Under a Solitary Tree – Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club series: an appraisal


Malcolm Saville enthralling his readers

There is an active Malcolm Saville Society, established over twenty years ago, for fans of his work in general and his Lone Pine Club series in particular. This was not the only series Saville wrote in his prolific career, though by far the longest: The Jillies and The Buckinghams ran to six books each, aimed for the same general children’s audience as the Lone Piners, whilst the Susan, Bill books were for younger readers and the somewhat later Marston Baines series for older teenagers.
But Saville is and always will be remembered for the Lone Pine Club, and for the simple but heartfelt ideals that the Club represented and by which they lived: to be true to one another, whatever happens.
Re-reading the series these past several weeks has been an enjoyable experience, and in general I think that whilst the series went on too long, a number of the books stand up well even today. In the Introduction, I compared the Lone Pine books to those of the Famous Five and the Swallows and Amazons, in terms of appeal and longevity. Having re-acquainted myself with them, my overall impressions remain unchanged. Though they are the most dated in terms of dialogue and setting, the Swallows and Amazons books are still the finest, and the Famous Five the least fulfilling.
Even during his lifetime, Saville’s books were accused of being out-of-touch, and middle-class. Revisions inimical to the overall quality of the series, and poorly executed, were forced upon him. Later books became increasingly ineffectual as Saville struggled to comply with demands that he reflect the world of the Seventies, demands that were beyond his understanding in the eighth decade of his life.
But what distinguishes Saville’s work from both his contemporaries is that, from the very outset, dealing with boys and girls no more than fifteen years of age, in the middle of Wartime, he was prepared to acknowledge attraction, and encourage and develop this over a series of books, books meant for readers to whom those kind of attractions would largely be foreign or even embarrassing, and yet make these natural and enticing.
In reviewing the books individually, I’ve pointed out various unignorable drawbacks. They are repetitious, with one or more of the Lone Piners – usually the youngest, the Twins – being taken prisoner by the villain in nearly every book (the single exception is Seven White Gates, where there is no villain, in which case the Twins promptly get themselves trapped underground in the caves). And the number of criminal gangs, or missing treasures the Lone Piners have to deal with is beyond implausible.
Nor are Saville’s villains particularly convincing. Since they cannot do any genuine damage to the Lone Piners, they have to bluster ineffectually, or get smarmy and think they are talking the children round with sweets and treats. Actual violence is very brief and, until the latter half of the series, kept mostly offscreen. There are frequently natural disasters at the end of the book, few of which are genuinely threatening, especially the ones where landslips are caused by underground water forcing itself to the surface.

The Long Mynd, and one of its ‘gutters’

The fact that the series appeared over thirty-eight years, with the background to each story contemporaneous each time, causes insoluble problems that Saville deals with mostly by ignoring them for the duration of the book. Needless to say, it’s the earliest adventure that causes the most problems: in The Secret of the Gorge the loss of Tom’s parents in an air-raid is mentioned for the only time, a dozen years after the war was over, whilst in Not Scarlet But Gold, Jenny asks Alf Ingles what it was like in Shropshire during the War.
But things like the State Forest appearing between a summer adventure and a Xmas one are disconcerting.
This aspect of the books arises from Saville’s passion for realism: though he invents personal settings, such as Witchend and Seven Gates, Onnybrook and Barton Beach, in all other respects his backgrounds are real, are places his readers can go to see, and his introductions emphasising these are little short of invitations to do so.
Because the stories taken on a tangible realism in this respect, instead of being Blyton’s generic countryside scenes, or even Ransome’s Lake, which is a pot-pourri of real places drawn into a fictional conglomerate, the reader is being invited to see the stories on a more realistic level. And because Saville recognised, from the outset, that his children could be and would be more than just sexless figures interested only in the thrill of the adventure, the Lone Pine Club books encourage the reader to take them more seriously, more concretely.
In keeping the children more or less the same age until the last half dozen, Saville was complying with the wishes of his readers, who he always encouraged to write to him, and whom he always answered personally. Even with Not Scarlet But Gold, the ages of the characters had not changed (there is a substantial caveat coming up below as to that statement) but what has changed is that Saville is now prepared to complete what his writing has implied for over a decade and a half, and to have David and Peter recognise how much they have always meant to each other.
After this, the older Lone Piners do start to age, very very slowly, breaching their seventeenth birthdays and, by the final book, even going so far as to be eighteen, which, by 1978, was the age of majority. In official eyes, as well as their own and their audiences’ recognition, David and Peter, Tom and Jenny, Jon and Penny are all now adults, and in recognition of that the adventures of the Club come to an end.
But this is not the only way in which Saville does play fast and loose with time throughout the series. I’ve already commented that Miss Ballinger is arrested for smuggling in The Elusive Grasshopper, but by Lone Pine London she’s already been released, built a very successful and internationally famous legitimate business and constructed a well-established criminal enterprise (given how successful Madame Christabel is, one has to ask Why?!), yet the Warrenders are no older.
And of course the other inconsistency is what I’ve termed the time-flux, between the relative ages of the Lone Piners. Since it isn’t really of any significant bearing on any of the stories, I’ve commented on it humourously, but the slow shift between the several characters, the way Penny’s age goes up and down across her sixteenth birthday, and especially Jenny, after being introduced as about twelve to Peter’s fifteen, winding up being older than her best friend, is slipshod to say the least.

The Stiperstones, the Devil’s Chair

The biggest accusation, and the one to which Saville’s fan club reacts most aggressively, darkly muttering ‘political correctness’, is that the books are out of touch and the children too middle class. Frankly, when two-thirds of your cast go to boarding schools, I don’t think you can afford to kick against that suggestion.
I’d be more inclined to respond by pointing out that the Lone Piners between themselves treat each other absolutely equally. There’s not the tiniest suggestion that Tom or Jenny are inferior to their friends because they are working boys and girls: Tom’s duties on the farm and Jenny’s duties in the Post Office are only an issue insofar as they restrict their freedom to go wherever they choose. There is only one adventure in which Tom and Jenny appear outside of Shropshire, when they visit Dartmoor in Where’s My Girl? and that has to be contrived from Tom’s injury when thrown from the Combine Harvester.
And I would also be defiant about it. The Lone Piners are products of their time. They’re not working class or street kids, nor are they worse for not being so. Times and tastes changed, and the publishers’ reactions to that were stupid and hasty. The books palpably suffered from Saville being forced away from his natural instincts.
The problem was that he lived longer than Ransome and Blyton. Blyton was a book machine, a force of nature who could resist anything her publisher demanded whilst Ransome, though surviving to 1967, had ended his career two decades earlier, roughly when Saville was publishing The Secret of Grey Walls. His books were established.
Others before me have treated the Lone Pine series as an extended love-story between David Morton and Petronella ‘Peter’ Sterling. It’s a perfectly valid and indeed unavoidable approach. The series begins with David Morton on the first page, but the Club begins when Peter appears from nowhere, on her pony, the Shropshire girl, at one with the land and the birds and animals. She accepts the Mortons utterly, the self-reliant girl who has, until now, had all she ever needed, but has now found what she never knew she wanted, a family to wrap around her.
Except when she is unsettled, by the threat to her lifestyle of having to leave Shropshire, by David’s and her own adolescent awkwardnesses and the attentions of a handsome young man treating her in the way David has not yet thought to do, Peter is utterly straightforward, complete from the beginning. All she has to do is grow and the only growing she needs is age.
In many ways, Peter is an idealisation. Everyone loves her, everyone relies on her, everyone trusts her, and in turn she gives her friendship instantly and unquestioningly to everyone (once she is completely assured that Penny Warrender has no designs on her David). For several books, until Not Scarlet But Gold we are constantly assured that very soon people are going to look at her and see a very beautiful young woman, and in the last half dozen books, once she and David have settled that their futures will run together, she is frequently idolised as the true founder and inspiration for the Club.
Yet Peter is nothing unreal. Saville places her on the ground as just a very natural, very open woman. She is brave, even when a situation has her scared. When others are in danger, she acts instinctively and instantly, before anyone else. She trusts in David Morton absolutely, and has done from the very beginning, and except when the two of them have their utterly natural difficulties, transitioning out of childhood into adulthood, he is worthy of her trust. He never so much as looks at another girl: his worst and most selfish action is directed at Penny, thoughtlessly.
Against this central pair, the other two relationships are interesting, but pale reflections. Tom and Jenny emerges out of nowhere: she isn’t introduced until the second book, in which Tom arrives on the scene very late on, and they share no scenes. There is nothing more than a mention of her hanging adoringly on his every word afterwards: we don’t even get to see them being introduced.
But by The Secret of Grey Walls, they are as acknowledged a couple as David and Peter, having formed a good and reliable friendship with overtones of an early affection on both sides between books. It’s only natural, not just because they are of a similar age (once Jenny stops being three years younger…) and have no other options to pair off with, but also they have much in common. They go to local schools (we assume Tom does have some schooling) and without the Mortons around, they have only each other for friends.
But though Tom and Jenny’s relationship is kept more low key, with Tom frequently shown as a little embarrassed by Jenny’s open enthusiasm for him, it is still a two-way thing, and just as real as David and Peter. Tom, after the early books, does display a certain slight distance from the Club, because he is a working man, but never from Jenny. The pair go through their final tribulations during Man with Three Fingers, where Tom briefly kicks against the restrictions of his limited life, and Jenny, for all her determined love for him, acts at her most juvenile over what she perceives as threats to the future she dreams of, but once she is assured openly by Tom that she is his girl, she crosses the bridge into adult acceptance that she cannot be the only thing in his life, and that it is more than enough to be the main thing.

Rye

The Warrenders are a different case entirely. They’re introduced as a pair to begin with, and a pair long-established before they ever arrive on stage. Jon and Penny are cousins, but for an indefinite period (later defined as three years, though by that time, Saville has created the impression that it has been for much longer), they have virtually been siblings. And they are very different characters, and by no means compatible in the way that either of the other two pairings are. If they weren’t presented as a pair upfront, it would be very difficult to imagine the two taking to each other.
Jon, tall, fair-haired, intelligent, lives with his mother, who was widowed in the War. Penny, a year younger, with coppery curls, has lived with her Aunt, Jon’s mother, for years because her parents live and work in India. That background is apt for the time of their introduction, but once India has achieved its independence, it’s an anomalous situation that gets increasingly anachronistic, but which Saville maintains, perhaps because bringing Penny’s parents home would split the pair up.
Penny, who is a true redhead, volatile, effervescent, flirtatious, open, looks up to and worships her elder cousin who, in turn, looks down on her and treats her for the most part with casual contempt and mockery. Some of that is sibling rivalry, but not enough of it to excuse the way Jon treats his cousin. Penny’s affection for him, and her reliance upon him, is obvious, but it’s not reciprocated in kind by Jon, except in very rare moments. And he’s inordinately slow to see how Penny feels about him.
His callousness comes to a head in Mystery Mine, when no sooner do he and Penny arrive in London than he and David unapologetically decide to shove off alone and leave her with no-one but the Twins and Harriet for company. He never sees just how rotten he’s been.
The Warrenders next appear in Treasure at Amorys, in the immediate aftermath of David and Peter accepting their feelings. In the following book, Tom and Jenny make their commitment. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who expected Jon and Penny to go through a similar experience but they don’t: not then and not after. Jon finds the prospect of Penny going to India, meeting someone and getting married ‘disgraceful’, which is an odd choice of words, but it doesn’t spur him to do anything about it.
Some kind of unacknowledged step appears to have been taken between that book and Rye Royal but I find it significant that just when Saville chooses to return to Dartmoor, which is Warrender territory, they are excluded on fairly specious grounds, and their appearance in Home to Witchend is marginal, and perfunctory, distinguished only by Jon giving Penny an out and out snog, with no words said.
And that’s it.
Personally, I think Saville erred in making Jon and Penny cousins. As I’ve mentioned in passing, there was a stigma about cousins marrying, based on the incest taboo and a mistaken belief that the proximity of genetic structure among cousins was guaranteed to produce physically or mentally disabled children. Saville had no intention, at first, of allowing his children characters to develop to the point of actual romantic relationships, and I rather think that it was the changing times, and the growing maturity of young people that, as much as the writer’s instinct to let their characters grow, that led to Not Scarlet But Gold.
But Jon and Penny were always a problem. I remember, when young, believing that their arc was taking the same curves as the other seniors, but re-reading the books, I can see that I was putting in things that Saville wasn’t. Ultimately, their part of the story is unsatisfactory. A twenty-first novel was needed, in which the Warrenders genuinely confronted their feelings for one another (and in which Jon finally shows that he has them), but in this aspect the series was incomplete.
Which brings me next to Richard and Mary, the Twins. Everybody’s favourites, except me. I cannot recollect anything about how I viewed Mary and Dickie when I was much closer to their age, but as an adult I would cheerfully consider drowning them! To call them rude is to ignore such words as appalling, impossible and uncontrollable. They are absolutely paranoid, egomaniacal, obsessive and unashamed liars, and they are supposed to be heroes? They are also stupidly reckless and ignorant, completely uncaring of the effect their idiot propensity to get themselves kidnapped by the bad guys, over and over and over and over again, has on the people who love them, God knows why. And they never learn a single lesson, regarding themselves as complete heroes, the only people who ever solve mysteries, and completely justified in doing whatever they want.
I am not happy about them.

Macbeth?

By the time of the final book, the Twins have been allowed to age for the first time since between Mystery at Witchend and Seven White Gates. It makes no difference. They promptly go off on their own, into a ‘secret’ valley, and come close to being affected by another water-forced landslip. This whole sequence is artificial, lacking any real connection to the story and included just to give the Twins something to do. It’s pure formula and it’s tedious in the extreme, but it also serves to expose the Twins’ essential weakness, that they are not fit for anything else. They do not grow because the remotest sign of growth debars them from their fixed roles, and there is nothing for them to grow into.
With everyone turning adult, the Twins take it into their head to create a New Lone Pine Club, one that will belong to them and will be in their image. Harriet will transfer over with them, and Kevin and Fenella, the daughter of Reuben and Miranda who at last finds her voice in this book, but the new club will include Nicholas Whiteflower, who has appeared in one book, written twenty years before, which shows the extent to which the barrel is being scraped.
Apparently, after Home to Witchend, Saville was asked to write another Lone Pine book and started to plot one out. Thankfully, it never materialised, especially if it would have featured the New Lone Pine Club, because the thought of an adventure in which the Twins are the club leaders is too horrifying to bear. Unless Harriet planned a very early coup, I could foresee nothing but disaster.
Ah, Harriet. Poor Harriet. I had no real recollection of her before re-reading the series, which is a shame, because she is an absolute delight and deserved better treatment from Saville. She only appears in four books, but despite being just twelve years old, far closer to the Twins than any of the rest of the Club, she is self-reliant, and competent. Harriet accepts her place as the new girl, but stands up for herself. Her high point is Not Scarlet But Gold, where she is the moral centre of the story taking place around David and Peter, and she is the dominant figure in Strangers at Witchend and it does her a disservice to have her so taken up with the hapless Kevin Smith, to the point where her last scene is her bursting into tears at him going away.
She is even more badly served by Home at Witchend, where she doesn’t appear until almost the very end, and then as an adjunct to Kevin, who gets dialogue where she doesn’t. A really good character, mostly wasted.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that these are adventure stories. I’ve had enough things to say about this side of it over the series. This aspect has not worn well. Saville’s villains are not really impressive, and they are full of what we would now call tropes: petty bullying, stupid in origin, taking prisoners without the slightest thought because people ‘know too much’, and they far too often flip from supercilious dismissal of the Lone Piners to oleaginous fawning on them that doesn’t have even the slightest shred of subtlety or conviction.
From an adult perspective, very few of them are worth bothering with. The most impressive are the distantly professional ones, the boss of the tree-rustling gang in Wings over Witchend or, to a slightly lesser extent, the boss of the sheep-rustlers in The Secret of Grey Walls. They don’t fanny about, they don’t talk too much, they just get on with their business.
The Ballinger and her gang are the closest the Lone Piners come to arch enemies, appearing in five stories, to varying, mostly decreasing effect. By the time of Treasure at Amorys, the Ballinger herself is almost wholly eclipsed by the idiotic and unstable Les Dale, who is a prime example of late series Saville villain who cannot be taken at all seriously. By the time of her last appearance, in the wrap-up Home to Witchend, Miss Ballinger is a busted flush, old, near-blind (though still somehow active as an artist), and an underling to someone who we have to pretend is Slinky Grandon, even though he bears no more relationship to Grandon in word or action than Jeremy Corbyn does to Theresa May.
But whilst this side of Saville’s writing is, frankly, poor, I do have to comment on his handling of Ballinger’s final scene. Alone, abandoned, her glasses stolen, she is so helpless she doesn’t even know she is speaking to David Morton, but at the last she achieves a curious kind of dignity, that hints at what else she might have been, but for her greed and callousness.
Overall, the Lone Pine series stands up decently well. The books are flawed, especially later books, written when Saville was being accused of being out of touch, and too middle class, accusations that, to be fair, are largely true. Yet the series started with the right impulses behind it, and never lost sight of these, and they were ideals worth adhering to, and I am in something of a minority in my response to the Twins.
What Saville did do, which neither Blyton nor Ransome even thought of incorporating, was introduce his readers to romance, in the form of the connections the elder Lone Piners made between themselves. Bonds were formed from an early stage, that were maintained and which grew, ripened, deepened, until in two cases they ended with engagements, and the confidence of lives ahead. Speaking as a pre-teen boy, in the Sixties and early Seventies, I can testify that this was no mean feat, and not merely because I would have wanted to find a Petronella Sterling in real life.
The books are flawed and limited by their audience, but within these preconditions, they still hold up, and I will be keeping the set for a while yet, with a view to re-reading them again some day. And if I decide at some point to put the books back on eBay, I will retain Not Scarlet But Gold, in which Saville wrote to a level surpassing his other work and that is a book that I will be retaining whatever else happens.
It’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these books.

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