Michael Murpurgo with touring UK War Horse puppet Joey. Photo: PR supplied
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo is a modern classic, highlighting the horror and futility of war and is a staple of classrooms across the country. But the book had inauspicious beginnings, selling only a few hundred copies when it was published in 1982.
A stage adaptation by the National Theatre and a blockbuster film adaptation by Steven Spielberg changed that and as the timeless tale turns 40, Morpurgo, 79, talks about celebrating its anniversary in a world where conflict in Europe has returned.
The Big Issue: Does it feel like 40 years?
Michael Morpurgo: Just at the moment, if I’m being honest with you. The sadness all around us is very wearing on older people. We all lived through a time of great sadness after the Second World War. We remember the pain there was on people’s faces, we remember the grief. It was a very grey time.
Then in the ’50s, the world started cheering up again. Slowly everything was rebuilt, along with an optimism about the future. We had the National Health Service. Wonderful people of that generation decided to make a better world after the horrors of that war. There was this notion that it was important to have a fair deal for everyone in health and education.
The world has moved on. Much has been very good. But the gap between those who have and those who have not has gotten wider and wider. In the wake of the pandemic, and now what is happening in terms of war in Europe and the politics in this country, it’s hard not to feel downhearted.
But the more I say I am downhearted, the more I feel I must not be downhearted, because that’s not going to get anyone anywhere.
It seems like our leaders are not interested in a fair world, but rather in maintaining and expanding the gap.
It’s this manic thing about growth, as if growth in itself is a good thing. Well, it’s clear to me that one of the big problems we have in this world is growth. What inevitably happens is that the people who grow first will be those who have money already.
We’ve got stuck in this world of levelling up. What we should be doing is levelling out so what we have is shared. We have to do that, if we don’t, we’re in peril in so many ways. We have got to learn really not to look after ourselves, but to look after others. I know it sounds rather old-fashioned but it’s the only way forward.
What everyone in the ruling party gets wrong is that there’s a great willingness out there, I think, among those who have a lot to be taxed. Of course, there are people who will put their money on islands in the middle of the sea, but there are an awful lot of people who realise that a fair society is a contented society.
How does it feel that around the 40th anniversary of an anti-war book you have to talk about a current conflict rather than history?
My books, I hope, are full of the horrors of war. It’s about what happens when the world goes mad. Children have to know these things. It’s very important that they understand that the world is not something you can tie up in a pink ribbon. It’s complex, it’s difficult, and the more they find out about it, the better citizens of the world they’re going to become who can contribute to its future. And there will be no future without peace.
Over time does a book or a story belong more to the readers than to the author?
The main reason I find it wonderful is that the story has spread all around the world. Forty translations now. And [the play] spent five years going around China. I went to Berlin and saw it in the Theater des Westens, which is the only theatre in Berlin that survived the bombing of the Second World War. There was War Horse being put on in front of German audiences, with German actors. Then I learned that this was the very theatre that the Kaiser and Hitler had come to. I felt a great surge of feeling that we had put all that war stuff behind us. I was thinking to myself, this is a good moment.
You have a charity called Farms For City Children, which brings young people from urban areas to the countryside. How do kids compare to how your generation were growing up?
There’s greater confidence in who they are. And they speak out much more than they ever did. By and large, we were brought up to be silent in front of adults. That is all gone.
They are better educated. It’s not an accident that some of the greatest ambassadors for peace, the environment and rights are children. Look what’s happening in Iran at the moment. This is led by young people having the confidence to speak up and protest.
This new generation has a sense of purpose and a greater sense of their own power to change things. That’s the big hope that we’ve got. We’ve made enough of a mess of it after all.
War Horse – 40th Anniversary Edition is out now (Farshore, £12.99)