Sam's animal heroes
PUBLISHED: 09:00 23 April 2014
Paola & Claudia Ciana
As the country prepares to mark the mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One Sarah Ford meets an author whose powerful fiction has been educating young readers
A heavily pregnant Sam Angus was stuck in a London traffic jam on a sweltering summer’s day when she heard a conversation which would inspire her to write her first novel.
With no hope of reaching her destination in time, Sam turned on the car radio to hear Jilly Cooper talking about her book Animals in War. And one story in particular took Sam’s breath away.
Jilly talked about the bravery of a messenger dog called Airedale Jack who, despite being terribly injured, saved a battalion of men on the Western Front in 1918.
“The men were coming under very heavy fire and they were cut off with no means of communication and they had no hope,” explains Sam.
“But they had the dog with them and they released Jack with a message and he set off. He was hit by a German bullet but didn’t miss a beat and ran on. He was hit again and then a third time and fell. But he crawled the last half mile back to his master and lifted his head for the message to be retrieved from his collar before he died.
“As Jilly Cooper was talking, I was close to the monument that had been put up in Park Lane for the animals that had given their lives in war. I could see it through my car window.”
Hearing about the bravery of this dog and her later research into the history of those trained in Colonel Richardson’s War Dog School moved Sam to write her novel, Soldier Dog, about a boy and his dog in the trenches on the Somme.
“I spent two years visiting the Imperial War Museum and became a familiar fixture in there, weeping over memoirs and accounts,” she recalls.
“I went away to write the book and because I had read somewhere that Dodie Smith wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians in six weeks I assumed that all excellent children’s stories were written in that amount of time!
“So I wrote Soldier Dog in a great rush and then spent five years trying to get it published. It was a long slow haul and a hard and dispiriting time.”
But Sam’s efforts had a happy ending. Soldier Dog, which was published by Macmillan, won the North East Book Award and was shortlisted for other prizes.
The book has also been distributed to schools as part of the Bookbuzz programme and pupils love to read about the relationship between the boy and his dog.
“At the same time they are learning about the war,” says Sam.
“And parents enjoy reading it to children because it’s not dumbed down.”
After her first success, Sam Angus published A Horse Called Hero set in World War Two.
When I meet her she is in the last stages of writing her third book called Captain. It tells the tale of a donkey and two boys - the story of friendship and betrayal.
Much of her writing takes place in her home near Winsford Hill on Exmoor (close to the setting of Hero) where she lives with husband Hugh, their five children, horses and dogs. They divide their time between Somerset and London.
Sam was born in Italy and grew up in France and Spain. She had what she calls a ‘haphazard’ education in these countries before coming to Cambridge.
After her studies, Sam taught A-level English before entering the fashion industry where the name Sam de Teran became a success.
“For fun I made some ski suits so became a ski wear designer by accident because the suits were very popular. They were worn by everyone and were in all the magazines. Suddenly, at the age of 25, I was selling all over the world.
“It was a young and fairly rickety business but had a very high profile and was a lot of fun.”
Sam’s shop, on the Fulham Road, was full of celebrities and her sportswear was worn by the likes of the Palmer Tomkinson sisters and Carla Bruni.
Her sleek ski wear was inspired by the early James Bond movies, and was eagerly snapped up by those desperate to ditch the garish gear found on the slopes in the 1980s.
“Suddenly there was the technology in fabrics that allowed me to create very slim fitting suits which really performed – keeping you warm or cool; it did everything you needed it to do.”
One of her ski suits was worn by Sophie Marceau in The World is Not Enough and was sold at Bonhams for £1,800.
“It was very innovative and slightly ahead of its time,” Sam says.
But after a decade Sam took a break from the business and her first child was born.
After her travels as a youngster she longed for a settled life for her family – something she feels she has found in Somerset. She recalls seeing the countryside here for the first time.
“We were invited down here for a weekend to a cottage outside Dulverton and we went for a long walk over Winsford Hill and on the top in a howling gale I said to Hugh: This is amazing!”
Sam says the openness of the countryside reminds her of Spain.
“It’s a very vigorous, masculine, strong landscape and what appealed to me was the horse riding. When I had been riding before with people in different parts of England I thought they were kidding when we would go along a little bridleway, plod along for a while and come back again. In Spain you have automatic right of way so there is no law of trespass if you’re on a horse.
“I am used to big open country and it wasn’t until I came here that I saw the possibility of riding for miles.
“There is nothing like Exmoor in the whole of the South West. It’s extraordinary.”
Soldier Dog and A Horse Called Hero by Sam Angus are published by Macmillan