When I was much younger than I am now, there were three series of children’s adventure stories that I read and re-read.
One of these was Arthur Ransome’s Swallows And Amazons books, which I have to this day and still re-read with pleasure. This was spurred by my Dad giving me the last in the series (of twelve), and I read back, haphazardly, eventually buying Missee Lee as an adult to complete the set.
The second was Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. Like nearly every kid of that era, I was raised on Enid Blyton, Little Noddy and Binkle and Flip. The Famous Five were practically inevitable. I did read other Blyton series, collecting the Five Find-Outers and Dog (classist in the extreme: their treatment of Mr Goon was appallingly smug), but finding the Secret Seven weedy in the extreme. I don’t remember which was my first book, but it certainly wasn’t the first in the series, and I approached the Five’s books equally haphazardly, frequently via Shudehill Book Stalls, until I had a complete set of all twenty-one.
My last encountered with the Five was a lazy Sunday afternoon, in my early twenties, when I breezed through six consecutive books in six hours: I got rid not long after.
The third of this triumvirate were Malcom Saville’s Lone Pine Club books. Though I ended up reading this series just as haphazardly, and there was one of two possible books in the set of twenty that I never actually got to read (can’t remember which until I read them, and maybe not even then), this time I did start at the beginning, with a wartime copy of the wartime published Mystery at Witchend. And this series continued appearing until I was in those self-same early twenties, and I kept buying them out of loyalty and fading enjoyment and habit.
So the time has come to have a look at the series, to read the books in chronological order, and to look at how the books changed over the forty-three years that separated Mystery at Witchend – Saville’s first book, published in 1943 and utilising his own children’s experience of being evacuated to Shropshire during the Second World War, and his last book, Home to Witchend, a rather less convincing work, written in 1978, in a time Saville no longer understood.
Saville’s series, at twenty books, fell just short of the Famous Five in volume, but outdid both Blyton and Ransome in its cast of characters, the Club’s full membership stretching to nine in its largest incarnation.
The Lone Piners are probably much less known than Ransome’s children, or the Famous Five, so a few words about them, and the series in general, are called for before we go on to the individual stories.
Not all of the Lone Piners appeared in all the books: only the Morton children, David, Mary and Dickie hold that honour. David, the Club Captain, and the natural leader among the children, is fourteen or fifteen when the series starts, a steady, unimaginative, but sturdy and reliable boy, already taking the responsibility of looking after his family as they self-evacuate to Shropshire, whilst his father, a London Solicitor, flies in the RAF.
His younger siblings, aged about nine but typically behaving even younger, are identical twins, and inseparable during holidays. They are distinctly younger, in both age and their attitude, to the rest of the children, but forever demand to be treated as equals even as they are being at their most infuriatingly childish.
They are also perpetually attached to their pet, Macbeth, a black Scottish terrier, whose short legs make it difficult for him to keep up with Club Adventures, not that Mary or Dickie will countenance, for one second, his (or their) being left behind. He is named for literary reasons: on his first night, as a pup, he howled the house down, inspiring Mr Morton to name him Macbeth, because he ‘murdered sleep’.
Children in 1943 were far more likely to pick up that reference for themselves than they are now.
The Mortons founded the Lone Pine Club, as we will see, together with the Vice-Captain, Peter Sterling. Peter, a sturdy, independent, and rather lonely girl, is properly Petronella, but that kind of abbreviation, even to a boy’s name, was standard for those days. Peter is a local girl, though like the Mortons she is educated at Boarding School. She may not appear in every adventure, but she, and her relationship with the Captain, is at the heart of the whole series, and is one area in which Saville differed greatly from his contemporaries and rivals, as we shall see.
Rounding out the first set of members is Tom Ingles, another evacuee, this time from North London, who becomes an initially reluctant country lad, working at his Uncle’s farm. Tom’s the first invitee to the Club after the founders, and contrasts with the others by being, effectively, a working class lad. And as a working lad, he often finds it difficult to join in.
Another Shropshire lass, also a working class girl, joined the Club in the second adventure. Jenny Harman, an excitable, nervy, talkative redhead who develops an instant crush on Tom, lives and works at the General Store in Barton Beach, a village under the shadows of the Stiperstones mountain. Jenny has a hard life with a stepmother unsympathetic to her, though her troubles are eased a little when her father returns from the Army.
Jon and Penny Warrender are cousins, based in Rye in Sussex. Jon, the oldest and most intelligent of the Club, lives with his widowed mother, who runs a hotel in Rye, when he’s not at Boarding School. So too does Penny, a year younger than him, another redhead, with all the typical tempers and temperaments of redheads. She lives with her Aunt, Jon’s mother, because her parents are out in India.
The Warrenders first appear in the third book of the series, though they’re not formally inducted into membership until the fourth book.
This leaves Harriet Sparrow, a London girl aged 12, which places her between the elder half dozen and the twins. Harriet first appears in the tenth book, where she becomes an honorary member but despite appearing in another adventure, is not formally made a Lone Piner until the fourteenth book, by which time the series is changing quite substantially.
Another distinguishing characteristic of the books that should also be mentioned here is that they are all set in real places, places that their readers could at any time have visited and recognised from Saville’s careful descriptions, and his dedicated use of local geography. The backgroumds may be real, but the houses, cottages and homes are all fictional, and Saville carefully distinguishes between the two in Forewords to his readers, who may have searched diligently for Witchend itself but would never find it.
Over half the series, eleven books in total, are set in Shropshire, the county that Saville adopted after visiting it for the first time in 1936, with another five in Sussex, the Warrenders’ base, but the Lone Piners adventures would take them to Dartmoor (twice), Suffolk, London and Yorkshire. I was always disappointed that the Club never made it to the Lake District, but there you go: their loss.
So that’s the Lone Pine Club series in introduction. Let’s see how the books stand up to a repeat reading.