Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Strangers at Witchend

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on second thoughts.)

As Rye Royal was the Warrenders’ last adventure, so Strangers at Witchend is Harriet Sparrow’s swansong, after only four appearances. It’s another trip to Shropshire for the young Londoner, with her special friends, the Morton Twins, and at least she gets to see Witchend itself, and the Lone Pine under which everything started.
And Strangers at Witchend is as much her book as Lone Pine Five was Jenny’s, or The Elusive Grasshopper Penny’s, until the closing chapter when things go rather horribly wrong and Harriet’s last moments are a terrible finale for the little girl who impressed me so much on re-discovering her this year.
The biggest part of the problem is the extent to which the formula has trapped Saville. There must be an adventure, and once again it’s the one about a criminal gang using out of the way places in Shropshire, and there must be the kidnapping, which on this occasion points up the overwhelming weakness of the situation he has created for himself by letting the Lone Piners grow up.
I have to credit Saville with accepting the logic of things. David and Peter have grown out of adventures, and are only interested in each other’s company. The same goes for Tom and Jenny, or it would if it weren’t for the fact that they are peripheral characters, tied to their jobs on the Farm and in the Store respectively. That leaves Harriet and the Twins for adventuring, which creates an insoluble problem, since all three are aged twelve or younger: without the senior members, it is impossible for the Lone Pine Club to face up to adults.
Events go ludicrously quickly. One moment, Jasper Sterling is gently preparing for the arrival of the Mortons, plus Harriet, at Witchend, without parents (David is driving), when his equilibrium is disturbed by the appearance of a motor-bike riding stranger, offering to buy Witchend. The stranger has untidy long black hair and a triangular scar above his right eye, all of which is enough to identify him as a criminal in a Saville book, but more importantly, he and Mr Sterling recognise each other. Several years earlier, Sterling had made a have-a-go intervention in a robbery and given evidence that helped secure the man’s conviction, which resulted in threats.
Everything that follows, follows within 48 hours.
The villain, then Henry Jones, now Sid Edwards, has set up as a radio/television repairman in Ludlow, but his real business is adulterating gold and silver to create fake jewellery, and he is running various small-time specialists, who are under his thumb, in isolated cottages etc. to carry out the work.
One of these is Charlie Smith, who is also stereotypically a Saville bad lot. He’s brought his unpleasant, blowsy, miserable and unprepossessing wife to Greystone End cottage, he’s full of hatred for her and their son Kevin, who’s been left with Charlie’s brother, in short they are in every respect the kind of people that Saville and the Lone Piners disdain.
But this is Harriet’s book when we get away from the crooks. She’s 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). And Sterling and Edwards see each other at this very shop, when the former agrees to show Grandpa Sparrow the town.
Whilst he’s gone, the Twins are showing Harriet all over, including Peter’s Rock, a prominent landmark that’s appearing for the first time. When the three youngsters go up there at night – the Twins deliberately rejecting Peter’s advice not to risk it in the dark because, well, you know, they’ll do any damned stupid thing just to defy sensible advice – they see a helicopter hovering over the abandoned and broken down Beacon Cottage.
Of course, they keep this to themselves. They do report that Witchend is broken into, even though the ‘burglar’ stole only food, and was evidently a child of similar age to Harriet. This is the already-mentioned Kevin Smith, who has run away to find his parents, and who Harriet finds in her sleeping bag when she goes up to the Lone Pine before breakfast the next day.
She swears the Twins to compliant secrecy over Kevin, the three of them take him over to the Stiperstones and Greystone End, Charlie looks at his son with unparently loathing and hatred (he is contemplating completely abandoning his family) and promptly locks them all in. He also steals Kevin’s glasses without which, like far too many specs-wearers in the books, he is practically blind.
The kids are taken up to Beacon Cottage, with Harriet frantically comforting the distraught Kevin all the way. The storyline then takes a distinct lurch when Charlie surreptitiously returns Kevin’s glasses, which Harriet seizes on as proof that his father really loves him after all and everything will work out fine. Of course, as soon as they’re left alone, the kids break out, with Kevin demonstrating his new-found self-confidence by crawling along a narrow ledge to reach an unlocked room, and that’s that for the kidnapping.
Meanwhile, the Police have been brought in (Inspector Cantor is mentioned but does not intrude), the gang is swept up and there’s an unusually sober response to Edwards trying to cover his tracks by burning down Beacon Cottage, as Saville lets his readers ponder the implications of whether he might have given any thought to his prisoners.
But the maturity of this part of the ending is overwhelmed by the ridiculous lengths to which Saville goes to try to enforce a happy ending for Kevin. Charlie Smith gives himself up to the Police and, in return for his evidence, it’s heavily hinted that he won’t go to prison, despite the fact he’s been participating in a serious crime for which not only the Police but the Assay Office have been pursuing him, not to mention that he was under Sid Edwards’ thumb because the latter threatened to shop Charlie for crimes the Police had not solved.
Then we’re told that Charlie is ill, that he’s refused to seek treatment, and that’s why he’s been so foul to his son and his wife, 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.
This ending is further damaged by the handing over of Brock to Kevin, to keep. Brock is a young dachshund, bought by Peter in chapter 1 as company for her father, and here he is, two days later, handing his daughter’s present over to an almost-complete stranger to take to Birmingham. It makes a mockery of introducing a second dog, and more and more I wonder how closely plotted Strangers at Witchend was, as there are too many things set up only for an unconvincing reversal at the end.
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 Edwards: 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…


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