Interview with Clare Morpurgo, Sir Allen Lane’s eldest daughter

Clare Morpugo is married to the best-selling children’s author, Michael Morpurgo

Clare Morpurgo MBE is the eldest daughter of Sir Allen Lane. She is the inspiration and driving force behind erecting a plaque to her father at Exeter St David's station where he was inspired to create Penguin Books in 1934. Clare is married to the best-selling children’s author, Michael Morpurgo. They established the charity, Farms for City Children in Devon in 1974. The charity now has three working farms. Clare spoke to Graham Sim, Creative Director at Penguin Random House, about her father and her own work.

What are your own memories of Penguin growing up?

Clare Morpurgo:  Oh, it was our life because my father had editorial meetings in the house most days. When I was growing up during the early 1940's, Penguin was really run from our family home because we were just down the road from the Head Office at Harmondsworth. We had amazing Penguin parties in our garden and I knew all the Penguin staff very well. We lived it. It was like being brought up on a farm. For me, Penguin was the farm !

What are your own memories of your father?

CM: Very warm. He was a very enthusiastic father. He took me on fantastic trips when I was quite young. I went cycling around France with him when I was eight and it was just the two of us on our bicycles. We cycled from Cherbourg to Le Havre. We took the Queen Elizabeth from Southampton to Cherbourg and we were the only two people that got off, everyone else was going to New York ! He took me again the next year when I was nine and we cycled around Brittany. We did a lot together. My father brought me down to Devon where his family was from originally. The reason we set up our first Farms for City Children was because his own background was Devon farming. My father was a Yeoman farmer’s son, really. His background was very much what I’ve ended up doing. So he’s had a huge influence on my own life.

To people who work at Penguin Random House today, how would you describe him?

CM: I think my father probably could be a bit infuriating but he was enormously enthusiastic ! If you came up with a bright idea he would give you your head and say, “Go for it, that’s great.” When my father was a young man he was really embedded in the whole Penguin dream. I think he was genuinely altruistic. I’ve just found a catalogue of Puffin picture books and he produced fantastic children’s picture books in the 1940’s which I think would still be considered amazing these days. They’re not pretty-pretty. They're wonderfully illustrated and full of really practical stuff that young children need to know about. I think my father would have been a fantastic person to have running the show.

Why do you think your father made for such a revolutionary publisher?

CM: I think probably my father had very little respect for the Establishment. He just did his own thing. He wasn’t that impressed by title, money or influence. Certainly, in his early days he had this vision to do his thing against all the odds. But he also had the ability to bring fantastic people with him. Like Bill Williams, who was my Godfather, who started Pelican. He was a man who’d come from the Welsh Valleys and trained to be a Methodist minister and teacher. I think he ended up running the Arts Council. The social mobility in those days was so amazing and Penguin was part of that mobility.

You mentioned the Penguin paperback broke down social barriers when it was introduced. How do you think the publishing industry can continue to do this today?

CM: I think publishing has to work really hard to always gain new readers, to get to places where you might not expect to find books. In his own way my father did this by selling Penguin books in Woolworths in the 1930’s. I’m sure everyone at Penguin Random House is always thinking about how to find new readers.

Your husband is children’s author Michael Morpurgo, why do you think a love of reading is so important for children?

CM: I think it's very important that children should enjoy reading from an early age, not to learn about grammar, punctuation, syntax and all that, but to just really enjoy reading. Also, to find that they can empathise with other people, they can learn that there are other people like them and they’re not alone. For me, enjoying reading is about helping children feel part of a community. So reading is very much about building communities.

Speaking of communities, you started Farms for City Children over forty years ago with part of your father’s inheritance. What was the inspiration behind that?

CM: Well, Michael and I both started out being teachers and we found that a lot of the children we taught had very little first-hand experience of anything very much. They were within their homes and didn’t get out and see things. If you took them out of the classroom to do something it just wasn’t normal for them. We had the idea to get urban children away from the classroom, away from school and possibly even away for a night would be really beneficial for a lot of them. So we had the idea of children living and working together on a real farm. Over time It has proved to be so. We’ve found a way of encouraging children who normally wouldn’t get out, who would live within the confines of their own cultural life. We’ve kept contact with some of them, so we know what’s happened to them as they’ve gone on and as they’ve got older. I would say that for children coming to the farm the effect for many of them is that of reading a really good book.

Do you see it as having the same spirit as your father with Penguin?

CM: A bit, nothing like so revolutionary, but a bit. I'll tell you what it’s more like, it’s like putting on a play. We welcome 36 children every week to turn into farmers. So 36 new actors and you’ve got to make a new scene, they’ve all got to learn their parts, do their jobs, find out what they’ve got to do. It is like setting up a new play every week. It’s wonderful. 

In what ways do you see your father’s legacy continuing today?

CM: I think that whenever anyone sees that little, cheeky, dignified penguin they know that it’s a symbol of excellence in creativity, integrity and production, that it won’t patronise and is really value for money. I’m really delighted it has become a part of Penguin Random House.

What do you think your father would be most proud of at Penguin Random House today?

CM: There are so many different things, but I think he would’ve been thrilled to find that the original dream that he had to provide books of a good quality at a reasonable price is still right at the top of the agenda at Penguin Random House. I think he would be really proud and delighted with that.

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