Saville’s first departure from his familiar grounds was short-lived: for the next book, Wings over Witchend, we are firmly back in Shropshire, and, like The Secret of Grey Walls, it is now winter: Christmas is round the corner, in fact, and the snow is coming down.
One of the issues that affect the Lone Pine books is that whilst the Club members are fixed in time, changing little or not at all in age throughout nine adventures to date, Saville maintains a contemporary aspect to the background of each adventure. At times, the landscape can seem to flow past the characters, and this is particularly prominent here.
The previous Shropshire book, The Neglected Mountain, contained a mention of the Glider Club on the Long Mynd, as David and Peter followed their chosen route to Bishops’ Castle, but now the Witchend valley leads up to a vast State Forest that will be at the heart of the adventure, and Forests do not grow between summer and winter holidays.
Indeed, the Forest was a jarring disconcertion that made it difficult for me to get into the book. The adventure part is about an organised gang stealing trees to sell in the immediately pre-Xmas market, so it’s completely inescapable.
But consider: we first met the Lone Piners during the Second World War, thirteen years ago. We may be able to put that particular aspect out of our minds, even though a passing reference in Wings does remind us that Mr Morton was an RAF pilot in the conflict. But the Long Mynd was a rolling moorland, its summit accessible by a track up to the head of the Witchend valley. And Dark Hollow, the adjoining valley, where the Morton children first met Peter, was a wild, lonely, narrow place.
The Lone Piners are supposed to have aged only a year since they first met, but the Witchend valley leads into the Forest, Dark Hollow holds a road built by the Foresters to get them to their HQ, and Donald Gibbs, their second-in-command, is so much an old friend to Peter that she’s urged to drop by and see ‘the new baby’. The dissonance is too great for me to ever totally accept the reality of the story.
There’s another massive bar to my fully accepting this story and, unsurprisingly, it’s the Twins. What else could it be?
They lead us into the story, travelling alone from London (to where the Mortons have moved from their old Hertfordshire home) 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 a life-threatening condition, 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.
But that’s not what gets me. That has yet to come.
For the moment, 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 (imagine), 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 joins the lorry-driver in asking questions about the loneliness of Witchend, but goes further in suggesting everyone shoves off before it snows again. And 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-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 ok to act as observers.
Even this much 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, just not get involved with a potentially violent gang of professional criminals, to just enjoy the holiday.
All of which is just additional context for the Twins’ latest ritual kidnapping.
This one was 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 aloud 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 everybody is.
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.
Saville does not cover himself with glory in his conclusion either. 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 which includes Messrs Morton and Ingles in supplementing the extremely short-handed Foresters: three sick, two kidnapped, one traitor. 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 the fire.
It’s the gang’s fall-back plan to distract everyone if they’re caught, and it works, except that it’s too bloody easy to put out, and the damage is contained far too quickly, plus 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 reminds 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 hard 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 when otherwise they’re definitely old enough to know better.
But this is the times speaking. These are children’s adventures, written in the mid-Fifties about children in the mid-Fifties. The sophistication, the darker realism we would expect from an equivalent adventure today, is not only missing, 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, in a different manner to Saucers over the Moor, showed him stumbling a little.