Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – The Secret of the Gorge


 

(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.)

The Secret of the Gorge begins the second half of the series, and, albeit in an initially low key manner, it marks the point where things begin to change. Though there were still books to come before the one that transformed the series, changing its focus permanently, I sense the beginnings of a recognition by Malcolm Saville that the old formula has become too fixed, and that the Lone Piners themselves want to start to grow up.
It doesn’t happen here, not in any substantial manner. The signs of change are limited to Peter and Jenny’s hairstyles: after defying trends so long by retaining her plaits, Peter has taken to wearing them coiled (which I have to admit I have difficulty in picturing) whilst Jenny now affects a pony-tail. The Fifties are sailing by, rock’n’roll is in the air, and timelessness is starting to slide.
Preparing to re-read this book reminded me of the old days and reading Lone Pine books. It was a struggle to locate some of the books. As with several other longish series, the Libraries tended to have a couple of the earliest and the most recent ones, but the mid-series stories would have been and gone, and bookshops would not have them.
Nor did Armada Books have any consistent policies about reprinting the series, issuing books haphazardly, and of course heavily edited. Some books appeared from Hamlyns in the Seventies, also edited to remove ‘middle-class’ elements.
The Secret of the Gorge, and it’s immediate successor, Mystery Mine, were the two books that had gone out of print and were never picked up by Armada. Second hand copies never turned up at Shudehill Book Stalls. And I was a voracious reader who, though encouraged by my parents, was not given unlimited funds with which to purchase, and the Lone Pine series was far from my only interest.
At a late stage, I got hold of a second hand Hamlyn paperback of one of those two books. I never did manage to read the other. Which of the two it was I couldn’t remember. I didn’t remember a thing about The Secret of the Gorge when I looked at its summary, but then again, Mystery Mine was another of the off-locations, and I didn’t remember reading a Lone Pine story set on the North Yorkshire Moors.
So coming to this book was going to be either a secret revealed or a mystery exposed: which was it?
When I first began re-reading Gorge, I was certain I had never read it before. Nothing was in the least familiar, and I looked forward to the sensation of reading a Lone Pine Club adventure without the slightest taint of nostalgia. And, for the vast majority of the book, that’s more or less what I had. But about a quarter of the way through the Hamlyns edition, there was a full-page illustration that I immediately recognised. Further on, in musing on what might follow their incomplete clue, David Morton speculated with a line I had certainly read before. And a little further on, he appeared to cave in to the bullying bad guy, agree to strike camp and run away, which I also remembered.
So I had, after all, read The Secret of the Gorge, in the Hamlyns edition (which I then remembered buying from Morton’s Books, round the back of Didsbury Village). Other than those three elements, I retained no memories of it.
I find myself uncertain about The Secret of the Gorge. For one thing, there is its setting, twenty miles away from Witchend etc., around the real-life gorge through which the River Teme flows on its way from Wales. In the absence of a map in the Hamlyns edition, including a map showing the relationship between the Gorge country and those parts of Shropshire with which we are already familiar, the setting lacked the usual reality for me, and I was never quite convinced we were on solid earth.
Then there’s the book itself. Though things are changing, the first half of the book feels very much like a throwback to the earliest adventures, and the characters are at their childish and immature worst. And when I say that, I am not referring only to the Twins.
The subject is once again treasure: a diamond necklace, the Whiteflower Diamonds, stolen forty years ago and never recovered, the culprit assumed to be housekeeper Harriet Brown, found drowned in the Gorge a day later.
We learn all this from the villains in the opening chapter. It’s a new approach from Saville, beginning with the bad guys and letting them outline the forthcoming adventure, but it will be one that will dominate the back half of the series. These are Harry Sentence, old and leathery, former Butler at Bringewood Manor, collaborator with poor Harriet Brown, returned from forty years self-exile in Australia to try to put his hands on the diamonds, and the genuinely thuggish Simon Blandish, owner of a dilapidated pub, ex-garden boy at the Manor, and a real nasty piece of work such as we have not, previously, encountered in a Lone Pine book.
The Lone Piners don’t come into it until chapter 2, and then it’s through Jenny Harman and Tom Ingles. There’s a practically white-haired 12 year old boy newly arrived in the village whom Jenny is very nosy (curious) about, but he’s being very shy and awkward and even rude about people getting involved in his business. This is Nicholas Whiteflower, late of Bringewood Manor, orphaned and living with his aunt in practical poverty.
But Jenny and Tom have a half day out with Mr Harman in Ludlow, where he buys a hideous couch for his wife that comes from the Housekeeper’s room at Bringewood Manor and in which Jenny finds an incomplete draft letter from Harriet Brown to her lover, which tails off dramatically halfway through her saying where she’s going to hide the necklace.
After bringing this to Miss Whiteflower, and enduring Nicholas’s rudeness (which puts paid to any idea of him ever becoming a Lone Piner), the Club decides to go camp by the Gorge and find the Diamonds.

Once they’re down there, Nicholas having redeemed himself by taking Macbeth’s side in a battle between him and the landlady’s cats – about which the Twins blatantly lie when the woman rightly protests his attempts to kill them – the Club reverts to a childish insistence on doing what they want.
It’s less their refusal to move when they’re told to clear out and that they’re trespassing, than their insistence on nipping in and out of the Manor, where demolition has begun, whenever they want to search. Both are justified on the grounds that they’re not doing any harm and they’re going to do whatever they want anyway. It’s stupid and self-entitled, especially in the case of the Manor, which is private property, which is being knocked down and where any injury they walk themselves into will be held against the crew and the owners.
And this is coming from David Morton, the Captain, the sensible one, not just the Twins and the eager-to-impress Nicholas.
Meanwhile, Peter is flaring up at Tom, every time he says something sensible and cautious, and she’s definitely got her temper on this time, because she even loses her rag with David a couple of times.
It’s very much out of character for the Vice-Captain, but Peter is on the cusp of change. Jenny has changed her hairstyle to reflect the styles of the rock’n’roll era, and though Peter has retained those plaits which, from the first, she has defiantly refused to cut-off, no matter how old-fashioned they make her look, for the duration of this book, she has switched to wearing them coiled.
And that’s where the book is so much a throwback in feel, for apart from Jenny’s usual buoyant crush on Tom, and his amused tolerance of her antics, the sense that there is something more than mere friendship affecting the older members, and especially David and Peter is entirely absent.
Until page 167, that is, when David divides the search parties along gender lines, taking Tom with him to explore the Gorge itself, which calls for climbing skills, and the two girls exchange a disappointed look.
By then, we’ve already had signs that the disgusting Blandish is a different prospect from the usual Lone Pine villain. He’s told them to clear out, his slovenly wife has told them to clear out, his sallow-faced, tight-jeaned, jazz-loving son Syd has told them to clear out, dragging his scarlet-jeaned girlfriend along to repeat the order. There are no inducements, just threats, and Blandish, who continually brandishes an iron bar in his hands, is clearly capable of using it. But the Club act as if they’re invulnerable, that nothing bad can be done, whilst the older reader recognises that, yes, this time, it really could be.
But after the Club splits up, the tone changes. Sid and Marilyn trick Peter and Jenny into the (real-life) decaying cottage, imprisoning them. They then start destroying the camp, brazenly.
In the middle of the confrontation when David and Tom interrupt this activity, Jenny returns, supporting Peter, who has gashed her knee rather badly getting out of the cottage, and is in distress. Suddenly, it’s a different book: David reacts first with a gesture of tender concern, and then violently, beating the pulp out of the older, taller but decidedly less brave Sid.
And then he starts acting with the responsibility he should have shown from the outset: putting himself on sentry duty, ordering Peter to the Doctor’s, even showing the wit to seemingly back down to Blandish and that menacing iron bar, but only as a bluff to gain time to move camp. This is rather more like it, but it’s a wrench from the first half of the book.
But from that point onwards, except when she’s at the Doctor’s getting penicillin and a couple of stitches, Peter and David are inseparable. She has a kiss for him in the night, whilst he’s on guard, and when the rainstorm breaks, and the gorge floods, and the overflow water from the well washes the Lone Piners out of their new, secret, barely sat-in cave camp, it is Peter who dives in to rescue Harry Sentence when the old man is washed away, and David who follows her into the flood, to assist her efforts.
Leaving Jenny, of course, to stumble over the Diamonds, flushed out of their hiding place.
There’s been a flavour of Lone Pine Five about how Jenny has got this adventure started, and that’s redoubled when Mr Morton turns up at the end to ferry away the soaked Club, breaking their camp. And there’s a nod to the changed atmosphere of the story when he angrily tackles David over the fact that he has not called for help in view of the obvious danger. This is not like Mrs Morton’s objections to any adventures at all in the last two books, but to the specific circumstances, though it will be the last time either of the Morton parents try to check their children’s enthusiasm for tackling the criminal element.
But the changes are, as yet, slight. There is a book to come when the series changes irrevocably, but not yet. Next comes the one I now know I have never read before. We’re off to Yorkshire.

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