Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – The Gay Dolphin Adventure


(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)

Three books makes a series, and a series requires two principal, and contrasting elements: familiarity and change. Each new book must be recognisable as a part of the overall tale, reuniting readers with characters they know and understand, yet each book must offer something different, to make it worthwhile for the reader to buy the latest story, rather than simply re-read those they already know.
Arthur Ransome managed this brilliantly with the Swallows and Amazons books. The third Lone Pine book was a crucial test for Malcolm Saville, and one that he passed, comfortably.
For a long time, you wouldn’t know that The Gay Dolphin Adventure was a Lone Pine book without being told: the story is almost a hundred pages in before the first Lone Piner appears, and even then it’s a knowingly anonymous appearance by Macbeth: a small black Scottish Terrier sat in an archway. By that time, we’ve become very familiar with two new characters, and a new, but equally real setting.
Jonathan and Penelope Warrender are cousins. Jon, tall, fair-haired, intellectual, permanently dishevelled in appearance, is nearly sixteen, whilst Penny, short and slim, with red curls and freckles and the volatile temperament of the classic redhead, is fifteen, a year younger than her cousin. We meet them at Charing Cross Station, on their way to Rye, one of the Cinque ports on the Sussex coast, for the first time, anticipating an adventure to occupy the September fortnight before they return to their respective boarding schools.
Penny is the more complex and better realised of the two, which seems to be the case with all the Lone Pine girls. Like Peter and Jenny before her, she’s another lonely girl, though she hides it better. For years, her parents have lived and worked in India, and her Aunt, Jon’s mother, has been basically a mother to her, and Jon the only other person in her world. She’s passionate, talkative, prey to emotions, where Jon is more considered, logical and stable, not only because it is his natural temperament, but also because he unconsciously understands that he has to balance out this cousin who has been much more of a sister to him.
It’s 1945, the War is over, but its effects have not yet done with people’s lives. Saville took years to acknowledge the loss of Tom’s family, but there is no reticence here. Jon’s father was killed on active service: that is made plain, in words of complete simplicity that any child can understand, and any adult applaud. Mrs Warrender has soon after inherited the Gay Dolphin from an elderly Uncle, and moved to Rye to run it. The Hotel was once a pivotal smugglers’ haunt but now it’s a desperate financial gamble for a woman forced to look after not merely herself but two teenage children. “…it would never have happened if Dad had come safely home from Normandy, but he had not returned and they had a medal instead.”
Many a boy and girl of that first audience would have known that feeling for themselves. So it is desperately necessary that the Smugglers treasure long associated with the Dolphin be found, and that Jon and Penny find it before they go back to school.
Hidden treasure. A gang of crooks out to get it for themselves. Secret passages. Saville blatantly borrows from the Famous Five in this book, and gives himself a formula that he will apply to the rest of the series. But this is not a Famous Five book, and though the framework being built here might be a bit obdurate and repetitive, Saville brings things to his stories that Blyton does not.
The villains are predictably unpleasant. There are three of them, led by Miss Ballinger, a stout woman with grey hair cut mannishly, thick glassed, an artist who seemingly accidentally encounters the Warrenders at Charing Cross, a genuinely gifted artist who, despite her boorishness on the platform, is decent, friendly and even charming to Jon and Penny. But then she wants something out of them.
Next, there is ‘Slinky’ Grandon. He’s actually the Dolphin’s manager, a holdover from Uncle Charles. He’s impeccably neat, always dressed in beautiful suits, with hair slicked back by scented oils and a pencil-thin moustache. Half a century on, we would be suspicious of his… nature, but in the Forties, and for children, he is a suspicious, and ultimately weak character by dint of being ‘not-English’. He is Ballinger’s plant in the Hotel
Lastly, and least important, there’s Valerie. An attractive blonde, aged about twenty, she’s ostensibly Ballinger’s niece, and her go-between to Grandon. Penny hates her instantly, but that’s because Valerie’s first appearance is an attempt to bribe Jon to hand over the secret papers that conceal the treasure’s whereabouts: Penny the redhead sees Jon’s attention to the older, and decidedly sexual girl, as a threat: she has a proprietress’s attitude to her cousin and accuses him of goggling. Which he probably did, but not as much as Penny thinks.
The shift away from Shropshire has brought us to a part of the country no less real, no less discoverable. The cousins’ first approach to Rye is from Hastings via Winchelsea, and whilst some of that is scene-setting for the dramatic ending, when the sea breaches the wall, the long, detailed, almost lyrical description of the town, the edges of Romney March, the land reclaimed from the sea, and the little marooned ports on their miniature hills suggests an even deeper love than for Shropshire.
The hunt for the treasure is founded on an old box of old papers, left to Jon by his Great-Uncle Charles, along with a letter that is, indirectly, a death-bed message, from a man Jon never met. He and Penny are quick to solve the hidden clues, though they can go any further with them, until an unfairly concealed second clue is sprung right at the end.

 


Instead, first alone and then with the aid of the more experienced Mortons, the Warrenders spend far more time trying to find out what Ballinger’s crew already know, and keeping them from getting hold of the papers.
Yes, the Mortons. This is a Lone Pine Club book and, halfway through, they finally arrive on the scene. Untypically, they arrive via the back door.
Naturally, the Mortons, unable to make Shropshire this year for some unspecified reason, are the Gay Dolphin’s first guests. The Warrenders aren’t supposed to interact with guests, but the first meeting takes place atop of Camber Castle, Jon and Penny fast asleep and disturbed by David Morton, inviting them to watch the show: the Twins have met Miss Ballinger, out painting, and are being exceedingly twinnish with her, for once to genuinely amusing effect.
Too late now to avoid guests, and besides the gang already like each other so, after learning that their new friends are already experienced at adventures, Jon and Penny enlist their assistance. Their first joint discovery is the aforementioned secret passage, all the way down to the edge of the Marsh. Once the second clue appears, rabbit-like, the passage will be key to the discovery of the treasure, but for now, all the hunters can do is to use their expanded forces to watch Ballinger and Grandon for their next move.
Which is, firstly, the bribe, delivered with such clumsy and insulting ‘casualness’ that a three month old baby would see through it, then to hold the impulsive Penny and the Twins hostage at the bungalow on Winchelsea Beach. Behind a seawall that’s already beginning to crack from force of wind and tide.
The menace of Ballinger is overwhelmed by the threat of the flood. She and her cohorts flee, abandoning the gang in a locked bungalow, though Valerie does display her only moment of decency by smashing a window and tossing in the keys. Everybody gets out in time, but they are cut off. They take refuge on high ground, though they’re stuck out there all night, whilst emergency attention is paid to the breach and repairing it.
Once they’re rescued, taken back to the Dolphin and slept it off, Jon and Penny take the decision to explain their treasure hunting to the grown-ups. Mr Morton finds the extra clue, which I still think is a cheat. But the storm has played a crucial part: an old tree, around which a wall has been built, has been blown down, and in its roots the treasure is found, by Jon and Penny, the latter of whom is allowed to take it up: a diamond necklace.
So all is well, and there is even a letter from Peter, whose loyalty to her father has kept her from joining the Mortons, effectively giving the rest of the Club’s blessings to the Warrenders being invited to become Lone Piners. I mean, we’ve known that was coming practically since the first page, but the confirmation is worth having.
Thus ended the first Lone Pine Club adventure outside Shropshire, and taking no harm from the change of scene. Nevertheless, the main significance of The Gay Dolphin Adventure was that it began the formula. From here onwards, wherever the Club goes, they will run into the running into the criminal and the unpleasant. There will be other treasures. Villains will be foiled. Kidnappings and imprisonment will become the order of the day, especially for the Twins, and a climactic threat from natural forces will become a regular occurrence. Especially from water.
One final point. There’s no getting away from it, for decades now The Gay Dolphin Adventure has been saddled with an unfortunate title. There are no dolphins in this story, save for the Hotel. And both book and hotel use the word in its original meaning, cheerful, light-hearted, happy, and in a time when the word was still actively used thus, albeit when it was about to start becoming archaic.
There are Malcolm Saville fans aplenty who will be furious at the very thing being brought up, but we have to acknowledge that if The Gay Dolphin Adventure were to be offered to children of the Twenty-First Century, they would form an instant impression of what they were about to read that bears no resemblance to the actuality. And they would be a lot quicker to question the portrayal of ‘Slinky’ Grandon.

But nothing can, or should, be done about that.

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