Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 2 – Two Fair Plaits

It’s more than six months since Girls Gone By Publications re-issued Malcolm Saville’s first Jillies book, Redshank’s Warning, and as expected there are no signs of a follow-up yet. It’s hardly surprising, given the time it takes to re-prepare a book, accumulate its editorial material and send it to print in numbers sufficient to satisfy customers’ demands without tying up precious capital in overstocking, not to mention the sheer number of writers for whom GGB are doing this.
So, especially in the light of the current coronavirus isolation, I decided to pursue the remainder of the series in second-hand originals, hardback publications from Lutterworth Press, with their illustrations, so long as I don’t have to break the bank.
This allows me to now read and review the second book in the series, Two Fair Plaits.
Like the Buckinghams series, each of the Jillies’ stories takes place in a different part of the country. Two Fair Plaits starts in Birmingham, with an eleven year old girl, Belinda Ferguson, being put on a train to London to spend Xmas with her elderly grandmother. Belinda’s mother, Grandma’s daughter, has died three years earlier, and Mrs Hawkins has quarrelled with her son-in-law, hence she is travelling alone, her hair worn in two long, blonde plaits, and her head covered with a ‘Sights of London’ scarf that will play a significant part in the plot.
Belinda doesn’t arrive at Euston. She is taken from the train, which is heavily delayed by a country-wide fog, at Watford by a woman claiming to have been sent by her grandmother to bring her by car to avoid all this delay. As you might guess, Belinda has been kidnapped.
Enter the Jillies, at Euston Station, waiting patiently for the same Birmingham train. Eight months have passed since the Norfolk holiday and their meeting with the Standing brothers, enough time for Mandy to have turned sixteen whilst her sister and brother have stayed 13 and 11 respectively. They are waiting for Guy and Mark, who have been invited to share Xmas at the Jillies’ chaotic Chelsea flat. Their absence from the family bosom seems to be more acceptable to their cheerful and surprisingly wise father, who’s happy to encourage any chance of his elder son spending time with the attractive Mandy, whilst their rather more clinging and slightly uptight mother is bought off by the thought of spending Xmas in a hotel.
Mandy identifies the elderly and superior Mrs Hawkins, and her ever-present, solemn butler, the lugubrious William, on the platform and tries to greet her in a friendly manner. Mrs Hawkins has moved into a nearby house and holds herself aloof from her neighbours, but Mandy is determined to try to get a neighbourly word out of her. She fails again, but this unimportant encounter is the key to the whole story.
The Standings are greeted, the familiarity of Norfolk is instantly re-established (Guy and Mark have been worried whether it would happen a second time but the thought has never even entered any of the Jillies’ heads and their whole-hearted welcome drives out any notion of that: I said we like the Jillies for themselves, and we like reading about them).
But the evening celebration is interrupted when William the Butler calls to ask if Miss Amanda would be so kind as to come to Mrs Hawkins’ house about an urgent matter. Her granddaughter has not arrived and, behind that stiff-necked face, and behind her Victorian reluctance to display emotion, she is frantic for the girl’s safety: might Amanda or any of her family have seen her at Euston?
No, they haven’t, but the quickly-sympathetic Amanda promises to ask their guests, who travelled on the same train. How might they recognise Belinda? By the plaits and/or the scarf.
It’s not till the next morning that Mark recalls seeing a girl in that kind of scarf being led away from the train at Watford, though no-one, especially Guy but even Mandy, takes him seriously. Until, that is, venturing out into the only slowly-thinning fog, the children are witness to a car knocking down a young boy who has been paid ten shillings to deliver a letter to Mrs Hawkins.
After setting him straight and binding up his twisted ankle, Mandy takes Sandy (real name George, a true East-Ender from Wapping and Dockland) to Mrs Hawkins, having to practically force their way in past her stiff-necked Solicitor nephew Mr Trevor. The letter is a ransom demand. Mr Trevor gets all supercilious ignoring Mandy’s advice on how best to handle Sandy, who runs off.
Infuriated by his attitude, Mandy commits her family and her friends to finding Belinda, and finding her before the Police. That, not entirely convincingly, gets us over the hurdle of what has it to do with the Jillies and the Standings? The child audience would jump at it and, emotionally, it’s a solid motive, however implausible it is that a gang of children should be trying to challenge the Police’s efforts. That Mandy is suspicious of the cold-fish Mr Trevor adds an extra layer to things: he’s an obvious choice for diabolical mastermind, though it’s noticeable that Saville doesn’t insert anything to make Mandy’s suspicions concrete.
By now, it must be evident that Two Fair Plaits is a much more complex story than its predecessor. Saville adopts a twin-track structure that was unusual for him to that point in that we see as much of Belinda as we do Mandy and Co. We follow her experiences step by step, from the kidnap to the barge ride that takes her into Dockland, the cutting off of her plaits to disguise her as a boiler-suited boy, her enterprising signalling to a boy and girl that we, not she, recognise as Tim and Prue, and her attempts to escape.
And her beloved scarf, her father’s gift, is quickly stolen from her by Joyce, the daughter of her bargee captors, a cold, cruel, scornful girl, the woman who, lazily, gave George ‘Sandy’ Barton ten bob to deliver a letter, a decision that proves to be the fatal mistake.
The Jillies escort Sandy back to his home and meet his parents, working class to their roots, of the decent ‘know-my-place’ working class skewered so effectively by the two Ronnies and John Cleese in the classic Frost Report sketch. But Mandy, Guy and Co are so far out of place they couldn’t begin to function without young George. This part of the book is very difficult in 2020. Saville is wholly respectful of the Barton family and their world, but the whole thing is shot through with an unexpressed but obvious approval of the social stratification depicted. All the working class are cliches, not individuals, and the sense that these two worlds are touching but can never truly mingle, like oil and water, is overwhelming. Mrs Standing would be horrified. JD, the eccentric, is his welcoming self, but after this book is over, there will be no further visits to the exotic world of Wapping or further east.
Thanks to Belinda enterprisingly using her severed plaits as paperchase clues, Mandy and Co trace her whereabouts. Unfortunately so does Joyce, who chases her into and up to the top floor of an abandoned warehouse, where her hastily cast aside cigarette sets the place on fire. Both are trapped and, what’s worse, Joyce has broken her ankle and becomes overcome by the smoke.
Saville was prone to use water as a source of disaster and possible death in the Lone Pine series, but his handling of the fire, and the quixotic determination of JD, entering the burning building rapidly followed by Guy and Mark, is, I think, the best handled in all his books that I have read. It’s coloured by Belinda’s compassionate and heartfelt insistence on not abandoning Joyce, despite her hatred for her, an outcome solidly in Saville’s Christianity. On top of her freedom, and her reuniting with both Grandmother and Father (who takes on board all the responsibility for the quarrel, unexpectedly and not wholly convincingly), little Miss Ferguson gets her scarf back, not to mention a new hairstyle for Xmas.
And if Mr Trevor didn’t do it, why, who did? It was the butler what do-ed it, the placid William, nicknamed by Mandy as the Bishop and far from episcopal.
So, all’s well that ends well, on Xmas Day. Unfortunately, apart from a wicked mention early on by Prue, there may be mistletoe but Saville isn’t going to tell us if Mandy and Guy should happen to arrive under it at the same time…
David and Peter, Tom and Jenny, Jon and Penny. Juliet Buckingham and Charles Renislau. A hint of ‘love interest’ in the final Nettleford book, though who is involved I have no idea. Mandy Jillions and Guy Standing were set up to be another pairing, boy and girl in their mid-teens, enjoying a ‘special’ friendship that contained elements of a nascent romance that they were not quite ready to explore. By Two Fair Plaits it was clear that Guy and Mandy fancied each other like mad, and were only too happy to go off on their own, but it was equally obvious that Mandy wasn’t about to settle for being a girlfriend, expected to trail along in the wake of her boyfriend, but was determined to be seen and appreciated for her own abilities. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I’m already regretting that Saville didn’t think to bring Mandy, Prue and Tim, Guy and Mark back for just one more adventure in the Seventies. They go together so well.

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