Words & Video by Robin Pailler | Photography by James Griffiths
It’s hard to imagine Helena Long not smiling.
For as long as I can remember, Helena’s always been grinning from ear to ear. She’s one of those happy go lucky humans who always seems to be in high spirits, no matter what. To the point where I wonder, has she ever not been smiling?
It could be that quintessential British nature she possesses. That thing where no matter what’s wrong, a cup of tea and a biscuit will fix it. Which, in fact, is a nice segue as we’re actually sat down having a cup of tea and a biscuit in her charming one bedroom flat, situated a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, where the recently deceased longest reigning British monarch used to reside. A woman who also no doubt used to indulge in a cuppa and a biccy whilst contemplating her woes, if you could call them that.
Before you assume that Helena comes from some form of royalty, her flat is actually an old council flat that her Mum purchased decades ago, and by her own account some of her current neighbours are about as far away from royalty as you can get. But because of their placement between the Monarchy and Westminster, they are in fact in the lowest council tax bracket in London. So there are some perks. “I used to say I share the same postcode as Queen Liz but I guess it’s now King Charlie. Doesn’t really matter as I doubt I’ll be asking to borrow any sugar from him any time soon.”
My cup of tea is actually transported from the kitchen to the living room on a skateboard as Helena is currently on crutches having had long overdue knee surgery in August 2022. “So I first hurt my knee in January 2021. But because it was still lockdown and Covid, trying to get it seen to was a bit of a nightmare. And despite doing physio work, I kept skating, which in hindsight, probably wasn’t the best idea.”
Turns out Helena tore her meniscus and will also need to have surgery for a similar issue on her left knee in due course. “So I’d actually torn it quite badly and it had also folded over, which they call a ‘bucket handle’. I also had quite a bit of deterioration of cartilage on the end of bones, particularly on my femur. Apparently they were expecting 1cm by 1cm deterioration and I had 3cm by 3cm, so it was a little more work than expected.”
Naturally, this resulted in eight weeks of crutches with zero pressure allowed on the knee, hence food and drinks being gently transported between rooms via the aforementioned wooden toy. But despite not being able to skate herself, Helena still finds herself hanging at her ‘local’ skatepark in Stockwell, “living vicariously through my friends,” as she puts it. “I say local because it’s actually the closest skatepark in proximity to here, other than Southbank I guess.”
And it seems Stockwell’s always been her local, even when she was growing up in south east London. “I remember going when I’d only been skating a year and a bit, and me and my friends had heard about this other south London skatepark that was concrete. We’d get the P4 bus from Lewisham and those who know, know…that the P4 bus is the longest bus in the world. It would take over an hour for what essentially you thought was a straight line from south east to south west. Anyway, this was back when Stockwell was the original red and it wasn’t in the best shape. None of us had really skated transition before and we just all found it so intimidating. But over time we figured out the lines and gradually just fell in love with it. We actually call it the beach as it’s on the corner in the sunshine and there’s waves.”
The fact Brixton’s Baddest Skate Shop is down the road has also enabled the local scene to flourish it seems. As we venture down late morning it’s interesting to note there’s almost more women than men skating the park. “I mean for me, that’s mad. When I started skating it took me a year to find another woman skating around here! And she was based in north west London. Like the polar opposite end of the city to me. So it’s quite mad really that that’s how small it was. I remember when I first discovered Girl Skate Jams and it’d be no more than 20 of us in the room; you could guarantee that was the entirety of the scene at the time. So the fact that it’s now seemingly 50/50 in a skatepark, or even majority girls at times, is amazing!”
Helena attributes the boom in female skateboarding to social media and growing inclusivity from organisations such as ‘Girl Skate UK’, alongside the rise in LGBTQ+ education and acceptance. But I wonder if Helena’s aware of the role she herself has played in inspiring future generations of women to take up skateboarding. Having had a cameo in the all female Vans video Credits—which she notes received huge positive feedback as a great video in its own right, without even a mention that no men featured—Helena went on to have the opening section in the more recent Vans Franco-British full length, Much Quiet. It’s not only a much adored part in its own right but a fine example of social barriers being knocked down within skateboarding as perhaps one of the few, if not only, videos to feature a female skateboarder opening the proceedings.
“I mean, I don’t even really think about it to be honest. I guess there’s platforms for everyone within skateboarding now. Which is amazing because it’s brought so many people together that perhaps wouldn’t be otherwise, because from the outset it can seem very intimidating. I think I was quite lucky because I was a bit naive when I started; I just did it because I thought it was really fun and saw some mates doing it and decided to give it a go. And if you break that wall, then you’re under their wing. It’s just such a wicked scene and I feel really quite lucky to have found it,” she says, delivered, as always, with that trademark smile.