A few years ago, a chance word posted on a private social forum re-awoke my love for Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club series of my childhood in East and South Manchester, and restored an enthusiasm that has seen me re-purchase the entire series (including the only one I never read before), as well as other of Saville’s books.
At the outset, I kick-started my memory by researching the Internet, though there was less information about the things I wanted to know than I expected would be available.
I was also surprised to discover that a ‘new’ Lone Pine novel, or rather a ‘Lone Pine Club’ book for adults, had been published in 2006, a book titled Little Light, written by Sam Young. Very little information was available for it, but it was self-evidently unauthorised, and I got the impression that it was very much frowned-up on, though I can’t find any such reference on-line now.
What little that seemed to be available about it was that it began with the arrival in Rye for the first time of newly-weds Jonathan and Penelope Warrender…
Whether it was good, bad or indifferent, it piqued my curiosity. However, it also appeared to be rare and fetching something like £40 a copy, and whilst I’m better able to afford items like that now, it would have to be a very important book to make me pay a sum like that.
On the other hand, an immaculate condition copy reduced to £8.75 on eBay, was practically irresistible. So what merits does a piece of ‘fan-fiction’ about a Lone Pine Club’s worth of adults have to an ardent fan of the originals?
For a relatively slim book, of just over 200 compact pages, there’s a lot to be said. Young’s stated intention was to write a Lone Pine adventure concerning adult versions of our friends in a world where they have never met before but form instant and lasting friendships as they deal with a criminal plot of more adult scope and consequences. Things are not quite that simple, however. Jon and Penny, David and Peter, Tom and Jenny: these are our cast. There is no place for the Morton Twins, nor for Harriet Sparrow, not even by way of passing reference. Indeed, there is no suggestion that the David Morton of this book has any siblings.
The villains are the ones you might expect: Les and Valerie Dale, formerly husband and wife, and Val’s (real) aunt, Emma Ballinger, and there are substantial roles for a James Wilson who is involved with the press, a Fred Vasson who is near enough the same person in a different role and an unexpected Ned Stacey. And there are minor cameos from Albert Sparrow, Henry Carter and Arlette Duchelle.
But there is no Gay Dolphin Hotel, no Seven Gates Farm or Barton Beach and whilst Ingles’ Farm is where it ought to be, the nearby Mortons live at Briarsholt, which is Witchend in all but name, and I wonder why Young didn’t or couldn’t use that name when the casting of Jon, Penny, David, Peter, Tom and Jenny collectively would be more than enough for any successful copyright suit by Malcolm Saville’s literary heir, it being another 32 years before the Lone Piners pass into the Public Domain.
As for the plot, it traverses familiar Saville ground. The object of the hunt, the ‘Little Light’, is a diamond stolen in the late Nineteenth Century, the story being turned up by the loathsome Les Dale, who enlists his shortly-to-be ex-wife Valerie in turning up a clue to its possible whereabouts at Powlden House in Rye, the first home for that newly-wed late-twenties couple, Jonathan and Penelope Warrender, who become neighbours of the avuncular Mr Vasson.
Jon and Penny are clearly Young’s favourites, dominating the first third of the book, But at a party hosted by Henry Carter to celebrate his engagement to Arlette Duchelle, Penny makes instant friends with a tall, simple, beautiful out-of-place feeling blonde with the unlikely name of Peter, and she and John invite Peter and her husband David to sleep at their home overnight. David and Peter live at Briarsholt in Shropshire, but are house-sitting David’s parents in London.
Penny is led into a trap set in London by Dale, who wants the clue to the whereabouts of the ‘Little Light’. Having taken Peter for company, the Dales capture both women and show that they’re prepared to be violent, as in actual physical violence. Penny creates a distraction that enables Peter to run, though she suffers a serious beating from Les in consequence. Peter is at risk of assault and rape by two football hooligans until they’re beaten up by an even bigger football hooligan – he’s from the East End, see – who’s also a tabloid journalist. This is James Wilson, and he helps find Penny.
Penny recovers physically from the beating but has her spirit crushed. In order to help her recuperate, the Mortons invite the Warrenders to stay at Briarsholt and meet their friends and neighbours, Tom Ingles and Jenny Harman. Technically, this pair are still engaged, they just never got round to marrying after Jenny got pregnant with their five year old daughter Daisy. Tom and Jenny live with Ned Stacey in what we are meant to infer is a menage a trois.
Meanwhile, the search for the ‘Little Light’ has also moved to Shropshire as identified by Ballinger and it turns out that the stolen diamond was buried in the roots of a pine tree above Briarsholt: yes, that one. Les’s start at digging it out is interrupted by Daisy’s arrival in her secret place where she takes it away.
As a result, Daisy is kidnapped to be exchanged for the diamond, to be brought by Penny alone. Once he’s got the diamond, the vicious Les intends to beat Penny even more severely again, this time including rape, just cos he hates her guts, except that Wilson saves her, administers a kicking and supplies the twist in the tale, before disappearing into the night because he’s fallen in (genuine) love with Mrs Warrender but she loves Jon…
So: characters, and plot. But is it any good?
Well, the synopsis, out of which I’ve left a number of details clearly dear to Young’s heart, is sufficiently Saville-esque so far as the adventure is concerned, and it does combine the two stock plots: searching for a hidden treasure and foiling a criminal gang. And we’ve already seen that this time the violence goes beyond a clumsy fist-fight. Penny is badly beaten by Dale, and half-stripped at the same time, and though she quickly dispels Jon’s fears of sexual assault, she goes through a period of post-assault trauma that relates to sexual expression (out of which she is snapped, with implausible rapidity and unconvincing completeness by Daisy singing their (and Young’s) favourite song).
And when she is threatened with worse, with the attack already started, James Wilson smashes Dale’s head in with a rock, near killing him.
But an adult story consists not merely of violence but sex. Do the Lone Piners have sex? Oh, you betcha. Young can’t resist bringing it up. Penny’s carnal enthusiasm for Jon. Peter’s prim and restrained exterior that doesn’t conceal a willingness to experiment (David has to replace a broken antique footstool, fnar, fnar). And aside from the Ingles-Harman-Stacey household set-up, it’s pretty much implied that Jenny isn’t averse to experimentation and has her eyes on David for the future (that’s if she hasn’t already), whilst Mr Morton is clearly enthused by the sight of Penny, despite the vast difference in bust-line – Penny does make it plain that she doesn’t bother with bras because she’s got nothing to go into them… Yes, Lone Piners have sex, but it’s isn’t quite the kind happy, able couples in their late twenties enjoy as of nature but something to be shoved under our noses a bit, look, see.
They also smoke, or at least Penny does from time to time, and Young can’t resist slipping in a reference at Henry’s party to suggest it isn’t only good, wholesome nicotine, as we get to hear the tail-end of Penny demonstrating to two sixteen year olds how to build a spliff.
Regular readers of this blog will be expecting me to insert a reference to Earth-2 at some point, but I think a more apposite comparison is with Christopher Priest’s The Separation, in which parallel realities cross and merge with one another.
This is because Young isn’t merely content to write a Lone Pine story featuring the elder members as adults meeting for the first time, but he cannot help salting his adventure with gestures to the original books. There are three points in Little Light where he plays with metafiction and I think that’s definitely two too many.
The first two of these – one early and clumsy, the other a decidedly unwise insertion into the climactic chapter – are of the same order. Running late for their appointment with Fred Vasson over Powlden House, Penny spots the cover of a children’s book being removed from the window of Albert Sparrow’s bookshop. Two of the characters look identical to her and Jon, as well they should be since this is The Gay Dolphin Adventure (Armada version). After some unamusing guff about her misreading the title as ‘The Gay Golfing Adventure’ (oh, hilarity!), she drags Jon off without waiting for Sparrow to confirm that they do indeed look like the characters on the cover, and they have the identical names…
Once might be a manageable in-joke though it’s a contrived one, Saville’s book having no actual bearing on the plot except a garbled comment about the author having had some correspondence with a Charles Flowerdew, but Young compounds this badly. Penny has to go alone with the ‘Little Light’ from the Devil’s Chair on the Stiperstones to what’s clearly intended to be Greystone Cottage. She’s never been there before but isn’t she lucky? There’s a group of Lone Pine fans out on the mountain, one of whom (a real-life person) recognises her, can’t believe she’s called Penny Warrender and sends her in the right direction, but not before pinning a Lone Pine badge on her…
Oh cringe, cringe, cringe. If I knew more Latin, I could play on the classic concept of deus ex machina, for this is certainly no god in this machine. This seriously tempts fate over the reality of Young’s book but any residual credibility it leaves is destroyed at the end.
Daisy’s secret place has been recognised by us all as HQ1, the Lone Pine itself. The ‘Little Light’ has been buried all this time in the tree’s roots. But as a sumptuous feast breaks up, with Ned having taken Daisy home to bed leaving only six once upon a time Lone Piners, Jenny finds something else buried in the little hole. It’s an old sardine tin, setting out the rules of the Lone Pine Club and signed in 1945 in blood by six people who have never met until this year…
Here is where the book delves most deeply into Christopher Priest territory, but not only does it fail in its own right, because the ‘real’ piece of paper would not have had the names of Jenny, Jon and Penny, and would have had Richard and Mary Morton, but by being an in-joke of this size, it overbalances the whole of Little Light, reducing it to what it is, a pale echo of Malcolm Saville’s work, a book he would not and could not have written, a book that is in the end pastiche: not real, never possibly real in the way that the original series is and will always remain.
Before leaving this book behind, I do want to mention that the ‘Little Light’ of the title derives from Daisy Harman’s favourite song, which, from the number of times its lyrics are referenced in passing before we even get to Shropshire, is ‘Summer Breeze’, and patently the Seals & Croft original. It’s a welcome choice, though I go for the 1976 cover by The Isley Brothers which was my favourite record of the year and far ahead of the original.
And whilst ultimately I come down against this book, for all the reasons I’ve given, Sam Young has still done something I couldn’t have done (albeit wouldn’t have tried) and that is to have written a Lone Pine book. If we exclude consideration of whether he should have even tried, he’s still done more than the rest of us put together (though if anyone is now about to draw my attention to a stash of Internet Lone Pine fan fiction, I’d rather you didn’t: the hint that Miss Ballinger may have had sex with Fred Vasson in this is too much for my stomach to cope with…)