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


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

Strangers at Witchend had floundered because Saville couldn’t find a way of bringing his senior characters into the adventure, and the youngsters were just to young to play alone. With Where’s My Girl?, he avoided that situation by isolating his six characters in a scenario where they had no option but to all band together. But in a further unwelcome concession to the ‘modern times’, Saville put his characters up against gun-runners, and possibly worse. These were not ideas that the Lone Pine Club could co-exist with, comfortably, and the outcome was another unhappy experience.
Where’s My Girl? is unique in bringing Tom Ingles and Jenny Harman out of Shropshire for the first and only time. It’s a return to Dartmoor, the only one of the non-Shropshire/Rye venues to enjoy a second visit, and so much of a return that the map is merely a reprint of that of Saucers over the Moor but with the Flying Saucer establishment shown as ruins.
But whilst Dartmoor might reasonably be expected to be Warrender territory, and everyone once more staying at a King’s Holt that is now owned by Penny’s father, who is developing it as high quality letting with stables, Jon and Penny are absent: gone to the continent with Penny’s parents, and meeting the delightful Arlette Duchelle, a long way offscreen.
This is a contrivance that reflects Saville’s growing unease about the relationship that had formed between the two cousins. Only by keeping Jon and Penny out of the picture could he limit development of their future.
Unfortunately, in order to bring Tom and Jenny in, Saville has to resort to a bigger and more awkward contrivance, which undermines the story from the start. The story begins in Shropshire, at Ingles, with Jenny arriving to see Tom, just in time to see him thrown from the combine harvester and hit his head upon a stone.
There are no long-term ill-effects: Tom suffers from concussion, and in a manner that Saville admits upfront is unlikely, develops temporary amnesia. It’s clearly not that serious: he recognises Jenny before he does his Aunt and Uncle, knows who she is before he recalls her name, but he could do with a proper holiday whilst he gets back to normal, and until his memory stops slipping.
The two main problems with this (apart from the contrivance) are that Saville can’t think of any realistic way of demonstrating that Tom is still suffering memory lapses, and Jenny’s reaction. It’s hysterical, of course, but it’s also hysterically childish, and it paints Jenny in a very bad light, after all we have seen her go through, and after the growing up she’s done. It’s worse than Man with Three Fingers as she goes running around shrieking at everybody else, the Ingles, Peter, that they don’t care if Tom dies, that only she cares about him.
Eventually, she does apologise for how she’s behaved, but by then the book is halfway done and it’s too late.
This Lone Pine holiday is a bit of an oddity in that they are acting as guinea-pigs: George Warrender has gone into partnership with the Longdens, Colonel and ‘Call me Marjorie’, who are developing and will run King’s Holt, and the Lone Piners are like a trial run for guests. 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.
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) and a bystander, almost under the Twins’ noses, an incident that scares and subdues them, and leaves David rattled too. And what nobody knows yet is that King’s Holt is one of the centres for smuggling guns into the country, for sale or hire to increasingly violent criminals.
It doesn’t 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 is too far. You can’t point a gun at a Lone Piner, not and retain the innate qualities of the series. Admittedly, Saville doesn’t go quite that far: today, they are merely in the background, but that background is right behind David and Peter, Tom and Jenny, the Twins and Macbeth.
And there is still the struggle to maintain the Lone Pine Club as a Club. 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 to hitch into into Plymouth and the Twins to find their own secret camp locally.
Of course, being back on Dartmoor prompts Saville to reintroduce Dan Sturt. Dan’s come a long way (his National Service seems to have stood him in good stead…). 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. He doesn’t stand a chance there, but that doesn’t make his constant glowing references to ‘gorgeous’ girls any less annoying, or patronising, or borderline offensive.
But now that Peter and Jenny are woman, not girls, they can’t be seen in any other light. To Saville, they’ve crossed a line. They are no longer able to participate in adventures, they’ve lost their independence, and it’s telling that they get kidnapped, with a threat of disappearing overseas if they don’t stay passive (with the underlying inference of white slavery if they get shipped off).
Despite the throwing in of strange, off-kilter incidents, witnessed by all three pairings on day one, the fact remains that only the Twins are really interested in adventure. There’s an unpleasant moment when one well-dressed fortyish visitor to the property evidently strips Peter with his eyes, though Saville is too polite to put it so bluntly, but David is more annoyed about Dan’s clumsy attempts to get off with Peter, not that she’s having any of it.
Then, on 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 Wistman’s Wood, seemingly because they don’t have the strength to tackle tors. This is condescending and unrealistic, given how often Peter and Jenny have been up and down the Stiperstones, 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.
This time, Saville is forced to go against the grain of children’s adventure fiction. Even though, when Tom’s uncertain memory gives up the vital clue that enables the boys to rescue their girls, the immediate reaction to the kidnapping is to hand over all responsibility, not just to the Police (including the now-obligatory pretty WPC), but all the parents. 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) sets off from London, Alf Ingles and Mr Sterling from Shropshire.
The three 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 a set of plans found thrown away early on, 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 one more thing. Messrs Ingles and Sterling have driven overnight from Shropshire, but they were not alone. Instead of Mr Harman, they have been accompanied by Mrs Harman, the awkward stepmother, the perpetual fly in the ointment, whom Jenny has said that she hates. Mrs Harman has come, in part because the girl she has never got on with may have suffered in her captivity from things that she would be easier sharing with another woman, but also because she recognises that it is long-overdue that the two should try to understand each other, should reconcile: not merely with Jenny, but with Tom, who is the other part of her life.
I’d very much like to like that ending for having its heart in the right place, and for righting a long wrong but, like Kevin Smith’s family redemption last time, 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 by 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 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.
Though I still believe that Saville was right to allow his characters to age, to realise the true meanings of all those close friendships, and that Not Scarlet But Gold was not merely essential but also beautifully written, the later Lone Pine books merely illustrate the sad truth that the Lone Piners could never get as involved in adventures as adults as they could as children. The audience that wanted them always to stay the same were right insofar as maintaining a fun series was concerned, though they were wrong artistically: if the books could not have grown, they would have withered into stultification.
But it’s true to say that Not Scarlet But Gold killed the goose. It’s two immediate successors were necessary, to resolve the other two couples, and Rye Royal just about manages, by making its story personal, about Mrs Flowerdew. But the two books that followed show a sharp drop in quality.
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
I was lucky to get Where’s My Girl? In a newly-published edition by Girls Gone By, especially as this volume included a rarety I had only learned of a couple of years ago. 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. If not for GGB, I would not have been able to read it.
The story is wildly out of the timeline these books have followed. It’s set in Rye, and is a solo Penny Warrender short, taking place not long 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 strange 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…

 

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