homework was to learn it. My mom used to read it to us, so while the others roamed around, I recited the word perfectly.
I was cast as the owl and luckily for me the kitty was played by the girl I was in love with – she didn’t know, I just looked at her from a distance. But now I’d sit in a boat and sing her a love song while strumming a guitar.
The milk was delivered by horse and cart, and we played conkers in the street
I was fine in rehearsals, but the day all the parents came, the words didn’t come even when the teacher tried to nudge me. Then the girl took the guitar from me and sang the song herself and saved my life – it was the most beautiful thing there was to do.
My mother and my real-life father Tony Bridge met as actors, but their relationship was collateral damage due to the war. He was in the military in Iraq and they had been separated for three years when my mother met Jack Morpurgo, an editor at Penguin Books.
Divorce ensued, and the ravaged war did. Nobody talked about it. Jack married my mother in 1947 and we moved to Philbeach Gardens.
I never knew my real father growing up. Then, in 1962, I watched a TV version of Great Expectations with my mother.
The moment Pip is in the graveyard and suddenly the hideous convict Magwitch shows up from behind a tombstone, she said, “Oh my god, it’s your father!” The secret was known and nine years later I finally met him.
- Michael’s new book There Once Is A Queen is out now (Harper Collins Children’s Books) and will be brought to life at the Platinum Jubilee Pageant