I have little patience with rose-tinted views of one’s youth – although I had, on the whole a very happy childhood – but I do feel an intense nostalgia for my early reading experiences.
The books I read from around eight to fourteen years of age, when you are first experiencing the power of a story, the ability of words to transport you to places and into the minds of people you have never met, to conjure up worlds you have never visited, seemed like the most powerful magic. You know so little of the world at that time in your early life that books grip you, transport you and indeed transform you in a way they rarely do when you are older.
One of the authors whose work had such an effect on me was Helen Griffiths.
She wrote about animals, and the people in their lives, with such power and authenticity that I read them again and again. Even now, forty years later, I remember the characters, scenes and even individual lines and feel, in memory, the power they had.
These were stories without sentimentality, about children who were often poor, who lived in the UK but also in Spain and Argentina, showing me a world of poverty and cruelty, but also of the deep love and connection people might share with a dog, or a horse.
Her novels about horses included The Wild Horse of Santander (1966) which was commended by the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal Awards, Stallion of the Sands (1968), Blackface Stallion (1980) and The Wild Heart (1964).
As a youngster, I only ever owned one of her books – the story of a dog called Leon set in the time of the Spanish Civil War. Instead, I borrowed them repeatedly from my school library. I have never forgotten them, and when, recently, I discovered to my amazement that Helen Griffiths was alive and well, and indeed lives only 15 miles from me, I admit I felt a little overwhelmed, and shed a tear or two.
She is about to celebrate her 80th birthday, and has recently reissued her adult novel The Dark Swallows, originally published in 1964, on Amazon. Helen is also reissuing some of her children’s books as Kindle versions so it seemed an entirely appropriate time for an interview.
Helen lives in Bath, with two small dogs. Petite, bright and energetic, she tells me the extraordinary story of her life and her writing career.
Born in May 1939 in London, she was evacuated to Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire before she was a year old, with her brother, cousin and another little boy, where she was to live for ten years with an older couple she called Aunty and Uncle, who were effectively to be her parents for her early childhood.
“We were country children,” she recalls. “Aunty would give us a slice of bread and dripping and we weren’t expected home till teatime. We went wandering around the moors when we were seven or eight. I think that’s why I love open spaces and skies.”
In an autobiographical piece she wrote for the publication ‘Something about the Author’, she describes being a girl with these three young boys as ‘daunting at times … but I longed to be a boy too.’ She learnt to make bows and arrows and to use a hammer and nails, and enjoyed the musical talents of her adoptive parents.
‘If I had to sum up my childhood in one word, it would be freedom,’ she wrote – a theme that returns time and again in her novels.
She also writes of the moors: ‘There is only earth and sky, the wind’s songs, the cry of a startled bird nesting in the grass, or silence. As a child, I absorbed and was shaped by it.’
As Helen describes her love of the moors, her time roaming the wild spaces in search of ponies, I remark it sounds like the life of young Cathy from Wuthering Heights.
“It was!” she exclaims. “I read Wuthering Heights a little later and I loved it. I read it lots of times. It was probably the first adult book I really got into. Black Beauty was the first book I bought – when I was eight. I read that about 20 times.”
Black Beauty and Wuthering Heights: between them lie the roots of the novels that were to follow. No wonder I loved her books!
But this life was to end abruptly when Aunty died of cancer, and young Helen, then 11, went back to London. She tells me the London portrayed in The Greyhound – a grey place of soot and bomb sites – was the city she remembers from that time in the 1950s. Indeed the rough school she describes was the one she attended for a short time. Opposite the house where she lived with her mother was the burnt out shell of a mansion, which became another playground.
Helen was evidently a prodigious talent at school, winning the Matthew Arnold Memorial Prize, but she confounded her teachers by declining to do a further education course which could have taken her to Oxford University and instead chose to do six months’ work experience on a farm, looking after cows. Aged 16 she says she was obsessed by two things: cattle and Argentina – and she read everything she could about both.
“Working on the farm taught me a lot about animals,” she says. “I loved it – I was absolutely in my element.”
The experience shaped her understanding of animals, their difference, and their dignity. Helen wanted to write about animals, but in a way that seemed true to their real nature, not as proxy humans. Her stories don’t have animals that speak.
Helen is not so sure where her fascination with Argentina came from – except that perhaps she liked the gauchos and cattle. This inspired her first published novel, Horse in the Clouds. It was released when she was just seventeen years old and attracted a great deal of attention, including media interviews and fan letters. Helen went on to write three more novels (which she says are best forgotten) and then The Wild Heart. This story, of an ugly but exceptionally fast mare called La Bruja – the witch – is set in Argentina and is one of my absolute favourites. It is a story about freedom.
While still living and working in London, Helen wanted to learn Spanish and met Pedro Santos de la Cal, who was going to teach her.
“When he came in, it was like a dart went through my head,” she says. “I thought, I am going to marry this man.”
And so she did. The couple had three children and moved to Spain in 1961, which was to be her home, in the main, till 1976. Helen’s husband worked in the hotel business, and Helen immersed herself in the life and culture of Spain. She was a prolific writer too, and many of the books she created were based on real animals and stories she had encountered – The Wild Horse of Santander was based on a newspaper story, and Just a Dog was based on a stray dog her family befriended in Spain (and subsequently brought back to Bath).
But Helen’s life was devastated when her beloved husband was killed in a road accident, after just 13 years of marriage, when she was 34. It marked the beginning of a terrible time as she coped with a young family in Spain in the aftermath of her loss. She decided to move back to Britain.
Helen continued to write, and in 1978 her novel The Mysterious Appearance of Agnes won the Silver Pencil Award and she was able to buy her first horse – Sam. ‘He looked like a cart horse and yet was spotted like a circus horse. He was the most obstinate, disagreeable animal you could ever imagine,’ she wrote. They went on to have other horses, as daughter Cristina was infected with pony fever, and joined the world of shows and gymkhanas.
At 42, Helen’s life changed track dramatically once again, when the Christian faith made a powerful impact and everything in changed for her. She went on to write several books for a Christian publisher under her married name – Helen Santos – which have also been published internationally, and she had a ministry for about 15 years.
I observe that the majority of the protagonists in her novels are boys (a feature I have only really noticed as an adult). She says this was a deliberate choice:
“Girls will read stories about a boy, but boys won’t read stories about girls,” she explains.
Evidently some things don’t change.
“Someone said to me my novels contained a great deal of loss,” Helen says. “I suppose my life has been one of losses. Loss of people, loss of homes.
“When I was ten years old I lost the woman who was effectively my mother. I cried about it for two years. I lost my husband, and it broke my heart.”
Looking back to my childhood reading of Helen’s novels, and re-reading some of them decades later and thinking of the theme of loss, I am struck by the quality of the writing, the complexity of the characters, the authenticity of their emotional lives – and by the cost of passionate attachment.
A poor disabled boy becomes devoted to La Bruja, in The Wild Heart, but he cannot keep her. Indeed, for her well-being, he has to make a devastating choice – whether it is her freedom or her speed she needs most – and he will end up losing her. In The Greyhound, the protagonist loves Silver the dog so deeply, he ends up indebted to a young criminal and forced into crime. Intense love brings the greatest joy, but often has a terrible cost.
Helen is a master of evocative descriptions too – whether it is the wintery streets of post-war London, the pampas of Argentina or the sun-baked plains of Spain. The stories are not fast-paced but satisfyingly immersive. As I re-read them now, the scenes spring to life, the characters enchant me.
And I am also delighted to find out just how many more books of Helen’s I still have to read. With The Dark Swallows available as a paperback and on Kindle, I am excited to try her adult novel. Blackface Stallion – written, Helen tells me, at the request of her daughter who wanted a solely horse-focused story – is another I have yet to read.
To my delight, Helen is now reading one of my novels – The Amethyst Child. I can’t help wondering what ten-year-old Sarah would have thought, if she had known that one day this beloved author would one day be reading the books she would come to write. What a strange and marvellous things are life, and books, and a love of horses.
Sarah wrote another wonderful piece for this blog on her desert island pony books, and you can read that here.