(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.)
I referred in relation to the previous book to the Lone Piners standing still in time, whilst time rushes inexorably past them. There’s another, but a little more disturbing example of this in Wings over Witchend, a Shropshire-set book, taking place in the week before Xmas, with the deep snow all around, because, since The Neglected Mountain and now, a complete State Forest, full of mature and newly-planted trees, has appeared on the Long Mynd, at the head of the Witchend valley.
This is of direct relevance, because in this book, the Lone Piners will be tackling another gang of rustlers, this time of trees, to sell in the Xmas market.
The Forest is a jarring disconcertion that made it difficult for me to get into the book. The Lone Piners are supposed to have aged only a year or so since they first met, but the Witchend valley leads into the Forest, the lonely and empty Dark Hollow contains a road built by the Foresters to get to their HQ, and second-in-command Donald Gibbs is so much an old friend to Peter that she’s urged to drop by and see ‘the new baby’. The dissonance was too great for me to ever completely accept the reality of Wings over Witchend.
The other major problem I have with this story is the Twins.
I’ve not said too much about them, so far, in these revised blogs, but I do in general find them near to insufferable. They are egomaniacal, paranoid, constantly demanding, suffer illusions of grandeur and don’t have an ounce of common sense between them. And they are over-indulged in their delusion that they are the only ones who know, do or solve anything.
They begin the story, travelling alone from London by train to Witchend. Two ten year olds, unsupervised, until they meet Peter fresh from school and still in uniform, at Shrewsbury. It may be authentic in the mid-Fifties, but doubts rise even higher when they promptly announce that they’ve been let out of school early because they’ve both separately contracted whooping-cough and have been sent off to Witchend and Agnes to complete their recuperation.
Whooping cough is pretty much a thing of the past, driven out by vaccination, but it was still a life-threatening condition in the Fifties, and the Twins are travelling halfway across England, in winter, when it has already snowed and it’s snowing even more, on their own, when not completely recovered. David and their parents aren’t following until he’s broken up from school. Seriously.
At least the Twins are joined by Peter, but at Onnybrook, things start going wrong. It’s still snowing heavily, six inches underfoot, and still coming down. George the Porter’s off sick, and his young replacement is rude and uncaring, John the taxi-driver is laid up after a crash and his wife thinks more of him than the stranded kids (who seem to think that a non-driving woman, without a car, whose husband has been involved in a crash, should think more of them than him: a bit of middle-class entitlement there), and the lorry driver seeking the pub, the White Horse at Plowden, who gives them a lift won’t let them get anywhere near seeing what’s in his lorry and pumps them about who’s going to be at Witchend and when.
And when they struggle to Witchend, where Peter has to stay the night, Agnes is missing!
At least she’s not far, just up the valley a-ways, helping a benighted traveller who’s sprained an ankle in the snow. This is a mannish young woman with the inappropriate name of Primrose Wentworth, who not only asks questions about the loneliness of Witchend, but advises everyone to shove off out of it before it snows again. Primrose takes her own advice before breakfast, though later on the Twins see her sneaking past Witchend trying not to be seen, and track her up into the Forest before losing her.
Add in a mysterious camel hair-coated man who tries to get Mr Morton’s number off Agnes so he can hire Witchend for an impromptu snow-party and there seems to be a great deal of concern about just who’s going to be in the old cottage. As you might expect from tree-rustlers who have found a secret, unguarded way down out of the Forest that runs right past its porch.
Anyway, once David and his parents arrive from the south, the elder Lone Piners want in on fighting off the thieves, though the Foresters are not keen on bringing in kids, even ones who know the mountain backwards like Peter. Only Donald Gibbs seems to support the notion, and he tries to use Peter’s knowledge as the new boy, Burton, takes Tom and David up the fire-tower in the middle of the Forest, where they might be allowed to act as observers.
Even this little is against the wishes of Mrs Morton, who openly wants the children under her protection – including Peter, whose father has gone off to Seven Gates for Xmas – to stay out of it for once. At long last, one of the adults is showing concern about her children constantly seeking to get involved with all manner of potentially violent gangs of professional criminals. Why can’t they just enjoy the holiday?
This is the context for the Twins’ latest kidnapping.
This one is just stupid and egregious. They’re still not right after whooping cough, they’ve already exhausted themselves tramping over the mountain and they resent not being given leading roles where their elders are barely being allowed to participate at all. So they go off on their own, in the snow, ‘forget’ they’re not supposed to leave their valley and walk all the way to the pub at Plowden that’s actually the base for the gang, where they find trees.
They also find themselves kidnapped, and despite their vast experience at the subject, persist in believing that nobody can actually do anything to them, despite getting tied up, flung into coalsheds etc. They wind up at the derelict Wildmoor Cottage, on top of the Long Mynd, where the gang are holding two Foresters they captured earlier, one of whom is Donald Gibbs, and where they learn that the reason the gang are getting away with it is that they are secretly launching a glider from the cottage (and nobody notices?), piloted by the aforementioned Primrose, to watch where the Foresters are stationed.
All of this is so wrong on so many levels, but the worst of it is that, after the gang all go out and leave the Cottage completely empty, the Twins manage to batter a hole in the ceiling and release Gibbs and his colleague. So, after behaving with utter, self-centred, pig-headed stupidity, frightening to death their family for the ninth book in a row, the Twins are rewarded by believing that they are the heroes and they’ve solved everything, and without them the gang would have got away scot-free.
It’s a wonder that the Mortons don’t keep this pair chained to the walls, and I’m sure that Social Services would actually applaud that.
The conclusion has its flaws as well. It’s the gang’s final raid, and the four elder Lone Piners – Jenny having arrived from Barton Beach – join the dozen or so volunteers in supplementing the extremely short-handed Foresters. They’re only allowed to be observers in the fire-tower, except that David and Peter bugger off to go running up and down forest rides instead, leaving Tom and Jenny to spot, not the tree-rustlers, but an actual fire.
This is the gang’s fall-back plan to distract everyone if they’re caught, and it works, except that it’s put out far too quickly and easily, by far too few people, and the damage is far too contained. Also, it gives the Twins an opportunity to preen themselves again as Dickie fingers Burton for the traitor because his jacket stinks of petrol, and nobody else can smell it?
I’ve been a bit savage on the story, but for good reason. Saville is good at the snowy atmosphere of Shropshire, bringing the sensation of deep snow to life in a way that those of us who had proper snowy Xmases when they were young will recognise with happy nostalgia. He furthers the increasingly solid relationship between David and Peter with a midnight adventure that involves the former saving the latter again, this time from being run over by a skidding police car. And he demonstrates the honesty and straightforwardness of the elders by their insistence on getting involved, on standing up to be counted when the Foresters are thin on resources.
But the Twins-get-kidnapped has become a cliché, and their achieving this by wilful stupidity of a kind that should see them stamped down upon, hard, is especially irritating. No-one will condemn them: instead, they’re allowed, indeed encouraged, to think of themselves as the indispensable heroes, and it’s that which makes the book particularly hard for me to take.
It also emphasises, when such a thing should rather be played down, the naivete of all the Lone Piners. Though the elder quartet are pretty responsible and capable, being between 15 and 16 by now, and deserve to be taken seriously by adults, they nevertheless persist in the idea that they are invulnerable, and that the bad guys can’t do anything to them, can’t touch them. It’s silly from the Twins, but it’s just as bad from those who are old enough to know better.
But this is the times and this was the way of the times. These are children’s adventures, written in the mid-Fifties about children in the mid-Fifties. The sophistication, the realism we would expect for an equivalent adventure today, is not just absent, it’s wholly alien to writer, publisher and audience. A children’s story that aimed at showing just how dangerous getting involved with crooks can really be would not have seen print.
Saville’s early books navigated that dichotomy well. But Wings over Witchend, and later books in the series, show that line becoming increasingly hard to tread.