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

Six years passed after Where’s My Girl? before the last Lone Pine Club book appeared in 1978. By all accounts it was not a happy experience for Saville, who had several different titles rejected before the mundane Home to Witchend was accepted, and whose idea of concentrating upon the Twins, and the element of light-heartedness they brought to the story was also rejected. What was demanded was a finale, that recalled old themes, that recycled old formulas. And involve absolutely everyone. It was the only book of the series to appear as an Armada paperback original.
It was Malcolm Saville’s last work of fiction, just as, thirty five years earlier, Mystery at Witchend had been his first. Though he would still publish in the years remaining before his death in 1982, this was his farewell to the last and best of those characters he had created and who had entertained so many children, and the adults they became.
Home to Witchend – which Saville originally wanted to call ‘Where it all began’ – is an elegiac book, which is only proper from an author bringing a series to an end. It’s built upon Peter’s coming of age – her eighteenth birthday is only a week away when the story begins – and David Morton 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.
Which shall 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.
Things have changed. The 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 shot up from twentyish to thirtyish and, reading between the lines of what Saville doesn’t say, is already starting to lose her looks. Both have been summonsed to work in a relatively menial role for the former ‘Slinky’ Grandon, now calling himself Thomas Seymour, and definitely the big man in charge. 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.
Frankly, ‘Grandon’ isn’t Grandon, not even in name. He doesn’t look, act or even talk like the Grandon we’ve seen so often already and, after the initial connection, he’s Seymour throughout. Apart form this being the last book, I see no point whatsoever in making this last mastermind into ‘Slinky’.
However, there’s a neat symmetry in Seymour’s choice of house: it’s Appledore, which has gone unmentioned since Mystery at Witchend, but which is once again a pretty nest of thieves.
The meat of the book is Peter’s birthday. We divert to Rye for the Police to warn the Hotel manager-in-training of the Gay Dolphin, one Penelope Warrender, to look out for forged notes, just as they will later to the assistant in a Shrewsbury bookshop, one Jenny Harman, who has got out of Barton Beach at last.
But this is practically all we get of Penny. She’s finished her domestic science course, she’s training to take over the Dolphin when her aunt and parents retire. 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?)
And when they turn up for the end, they are only making up the numbers. Penny helps Jenny with the food, and Saville mentions that they have so rarely seen each other (once only, in The Secret of Grey Walls), and that’s practically it for them. Lone Pine Club members since the third book, and practically as peripheral as a brief cameo from Alan Denton from Grey Walls.
In fact, apart from the core of the Mortons, amongst whom Peter must be accounted a member even in advance of the book’s conclusion, the Lone Pine Club does not get much shrift in this book. Tom is working, Jenny – who in the last of Saville’s time-fluxes, has somehow managed to become older than Peter! – is reduced to little more than a chatterbox, anxious to see David and Peter get engaged, and I am horrified that Harriet is reduced to an end-of-book cameo even less related than that of the Warrenders. Hell’s bells, Kevin Smith gets more dialogue than her.
I’ve come out and said it now, haven’t I? The point of this book is whether David is going to use the excuse of Peter’s eighteenth birthday to ask her to marry him. It’s not 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.
And Saville plays along with it very cleverly, with two half-scenes of David and Peter after something unmentioned has taken place, that we as adults quickly see as 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.
But before we get there, there is the necessity of accommodating the Twins. To general astonishment, they have at long last aged, now being ‘nearly twelve’, with poor Harriet being reduced to ‘about the same age’. But they still show no signs of growing up. No sooner have they been told not to leave the Witchend Valley than they leave the Witchend Valley for yet another new addition to the Long Mynd geography, a secret valley they regard as their own, though they don’t know its name.
Here, Saville produces 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 annoys the hell out of me with his stupid, self-centred insistence on not answering people’s questions about this man, who might be in desperate need of immediate assistance, just because he wants to keep it as an exclusive for James Wilson.
Saville uses this last escapade to tie into the forgery plot (the man is Jan, the non-English-speaking assistant forger, who is excitable, highly-strung and runs away), but the more direct method of connecting the Club to the criminals comes when the Twins recognise the Ballinger at her sketching stall.
Despite wanting to do nothing but build up to Peter’s big day, David finds it necessary to clear things up one last time, if only to keep his younger siblings from an even more intrusive bit of stupidity. Managing to make Peter stay behind for once, promising to phone by twelve noon, David goes out in the car to try to find the gang’s whereabouts. Eventually, he finds Appledore, but is caught snooping round its seemingly-deserted yard by Valerie. Preparing to bluff it out, he goes inside, only for the equally excitable forger Josef (he’s not British, you see) come in raving and give the game away. David is going to be the last kidnappee, though I wince that Saville has him trip up (twice!) and knock himself out rather than be thumped.
He doesn’t phone Peter by twelve, which frightens her intensely.
I’ve not mentioned this before but, with this being the last book, Saville has reintroduced the gypsies, Reuben, Miranda and Fenella, after a very long absence. Sadly, reflecting the growing mood of the times, they are finding their old roaming life hard to sustain, but 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.
Like David before her, she finds the place seemingly deserted, but there is one additional detail for her: two cars at the back, burned out. One of them is David’s.
You and I know that that won’t happen, but Peter experiences the worst fear of her life before she confirms David isn’t in the car. He’s imprisoned in the workshop, where he’s attempting to beat the door down, and she releases him, like he has done for her often enough. And inside is 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.
It’s a shame that this calm acceptance is marred when Saville later relates the curious detail that the Ballinger had a gun in her handbag but she didn’t attempt to use it. As a committed Christian, 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. Now the stage can be occupied only by those people who count. 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 the expected is announced: that David Morton has asked Petronella Sterling to be his wife and she has agreed, and whilst Jon and Penny stay resolutely in the background, Tom pipes up to announce that Jenny has also become engaged to him.
And David is to move his training to Shropshire to be with Peter, and will become a country Solicitor in due course, and when they marry, Witchend will be theirs just as Ingles will stay with the 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 the Twins. 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).
When Home to Witchend appeared, I was twenty-two, too old for such books, but the completist in me has always held sway so I read it then, and I’ve read it again, along with all of the series. Oddly enough, it was only from Where’s My Girl?s editorial material that I learned that Saville agreed to write, and began to meticulously plan another story. But nothing came of it, and whether it would indeed have been about the New Lone Pine Club, or still have involved some or all of the loving pairs, I’ve no idea. Save that it would have been another opportunity for Harriet Sparrow, I’m glad nothing came of it.
A lot of Saville fans will think that I’ve been very harsh about Home to Witchend, far harsher than any of its predecessors. And I have. To be very honest, this isn’t a very good book, largely due to the lack of freedom Saville had in writing it, but also due to his age and to his lack of understanding of the then-modern era. The book is full of contrivances, and repetitions of old tropes. The intrusion of the Adventure is tired and forced: I can imagine that a younger author, less troubled by pressures, could have written this in another way, something that genuinely forced itself upon David Morton as he rushed around, wishing only to focus on the woman he loves and her happiness, and that threatens to spoil the event, but that would have required an energy that Saville no longer had.
I still do want to talk about the series as a whole, but I’ll make that the subject of a separate essay. Let’s end this 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. 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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