Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Not Scarlet But Gold

I’ve managed to keep my expenditure down in reacquiring the Lone Pine books, not having spent more than a few pounds at a time through eBay (mostly) and Amazon, but Not Scarlet But Gold has been one of two exceptions.
This is because I wanted a specific edition, or rather a specific cover, the original cover that I vividly remember from the hardback edition I borrowed from the library, to take away with me and read one mid-Sixties holiday to the Lake District, when we were still staying at Low Bleansley.
For all this time, since first we met her, Peter has worn her hair in two plaits. We’ve been warned more than once that she’s turning into a beautiful young woman. Now for this book, she has let her hair down, adopted a style more appropriate to both the Sixties and her age, and we are forewarned of this by the cover. Forget the setting, forget David in the background, this is a painting of a lovely girl, with red lips and roses in her cheeks, and the purple sweater she is wearing swells out in front of her becomingly. The cover alerts us, before even we read Saville’s foreword that tells us the Lone Piners will at last grow up, before Johann Schmidt openly expresses to Peter that he fancies her, that things have changed.
I remembered that cover, I was not unaffected by it. I had a crush on a girl at school who was blonde-haired and had rosy cheeks and who I no doubt conflated with Peter. For this book, I had to have the right cover, and if that meant paying a higher price, sobeit.
The book comes from Girls Gone By Publishing, a small house specialising in old children’s stories, long out of print, that are very expensive to purchase. The publishers aim to reproduce the most accurate first edition version, accompanied with editorial material about both book and author, which I found invaluable.
Not Scarlet But Gold represents a sea-change in the series, a point from which it alters irrevocably. Though it was published in 1962, I don’t remember reading it until a few years later, and I associate it with the mid-Sixties rather than its actual time of publication.
For nearly twenty years, the Lone Piners had been having adventures whilst remaining the same age. Indeed, as early as The Secret of Grey Walls, Saville was explaining that his readers had asked that their favourite characters should not age, and as late as Sea Witch Comes Home he was still confirming that they would remain the ages that they had settled into (subject to those mysterious fluxes from book to book: Tom suddenly becomes older than David for this fourteenth story!)
Now, Saville made it plain in his foreword that, whilst the Lone Piners were to remain their fixed ages to satisfy some of his readers, he agreed with others that they – or David and Peter at any rate – should begin to behave as young adults of the Sixties, to grow up, and most of all to recognise the obligations they had to one another.
Though there’s a villain or two, and a Treasure Hunt, and a dangerous conclusion, this is not any Lone Pine book we have read before, far from it. Such things are McGuffins, catalysts for what is the only story, which is how the Captain and the Vice-Captain finally admit to each other what has long been obvious, what they tacitly established at the end of The Neglected Mountain. But there’s a lot of teenage dissonance and awkwardness and very nearly utter disaster to go through.
Saville, as in recent books, begins his story with the villain, one Johann Schmidt, in Hamburg, who will shortly represent himself as John Smith. Johann’s father died in the War, before Johann knew him: his mother died three years earlier and he has looked after himself since in conditions of secrecy that plainly suggest he’s not all that honest. He’s very handsome, arrogant and unfeeling, and has just turned eighteen. He’s about to learn from his only remaining relative, his uncle Hans, that his father left behind a letter, before going on the wartime mission to England during which he died, to be given to Johann on his eighteenth birthday.
Though he behaves foully to his uncle, and foully later on, Saville has already implanted the seeds of Johann’s redemption. He is what he is through circumstance, a boy without a father, without a mother, who has been made to be the self-centred aggressor he is. Though on the surface, he’s black, before we even see how he acts to the Lone Piners, we understand that grey is mixed into the picture. Already, Saville is moving beyond the formula that has suited his children readers for nearly twenty years.
And this is to be a book of altered, and sometimes broken expectations. From Johan, we move to Peter. Much of the book is seen through her eyes, or those of Jenny, whose main concern for once is not Tom but rather her friend (this is a very feminine book, with none of the boys allowed any time as our eyes: even Harriet, becoming an official Lone Piner at last, becomes our focus when the exigencies of the story demand another viewpoint).
Saville’s first upheaval has already happened, two of them, before we meet Peter, on Sally, heading for Seven Gates and the Lone Pine camp. For some time, Saville has been telling us that one day soon people are going to look at Peter and realise that she is a very beautiful girl, and that day is now. Rain will force her under shelter, bring her into contact with ‘John Smith’, hiker and student, looking for a guide to the Shropshire mountains, and openly approving of the blonde girl he thinks is more than a schoolgirl.
And Peter, unsettled horribly by the news that her father has to retire, to leave Hatchholt, to go to live with his brother in Hereford, far away from these lonely hills she loves, compounded by the fact that David Morton hasn’t thanked her for the Xmas present chosen with loving care, and has arranged the holiday through Jenny Harman, asking her to retrieve the Club documents from above Witchend, Peter responds as would any teenage girl to a lean, handsome man who openly regards her as an attractive woman, not girl.
Even though she has already made it plain to us that, one day soon, she’s not going to be interested in any man other than David Morton, Peter’s hormones fizz. (So have Jenny’s, when ‘John Smith’ came into the shop). It’s all that’s needed to make the reunion with David, and by extension everybody else, even more awkward than it could have been. Both of them are simmering with how unfair the other’s been, Peter doesn’t want anything said about Hatchholt, Jenny’s upset about her friend, Harriet isn’t sure the distracted Jenny approves of her being a Lone Piner: the holiday gets off to a lousy start and it’s downhill from there.
Jenny’s completely open about things: the Club exists because of David and Peter, and they’ve obviously got to get married (at which point I wondered if she’d produce a shotgun!) and despite the awkwardness between the two girls, she enlists Harriet.
‘John’ turns up at the farm, angling for a bed for the night, obviously trying to separate Peter from her friends. Charles Sterling, worried about a sacked lout who’s been threatening his wife Trudie, throws him off, but Peter allows him to stay. In the night, the haybarn is fired, by the cheap layabout bully, Jem Clark, who becomes ‘John’s sidekick when it transpires that Jem’s mother Kate  was the last to see Johann’s father alive, and that she has the only, completely baffling clue to the Treasure’s hiding place: Not Scarlet But Gold.
This isn’t a Treasure Hunt as the Lone Piners know it, no matter how Jenny and the Twins try to make it into one. The Treasure isn’t diamonds, and its discovery won’t make life better for anyone, and the Lone Piners aren’t racing against professional crooks acting out of naked greed. Instead, it’s money, £300.00 in potentially counterfeit English banknotes, meant to be used as bribes for Wartime traitors to sabotage their country, and the person they’re racing is the one with the most apparent right to it.
And everyone’s taking stupid risks, going off alone, riling up Charles (and David and Peter) with their irresponsibility, and their refusal to obey orders, to the point that the younger ones put themselves not only in danger of real physical harm from two young thugs, but of Charles refusing to have them at Seven Gates again.
Harriet, who really should have had more chances to appear than she ultimately did, becomes something of a moral conscience. She is the one most unhappy about the course they’re on, the one most disgusted by the Treasure itself, and the one most keenly aware of the damage being done to all of them in this sticky, awkward venture.
Because though things between David and Peter slowly begin to ease, once she’s worked her way through the combination of her hormonal reaction to handsome John, her instinctive sympathy for an underdog no-one else likes, and her embarrassed refusal to allow herself to agree with everyone’s condemnation of him, until she must. And David, embarrassed by his growing sense that pride is making him behave like a fool, his estrangement from his very best friend and his fear of a rival, nevertheless refuses to be left behind, in a way that will foreshadow Peter’s refusal to be left behind.
‘John’ and Jem have established a camp in the Greystone Dingle mineworkings. Jenny leads a stupid and risky approach by the younger members that finds them. Her reward is to be sent to Shrewsbury, with Harry and the Twins, to buy maps. It’s meant to get them put of the way whilst David, with Peter as lookout, checks the mines to see if ‘John’ is still there. It is the beginning of an extraordinary sequence, perhaps the best in all the books.
But first, there are adventures in Shrewsbury. Jenny sees the upset and bullied Kate Clark, impulsively follows her, is trapped in a back street house when the weakling bully Jem comes home, and is set upon by him. Unbeknownst to her, Harriet and the Twins have followed her, coincidentally bumping into Tom Ingles en route (some very weak plotting there) and dragging him in. When Jem hurts Jenny, Tom knocks him down, realising as he does in that instant that Jenny means to him what he has always meant to her, but he’s horrified at the sloppy and dangerous things everyone’s been doing, and that David has been letting this happen.

Uncle Alf lets him go back to Seven Gates, but soon follows himself, to talk with Charles. David and Peter are missing: they have gone up Greystone Dingle and into the mines. But the rain has been falling, almost as badly as in Lone Pine Five. There is a threat, a serious danger. The Twins cannot go, a threat which devastates them, not out of their usual self-importance and irritating manners, but because this is their brother David, and Peter, who they love and who is as much family to them, and they cannot bear what they will imagine if they cannot see. They are allowed tp follow.
Because David and Peter have gone into the mountain. Things are still not right with them. David wants Peter to act as look-out outside, because he is afraid for her at the hands of their two cruel enemies. Peter lets him believe she will accede just to get them to Greystone without more quarrels, but there is no way she will leave his side. Though things aren’t right, though they can’t begin to explain to each other what they need to until this is over, she has never left his side before and she won’t now: they go together.
And they go into the mountainside together, where Peter once broke her ankle saving David and Mary and he protected her without thought for himself. There are new passageways to follow, a rockfall to scramble over, after which a further fall traps them under the mountain. ‘John’ is ahead, breaking into a chamber where he believes the treasure to lie. He’s obsessed now, maddened. They’re all caught underground. There is no way out. Outside, as Charles and Alf Ingles make a careful way up the Dingle, Tom and the rest a safe distance behind, the underground water breaks through the surface again, landslip and upheaval. ‘John’ makes a crazed attack on a roof support, looking for a way out, but his knife turns and cuts his wrist. Alone in the dark, facing death, Peter’s only regret is that she was not alone with just David, as she tells him that she has loved him since that day she first saw when when she was on Sally.
And above, it all goes crazy, as the ground caves in and Peter appears above ground, calling for help because David is buried, and the terrified Twins face the horror, with Mary’s face buried in Jenny’s arms, sobbing and unable to look, and Dickie more afraid than he’s ever been and the worse for not being able to cry, until Harriet, that calm, quiet girl that I’d completely forgotten, thinking her pallid and characterless, but who is so strong and true a personality, leading him to describe what he sees to his Twin, as Charles, Alf and Tom scramble to a rescue that gets not only David out alive, but also ‘John’.
And Jenny, in the midst of this, sees the holly tree whose berries are yellow not red and solves the clue: Not Scarlet But Gold.
In the morning, she leads everyone bar the sleeping David and Peter back to Greystone to find the Treasure itself, though she’s the only one with any genuine interest in the solution: not even Johann, remade by his experience, wants it now. He will go back to Hamburg, make his peace with his Uncle, remake his life, having gained from his experience with these so-called children and especially the two who saved his life.
As for these two, the time has come for reconciliation, and more. David takes Peter for a walk in the woods, alone. Trudie has told him about Hatchholt and he is aghast. He loved the wallet she sent him, but sent his letter of thanks to Hatchholt, not her school, and was too stupid and proud to retract. And then he kisses her. And again.
Peter has already told him that she loves him. And David, who is soon to leave school, and doesn’t want to disappoint his father’s wishes that he go to Oxford, has grown up overnight. Between the danger and the genuine fear of losing Peter, he has moved on with her. Wisely, Saville doesn’t go into details between the pair. Instead, there a couple of lines that went into the head and heart of a young boy a long way from romance, and which stayed there for over fifty years: “There was nothing new in what they said to each other. Nothing new in the way they mended a quarrel and nothing new in the promises they made.”
Doubtless there were more than just two kisses, but we were left to insert the words we would have used, even those of us too young to know any such words. It was quiet, and calm, as it should be in the wake of what was so nearly tragedy, and the two young lovers had earned the right not to be watched over.
I had never read anything like that before, not in a children’s adventure series, but as has been obvious throughout, the Lone Pine books, without being in the least bit sissy or soppy, were built upon the strong relationships between the boys and girls, whose feelings so clearly ran deeper than the exhortation to be true to each other always, whatever happened.
Of course, Not Scarlet But Gold was not flawless, and I’ll be speaking to that in a moment. But it was the book out of all of the series that I most wanted to re-read, and it is the first of those I have re-read so far that I have wanted to read again, very quickly. It is the book that has most involved me, and whilst I haven’t yet decided what to do with the series when I’m done, I will be keeping this book, come what may.
The biggest flaw is, of course, the flow of time, and Saville himself recognises this, ruefully but helplessly, in his introduction. The Lone Pine Club was formed during the War, and their first adventure was to bring down German saboteurs. Now, their ‘adversary’ is the son of a German saboteur older than they are, and Jenny Harman, whose first adventure with the Club is resolved by the discovery of American soldiers on manoeuvres, has to ask Alf Ingles what it was like ‘then’.
However you approach it, this is a circle that cannot be squared, and to accept it, one’s Disbelief has not so much got to be Suspended as locked away, no doubt in an abandoned cottage, from which, with the resourcefulness of a Lone Piner, it will eventually break free. Or else be released by Tom Ingles happening to walk down the same street…
That really is a poor piece of writing. It happens out of necessity, and it leads to a moment that is in keeping with the book’s major preoccupation, as Tom looks at Jenny, who has been hurt by the bully, Jem Clark, and understands just how important she is to him (a moment I can recognise: years later, I had a similar realisation  when someone started crying over the phone, hundreds of miles away). But it needn’t have involved much effort to reduce the coincidence by having the pursuit pass somewhere where Tom might have been expected to be found if he were in Shrewsbury at that time.
And Jem Clark really is one of Saville’s weakest creations. He’s a cliché from motorcycle helmet to motorcycle boots, weak, lazy, stupid but paper-thin. Saville doesn’t have much time for the ‘modern’ teenager, whose instinct is towards city not country, and makes no attempt to inject any realism into these all-purpose nuisances. Which might be tolerable if it weren’t for the cliched threats, the lack of any realism, the need to talk like a cheap Hollywood hoodlum from thirty years before and the constant ‘She knows too much. She’s got to stay’.
Irritating though such things are, it’s because the rest of the book is so good, so emotional that I pick these up. They’re par for the course, cartoons for a generally unsophisticated audience, the bits that have worn least well.
I’d like to once again praise Harriet Sparrow, to whom my memories have done a great disservice. She may be the new girl, and she may feel uncertain about Jenny, but she has no doubts about herself, and doesn’t allow her inexperience to deflect her from trying to affect what is going on. Her age puts her outside the level of the seniors and the emphasis on their relationships, but she has none of the irritation factor of the Twins. And it’s heartening to see how quickly and openly everybody accepts her: if she’s with the Lone Piners, she must by definition be worthwhile.
Not Scarlet But Gold took Saville and the Lone Piners into a new phase, and one that was, in the long run, unsustainable, irrespective of Saville’s growing inability to understand the modern world. Having paired David and Peter, formally, at long last, having admitted love in replacement for friendship into the Lone Pine series, he had left himself little room for manoeuvre.
The editorial material in the GGB edition strongly suggests that Saville intended for this to be the last Lone Pine Club book, and in many ways it would have been a fitting ending to the series. He had been a professional writer for nearly twenty years. The Lone Pine Club was just one of several series he had written, four of which had already had their final books appear: a fifth had been in abeyance for eight years but would shortly be revived, and he was soon to start another, slightly older series. Perhaps it was time to bring the Lone Pine to an end? Peter herself, in the early pages here, asks, “…why the best things don’t always stay the same?”
But in one sense it would have been completely wrong to have stopped here: David and Peter may have at last declared to each other the feelings we had known about for a very long time, but there were two other couples whose long term relationships would have been left hanging if Saville had intended or been allowed to lay down his pen.
Apparently, Saville was ‘persuaded’ to continue the series. Six more books would follow, in the next sixteen years. The first two of these would resolve matters for Jon and Penny, and Tom and Jenny respectively, but there would still be four more Lone Pine books after that. Not all of these would be worth it.


2 thoughts on “Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Not Scarlet But Gold

  1. Thank you. The ‘Author for Sale’ soubriquet was at least half a joke when I started this blog five years ago and since it’s diverted me from fiction, it’s become even more of a comedy. But I enjoy myself and it’s a great excuse to do things like reacquaint myself with the ‘Lone Pine’ books.

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