Under a Solitary Tree – Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club series: an appraisal


Malcolm Saville enthralling his readers

There is an active Malcolm Saville Society, established over twenty years ago, for fans of his work in general and his Lone Pine Club series in particular. This was not the only series Saville wrote in his prolific career, though by far the longest: The Jillies and The Buckinghams ran to six books each, aimed for the same general children’s audience as the Lone Piners, whilst the Susan, Bill books were for younger readers and the somewhat later Marston Baines series for older teenagers.
But Saville is and always will be remembered for the Lone Pine Club, and for the simple but heartfelt ideals that the Club represented and by which they lived: to be true to one another, whatever happens.
Re-reading the series these past several weeks has been an enjoyable experience, and in general I think that whilst the series went on too long, a number of the books stand up well even today. In the Introduction, I compared the Lone Pine books to those of the Famous Five and the Swallows and Amazons, in terms of appeal and longevity. Having re-acquainted myself with them, my overall impressions remain unchanged. Though they are the most dated in terms of dialogue and setting, the Swallows and Amazons books are still the finest, and the Famous Five the least fulfilling.
Even during his lifetime, Saville’s books were accused of being out-of-touch, and middle-class. Revisions inimical to the overall quality of the series, and poorly executed, were forced upon him. Later books became increasingly ineffectual as Saville struggled to comply with demands that he reflect the world of the Seventies, demands that were beyond his understanding in the eighth decade of his life.
But what distinguishes Saville’s work from both his contemporaries is that, from the very outset, dealing with boys and girls no more than fifteen years of age, in the middle of Wartime, he was prepared to acknowledge attraction, and encourage and develop this over a series of books, books meant for readers to whom those kind of attractions would largely be foreign or even embarrassing, and yet make these natural and enticing.
In reviewing the books individually, I’ve pointed out various unignorable drawbacks. They are repetitious, with one or more of the Lone Piners – usually the youngest, the Twins – being taken prisoner by the villain in nearly every book (the single exception is Seven White Gates, where there is no villain, in which case the Twins promptly get themselves trapped underground in the caves). And the number of criminal gangs, or missing treasures the Lone Piners have to deal with is beyond implausible.
Nor are Saville’s villains particularly convincing. Since they cannot do any genuine damage to the Lone Piners, they have to bluster ineffectually, or get smarmy and think they are talking the children round with sweets and treats. Actual violence is very brief and, until the latter half of the series, kept mostly offscreen. There are frequently natural disasters at the end of the book, few of which are genuinely threatening, especially the ones where landslips are caused by underground water forcing itself to the surface.

The Long Mynd, and one of its ‘gutters’

The fact that the series appeared over thirty-eight years, with the background to each story contemporaneous each time, causes insoluble problems that Saville deals with mostly by ignoring them for the duration of the book. Needless to say, it’s the earliest adventure that causes the most problems: in The Secret of the Gorge the loss of Tom’s parents in an air-raid is mentioned for the only time, a dozen years after the war was over, whilst in Not Scarlet But Gold, Jenny asks Alf Ingles what it was like in Shropshire during the War.
But things like the State Forest appearing between a summer adventure and a Xmas one are disconcerting.
This aspect of the books arises from Saville’s passion for realism: though he invents personal settings, such as Witchend and Seven Gates, Onnybrook and Barton Beach, in all other respects his backgrounds are real, are places his readers can go to see, and his introductions emphasising these are little short of invitations to do so.
Because the stories taken on a tangible realism in this respect, instead of being Blyton’s generic countryside scenes, or even Ransome’s Lake, which is a pot-pourri of real places drawn into a fictional conglomerate, the reader is being invited to see the stories on a more realistic level. And because Saville recognised, from the outset, that his children could be and would be more than just sexless figures interested only in the thrill of the adventure, the Lone Pine Club books encourage the reader to take them more seriously, more concretely.
In keeping the children more or less the same age until the last half dozen, Saville was complying with the wishes of his readers, who he always encouraged to write to him, and whom he always answered personally. Even with Not Scarlet But Gold, the ages of the characters had not changed (there is a substantial caveat coming up below as to that statement) but what has changed is that Saville is now prepared to complete what his writing has implied for over a decade and a half, and to have David and Peter recognise how much they have always meant to each other.
After this, the older Lone Piners do start to age, very very slowly, breaching their seventeenth birthdays and, by the final book, even going so far as to be eighteen, which, by 1978, was the age of majority. In official eyes, as well as their own and their audiences’ recognition, David and Peter, Tom and Jenny, Jon and Penny are all now adults, and in recognition of that the adventures of the Club come to an end.
But this is not the only way in which Saville does play fast and loose with time throughout the series. I’ve already commented that Miss Ballinger is arrested for smuggling in The Elusive Grasshopper, but by Lone Pine London she’s already been released, built a very successful and internationally famous legitimate business and constructed a well-established criminal enterprise (given how successful Madame Christabel is, one has to ask Why?!), yet the Warrenders are no older.
And of course the other inconsistency is what I’ve termed the time-flux, between the relative ages of the Lone Piners. Since it isn’t really of any significant bearing on any of the stories, I’ve commented on it humourously, but the slow shift between the several characters, the way Penny’s age goes up and down across her sixteenth birthday, and especially Jenny, after being introduced as about twelve to Peter’s fifteen, winding up being older than her best friend, is slipshod to say the least.

The Stiperstones, the Devil’s Chair

The biggest accusation, and the one to which Saville’s fan club reacts most aggressively, darkly muttering ‘political correctness’, is that the books are out of touch and the children too middle class. Frankly, when two-thirds of your cast go to boarding schools, I don’t think you can afford to kick against that suggestion.
I’d be more inclined to respond by pointing out that the Lone Piners between themselves treat each other absolutely equally. There’s not the tiniest suggestion that Tom or Jenny are inferior to their friends because they are working boys and girls: Tom’s duties on the farm and Jenny’s duties in the Post Office are only an issue insofar as they restrict their freedom to go wherever they choose. There is only one adventure in which Tom and Jenny appear outside of Shropshire, when they visit Dartmoor in Where’s My Girl? and that has to be contrived from Tom’s injury when thrown from the Combine Harvester.
And I would also be defiant about it. The Lone Piners are products of their time. They’re not working class or street kids, nor are they worse for not being so. Times and tastes changed, and the publishers’ reactions to that were stupid and hasty. The books palpably suffered from Saville being forced away from his natural instincts.
The problem was that he lived longer than Ransome and Blyton. Blyton was a book machine, a force of nature who could resist anything her publisher demanded whilst Ransome, though surviving to 1967, had ended his career two decades earlier, roughly when Saville was publishing The Secret of Grey Walls. His books were established.
Others before me have treated the Lone Pine series as an extended love-story between David Morton and Petronella ‘Peter’ Sterling. It’s a perfectly valid and indeed unavoidable approach. The series begins with David Morton on the first page, but the Club begins when Peter appears from nowhere, on her pony, the Shropshire girl, at one with the land and the birds and animals. She accepts the Mortons utterly, the self-reliant girl who has, until now, had all she ever needed, but has now found what she never knew she wanted, a family to wrap around her.
Except when she is unsettled, by the threat to her lifestyle of having to leave Shropshire, by David’s and her own adolescent awkwardnesses and the attentions of a handsome young man treating her in the way David has not yet thought to do, Peter is utterly straightforward, complete from the beginning. All she has to do is grow and the only growing she needs is age.
In many ways, Peter is an idealisation. Everyone loves her, everyone relies on her, everyone trusts her, and in turn she gives her friendship instantly and unquestioningly to everyone (once she is completely assured that Penny Warrender has no designs on her David). For several books, until Not Scarlet But Gold we are constantly assured that very soon people are going to look at her and see a very beautiful young woman, and in the last half dozen books, once she and David have settled that their futures will run together, she is frequently idolised as the true founder and inspiration for the Club.
Yet Peter is nothing unreal. Saville places her on the ground as just a very natural, very open woman. She is brave, even when a situation has her scared. When others are in danger, she acts instinctively and instantly, before anyone else. She trusts in David Morton absolutely, and has done from the very beginning, and except when the two of them have their utterly natural difficulties, transitioning out of childhood into adulthood, he is worthy of her trust. He never so much as looks at another girl: his worst and most selfish action is directed at Penny, thoughtlessly.
Against this central pair, the other two relationships are interesting, but pale reflections. Tom and Jenny emerges out of nowhere: she isn’t introduced until the second book, in which Tom arrives on the scene very late on, and they share no scenes. There is nothing more than a mention of her hanging adoringly on his every word afterwards: we don’t even get to see them being introduced.
But by The Secret of Grey Walls, they are as acknowledged a couple as David and Peter, having formed a good and reliable friendship with overtones of an early affection on both sides between books. It’s only natural, not just because they are of a similar age (once Jenny stops being three years younger…) and have no other options to pair off with, but also they have much in common. They go to local schools (we assume Tom does have some schooling) and without the Mortons around, they have only each other for friends.
But though Tom and Jenny’s relationship is kept more low key, with Tom frequently shown as a little embarrassed by Jenny’s open enthusiasm for him, it is still a two-way thing, and just as real as David and Peter. Tom, after the early books, does display a certain slight distance from the Club, because he is a working man, but never from Jenny. The pair go through their final tribulations during Man with Three Fingers, where Tom briefly kicks against the restrictions of his limited life, and Jenny, for all her determined love for him, acts at her most juvenile over what she perceives as threats to the future she dreams of, but once she is assured openly by Tom that she is his girl, she crosses the bridge into adult acceptance that she cannot be the only thing in his life, and that it is more than enough to be the main thing.

Rye

The Warrenders are a different case entirely. They’re introduced as a pair to begin with, and a pair long-established before they ever arrive on stage. Jon and Penny are cousins, but for an indefinite period (later defined as three years, though by that time, Saville has created the impression that it has been for much longer), they have virtually been siblings. And they are very different characters, and by no means compatible in the way that either of the other two pairings are. If they weren’t presented as a pair upfront, it would be very difficult to imagine the two taking to each other.
Jon, tall, fair-haired, intelligent, lives with his mother, who was widowed in the War. Penny, a year younger, with coppery curls, has lived with her Aunt, Jon’s mother, for years because her parents live and work in India. That background is apt for the time of their introduction, but once India has achieved its independence, it’s an anomalous situation that gets increasingly anachronistic, but which Saville maintains, perhaps because bringing Penny’s parents home would split the pair up.
Penny, who is a true redhead, volatile, effervescent, flirtatious, open, looks up to and worships her elder cousin who, in turn, looks down on her and treats her for the most part with casual contempt and mockery. Some of that is sibling rivalry, but not enough of it to excuse the way Jon treats his cousin. Penny’s affection for him, and her reliance upon him, is obvious, but it’s not reciprocated in kind by Jon, except in very rare moments. And he’s inordinately slow to see how Penny feels about him.
His callousness comes to a head in Mystery Mine, when no sooner do he and Penny arrive in London than he and David unapologetically decide to shove off alone and leave her with no-one but the Twins and Harriet for company. He never sees just how rotten he’s been.
The Warrenders next appear in Treasure at Amorys, in the immediate aftermath of David and Peter accepting their feelings. In the following book, Tom and Jenny make their commitment. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who expected Jon and Penny to go through a similar experience but they don’t: not then and not after. Jon finds the prospect of Penny going to India, meeting someone and getting married ‘disgraceful’, which is an odd choice of words, but it doesn’t spur him to do anything about it.
Some kind of unacknowledged step appears to have been taken between that book and Rye Royal but I find it significant that just when Saville chooses to return to Dartmoor, which is Warrender territory, they are excluded on fairly specious grounds, and their appearance in Home to Witchend is marginal, and perfunctory, distinguished only by Jon giving Penny an out and out snog, with no words said.
And that’s it.
Personally, I think Saville erred in making Jon and Penny cousins. As I’ve mentioned in passing, there was a stigma about cousins marrying, based on the incest taboo and a mistaken belief that the proximity of genetic structure among cousins was guaranteed to produce physically or mentally disabled children. Saville had no intention, at first, of allowing his children characters to develop to the point of actual romantic relationships, and I rather think that it was the changing times, and the growing maturity of young people that, as much as the writer’s instinct to let their characters grow, that led to Not Scarlet But Gold.
But Jon and Penny were always a problem. I remember, when young, believing that their arc was taking the same curves as the other seniors, but re-reading the books, I can see that I was putting in things that Saville wasn’t. Ultimately, their part of the story is unsatisfactory. A twenty-first novel was needed, in which the Warrenders genuinely confronted their feelings for one another (and in which Jon finally shows that he has them), but in this aspect the series was incomplete.
Which brings me next to Richard and Mary, the Twins. Everybody’s favourites, except me. I cannot recollect anything about how I viewed Mary and Dickie when I was much closer to their age, but as an adult I would cheerfully consider drowning them! To call them rude is to ignore such words as appalling, impossible and uncontrollable. They are absolutely paranoid, egomaniacal, obsessive and unashamed liars, and they are supposed to be heroes? They are also stupidly reckless and ignorant, completely uncaring of the effect their idiot propensity to get themselves kidnapped by the bad guys, over and over and over and over again, has on the people who love them, God knows why. And they never learn a single lesson, regarding themselves as complete heroes, the only people who ever solve mysteries, and completely justified in doing whatever they want.
I am not happy about them.

Macbeth?

By the time of the final book, the Twins have been allowed to age for the first time since between Mystery at Witchend and Seven White Gates. It makes no difference. They promptly go off on their own, into a ‘secret’ valley, and come close to being affected by another water-forced landslip. This whole sequence is artificial, lacking any real connection to the story and included just to give the Twins something to do. It’s pure formula and it’s tedious in the extreme, but it also serves to expose the Twins’ essential weakness, that they are not fit for anything else. They do not grow because the remotest sign of growth debars them from their fixed roles, and there is nothing for them to grow into.
With everyone turning adult, the Twins take it into their head to create a New Lone Pine Club, one that will belong to them and will be in their image. Harriet will transfer over with them, and Kevin and Fenella, the daughter of Reuben and Miranda who at last finds her voice in this book, but the new club will include Nicholas Whiteflower, who has appeared in one book, written twenty years before, which shows the extent to which the barrel is being scraped.
Apparently, after Home to Witchend, Saville was asked to write another Lone Pine book and started to plot one out. Thankfully, it never materialised, especially if it would have featured the New Lone Pine Club, because the thought of an adventure in which the Twins are the club leaders is too horrifying to bear. Unless Harriet planned a very early coup, I could foresee nothing but disaster.
Ah, Harriet. Poor Harriet. I had no real recollection of her before re-reading the series, which is a shame, because she is an absolute delight and deserved better treatment from Saville. She only appears in four books, but despite being just twelve years old, far closer to the Twins than any of the rest of the Club, she is self-reliant, and competent. Harriet accepts her place as the new girl, but stands up for herself. Her high point is Not Scarlet But Gold, where she is the moral centre of the story taking place around David and Peter, and she is the dominant figure in Strangers at Witchend and it does her a disservice to have her so taken up with the hapless Kevin Smith, to the point where her last scene is her bursting into tears at him going away.
She is even more badly served by Home at Witchend, where she doesn’t appear until almost the very end, and then as an adjunct to Kevin, who gets dialogue where she doesn’t. A really good character, mostly wasted.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that these are adventure stories. I’ve had enough things to say about this side of it over the series. This aspect has not worn well. Saville’s villains are not really impressive, and they are full of what we would now call tropes: petty bullying, stupid in origin, taking prisoners without the slightest thought because people ‘know too much’, and they far too often flip from supercilious dismissal of the Lone Piners to oleaginous fawning on them that doesn’t have even the slightest shred of subtlety or conviction.
From an adult perspective, very few of them are worth bothering with. The most impressive are the distantly professional ones, the boss of the tree-rustling gang in Wings over Witchend or, to a slightly lesser extent, the boss of the sheep-rustlers in The Secret of Grey Walls. They don’t fanny about, they don’t talk too much, they just get on with their business.
The Ballinger and her gang are the closest the Lone Piners come to arch enemies, appearing in five stories, to varying, mostly decreasing effect. By the time of Treasure at Amorys, the Ballinger herself is almost wholly eclipsed by the idiotic and unstable Les Dale, who is a prime example of late series Saville villain who cannot be taken at all seriously. By the time of her last appearance, in the wrap-up Home to Witchend, Miss Ballinger is a busted flush, old, near-blind (though still somehow active as an artist), and an underling to someone who we have to pretend is Slinky Grandon, even though he bears no more relationship to Grandon in word or action than Jeremy Corbyn does to Theresa May.
But whilst this side of Saville’s writing is, frankly, poor, I do have to comment on his handling of Ballinger’s final scene. Alone, abandoned, her glasses stolen, she is so helpless she doesn’t even know she is speaking to David Morton, but at the last she achieves a curious kind of dignity, that hints at what else she might have been, but for her greed and callousness.
Overall, the Lone Pine series stands up decently well. The books are flawed, especially later books, written when Saville was being accused of being out of touch, and too middle class, accusations that, to be fair, are largely true. Yet the series started with the right impulses behind it, and never lost sight of these, and they were ideals worth adhering to, and I am in something of a minority in my response to the Twins.
What Saville did do, which neither Blyton nor Ransome even thought of incorporating, was introduce his readers to romance, in the form of the connections the elder Lone Piners made between themselves. Bonds were formed from an early stage, that were maintained and which grew, ripened, deepened, until in two cases they ended with engagements, and the confidence of lives ahead. Speaking as a pre-teen boy, in the Sixties and early Seventies, I can testify that this was no mean feat, and not merely because I would have wanted to find a Petronella Sterling in real life.
The books are flawed and limited by their audience, but within these preconditions, they still hold up, and I will be keeping the set for a while yet, with a view to re-reading them again some day. And if I decide at some point to put the books back on eBay, I will retain Not Scarlet But Gold, in which Saville wrote to a level surpassing his other work and that is a book that I will be retaining whatever else happens.
It’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these books.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Home to Witchend


Six years passed after Where’s My Girl? before the last Lone Pine Club book appeared in 1978. By all accounts it was not a happy experience for Saville, who had several different titles rejected before the mundane Home to Witchend was accepted, and whose idea of concentrating upon the Twins, and the element of light-heartedness they brought to the story was also rejected. What was demanded was a finale, that recalled old themes, that recycled old formulas. And involve absolutely everyone. It was the only book of the series to appear as an Armada paperback original.
It was Malcolm Saville’s last work of fiction, just as, thirty five years earlier, Mystery at Witchend had been his first. Though he would still publish in the years remaining before his death in 1982, this was his farewell to the last and best of those characters he had created and who had entertained so many children, and the adults they became.
Home to Witchend – which Saville originally wanted to call ‘Where it all began’ – is an elegiac book, which is only proper from an author bringing a series to an end. It’s built upon Peter’s coming of age – her eighteenth birthday is only a week away when the story begins – and David Morton is planning to make this the most brilliant day she could have. It’s all he’s thinking about, and it’s clear that Saville would prefer to have the same single-mindedness, but an Adventure is required, even though it is almost completely against the spirit of this book.
Which shall it be? Foil a criminal gang, or find a Treasure? The former is the least obtrusive, and if we are adopting that course, who else should it be but the series’ most inveterate villain, Miss Ballinger, even though her hereditary foes, the Warrenders, are barely in evidence.
Things have changed. The Ballinger, who is now in her sixties and pretty well down on her luck, has changed her name again and is making a living of sorts drawing personalised greetings cards. Val, her once and former ‘niece’, has shot up from twentyish to thirtyish and, reading between the lines of what Saville doesn’t say, is already starting to lose her looks. Both have been summonsed to work in a relatively menial role for the former ‘Slinky’ Grandon, now calling himself Thomas Seymour, and definitely the big man in charge. The name of the game is forgery: ten pound notes. Ballinger and Val will take a remote Shropshire house as cover for the actual forging by two foreigners, Josef and Jan, and will assist in distribution.
Frankly, ‘Grandon’ isn’t Grandon, not even in name. He doesn’t look, act or even talk like the Grandon we’ve seen so often already and, after the initial connection, he’s Seymour throughout. Apart form this being the last book, I see no point whatsoever in making this last mastermind into ‘Slinky’.
However, there’s a neat symmetry in Seymour’s choice of house: it’s Appledore, which has gone unmentioned since Mystery at Witchend, but which is once again a pretty nest of thieves.
The meat of the book is Peter’s birthday. We divert to Rye for the Police to warn the Hotel manager-in-training of the Gay Dolphin, one Penelope Warrender, to look out for forged notes, just as they will later to the assistant in a Shrewsbury bookshop, one Jenny Harman, who has got out of Barton Beach at last.
But this is practically all we get of Penny. She’s finished her domestic science course, she’s training to take over the Dolphin when her aunt and parents retire. Jon’s still at Sussex University, though we don’t know what he’s studying or what he plans for his future. As for their future, when Jon turns up at the station and Penny is there to meet him, he kisses her ‘as she’d never been kissed before’ but she doesn’t say anything (Penny? Just been thoroughly snogged and doesn’t say anything? Penny?)
And when they turn up for the end, they are only making up the numbers. Penny helps Jenny with the food, and Saville mentions that they have so rarely seen each other (once only, in The Secret of Grey Walls), and that’s practically it for them. Lone Pine Club members since the third book, and practically as peripheral as a brief cameo from Alan Denton from Grey Walls.
In fact, apart from the core of the Mortons, amongst whom Peter must be accounted a member even in advance of the book’s conclusion, the Lone Pine Club does not get much shrift in this book. Tom is working, Jenny – who in the last of Saville’s time-fluxes, has somehow managed to become older than Peter! – is reduced to little more than a chatterbox, anxious to see David and Peter get engaged, and I am horrified that Harriet is reduced to an end-of-book cameo even less related than that of the Warrenders. Hell’s bells, Kevin Smith gets more dialogue than her.
I’ve come out and said it now, haven’t I? The point of this book is whether David is going to use the excuse of Peter’s eighteenth birthday to ask her to marry him. It’s not a dramatic point: the drama would have been if he hadn’t, and we as readers who have been here for the long journey from that day on the Long Mynd two years before the end of the Second World War (don’t mention that!) are almost as invested in that outcome as is Jenny Redhead. It’s sweet, touching and very rewarding.
And Saville plays along with it very cleverly, with two half-scenes of David and Peter after something unmentioned has taken place, that we as adults quickly see as David asking for Mr Sterling’s permission to ask for Peter’s hand and Peter choosing the ring that David will give her at the end of all things.
But before we get there, there is the necessity of accommodating the Twins. To general astonishment, they have at long last aged, now being ‘nearly twelve’, with poor Harriet being reduced to ‘about the same age’. But they still show no signs of growing up. No sooner have they been told not to leave the Witchend Valley than they leave the Witchend Valley for yet another new addition to the Long Mynd geography, a secret valley they regard as their own, though they don’t know its name.
Here, Saville produces another rain-induced landslip, of even more substantial proportions, underground water forcing its way out in a great eruption. It’s an artificial danger: the Twins are already above it, or else it would simply kill them, but it leaves them stranded, it leads to tremendous publicity, Mary’s almost sure she saw a man who might have been caught in the flood, and Richard annoys the hell out of me with his stupid, self-centred insistence on not answering people’s questions about this man, who might be in desperate need of immediate assistance, just because he wants to keep it as an exclusive for James Wilson.
Saville uses this last escapade to tie into the forgery plot (the man is Jan, the non-English-speaking assistant forger, who is excitable, highly-strung and runs away), but the more direct method of connecting the Club to the criminals comes when the Twins recognise the Ballinger at her sketching stall.
Despite wanting to do nothing but build up to Peter’s big day, David finds it necessary to clear things up one last time, if only to keep his younger siblings from an even more intrusive bit of stupidity. Managing to make Peter stay behind for once, promising to phone by twelve noon, David goes out in the car to try to find the gang’s whereabouts. Eventually, he finds Appledore, but is caught snooping round its seemingly-deserted yard by Valerie. Preparing to bluff it out, he goes inside, only for the equally excitable forger Josef (he’s not British, you see) come in raving and give the game away. David is going to be the last kidnappee, though I wince that Saville has him trip up (twice!) and knock himself out rather than be thumped.
He doesn’t phone Peter by twelve, which frightens her intensely.
I’ve not mentioned this before but, with this being the last book, Saville has reintroduced the gypsies, Reuben, Miranda and Fenella, after a very long absence. Sadly, reflecting the growing mood of the times, they are finding their old roaming life hard to sustain, but Charles Sterling, knowing, liking and trusting them, has allowed them to install their caravan at Seven Gates, where Reuben works on the farm, and Miranda and Fenella visit the local fairs.
And the shy Fenella is herself beginning to grow up, and to indicate to the Lone Piners how much she cares about them, and it is she who comes to the rescue, asking among her contacts when requested by Dickie, and coming up at the crucial moment with Appledore. So Peter demands the Police are notified but heads off on Sally one last time, to the rescue.
Like David before her, she finds the place seemingly deserted, but there is one additional detail for her: two cars at the back, burned out. One of them is David’s.
You and I know that that won’t happen, but Peter experiences the worst fear of her life before she confirms David isn’t in the car. He’s imprisoned in the workshop, where he’s attempting to beat the door down, and she releases him, like he has done for her often enough. And inside is Ballinger, abandoned by her confederates, imprisoned by her near-blindness without the glasses they have stolen. There’s a curious dignity to her at the last, unaware of who she is speaking to, telling Peter that there is a prisoner who needs releasing all unaware that he is already free. Miss Ballinger accepts her fate.
It’s a shame that this calm acceptance is marred when Saville later relates the curious detail that the Ballinger had a gun in her handbag but she didn’t attempt to use it. As a committed Christian, Saville could not have allowed even her to contemplate suicide, but it’s a dangling detail, the gun in the first act that didn’t go off in the third, a thread that goes nowhere.
So, the gang are wrapped up, offstage, by the Police as usual. Seymour/Grandon has taken Val with him, but their fate is a car accident on the outskirts of Manchester: Seymour is ‘gravely injured’ and Valerie is helping the Police with their enquiries, that age-old cliché. Now the stage can be occupied only by those people who count. The party is held at Seven Gates, half in and half out of HQ2. Everybody is there, everybody who is family in this extended circle of friends, and everybody who has played a part on the side of the Angels, save for Arlette Duchelle and the Channings, in any of these adventures, comes up to wish Peter well on her great day, and the expected is announced: that David Morton has asked Petronella Sterling to be his wife and she has agreed, and whilst Jon and Penny stay resolutely in the background, Tom pipes up to announce that Jenny has also become engaged to him.
And David is to move his training to Shropshire to be with Peter, and will become a country Solicitor in due course, and when they marry, Witchend will be theirs just as Ingles will stay with the Ingles, and whilst not the least amazing thing about the Lone Pine Club series has been that Malcolm Saville has included the sometimes childish but always genuine affection and love between boys and girls without frightening off his audience, this is really the end of the Lone Pine Club. Happiness is, as always, the enemy that will have its way, and to which we own defeat with joy.
But what of the Twins, and the criminally overlooked Harriet? There’s a final gesture of defiance from the Twins. Kevin will sign his name in blood, to become a new member, and Nicholas Whiteflower, and young Fenella. There will be a Lone Pine Club still, a New Lone Pine, but it won’t be our club and we will never read its adventures (and if the Twins are in charge, I really do fear for them).
When Home to Witchend appeared, I was twenty-two, too old for such books, but the completist in me has always held sway so I read it then, and I’ve read it again, along with all of the series. Oddly enough, it was only from Where’s My Girl?s editorial material that I learned that Saville agreed to write, and began to meticulously plan another story. But nothing came of it, and whether it would indeed have been about the New Lone Pine Club, or still have involved some or all of the loving pairs, I’ve no idea. Save that it would have been another opportunity for Harriet Sparrow, I’m glad nothing came of it.
A lot of Saville fans will think that I’ve been very harsh about Home to Witchend, far harsher than any of its predecessors. And I have. To be very honest, this isn’t a very good book, largely due to the lack of freedom Saville had in writing it, but also due to his age and to his lack of understanding of the then-modern era. The book is full of contrivances, and repetitions of old tropes. The intrusion of the Adventure is tired and forced: I can imagine that a younger author, less troubled by pressures, could have written this in another way, something that genuinely forced itself upon David Morton as he rushed around, wishing only to focus on the woman he loves and her happiness, and that threatens to spoil the event, but that would have required an energy that Saville no longer had.
I still do want to talk about the series as a whole, but I’ll make that the subject of a separate essay. Let’s end this by picturing in our mind the lifelong friendships of those neighbours in an imaginary valley in the flank of a real mountain, David and Petronella Morton, Tom and Jenny Ingles. By now, they’re long since old enough that their own children will have outgrown an even newer Lone Pine Club. But, knowing these people as we do, not their friendship with one another. True to each other, whatever happens,

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Operation ARES’


The first thing to be said is that, despite the presence of his name on the title page, this is not a Gene Wolfe book. It is a generic, ordinary, unexceptional Science Fiction book. It appears to be a book by someone who wants to write a Science Fiction book rather than a book that he wants to write. Gene Wolfe himself disowns Operation ARES.
Which is a mildly harsh but realistic appraisal. Wolfe’s debut novel, which appeared in 1970, is set in a future America in which societal structure is disintegrating in the face of a long term economic collapse brought about by a popular and short-sighted uprising against science. The Constitution has been suspended, the Army and Police (in name at least) disbanded, the Welfare programme massively expanded, and Science itself is confined to Mars, which is hated and feared and which is trying to get things to start improving on Earth.
The book concerns John Castle, who starts as a teacher and, in a manner that will become familiar as Wolfe grows into his greatness, ascends into a position of great influence based on his generally superior intelligence and tactical awareness. John, who is surprisingly only 22, is already a rebel against the way things are when the book starts. His personal adversary, a man we only know as either the Captain, initially, of the General, in the later stages, is convinced that Castle is a member of, indeed possibly the leader of ARES, the American Reunification Enactment Society (also the name of the Greek God of War, which is not a coincidence: this is an early example of a Wolfean construct/symbol, but definitely early because Wolfe spells it out for us: after this book, it is the reader’s job to make such connections, no matter how esoteric or specialised they may be).
The irony is that, in the latter half of the book, Castle does indeed become leader of ARES, an irony compounded by the fact that ARES does not, in fact, exist.
But though Operation ARES is set sufficiently far in the future that the USA has colonised Mars and withdrawn support for it for twenty years, it is indelibly enmeshed in the politics of its time. What blossoms is an unacknowledged Civil War, in which the Presidency Pro Tem, the ‘official’ government, is supported by the Communist Russians, and the Constitutionalists by the Communist China, all Maoist slogans, running dog capitalist imperialists and mutual suspicion between the two antipathetic Communist states, whose ultimate aim is control over the United States.
Indeed, the abrupt and entirely unsatisfactory ending to the book comes when the two opposing US ‘parties’ decide to collaborate in an effort to buy the time to rebuild America again, by playing off one Communist state against the other.
Yes, this is an unsatisfactory book on so many levels, though I admit that,on this time of re-reading, it gain an astonishing contemporary significance for me, at least in its first half, with its near prescient portrayal of a county whose economy and ability to maintain itself, let alone progress, has been destroyed by a comprehensively stupid decision taken to seize control of the country from its elected rulers, to divert money to the massed poor, by taking it away from Mars, science, manufacture, etc., etc., etc.
As a result, all systems, including power, are failing, the infrastructure is cracking up, wild animals roam at night making things incredibly dangerous, food is being rationed, clothing is shabby/pitiful, graft is rife, and an ineffectual government keeps pretending all is well, and the country is better and stronger for it by a combination of banal slogans and outright lying.
For someone who voted to Remain in the Referendum, the parallels with the Theresa May Party’s Government are too glaring to ignore.
One more glaring difference between Operation ARES and Gene Wolfe’s other books is the complete absence of an unreliable narrator. The closest we come to this staple Wolfean device is in the middle stages of the book where Wolfe simply leaves out sections of a more comprehensive, but unimportant progression. There is no seeming suggestion that the untold sequences have any fundamental bearing on the overall story, or that by these omissions Wolfe is doing anything more than avoiding clogging up the book.
In later books, it is vital for the reader themselves to determine what they’re not being told, as it will inevitably be of significance.
A banal, undistinguished story, told conventionally within the conventions, an inability to escape out of the present political setting despite being a good half-century into the future, if you’re being realistic, reliable narration: the only element of this novel that is consistent with the Gene Wolfe we love is John Castle, the tactically competent man, who knows how to analyse a situation and project a solution upon it.
Having said all that, it should be made plain that the book as published is not as Wolfe wanted it or wrote it. After his publishers set a strict 60,000 word limit, Wolfe’s original submission was 103,000 words and the book completed some four years or so before publication. Furthermore, after Wolfe had edited down the first quarter of the book, the task was taken out of his hands and the word-length over the remainder of the novel achieved by cutting out whole paragraphs until the limit was achieved. Much of the criticism the work rightly receives is undoubtedly a reflection of this process.
No wonder Wolfe wants nothing to do with it.
His next novel would appear in 1972. The contrast between this and The Fifth Head of Cerberus could not be greater, as the title alone demonstrates. It is the true beginning of the career that the wily Wolfe has enjoyed ever since.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Where’s My Girl?


Where’s My Girl? was the second and last of the Lone Pine series to cost me more than a few pounds through e-Bay, and I am indebted to Girls Gone By Publishing for the timely reissue of the book for being able to afford it at all. For some reason, the nineteenth and penultimate book in the series is the rarest and most expensive to obtain, the best price I had seen before this publication being £27.00 for an Armada paperback edition.
And as a bonus I had not expected, this reissue also incudes the only Lone Pine short story written by Malcolm Saville, of which I was not aware until recently, and which, like Mystery Mine I had never read.
The story returns the Lone Piners to Dartmoor, and to the lonely house, King’s Holt, where they were based in Saucers over the Moor, now owned rather than rented by Penny’s parents. This makes Dartmoor the only one of the outer areas to be visited by the Lone Piners more than once, and of course we are reintroduced to Dan Sturt, cub reporter, and his mother, the proprietress of the Moorland Pixie (which is still an awful name and even more awful in 1972 than in 1955).
Oddly enough, although this is Warrender country if it is anybody’s, Jon and Penny are conspicuous by their absence, off to France with Penny’s parents and arranging to meet the lovely Arlette, and the party is made up by Tom and Jenny, escaping from Shropshire for the first and only time. This refusal to use the Warrenders, when it would have been so natural in the circumstances to bring them in, only feeds my belief that Saville didn’t know how to handle this pair, and could not bring himself to allow them the same free rein to celebrate being a couple.
There are no such inhibitions with David and Peter, or Tom and Jenny, though in order to get them away, Saville has to resort to a rather dodgy tactic that sets the book off on a poor footing, from which it never really recovers. Tom has an accident with the new combine harvester, thrown from it, hitting his head upon a stone and suffering temporary amnesia. And it is only temporary, and even though he can’t remember his name he recognises Jenny, who has witnessed this, before anyone else, but she goes off into the kind of frantic hysteria in which she’s more of a hindrance than anything, even down to accusing others like Peter of not caring whether Tom lives or dies, only she cares.
Frankly, it’s not Jenny’s finest hour, and though she apologises for her behaviour, it’s not until halfway through the story, by which time it comes as a bit of an afterthought. The intensity of her reaction, understandable though it is, is unbalanced, even if it is fuelled to some extent by another rift with her stepmother, whom Jenny goes so far as to say she hates.
The holiday at King’s Holt is by Mr Warrender’s invitation. He’s gone into partnership with a Colonel and Mrs ‘Call me Marjorie’ Longden to convert the place into a high class tourist attraction, offering stables and ponies: Penny’s friends are guinea pigs, if you like. If you’re already guessing that the Longdens are going to turn out to be wrong-uns, you won’t be wrong but what surprises is the nature of the criminal enterprise the Lone Piners will stumble into.
It’s presaged by an incident en route to the station in London. The Mortons are held up by a jewellery robbery, by an armed gang, who shoot a policeman (not fatally, thankfully) and a bystander, almost under the Twins’ noses, an incident that scares and subdues them, and leaves David rattled too. This is the ‘modern’ world that Saville is being asked to write for now, and it’s a shocking intrusion. Because the gang the Club helps the Police to break up is gun-running, via King’s Holt, supplying arms for the criminal element of Britain.
It doesn’t quite fit. There’s nothing especially noticeable that suggests Saville’s heart isn’t really in it, but after such a long run, the subject is intrusive, and distasteful, and it ramps up the level of danger to a point that doesn’t sit with the Lone Pine Club.
Not that it’s going to last much longer. In his own mind, Dickie Morton is acknowledging that openly. The Club is breaking up, he tells himself. The seniors want to be with each other – Jenny exemplifies this, asking Peter to confirm that when they’re both married, they’ll still be friends, still see each other – and even his Twin, Mary, is no longer on the exact same wavelength as him, now that they near the age of eleven.
And indeed, when they get to King’s Holt, staffed by its three Cypriots, the first thing they all do is break-up into three pairs for three expeditions: David and Peter to go riding, up to the old and now derelict secret station of Saucers over the Moor (boy, is the reference to flying saucers seriously anachronistic now), Tom and Jenny for the bus into Plymouth and the Twins to find their own secret camp locally.
By now, Saville has also reintroduced Dan Sturt who, in the years since Saucers, has made a big thing of his journalism. He’s a multi-platform journalist now, to adopt the modern terminology, the Dartmoor correspondent with seeming access at will to not just his local newspaper but local radio and local TV, getting stories out there just because he’s Dan Sturt. The Longdens start off by wanting him to do effectively free PR for King’s Holt, the Police clue him in as to a raid on an incoming fishing boat smuggling arms, oh, Danny boy’s hot, and he’s hot for Peter too, much to David’s annoyance, though he’s no chance with her.
The Lone Piners just want to enjoy their holiday, even if Jenny is still like a cat on hot bricks around Tom, whose memory is still a bit uncertain and who at any moment might forget who she is completely and she’s his girl. But the Longdens are not entirely convincing. Visitors come and go, seemingly to buy the Dartmoor ponies Longden carves (one such fortyish visitor evidently strips Peter with his eyes, though Saville is too polite to put it so bluntly). They’re also too desperately anxious to know where their somewhat unwelcome guests are going to be every hour of the day.
And there are incidents: David and Peter, riding back in the mist, find Marjorie Longden, supposedly throw from her horse after coming to meet them, but she’s alright and leaves them on David’s ride as soon as they’re near home, and she doesn’t know half as much about horses as she ought to. Tom and Jenny chance on Longden taking a delivery of fish to a sleazy fish shop in Plymouth, whilst the Twins see fish being delivered to King’s Holt, before finding a mysterious and rusty metal tube containing stained architectural plans.
It’s all rather weird than anything else. With the possible exception of the Twins, nobody really wants to get involved, and Dan is having to carry a lot more of the formal plot than we’d normally expect as a consequence, along with his Police contact, Bob Hunter, and then it all goes wrong behind our backs.
For the second day, the elders split up differently. David takes Tom for a long bracing walk on the moor, aiming to climb a 1,500′ Tor (1,500′? 1,500′? You should try the Lakes, mate, we laugh at 1,500’ers), whilst the girls go off to inspect the unusual (and off-putting) Wistman’s Wood, seemingly because they don’t have the strength to tackle tors. This is one of the few out-and-out sexist moments in the entire series that really annoys me: it’s condescending and unrealistic, and given how often Peter and Jenny have been up and down the Stiperstones, however unhappily, it’s complete nonsense for the actual characters.
But Saville needs to separate the boys from the girls, because their return to King’s Holt coincides with not merely another delivery of fish but a newsflash on Jenny’s transistor radio (which she carries everywhere) from the ubiquitous Dan about the gun-smuggling.
The next thing we know, the boys are back, the Twins are back but the girls haven’t returned yet, and Jenny’s transistor is in the girls’ room. It’s a lovely and subtle reveal, with Saville only then back-tracking in the next chapter to show how the two girls are drugged, and wake up imprisoned in a boarded up bedroom somewhere unknown, held prisoner, and threatened with disappearance at sea if they act up.
It’s the inevitable kidnapping, and for once it creates a serious stir. The Police are called in quickly, yet another marvelous WPC caters to the Twins, London and Shropshire are notified, with Mr Morton (wondering if his children are fit to be let out anywhere on their own, even if that’s about sixteen books too late) and Alf Ingles and Mr Sterling all driving down.
But despite the uncertainties of his memory, Tom saves the day. Whilst Peter and Jenny confront their captors with a creditable impersonation of the Twins’ act, sewing confusion, even though they still only get individual bathroom breaks (at last! Recognition of toilet functions!), Tom manages to dredge up the fish shop, and the young men come busting their way in, with the Police hard on their heels, David nursing a bruised face and a split lip but quite obviously having handed out his own measure of grief as he and Tom get their girls back.
The Cypriots, who, far from being servants will prove to be the organisers, go on the run, but are arrested later on. The Longdens are missing but, thanks to Dickie’s genuine ingenuity over the plans, are found trapped in a locked secret vault behind the workshop, along with a veritable arsenal.
So all’s well that ends well. But there is still more. Ingles and Sterling drove overnight from Shropshire and arrived in time to find that the girls had been rescued, but they were not alone. Only it’s not Mr Harman who came with them, concerned about his beloved daughter, but Mrs Harmam, the stepmother Jenny has never liked, who only in this book she has said she hated. It is her stepmother who has come to care for the stepdaughter she has always been at daggers drawn with.
And it is Mrs Harman, who loves her husband just as Jenny loves her Dad, who sees the long-overdue need to try to make a relationship with the girl she has helped to raise, who wants to talk to her, and to her Tom, to make a belated new beginning. Jenny, tentatively, but hopefully, accepts such overtures.
I’d like to like that ending as it’s intended to be liked but, like Kevin Smith’s family redemption last time round, I can’t fully believe in it. The problem is that, for thirty years, Mrs Harman hasn’t actually been a character, and barely even a caricature. She was a plot device when she was introduced, the shrewish stepmother unsympathetic to poor little lonely Jenny when her Dad was still in the Army, and down all the years she’s never recovered from that. She’s barely been onstage, always upstairs, or visiting friends, and represented as a jealous woman, jealous of her husband’s love for his daughter, and her stepdaughter’s love for her man.
So whilst the impulse is generous, if overlate, it runs up against the fact that we don’t know Mrs Harman at all, that she’s never been portrayed as anything other than her awkwardness and obstructiveness and, sadly, Saville still doesn’t seem to know how too set her up as a person from whom an awkward r’approchement can stem.
Without that, it’s nothing more than a figleaf, a token gesture. What we’re seeing, in concentrated form here, but in general throughout this and the last couple of books, is what Dickie said: the Lone Pine Club is breaking up. The older members are turning away from the adventures of their childhood in favour of the adventures of adulthood, of dealing with each other as partners, as lifelong friends. Saville wants to remove another vestige of childhood, but whilst his impulse is good, and generous, and entirely in keeping with his fundamental belief in people being good and decent towards each other, he has never done enough to stand Mrs Harman up on her own two feet.
Since the appearance of Mystery at Witchend, almost thirty years before, there had never been a gap of more than two years between Lone Pine Club books. Now, with only one to come, six years would elapse before it appeared.

ADDENDUM
The Girls Gone By reissue of Where’s My Girl? contains a rarety I had only learned of a couple of years ago, the first time I thought of the Lone Pine books in decades. In 1950, Malcolm Saville wrote the only known Lone Pine short story, The Flower-Show Hat, for a Girl Guide Annual. It was very rare, and extremely hard to find, and when finally reprinted, was limited to 500 copies available only to members of the Malcolm Saville Society. I’m extremely grateful to G G B for including it in this edition.
The story is wildly out of continuity here. It’s set in Rye, and is a solo Penny Warrender short, though inevitably, Jon appears at the end, and it takes place in time just before Lone Pine Five in Shropshire.
Penny is back from school and looking for mischief in her usual manner before Jon returns, later in the day. Her Aunt, skilfully heading her off, insists she accompany her to the Flower Show that afternoon, in best frock, gloves and nylons (!). Penny, who is here described as ‘not yet pretty’ is rebellious: it’s a schoolgirl’s frock, too short (!), and she’d rather wait for Jon anyway, but no.
There’s a stranger visitor at the Dolphin, a young woman, red-headed, looking a lot like Penny, and wearing an absurd hat which Penny immediately covets. The girl, Susan Brown, aged about twenty, claims to have her Uncle following, after he deals with a punctured tyre, but she looks pale and worried.
Penny later catches her in the private part of the Hotel, after which Miss Brown disappears. But she’s left her hat behind, so Penny sneaks it into the Flower Show, to wear. By then, we know the Police are after Susan, as an accomplice in the theft of a picture. So Penny gets one heck of a shock when she’s accosted at the Show by a stranger, who recognises her by her hat, and who runs her back to the Dolphin to talk to her in private.
Desperately afraid, Penny seeks the aid of Jon, now home, but this twist is that the man is not the crook, but a detective! Penny is able to locate the missing painting where it’s been stashed, but Susan Brown, who’s been an innocent dupe in all of this, comes back to the hotel to hand over the painting anyway.
Oh, and to collect her hat…

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Strangers at Witchend


In a way, Strangers at Witchend, the first Lone Pine Club book to be published in the Seventies, is a very sad book. Acting on the logic of the developments he has allowed among his older characters, Saville has to acknowledge that the Club itself is nearly at an end. It’s never overt, but the division between the older and younger members has never been so clear.
David and Peter are now all but adults, and their concerns are for each other, and the time they can spend together. They’re not interested in adventures, and only become involved when they’re dragged in by concerns for their youngsters. And Tom and Jenny are pretty much peripheral to the story, no matter how glad they are to be reunited with their friends. Tom is a full-time worker at Ingles, and Jenny is in a similar position with the shop. They are not on holiday, even if the Mortons are.
In these circumstances, Saville turns to Harriet Sparrow. It’s her second visit to Shropshire, but her first to Witchend, but more importantly, this is her book, just as Lone Pine Five was Jenny’s and The Elusive Grasshopper Penny’s. Her spirit infuses the book and she is its main viewpoint character.
Harriet is seeing where it all began for the first time, the Lone Pine itself, where she and the Twins are to sleep outside (not that she is entirely cool with this development!) And her Grandad is in Shropshire too: with the money he made from the uranium in Mystery Mine, he’s seeking to expand his antiques empire with a shop in Ludlow (a neat little device to make Harriet more available for future adventures – if only).
There’s another, albeit temporary newcomer in Brock, a young dachshund, bought by Peter as a present and company for her father, which nearly causes ructions with Mary, until Macbeth accepts the friendship of a younger brother dog.
But there are criminal schemes afoot, and Peter’s father is reminded of an unpleasant experience he’d rather repress: four years before he played a have-a-go hero role with a fleeing jewellery shop thief and later gave evidence against him in Court. Now the man, distinguished by a triangular scar above his right eye, has reappeared, sniffing round Witchend and asking if its for sale.
Because this man, Henry Jones, aka Sid Edwards, is running a scheme creating false jewellery, using expert technicians over whom he has a hold, and in order to escape detection, he is moving them into the country, to work in isolated cottages, etc. One such is Charlie Smith who has been moved to the cottage at the foot of Greystone Dingle that we know so well, with his miserable wife, but without their twelve-year old son Kevin. Mark him well.
At first, the only concern everyone has is with Mr Sterling, who has been really shook up by this – the more so when he and Jones recognise each other again, when Sterling is accompanying Grandad Sparrow to Ludlow to look at the shop he’s inspecting. Even Harriet isn’t enthusiastic about getting into an adventure, but the Twins, of course, are a different matter.
For one thing, Dickie has really settled into his ambition to become a journalist, and for another, everyone’s most ubiquitous journalist, James Wilson, is in Shropshire, on the fake jewellery story, and welcomed into Witchend to sleep to boot.
But things start moving when the Twins drag Harriet out of camp at night, to show her Peter’s Rock, a landmark on the skyline of the Long Mynd that we haven’t heard of before. From there, the youngsters see light in the deserted and tumbledown Beacon Cottage, and hear a helicopter hovering.
When they return in daylight, to explore, keeping their adventures strictly to themselves, they find a birdwatcher calling himself Robert Ruddy. You know what birdwatcher means in the Lone Pine books, and Saville is sufficiently self-aware as to have Dickie comment upon it. Mr Ruddy may know about birds, but he dresses eccentrically, and he’s keeping a secret from everyone.
But when they return, it’s to a Witchend that’s been burgled. Someone has broken into the kitchen and eaten a lot of food, and it’s obviously a child because the broken window is barely big enough for Harriet to scramble through. The following morning, she wakes early (as she has been doing every day), and takes Brock up to the camp, where she finds the boy stuck half in and half out of a sleeping bag. This is Kevin Smith.
Kevin’s story is a confused one, especially as Saville tries to tack on a completely unconvincing happy ending to it. He’s been abandoned by his parents to an Uncle who mistreats him, he’s a sad and really rather pathetic boy, who’s practically blind without his glasses, but Harriet feels an affinity for him on first sight, and she is his champion, his encourager, his support and, when appropriate, hand-holder. Twelve year olds can’t really go much further, not in the Lone Pine world, but it’s interesting to see that after his match-making among the seniors, Saville can’t resist finding Harry a boyfriend of sorts.
She and the Twins go off on their own for the day, to walk to Seven Gates Farm, which has gotten a lot closer to Witchend since the second book, taking the secret Kevin with them to Greystone End Cottage, the address he’s found that spurred him to run away to find his parents.
The problem is, they find Charlie Smith, and he’s not at all happy to see his son. Mrs Smith has walked out on him, he’s contemplating kicking his family into touch and Kevin’s appearance at the window arouses nothing but fury. Unfortunately, Jones’ arrival, hard on their heels, results in the four youngsters being imprisoned, first in Greystone End, and then in Beacon Cottage. Kevin’s Dad is so concerned for his son’s welfare that he steals his glasses and threatens to smash them, leaving him nearly blind (he must have one serious case of short sight: I’ve worn glasses since I was seven and I’m nothing like that bad without mine).
Once it’s discovered that the youngsters have gone missing, the usual forces swing into action. The Police are called, which means Cantor again, Tom comes over from Ingles on his motor-bike, Jenny, who’s been looking forward to seeing Harriet again, gets her Dad to take over the Post Office, everyone’s rushing around fearful
Not without cause: the quartet are taken to Beacon Cottage and left there. Harriet is concerned throughout for Kevin, who has been treated very badly by his father. She sees the fact that he smuggles Kevin’s glasses back to him, in the box of food, as a good sign, despite Kevin’s experience of his father and the look of hatred turned on him in this book.
But Harriet’s faith, as much as the return of his glasses, spurs the youngster to rise to the occasion. Once the Twins break the upstairs window, he is the first to crawl along a narrow ledge to get them into another room, from which they can free themselves, though their escape seemingly ends when they run into Robert Ruddy.
The next thing we know, they’re calling from Ludlow Police Station: Ruddy is not a birdwatcher, as such, but he’s on the side of the angels, from the Assay Office, investigating the adulteration of gold and silver.
This triggers the usual swoop by the Police to capture everyone, the exception in this case being Charlie Smith, who has surrendered himself to the Police of his own accord, and is giving evidence against the blackmailing Jones. For which he’ll get credit to the point where, it’s vaguely hinted, he might escape prison time.
This is where the book loses its plausibility. Kevin introduces the idea that his Dad is unwell, and has refused to seek help, Harriet is convinced that Charlie has shown that he really does value his family, and Kevin is to go back to a changed environment, secure and beneficial, and I rather think that most adults reading this will respond with a loud raspberry.
Given Saville’s personal convictions, and his old-fashioned mores, it was probably impossible for him to write an ending that subjects a twelve year old boy to a broken home, especially not the boy that Harriet has fallen for, in her naive way. But the reversal from the previous position is too abrupt, too unsupported by Charlie’s behaviour to date that, even with the feeble excuse of this suddenly-introduced illness, it’s completely unconvincing. Long before the final paragraph, in which Harriet sees Kevin off in the car to reunite with his mother, and promptly dissolves in tears, we’re not buying this, and her genuine misery is undermined.
And whilst I’m discussing the ending, I’m not that impressed by Mr Sterling’s generous gesture of giving Brock – a present for him from his only daughter just a few days ago – to Kevin, even on the grounds that a young dog deserves a young master.
But overall Strangers at Witchend is an example of how difficult it is to write a Lone Pine Club book when half the members have outgrown the Club but aren’t yet up to admitting it, and the ones who still want adventures are the ones most powerless to conduct them in an age getting steadily more dangerous and violent. Saville inadvertently proves this point when he allows the now-somewhat elderly Macbeth to be brutally beaten and almost killed by Jones: of course, he is found in time, and survives thanks to Trudie Sterling’s father the vet.
There’s one other point I do have to bring up. Peter takes David into Ludlow to show him the stables where she works, but decides she also wants to buy him a present. Given how conventional David is in his dress, she chooses a bizarrely colourful, almost psychedelic tie.  What David thinks of it is not given, but he immediately takes off his plain green one and chucks it in a bin before putting his new one on.
It’s sweet and touching, and incredibly out-of-touch: seventeen year old young men in 1970, on holiday with their ultra-fit bird, in the middle of summer, did not put on ties for casual daywear.
Malcolm Saville was now almost seventy years old and had been writing the Lone Pine series for nearly thirty years by this point. Another book would follow within the usual couple of years, but it was the last to be written on the kind of schedule he had devoted to his favourite creations.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: the novels of Gene Wolfe


This man is considerably more clever than practically every one of us

Gene Rodman Wolfe (born May 7, 1931) has been described by people better qualified than me, many of them writers, as either ‘the best SF writer in the world’ or ‘the best writer in the world’. Whilst I wouldn’t presume to have the qualifications to proclaim such things, when people like Ursula Le Guin and Neil Gaiman say that, you sit up and pay attention.

I’ve been a fan of Wolfe since the early Eighties, and I have all but a handful of very rare books that he’s written, novels and short story collections alike. I first discovered him in the Seventies, flexing my imagination in SF and Fantasy in the wake of reading The Lord of the Rings: his short stories cropped up in several anthologies I borrowed from the library, and I was deeply impressed by the novella, The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Wolfe was always interesting, but at that point not compelling.

This changed in 1981, with the English publication in paperback of The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Wolfe’s classic The Book of the New Sun quartet. I saw this advertised in the Guardian, in black and white, and was immediately attracted to the superbly moody cover painting by Bruce Pennington, and the laudatory blurb by Ursula le Guin.

I’d learned enough about author blurbs by that time to know that Roger Zelazny’s praise should be treated with caution, and Anne McCaffrey’s avoided like the traditional plague, but Le Guin’s recommendations should be taken very seriously. I went out that same week and bought the book. I have read it, and it’s three companions, on average every eighteen months to two years ever since, and I have three sets of the quartet, an indulgence I haven’t extended to any other books in my collection.

I have also purchased all of Wolfe’s books since.

What makes Gene Wolfe so great? For one thing, he is a fantastically subtle writer, who fills his books with puzzles and hidden relationships that the reader has to be very alert to discern. In this, he more than fulfills his own maxim for successful writing: “My definition of a great story has nothing to do with “a varied and interesting background.” It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.”

To again take The Book of the New Sun as an example, on the surface this is a long, complex, involving story in which the narrator ascends from the lowly position of a parentless apprentice to the Guild of Torturers to the supreme ruler of a substantial empire, yet the true story that Wolfe is telling is a completely different and no less epic tale, in which its true protagonists and its calculated effects are merely shadows that rarely appear on the printed page, but whose actions and effects can be determined by a perceptive and careful reader.

This is Wolfe’s speciality: lacunae, unnamed characters, relationships never spelled out. Almost without exception, his books are related by unreliable narrators. Severian of the New Sun quartet has a perfect memory, but self-confessedly lies. Latro of the Soldier books has experienced a head injury that limits his memory to the last twenty-four hours: the scrolls he writes in are the only evidence of who he is, where he is and what has happened.

Other narrators are naive, or unintelligent, or young. The reader must balance out what he or she is being told with their own experience and judge how much of it can be trusted.

Reading a Wolfe novel is like walking a labyrinth with your eyes shut.

Which makes this a fascinating experience. And one which I am now going to repeat, reading all of Gene Wolfe’s novels in chronological order, trying to make sense of them and trying to work them out. Though he is such a brilliant writer, and one who can provoke endless mysteries, none of which he ever explains for his despairing readers, Gene Wolfe has never been a commercially massive writer at a level his work deserves. Perhaps I can tempt some of you to try his work where you have never before read, or I can introduce you to writing you have never before known.

I can promise you that that would be well worth your while.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Rye Royal


By now, it’s probably clear that I’m not particularly interested in the adventure/crime aspect of the later Lone Pine Club books. It’s the relationships between the senior members that interest me, as they continue to grow and develop, and grow increasingly reluctant to get involved in matters that are not their business.
In this respect, Rye Royal, the seventeenth book, is both intriguing and disappointing.
I’ve already expressed my disappointment over Treasure at Amorys. We’ve seen David and Peter and Tom and Jenny overtly recognising their feelings for one another, and making promises about futures to be spent together, and I for one expected the same from Jon and Penny. But despite introducing an element of personal chaos into their lives, of a kind perfect to act as a catalyst, somehow neither made any real progress towards commitment.
Jon was a school year away from going up to Oxford, Penny had left school and was due to travel to India to live with her parents. Now, when Rye Royal begins, in November, Jon is at University and Penny is still living at the Gay Dolphin and studying Domestic Science (i.e. how to be a Housewife) in Hastings, with no explanation as to why the situation last time round has not turned out, but with her parents coming home for good to Xmas, to form a partnership with Jon’s mother to run the Dolphin and maybe even expand it.
And somehow, without making any overt gestures, you know, like kissing, or even saying anything to each other, Jon and Penny have become a couple. When Jon’s Uni colleague Henry Carter first meets with Penny, Jon describes him as trying to get off with his girl. But it’s like there’s a book missing, in which Jon and Penny talk and come to decisions, which they seem to have settled to their mutual satisfaction. Yet they do not treat each other noticeably differently in this book than they have before.
I’ve said before that, in this respect, Saville created something of a rod for his own back when he made the Warrenders cousins. For most of the Twentieth century, there was a general prejudice against cousins getting involved with each other, as their closer genetic ties were believed to make it certain that they would produce mentally defective babies. I don’t know when science first established that there were no grounds for this belief, but Saville grew up in an era when the idea of cousins marrying was frowned upon. Perhaps this limits how he feels he can treat Jon and Penny?
Thankfully, David and Peter are there to give us more to work with. The story begins in November, with Penny and Jon, before jumping to the week before Xmas, and at long last the Mortons have managed to get Peter to Rye.
It’s significant, and genuinely touching, that Peter’s first move, after arriving in Rye by train, is to single out Penny, and ask her to walk up to the Dolphin with her, through the town, on their own. Considering that Peter first approached Penny with vague suspicions about a) knowing David and b) being a girl, it’s a loving gesture of solidarity and trust. Peter is the stranger here, who’s heard so much about everything, but knows nothing, and she seeks out Penny to be her guide.
And Penny has no jealousy of Peter, who is being described as more beautiful by the book. Her hair is longer, she’s almost as tall as Jon (really?) and now we’re told that she really suits mini-skirts (no doubt she does).
Yet Peter is the outsider. She’s the country girl, and even such a little town as Rye, so old-fashioned and wonderful, is inimical to her. David is at her side, throughout, but there’s a telling scene later in the book when they’re in the Book Cellar, a kind of quasi-teenage club, and it’s crowded and noisy and David is being subjected to a lot of earnest discourse by two very earnest girls, and Peter cannot stand things and has to go out.
She’s followed by Judith Wilson, making a first reappearance as now the wife of reporter James, who understands that Peter is feeling overwhelmed, and is facing the fear that she can’t function properly outside of Shropshire. Judith sympathises, but reminds Peter that if her life is to be spent with David, it means spending it with him wherever he goes (this is only the late Sixties), and she must learn to accept that.
Within moments, David is there. He’s been no more enamoured of the two earnest girls than Peter is, and he already understands what affects her. David is following his father into the Law, doing Articles to become a Solicitor (no, he did NOT influence me in my career), which ties him to London for now, but once he is qualified, he plans to work in Shropshire, so as not to take Peter away from her natural home, and besides, he loves Shropshire almost as much as her.
But she, in return, promises that she will go with him wherever their lives take them. Peter has learned the courage to accept that she cannot confine them to just one county. This pair are in balance, and it’s a joy to see them so firmly on the same wavelength after so long a time.
I suppose I’d better reference the adventure as, if I don’t, the Twins won’t get into this review. It’s not very good, to be frank. Saville creates an interesting set-up: Mr Roy Royal has moved to Rye where he has opened a second hand bookshop, taking the town’s longstanding (but never previously mentioned) nickname for his shop, and his name since he’s a former criminal operating under a pseudonym.
Penny sometimes helps him in the shop, and more often in his sideline, the Book Cellar, a place for teenagers to meet and talk and drink coffee and play records, that isn’t profitable but which is serving a useful and progressive function.
When the book begins, Royal has two late visitors. One is Mrs Flowerdew, an elderly lady who, with her historian husband, lives at 39 Traders Street, next to the Dolphin. She is desperately short of money and wants to sell some of her books, which are of little value but which Royal buys for a lead. He is more interested in Professor Flowerdew’s library, which he suspects contains items of value, though Mrs Flowerdew is completely against anyone even seeing, let alone valuing it.
Royal’s other visitor appears to be one of Savile’s stereotypical Americans, calling himself Harry Purvis. Instead, he’s a criminal, a dealer in stolen goods, and he blackmails Royal into acting as one of his spotters, on the threat of exposing him to the Police.
Saville has a very rigid idea of criminals: once a crook, always a crook. It’s really awkward here: there’s no suggestion that Royal is actually still doing anything illegal, he’s served his time, and understandable changed his name (would you stick with Johnny Jones if you didn’t have to?). But there’s nothing to suggest that Jones/Royal is doing anything illegal, or has done, or that he would do unless blackmailed into it by ‘Purvis’.
Again, times have changed. This book is almost fifty years old, but I don’t think that we were necessarily so resistant to rehabilitation, or so insistent that once a criminal, always a criminal.
But its essential for Saville’s story that Royal believes this, and on Rye Fawkes night (a boat-burning ceremony neither Jon nor Penny have previously seen, having always been at school until now), someone breaks into Mrs Flowerdew’s house whilst she’s enjoying tea at the Dolphin.
We leap to Xmas. Professor Flowerdew has died, leaving his widow alone and penurious. Saville admits he’s been a poor husband, neglectful, self-obsessed, and insistent that his wife should not sell the house or anything after his death, despite the fact that such a sale is her only means of surviving. Mrs Warrender has become a close friend to Mrs Flowerdew, trying to help her, and not just because she hopes, eventually, to persuade the lady to sell no 39, as an extension to the Dolphin. Indeed, the Lone Piners, except for Jonathan, are to stay at no 39. and look after Mrs Flowerdew in the same manner as Major Bolshaw in Treasure at Amorys.
The Twins in particular adopt Mrs Flowerdew in their inimitable manner, which grows the more mature with each of the recent succeeding books. They’re present when she finds a message in very weak handwriting scrawled in the back of a book, that hints at something valuable hidden in the house, but which affects her most deeply because it begins: ‘My very dear wife’.
Mrs Flowerdew still doesn’t want to get involved, but it is notable that, when she fantasises about what might be possible if she does possess something of value, her thoughts are entirely of the kindnesses she could do to others: not merely Mrs Warrender and the Lone Piners who have made such an impression upon her, but even down to people who serve her in shops, and for whom a pair of gloves might relieve chilblains!
But the villains are determined to get their hands on what she has. Royal is summoned to a meeting with Purvis and his seeming sister, in which he is accused to trying to evade his duties to them. He is imprisoned and effectively disappears from the story. Purvis and his sister get into Traders Street and, by drugging Mrs Flowerdew, carry her off.
Yes, it’s the kidnapping, and for once it doesn’t involve any of the Lone Piners, and it doesn’t last long as James Wilson (poor sod, only here to have a Xmas break with his wife), Jon and David find Mrs Flowerdew, smash open the French windows and take her home, which shuts the crooks out of the story too.
In the end, it’s the Twins, of course, who find the treasure, an ancient document about Elizabeth I’s visit to Rye that is of great historical significance (without adding a single detail not already known). So all’s well that ends well.
And as for Penny and Jon, their final scene is of Penny’s parents arriving unexpectedly on Xmas Eve, home for good. They are virtually unseen, behind blazing car headlights, and Penny walks towards them and into a future she both welcomes and is understandably nervous of, and she’s holding hands with Jon. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do, but it’s significant that the final word is Peter’s, promising to go wherever David goes.
In the Twenty-First Century, that’s an ending that will have some grumbling. Why should Peter have to give up her desires, her life, her securities, to follow David? The answer is because she’s going to marry him, and that was what was expected of wives back then. It’s easy to be doctrinaire about rights and wrongs, but let’s not forget that this is a specific couple. Peter will follow David because that’s what’s expected of her, even by herself, but David will only lead her by reference to where she will want to go. It is not a sacrifice for him, though the life of a rural Solicitor will not compare to the life and opportunities of a London Solicitor (his Dad could afford to buy Witchend in the middle of the war, remember), but David is ahead of his time in respecting the woman he loves, and sharing lives the two want, instead of expecting her to conform to his wishes.
Tom has already determined that he wants to farm Ingles, and that he wants to farm it with Jenny at his side. He’s not consulted her, but he knows very well that this is her wish too, not just out of loyalty to him, but because she has been absorbed into Ingles by parents in law who love her and who have made this a home for her to come to: Jenny will follow Tom but he will never want to go anywhere but the place she wants to follow him.
But what of Jon and Penny? Penny’s post-school study is nothing but a preparation for marriage, but Jon is a scientist, and he is pursuing knowledge. The pair have an unspoken expectation that their futures will be in sync, but Saville has for a second time failed to show exactly how that might work. Penny as housewife? As the future manageress of the Gay Dolphin after she inherits it from her parents and aunt? Plausible as futures but neither really suits Penny, the volatile, excitable, emotional redhead who isn’t going to be happy except with her calm, quiet cousin.
There are only three books left in the series, and none of these will take place at Rye, or centre upon the Warrenders. I can’t help but see Rye Royal as as much a missed opportunity as Treasure at Amorys, although a better book in general. And, incidentally, it’s the only book of the series to go without a sketch map of the scene: even London fared better.
For the next story, it’s back to Shropshire, and the welcome reintroduction of Harriet.