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

(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.)

Lone Pine London, as its title states, is the first and only book in the series to take place in the city instead of the country. It features the Mortons, in their new home at 4 Brownlow Place, in an unidentified area of North London, and their winter holiday guests, the Warrenders. And it introduces the Lone Pine Club’s ninth and final member, the terribly underused Harriet Sparrow.
I confess that, before returning to these books, I had very little memory of young Harriet, and assumed her to be an undistinguished character. Having been reintroduced to her, I realised how badly I had underestimated her, though she is only twelve, and is obviously intended as a bridge between the senior members and the still 10-year old Twins (she is frequently described in Second Edition books for earlier in the series as ‘The Twins’ special friend’).
Instead, she’s a sturdy, sensible character, pleasingly undemonstrative, self-contained and altogether delightful, which makes it a terrible shame that Saville will use her in only three other books.
Harriet is brought in as the granddaughter of a London antiques shop owner, Albert Sparrow, not far away from Brownlow Square. She usually lives with her parents in South London, for whom she is an only child. Mr Sparrow does not get on with his daughter-in-law, but Harriet spends a week with him every holiday, helping him in the shop, to which she is tied, by her dedication, to a greater extent than Jenny Harman.
Like the other three girls before her, Peter, Jenny, Penny, Harriet is a lonely girl, who takes to the Lone Piners as friends that she has been searching for. It’s fascinating to see this pattern repeated so often, without it ever seeming to be a conscious decision on Saville’s part. Her youth puts her in the Twins’ sphere, but she is not so far behind the others and Penny, of course, is instantly welcoming and sympathetic, specifically recognising the little girl as an ‘only’ who needs friends, and taking her under her wing.
The story arises naturally from an offstage argument. David, that inveterate cricket fan, has disparaged professional football as a game, not a sport. Jon, who bases his opinions on evidence, has never seen a professional football match. So the book begins at White Hart Lane, with Jon, armed with details of bus routes, watching the Spurs play a famous Northern team who wear red and white stripes (we get the colour of the goalkeeper’s jersey but not of the shorts, so cannot decide whether the visitors are Sheffield United or Sunderland). Jon is suitably impressed by the Spurs’ play (a late goal in a 3-2 win after being twice behind), but less so with the crowd, or the arrival at full-time of a London fog.
Thanks to the fog, it takes Jon forever to get back, and he meets Harriet when he stumbles upon Mr Sparrow’s shop, and she guides him the rest of the way. But there’s this mysterious, camel hair-coated man who Jon first sees at the football, who seems to heading back in the same direction, and who runs away when Jon seeks assistance and guidance. It’s all very strange, and suspicious, but it’s Penny who puts her finger on the most likely explanation: Jon may not have recognised this stranger, but the stranger has recognised him.
And, since this is a Warrender adventure, the stranger turns out to be Slinky Grandon, and he’s still working for Miss Ballinger.
Their scam this time is forged paintings, specifically prints by obscure English artists of the Nineteenth Century. Just at the moment, William Johnston, who specialised in exquisite flower paintings, is particularly hot, and Ballinger is behind the forgeries, which are sold to antiques dealers across London. This scam is being investigated by the Crime Reporter from the Clarion, James Wilson, he of Elusive Grasshopper fame, who has been alerted to the presence of fakes by his art student fiancée, Judith. She in turn, like everyone else, takes immediately to the Lone Piners and accepts them as co-investigators.
Grandon’s part is to tour antiques shops, looking for old newspapers and magazines, which are used to lend authenticity by being employed as backing paper, and on some occasions to offer prints for sale. This task is also carried out by an attractive, if hard-faced young blonde woman, aged about twenty, selling heirlooms inherited from deceased parents, who we recognise as Valerie.
Harriet, who is accepted whole-heartedly from the outset, is the key to success. Despite her inexperience, she goes out alone at night to follow Grandon, tracing him to a mews courtyard where, unbeknownst to her, the artists carrying out the forgeries are at work, insulated from their masters by telephone. She almost falls foul of Miss Ballinger, which scares her so much that, the next day, she’s unable to retrace her steps.
It’s frustrating to Wilson and Judith, who have co-opted the older Lone Piners to search the area Harriet found herself in, though it is Penny, acting protectively towards the little girl, who recognises that Harriet’s real fear does not derive from being terrified in the dark, but from the fear of failing her wonderful new friends.
The Twins are not on this expedition. They’ve gone with Mr Sparrow to the unpleasant Holloway Hill, and Grandon’s postal contact address. Sparrow is far too inexperienced of the Twins and we already know a kidnapping is coming up. This time, the two little idiots stow away in Grandon’s van, get taken God knows where to see Grandon framing the forgeries, and then are mercifully rescued by Mr Sparrow who has, implausibly, brow-beaten the thuggish shopkeeper into giving up the real address.
No, this time round, the real kidnapping is of David and Jon, finding the forger’s den but calling unwanted attention to themselves. They are seized by the mysterious, over-sized Louis, and taken to the premises of Madame Christabel, that famed seller of impeccably tasteful clothing to the fashionistas of the day, including young and restless American film star Lucinda Gray. Madame Christabel, we already know, is a slimmed-down, better-dressed, more elegant Miss Ballinger – or Mrs Sandford to, of all people, Louis.
Harriet, meanwhile, has finally got her bearings, just in time for everyone to see David and Jon being driven away, to the Sandfords’ other premises in Guildford. The Police are brought in, and everyone homes in on this pleasant Surrey town. Everyone includes Penny, Harriet and Judith and, in total defiance of any logic, Lucinda Gray herself. This female quartet actually accompany the Police on the raid, except that, instead of sitting in the car as they’re supposed to, Penny leads the girls on the charge and they are in the house, through the French windows, before the Police!
Yes, this is a Lone Pine Club story, and yes, the kids will be expecting something of this sort to happen, but this final scenario is nothing but a piece of fantasy that, in a book that until now has been quite well and realistically composed, blows credibility out of the water.
So the boys are rescued, albeit a bit bruised. Mrs Morton once again expresses her hatred of the children under her care getting involved with criminals, which is why most such stories dispense with parents as early as possible. Ballinger and Grandon are captured off-stage by the Police, and Lucinda gets to join in the traditional post-adventure party. I mean, she’s a nice enough young woman, even though she’s one hundred percent proof cliché, except for the bit about visiting film star in London taking off into madcap adventures with kids and crooks without her PR man knowing anything about it…
Despite its ending, Lone Pine London is a much better book than its two immediate predecessors, and Harriet is an enjoyable addition, even if the existence of the Lone Pine Club is concealed from her until the final page. She’s clearly Lone Pine material, eager for friends and both accepting and accepted, and not too intimidated by their existing comfortable relationship.
Nevertheless, the Cinderella effect is once again at play. According to the little section on the Club members, both the Warrenders have aged by about six months whilst the Mortons have stood still, but it is Miss Ballinger’s third appearance that introduces complications in line with Wings over Witchend.
Miss Ballinger escaped after The Gay Dolphin Adventure, but was arrested in The Elusive Grasshopper, along with Grandon and Valerie, for smuggling, a very serious offence. Yet they have not only served their sentences, and set up this complex forgery business, but Miss Ballinger has also set up a legitimate and very highly respected dress-design and clothing business.
It’s one thing for the Lone Piners to obey the demands of their readers and be proofed against ageing, but the time that slides on behind them, unhindered in motion, cannot be allowed to affect recurring characters. It strains the logic of the Club past the point of containment.
One other matter remains. There is no Peter to continue the slow development of the increasingly solid relationship with David, so we have to look in that respect to the Warrender cousins. At one point, Judith teases Penny about David and Jonathan, and which she intends to marry, but our favourite redhead doesn’t rise to the bait in any way, and it’s actually Jon from whom the most overt development comes: disturbed at her disappearance alone to the unsalubrious Holloway Hill, he would normally storm at her when he hears her cool and unconcerned voice on the phone from Brownlow Square. But he’s not even sarcastic: instead he realises for the first time how important her safety is to him.
Added to his punch to Mr Green when he thinks the birdwatcher has hurt Penny, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s more than two romances slowly building in the Lone Pine Club. Poor Harriet! Fancy being stuck with the Twins…

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