A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘The Intruder’


It’s over four years now since I heard mention of, and immediately ordered on Amazon, the 1971 Sunday tea-time serial, The Intruder, based on the John Rowe Townsend novel of the same name. We watched it avidly, week in, week out, my mother, my sister and me. We enjoyed it, or at least I did, as a story, but we watched it because it was filmed in Ravenglass, and Grandad Crookall was born in Ravenglass, and they still recognised our name in the Village in those days.
After watching the series, I found the novel in the Library and borrowed it. At pushing sixteen I was getting a bit old for children’s writers, but under the steely glare of my mother, who wasn’t going to let me grow into a man any time soon, there was no crossing to the adult Fiction side yet. (No, I was sneaking into the Front Room when she was out, and poring over Dad’s books in the low bookcase he’d built all along one wall, and reading some bits of Dennis Wheatley: I’ll write about that one day, maybe).
The book was different from the series, as you might expect, but I enjoyed it. Townsend was a more serious, naturalistic children’s writer, who didn’t deal in thrillers but children in real situations: I wasn’t reading beneath my age as usual. I borrowed other books, as many as the Library could offer. They were a mixed bag, some satisfied me more than others. Besides, by 1972 he’d only written ten books so I couldn’t have read more of them than that, and once I was allowed to cross over – all it took, to my immeasurable surprise, was complaining once that I couldn’t find anything to read and I was casually told to try the other side – I forgot my children’s authors.
Not forever, obviously.
But after four and a half years of waiting for my Amazon order to be fulfilled, I have come to the conclusion that the DVD is never going to be released. The series, though good, never hit the heights of the classic in that slot, The Owl Service, and I suspect that the enthusiasts like me who remember it happily (and who want to gaze again at Ravenglass, fifty years ago) are too low for commercial viability. I’m keeping the order open, just in case.
But if you can’t watch the series again, why not read the book? And whilst I can’t remember the other books I read then, though one random scene remains vividly in my mind, source unknown, there were two linked novels I do recall enjoying, and reading more than once, so a quick trawl of eBay and Amazon got me the three, and an enjoyable little spell of reading, and blogging.
Having written the above, a chance connection brought back to mind a possibility for the book of my vivid memory, which turned out to be accurate so that too in is the bag for this short series.
The Intruder was Townsend’s sixth novel, published in 1969 and, like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, very quickly picked up by Granada for an eight-part Sunday tea-time serial. It’s set in and around Skirlston, a coastal village on the edge of the Lake District, which has a similar past to Ravenglass. But that’s where the comparison ends.
Townsend sets the tone for the book in a short, opening chapter, a single page, describing Skirlston in grim and overwhelmingly depressing terms that hang over the book like a pall. The effect is intended, and it’s apposite to the story Townsend has to tell, but it certainly doesn’t make the book light reading.
That story centres upon Arnold Haithwaite. Arnold’s aged about sixteen. He lives with his ‘Dad’, Ernest, at Cottontree House, named for the West Indian cotton tree growing up the front of it, which is the village’s small general store, as well as a small-time, unattractive guest house. Arnold fishes on the sands, does odd jobs but is mainly a Sand Pilot.
The Sand Pilot does the job of its equivalent across Morecambe Sands. Arnold guides trippers from Skirlston across the shifting sands, channels and currents of its bay, to the derelict former Church on Church Island (which is only ever a real island in full flood conditions) and back. Arnold’s not the real Sand Pilot: this is the Admiral, Joe Hardwick, who’s getting on in years and stomach. Joe is Admiral of the Sands under the official appointment of the Duchy of Furness (the recently invested Prince of Wales), but in five years time he will officially hand his title down to Arnold, when the latter is 21. It’s all agreed. Arnold may be young, but he’s as much an expert in the sands as the Admiral.
So this is Arnold Haithwaite, whose real beginnings aren’t known. He’s not Ernest’s son: that was Frank, long dead. Ernest knows where Arnold comes from but he won’t tell, not until it’s time, which looks like being never. It’s not a big thing with Arnold, though it does concern him, who he really is. This mystery sets up the story.
Because there’s a man who wants guiding from Church Island to the village, where he’s going to be staying overnight at Cottontree House.
And even before he drops his bombshell, there’s something disturbing about the intruder. He’s a middle-aged man, nothing much to look at, ordinary, except for his glass eye. But there’s an atmosphere around him. The way he bridles at Arnold, attempting to guide him safely, because he doesn’t like people telling him want to do, his talk about being a businessman, not that he looks like it, with access to funds and big plans that Arnold could have a part in. There’s something off about him, something that exists at an angle to ordinary life.
Then, after learning Arnold’s name, after checking papers in his own pocket, the intruder gives his own name. And it’s Arnold Haithwaite.
Fifty years on, it doesn’t seem like much of a revelation. There can be more than one Arnold Haithwaite in the world. Arnold isn’t too bothered about it immediately. When the intruder – who I will now call Sonny, given that the only person in the book who knows him from outside, his supposed girlfriend Miss Binns, says that he usually goes by Sonny Smith – tries to drown Arnold on the crossing, which he denies later, things change.
Because Sonny claims to be Ernest’s nephew, by his later brother Tom. Sonny claims to be family. Sonny wants to look after his aged uncle, to improve Cottontree House. Sonny wants in, and Arnold out. Sonny wants to undermine Arnold at every turn, Sonny is the one who wants to be the only Arnold Haithwaite there is.
And Sonny has big ideas and a dislike of being laughed at or contradicted. Sonny’s going to transform Skirlston, turn it into a luxury resort, with a marina and an underground car park where the Admiral can take tickets, dressed up in a comic uniform. In this he’s fantasising: between the bay and the solid bedrock on which Skirlston exists, his ideas are beyond possible. It would actually be cheaper to try removing the village in its entirety by some kind of cosmic scoop and dropping an entirely different piece of land in its place.
Sonny doesn’t see it like that. Sonny sees people who disagree with him as enemies, obstructers, knockers. The Admiral can’t stop laughing at the very idea, which means he is unable to take Sonny seriously. Ernest falls for being looked after, staying in bed, breakfast brought to him. He’s getting steadily weaker, the longer Sonny feeds him, rallies a bit when Sonny returns to Cobchester for a few days (Cobchester is Manchester) and starts to weaken again the moment he’s back.
Arnold only has two allies, or rather one and a half. These are the Ellisons, Jane and Peter, 15 and 13 respectively. They’re staying at the equivalent of the Manor House whilst their father works as an engineer at the Nuclear Power Plant under construction up the coast. Their mother is a brilliant caricature, captured in a few speeches as the self-imagined epitome of sweet reasonableness and progressive parenting that treats children as adults, but behind it a clear snob and social climber.
The children befriend Arnold, though it’s more Peter than Jane. Peter is very intelligent, very proactive, encouraging and determined to help but he’s 13 with all that implies about his effectiveness. Jane, on the other hand, is a very attractive but distant, self-centred young woman who spends most of her time either being tutored in Latin by Jeremy (Jeremy!) or else going out on long drives with him, with her mother’s blessing (he’s called Jeremy, with all that applies to class distinctions) despite the fact he’s got to be at least eighteen, and is spending so much time alone with a girl under sixteen. Read into that what you will: I have.
Arnold is helpless. Sonny outmatches him on every level, but then Sonny lives in another world, with the advantage of conviction in what he is doing, untroubled by our reality. Peter trails him secretly to Cobchester, discovers Sonny’s ‘residence’ in the derelict Gumble’s Yard (Townsend’s first novel in 1961) but has been known to Sonny all along, and comes very close to being dropped into the canal, and not to swim. Sonny’s world may be Sonny’s alone, but he can impose it on anyone in his immediate vicinity.
Arnold gives up. He’ll leave Skirlston, fins a live-in job at a farm, finds just such a job. And between Peter and Miss Hardy, who owns the Manor House where the Ellisons live, and who is on first name terms with the Duchy Agent, puts Arnold on the trail of the truth, of who he really is.
Arnold is so defeated, he refuses to pick up this trail. Peter has to drag him into it. And in its way it’s a sordid truth. He’s Ernest’s grandson, son of Frank and a flighty hairdresser named Beryl, an illegitimate child, hence the hushing up as it’s not respectable.
But Arnold’s reached a point that he doesn’t care, even before Beryl’s sister points out that it’s just as likely, in fact more likely, that he’s actually the son of the Cardiff seaman she ran off with after abandoning. Arnold has been defeated. He’s given way, going elsewhere, inland.
Peter has one last card to play. The Duchy Agent is visiting Miss Henry. Peter drags Arnold and his story before him. He’s not impressed by heredity, even before Arnold admits his likely alternate parent, but the news that Sonny is renaming Cottontree House as Bay Lodge Private Hotel, and that he intends to cut down the cotton tree rouses the Agent. He storms down to Cotttree House, to see Ernest. Arnold has to let him in at the back. The moment he sees Ernest, he’s off to demand a Doctor. Arnold stays behind. With sonny.
And Sonny is not pleased. Sonny’s world is brushing up against the only authority that can crush it, the Duchy that owns everything and which means to keep Skirlston as it is and always had been. Even so, Sonny won’t recognise obstacles. And Arnold has collaborated. It’s not enough that he go away.
Arnold runs, out into the Bay that he knows, the storm, the rising tide, the flood, pursued by Sonny who means to drown him. But this is Arnold’s world, here is where he is, incontrovertibly, Arnold Haithwaite. Against his conscience as the Sand Pilot, he leads Sonny on, partly trying to escape, partly leading him to his death.
He ends up at Church Island, now an island, cut off from sands and land. Jane is there, self-centred, self-hating Jane, whose recklessness has stranded her here and Jeremy the other end of the Causeway. Jane who will die for her own ignorance if it were not for Arnold and his knowledge, finding a bolt-hole above the floodwater streaming into the Church. Alive and holding each other all night. In the morning, there is Sonny’s body, his official identification by Miss Binns, and another surprise.
Townswend provides two endings for the book. The second one is a single page chapter, an epilogue, three years on. Skirlston is still Skirlston, what it was. It’s further dead and only time remains before it is dead completely. Ernest lived another two years. Arnold is now the only Sand Pilot, officially acknowledged, but he cannot be appointed Admiral until he is 21. Peter and Jane have moved on with their father’s next job. Peter’s intelligence means he is rising. Jane failed Latin. She has not seen Arnold or Jeremy in a long time, but occasionally she thinks of each of them. Arnold is courting Nora Desmond, a girl of his own age, a very minor background character seen twice in the story. The Sand Pilot job will last his life and that’s enough. Skirlston is still what it was. Nothing has changed it nor ever will. We have gone round in not a circle but a diversion that means nothing.
The other ending was the contents of Sonny Smith’s wallet. He was a fake, an obvious fake, always making his claims about being Arnold Haithwaite, being Ernest’s nephew after he’d been given the information to utilise. But his real name is Arnold Haithwaite, and he was Tom’s son. The Intruder was who he pretended to be all along and the copper confirms it and says that he doesn’t know who ‘our’ Arnold is.
From beginning to end without going anywhere that makes a difference. You may ask yourself then what was the point of the story. There I can’t help you. You must read and decide for yourself. The Intruder is a grim and gloomy book, depressing reading throughout. Ravenglass was, physically, the ideal choice for location filming, but Ravenglass, then, now and forever, is not the dead and dying Skirlston in any respect. Just a place, but another world.
I still want to see the TV series. As far as I remember, it followed the book fairly faithfully. Milton Johns played a superb part as Sonny, and I’m sure Jack Woolgar featured as Ernest. I’m pretty confident that the relationship between Arnold and Jane was played up far further romantically than the book ever suggests. I do know that Norma Desmond was plucked out of the background and placed in an active role as almost a fourth wheel to the teenagers, in opposition to Jane as far as Arnold was concerned. Just release the boxset and let me find out properly.
I don’t think I’ll re-read the book much but I will keep it. It deserves its plaudits and the award it won. But I don’t recognise it as the fringe of the Lake District that I know, even as I do recognise it as part of the move in Children’s publishing away from the middle class lives and adventures of the likes of Malcolm Saville. It is exactly of its time, in that part of the Sixties that was not optimistic, bright and forward-looking but representing the kind of lives the Sixties was supposed to rescue us from.

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