Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Where’s My Girl?


Where’s My Girl? was the second and last of the Lone Pine series to cost me more than a few pounds through e-Bay, and I am indebted to Girls Gone By Publishing for the timely reissue of the book for being able to afford it at all. For some reason, the nineteenth and penultimate book in the series is the rarest and most expensive to obtain, the best price I had seen before this publication being £27.00 for an Armada paperback edition.
And as a bonus I had not expected, this reissue also incudes the only Lone Pine short story written by Malcolm Saville, of which I was not aware until recently, and which, like Mystery Mine I had never read.
The story returns the Lone Piners to Dartmoor, and to the lonely house, King’s Holt, where they were based in Saucers over the Moor, now owned rather than rented by Penny’s parents. This makes Dartmoor the only one of the outer areas to be visited by the Lone Piners more than once, and of course we are reintroduced to Dan Sturt, cub reporter, and his mother, the proprietress of the Moorland Pixie (which is still an awful name and even more awful in 1972 than in 1955).
Oddly enough, although this is Warrender country if it is anybody’s, Jon and Penny are conspicuous by their absence, off to France with Penny’s parents and arranging to meet the lovely Arlette, and the party is made up by Tom and Jenny, escaping from Shropshire for the first and only time. This refusal to use the Warrenders, when it would have been so natural in the circumstances to bring them in, only feeds my belief that Saville didn’t know how to handle this pair, and could not bring himself to allow them the same free rein to celebrate being a couple.
There are no such inhibitions with David and Peter, or Tom and Jenny, though in order to get them away, Saville has to resort to a rather dodgy tactic that sets the book off on a poor footing, from which it never really recovers. Tom has an accident with the new combine harvester, thrown from it, hitting his head upon a stone and suffering temporary amnesia. And it is only temporary, and even though he can’t remember his name he recognises Jenny, who has witnessed this, before anyone else, but she goes off into the kind of frantic hysteria in which she’s more of a hindrance than anything, even down to accusing others like Peter of not caring whether Tom lives or dies, only she cares.
Frankly, it’s not Jenny’s finest hour, and though she apologises for her behaviour, it’s not until halfway through the story, by which time it comes as a bit of an afterthought. The intensity of her reaction, understandable though it is, is unbalanced, even if it is fuelled to some extent by another rift with her stepmother, whom Jenny goes so far as to say she hates.
The holiday at King’s Holt is by Mr Warrender’s invitation. He’s gone into partnership with a Colonel and Mrs ‘Call me Marjorie’ Longden to convert the place into a high class tourist attraction, offering stables and ponies: Penny’s friends are guinea pigs, if you like. If you’re already guessing that the Longdens are going to turn out to be wrong-uns, you won’t be wrong but what surprises is the nature of the criminal enterprise the Lone Piners will stumble into.
It’s presaged by an incident en route to the station in London. The Mortons are held up by a jewellery robbery, by an armed gang, who shoot a policeman (not fatally, thankfully) and a bystander, almost under the Twins’ noses, an incident that scares and subdues them, and leaves David rattled too. This is the ‘modern’ world that Saville is being asked to write for now, and it’s a shocking intrusion. Because the gang the Club helps the Police to break up is gun-running, via King’s Holt, supplying arms for the criminal element of Britain.
It doesn’t quite fit. There’s nothing especially noticeable that suggests Saville’s heart isn’t really in it, but after such a long run, the subject is intrusive, and distasteful, and it ramps up the level of danger to a point that doesn’t sit with the Lone Pine Club.
Not that it’s going to last much longer. In his own mind, Dickie Morton is acknowledging that openly. The Club is breaking up, he tells himself. The seniors want to be with each other – Jenny exemplifies this, asking Peter to confirm that when they’re both married, they’ll still be friends, still see each other – and even his Twin, Mary, is no longer on the exact same wavelength as him, now that they near the age of eleven.
And indeed, when they get to King’s Holt, staffed by its three Cypriots, the first thing they all do is break-up into three pairs for three expeditions: David and Peter to go riding, up to the old and now derelict secret station of Saucers over the Moor (boy, is the reference to flying saucers seriously anachronistic now), Tom and Jenny for the bus into Plymouth and the Twins to find their own secret camp locally.
By now, Saville has also reintroduced Dan Sturt who, in the years since Saucers, has made a big thing of his journalism. He’s a multi-platform journalist now, to adopt the modern terminology, the Dartmoor correspondent with seeming access at will to not just his local newspaper but local radio and local TV, getting stories out there just because he’s Dan Sturt. The Longdens start off by wanting him to do effectively free PR for King’s Holt, the Police clue him in as to a raid on an incoming fishing boat smuggling arms, oh, Danny boy’s hot, and he’s hot for Peter too, much to David’s annoyance, though he’s no chance with her.
The Lone Piners just want to enjoy their holiday, even if Jenny is still like a cat on hot bricks around Tom, whose memory is still a bit uncertain and who at any moment might forget who she is completely and she’s his girl. But the Longdens are not entirely convincing. Visitors come and go, seemingly to buy the Dartmoor ponies Longden carves (one such fortyish visitor evidently strips Peter with his eyes, though Saville is too polite to put it so bluntly). They’re also too desperately anxious to know where their somewhat unwelcome guests are going to be every hour of the day.
And there are incidents: David and Peter, riding back in the mist, find Marjorie Longden, supposedly throw from her horse after coming to meet them, but she’s alright and leaves them on David’s ride as soon as they’re near home, and she doesn’t know half as much about horses as she ought to. Tom and Jenny chance on Longden taking a delivery of fish to a sleazy fish shop in Plymouth, whilst the Twins see fish being delivered to King’s Holt, before finding a mysterious and rusty metal tube containing stained architectural plans.
It’s all rather weird than anything else. With the possible exception of the Twins, nobody really wants to get involved, and Dan is having to carry a lot more of the formal plot than we’d normally expect as a consequence, along with his Police contact, Bob Hunter, and then it all goes wrong behind our backs.
For the second day, the elders split up differently. David takes Tom for a long bracing walk on the moor, aiming to climb a 1,500′ Tor (1,500′? 1,500′? You should try the Lakes, mate, we laugh at 1,500’ers), whilst the girls go off to inspect the unusual (and off-putting) Wistman’s Wood, seemingly because they don’t have the strength to tackle tors. This is one of the few out-and-out sexist moments in the entire series that really annoys me: it’s condescending and unrealistic, and given how often Peter and Jenny have been up and down the Stiperstones, however unhappily, it’s complete nonsense for the actual characters.
But Saville needs to separate the boys from the girls, because their return to King’s Holt coincides with not merely another delivery of fish but a newsflash on Jenny’s transistor radio (which she carries everywhere) from the ubiquitous Dan about the gun-smuggling.
The next thing we know, the boys are back, the Twins are back but the girls haven’t returned yet, and Jenny’s transistor is in the girls’ room. It’s a lovely and subtle reveal, with Saville only then back-tracking in the next chapter to show how the two girls are drugged, and wake up imprisoned in a boarded up bedroom somewhere unknown, held prisoner, and threatened with disappearance at sea if they act up.
It’s the inevitable kidnapping, and for once it creates a serious stir. The Police are called in quickly, yet another marvelous WPC caters to the Twins, London and Shropshire are notified, with Mr Morton (wondering if his children are fit to be let out anywhere on their own, even if that’s about sixteen books too late) and Alf Ingles and Mr Sterling all driving down.
But despite the uncertainties of his memory, Tom saves the day. Whilst Peter and Jenny confront their captors with a creditable impersonation of the Twins’ act, sewing confusion, even though they still only get individual bathroom breaks (at last! Recognition of toilet functions!), Tom manages to dredge up the fish shop, and the young men come busting their way in, with the Police hard on their heels, David nursing a bruised face and a split lip but quite obviously having handed out his own measure of grief as he and Tom get their girls back.
The Cypriots, who, far from being servants will prove to be the organisers, go on the run, but are arrested later on. The Longdens are missing but, thanks to Dickie’s genuine ingenuity over the plans, are found trapped in a locked secret vault behind the workshop, along with a veritable arsenal.
So all’s well that ends well. But there is still more. Ingles and Sterling drove overnight from Shropshire and arrived in time to find that the girls had been rescued, but they were not alone. Only it’s not Mr Harman who came with them, concerned about his beloved daughter, but Mrs Harmam, the stepmother Jenny has never liked, who only in this book she has said she hated. It is her stepmother who has come to care for the stepdaughter she has always been at daggers drawn with.
And it is Mrs Harman, who loves her husband just as Jenny loves her Dad, who sees the long-overdue need to try to make a relationship with the girl she has helped to raise, who wants to talk to her, and to her Tom, to make a belated new beginning. Jenny, tentatively, but hopefully, accepts such overtures.
I’d like to like that ending as it’s intended to be liked but, like Kevin Smith’s family redemption last time round, I can’t fully believe in it. The problem is that, for thirty years, Mrs Harman hasn’t actually been a character, and barely even a caricature. She was a plot device when she was introduced, the shrewish stepmother unsympathetic to poor little lonely Jenny when her Dad was still in the Army, and down all the years she’s never recovered from that. She’s barely been onstage, always upstairs, or visiting friends, and represented as a jealous woman, jealous of her husband’s love for his daughter, and her stepdaughter’s love for her man.
So whilst the impulse is generous, if overlate, it runs up against the fact that we don’t know Mrs Harman at all, that she’s never been portrayed as anything other than her awkwardness and obstructiveness and, sadly, Saville still doesn’t seem to know how too set her up as a person from whom an awkward r’approchement can stem.
Without that, it’s nothing more than a figleaf, a token gesture. What we’re seeing, in concentrated form here, but in general throughout this and the last couple of books, is what Dickie said: the Lone Pine Club is breaking up. The older members are turning away from the adventures of their childhood in favour of the adventures of adulthood, of dealing with each other as partners, as lifelong friends. Saville wants to remove another vestige of childhood, but whilst his impulse is good, and generous, and entirely in keeping with his fundamental belief in people being good and decent towards each other, he has never done enough to stand Mrs Harman up on her own two feet.
Since the appearance of Mystery at Witchend, almost thirty years before, there had never been a gap of more than two years between Lone Pine Club books. Now, with only one to come, six years would elapse before it appeared.

ADDENDUM
The Girls Gone By reissue of Where’s My Girl? contains a rarety I had only learned of a couple of years ago, the first time I thought of the Lone Pine books in decades. In 1950, Malcolm Saville wrote the only known Lone Pine short story, The Flower-Show Hat, for a Girl Guide Annual. It was very rare, and extremely hard to find, and when finally reprinted, was limited to 500 copies available only to members of the Malcolm Saville Society. I’m extremely grateful to G G B for including it in this edition.
The story is wildly out of continuity here. It’s set in Rye, and is a solo Penny Warrender short, though inevitably, Jon appears at the end, and it takes place in time just before Lone Pine Five in Shropshire.
Penny is back from school and looking for mischief in her usual manner before Jon returns, later in the day. Her Aunt, skilfully heading her off, insists she accompany her to the Flower Show that afternoon, in best frock, gloves and nylons (!). Penny, who is here described as ‘not yet pretty’ is rebellious: it’s a schoolgirl’s frock, too short (!), and she’d rather wait for Jon anyway, but no.
There’s a stranger visitor at the Dolphin, a young woman, red-headed, looking a lot like Penny, and wearing an absurd hat which Penny immediately covets. The girl, Susan Brown, aged about twenty, claims to have her Uncle following, after he deals with a punctured tyre, but she looks pale and worried.
Penny later catches her in the private part of the Hotel, after which Miss Brown disappears. But she’s left her hat behind, so Penny sneaks it into the Flower Show, to wear. By then, we know the Police are after Susan, as an accomplice in the theft of a picture. So Penny gets one heck of a shock when she’s accosted at the Show by a stranger, who recognises her by her hat, and who runs her back to the Dolphin to talk to her in private.
Desperately afraid, Penny seeks the aid of Jon, now home, but this twist is that the man is not the crook, but a detective! Penny is able to locate the missing painting where it’s been stashed, but Susan Brown, who’s been an innocent dupe in all of this, comes back to the hotel to hand over the painting anyway.
Oh, and to collect her hat…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s