On his first day in Downing Street, Boris Johnson set out his stall in typically rambunctious style.
“We are once again going to believe in ourselves,” he blustered, “and like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.”
His allusions to Gulliver and misreading of Swift’s anti-hero – a giant in some lands, a dwarf in others – seemed ironic to Michael Morpurgo. The acclaimed children’s author’s new book, Boy Giant is set in the same world as the 18th century satirical classic but updated to address the societal ills of the 21st century.
Boy Giant has a succinct premise. Omar is a young refugee from Afghanistan hoping to come to the UK. His mother pays traffickers to take him across the sea, heading for Britain but the boat and all its passengers are lost except for Omar who washes up on a beach. But it’s not Britain – or any other country – but fictional Lilliput.
The land of tiny people has changed since Gulliver’s day. The legacy of the gentle giant has lived on through stories told of his visit and how he described the world beyond, full of corruption and tyranny. Over centuries, Lilliput has evolved a mini utopia. Omar, assumed to be the son of Gulliver, is given a hero’s welcome.
“The guiding principle in Lilliput is to live for one another – that’s it,” explains Morpurgo. “There are no schools, everyone is educated by everyone else. No leaders, the titular head of the island is the storyteller. Why? Because the most important thing in any society are not the rules but the spirit of that society.”
All through the book, the kind, warm, non-judgemental way the Lilliputians help and respect Omar is in bitter contrast to how the real world treats people in desperate circumstances.
“I have a horror of the way refugees are being treated by in large in the world, certainly in this country,” Morpurgo says. “The stories we hear loud and clear from people like Trump is what to be frightened of, whether it’s terrorism or crime or whatever.”
Children however, Morpurgo believes are open to different narratives.
“Children reading this book understand what it is to journey across the world, to see people dying in the attempt and to lose family. It’s not just a glimpse of a photograph on the television that you turn off because The Simpsons is on the other channel, this is a story you’ve really lived through. If they go through that process empathy does happen.
“Empathy is most certainly the greatest gift books can bring to people,” he continues. “A boy can become a girl, an old person can become a young person. You see the world.”
Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.
Morpurgo has identified a problem in British literature. Only about five per cent of books bought and read here come from non-English speaking places, compared to France where about 50 per cent of books come from foreign cultures.
“We really quite like to read about ourselves, about this country, about society now. Perspective is everything. People are seriously different, and we can’t expect them all to be as we are. It’s a rather essential component to an intelligent democracy.”
Intelligent democracy. That sounds like an oxymoron in 2019 Britain. Xenophobia that on some level fuelled the time we’re living through now grates greatly with Morpurgo.
“We are from everywhere in this country. We have always been from everywhere,” he says. “That’s one of the great problems with the atmosphere that’s around at the moment, it comes from a profound misunderstanding of who we are.
“Our language is from everywhere. Italy or Scandinavia or Germany or France, English is a mix of all those and a mix of all those people and the wider world. We think of British as something it’s not.”
As Morpurgo travels around the country, talking to groups of children in schools and libraries, he looks out on different yet similar faces in the audience
“I see people who come to live here 10 years ago, five weeks ago becoming part of who we are. It’s a very positive story to tell,” he says.
“All my life I’ve had a pretty close awareness to the plight of the refugee. This is strange because I’m pink and middle class and British but I have a reason for it. My grandfather was Belgian who came over here before the first world war. He was a poet, an academic. Most people don’t know – but they should – in 1914 about 240,000 Belgian refugees got in boats when their country was invaded and came across the Channel. They took refuge here. They were looked after. They went to our schools, our hospitals. Most of them went back at the end of the war, but nobody knew that when they were welcomed.
“Merkel had it right. I know she’s become very unpopular in Germany but the instinct was right. When there was a huge number of refugees coming up through Europe she said let them come. She herself and many other Germans of a certain generation knew what it was like to be refugees. The biggest migration in Europe there’s ever been happened in Germany at the end of the Second World War when 10 million moved from east to west.
“One of our problems here, and it’s not something we can blame ourselves for, is that we were never invaded. Not because we are braver, but because of the Channel. We haven’t had foreign troops marching through, we have not been burned out of our homes. We remained sovereign.”
Sovereignty has been a buzzword over the last few years. Brexit makes Britain great again we’re promised. Which brings us back to our own yahoo of a leader.
“A problem our Prime Minister has by invoking our power and our flag, what he really wants to do is build up our self-esteem, not our self-worth.
“He never talks about the importance of friendship and how our history has become their history, our language has become their language.
“Our commonality is never talked about at all. It’s all about us becoming a giant again. He was appealing to our greatness, our power. Well, we are an important but not very important nation now.
“I haven’t lost any sense of who we are. I have plenty of doubt, but there is nothing wrong with doubt. It’s from doubt that we learn.”
Boy Giant by Michael Morpurgo lands on September 19