In a way, Strangers at Witchend, the first Lone Pine Club book to be published in the Seventies, is a very sad book. Acting on the logic of the developments he has allowed among his older characters, Saville has to acknowledge that the Club itself is nearly at an end. It’s never overt, but the division between the older and younger members has never been so clear.
David and Peter are now all but adults, and their concerns are for each other, and the time they can spend together. They’re not interested in adventures, and only become involved when they’re dragged in by concerns for their youngsters. And Tom and Jenny are pretty much peripheral to the story, no matter how glad they are to be reunited with their friends. Tom is a full-time worker at Ingles, and Jenny is in a similar position with the shop. They are not on holiday, even if the Mortons are.
In these circumstances, Saville turns to Harriet Sparrow. It’s her second visit to Shropshire, but her first to Witchend, but more importantly, this is her book, just as Lone Pine Five was Jenny’s and The Elusive Grasshopper Penny’s. Her spirit infuses the book and she is its main viewpoint character.
Harriet is seeing where it all began for the first time, the Lone Pine itself, where she and the Twins are to sleep outside (not that she is entirely cool with this development!) And her Grandad is in Shropshire too: with the money he made from the uranium in Mystery Mine, he’s seeking to expand his antiques empire with a shop in Ludlow (a neat little device to make Harriet more available for future adventures – if only).
There’s another, albeit temporary newcomer in Brock, a young dachshund, bought by Peter as a present and company for her father, which nearly causes ructions with Mary, until Macbeth accepts the friendship of a younger brother dog.
But there are criminal schemes afoot, and Peter’s father is reminded of an unpleasant experience he’d rather repress: four years before he played a have-a-go hero role with a fleeing jewellery shop thief and later gave evidence against him in Court. Now the man, distinguished by a triangular scar above his right eye, has reappeared, sniffing round Witchend and asking if its for sale.
Because this man, Henry Jones, aka Sid Edwards, is running a scheme creating false jewellery, using expert technicians over whom he has a hold, and in order to escape detection, he is moving them into the country, to work in isolated cottages, etc. One such is Charlie Smith who has been moved to the cottage at the foot of Greystone Dingle that we know so well, with his miserable wife, but without their twelve-year old son Kevin. Mark him well.
At first, the only concern everyone has is with Mr Sterling, who has been really shook up by this – the more so when he and Jones recognise each other again, when Sterling is accompanying Grandad Sparrow to Ludlow to look at the shop he’s inspecting. Even Harriet isn’t enthusiastic about getting into an adventure, but the Twins, of course, are a different matter.
For one thing, Dickie has really settled into his ambition to become a journalist, and for another, everyone’s most ubiquitous journalist, James Wilson, is in Shropshire, on the fake jewellery story, and welcomed into Witchend to sleep to boot.
But things start moving when the Twins drag Harriet out of camp at night, to show her Peter’s Rock, a landmark on the skyline of the Long Mynd that we haven’t heard of before. From there, the youngsters see light in the deserted and tumbledown Beacon Cottage, and hear a helicopter hovering.
When they return in daylight, to explore, keeping their adventures strictly to themselves, they find a birdwatcher calling himself Robert Ruddy. You know what birdwatcher means in the Lone Pine books, and Saville is sufficiently self-aware as to have Dickie comment upon it. Mr Ruddy may know about birds, but he dresses eccentrically, and he’s keeping a secret from everyone.
But when they return, it’s to a Witchend that’s been burgled. Someone has broken into the kitchen and eaten a lot of food, and it’s obviously a child because the broken window is barely big enough for Harriet to scramble through. The following morning, she wakes early (as she has been doing every day), and takes Brock up to the camp, where she finds the boy stuck half in and half out of a sleeping bag. This is Kevin Smith.
Kevin’s story is a confused one, especially as Saville tries to tack on a completely unconvincing happy ending to it. He’s been abandoned by his parents to an Uncle who mistreats him, he’s a sad and really rather pathetic boy, who’s practically blind without his glasses, but Harriet feels an affinity for him on first sight, and she is his champion, his encourager, his support and, when appropriate, hand-holder. Twelve year olds can’t really go much further, not in the Lone Pine world, but it’s interesting to see that after his match-making among the seniors, Saville can’t resist finding Harry a boyfriend of sorts.
She and the Twins go off on their own for the day, to walk to Seven Gates Farm, which has gotten a lot closer to Witchend since the second book, taking the secret Kevin with them to Greystone End Cottage, the address he’s found that spurred him to run away to find his parents.
The problem is, they find Charlie Smith, and he’s not at all happy to see his son. Mrs Smith has walked out on him, he’s contemplating kicking his family into touch and Kevin’s appearance at the window arouses nothing but fury. Unfortunately, Jones’ arrival, hard on their heels, results in the four youngsters being imprisoned, first in Greystone End, and then in Beacon Cottage. Kevin’s Dad is so concerned for his son’s welfare that he steals his glasses and threatens to smash them, leaving him nearly blind (he must have one serious case of short sight: I’ve worn glasses since I was seven and I’m nothing like that bad without mine).
Once it’s discovered that the youngsters have gone missing, the usual forces swing into action. The Police are called, which means Cantor again, Tom comes over from Ingles on his motor-bike, Jenny, who’s been looking forward to seeing Harriet again, gets her Dad to take over the Post Office, everyone’s rushing around fearful
Not without cause: the quartet are taken to Beacon Cottage and left there. Harriet is concerned throughout for Kevin, who has been treated very badly by his father. She sees the fact that he smuggles Kevin’s glasses back to him, in the box of food, as a good sign, despite Kevin’s experience of his father and the look of hatred turned on him in this book.
But Harriet’s faith, as much as the return of his glasses, spurs the youngster to rise to the occasion. Once the Twins break the upstairs window, he is the first to crawl along a narrow ledge to get them into another room, from which they can free themselves, though their escape seemingly ends when they run into Robert Ruddy.
The next thing we know, they’re calling from Ludlow Police Station: Ruddy is not a birdwatcher, as such, but he’s on the side of the angels, from the Assay Office, investigating the adulteration of gold and silver.
This triggers the usual swoop by the Police to capture everyone, the exception in this case being Charlie Smith, who has surrendered himself to the Police of his own accord, and is giving evidence against the blackmailing Jones. For which he’ll get credit to the point where, it’s vaguely hinted, he might escape prison time.
This is where the book loses its plausibility. Kevin introduces the idea that his Dad is unwell, and has refused to seek help, Harriet is convinced that Charlie has shown that he really does value his family, and Kevin is to go back to a changed environment, secure and beneficial, and I rather think that most adults reading this will respond with a loud raspberry.
Given Saville’s personal convictions, and his old-fashioned mores, it was probably impossible for him to write an ending that subjects a twelve year old boy to a broken home, especially not the boy that Harriet has fallen for, in her naive way. But the reversal from the previous position is too abrupt, too unsupported by Charlie’s behaviour to date that, even with the feeble excuse of this suddenly-introduced illness, it’s completely unconvincing. Long before the final paragraph, in which Harriet sees Kevin off in the car to reunite with his mother, and promptly dissolves in tears, we’re not buying this, and her genuine misery is undermined.
And whilst I’m discussing the ending, I’m not that impressed by Mr Sterling’s generous gesture of giving Brock – a present for him from his only daughter just a few days ago – to Kevin, even on the grounds that a young dog deserves a young master.
But overall Strangers at Witchend is an example of how difficult it is to write a Lone Pine Club book when half the members have outgrown the Club but aren’t yet up to admitting it, and the ones who still want adventures are the ones most powerless to conduct them in an age getting steadily more dangerous and violent. Saville inadvertently proves this point when he allows the now-somewhat elderly Macbeth to be brutally beaten and almost killed by Jones: of course, he is found in time, and survives thanks to Trudie Sterling’s father the vet.
There’s one other point I do have to bring up. Peter takes David into Ludlow to show him the stables where she works, but decides she also wants to buy him a present. Given how conventional David is in his dress, she chooses a bizarrely colourful, almost psychedelic tie. What David thinks of it is not given, but he immediately takes off his plain green one and chucks it in a bin before putting his new one on.
It’s sweet and touching, and incredibly out-of-touch: seventeen year old young men in 1970, on holiday with their ultra-fit bird, in the middle of summer, did not put on ties for casual daywear.
Malcolm Saville was now almost seventy years old and had been writing the Lone Pine series for nearly thirty years by this point. Another book would follow within the usual couple of years, but it was the last to be written on the kind of schedule he had devoted to his favourite creations.