A Severe Test of Patience: Manchester United 2016/2017


I know there’s still another game to go – and, boy oh boy, have I never felt so uninvolved about United being in a Final before – but today’s final League game felt like the long-awaited and much-wanted end of the season for me. We might have won a trophy and we may win another, to give us a complete set of all the trophies it’s possible for an English club to win, but the 2016/2017 season has severely tested my patience with Manchester United.

What is it now? Nearly forty years since I came out for the Red Devils. I endured Dave Sexton, I was up and down with Ron Atkinson, I was impatient with Alex Ferguson until the Resurrection Title, and after that came those impossibly long years of dominance, of being the best, of being *MANCHESTER UNITED*, including that night in Barcelona. I was faithful to Moyes until almost the bitter end, and I screamed and yelled and was utterly frustrated by van Gaal, yet was disgusted at the timing of his sacking and replacing with Jose Mourinho, before we’d even collected the FA Cup.

Jose Mourinho, eh? The one man I never wanted to see managing at Old Trafford and the man who sits in the Manager’s Chair, and guess what? He’s been exactly the dick I expected him to be, and more, publicly attacking players in the exact opposite of the Ferguson way, all but destroying Luke Shaw, mismanaging Anthony Martial and buggering up Marcus Rashford for such a long time.

Mourinho puts up a barrier between me and my team, loosens the ties. I’ve missed more matches this season than since the end of the Eighties, several because I work shifts that keep me in work until 9.00pm, four nights a week, but far too many due to indifference at the way Mourinho has United playing.

We are still too slow, of thought as well as of pace, and we spend too much time passing backwards and sideways, and we still play as if we have no idea how to get past a defence, and even less confidence at trying to go forward. Wednesday night’s game against Southampton was the perfect example: we were abject and dull. With the youngsters in the side this afternoon, we looked tons better, and Josh Harrop’s opening goal is one of not much more than a dozen that I’ve greeted with an open yell of delight. And even then we faded in the second half, albeit whilst staying in command.

It’s not like we can’t do it. The win over Chelsea was the only time this season we’ve looked like United, Manchester United, the team we all in our souls want us to be. But most of the time it’s been tedious and unenjoyable. I feel like asking those fans who welcomed Mourinho if this is what they really wanted? Do they really want this unending miserable negativity that Mourinho spreads relentlessly? Complaining about having to play Premier League games after qualifying for the Europa League Final? What the fuck do you think the Premier League is? Can clubs just decide not to bother playing games if the fancy tales them? You might as well complain that it rains too often: this is Manchester, what do you EXPECT?!

I am so glad this season is over, and I can stop thinking about United, and I don’t have to groan despairingly as we give away another lead to end up with another draw, because we started backpedalling with fifteen minutes to go, ‘holding on to our lead’, like how many times has that blown up in our faces? We used to be the Club that played until the 96th minute, now we’re lucky to get to the 80th with a semblance of effort.

Ground down, that’s what I am. Football is supposed to excite you, to involve you, to awe you and thrill you. You’re supposed to watch the clock because you’re eking out a one-goal lead in a tight match, not because you’re bored to death and just want it to end, please.

And I think that the last few games, when Wayne Rooney has had a run of matches because that enables the resting of players who we do want to see play has proved my point. Have you ever seen so many instances of a player buggering up moves, losing the ball consistently, taking it backwards, slowing things down and constantly slinging forty yard passes out to the wing, because that’s the only thing he can still do correctly?

I shouldn’t be thinking that, because he has done some truly dazzling things for us, and he is our highest ever scorer, though I will go to my grave still insisting that Sir Bobby Charlton is a far more worthy holder of that honour. But if that was his last game at Old Trafford today, I won’t weep any tears. I won’t be nostalgic for him, like Eric, or Keano, or the little Scholesy Man, and I will be glad to see a different name occupy the number 10 shirt next season.

Which can bloody well take its time in arriving, thank you very much. I won’t be storing this one in my memories.

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.

We never have sex…


The year I moved to Nottingham, to start my Articles, Woody Allen released his first masterpiece, Annie Hall. Co-starring Diane Keaton in the title role, critics all over hailed the film as the first complete integration of Allen’s comedic style with a consistent and coherent story.
I went to see it, a few weeks into my life in Nottingham. I think it was the first Woody Allen film I’d seen at all. It was followed by a number of re-releases in the cinema, in double-bills, each of which I watched, though I had to wait for Take the Money and Run and Play it Again, Sam on TV.
Despite the critics’ approbation, I didn’t find Annie Hall particularly funny. Indeed, given the expectations built up, it was actually disappointing, and his older films were much funnier (I had near hysterics at the opening shot of Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) when it dissolved from a pure white screen into a couple of dozen white rabbits hopping around.)
Time passed, as it does. That long ago, given that three years had to elapse before feature films could be shown on television and that videos were still a pipe dream by a man whose wife was typing up my files for me (didn’t know that until some years later), it was common for popular films to get a second release about six months later, and thus Annie Hall came round again in the November of 1978, and I watched it again.
The circumstances were unusual. I was back in Manchester for the weekend, to watch Droylsden in the FA Cup First Round proper, drawn away to Rochdale. The Bloods won the match and I came out of the ground feeling like I could run all the way back to Manchester, though practicality reasserted itself and I took the bus instead.
Back in the City Centre about six o’clock, I didn’t feel like just heading back for a quiet evening in so, being on my own, I decided to stop off for a film. There was nothing current that appealed to me, but Annie Hall was back, and I knew I could at least sit through it, so I bought myself a ticket.
This time round, I loved it.
What was the difference? Some of it was that I was in an elevated mood to start with, but most of it was that I understood it all this time. Between April and November, I had fallen in love.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. My first love had been a half decade earlier, when I had been 17: naive, immature, inexperienced, terrified of making mistakes and making the fundamental mistake of doing nothing out of fear. I had denied it to myself for years, trying to wipe the embarrassment from my memory.
And then I’d fallen in love again, equally unrequitedly, though this time it was due to external factors. But I was in love, enough so that I had been able to relax myself, to admit that my earlier feelings had been genuine and not some kind of dismissible puppy love (the amount of emotional energy I’d been using to repress that had been incredible, and I felt literally transformed by accepting the truth).
And watching Annie Hall whilst being in love, whilst having experienced those feelings, made the whole film understandable, gave me insight that opened up both story and jokes, made me laugh where previously ignorance had kept me silent.
The film is about the relationship between comedian Alvy (Allen) and the eponymous Annie (Keaton), who were then a real-life couple. It covers the beginning, the middle and the slow but inevitable end, when she goes off with Paul Simon. From the point of view of an unrequited lover, whose inamorata wasn’t interested in him as anything but a friend, there may have been nuances of which I wasn’t aware, but at the time I felt like I got pretty much everything, right down the middle.
And, with the exception of the serious one that nobody likes (not even the aliens in it) I was a regular for Woody Allen’s films in the cinema for most of the next decade. My last one was The Purple Rose of Cairo in respect of which I remember most the sober and serious atmosphere of the first twenty minutes or so of the film, until Jeff Bridges turns away from the plot of the film in the Depression-era cinema and speaks directly to Mia Farrow, in the audience, saying that she sure must love this film she’s always watching it. And he walks out of the screen and the cinema I was in erupted in a glorious gale of laughter which the film sustained from that point on.
Allen’s next film after this was the new one to be acclaimed his absolute masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters. For reasons I can’t recall, I didn’t fancy this one, and didn’t go to the cinema to see it. I have never seen a Woody Allen film in the cinema since, and when I did see Hannah on TV, I was by no means impressed by it. It fell even flatter with me than did Annie Hall, first time.
I haven’t seen any Woody Allen film, in any format, for a long time. Annie Hall belongs to my long ago novel in more ways than just the relationship inspiring understanding. I downloaded the film last year, but circumstances have prevented me from watching it until now.
Two scenes in particular stood out in my memory. One is the split screen scene that gives this post its title: Alvy and Annie’s relationship is slowly but certainly stumbling towards its conclusion and the mean time, each one is discussing the matter with their therapist. Alvy complains that they never have sex: three times a week. Annie complains that they are always having sex: three times a week. I have never actually had this as a direct problem (this is not a boast, just a reflection on incredible good luck) but the joke is simple but incredibly deep.
The other scene holds even more meaning for me.
Alvy and Annie have their final conversation as a couple, things slowly going wrong, the two heading in different directions even as they speak. The film goes on, showing Alvy not taking it very well. Suddenly, the scene switches to an artificial setting, two younger people, each superficially resembling younger Alvy and Annie. They speak the same dialogue as the early part of the scene we’ve just watched, a little stiffly, a little awkwardly. But, at the crucial instance, where the breach happens, ‘Annie’s dialogue changes. She gives in to him, does what he wants, preserves the relationship.
Before this, we know that we’re in a rehearsal room, that Alvy is sat over to one side, watching this performance, that it’s a play he’s written. Breaking the fourth wall, as he often does in this film, he addresses the audience, candidly confessing that he obviously wasn’t too proud to make things work in art where they didn’t work in real life.
But the real sting is that, from the moment the conversation goes in the ‘right’ direction, it ceases to be convincing, to be real or natural in any way. We don’t need to have seen the original to instantly realise that, from the moment Alvy forces his ‘Annie’ surrogate to respond against her natural instincts, she ceases to function as a believable person. For me, it’s the most impressive moment in the film, indeed in Woody Allen’s film career.
I’d like to credit Allen with all the layers I discern in that scene. There are many critics who, especially in later films, would argue strenuously that it was not intentional, but then that was the great thing about Woody Allen in those years. To me it was fully understood, inside and out, and it’s a lesson I took to heart.
When I came to write The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel, years later but dealing with the feelings that affected me when I saw Annie Hall that second time, I was too proud. I could have made things work for my character Steve, could have awarded him his Lesley in return for his being in love with her, but that’s not what happened.
Lesley wasn’t the woman I fell for but she was close enough in enough ways for it to matter inside, and it would have been false to have concluded the novel in any way different to how life had concluded things. I learned that from Woody Allen, which is why I hold Annie Hall in high esteem, even if I haven’t watched it in easily twenty years, or maybe more.
Rewatching the film after twenty years or however long it’s been, halfway back to when it was made, I only laughed occasionally, like the first time. Some of it is impossible not to laugh at: I knew it was coming but the sneezing the coke bit still had me roaring out loud. The scenes I’ve outlined above weren’t quite as I remembered them, but their essence was intact in my head.
But this time round, though I recognised the love in the relationship, how Allen made Alvy and Annie into a pair that you could understand loving each other’s presence, what I was most aware of was the incompatibility, the mismatch of this two that was always going to last longer than the things that brought them together. I’ve just had too much experience of seeing that to remain unaware.
In a way, it makes the film even greater, that Allen can show these two opposing forces blended into one relationship, so smoothly, that he can illustrate how great it is to be together with the only one you want to share things with, but that the places where the wavelength is not right, does not mesh, are the places that will endure. The sand and the rocks make an idyllic beach, but when the wide comes in, it’s not the rocks that wash out.
And I think, in a world where I have become sometimes unbearably negative that I no longer find Alvy’s negativity, Allen’s negativity towards everything to be as funny as I used to find it. They couldn’t have stayed that way, the targets in this film have been swept away by those forty years, the argument rendered invalid by time, but I’m only too aware of the utter self-centredness of Alvy’s running commentary, the ego that stipulates that only what I approve is worthwhile.
It’s still Diane Keaton’s film, though. It’s a wonderful performance, in every respect, and Annie Hall rightly made her a star. And she was ideal: an attractive woman who wasn’t unbelievably, film-star gorgeous. You believed that you could meet Annies playing tennis, and that they could fall for you. And you can get incredibly sad at the distance that grows between people when they stop being in love with each other. Which is worse, loathing or indifference? The final scene makes me think it’s the latter.
In the end, it comes back to that scene, when Alvy rewrites what wasn’t perfect for his own benefit and it doesn’t work. I’m working on the second draft now, having realised so many things that lie under the surface. I could make a plausible case, in psychological terms, for giving ‘myself’ more than I had, but I’d still know that it was wish-fulfilment. And wish-fulfilment doesn’t work: Woody Allen taught me that forty years ago, one November Saturday when I was young.

The Prisoner: Other Media – The Prisoner’s Dilemma


Several years ago, when I did my series about Patrick McGoohan’s landmark TV series, The Prisoner, I wrote about attempts to portray Number 6 in other media. I mentioned, in passing because I hadn’t then read it, a 2005 novel, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, written by Jonathan Blum and Rupert Booth and published by Powys Media, and intended to the the first of a series of new stories about everybody’s favourite Village.

Time has passed. The series never materialised. The anticipated book two, The Outsider by Lance Parkin, never appeared. Powys Media’s website list book three, Miss Freedom, written by Andrew Cartmel but not how to get it. Google turns up some mixed reviews of this, at GoodReads and Google Books, but a search of eBay, Amazon and BookFinder turns up no copies, and whilst Biblio.com lists a signed and numbered copy of the book, it is out of stock.

A mystery worthy of the series, perhaps?

Nevertheless, I had acquired and read a copy of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and it’s time to supplement the series with a few words about it.

On balance, the book is worthy of its good reputation. It’s plot is complex and well-managed, springing from a single, ingenious action that involved Number 6 with Number 18, a tense, troubled young woman who is, in a completely different fashion, every bit as much a rebel against the Village as he is. The story starts with Number 6 on his ceaseless mission to monitor the Village’s ever-developing  surveillance for blind and deaf spots, when he is almost witness to Number 18 murdering a man: her Observer, it transpires, but also someone who has been sexually abusing her for some time.

This trigger’s Number Six’s chivalrous instincts, as do similar but less serious situations in the series, but it also triggers the classic impasse that forms the title of the book, and its underlying theme. Two prisoners are held in separate custody, facing common charges: do they trust each other in order to prevail against their captors, or race each other to sell out and shift the blame onto the other? Trust only works if both come to the same decision, but they cannot communicate with each other, cannot agree to trust.

Number Six finds himself accused of the Observer’s murder, both by reason of who he is and where he was and because Number Eighteen has, allegedly, claimed he killed the man.

Neither is charged. This set-up is but a preliminary to the main novel, a more-than-McGuffin that serves not only to connect Numbers Six and Eighteen but to introduce the central dilemma of the entire novel: does Number Six learn to trust Number Eighteen? Can he?

That’s as far as I’m going to go in describing the story. This pairing, having been forced by the Village, is put through a long series of variegated tests, designed to work on that question, as they try to combine opposing approaches to the objective of bringing down a new Village system that infallibly controls people by accurately predicting their responses. Can Number Six trust Number Eighteen? I’m not telling you, but the book itself gives away the ultimate answer in nearly every page.

Blum and Booth are good, very good indeed, on the minutiae of Number Six’s Village life and the overwhelming paranoia with which he has to live in order to survive on the terms he has demanded for himself. The book is thick with detail of what the Prisoner thinks and does, the extent to which he is completely self-isolated by the approach he has chosen.

Number Eighteen’s approach is radically different, and Blum/Booth provide plenty of arguments in its favour as a viable approach. And the further we get into the book, the more those arguments become objections to the flaws of the persona Number Six has adopted, that blind him to any option that is not generated by himself in accordance with what are very narrow criteria. The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

It makes for a dense, very intense book, sometimes a bit wearyingly so. Number Six’s attitude is complete and fully coherent, but the endless vigilance, the refusal/inability to compromise even for a second on the most minor of things asks the reader to raise their game to an inhuman level. Nor does the undisguised contempt for any alternate concept help us ease into the story: inevitably, some of what Number Six says comes over as the most rigid egomania, and the longer the book goes on, the more despairingly and more often Number Eighteen points this out to him and us.

Can he really trust her? That’s where the ending is really clever, making her disappear in ambiguous circumstances that could be anything from escape to reassignment, leaving us with the same dilemma as Number Six.

I do have some specific complaints about this book. The first is that its Number Two never rises above being a cypher, and that too much of the book leaves him on the sidelines, depriving us of the direct clash of minds that underlines each of the television episodes. At different times and in different ways, Number Six’s battles are against Numbers Fifty-four (the honest cop) and Number One Hundred and One (the ultimate double agent), so that when Number Two begins to play a direct role, in the last phase, it comes too late to share the personal element so important to the rhythm of the series.

And I am seriously concerned at the uneven tone of the book in one serious aspect. The Prisoner was made and set in 1967/68, in an era of Cold War rigidity, in the still-living aftermath of a War that had turned on ideologies, spawning a world in which ideologies were even more prominent. It took its politics from that, it took its colours and concerns from the edge of the counterculture that was feeling its way into being, it pointed us towards the future that was bearing down, as a warning that we all ignored.

Blum and Booth were writing almost forty years on, in a world in which the Village has spread to encompass our lives. There have been massive leaps in technology and culture. Unfortunately, the authors try to have it both ways, trying to retain the ambience and the politics of the Sixties whilst folding in the computerised world of the Twenty-First Century. It sets up a tension that they can’t resolve, with a Reality Show employing fantastic technology that resembles nothing but state-of-the-art CGI switching to an attack on high-powered computers so primitive that their back-ups are still on tapes.

And what Blum and Booth don’t seem to realise is that by introducing their Reality Show (and a coy reference to The Kumars at no. 42), not only are they irretrievably mixing incompatible cultural periods but the defeat they concoct for Number Six is as crushing and final as they portray it as being. Number Six’s credibility on every level is shattered, he is completely defused, his privacy is destroyed, in a manner that cannot be reset.

The idea is too good.

Overall, though, I’d rank The Prisoner’s Dilemma as much more representative of the series than any of the official, contemporaneous tie-in novels, and in its incorporation of futuristic themes, tons better than the Shattered Visage comic. It’s a shame the series wasn’t continued as envisaged, especially as the ending of this book looks to be foreshadowing the non-existent Lance Parkin novel. Or is it?

That is, appropriately, a matter of trust…

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Sea Witch Comes Home


(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.

Our Local Horror


I can’t remember when I first became aware of the Moors Murders. My first conscious recollection of it comes in the early Seventies, via the New Musical Express of all places, commenting on Lord Longford’s attempts to get Myra Hindley released on parole. I think I probably had absorbed some idea about this horror by osmosis: I am a born and bred Mancunian, and this is our City’s tragedy. It is lodged in our collective psyche and it will remain so until it achieves final resolution, which with Ian Brady’s death, it may never do. There is still a boy’s body out there on the Moor, awaiting discovery, awaiting burial, needing the gift to his family of a place to go where they can feel connected to him, and can mourn as we all mourn the people we have lost.

It was there. It kept coming up, as the years passed, as Longford continued his stupid campaign. I remember a comment, from, I think, the NME, about the different kind of tragedy it would have been if Longford was right, if Hindley really had undergone a change of heart, and was no longer a danger who needed to be kept in prison. I wondered about that, acknowledging it in the abstract.

I could do things like that then, regard the Moors Murders in the abstract, without connection to the reality of things, because I was ignorant, because when the tragedy had happened, when the trial took place, I was only 11. Then things changed.

It was 1987, late summer, Friday afternoon. I came home from work, picked up the Evening News. The headline story was that Myra Hindley had been back to Saddleworth Moor with the Police, in secret, and that she had assisted them to locate the grave and remains of Pauline Reade who, like Keith Bennett, had not been part of the trial because it was not then known that there were more than the official three bodies.

Perhaps it was only me, though I doubt it. It was as if a psychic pall descended across the city. I had no idea what it felt like to be in Manchester when the story broke, when the trial was being conducted, but it felt as if we had been carried back to those days, as if a cloud had descended over all of us, and it lasted throughout the weekend. There was nothing else to think about, no avenue of escape, nothing that wasn’t affected by the still very fresh wound that had been done to all of us.

It felt like everything was alive again.

I don’t remember talking about it to my mother. She, after all, had not only lived through the original stories, but was the mother of two young children when they were current. I can only imagine, because I never asked, what fears she might have had for the chance that her own children, or either of them, might have been victims.

I didn’t know then that that risk had a degree of reality to it.

For the first time, I understood my ignorance. I knew buzzwords, Moors Murders, Hindley, Brady. But I didn’t know what had happened, and when, and where. And I suddenly needed to know, to understand what was being talked about when those references came up.

Today, I’d have turned to the Internet, to Wikipedia. These things did not exist then. Instead, I bought a book, the controversial book, Emlyn Williams’ Beyond Belief, a comprehensive detailed account of crime and trial.

It demanded my attention as soon as I started it. It was a workday, but I found myself hiding the book in a drawer, diving in to devour paragraph after paragraph whenever I could steal time. Once I had begun, I needed to proceed in the most straight of lines, until I had absorbed everything. This had happened to Manchester, it was part of our history, part of me in some weird and inexplicable sense I couldn’t properly understand and certainly couldn’t control. I just had to know.

So I found everything out, except for Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett, who were not part of things when the book was written.

The funny thing was, a few months later, when I tried to re-read the book, I found it impossible. It couldn’t hold me, and I lasted no more than about seventy pages, at most, before giving up. I had just needed to know once. I didn’t need to revisit it, indeed I was incapable of revisiting it. But I knew. I was inside the circle. I knew what this was, and what it meant.

I still didn’t discuss it with my mother, even after realising that when Brady and Hindley were preying on young children, like Keith Bennett, I was almost of the age they were looking for, and we visited Ashton-under-Lyne market, where they hunted. I can’t, and don’t even begin to think of myself as a potential victim, but in other circumstances, a year or two later if they’d not been caught, I was in what you might call the event space for targets.

When stories about them returned to the papers, as they did from time to time, I read them as I would any story affecting Manchester. I had internalised the horror. I knew what it meant. There was no longer any of this foolishness of considering whether Myra Hindley could ever be released: given the stated intention of members of the victims families to hunt her down and kill her if ever that happened, she could never be released. My every instinct is, and always has been, towards redemption, to reformation, but what I had read and what I had understood made me more conscious of retribution. What she had done, what he had done, rendered them unfit ever to be allowed back into human society. It is Old Testament, it is simple vengeance, or rather complex vengeance because I have no personal stake in this except an accident of geography, but why should such as they have a life, even a belated and shrunken one, when John Kilbride, Pauline Reade, Lesley Ann Downey, Keith Bennett and Edward Evans had none?

And why should the entirely human need for vengeance hang over the survivors, the ones who had to deal with the loss, the absence, the theft of life that shuld have come to fruition, why should these people be put at risk of trial and punishment, of their own imprisoment for the likes of her? It would have been the ultimate insult.

As for Brady, he has shown himself up in the colours we have always known he wore. He is an evil, twisted, manipulative little sicko. I really do not know whether he could genuinely have relocated Keith Bennet’s grave, or whether the passage of fifty years on Saddleworth Moor had rendered the landmarks unreliable. For the purpose of giving himself one tiny corner that he could claim to control, it doesn’t matter. As long as people believed he might be able to provide that answer, he had a hold on something.

Now he’s taken whatever it was to the grave, smug to the last that we didn’t know, that he was smarter than us, that he was superior in this one degree. His ego fed by others’ pain, as it always has been, evil little shite. If Time Travel were possible, someone should go back to when the little bastard was 10 and beat his brains in with a brick.

He’s gone, and good riddance. You can say so many things – currently, I’m thinking that we shouldn’t bury his body, we should feed it to the pigs, but then there are the pigs to consider and what is done with their bodies afterwards: would you want to eat their bacon?

And it’s not over. It’ll never be over until that grave is found, until those remains are removed to a place of haven, with whatever ceremony that most comforts the Bennett family. Until then there’s a hole in Manchester’s soul, and it will be there forever.

Deep Space Nine: s04 e20 – Shattered Mirror


I don’t know to what extent it was the episode and to what extent it was me, but I found this week’s DS9 curiously uninvolving.

As the title gave away, it was another Mirror Universe story, and a fairly simple one to summarise: the Rebels under Smiley O’Brien have control over Terok Nor (i.e., DS9), but the Alliance have sent a fleet under Klingon leader Worf to recapture it. When he was on DS9, Smiley stole schematics that have enabled the Rebels to build their own Defiant, but they need Sisko to refine it. In the end Sisko pilots the Mirror Defiant to force the Alliance Fleet to retreat.

With the exception of Smiley, who has pretty much merged with the Chief in terms of personality, the rest of the regular cast hammed it up unmercifully in their altered roles, which is where I think the story simply didn’t work. Worf and the cringing Garak were just completely OTT, and the script indulged them past the point where this felt like any kind of commentary upon their normal characters: it was too much an indulgence to the actors to be at all realistic.

This surrounding detracted from what was the only real point of the exercise, which was to bring together Jake Sisko of our universe with the Mirror Professor Jennifer Sisko, the duplicate of his dead mother.

I wasn’t even sure how much that worked. The whole idea played into deep emotions, but the episode rarely lifted itself above the idea of a dream-come-true. Jake is fascinated by Jennifer, and accepts her invitation to come see her Universe, which is the snare that gets Sisko to cross over. Jake has already constructed an image in his mind of his family restored, pairing Jennifer with Sisko, bringing back a life destroyed years ago in a pain-free haze of wish-fulfillment.

Anyone with the remotest sense of adult consciousness knows that this situation is fraught with emotional and psychological danger, but the episode never escaped from being adolescent fantasy. Which, considering even for a second the effect of losing a parent at a very young age, of living what is now half your life without that parent, was simply inadequate. Even when Jennifer dies (at the hands of Intendant Nerys, slinking it about in her silver-grey skin-tight pants, giving it not so much ham as the full cow), throwing herself in front of a shot intended for Jake, like any mother would, Jake doesn’t really get all that sad.

It’s unrealistic and superficial, an episode that tried to drape itself with one of the deepest human feelings without once dipping more than the littlest toe into the psychological reality of its setting. Dreams and games, that’s all this episode was, and that’s why it left me cold and unable to take an interest.

 

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


(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.)

Mystery Mine is the one Lone Pine Club book I have read only as an adult, and to which I only have an adult’s responses. Though the story prominently features Harriet Sparrow once again, and she is again a wonderful addition to the Club, even though she is still not yet an official member, ultimately, I found myself disappointed with the book.
The story brings back old adversaries in the form of the ‘Doctor’ and John Robens (here calling himself Charles Warner) of The Neglected Mountain, which sits awkwardly, since Saville does nothing to bridge the inconsistency between the ending of that book, which Robens breaking with his older companion and going willingly with the Police, and what is, for all intents and purposes, the identical set-up here.
This is made especially incongruous by the ending which is, essentially, a repeat of The Neglected Mountain, with Robens/Warner reaching a point where, with children in danger, he refuses to carry on, and surrenders himself to the Police, intent on turning Queen’s Evidence.
Once again, we’re in a new part of the country, in this case, the North Yorkshire Moors, above Whitby. The Warrenders are visiting the Mortons at Brownlow Square, but David and Jon want to go off on their own, hiking. Harriet’s Grandad is now revealed as a Yorkshireman with a desire to retire to his native county and own a piece of it: he has agreed to swap shops with a Mr Venton of Spaunton. They are going up for a month’s trial and he invites the Twins to accompany Harriet.
So the boys head for Spaunton, arriving in a sea-roke (i.e. a mist), that sees them pass the mine-shaft on Sparrow’s land. Implausible though it may seem to us now (and I had to look this up, in disbelief), the story was written at a time when the Government was genuinely supporting a push to identify deposits of uranium in Britain, and of course there’s a rich vein in Sparrow’s mine.
So the ‘Doctor’s scheme is for Robens/Warner to identify the sites and negotiate purchase of the land, enabling the ‘Doctor’ to profit by resale to the Government. The drawback is that Mr Sparrow isn’t interested in the money and won’t sell.
The Lone Piners have to work out what all this interest in the land is about, whilst racking their brains over where they have previously seen Robens. This is convincingly delayed as he has regrown the beard he wore at the start of The Neglected Mountain, though once Peter and Penny are brought over from Shropshire, the former recognises him on the spot.
Though Penny gets herself briefly kidnapped, as a diversion that has more significance for the relationship between the two Warrender cousins, the plot itself develops via the kidnapping of Harriet, with Mary in tow, as a clumsy and completely ineffectual means of compelling her Grandpa to sell. Once again, Robens turns on the older man when the welfare of children becomes an issue, and all’s well again once the Police turn up.
As plots go, it’s lacking in invention, and owes too much to the Lone Pine formula that by now is tying Saville’s hands. A change is coming that will transform the series, and in this book, and the ones before it and after it, I’m starting to sense Saville himself growing frustrated at the limitations put upon him by his contented audience, especially with regard to no-one getting older.
This latter point is noticeable with regard to the two pairs involved, Peter and David, Penny and Jon, but it is dealt with in completely opposite fashions. I have put the girl first in each pair, because Saville gives each of them a raw deal, especially Penny.
Penny is invited to Brownlow Square for a holiday. Within a couple of hours of her arrival, and behind her back, her cousin and her friend decide to go off on their own, and abandon her. It’s an awful piece of rudeness, and the volatile Penny is the one Lone Piner who will feel this the most.
What’s worse is that nobody, not even Mrs Morton, seems to think there is anything wrong about this. It’s regarded as perfectly natural for the boys to want to test themselves with a long-distance hike, and in isolation, it is. By all means, invite Jon on his own to do this, but don’t drag Penny to London as well and abandon her the moment she arrives.
But Saville seems to think there is nothing wrong with this behaviour, notwithstanding that it’s deliberately against the Lone Piner’s oath. Penny, after a couple of days with Mrs Morton, makes the best of it by going on to Hatchholt to stay with Peter, who has been similarly slighted. She arrives still pissed off, but within twenty-four hours, David calls to summon both of them and the girls meekly trot off to North Yorkshire, where Penny’s righteous grievance is quickly written off as her not being able to stay angry at Jon for more than a couple of days.
What’s worse is the Warrender’s solo adventure. Jon has sussed out the uranium connection but, rather childishly, is refusing to state his suspicions until he checks it out at Whitby Library. Penny goes with him for the ride, even though he’s at his most condescending, saying he hasn’t seen much of her recently.

Whilst he’s in the Library, Penny sees Robens and follows him to his lodgings, where she’s captured and bullied by the ‘Doctor’. By the time she’s released, it’s long past the time she was due to meet Jon, and the pair and tearing round Whitby looking for each other. When she finally finds him, his first response is to unleash a horribly chauvinist attack on her, berating her as an empty-headed idiot. There’s not a moment in that attack where he gives the slightest impression that there may have been a reason for her absence.
Penny, in hurt fury, retaliates by direct reference to what she has gone through. It’s tempered by the fact that, in her searching for Jon, her need for his reassurance, she has begun to perceive that she no longer sees him as a substitute-brother but as something more, and her justifiable tirade is stopped short by the realisation that Jon’s anger is born not of rage but of fear for her.
It marks a distinct turning point in the relationship of the two Warrenders, but the overall effect is that the boy gets away with everything and the girl folds up and accepts it, passively.
Peter is equally passive. She’s not as directly affected by the boy’s hiking party as she’s at Hatchholt, and David has already said it’s unlikely the Mortons senior can go to Shropshire until the summer. She’s happy at Penny’s company, and she’s also happy at two pages of a letter David has sent her that she doesn’t read to Penny, but once she gets to North Yorkshire, she’s far from the Peter we have known to date.
From her first appearance, Peter has been straightforward, forthright and active. She speaks her mind, isn’t prepared to let things slide, and turns out in jodhpurs. But in Mystery Mine, all that’s gone. She’s changed her hairstyle again, undoing the plaits and wearing it in a bun (a sixteen year old girl in the late Fifties? Seriously?) She’s wearing a cotton skirt for walking around the Moors.
And when she loses Harriet, having taken responsibility for her and Mary when Harry sprains an ankle, Peter panics. She actually tells herself to try to think what David would do, when she’s a perfectly good head on her own shoulders, and she’s in floods of tears until David takes over and she gratefully passes all responsibility to him.
Saville was a conservative author, and a committed Christian as well, so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising to see Peter becoming increasingly feminised and subordinate to David, but in the past she would at least protest a little, before giving in, sensibly.
I’m not impressed with the baddies either. There’s more of the ‘get out and forget everything’ when Penny’s been captured, and the Lone Piners are still reassuring themselves that nothing, really can be done to hurt them, which is getting a little bit too formulaic.
And I’m confused by Saville’s introduction of geologist and archaeologist Philip Sharman, who is also found trespassing in pursuit of the mine, and who displays a suspicious and secretive interest in what’s going on, including getting the Lone Piners out into wild country to visit the Roman Road.
Sharman’s set up as another potential threat, and acts equally suspiciously but more politely than Robens and Co, but in the end he’s on Mr Sparrow’s side. He’s not a Cantor-like undercover policeman though. In fact, he has no status in this save for what we might charitably call nosiness. Ultimately, he’s no more than a red herring, but before now, Saville would still have integrated his red herring into the story. Sharman is no more than a loose end, which is uncharacteristically sloppy.
As I say, though, Harriet is once again the star of proceedings, and it’s something of a mockery to find her listed among the Other Persons at the beginning and not as a Lone Piner. She doesn’t like it either, forcefully making the point that she is sharing adventures with them, obeying the Captain and Vice-Captain and she’s not yet been made an official member.
At least the Twins, who don’t act towards Harry as they do to their other seniors, take the initiative of giving her a blood-signed note at the end, confirming her as a member-designate.
Speaking of the Twins, there’s a moment where they go completely OTT with Robens, and even recognise themselves that they have gone too far, but once again they’re allowed to get away with it. Thankfully, Saville only tells us how bad it is, he doesn’t show us, and it is Robens.
But taken overall, I am not impressed by Mystery Mine, and especially not the edited Second Edition, which was so badly treated that even mention of Peter’s new hairstyle did not survive the cut. The next book was my least favourite as a kid, and hasn’t improved with age, but the frustration I perceive in Saville at not being allowed to grow his characters does not have much longer to wait before he would finally let his instincts prevail.

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.