Sea Witch Comes Home was the only one of the Lone Pine Club series that I found myself actively disliking when I first read it. It’s the last book in that sequence which saw Saville moving his fictional children to parts of the country they had never been before, in this instance the East Anglian coast, and it’s the last in which they remain perpetual Cinderellas, never growing up, but what disconcerted me so, a surprise that I simply couldn’t get past, was that it only featured the Mortons. David and the Twins may well have been the start of all things, but it felt fundamentally wrong that they should experience an adventure without any of the others joining in.
No Peter, no Penny, no Jenny and no Harriet makes for a dull book indeed.
They’re not, of course, the only youngsters in the book. The story is precipitated by an appeal for help from David’s schoolmate, and contemporary Paul Channing, whose father Richard, owner of the yacht Sea Witch, has gone missing, and his twelve year old sister Rose, she of the heart-shaped face and pony-tail.
I’m assuming that’s Rose that features on the cover of the hardback, just as I’m assuming that’s David that is stood just behind her, but if it is, then it’s an awful misrepresentation of the character. God, that boy looks smug, with his pursed lips, his over-styled, wavy hair, and his blue cravat. I hated the look of that cover from the moment I found the book, and fifty years on my opinion of it remains unchanged. It’s a cover to severely prejudice any lad against the boy depicted.
It did not make approaching Sea Witch Come Home in 2017 any easier, even with an edition with a different, but also ugly cover. And I found it just as unwelcoming as I did back then, though not as disappointing.
Part of this is that the Channing family are not actually that attractive. Paul is excitable, moody and self-centred, which we soon realise he gets from his father. Paul wants the Mortons, who stayed with them for a holiday the previous year, to come down to Walberswick, in East Anglia, on the Suffolk coast, because Richard Channing has gone off without a word – not for the first time – leaving Paul and Rose alone at home with only a tenner to last them until he turns up again, whenever that will be. And even though a tenner went a lot, lot further in 1960 than it does today, when it wouldn’t even get you to the poorhouse, it’s not much security, especially when one of the kids it’s supposed to sustain is only twelve.
Which brings us to Rose, she of the heart-shaped face and the pony-tail, in respect of whom Richard Channing has once crossed over into the Jillies’ series by one Malcolm Saville, and appropriated the much-repeated J.M.Barrie line about how ‘Daughters are the thing’. Rose is fanatically convinced that everything is alright, that her father will walk back into their house any second now, and they have all committed a sin against the Fifth Commandment by doubting his divine word.
Rose’s faith in her father would be more uplifting if Saville hadn’t previously undercut it by showing us that things are not alright: that Channing is a bad father: lazy, selfish, neglectful, far more concerned with his own manly huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ pleasures, that he gets by on charm without application, and that for several years he has been a thoughtless dupe of 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. That’s where Sea Witch is to come home from, only now Channing, purely out of English distrust of the greasy foreigner, has sussed what’s 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.
Into this, the Mortons are pitched. The Twins are the Twins, and I’m growing tired of saying so. Since their major performances are exclusively reserved for the really bad guys, I suppose it’s technically acceptable, but even then, 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, and Macbeth is never wrong (except when it comes to cats).
When the Scottish terrier has a better sense of manners and propriety, it’s time to be concerned.
As for David Morton, he is still a natural, sensible, calm and level-headed leader, but he can’t carry the book alone. David needs others to properly come across, not to bounce off of, though if, say, Penny were here things would be altogether far more lively, but in order to be the still centre. Being Mr Reliable isn’t very exciting on its own, and Paul is just too thin a character, a contrivance of the plot, for David to stabilise him. Besides, he’s always better when Peter is around.
Saville set this story in East Anglia not just because he wanted to encourage his readers to visit this part of the country, but because he wanted to bring into his fictional world the Great Storm of 1953, which broke the banks along the 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, but I have grave reservations about using something like this in a Lone Pine adventure.
The actual crime offers odd parallels to Lone Pine London, in that they again involve paintings by an obscure, but suddenly in demand deceased artist. But this time the paintings, by the late John Jackson, or J.J. as he is now known, are real. J.J. was a local artist, who lived in Walberswick, and whose paintings were miniatures. They are in great demand, and Donald’s agents are stealing these to order, and Channing is delivering them, in a chart case, to Juan Andrea, in Belgium.
There’s a big London newspaper that has caught a whiff of this, and whose best crime reporter is investigating: yes, James Wilson again (though not a word mentioned about Judith, who we assume, reader, married him).
Saville doesn’t really quite know how to present Wilson. He’s supposed to be a friend, and he ends up with the story and in everyone’s good books again, but he knows about Donald and Channing’s involvement, which has Paul and Rose in a fury against him, but he still gets on Channing’s good side without Saville ever properly squaring the circle for his readers.
And Channing himself is portrayed inconsistently in the book. 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, Channing 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.
Yes, that says a lot about the underlying assumptions of Saville’s work, and the accusations that it is too middle-class for the modern world, and 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.
I can’t say that the me of fifty years ago and later re-reads disliked the book out of such egalitarian and liberal principles, but they certainly get in the way now.
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.
Indeed, because he is ultimately writing for an audience of children, Saville finally cannot do the storm justice, because he is either editorially mandated not to be too frightening for the kids, or his own natural conservatism keeps him from going too deeply into what is happening and the sheer terror it could encompass.
One thing about this works well: Saville includes a 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.
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.
But time was changing the minds of Malcolm Saville and his audience, which were at last ready to see the love and loyalty that lay between these familiar teenagers reach a fruition that was both well-prepared and long overdue. In the next book, it was all going to change.