(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.)
Though, sadly, there is worse to follow as the Lone Pine series winds towards an end, Sea Witch Comes Home was always my least favourite book.
There are two reasons for this, one of which is the cover. As an experiment, it consisted of a home-produced photo, by Malcolm Saville himself of Lowestoft harbour, over which the figures of two characters in the book are painted, by Terry Freeman.
One of these is Rose Channing, a twelve year old with a heart-shaped face and a pony-tail, sister of David Morton’s schoolfriend, Paul, and she is attractive enough and entirely of the age. But the other is David himself, and I’m sorry, that is no David Morton I’m prepared to recognise!
The boy being portrayed here has wavy hair and a smug, sneery, self-satisfied expression on his face. He also wears a red cravat, which amplifies the impression of a very superior creature, whose head is tilted back sufficiently to suggest he’s already looking down his nose at the plebeian people around him. I don’t want to read about him.
And once inside, the other aspect that put me off is that, for this book only, The Lone Pine Club is represented by the Mortons alone. No Peter, no Penny, no Jenny and no Harriet makes for a dull book indeed, and the Channing children are far from adequate substitutes.
Moreover, for all his qualities, and allowing that he is the ideal Lone Pine captain, David is not a lead character in any conventional sense. He’s the still, central point, the sensible fulcrum. The more outgoing characters bounce off him and he stabilises things. Such characters do not make good proactive heroes.
Sea Witch Comes Home is the last of that sequence of books taking the Lone Piners to different scenes. Here, it is East Anglia, and Walberswick. The Mortons holidayed here last year, with the Channings and their father Richard. Now, Paul pleads with David and the Twins to come down and stay again. Only this is not, really, a holiday, but for support. Richard Channing has disappeared, not for the first time, but has left no word as to where, or when he’ll return, which is unusual. All he has left is a tenner for living expenses, and whilst this was much more in 1960, it won’t last forever.
Paul – excitable, moody, self-centred – is worried. Rose, though seemingly more stable, is fanatical in her belief that her father can and does no wrong, which the reader knows is not sustainable. Channing Senior is lazy, selfish, neglectful, far more concerned with his own manly huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ pleasures than his children’s welfare, gets by on charm without application, and for several years has been a thoughtless dupe of Art Dealer and highly professional criminal Simon Donald, for whom he has performed numerous errands, for cash, without questioning what he is doing.
Which, in the current instance, is delivering stolen paintings to a South American art dealer staying in Belgium.
It’s difficult to muster much respect for the feckless Richard Channing, though Saville does cross the man over into his own Jillies series (1948 – 1953) to appropriate the much-repeated J.M.Barrie line about how ‘Daughters are the thing’.
The problem is that, in part out of English distrust of the greasy foreigner, Channing has realised what has been going on, and Donald is spreading his low-life but efficient organisation to ensure that when Sea Witch does indeed come home, Richard Channing doesn’t talk to anyone: not the Police, not his neighbours, and certainly not his children.
Indeed, Channing has the same intent in the latter respect, as he intends to extricate himself thoroughly from his thoroughly compromised situation with Paul or Rose ever knowing a thing about it.
So a large part of the book becomes a cat-and-mouse affair as the children go all over the place in search of Channing senior, usually splitting up on age grounds. Since this places the Twins with the barely-older Rose, they don’t need to show-off quite so much, and when they do it’s again to the bad guy, Simon Donald himself, but even in that context they are unbearable. I would be horrified to find that any kids of mine were so downright rude, and so insistent that their pet dog should be allowed to attack anything he chooses, just because he gets it into his head to do so.
When the Scottish terrier has a better sense of manners and propriety, it’s time to be concerned.
The plot is further complicated in that it’s subject is a near-repeat of Lone Pine London, which means that once again James Wilson of the Clarion is investigating. He’s pleased to see the Mortons again, though not enough to fill them in on the lovely Judith and whether he’s married her yet.
But Wilson makes an awkward fit for this book. Neither Paul nor Rose ever trust him to the extent the Mortons do, and the sad truth is that Wilson can’t be an unequivocal force for good because he’s out to expose a crime and Richard Channing – however innocently, or shall we say, negligently – is deeply involved. This leads to a melodramatic night-time scene when Wilson, in Channing’s study, is telephoning his thoughts to his Police contact, until Rose starts pummelling him and shouting hysterically, and Paul rips the phone out of the wall before ordering him out into the night.
All well and good, but when Wilson follows Paul to a secret meeting with his father, he gets on Channing’s good side without Saville ever showing his readers how, and I’m sorry, but that’s cheap, cheating writing.
Saville’s other reason for placing this adventure in Suffolk, apart from its convenience for Ransome-esque solo sailings to Belgium, is that he wants to bring in the Great Storm of 1953, which broke banks all along the East Anglian shore, flooded the area and did immense damage. Saville writes comprehensively about the incident, using it to break up the criminal enterprise he has started, and he paints a detailed picture of it, including a short chapter concerned solely with the storm.
Which contains an offhand line, deliberately and effectively impersonal, that at Orford, “a boat called Sea Witch was sunk at her moorings”. A very neat bit of symbolism.
Yet this Storm serves to further muddy the waters about Channing Senior. Saville lets us know that several in Walberswick have commented adversely about his cavalier attitude to the children yet, when the Police order a full-scale evacuation, he is summoned from being ‘on the run’ to lead the village in taking the evacuation seriously, because apparently he’s the kind of chap they look up to and follow in such circumstances.
That says a lot about the underlying assumptions of Saville’s work, and those accusations that it is too middle-class for the modern world. Here you have it. Class tells when push comes to shove. Channing is lazy, selfish, a neglectful parent, a criminal dupe, but dammit, the man’s got breeding! Just the sort of chap, don’t you know, to see that these silly working-class folk, these simple peasants and fisherman, really understand the urgency of matters and get it that their homes and possessions and, if they don’t buck up under his direction, their lives are at risk. It takes the right sort. Hip, hip, hooray.
And about this high-tide and storm and disaster: let me make rather explicitly a point I’ve touched upon before in this series. To me, both as a once-child, and as an adult looking back, the best kind of adventure story is one in which the children who are the stars have real agency. By that, I don’t mean that they play an unrealistic role, facing adults on an equal basis, given undue respect and credence. Ultimately, the Police or some other similar authority must come in to handle the mop-up on a level that the central characters can’t believably operate.
But within that stricture, for the adventure to be a success, the children must play a central role in determining the outcome. Within the range of their intelligence, understanding and physical ability, it must be they who control the denouement. The Police must complete the job, but they must be merely the mopping-up, the application of force that the children don’t possess. Without the Police, the win is beyond the children’s reach, but the tipping point must be reached by the Lone Piners’ efforts, and it must be that without them the Police have nothing to mop up.
In the very limited sense that Mary observes where Simon Donald hides the last stolen painting, and leads the Police to it, that stricture is observed, but in the face of the Great Storm, the children have no agency at all. They cannot offer any help. The Twins are relegated to following Donald about, being a frightful nuisance. Rose falls into the sea, and David (taking on Peter’s role) dives in and saves her life, though Saville bottles it by making the dive a ciffhanger and letting the truly dramatic part of this scene happen offstage.
No, I cannot say that Sea Witch Come Home deserves to hold its head up amongst Malcolm Saville’s work. The superstitious will point to this being the thirteenth book of the series. More rational heads will point rather to this being the thirteenth book about the same group of children in seventeen years, and the fact that time and the absurdity of never growing eventually catches up with all series.
With Mystery Mine, I ventured to begin to try to read Malcolm Saville’s mind, with particular regard to his diminution of Peter. In this book, she is not even mentioned. Saville was a professional writer who reinvented himself several times, and who will have understood that characters eventually have to grow or die.
He had committed himself to his audience’s wish that the Lone Piners never age. But he had made a commitment to the feelings David and Peter had for one another, and allowed these to grow. I suspect that, subconsciously perhaps, Peter’s increasing feebleness was partly his conservative, Christian beliefs shaping Peter towards the classical, passive female role, and partly away of trying to slow, or control, the approaching changes that she and David were forcing upon him.
But time was against him. Peter could not be left out indefinitely. Sea Witch Comes Home is a poor book, partly because Saville was fighting against the inevitable, and realising that it was inevitable. The undoubted loyalty and the unspoken love between David Morton and Petronella Sterling had to be allowed to come to fruition. The Lone Piners had to begin to grow at last.