In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘Black Banner Abroad’

Like Black Banner Players, Black Banner Abroad builds on the situation achieved by its predecessor, but this time it has a very different story in mind. This is immediately signified by the opening chapter, in which Bill Melbury is completely absent, being a meeting between Mr Kingsford, Miss Florey, and the latter’s French teacher, on a year’s secondment, Mademoiselle Labruyere.
This meeting of adults, reconstructed by Bill from a very successful second chapter eavesdropping, sets out what will be a dramatic departure from the series thus far, taking our little group of friends beyond the quiet confines of Bannermere, and out of England, to the South of France.
The impetus for everything lies in the successful Grammar School performance of Romeo and Juliet foreshadowed at the end of Black Banner Players. The County High girls have taken the female roles, the performance has been a success and Kingsford is in a good, but still suspicious mood when Miss Florey requests a meeting.
Mademoiselle is full of praise for the performance, which she wishes the girls of her home lycee could see. It would help them tremendously in their studies to see Shakespeare actually performed, and for a play such as Romeo and Juliet, young players would be so much better than professionals.
She and Miss Florey are here to persuade Kingsford to agree a joint School Visit, to enable the Black Banner Players to perform, in an ancient, open air stadium of great historic depth. The families of the girls will provide accommodation, and when Kingsford uses his line of defence about his boys, the trap is sprung: the boys’ lycee will be equally enthusiastic, and welcoming, and Mademoiselle can guarantee that as her father is its director.
But it’s when Kingsford learns that this will all take place in Provence, with its ancient Roman history, he not only consents, but appoints himself leader for the Grammar School.
For our quartet, it’s a fantastic opportunity. Only Sue demurs, feeling her loyalty towards Johnny Nelson, and regarding her position as Wardrobe Mistress as inessential, but it takes little persuasion from Mrs Melbury to draw her into the trip.
The visit to France, the sights and experiences, these would be enough for a book written in 1954 when foreign travel was such a foreign thing for so many Britons, not to mention children from a poorish area of West Cumberland. But Trease adds another element, a curious angle that underpins the gang’s holiday, a quest, not to find treasure but, in a curious way, return it.
This is the story of Willy the Waller, a relative newcomer to Bannerdale, a simple man and a dry stone waller. In the War, Willy was in France, before the retreat, cut off from Dunkirk and, following his platoon-leader, Mr Briggs, attempting to get out of France into Spain. The pair were sheltered for a time by a peasant woman, Mme Leblanc, who was to help them contact assistance. But by a misunderstanding, Willy and Mr Briggs were separated, and Willy got the idea, wrongly as it turned out, that Mme Leblanc had betrayed them. So he had stolen her nest egg, worth about £50, with which to get away.
It’s been on his mind for years, troubling him that he stole from a woman who had trusted him, who was his ally. As our gang are going to the South of France, he wants them to find Mme Leblanc and pay her back: over the years he has saved over £50 with which to repay her.
It’s an impossible task, and our friends react with differing degrees of interest. Bill, for once, is exasperated and wants to ignore it. But they come around and, recognising what it means to Willy, promise to do their best. Especially as practically the only thing Willy can remember, out of Mr Briggs’ accounts of French legends, suggests they are going to the right area!
The party adds up to twenty boys, seventeen girls and a Head and a teacher from each school. For travelling the party organises itself into four groups of nine, each attached to a specific leader. Bill and Sue, Penny Morchard and Tim Darren all want to travel together, which means in practice the new Grammar School teacher, ‘Cracker’ Crawford. Their set is completed by two inconsequential Grammar School boys, and the Infernal Triangle. These latter are three Lower Fifth girls from the County High, members of the pipe band, Anne, Betty and Carol (or A, B and C as they are quickly dubbed), who prove to be a pleasant addition to the story.
It’s a long journey, and Trease explores every aspect of it, as do the little band under Cracker. Train from Bannerdale to Carnforth, where their reserved carriage(s) are hooked up to a London train. Train from London to the Channel ports, not stopping for this is the service for people going to France. The Cross-Channel Ferry, with everyone tired but excited to see their first sight of a foreign land (like me, en route to Barcelona, for the Champions League Final, on a plane to Spain but nevertheless eager for that first aerial view of land on the other side). Train to Paris, and a chance to explore some of that city, if not the famous sights, as the group walks some of the streets, looks in the shop windows (remember too, that in 1954, Britain was still slowly recovering from the years of post-War rationing: portions were small, and food limited in imagination). A trip on the Metro, from Gare to Gare, with the practical Tim taking charge when Cracker gets left behind at the barrier. And the long, tired, tiring journey to Provence, with Bill in the middle as first Carol of the Triangle, then Penny falls asleep with their heads on his shoulders.
And a last and amusing complication, in Provence itself, when the driver and engineer of the train go on a lightning strike, walking off and leaving the train in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say, it’s Bill and Tim who accompany Cracker to the nearest, small town, where a lovingly funny fat Frenchman hires out an autobus to drive the party to Rivacelles, only for the train to be on the move again, without three of the party!
But at last everyone, tired and feeling sticky, arrive in Rivecalles, where Mademoiselle and her father, and the whole town awaits the English visitors (the French welcoming the English? This really is less than a decade since the War).
Everyone is divided up among different families, and the book changes at this point.
Bill and Tim are billeted with the Garniers, and their son, Etienne. Etienne is already prolific in English, and is into photography. He’s as anxious to practice his English as Tim is eager to not practice his French, and the two get along famously, rather leaving Bill outside things.
Penny and Sue are separated, but wind up next door to one another. Though at first, Bill is eager to connect with Penny, and share their impressions of Rivecalles, the girls slip into the deep background, and not necessarily for creditable reasons on Bill’s part.
Because the Garnier’s are also giving a home to Mme’s nephew, Gigi, who is just a little bit older than Bill, who is very blonde and very chic, and who is eager to practice her English and his French.
For all Bill’s bursts of jealousy when it appears Penny’s attentions are being directed to another boy, he is singularly blind to the fact that he is acting exactly the same way.
Gigi fascinates Bill, to the extent that he loses his enthusiasm for how Penny is enjoying her time, to the extent that she, with a burst of understandable cattiness, refers to his new friend as Gee-Gee. And, as Bill starts insisting on dragging Gigi into everything, whether she’s wanted or not, Penny shows what she thinks by diverting herself, Sue and their hosts, Simone and Marcelle, onto an entirely different bus when it comes to a group outing.
Even so, it’s remarkably restrained for the volatile Penny, and Bill doesn’t entirely dismiss her from his thoughts: Sunday evening, everyone gathers in the square, for talk, drinks, boules and dancing. After accidentally asking Mme Garnier to dance, and fortuitously fulfilling etiquette, Bill is free to dance with Gigi. Which involves him explaining why Penny sits there and doesn’t dance.
But even when he’s besotted with another young, exotic, attractive girl, Bill cannot help but project himself, imaginatively, into Penny Morchard’s head, and think about the mask of indifference she wears at such times, and whether that is to protect herself from disappointment, or to protect her friends from seeing it.
Black Banner Players are still, more or less, neutral territory. Rehearsals, preparations, adaptation to the vastly different conditions of an open-air theatre, under the evening/night sky, requires a vast amount of work on everybody’s part, and on the night, in front of an audience that half fills the arena but which is vastly larger than anything the Players have faced before, they are at risk of failure.
Into this, Penny, as the Nurse, is the saviour. Instinctively aware of the required technique, she sets an example that captures the audience and puts heart back into her fellow actors, whose roles are more important than hers. At the end, everything has been a marvellous success. Bill wants to tell her how good she was, and we know what that will mean to her, but he can’t get near enough.
All the more selfish then that, within a couple of pages, Bill is kissing Gigi in the kitchen.
Trease doesn’t tell us that. Bill is much too modest to be open about such things, but it doesn’t take the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to work it out: even Inspector Lestrade can see through this one.
It’s a betrayal, but a betrayal of something Bill is still far from recognising. He may admire Penny, both for her appearance and her spirit, but he doesn’t for a moment understand what lies beneath that admiration, nor is he in the least aware that Penny is growing to see him as more than her best friend’s brother, and a very loyal, very thoughtful friend in his own respect.
The Players play their second performance, unhindered this time by any early nerves. The trip has been a success on all fronts, but there is still one front that needs to be completed.
Despite all that is there to absorb them, Bill and Co. haven’t forgotten Willy the Waller. The set-up precludes much input from Sue and Penny, and there’s an early false start based on information from Etienne that looks promising before bombing. But a combination of unlikely events brings it through triumphantly. Bill realises that the ‘ruined’ viaduct of Willy’s story must be the ancient and famous Pont du Nord, a mad Birmingham artist (who might be a pre-incarnation of Tony Hancock’s character in The Rebel) catches Sue’s eyes with a painting of Mme Leblanc’s cottage, and finally, and unfairly, it is Gigi who sees it from the coach back to Rivacelles.
Only one day remains, and Bill has to dodge through a cycle race to avoid Cracker, but our friends, with Etienne and Gigi, find the cottage, and Mme Leblanc, luckily returning from hospital after a fall. Willy’s debt is repaid in full: more than full because inflation means that £50 in 1954 is vastly more in Francs than it was in 1940.
Most importantly though, the debt is paid. Even more, Mme Leblanc had long since understood, and forgiven and her forgiveness will go back to West Cumberland.
And the Black Banner Players’ have been a success on all levels, even down to the romantic, for Cracker Crawford has proposed to, and been accepted by Mademoiselle, who will after all return to Bannerdale and the girls of the County High.
Even Bill is let down gently, though some of us may feel he doesn’t quite deserve it. On the train, he overhears the teachers talking about how Gigi had been sent to her aunt’s to keep her away from a most unsuitable young man, leaving him to wonder if he was just the rebound guy. Being Bill, he moves out of earshot, not to hear more.
And who is on hand but Penny, forgiving with a bag of peaches, reminding him of what is secure, and rather more important in life. The juice of the pear runs down her chin and Bill offers his handkerchief to wipe it off. If she doesn’t mind it being his, he adds, recognising his fault. Penny smiles and agrees that it probably won’t be for the last time.
Black Banner Abroad was the first of the series that I acquired when I went looking for them, and I read it in isolation. Coming into a series so late, so near its end, was an odd experience for me, but in its way appropriate, for this was how I would experience new children’s series when I was at the age for reading them. In fact, I think the Lone Pine series was unique in being the only one where I began with the first book.
It was enjoyable, and entertaining, even though it was a departure for the series, in setting so small a part of it in the Lake District environment I was looking forward to visiting. The book is, of course, even better once you are aware of all the relationships between the different characters, adult as well as child!
This book, more or less, was the end for Sue and Tim. The next book, the last in the series, will belong to Bill and Penny alone, as young adults, in a world as removed from West Cumberland as is Provence, though considerably nearer to home. And it is the end of the series, though I think a lot of us would have enjoyed a book or two more between first and last. But Trease kept things, and people fresh, and this was our allotment. Enjoy it as it was, and don’t be greedy for too much more.

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