In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘The Gates of Bannerdale’

Malcolm Saville gradually aged the Lone Piners, over the last half dozen books, until the series ended with Peter’s coming of age, at eighteen. The last Bannerdale book, The Gates of Bannerdale, takes a leap forward over its first quarter, which disguises the fact that, by the time Bill Melbury and Penny Morchard embark on the story that will, subtly, between the lines, determine their future, our friends will no longer be children, but adults: young adults, responsible for themselves.
And though it might be seen as a retrograde step for the series to end as it began, with the discovery of treasure hidden centuries ago, I agree entirely with Jim MacKenzie’s argument that it is not the silver and plate that is the treasure, but the truth and the honesty that it brings to both Bill and his unlikely partner, the initially unscrupulous Snaith.
The Gates of Bannerdale is the fulfilment of Bill’s ambition to go to Oxford University (Geoffrey Trease’s alma mater) for which he will need to qualify for the Scholarship without which the cost will be way beyond him. Tim has joined the Police Cadets, Sue is engaged to Johnny Nelson, but Penny arrives at the station when Bill leaves for Oxford and his examination, with a sprig of white heather for luck. She claims to be collecting a parcel for her father, and it’s all a coincidence, and Bill is still so obtuse that he believes this.
The first section of the book deals with Bill’s first visit to Oxford, to sit for the Scholarship (in Classics). He finds himself opposite Gardiner (later to be named Paul), an amiable young man whose background couldn’t be grander, a family steeped in theatre and diplomacy, a major Public School, but who couldn’t be more straightforward, unlike other representatives of such class.
Bill does have to go through things like examinations, and an awkward interview with the Warden et al of Hereford College, his choice of destination, but apart from that, this part of the story is just a love letter to Oxford, so much so that even someone like me, with a lifelong inexplicable preference for Cambridge, drinks in everything of which Trease delights with a sense of the devotion he feels. How this would have gone down with me as a youngster, I have no idea: I suspect I would have been bored to death!
It’s a Schol. or nothing (Bill could not afford Oxford on any kind of fee-paying basis). Bill expects it to be nothing, but the glad tidings are announced to him by Mr Kingsford, in Assembly, before the whole school, and with the whole school’s cheers (and these are not only for the half-day holiday Bill has won for them!).
Relief follows, though Oxford is as yet a long way off, with the rest of the year to go through, and then two years of National Service (this last book was still only published in 1956). But first, there’s an unusual scene, one of those few ones that Bill is not privy to, between Penny and Miss Florey. On the surface, it’s a conversation between a Head and her pupil who has declared an ambition as to her academic future: Penny wants to try for Oxford herself, and is ready to put in whatever effort is required.
The subtlety is that Bill is not present, and the larger context of the book makes it plain to us that Penny has not revealed all this to him at the time, nor has Miss Florey spoken of it then, for it is entirely private. Only when we start to ask ourselves just when, and why, Miss Florey would have related this to Bill, do we begin to see an underlying structure to the book that Trease never brings to the surface.
This is where that National Service plays a valuable role. Bill and Penny are of different ages – seventeen months separate them – and in different years. The era in which young British males had to go through National Service slows Bill down enough for he and Penny to go up together. In the meantime, throughout his posting overseas, he and Penny trade regular letters and his fellow servicemen refer to her as his girlfriend, but even then Bill can’t see it. In fact, he can’t see it as being anything but ridiculous that the free-spirited and independent Penny would be a ‘girl-friend’. Sometimes, you do rather want to slap him around the head!
Once Bill and Penny are both in Oxford, they’re immediately separated: Penny’s College is in North Oxford, well away from Bill at Hereford, and the press of settling in and getting to grips with their respective courses allows them little time to get together. Bill is delighted to discover himself opposite Gardiner again (though he doesn’t learn his new friend’s first name until Penny uses it), and his first renewed contact with Penny is via a fortuitous encounter with her new friend, Carolyn Staveley, a robust and attractive blonde with those really old-style glasses with little horn-wings that can’t help but conjure up an appearance both neutral and silly.
Bill spends a surprising amount of time with Carolyn for the duration of the book whilst, being Bill to the hilt, never once thinking of her as a girlfriend or in any romantic light whatsoever. And he barely sees anything of Penny, who sees rather more of Paul than Bill. Of course, the theatrical connection to Gardiner’s family underpins Bill’s response to that, but his description of their relationship does sound like boyfriend and girlfriend. Then, so would Bill and Carolyn’s if we weren’t seeing that through Bill’s eyes.
It does make you wonder just how Carolyn feels about the friendship, but Bill’s reticence on such subjects means that that book will remain forever firmly shut!
However, there is a significant exchange that those who are used to reading between Bill’s lines will seize upon. With the traditional First of May looming, Bill proposes hiring a punt and making up a foursome with the girls. Casually, he leaves it to Paul to speak to the girls, but, much as he likes the idea, he’s oddly reluctant to do so. Indeed, without explaining why, he’s insistent that the suggestion would come better from Bill, at least, so far as Penny is concerned… It seems that Paul is aware of something that Bill isn’t, something to do with Penny.
Indeed, Carolyn is Bill’s ‘partner-in-crime’, so to speak. Whilst Trease continues to be thoroughly lyrical about Oxford at every turn, in a way that he has never extended to his fictional version of West Cumberland, he does introduce a mystery for Bill, on behalf of the old gang, to resolve.
Surprisingly, and disappointingly for some, it’s a reversion, or maybe a regression, to the first book: a lost Treasure, to be discovered. Trease approaches it as a different tack, making it a mystery to be solved, with the slow uncovering of clues that eventually point to the hiding place from which the silver and plate of Hereford Collage is re-found after three hundred years.
The impetus for this is a book. Through Paul Gardiner, Bill meets Snaith (whose first name, Roland, is not revealed until the penultimate chapter). Snaith is the epitome of a whiz-kid, a self-promoting, witty, intelligent but cynical man on campus, an instinctive controversialist. Snaith plans to write a book, to coincide with his graduation, a biography, of Richard Talbot, former Master of Hereford, Master during the Civil War when the College silver went missing, presumably captured by the Roundheads and melted down.
Snaith sees Talbot as a rogue, trying to play both sides off to his own advantage, and plans a cynical, debunking biography. Bill disagrees, partly out of College loyalty, but largely because he cannot see anything but intelligence and integrity in the former Master’s portrait. The two enter into a rivalry over their respective interpretations.
What makes the book succeed over its mundane notion is that the evidence Bill first uncovers supports Snaith’s theory but that, after an initial prompting from Carolyn, he accepts that integrity, and a loyalty to the truth, demand he make it available to Snaith.
And whilst Snaith initially doesn’t seem to be the sort to reciprocate, he too is a man of integrity, and when the evidence begins to swing in Bill’s favour, he’s unhesitating in bringing it forward. From rivalry, the pair become effectively research partners, leading to the astonishing realisation that the silver may still be hidden, and the discovery of clues that suggest its hiding place.
This is where both strands merge. The presumed hiding place is behind the panelling in the current Warden’s rooms, but the Warden, Mr Withers (based on an actual Don Trease had to work under in his days at Oxford), is obstructive and dry.
As well as his studies and his detections, Bill has joined the Dramatic Society, and is to play Ariel in an open-air production of The Tempest, whose finale ingeniously uses the College Lake to create the effect of a galleon, ‘sailing’ away with Prospero et al on board, whilst Bill as Arial, runs out across the water (boards placed a couple of inches under the surface) to make a mute, unavailing appeal for his master’s return. Trease makes it sound wonderful, and the effect on the audience is exactly as you’d expect, but its point for the story is that Paul has arranged a small but significant role for Penny, of all people, as a living figurehead to the ‘galleon’. It calls for no acting, merely maintaining a fixed position, but when Bill expresses his surprise, Paul has to remind him, with justifiable tartness, that ‘Penny is one of the most striking girls in Oxford’.
It’s a reminder that Bill needs, and during the first performance, he admits that the sight of Penny is so astonishing that he is grateful not to have to speak the next line, because it would have been driven out of his head.
It’s about time that he realised what the rest of us have already worked out, but being Bill, it has to be virtually rubbed in his face, and acknowledged without acknowledging it openly.
Penny’s appearance brings Bill to something of his senses about her. Typically, his approach is almost accusatory, asking why she’s been avoiding him all year. It’s a stupid, short-sighted and hurtful thing to say, and Penny is nearly in tears explaining that she has been obeying what he wanted.
Penny came to Oxford to be with Bill, yet on their first proper social meeting, she and Carolyn invited to tea with Bill and Paul, the latter expounds on treating University as an opportunity to grow, to meet new friends, have new experiences, and Bill takes this up, enthusiastically, and naively, going to the lengths of saying that, no matter how important they may once have been, you can grow out of friends.
Poor Penny, hit by that, has kept her distance in obedience to Bill’s wishes. Only when she is forced to explain this to the dear old fathead, and he hears how close it comes to bringing her – Penny! – to tears, does he finally realise everything. And though he isn’t going to put it into words, it is, finally, everything.
But there’s a resolution to be reached, and for it the old gang and the new gang (with the sad exception of Cadet PC Darren, T.) have to band together. Bill invites his mother and Susan, plus the Drakes down to Oxford, to see the city, to see the final performance of the play. Bill takes his family punting, feeling good and relaxed and happy, and not only because he has finished his exams, and they are there…
Tea for all, with Paul and Carolyn, is interrupted by Snaith with the final evidence that the missing silver is walled up in Withers’ rooms. How to get at it? It’s the girls who plot, relying on Withers’ one known human interest/weakness: he is a fan of dowsing.
So he’s eager to admit a professional dowser (Mr Drake, playing his role superbly) to his rooms, where the hazel wand finds more than the gold watch planted for the demonstration. Of course, Withers is too smart not to realise there’s been a deception involved, but the rediscovery of the long lost silver prompts him to forget that side of the matter.
The treasure is found, but most importantly, so is the truth about Talbot.
The title of the book comes from a new geographic feature Trease has never previously mentioned, which he openly admits has been pinched from real-life. The famous Jaws of Borrowdale refers to a point just south of the head of Derwentwater, where the valley narrows, between Castle Crag and King’s How, until there is almost no room to get through. Trease imports this to the mouth of Bannerdale, where it stands as a symbol. Gates open to let people in, and they close to keep them there, but gates also open to let people out, and it is time for Bill and Penny to go out into the world. Just as, in the closing chapter, it is Sue and Johnny Nelson’s exit from their old lives, when they marry.
And the old quartet are there at the end, as they should be. Bill to give his sister away, in the place of their forever absent father, Penny to be her bridesmaid and Tim to be Johnny’s best man, for the symmetry of it (Johnny’s elder brother, who didn’t return to Black Banner Tarn Farm, doesn’t get a look in). The most overt moment of the book comes when Tim complains about the obligation to kiss the bridesmaid, and Bill smoothly offers to take his place… We assume, from the look he gives Miss Morchard as the story and the series ends, that it wouldn’t be their first.
A wonderfully naturalistic series, that leaves readers wanting there to have been more books, rather than wishing that not quite so many had been written.

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