Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Lone Pine Five


(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.)

One of the advantages to a large cast is the opportunity to adopt fresh perspectives in a series by pushing another member forward. We’ve already seen Peter as the principal character in Seven White Gates, and now Saville advises us in advance that Lone Pine Five (so named because it is the fifth book of the series) will have Jenny Harman to the fore.
And Jenny takes full advantage of her urge to provide an adventure for her friends, and as a study of Jenny, the book is not just a success but a wonderful diversion. Which it needs to be because, in almost every other respect, it is disappointingly weak, and reliant upon previous ideas that do not impress for being repeated.
Once again, we’re in Shropshire, once again on the Stiperstones, but this time without the Warrenders, who cannot be easily carried halfway across the country a second time. We are told that they are in France, on the first half of an Exchange visit, and Saville pulls out a neat trick at the end which he never repeats, despite its successful performance, but basically we are back to what I call the Shropshire Six. Henceforth, and with only two late exceptions, the Shropshire books will always and only include the Mortons, Peter, Tom and Jenny.
The book’s about Jenny and thus it begins with her, waking up and counting the roses on her bedroom wallpaper. Things aren’t as bad for her as they were at first: her Dad is back from the War, unscathed, and his presence ameliorates life at home, though her stepmother is always and only negative, and though she still spends most of her time alone, and in books, she does have friends. One of whom, the most important one, Tom, has written to invite her to meet him and Uncle Alf at the Market in Bishop’s Castle today.
Just getting away, let alone meeting Tom, is enough to make Jenny’s day, even without the news that the Mortons (and Peter, who has been staying in London the past two weeks) are due at Witchend in two days time. By then, Jenny will have an adventure for them, the responsibility for which she takes very seriously, and very anxiously.
Because, at an auction in Bishop’s Castle, Jenny has found an odd spoon in a lot of broken cutlery and persuaded Tom to buy it for her. Almost immediately, she’s approached by an elderly, grey-haired man called Wilkins, who believes it to be a Roman relic, and who cannot understand what importance it could have to a young, and no doubt foolish girl.
That isn’t meant to be offensive, on Wilkins’ part, and Jenny doesn’t take it as such because she has an immediate sympathy for the obviously distracted gentleman. But Tom gave her the spoon and she will wear it next to her heart forever. Literally, since she fashions a ribbon that enables her to wear it round her neck, after which it lives a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t existence, being fished out and replaced over and over.
Wilkins, a widower, is obsessed with the Roman history of Shropshire and his belief that there are important remains to be discovered on the Stiperstones. He explains about the Mildenhall Treasure of 1942, and Treasure Trove, and when it comes to lodgings, he ends up at the Post Office, with the Harmans. Tom thinks he’s potted, but Jenny sees him as her chance to introduce everyone to an adventure, and volunteers the Lone Pine Club to help him search and dig.
The Club is due to reunite shortly, but really they’re unnecessary. Saville has set out to capture Jenny Harman in these pages, and he’s done so beautifully. The excitable little girl whose loneliness has forced her to imagine her own life into being, with all the melodrama and exaggeration of the books she loves, is gaining the confidence not to be abashed among her friends. Jenny wants to prove her worth, even though she doesn’t need to, not to her friend Peter and especially not to Tom, who might not understand her but who already cherishes her.
But we have a ‘Treasure Hunt’ and of course that requires villains in opposition. These have already been hinted at, darkly, and they appear independently of Jenny. These are the Smithsons, Wilkins’ nephew and his out of place wife and unprepossessing son, Percy. They first appear, selfishly and dangerously overtaking Mr Morton’s crowded car and trailer on a left hand bend, and forcing them into a ditch. No-one is hurt, until ten miles further on, when their car and caravan are found parked off the road, and Mr Morton stops to give them a piece of his mind,.
Instead, he’s overruled by the Lone Piners, who stalk and observe the Smithsons, who are haranguing Wilkins, threatening him with trouble, implying he’s not mentally all there. As villains go, they’re not much cop. They’re not even crooks, but merely an unpleasant, self-centred lot who never rise above the level of nuisances. Smithson’s a greasy, selfish and above all vulgar specimen, quite obviously what, in the War, would have been a spiv, Mrs Smithson is a painted and powdered woman utterly out of place in the country, and as ignorant as her husband, and their son Percy is a sorry specimen, spoilt, pimply, with all the makings of a bully except the remotest atom of the force required to assert himself.
Unfortunately, Percy throws a stone at Macbeth, and hits him, leading to the furious enmity of the Twins, which leads to them getting completely out of hand in a way that might have been comic and laudable to the original audience, but to one pair of adult eyes is a warning sign.
I’ll come back to that later. For the moment, the Lone Piners fetch up overnight in HQ2, at Seven Gates. Jenny decides to sleep at home to keep guard over Wilkins, only to return early the following morning, utterly distraught, because he has left earlier than her, rather than bring trouble down on the Harmans.
It doesn’t halt the setting up of camp at the head of Greystone Dingle, a new element in Saville’s fictional Shropshire geography, establishing HQ4 in the mouth of the old mining caves at the Dingle’s head, the entrance to the underground workings and tunnels in which the Twins got trapped in Seven White Gates. But the Club discovers that Wilkins has gone back to the Smithsons, resignedly, and is being bullied and forced to work for them.
On a side note, all reference to ‘HQ4′ is edited out of the Second edition. I was convinced that I recalled dialogue about call the cave an official Lone Pine HQ, about having too many HQs already, so that the designation was never formal and existed more in the Twins’ minds than anywhere else, but this was obviously a false memory, there being no such argument in the First Edition text.
Ah, the Twins. This is where they make their usual, egotistical attempt to take over the book. They’ve already been their demanding and scapegrace worst, constantly avoiding having to do any of the chores the others share faithfully, and arrogating leading roles to themselves from the first. And their performance at the first encounter with the Smithsons is a point that stretches credulity. The Twins are furious and put on one of their most intense performances, all of which is in front of their father, who not only makes not a move to check them but, despite the fact he’s facing a dangerous driver who’s nearly caused an accident that could have seriously hurt several people, seems to regard his younger children’s performance as just punishment.
Then he lets them go off alone, at the age of ten, to explore an unfamiliar corner of a dangerous mountain, miles away from Seven Gates, when their declared purpose is to further torment the unpleasant Percy. It’s not quite setting the forest alight, but it’s giving in to the fantasy of the children’s adventure story without enough consideration for the reality that has to go along with real landscapes and places.
And the Smithsons aren’t really worthy of such behaviour. They’re small-time, lacking the imagination to rise to cruelty. They park their car and caravan at the foot of Greystone Dingle where it blocks the tracks – blocking the gypsies, Reuben and Miranda, the Lone Pine trailer – until, David and Tom clear the way with axes – and later Henry Ringway’s car, with no thought for others, and when challenged act as if they own the place and can order other people off.
So, the next thing the Twins do, first morning in HQ4 before anyone else wakes up, is to kidnap Percy. And when I say kidnap, I mean kidnap. As in genuinely abduct and imprison.
This isn’t actually very funny. I mean, you can say that Percy deserves it, and the Twins only want him for an exchange of hostages for Mr Wilkins, and when they reveal this brilliant idea, and their tie-bound and sock-gagged prisoner to the older members, nobody seems to think that it may have gone too far, and all David does is remove the sock.
Meanwhile, it’s raining. It’s been raining for much of the book, with only enough dry weather to get the Lone Piners out of HQ2 and into the putative HQ4. And it’s getting worse.
The Smithsons come up the valley, looking for Percy, he all bluster and threat, she weepy and doting. To their immense surprise, Percy refuses to leave his captors: in part, it’s because he is hungry and smells the stew Peter is cooking, but in part it’s also because he feels the contempt the others have for him and is trying to prove himself better than that, though the Percies of this world always undermine themselves: his malicious sneer at his retreating, defeated parents is met with the single, devastating line that “None of the Lone Piners ever forgave him for that.”
But Jenny once again takes the lead. She and Tom slip away to look for Wilkins and find him breaking out of the caravan. Whilst Tom goes back to report, Jenny follows Wilkins in the steadily increasing rain. She ends up following him all the way to Shrewsbury, where he has gone to consult Henry Ringway, a Roman expert. Wilkins has transformed, determined to throw off the odious Smithsons, and pretty soon he is leading Ringway back, into a scene of disaster.
Because, unable to leave the cave for the rain and Jenny, the Lone Piners and Percy have explored deeper into the mine. They have discovered an underground lake, rapidly filling as the rain pours down. And the Twins and Percy have fallen in.
Saville handles the situation quickly and well. Charles Sterling has accompanied Wilkins, Ringway and Jenny, who become a timely rescue team and, with the aid of David, everyone is got out safely, just ahead of the overflow of the lake, which causes a dramatic landslip and a sudden flood of water down the Dingle, where the Smithsons’ car and caravan are in its path.
Peter is first to react, running full-tilt down the valley, to try to beat the water to warn the Smithsons. David automatically follows her, but neither can hope to beat the flood, which overtakes both and sweeps away the caravan, though thankfully without hurt to people.
And David’s steadfastness comes to the fore as he calmly and convincingly approaches Smithson to suggest a truce, and his car to ferry people to Seven Gates, for food, dry clothing, hot baths. Give Smithson credit for that: but then, he and his miserable family are not real villains, unlike Miss Ballinger.
But Lone Pine Five is Jenny Harman’s book. She has been at the centre of things, her passion for excitement, her immediate emotionalism, her determination to do things for people has driven everything, and we like her all the better for it and of course she must have her reward: first thing the next morning, with only Tom for company, she returns to Greystone Dingle, fresh in its devastation from the water tearing up the valley. Together, they find the exposed mosaic of the flooring of a Roman villa, and together they find the blackened, dirty relics that Jenny presents to Wilkins at the breakfast they return to interrupt: what will become known as the Greystone Treasure.
All thanks to a spoon.
Looked at critically, this isn’t that impressive a book. Though the inevitable game of treasure hunts and crook-foiling has yet to become repetitive, the book is flawed by the re-use of situations Saville has already incorporated in Lone Pine books. The rescue party being already on its way when the Twins are stuck is a replay from Seven White Gates, the flood that sweeps down the narrow valley is Mystery at Witchend all over again, not to mention the third use of water as a climactic threat in only five books.
Then there’s the Twins’ behaviour, which is not just delinquent but applauded, and the way that Percy’s kidnapping just fizzles out, which shows it to be a thread unsustainable in a book for children. And it is not helpful to the climax when Saville gives away in his foreword that the rocks of which the Stiperstones are made are not conducive to missing or underground rivers in the first place.
Yet I enjoyed this much more than, say, The Secret of Grey Walls, because Saville so successfully animates the story with the girl who so far has been a semi-comic background figure. Yes, Jenny is still childish in many ways, more so than the other ‘seniors’ with whom she is bracketed, and you might not want to spend too much time with her in real life, but in this story, where we see the mind that drives the chatter and unrealism that she strives to bring into her life, we can’t help but warm to her. Saville shows us the girl who needs her friends, who sees them only too rarely, and who has to cram a month of their company into a few days at a time.
A few interesting points to close with. Amusingly, for those who think about such things, Jenny has been accelerating in time: after being ‘nearly fifteen’ to Tom’s fifteen-and-a-half last time round, she has moved to ‘two months younger’ than him. In lapidary inscription, and popular children’s fiction of the last century or so, no man is on oath.
Then there’s the moment when, having been unsuccessful about warning the Smithsons of the flood, David politely commandeers their car to start ferrying people back to Seven Gates. It’s a demonstration of why he is the Club Captain, but then he uses his ‘authority’ to order Peter go go with Smithson to prepare a warm welcome.
It’s a perfectly logical step, although Peter initially protests, only to be overruled by her Captain. But it’s not just adherence to the Club’s rules that sends her on her way but a blushing “wondering whether, after all, it was not rather nice to be ordered about by some people.”
Now that’s a red rag to a bull if I ever saw one. There’s a gentle, sometimes bantering warmth between Peter and David throughout the book, and a greater unembarrassed tactility between them, without it ever having even a pre-sexual dimension. Nor is this, quite, the end of the self-reliant, independent Peter. But it’s an early sign that Saville, a committed Christian with conservative views, is starting to develop traditional male-female roles for his two leading characters. This won’t become widely apparent for many books yet, but a balance in the equality between Captain and Vice-Captain is going to be tipped, and this little scene is the first nudge, especially Peter’s acquiescence, and the way it gives her a certain thrill…
Lastly, and literally so, Saville uses a device in Lone Pine Five that, despite its effectiveness, he never repeated. We’ve been made aware that the Lone Pine Club’s two absentees are not available, and why, and Jon at least is kept fresh in mind by a couple of references to things he would have been useful for.
Which leads us to the final scene, and Mr Morton’s arrival to break up the camp because it’s too wet, but he’s also carrying a telegram for David. Telegrams in fiction were as important as they tended to be in real life: it comes from Rye.
‘We may want Lone Piners soon have just seen Ballinger again up to no good we wouldn’t be surprised Jon and Penny’
We’re going back to Sussex for the next one…

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