My Olympian challenge: The War Horse author on the childhood heroes behind his stories for Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville
21:30 GMT, 11 May 2012
There are two wondrous events I remember as a young boy: Hillary and Tenzing climbing Everest in 1953, and in 1954 Roger Bannister running the first sub-four-minute mile.
I’ve never run a mile – competitively, that is – nor have I ever climbed a mountain: a few tors on Dartmoor has been my limit. But the achievements of those three extraordinary men have stayed with me all my life.
They were my heroes then, and they still
are. Those stirring images of Tenzing and Hillary coming back down the
mountain after the ascent and being greeted by their friends; of Roger
Bannister breasting the tape, his head back, driving himself to the
limit, are quite unforgettable.
Michael has created a story for a film featuring the London Olympics' mascots
They were moments of supreme triumph for them and of supreme joy for me and millions of others. Of course it was hero-worship, and that’s fine; but my admiration for them all these years later is undimmed, because now, although I’m still in awe of their achievements, I appreciate more the effort it must have taken, the pain and the doubt they must have lived through to achieve what they did.
I have more understanding now of what it takes to set out on a journey where you know you’ll have to endure disappointment and suffering, where the obstacles before you will sometimes seem impossible, and chief among these obstacles will be the niggling anxiety that you might not get there in the end, that you might not succeed. All you will have to sustain you is a fierce determination to win through, a towering belief, and a hope that never dies.
That’s the lesson I took from Bannister, Tenzing and Hillary: if we are to get anywhere in our lives, we have to work for it, train for it, believe in the dream and go for it. I try to do that every time I sit down and write a story. Every story for me is a mountain to be climbed. So, some 30 years ago, after meeting by chance three old First World War veterans who lived in my village in Devon, one of whom had been in the cavalry, I decided to try to write a story about the war, but wanted to do it in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Inspiring: Britain's Roger Bannister crosses the finish line after running a mile in 3:59.4 in Oxford on May 6, 1954
I didn’t want to write about one side or the other, British, French or German, I wanted to write a story about the universal suffering in that terrible war, in which about 10,000,000 soldiers died from all sides, and about as many horses too. I faced two main challenges; my mountain to climb was to find the voice of the horse, to see and feel and tell this story through the eyes of a horse.
My mile to run was to do the research carefully, to read the books, the stories and the poems, to see the films and the plays about the First World War: and then, and this is the most difficult bit, sit down and write it, to cover the blank page, day after day. Like an athlete or a mountaineer, therewere moments when I felt I couldn’t go on, but with a little bit of help from friends or family, I went on and wrote War Horse. I am really rather glad that I did. My Everest, my four-minute mile. (Don’t tell anyone, but secretly I’d far rather have done what Roger Bannister or Edmund Hillary did.)
So when I was asked to write some animated stories about the London 2012 mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, to be shown in cinema kids’ clubs across the country as the games approached, I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to celebrate the commitment of Olympians and Paralympians from all over the world, and the mammoth efforts of those who are building the stadiums and getting everything ready on time.
When Michael was asked to write some animated stories about the London 2012 mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville he jumped at the chance
The challenges for them all –
particularly the Paralympians, it has to be said – are truly daunting,
unimaginable to me. They have only the will to succeed and their
indefatigable courage to see them through. That’s true for everyone who
will be competing in the London 2012 Games.
I wanted to try to reflect the excitement of the times we’re living in, and my admiration for these new Olympic and Paralympic heroes, whether they win or lose, in my stories. How could I not want to write about this, and have some fun at the same time I knew to begin with that Wenlock and Mandeville were made of steel, forged in Bolton. What I set out to do initially was to write an engaging Creation Tale for the mascots’ launch two years ago, about how they came to be, and how they met the family who help them on their way to fulfil their mission.
Then their colours gave me the idea they should be imbued with the magic and power of rainbows as the stories continued, and that their quest would be to ride those rainbows all over the country and bring to the children they met on the way a sense of expectation and excitement for the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games. On their journey they would be like mini-super heroes, encouraging athletes and children in their endeavours, even saving a library. Above all, I felt the stories had to be fun, fast-moving and fantastical. This month, as the fourth and final instalment Rainbow To The Games, narrated by Stephen Fry, reaches cinemas, I can only say I hope they have been.
I’ll tell you a story, a true story. I was in Oxford some years ago – I’d just given a reading somewhere – and I was having dinner in a restaurant with Clare, my wife. I looked up and saw an old man coming towards us. ‘Sorry to interrupt,’ he said, ‘but I was at your talk, and wanted to say how much my wife and I enjoyed it.’ He held out his hand. ‘My name’s Roger Bannister.’ I didn’t know what to say. Here in front of me was my childhood hero, still my hero, and one of the finest athletes the world has ever seen. I admired him not simply for winning, but for his modesty, as well as for the supreme effort I knew it had taken for him to achieve all he did. His example changed my life.
In London in 2012 there will be new heroes who will touch the lives of the children of today, winners and losers, Olympians and Paralympians from all over the world, who will help us to ‘stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood’, as Shakespeare put it, so that we make the best of ourselves in whatever journey we choose to take, whatever goals we strive for.
Michael is the author of the official London 2012 animated short films featuring Wenlock and Mandeville. See the final film, Rainbow To The Games, at Odeon cinemas this month. Visit www.london2012.com/mascots for more information.