Second books get to go straight on with the story. We know who everyone is, how they get on with each other and where they are. So Geoffrey Trease can start Under Black Banner in the middle of things, and a very ordinary thing it is for the Lake District if something new for Bill Melbury and Co: our little band have set out to climb Black Banner for the first time, except they’re lost in thick and cold cloud.
This expedition, and its unexpected outcome, will have consequences that echo throughout the entire book, whose theme is at one at the same time peculiar to its time and universal in application. But it allows Trease the opportunity to repeat his approach in No Boats on Bannermere, of a long, gentle lead-in to that part which constitutes the plot. Where we had scene-setting, now we have slice of life: Bill, Sue, Penny and Tim, Sports Day and RTC exercises, the days and weekends of their quiet friendship, and the slow revelation of the first worm in that apple.
Under the direction of Tim, the experienced walker, the children descend safely, but on the far side of the mountain, into a deserted side-valley, where they discover a small group of dilapidated buildings around a small tarn. There’s barbed wire, there’s something buried that blows up, more flashily than dangerously, when Penny treads on it, and there’s someone else about, who’s left a Grammar School text-book behind.
The friends survive the night with the aid of the mystery person’s fire and the blankets he’s left, but it’s not until they’re heading for home on Sunday, and are caught up with by a Search Party including Mr Tyler, that they learn the full story about the decaying place they’ve been: that it was working farmland until the recent War began, whereupon it was seized for War-training grounds. Now, it’s no use to anyone, and getting steadily more so each year, but the Ministry of Defence won’t give it back.
To Penny, who is a town-girl, it’s a curiosity and no more. To Tim and Bill it’s a challenge: Tim the Detective believes he can find out just who camps there, and after Penny’s love of devilment leads her to propose a challenge, Bill acts as her champion (of course he will) to beat Tim to it. Only to Sue, the town-bred girl who has already discovered a love of farms and farming, already framing her future, is this a terrible tragedy.
Because Bill has had the luck to discover a clue Tim hasn’t seen, he gets the answer first, in Johnny Nelson, of the Upper Fifth: farmer’s son, Captain of Sports for Bill and Tim’s hapless house at school and Victor Ludorum at the Sports Day, leading Brownrigg’s House into an unexpected second. He’s also attracted the attention of Susan Melbury, despite her being at least two years younger than him, and as the book goes on, it seems the attraction is mutual.
Not so Penny. Our beauty has seen Nelson’s main rival, the favourite for the Victor Ludorum, the wavy-yellow-haired, Greek God-like Ian Seymour, and has come all over unnecessary.
But this doesn’t have any effect just yet. Bill’s identified Nelson and, as chance has it, an explanation of why he has such an affinity for the steadily more ruinous buildings at Black Banner Tarn: the farm belonged to his father, it was Nelson’s childhood home and, if only the MoD would give it back, Johnny – already in unconscious agreement with Sue – believes it can be successfully worked using modern methods.
All this happens in gentle stages throughout the business of school-life, with Bill time and again assuming the story has come to an end. But it hasn’t, and our quartet are the catalyst for it going the whole distance.
It’s Bill’s inspiration, as the quartet go swimming, looking across Bannermere to the Hall, and recalling the excitement of the previous summer. Sue feels the situation as almost a personal loss, but Bill’s love of fairness and justice, inspired by an impromptu History lesson from Kingsford, touching upon his Aunt the Suffragette, leads him to suggest a campaign to publicly pressure the Ministry to restore Black Banner Tarn to its owners.
Everyone agrees. Tim takes methodical charge of making sure everybody wants to go back or, in the case of the former owner of the ‘Hall’, would agree to profit from its sale if she got it back. That established, the scheme is a letter-writing campaign to the Winthwaite Advertiser, kicked off by Bill (aka ‘Citizen’), to be followed by Penny, Tim and Sue in successive weeks. Bill’s letter duly appears. The ever-more approachable Johnny invites the friends up for a fishing expedition on Saturday, the day of the next issue, though Penny seems to be cutting it fine about her letter, and she misses the invitation, without explanation. And when Tim brings the Advertiser with him, there is no letter from Miss Morchard.
But there are others. One, entirely expected, from Kingsford himself, in blazing support. And another, entirely unexpected, from ‘Citizen’s old enemy, Sir Alfred Askew, also supporting the return of the land. And whilst the trio and Johnny are polishing off the fish caught in the Tarn, there’s a surprise visit from the Army, spurred into a report by this new public fuss. And Bill gets close enough to eavesdrop and learn that the Army don’t think they have any grounds to resist!
However, despite the success of the afternoon on both counts, what matters most to Bill is Penny’s defection. Cycling back, the party has been overtaken by a speeding car, driven by Seymour, with a girl in the passenger seat. Bill doesn’t see who it is, but from Sue’s reaction, he recognises her. Though he pours out his anger on her letting the Campaign, and the little group of friends down, it’s obvious to all the readers that it is his personal hurt, and his jealousy, that lies beneath everything. Sue, herself distressed at being distanced from her best friend, and having in her own mind her attraction towards Johnny, is not overtly aware, but Mrs Melbury knows exactly what’s in her son’s head, even if he’s the last person to guess, and she has to advise him in a way that will keep him from making too much of a fool of himself, whilst not revealing the truth to him before he can discover it for himself (boy, is she going to have to keep her mouth shut a long time!)
With Kingsford so plainly on the same side, Bill outs himself to his Headmaster, to the latter’s approval. But the unexpected support of the egregious Sir Alfred throws in a bit of a twist. Letters to Kingsford and ‘Citizen’ advertise a Public Meeting, but they’re about the only thing that do. The wrong venue, no publicity, no invitations to the organisations relevant, a Friday night slot, oh yes, and obvious cronies a bit too quick to propose Sir Alfred to chair both meeting and a low-key, word in the ear of the right person in the Corridors of Power campaign, why, it’s almost as if Sir Alfred wants to hijack the matter for his own advantage.
But you should never try to pull the wool over the eyes of a man who has educated practically every responsible adult male in West Cumberland, and who can call on Old Boys everywhere. Such as in the Forestry Commission, to whom Sir Alfred wants to sell an unwanted, useless tract of land that is only viable if the Commission can simultaneously buy Black Banner Tarn and the land around it…
Exit Sir Alfred. It’s a token appearance as the resident villain, and as the series matures in scope and intention, Trease finds no more use for his somewhat cartoonish opponent.
It still brings nobody any nearer to the goal of persuading the Ministry, who are employing the Civil Service trick of putting their heads down, doing nothing, and waiting for the campaigners to run out of steam. We assume Tim and Sue write their letters in due course, though Bill tells us nothing more about this side. Penny remains absent, and Bill feels that keenly without saying anything about it.
Everything is petering out for want of another step to take, until Bill solves both problems.
Both Schools, plus local rivals St Edwards, are on a joint trip to London, to the International Exhibition (the book was published the same year as the Festival of Britain), with Penny still attached to Seymour. Bill slips away on the last day, to Parliament, where his long shot of approaching his (future) MP pays dividends. The man, a one-armed Army veteran, responds positively, and his help will tip the balance in favour of a not-long-delayed successful outcome, and the restoration of the farm to Nelson’s father at long last.
Better yet, heading back to Euston, Bill finds Penny, lost, frightened, alone, being ignored. She and Seymour had also slipped off, to go to the Theatre, but where Penny wanted – and went and watched – Shakespeare (what else, but Romeo and Juliet?), Seymour wanted a variety show, and went off with some other girl to a tea-dance, with a cruel parting shot at Penny for the limp that prevents her dancing.
Bill, who knows London, becomes what he most wants to be to Penny, her White Knight, getting her back safe, in time, and almost unnoticed (nothing goes unnoticed by Miss Florey but whilst Penny never reveals her Monday morning interview with her Head, she never again allows anyone to say a word against her). The sudden comradeship restores the old easiness between the pair, and Bill can finally learn that he misjudged Penny: she wrote her letter alright but, against missives from Kingsford and Sir Alfred, was simply left out!
So all’s well that ends well, and with no more than the necessary trace of sentimentality. The MoD releases the land. Mr Nelson takes Johnny up there to immediately start planning, though the scale of the restoration is daunting. Kingsford takes Bill and Tim, who deserve to see: besides, he has hopes of his proposal to the Education Committee that they buy the ‘Hall’, to become an Outward Bound Centre and adjunct to the Grammar.
It’s all the more comical, as well as fitting, that Miss Florey then turns up with Sue and Penny, on the same grounds: for once, it is not of her doing, but the Education Committee will not stump up to buy the building for the benefit of only one School…
And in a manner that would not be believable in this modern and improved age, yet which was entirely in keeping with the world of 1951, as life was being rebuilt after the War, restoring the buildings and the grounds and the farmlands becomes a Summer School Project, for the Grammar boys and the Secondary High girls.
The book ends gently with Penny once more fully back in the fold, and happy for it, protecting her best friend from the teasing of a big brother who has noticed the sudden change of address from ‘Nelson’ to ‘Johnny’…
Under Black Banner is an archaic book, with a subject that is alien to the world in which we live. Outside of Northumberland, where this was still a living issue when the book was republished by GirlsGoneBy in 2005, and may still be to this day, for someone to remember that such things existed, they have to be at least of my generation, and this book is four years older than I am.
But in its theme, of the different priorities between Government and people, and in its depiction of a believably successful campaign to benefit the latter, it is timeless, and even more important in the present day. And in basing itself upon the principle of Justice, and fairness, not individual benefit and greed, we need it more than ever.
This is the only one of the Bannermere books I read as a kid. All I had remembered of it was Penny’s supposed defection from her duty to write a letter. It was the only one I read because it was the only one the Library had, but I’m sure I would have read the others if they had not already gone out of print, and they were never offered by Armada. I don’t remember whether I liked it or not, but unless I had been utterly bored by it – and I was already fascinated by the Lake District – I was hooked on series’, and would have wanted to know all there was to know about characters I had read.
What a pity I was denied that chance then, and I owe Jim MacKenzie a great deal of thanks for the inspiration to do so now.