War Horse was book written by a British children's writer.
In 1982.http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/ ... y-children
Once upon a life: Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo and his wife were determined to change the lives of inner-city children by giving them an experience they'd never forget. The poet and author recalls how they started their first kids' farm in Devon – and how one of the visiting children inspired his greatest literary work
The Observer, Sunday 11 July 2010
Michael Morpurgo poses during the 2007 Etonnants Voyageurs film and book festival in Saint-Malo. Photograph: Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images
In a new book by Richard Stengel, Mandela's Way: Lessons in Life, Mandela wrote in the introduction: "We are human only through the humanity of others and… if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others."
I did a lot of floundering about in my 20s. There was a brief spell in the army, which I think I knew was a mistake from my very first parade at Sandhurst. Square peg, round hole. At King's College London studying for my degree, I just got by, felt defeated by philosophy, and was simply inept at literary criticism. Round peg, square hole. I taught subsequently in various schools, state and private, never really settling. I disliked intensely the politics of the classroom, but the classroom itself I thrived in and enjoyed. I was an enthusiastic teacher who relished the challenge, and found early on that I had a way of communicating with children that seemed to work, particularly when I was telling stories to them.
But I could see that so many children were simply passing through the system; their time at school was having little or no effect. Often my attempts to change the way these schools worked were frustrated. There was resentment and defensiveness all around me. I was mired in a world where I felt I didn't belong. Disillusion and disappointment set in.
All this was in stark contrast to the home my wife Clare and I had been making for the last 10 years. We had married far too young, had children far too young, but we were somehow deeply contented. Difficulties at work though were having their effect. We had moved house far too often in those early years as I struggled to find my feet as a teacher. The disruption was taking its toll on the life of the family.
I had begun to write stories, although tentatively, and by great good fortune was published quite quickly. But the books did not do well: very few reviews, disappointing sales. I knew in my heart of hearts that the stories lacked depth, that I had not yet found my voice as a writer. It was at this lowest ebb, after a decade of floundering, that the gods, moving in mysterious ways as they do, set us on a new and purposeful course. It was through the intervention and support of good friends that we found a way to stay positive, to move out of the doldrums.
Judith and Tom Rees, old and trusted friends, first suggested we might look into finding a way to enrich the lives of inner-city children outside the classroom. The idea chimed perfectly for us. Clare and I had felt that many children we were teaching suffered from a profound poverty of experience, that school could so often be narrow and restricting for them, that their horizons needed expanding, that their lives needed to be enriched. All our instincts, and our research, too, led us to believe that time spent in the countryside, away from school and family, could only be beneficial for them.
It was pure Rousseau, of course, and idealistic, certainly. But all four of us felt we could make a significant contribution to the lives of those children in our society who needed it most. All four of us, too, had a love of the countryside which was central to our own lives. Clare had spent much of her childhood in her wellies, wandering "the deep lanes of Devon", as Ted Hughes called them. She picked the hedgerow flowers, explored the woods and waded in the streams, walked horses for local farmers, saw larks rising, heard buzzards mewing, crouched over slow worms in the village graveyard. So Tom and Judith's idea fell on fertile soil. We were ready and willing to have a go, and family circumstances meant we were also able to make a leap into the unknown.
Clare's father Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, had died, and Clare now had the perfect opportunity of putting her inheritance to the best use. In 1974 we set up a charity, Farms for City Children we called it, acquired a small estate, Nethercott House in Iddesleigh, and a cottage nearby where we could live. The last disruption, we hoped. All this had taken a while, and by now Tom and Judith had moved on and were running a vineyard. But they continued as fellow directors, as guardian angels if you like, through the early years.
Happily installed in Devon, we formed a partnership and a friendship with the Ward family, farmers who lived nearby. It was so important to us that the children should work on a real farm, with real farmers, so that the children's contribution to the life of the farm was serious, useful and purposeful. The Ward family understood what was needed, how they could help in a co-operative venture between the farm and the charity, where all would benefit, the children most of all. Meanwhile Peggy and Sean Rafferty, who had kept the Duke of York pub in Iddesleigh, and with whom Clare had spent so much of her childhood, agreed to retire to Burrow Cottage, on the Nethercott estate, where Sean would manage the vegetable garden.
Come a cold afternoon on 26 January 1976, the children from Chivenor School on the Castle Vale estate in Birmingham, led by our first farming teacher, Joy Palmer, came stomping up the drive in their blue anoraks. The next few days and weeks and years were a steep learning curve. Difficulties and doubts multiplied. Good intentions were not enough. We kept at it, only because we were inspired by working alongside the children and teachers, who were clearly benefiting so much from it. One thing was for sure: we were not floundering any more. We had our hearts set on making this work. Every week the children came we had one very clear aim in our heads – to make it as intense an experience as possible, to make it a week that would build their self-confidence and self-worth as they worked out on the farm, a week full of fun, too, the most memorable week of their young lives.
There was an unexpected bonus to this new life of ours. Working with these children was giving me new insights into the lives of children, insights that were meat and drink to me as a writer. I found myself in the privileged position of being able to discover how children and animals interacted, how growing confidence and familiarity banished anxiety. There seemed so often to be a natural understanding between them. I was witnessing every day how the children responded to the unfamiliarity of the countryside around them, to the impenetrable blackness of the dark, to the harshness of a cold wind, the smells of new-mown hay and the cow yard, to the stillness and the silence. I came home each day my head full of all I'd seen and heard and felt. Every week was as much a life-enhancing experience for me as for the children.
As the years passed, and I got to know the place and the people among whom we made our home and lived and worked, Clare and I began to feel that we belonged here. And with that sense of belonging came the notion that I might one day write a book set in our village, and that an animal and a child, and the trust and affection of one for the other, would be at the heart of my story.
No fledgling writer ever got luckier than I did then. Some writers – most, I suspect – write in isolation. I think I'd always found that quite difficult. And now great good fortune brought me into contact with two of the finest poets of the 20th century. Sean Rafferty happened to be a wonderful lyrical poet and playwright. His plays had been put on in London in the 1930s and 40s, in the Players' Theatre, but he had since published very little. He did not talk about his writing but would give us poems, hand-written, from time to time, at Christmas and birthdays. And we would spend long evenings by Sean and Peggy's fireside in Burrow Cottage sipping Bordeaux and talking poetry – Sean was passionate about Yeats and Eliot.
He was probably the best-read man I ever knew, a wise man with a gentle spirit who had now become like a father to Clare and me. His was a voice of encouragement and reassurance as I struggled to find my own way as a writer. The other poet who came into our lives was Ted Hughes. I'd come across his work a long time before, as a teacher, and had heard him on BBC School Radio. His Poetry in the Making had been a programme I'd gone back and back to, to inspire me and the children I was teaching. I knew of no more powerful invitation to write. And now, shortly after we moved down to Devon, we discovered Ted Hughes was a near neighbour and met him by chance one summer's evening down by the River Torridge, which borders the farm. He loomed up out of the half dark, fishing rod in hand, greeted us warmly but made it clear he was fishing. He would come and see us later. So he did.
Already good friends of Sean and Peggy Rafferty, as he had been a frequenter of the Duke of York, he became very quickly a towering figure in our lives, largely because he was at once deeply sympathetic to all we were trying to achieve at Farms for City Children. The whole idea resonated strongly with him, growing up as he had done as a boy on the Yorkshire Moors. He became our first president, came to read to the children sometimes, helped hugely with fundraising. Here's what he wrote for us when, 10 years on, we opened our second farm for city children at Treginnis Isaf, on the coast near St David's in Wales:
Hushed by the sea and the sky
Can hear a high gull cry
God rides in the wind
But most importantly for us, he and his wife Carol kept our spirits up over many long dark winters, gave us the strength to get through hard times. Ted and I worked on a book together. All Around the Year was my diary of a year on the Ward family farm, for which Ted wrote a poem for each month. After its publication in 1979, Ted and Sean and I regularly exchanged gifts of our stories and poems, and never once did they make me feel I was the minnow of the group – although I most certainly was. I did more listening than talking, quaffed wine and sat at their feet, drinking in their words and their wit and their wisdom. They were happy times for all of us.
But it was at a moment of disappointment and failure that Ted gave me the most wonderful gift. Through this close contact with Ted and Sean, with my confidence boosted, I felt I was ready to tackle a subject that I knew would test me. I had discovered that in the First World War a million horses had been killed – and that was only on our side. Up at the Duke of York I had met an old soldier who had been at the Front with the Devon Yeomanry, "with 'orses", he said. He told me how he used to confide his worst fears, his deepest feelings, to his horse as he fed him at night. I had been so moved by this. I knew almost as I was listening to him that I had to tell the story of a farm horse that leaves our village in 1914, bought as a cavalry horse for by the British army, that is captured by the Germans and winters on a French farm.
I wanted to write the story of the universal suffering of that dreadful war, seen through the eyes of a horse. But I wasn't at all convinced I could do it until one November evening when I walked up to read to the children at Nethercott, as I often did. There was a boy there that week who had not spoken at school since he arrived there two years before. He was a nervous, withdrawn child who, I was told by the teachers, did not speak because he had an appalling stammer. He had said not a word all week on the farm, had kept himself to himself, but clearly loved being with the animals, stroking the calves, feeding the hens.
I came into the yard that evening to see the light on over the stable, with our horse Hebe standing there, and this same boy in his slippers looking up into her eye, and talking 19 to the dozen about his day on the farm. I went and fetched the teachers. I thought they should see this. We stood there marvelling at this small miracle. I knew as I watched that the horse was listening, and understanding – not the words themselves. But she knew and felt that the boy loved her, and that it was important that she listened. I knew at that moment I could and should write my book. I'd call it War Horse.
The book came out in 1984 and was shortlisted for the Whitbread prize. I'd not been shortlisted before, and so was hugely excited on the day we went up to London for the award ceremony. War Horse didn't win. I returned on the night sleeper feeling rather low, and wondering if I could ever sit down and write a book again. The next morning I found myself as usual milking the cows with a dozen children. They'd all heard, and were sad for me. I put the best brave face on it, but it wasn't easy. The phone rang during breakfast. It was Ted saying he thought we should go fishing together, and perhaps go on to Bideford for tea. The Whitbread prize was not mentioned all day. Then, over tea, Ted leaned towards me and said: "About last night. We watched it on Channel 4. It doesn't matter, Michael. It's all a lot of nonsense anyway. You wrote a fine book. And you'll write a finer one."
I'm not sure I ever have, but without the lift those words gave me, I do wonder if I'd have gone on writing at all. I've often felt as I've been watching the play of War Horse in London recently that Ted and Sean are there in spirit. Every time I see the play, and every time I see the children coming down the lane in the tractor to feed the calves, I know how lucky I have been to have known the friends we have known, how without them there would have been no move to Devon, 75,000 children would never have had their week on the farms, and War Horse would never have happened
Oh, lucky man. Nelson Mandela was so right.
Michael Morpurgo is a writer and poet. He was the Children's Laureate from 2003 to 2005. His latest book is An Elephant in the Garden (HarperCollins, £12.99)