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The Making of the Book: Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever

Posted on 26 May 2022

We journey behind the scenes of 'Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever', Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman’s celebration of the world’s most iconic locomotive.

Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever is an inspiring new tale from beloved storytellers Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman. Published in association with the National Railway Museum, York, it takes readers on a journey through the golden age of steam travel, paying tribute to the women who drove the trains and kept the railways running during the Second World War.

Here, we catch up with both Michaels – including a visit to Michael Foreman’s London studio – to learn about their collaborative creative process, their own extraordinary train travels, and how this charming book came to be.

The start of the journey

Michael Morpurgo: I grew up on steam-trains, remember the sound of them, the smell of them, the rhythm of them. I went on holidays on them, went to school on them. I remember pulling the window up on the leather strap, the whistling and the flag waving, the smoke in the station, the chuffing, the soot in the eye, all of it.

And then Michael Foreman asked me to write a story about the greatest, most iconic steam-train of them all, Flying Scotsman. I sat down at once and just did it. Easy easy. All the memories came flooding back. I loved writing my story, but now all I want to do is fulfill a lifelong dream, to get up on the footplate of Flying Scotsman and drive it, and be at last the engine driver I wanted to be. With me up there driving we would be in Edinburgh faster than you could say ‘Flying Scotsman’.

Building up steam: How Michael Foreman brought the text to life

Michael Foreman: I was approached by Thames & Hudson to do Flying Scotsman, and I thought, would it be an idea if we got Michael Morpurgo to do a text? So I rang him up, and he said yes, I’d love to do a book about a train.

I do all of my work in my studio here, every day. There’s a lovely view from the window, and my neighbours are very friendly. We have a street party every year. This year will be one for the Jubilee, but I won’t be there because I’ve got to go to the real thing!

I start my illustrations once I have the shape of the text from the other Michael. When creating an artwork, I do a rough pencil sketch first, and when I’m happy, I’ll trace it down and paint it.

I use predominantly watercolour, because you can get nice washes, and I like the way the colours move into each other. I’ll sometimes use a little bit of acrylic too, which you can use to go over things to change something, because it’s opaque.

For Flying Scotsman, the people at the National Railway Museum, York were very, very helpful. They gave me various books to refer to, so I could get things as right as I could for the artworks in the book.

Real-life railway inspiration

Michael Foreman: I’ve always kept notebooks where I jot down ideas and drawings. I’ve got ones for Hollywood, Dubai, Cornwall, Egypt, Morocco. It goes on and on. I always have one in my pocket, for when I’m on a train, because sometimes on my travels I’ll have an idea for a story.

One of my own most memorable experiences with trains was in 1970. I was asked to go do drawings at the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan, so I went to Liverpool Street station and I got a ticket for the Trans-Siberian Express. The journey was three weeks in all, and for part of it you go through a forest for days. At one point the train goes past an obelisk that says ‘ASIA’ on it, when you pass from Europe to Asia. I stayed up close to the window because I didn’t want to miss it – and I saw the thing!

A decades-long creative adventure

Michael Foreman: I think I’ve done thirty-something books with the other Michael. We first met in the 1980s, at a school visit in Cornwall. I’d just done a talk, and I was leaving and he was arriving and we met in the corridor, and we shook hands and went our separate ways. But I gave him my phone number, and said, next time you’re down in Cornwall give me a call.

We had a meeting a bit later on, and I suggested doing a book on King Arthur. It clicked, and we really liked working together. So the discussion then was, what do we do next? We did one hero, so let’s do another hero. We chose Robin Hood, and so we went to Sherwood Forest. And in the forest, I remember Michael sitting on a log and saying, this is good, what should we do next? And soon we were in France for a book on Joan of Arc. One story has always led on from another in that way.

Michael and I still speak regularly. I’ll call him up, see how he’s doing. ‘Hello, it’s the other one.’

Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever

Michael Morpurgo, Michael Foreman, the National Railway Museum, York

Flying Scotsman and the Best Birthday Ever

Michael Morpurgo, Michael Foreman, the National Railway Museum, York