Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Home to Witchend

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

There had to be a Last Book. And it had to do the proper thing by David and Peter by securing their future together into the timelessness that followed. And it had to settle Tom and Jenny. And Jon and Penny, though in the end Saville couldn’t bring himself to do it, leaving their outcome to our imaginings, which all ended up in the same place anyway.
From Mystery at Witchend to Where’s My Girl? there had never been more than two years between Lone Pine Club books, but six years passed before Home to Witchend was published, the only one in the series to appear as an Armada original. The state of publishing ruled out Children’s Hardback Fiction, though this has happily more than recovered since.
And these were not happy years for Saville, whose preferred title, ‘Where it all began’ and others were rejected, as was the notion of creating a light-hearted tale with the Twins at the centre. In this, I’m wholly in agreement, and not just because of my by-now clear antipathy towards the younger Mortons. No, it had to resolve the future of the adult Lone Piners, it had to have Witchend in the title, and it had to recall old themes and recycle old formulas. And involve absolutely everyone.
Though a couple more books remained, after Home to Witchend, Malcolm Saville wrote no more fiction. The Lone Pine Club thus were first and last, and best.
I’ve criticised the last couple of books, and though many Lone Pine fans judge this final story a perfect send-off, and I’d love to welcome it as such, I’m afraid I cannot. There is much that is wrong about Home to Witchend, almost too much to detail without making this into an all-out attack of a kind it doesn’t deserve. But though Saville was still driven by the urge to write children’s fiction, this book is a sad indication that he had gone beyond his time, that he was, by now, old-fashioned, and sufficiently aware of it to make his attempts to reflect the book’s present day ill-suited.
The story is built upon Peter’s coming of age: her eighteenth birthday is only a week away when the story begins. David is planning to make this the most brilliant day she could have. It’s all he’s thinking about, and it’s clear that Saville would prefer to have the same single-mindedness, but an Adventure is required, even though it is almost completely against the spirit of this book.
What is it be? Foil a criminal gang, or find a Treasure? The former is the least obtrusive, and if we are adopting that course, who else should it be but the series’ most inveterate villain, Miss Ballinger, even though her hereditary foes, the Warrenders, are barely in evidence.
Times have changed. Ballinger, who is now in her sixties and pretty well down on her luck, has changed her name again and is making a living of sorts drawing personalised greetings cards. Val, her once and former ‘niece’, has dumped Les Dale, and shot up from ‘twentyish’ to ‘thirtyish’. Reading between the lines of what Saville doesn’t quite say, she’s already starting to lose her looks.
The pair have been summoned to work in a relatively menial role for the former ‘Slinky’ Grandon, now calling himself Thomas Seymour. Tom is in charge, affluent, successful, self-confident. Along with the name change, he doesn’t look, act or even talk like the Grandon we’ve seen so often already and once he’s named Seymour, the name Grandon is never used again. Other than the old connection, there is no point whatsoever to this completely new figure being linked to ‘Slinky’.
The name of the game is forgery: ten pound notes. Ballinger and Val will take a remote Shropshire house as cover for the actual forging by two foreigners, Josef and Jan, and will assist in distribution. There’s a neat symmetry in the choice of house: it’s Appledore, which has gone unmentioned since Mystery at Witchend, but which is once again a pretty nest of thieves.
This particular circle cannot properly be closed, however. Home to Witchend is full of footnotes referencing old adventures, as Saville leads us down Nostalgia Lane, but David and Peter’s previous acquaintance with Appledore has to be left in the shadows: the exposure of a German spy ring cannot be allowed into the past of a girl just approaching eighteen.
Curiously enough, that’s not a serious problem. The Lone Piners’ improbable and elongated history has to be accepted for what it is: it is harder to relate Miss Ballinger and Valerie’s years in their ‘profession’ with the scant period since Penny Warrender was a schoolgirl.
Ah, the Warrenders! They come in at chapter 3, which reveals Penny to be manager-in-training at the old Dolphin, receiving a warning from the Police and the inescapable James Wilson about the passing of forged notes. Jon’s still at Sussex University, though we don’t know what he’s studying or what he plans for his future. As for their future, when Jon turns up at the station and Penny is there to meet him, he kisses her ‘as she’d never been kissed before’ but she doesn’t say anything (Penny? Just been thoroughly snogged and doesn’t say anything? Penny?)
But that is all for them. They will turn up at the end for the party, but only to make up the numbers, of no more relevance than Alan Denton. The same goes for Tom and Jenny: he, the working farmer, spends most of the book working whilst Jenny is also limited to a single chapter, most of which she spends as a chatterbox. She’s got out of Barton Beach at last, assistant in a Shrewsbury bookshop, and somehow or other she’s managed to get to be a few months older than Peter. I’m going to draw up a chart of the Lone Piner’s flexible ages!
At least Tom and Jenny get an ending. They too are engaged, though they’ve kept their commitment secret so as not to steal David and Peter’s thunder at the latter’s birthday.
It’s a shame that Saville’s conservatism and his Christian beliefs couldn’t, in the end, accept that there was neither bar, stigma nor danger to cousins marrying, and make it the triple celebration it deserved to be. It’s better though than the alternative that, for a long time, he wanted to cook up, which was to hand Penny over to Dan Sturt, amid declarations of eternal brotherhood from Jon. That wouldn’t have washed for a moment, always assuming Saville could have persuaded his audience to believe Dan’s fickle heart after his passionate lusting after Peter, but the truth was his audience would have flatly refused to accept Penny and him, and he was persuaded of this.
As for Harriet Sparrow, I am frankly disgusted at her treatment in this book. She does not appear until the very end, joining the party alongside Kevin Smith, who isn’t even a Lone Piner (yet). All Saville can say about his sturdy little girl, with the straightforward heart and her splendid solidity is that she is a lonely girl, and he can’t even give her a line of dialogue: that goes to Kevin instead.
So the book, like Sea Witch Comes Home is eventually only for the Mortons, among whom Peter is now counted in anticipation of her formal attachment to the family. And Peter does not come out of this book too well.
In a way, the last three Lone Pine books are, cumulatively, a left-handed justification of Saville’s decision to write for children, because once he allowed the senior Lone Piners to evolve into adults, he had no idea what to do with them. Peter suffers the most: once she becomes the beauty she was always destined to be, once she sets definitive foot on the road to becoming a wife, all her other characteristics, her steadfastness, her tenacity, her clearheaded directness, her determination to see justice done, have disappeared, as if they have drained out of her. Her beauty becomes the only thing we are allowed to see. She can’t even have faith in David’s dedication to her, which is about as obvious as the Long Mynd to everyone else. When he takes his only step towards the Adventure that threatens to distract from his plans for Peter’s wonderful time, she lets him go off on his own without an explanation. Is this the girl who found her way through her own confusion to insist that he would not go into Greystone Mine without her? Not for me.
David doesn’t want to get involved in the Adventure. He only wants to think of Peter, and spend his time with her. She is merely passive. Tom and Jenny are working. Jon and Penny are too far away. Harriet’s left out. The only Lone Piners who want to get involved are the Twins. They might be ‘nearly twelve’ now, they might be no longer so overtly childish as they were for so long, but nothing’s changed. They are still the same monsters of egotism, paranoia and wilful stupidity that they have been all along.
The Twins can identify Pam the Market Artist as Miss Ballinger, they can listen to James Wilson and Inspector Cantor’s warnings about the forgery gang, but they can’t do anything, they really can’t.
So, to give them something to do, Saville invents another bit of Long Mynd geography in the form of a secret valley, off the tourist track, accessible only by trespass on private ground, known only to the Twins. No sooner have they been told not to leave the Witchend Valley because the incessant rain has made the narrow valleys dangerous than they leave the Witchend Valley for their narrow valley, as smug as ever in their defiance of the bullying that they, as the only ones with any initiative, constantly suffer.
So Saville produces yet another rain-induced landslip, of even more substantial proportions, underground water forcing its way out in a great eruption. It’s an artificial danger: the Twins are already above it, or else it would simply kill them, but it leaves them stranded, it leads to tremendous publicity, Mary’s almost sure she saw a man who might have been caught in the flood, and Richard’s only thought is to keep back every piece of information he can to present it to James Wilson as an exclusive: sod any questions about the man’s safety.
David’s atavistic impulse to investigate Ballinger’s whereabouts can maybe be explained as the urge to keep his younger siblings from an even more intrusive bit of stupidity, but it’s still out of character against his concern for Peter. He finds the near-drowned man, a foreigner roped in to make the forged notes and goes off on one final expedition. It leads him to Appledore, to Ballinger, Valerie and Seymour, and it leads him to the inevitable capture. If it had to be done, surely Saville could have contrived a better outcome than David tripping himself up twice and knocking himself out?
That drags Peter in one final time, the clue provided by little Fenella, the gypsy’s daughter she saved so long ago. They too have reappeared, for a first time since The Secret of the Gorge, though sadly, reflecting the growing mood of the times, they are finding their old roaming life hard to sustain. Charles Sterling, knowing, liking and trusting them, has allowed them to install their caravan at Seven Gates, where Reuben works on the farm, and Miranda and Fenella visit the local fairs.
And the shy Fenella is herself beginning to grow up, and to indicate to the Lone Piners how much she cares about them, and it is she who comes to the rescue, asking among her contacts when requested by Dickie, and coming up at the crucial moment with Appledore. So Peter demands the Police are notified but heads off on Sally one last time, to the rescue.
Where she finds David’s car, burnt out.
You and I know that nothing’s happened, but Peter experiences the worst fear of her young life before she finds David imprisoned in the workshop, where he’s attempting to beat the door down. She releases him, like he has done for her often enough. And they find Ballinger, abandoned by her confederates, imprisoned by her near-blindness without the glasses they have stolen. There’s a curious dignity to her at the last, unaware of who she is speaking to, telling Peter that there is a prisoner who needs releasing all unaware that he is already free. Miss Ballinger accepts her fate.
This calm acceptance is somewhat marred by the fact that Ballinger had a gun in her handbag which she didn’t attempt to use. Saville could not have allowed even her to contemplate suicide, but it’s a dangling detail, the gun in the first act that didn’t go off in the third, a thread that goes nowhere.
So, the gang are wrapped up, offstage, by the Police as usual. Seymour/Grandon has taken Val with him, but their fate is a car accident on the outskirts of Manchester: Seymour is ‘gravely injured’ and Valerie is helping the Police with their enquiries, that age-old cliché.
At last, this misshapen, unwanted Adventure can be cleared offstage and Peter’s birthday – and her special present – can finally taken prominence. Everyone’s agog to find out if David’s going to ask her to marry him. It’s hardly a dramatic point: the drama would have been if he hadn’t, and we as readers who have been here for the long journey from that day on the Long Mynd two years before the end of the Second World War (don’t mention that!) are almost as invested in that outcome as is Jenny Redhead. It’s sweet, touching and very rewarding.
Saville cleverly includes two half-scenes that we adults recognise for what they are but which the youngsters, and especially those of 1978, wouldn’t necessarily understand: David asking for Mr Sterling’s permission to ask for Peter’s hand and Peter choosing the ring that David will give her at the end of all things.
The party is held at Seven Gates, half in and half out of HQ2. Everybody is there, everybody who is family in this extended circle of friends, and everybody who has played a part on the side of the Angels, save for Arlette Duchelle and the Channings, in any of these adventures, comes up to wish Peter well on her great day.
And Mr Morton announces that David is to move his training to Shropshire to be with Peter, and become a country Solicitor in due course, and when they marry, Witchend will be theirs just as Ingles will stay with the next generation of Ingles, and whilst not the least amazing thing about the Lone Pine Club series has been that Malcolm Saville has included the sometimes childish but always genuine affection and love between boys and girls without frightening off his audience, this is really the end of the Lone Pine Club. Happiness is, as always, the enemy that will have its way, and to which we own defeat with joy.
But what of the Twins, and the criminally overlooked Harriet? There’s a final gesture of defiance from Mary and Richard. Kevin will sign his name in blood, to become a new member, and Nicholas Whiteflower, and young Fenella. There will be a Lone Pine Club still, a New Lone Pine, but it won’t be our club and we will never read its adventures (and if the Twins are in charge, I really do fear for them: Harriet will have to take over, pretty sharpish).
Oddly enough, it appears that Saville was asked to write another Lone Pine book, and began to plot it, but nothing seems to have escaped as to who, what, where, and personally I’m very glad of that.
I was already twenty-two when Home to Witchend was published, too old for such things but a completist to my boots. Like Mystery Mine I’ve only ever read it with an adult’s eye, and with that eye I can only see how poorly it compares with the rest of the series. In a better world, Malcolm Saville might have written a Last Book much earlier, perhaps in the immediate aftermath of Rye Royal, and found a way to give a fair go to all his Club members.
Then he might have had more chance, perhaps even more freedom from the pressure of contrivances, and old tropes. The Adventure might have been less tired and forced: that bit younger, and less troubled, he may even have come up with something that genuinely forced itself upon David Morton as he rushed around, wishing only to focus on the woman he loves and her happiness, something that threatened to spoil the event if he did not act.
But no. The cards were dealt as they were, and many people were happier with the hands than I am. So let’s bring this to another end, by picturing in our mind the lifelong friendships of those neighbours in an imaginary valley in the flank of a real mountain, David and Petronella Morton, Tom and Jenny Ingles, not to mention their old pals and frequent guests, Jon and Penny Warrender (status undefined). By now, they’re long since old enough that their own children will have outgrown an even newer Lone Pine Club. But, knowing these people as we do, not their friendship with one another. True to each other, whatever happens,


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