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

Having bitten off more than the Lone Piners could chew in the last two books, Saville scaled things back to a much more realistic proportion for Lone Pine London. As the title immediately reveals, this is the first and only adventure not to take place in the countryside that is the Club’s natural and most beloved milieu, but Saville’s foreword makes plain that he loves the capital city as much as he does those more regular haunts.
The book features the Mortons, who only four weeks earlier have moved to their new, rambling home in Brownlow Square, in some unidentified North London suburb, with the Warrenders as their guests. Time has once again been in flux, with the Mortons unchanged but their guests having aged a little further, Jon being ‘nearly seventeen’ and Penny ‘now sixteen’.
The book also introduces the ninth and last Lone Piner, Harriet Sparrow, granddaughter of a London antiques/jumble shop owner, Albert Sparrow, not far away from Brownlow Square. Harriet has already been described as ‘the Twins’ special friend’ in several books written before she was even thought of, and it’s clear from her age, twelve, that she’s intended as a bridge between the perennially frustrated egomaniacs, and the elder children, whose ages are much of a muchness, and some five to six years ahead.
Harriet lives with her parents, where 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 was, given her less harmonious relationship with her stepmother).
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 recognised the little girl as an ‘only’ who needs friends, and taking her under her wing.
The story itself arises naturally from an accident that is the unexpected outcome of an offstage argument. David, that inveterate cricket fan, has disparaged professional football as a game. 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 way back. But there’s this mysterious, camel-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 the Ballinger.
The 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 forgery of prints, 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, who. like everyone else, takes immediately to the Lone Piners and accepts them as co-investigators.
Grandon’s part in all this is to tour antiques shops, looking in the first instance for old newspapers and magazines, which are used to lend authenticity to the fakes 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 is obviously 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 Slinky, 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 cut-outs. She almost falls foul of the Ballinger, who we’ve already met elsewhere in the story, selling impeccably tasteful clothing to young and restless American film star Lucinda Gray, and pointing her towards Johnston prints.
But Harriet is scared enough by her experience to be unable to retrace her steps. The older Lone Piners go out with her, James and Judith, to search the area, with Penny acting protectively towards the little girl, who is motivated more by fear of failing her wonderful new friends than of the crooks.
Meanwhile, the Twins accompany Mr Sparrow to the unpleasant Holloway Hill, and the postal contact address of Grandon. This is obviously going to be the set-up for the usual kidnapping, though this is mercifully brief this time: the Twins stow away in Grandon’s van, are not captured until seeing him working on the forgeries, and are rescued after about ten minutes captivity by Mr Sparrow, who has brow-beaten the thuggish newspaper shop owner into giving up Grandon’s real address.
As kidnappings go, this is a pretty weak example, but it’s no less stupid on the Twins’ parts than last time out, and their rescue is too convenient to be at all impressive.
This time round, however, it’s David and Jon who undergo the serious kidnapping. They discover the forger’s den but give themselves away whilst investigating. The forgers capture them and leave them to be handed over to the mysterious, over-sized Louis, who takes them to Madame Christabel, aka a slimmed-down, better-dressed, more elegant Ballinger – or Mrs Sandford, Louis being Mr.
There’s a frantic chase, with Police support, to the Sandfords’ home near Guildford, but though they’re supposed to stay in the car, Penny leads the girls – Judith, Harriet and the excited Miss Gray, who is regarding this as a wonderful holiday from being a very controlled film star – to the rescue.
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 (this is why most such stories dispense with parents as early as possible). Ballinger and Grandon are captured by the Police off-stage, and even Lucinda joins in the post-adventure party.
Overall, 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 intimidated (too much) by their existing comfortable network.
Nevertheless, the Cinderella effect is once again at play, for those of us who pay such things attention. I’ve already mentioned how the Warrenders have aged by about six months whilst the Mortons have stood still, but the third appearance of the Ballinger and her associates introduces complications more in line with those that marked Wings over Witchend.
At the end of her first adventure, the Ballinger escaped, but after The Elusive Grasshopper she was arrested by the Police. They all were, Grandon and Valerie too. That was for smuggling, an offence for which the punishment is more than mere probation. Yet, even allowing for the minimal ageing of the Warrenders, Ballinger et al have served their sentences, returned to crime, set up this highly profitable forgery business, and Ballinger herself has had time to set up her legitimate dress-design/clothing business, and become the go-to woman for, among others, American film stars.
It’s the same old problem. The stories flow forward in time, but the characters don’t. Years have passed between the books, years have passed between the crimes, but barely months have passed between the Lone Piners’ involvement.
It’s not as disorienting as the State Forest in Shropshire, especially as the villainous trio do not directly appear for anything like the time: they are more of a presence than an actuality. But this is now the third time round and Saville could do with new villains to challenge the Warrenders.
As a final aside, Peter may not be around to bounce off David, but there’s more slow evidence of the importance the Warrender cousins hold for each other. Judith who, having only recently accepted James’ proposal, has romance on her mind, teases Penny at one point about David and Jonathan, and about which of them she decides to marry, but our favourite redhead doesn’t rise to the bait in any way, and we’re left with a more overt declaration about – but not by – her cousin when, growing concerned about Penny’s whereabouts, he is greeted with her cool and unconcerned voice, and understands for the first time how important it is for him to hear that.
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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