A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Three Towers in Tuscany’


Malcolm Saville’s Three Towers in Tuscany first appeared in October 1963. By this time, Saville had already published 56 books, including fourteen Lone Pine novels. Ian Fleming’s James Bond had first appeared on screen in the form of Sean Connery the previous year in Dr No and From Russia with Love would shortly appear.
Saville’s readers were growing older with him. They had already convinced him to allow David and Peter resolve the future of their relationship in Not Scarlet But Gold. He was in need of a change, something for those older readers, and for older readers who had not previously considered his work. An espionage series, adjusted to Saville’s personal sympathies and his moral code, was perhaps inevitable.
Three Towers in Tuscany was very rare when re-published by GirlsGoneBy in 2016, and that edition is already incredibly hard to find. After missing out on a copy on a German bookselling site, I ended up having to buy from a bookshop in New Zealand.
This quirk of availability meant that the first book of the series was one of the last I read, and I wasn’t impressed by it. I admit to being prejudiced by my political views, which are a good deal more left than Saville’s (but then again Tony Blair would have qualified as a good deal more left in Saville’s terms).
What unimpressed me most is that Saville does not make a good job at all of transitioning from even Not Scarlet But Gold era Lone Piners around sixteen to Oxford undergraduates whose age has to be around eighteen to twenty. Though to be fair, it’s less the core group of Simon Baines and his two friends, Charles Hand and Patrick Cartwright than it is the girl, Rosina Conway, who doesn’t even display the maturity of Peter but is more on Jenny Harman’s level.
I’ll come back to that. Saville concentrates very much on his younger characters for fully half the book. Simon is our viewpoint character, with Rosina as an alternate for scenes where he is not present, such as in her bedroom.
When the story starts, Simon is arriving in Florence. His father has died some two months ago and his uncle, Marston, has invited him to stay at his Villa in Fiesole, just outside Florence, for the summer. Marston is a successful writer of thriller stories who appears to have been living here for the past dozen years. Simon has never met Marston: his father disapproved of his brother. And indeed, though welcoming and easy-going, Marston doesn’t display much interest in Simon at first, and is dismissive of Rosina when she enters the picture that night.
Rosina is an English girl, daughter of a West Midlands industrialist, who has been invited to stay the summer in the Villa Venezia belonging to rich psychiatrist Dottore Salvatore. The idea is for Rosina to improve her Italian whilst assisting Signora Salvatore to improve her English, but the Signora is cold and indifferent to Rosina, and scares her by coming over as evil, a sensation she communicates to Simon.
Rosina runs away, refusing to return, and bumps, literally, into Simon. She tells her story, protesting that she’s not hysterical but all the time sounding as if she is. He’s all protective (as who wouldn’t be when they’ve already held a bird as fit as her in their arms) but Marston is dismissive and unhelpful, and doesn’t want them to get involved.
Things multiply. There’s something weird about Marston’s relationship with his Italian secretary, Mario (behave yourself, there is absolutely nothing like that in a Malcolm Saville book). Next day, he wants Simon to clear out as he’ll be writing all day, but he’s seen in a public park talking to a man who has already scared Rosina by his attempts to get her alone, and both men deny knowing each other.
By now, Simon’s two Oxford pals, Charles and Patrick, historian and scientist respectively, have turned up. Both flirt with Rosina, to Simon’s obvious distress (he owns her already, it seems). But it’s his insistence on blowing the cover of Marchant, Marston’s contact, that leads to the man’s murder, the dumping of his corpse in Marston’s garden, Marston’s arrest by crooked police and Mario’s gnomic refusal to worry or act as if anything is wrong.
Because it’s not. The scene shifts abruptly to London, a nondescript office at a garage that is the headquarters of someone high up in Britain’s Secret Service. ‘Peter’ has three visitors: John Conway, whose business makes vital parts for nuclear submarines and who is being plagued by targeted industrial action, an agent who’s infiltrated the ‘Commies’ behind this anti-Britain agenda… and Marston Baines.
So he’s a secret agent, eh? He’s also one who’s jumped to conclusions, blaming Marchant himself for his death without knowing that it’s his own nephew who dropped him right in it.
Indeed, Simon himself realises that his gaffe has had horrific consequences, but he’s a hero so Marston has to slander Marchant all over again and insist it was all his fault. Even in a book aimed at older readers there is to be no nuance, just Black and White and never the twain shall mix.
Politically, which is not a word you’d usually expect to be using about a Malcolm Saville novel, the book is based in fear of Trade Unions and industrial actions and the risk of a Government that is not the Conservative and Unionist Party. It’s not directly expressed as such, the underlying threat derives from a complex masterplan, directed at destroying the West and producing anarchy. But not once is the idea that owners and manufacturers might be treating their workers parsimoniously or unfairly, or that there may be genuine grievances, or that the working classes might perhaps deserve to be treated more generously or be allowed greater opportunities, permitted to penetrate. Society is as it is and the notion of a change to its structure produces an hysterical reaction for which the best that can be said is that it was typical of the times. I remember the BBC sitcom, Beggar My Neighbour where the point of the joke was that a bowler-hatted pin-striped manager lived penuriously next door to a plushly situated trade unionist worker, the underlying assumption being that this should be the other way round, and that that was RIGHT.
That’s going to be a common feature of most if not all of the Marston Baines books, a very black and white view of the world. The sound of axes being ground is never omitted from the background hum.
But that’s not why we are interested in the books, though Saville hoped we would take heed and come to think like him. It’s the people, and the young people, who matter.
Rosina is the big problem: on her very first appearance she says she is not being hysterical but she acts that way far too often. She also displays the Saville trope that, no matter how well she knows someone or trusts them, she accuses them of not believing her every time they don’t instantly back up everything she says.
The boys are primarily into bantering. There’s a curious ornateness to the quips and languidly expressed put-downs they indulge in. I’m the last to criticise a relish in words for their own sake, but it’s a bit too over-expressed. No matter what the circumstances, nobody can restrain themselves to speak in an ordinary, direct fashion. Usually there’s one, but only one, whose speech is florid and circumlocutory, which is fine, but everybody talking like that is a bit much.
I’m also inclined to criticise Saville’s decision to relegate Marston, the nominal star, to a background role where he’s offstage for the majority of the book. Marston only really gets two front-of-house scenes, when Saville reveals, two-thirds of the way through, that he’s a Secret Agent, and when he pulls a deus ex machina stunt to take down the anarchists and save the day.
(I must mention that I am mildly surprised that Saville allows Dottore Salvatore to escape by committing suicide, given the Christian anathema of that action).
The book ends on a quasi-cliffhanger note. This bold strike has foiled an international plot to bring down all Western Governments, just a few days hence, on behalf of anarchists, only some of whom are Commies. Salvatore is not the head of the operation, that turns out to be Signora Salvatore, the purely evil woman Rosina has warned against from her first appearance, and who has got away.
Three Towers in Tuscany suffers from a mixture of motives. It wants to be a spy thriller but it doesn’t want any of the trappings of a spy thriller. Thus Marston is middle-aged, sedentary, described as shambling and with thinning hair, a direct symbol of diminished potency. There will be no sexuality from him, nor will there be violence, let alone extremes of it.
The action, in both areas, is displaced down the generations to the amateurs. They’ll do the energetic stuff, but this won’t include violence and it had damned well better not include sex. Such things as desire that are an almost-constant presence in the mind and body of a healthy 19-20 year old, are to be sublimated into love and chaste romance. Rosina’s attractive, but Charles and Patrick only joke about her falling in love with them, in a manner characteristic of nervous virgins who are nowhere near ready to change that status yet but don’t want to be seen as schoolchildren. Simon’s not as bad as that, and at least he’s already contemplating a longer lasting relationship, but he still has no drive, beyond easy jealousy and basic distrust of a kind far too representative of that era. Rosina is seen as more of a desirable possession, by him and Malcolm Saville.
And Saville shows far too little sign of being prepared to let his young women be much more than pretty.
All told, for me Three Towers in Tuscany is a tangled book whose central quartet are wrongly pitched. They’re all, not just Rosina, behaving far too young for their ages and undergraduate statuses. Saville has failed to adjust his mindset for both the characters and the new audience he was looking to attract. He would make a far better fist of things in the second book.

A Marston Baines Thriller – Introduction


In 1963, after twenty years as a very popular writer of children’s fiction, Malcolm Saville started the eighth and last of the series that made up the overwhelming number of his books. The series’ main subject was the unlikely figure of Marston Baines, a middle-aged bachelor of somewhat nondescript appearance, who was nevertheless an experienced British Secret Service agent.
It appears that Saville hoped that the Marston Baines series, which was aimed at an older reader than he had up-to-now catered for, would be his legacy. If this is so, then he was sadly imperceptive as to where his true talents really lay.
The Baines series consisted of seven novels over a period of sixteen years, including his penultimate work of fiction. They were not a commercial success, none of the series being granted a paperback edition until the redoubtable GirlsGoneBy Press started reissuing them in 2016. The final two books only ever appeared in one edition each, making them incredibly rare and expensive to collect, until GGB caught up to them. At the time of printing, the penultimate book is due for publication within a matter of weeks.
What’s more, in contrast to his definitely English-set fictions, each of the Baines books were set in different European countries, the product of Saville’s growing taste for holidays abroad that could be set against tax as Author’s Research.
Though Baines was the series’ focal point, he was often only a background character, the bulk of the stories being carried by a rotating group of Oxford undergraduates who got involved in Baines’ cases, much like the contemporary TV group, the Freewheelers used to get involved with Colonel Buchan. The one constant was Baines’ nephew Simon, whose father dies in a car crash at the start of the series and who is taken under Uncle Marston’s wing, to the extent that he ends up training for the service himself.
Another feature distinguishing this series from his earlier books was that Saville used the Baines books for proselytising. Adult characters enabled adult themes and Saville, a committed Christian in his sixties, was out-of-step with, and both fearful and mistrustful of the changes taking place in society in the Sixties. The Baines books were his vehicle to issue trenchant condemnation of various evils, including trade unionism, the usage of drugs, Satanism and fomenting racial tension.
There is indeed the sound of axes being ground, but once again Saville’s inability to let go and, to misquote Anthony Trollope, get close enough to the pitch to be defiled, means he cannot do more than make a superficial presentation of naïve opposition. Such things are Wrong, and are the actions of people intent on committing Evil. There is no room for nuance.
Though the final book is near impossible to get hold of and unaffordable if it were, I have collected the first six books via the GGB editions (the last should be republished in a year’s time), and I’ll be looking at these individually next, before giving a broader impression at the end.

For Children, About Children, by Children: Katharine Hull & Pamela Whitlock’s ‘Crowns’


There is very little information, even on the internet, about Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, and I have many questions, without answers.
When Oxus in Summer was published in 1939, the girls were still girls; eighteen and nineteen and authors of three novels. But the Second World War was a great intrusion on people’s lives, in all manner of ways, and the widest and most impossible game of ‘What-If?’ is to be played with the lives of millions. Did the girls plan to write together again? Would there have been a fourth Persia book? Was it ever intended that Maurice’s true life (and name?) should be disclosed?
What is clear is that the girls, when they were no longer girls but women – twenty six, twenty seven – teamed up one final time in 1947 to publish a fourth and last book together, which they dedicated to Arthur Ransome.
Crowns was not a Persia book, and it did not feature any of the Hunterlys, Clevertons or Maurice. Once again it was a children’s book, once again it combined reality and fantasy, but in a different manner to before, and it was an altogether stranger, more serious and less concrete a book than any they had written before.
Like Oxus in Summer, the book comes in three Acts, but this time the reality and the fantasy are deliberately severed. The four children on whom Crowns centres, Charlotte Roper, Andrew Gunn, Rob and Eliza Jardine, do not superimpose their fantasies upon real ground but invent a country that they go to and leave behind and which does not intrude in any way upon the London and Surrey of their real lives.
Part 1 introduces the four children, who are all cousins, in their real world, London in an unidentified year. A great deal is to be left unidentified, most of all the ages of the four children. Whitlock and Hull split this section up into eight consecutive days, from Wednesday December 19th to Wednesday December 26th. The sequence begins with Charlotte’s last day at School, and ends midway through Grandma’s traditional Boxing Day party.
The ladies switch viewpoints back and forth through the four protagonists, allowing us to observe them both internally and externally. Charlotte, the most competitive and forthright of the quartet, has a younger sister, Mary, who goes to the same school, and an even younger brother, Stephen, who still needs a high chair at meals. They live with their mother, but under the eye of Nanny: their father is in the City and rarely seen.
Andrew is not an only child but may as well be. He has an elder sister, Diana, who is more or less an adult, and lives with his mother, who indulges him. His parents are separated – or worse – and the rest of the family hold it against her, especially as Charles is the blood relation. Like the Ropers, Andrew lives in London.
Rob and Eliza live in Surrey, with their parents who own a farm. They have an older, probably adult brother, who we are led to infer has fought in the war and returned (yes, but which War?), and a younger sister, Paula, who will go to Grandma’s party with them.
We see Rob leave school at the end of his term, a school he shares with Andrew, but we do not see Eliza leave hers. She is waiting at home for her brother to return. There is a kind of special relationship between the pair, even if it is more on the girl’s side than the boy’s: are they twins? There is nothing to define this pair either way. But in trying to determine what age feels right for these four characters, the impression I get is that they are all of an age – which could be anything between 10 and 14 – meaning Rob and Eliza would have to be twins: fraternal, rather than identical.
This section is both a mosaic and a kaleidoscope, letting us see the four children in their home environments (which feel more like the 1930s than the era of the book itself), their plans and purposes and wishes and desires, as the days pass quickly by, chock-full of detail, to Xmas and beyond it to the annual party, that not everyone wants to attend but are not yet old enough to evade.
And it’s there, in the final section, that the body of the book, which occupies Part 2, is set up. Among the Xmas games being played by and between the children at the party is Sardines. I don’t know if this game is still played in the Twenty-First Century: it required big old houses with many rooms and many nooks and crannies.
One child is chosen to hide, in this instance Charlotte, who climbs to an attic known only to a handful of her cousins, primarily Andrew, with whom she has some kind of affinity, improbable as it seems. The big difference between Sardines and Hide and Seek is that when a seeker finds the hider, they don’t race them home but instead stay and cram in with them. Everyone who finds them crams in alongside, until the hiding place is filled with a crush of bodies: heh, heh.
Andrew finds Charlotte. Not long after, they are joined by Rob and Eliza. Having created a private hidey-hole, the children cover up the access to the attic so that they can stay there and talk alone. Each imagines themselves as Kings or Queens, able to do what they want, whenever they want to…
Part 2 is the result of that discussion. There is a land, without a name, a medieval land of castles and woods and villages, and peasants, knights and courtiers, ruled by two Kings and two Queens. The Kings and Queens are children, Rob, Charlotte, Andrew and Eliza. I put them in that order because that is the order of their importance to and role in their kingdom. They are beloved rulers, benevolent monarchs, obeyed immediately without question. And each are inadequate to the task they have granted themselves, because none of them understand that it is a task.
The role each cousin selects for themselves is a vast expansion of the characters we’ve already seen in them. Though Rob is clearly the High King, the only one whose thoughts and occupations are carried out with the good of the people in mind, nevertheless his actions are in the spirit of vainglory, at base. Rob delights in power, in ordering and structuring. He’s demotic in the sense that he is forever interested in skills and trades, a have-a-go King who mucks in alongside those who labour under his directions, putting him head and shoulders above his co-monarchs, but the urge to command, to direct, to tell everyone what to do, is a very dangerous one.
Being very far from a Monarchist, I wonder if Mesdames Hull and Whitlock are themselves making a case for Monarchy as an inherently empty and childish concept.
This possibility is more than justified by the other three Crowns.
Charlotte, the tomboy who hates being told what to do, lives a life in search of novelty. She has no interest in anything Rob does to rule the land. If it doesn’t involve an element of danger, the chance to energetically prove herself to be faster, stronger, better than everyone around her, she calls it dull. Routine and responsibility are intolerable things. On a ‘diplomatic’ mission to a distant and suspicious baron, she demands things from him, sees only the lands beyond that she can be the first to explore, more-or-less coerces her five favourite huntsmen to follow her, leading to the death of four of them, one after turning traitor in the hope of living after Charlotte’s absurdly wilful pressing on, and returns from an impossible situation without explaining.
Andrew doesn’t fit in. He may be the most intelligent of the four – he’s the only one to pick up on an intended rebellion and seizure of power – but he doesn’t fit in, because he doesn’t want to fit in. He wants to be alone, to see no-one, to be a hermit. He runs off in the middle of a banquet, sets himself up by his own romantic ideals of hermitage and living as one with the country, without ever grasping that he has very little of the knowledge required to successfully live in the wild, and still less of the physical skills required to carry that out. He comes near to killing himself, and for a long time before this is regarded as being Mad, which on the level of his ignorance of his ignorance, he certainly is.
And Eliza. Eliza is nothing. She is passivity personified, and obliviousness to her surroundings. All she cares about is prettiness: pretty and increasingly fantastic clothes and jewels for her person, beautiful things to surround her. She has neither interest in nor the slightest of aptitudes for rule, or the welfare of anyone but her cousins and a few, favoured pages and handmaidens.
So this is the fantasy of these four cousins, the spell of rule that attracts them. It’s a very long way from the Swallows and Amazons, the Hunterlys and Maurice gilding the surroundings they move amongst with a layer of purely private fantasy to enhance the fun of games, but this fantasy is far more revelatory, and far more dangerous. In a way, it’s the anti-Ransome, and indeed the ladies’ mentor would himself write only one more Swallows and Amazons book after Hull and Whitlock published Crowns, and that a book plotted for him by a friend.
Part 2 ends with the rebellion averted and the Kings and Queens back where they began, no lessons learned, no progress made. And then we return to the real world that, for all the ways it frustrates this quartet of children by refusing to grant them all the things they want, is far warmer and far more important than their naïve, inexperienced fantasy.
Part 3 is Boxing Day evening. The game of Sardines was, effectively, been spoiled for everyone else because the cousins hid themselves away too much. The party is breaking up, everyone goes home by their own ways. Charlotte rankles at being put to bed, but of course she will, tonight and every night that she cannot do everything she wants to do immediately she wants to. All of them go to sleep. The ladies end the book with a line that ended their careers as writers: “None of them heard the whisper at midnight, when, whisking into gutters and hedge-bottoms, settling on lamp-posts and branches, very softly the snow came down.”
This is a very well-written book. Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock might no longer have been children but they had a very good memory of what it felt like, and an extremely good eye for detail that they could place with almost forensic precision, building breathless whirls of details that created scenes before you in a jumble of imagery
What stopped them from continuing their career, I don’t know, though though it doesn’t seem that it was household chores and tending to babies. Whatever it was was a crying shame: Crowns evidences that the ladies had even greater potential in them than the now distant Far-Distant Oxus had suggested, and I for one could have stood a series of Persian books nearer in length to Swallows and Amazons than what we got, though at some point they would have had to explain the bloody mystery about Maurice.
Pamela Whitlock married John Bell in 1954. She and her husband were lifelong friends of Arthur Ransome and John Bell was one of his literary executors. She died in 1982, surviving her mentor by fifteen years. I cannot find further information on Katharine Hull’s life, only on her background. She was the younger of the two girls, and died younger, in 1977. If only.

For Children, About Children, By Children: Kathleen Hull & Pamela Whitlock’s ‘Oxus in Summer’


The third and last book of the Persia series came out in 1939. By the time it was published, in November, England had declared war on Germany again, and the world would not return to normal for a very long time. If Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock had plans for another adventure in the valley of the Oxus that they had created for themselves – as well they might, since Oxus in Summer would only be half a summer – these were among the many things changed irrevocably by the advent of War, and far from the most important.
No elaborate schemes to get the Hunterlys from London to Exmoor were necessary this time: Bridget, Anthony and Frances leave their schools in the morning, receive their holiday cases from Aunt Angela whilst passing through London and, by the early evening, are back at Cloud Farm. Maurice is already in residence in the hut at Peran-Wisa, but the Clevertons are in France with their father and will not be back until the last three weeks of the holiday. They will not appear until the last forty pages of the book.
It’s summer: not the summer when the Hunterlys may be going out to Sumatra, but summer following the Easter of Escape to Persia, a year on from their absorption into the Persian tribe under Maurice.
This time round, the girls give some minor clues about their children. We still don’t know much, if anything, really, about Maurice the Mystery Boy, but in the very first paragraph we’re told that he is tall, ‘over five foot’. That jarred me. Rightly or wrongly, I read that description as being only just over five foot, which did not accord with my mental picture of him as aged fifteen.
But not too much further on, Anthony Hunterly, who has not long since passed his twelfth birthday, complains about being a month nearer his elder sister in age than he is his younger sister in age. Fourteen, twelve, ten? But that’s more or less the ages I assigned the Hunterlys when they first appeared…
It’s not just in lapidary inscription, but in the ages of children in their fiction, that no man or schoolgirl is on oath.
Oxus in Summer plays out in three distinct acts. The first has the Persian quartet just being children, enjoying their holidays in a place they love. The Oxus is about them, the Indian Caucasus above, they have Peran-Wisa and their ponies and nothing in the world could be better for them. Whitlock and Hull introduce nothing that is particularly new, nor which is of any longer-term significance. It is literally more-of-the-same-only-different, but it doesn’t feel repetitive, or tired, or unimaginative. The writers are still young, they are writing in an unforced and enthusiastic manner about what, to them constitutes a holiday that excites them.
Their own youthfulness invests every incident with a breath of fresh air, as we used to say. We see the story with eyes of wonder, because they are the same eyes of wonder that Maurice and the Hunterlys bring to bear on them.
The same thing goes for the third act of the book, which sees the Clevertons arrive back, alone, to pick things up where they left off. I’ll have more to say about that final act in due course, but it’s the middle of the book, the decidedly different and disturbing middle act, that demands extensive attention.
It begins innocuously. In the first act, the Persians join a Scavenger Hunt in Cabool, each pairing up with a local youngster. Maurice is the easy winner, not for his merits but because he pairs with Gillian Deptford, who sources most of the treasures to be found from her own home, in no more than a half hour.
Gillian is part of a large family, half a dozen strong, up to and including 19 year old Keith.
The second act begins with the Persians visiting an auction, the contents of a house called Lackbarrow being auctioned off. Bridget gets caught up, bidding way beyond her means for a grey pony, until Anthony has to break her out of her competitive reverie – she’s up to £150 when she only has two shillings and seven pence, half of which is back at Cloud Farm.
But Maurice has disappeared, completely. The Hunterlys search frantically for him, afraid he’s abandoned them. They eventually see him coming out of the furniture room, talking to Gillian and her brother Jeremy. He’s a bit offhand with them, then he goes and disappears again.
This disturbs the three siblings. Has he gotten tired of them? Has he abandoned them permanently? What will they do without him? They head down to Peran-Wisa but there’s no sign of him. They search the hut, trying to find some clue as to where he might have gone. They find two books, one battered, the other Maurice’s diary…
No, he’s not abandoned them. One of the lots on auction, very late in the day, is a jewelled Persian dagger, that Maurice wants for himself and his tribe. He’s determined to win it, but he doesn’t want to say anything to the Hunterlys in case he is outbid: it wouldn’t do for Maurice to be seen to fail, would it? Gillian wants the dagger too, but in the end Maurice just beats her to it. He’s riding back to show the Hunterlys his prize when he finds then with heads bent over his diary.
Maurice goes crazy. He jumps on them, swearing and shoving. He knocks over the candle, which burns Peran-Wisa to the ground and everything in it, including the diary, and rides off furiously into the night.
Ok, up to this point it’s an interesting twist. Chuck the cat in among the pigeons, see what feathers she comes out with. Only that’s not the case. It’s actually disturbing.
The Hunterlys want to find Maurice and explain they never read his diary (how unBritish of them it would have been to do so). They’d only just picked it up. It’s the anxiety, no, more than that, the desperation with which they want to find him. Because without him, everything is empty. He is their leader but he is the only source of adventure, of plans and discoveries. They are helpless without him.
And as for Maurice… In an instant, he has gone to the extreme of hating the Hunterlys, even though the diary only has initials and codewords, they might find something out about him, or they might find something out whilst hunting for him. This is so deadly a possibility that Maurice hires the entire Deptford tribe – who he openly tells are to become his slaves – to cover his tracks. They’re to delay and divert and deflect and, what’s more they’re to get everyone in Cabool, especially all the tradesmen and women to pretend they’ve never seen Maurice – and the Deptford’s can do this: I’m glad I don’t live in Cabool, it’s a bit too much like the Village. The monomania this displays is astonishing. Maurice may be the Mystery boy, and Whitlock and Hull clearly believe that his secret is essential, but there are degrees beyond which things become decidedly unhealthy, and this sequence leaves that point invisible in the distant rear.
How can something like this end? By the Hunterlys chasing Maurice on their ponies until they get close enough to yell that they didn’t read his diary. And all is well and good again.
Yet I like this book, despite the turn it took in the middle. And it returns to normal, to the same things it concerned itself with at the start. Assisting taking Mr Fradd’s carthorses to be shoed. An overnight stay in a dingy hotel in a storm. Greeting the Clevertons off their train, belated as they are. Rebuilding Peran-Wisa.
And lastly the tribe decides to split up into Persians and Tartars to have a polo match in the Cleverton garden and using its two grass tennis courts. Of course Mr Cleverton agrees, heedless of the damage six ponies’ hooves might do. The sides line up facing each other.
And it’s over. The abruptness of the ending disconcerts many. It is as if the book ends in the middle of things, as if pages, a chapter, whole chapters are missing. There is no return to school. There is no explanation of Maurice and why he has to be such a mystery. Did the girls just lose interest, suddenly? No, of course not.
Yet to me, abrupt and unusual as it is, it’s an ending that I find fitting and dignified. Maurice, Bridget, Anthony, Frances, Peter and Jennifer, they don’t end. Instead they fade, as if a flurry of rain sweeps across our vision, or a cloud crosses the sun. They will never grow old, not like those whose August of 1939 was both beginning and for too many end. They are still there, preserved: Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, and one day we might cross into the world in which they await us, in the valley of the Far-Distant Oxus. Things don’t have to be real to be real.
In another world, almost a decade later, after the War, children no longer, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock would reunite to write one more book. A copy of that, surprisingly cheap, came under my eye. I will read it next.

For Children, About Children, By Children: Katharine Hull & Pamela Whitlock’s ‘Escape to Persia’


The success of The Far-Distant Oxus mandated a sequel, and Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock were only to eager to return to the little world of the Persian Tribe that they had created for themselves. Thus Escape to Persia was published by Jonathan Cape in 1938.
Of The Far-Distant Oxus‘s two sequels, this was the only one of which I knew the least thing about, and that from where it was cross-referenced by Arthur Ransome’s biographer, Hugh Brogan, in relation to the then-unpublished unfinished thirteenth Swallows & Amazons novel that he tentatively but so-aptly named Coots in the North. The most of Coots that was written related to the Death & Glories’ overnight journey in a Rodleys cruiser from Horning to the Lake in the North, in search of Dick and Dorothea. A similar set-up applies here.
With the exception of one paragraph each about Jennifer and Peter Cleverton respectively, the opening chapters of the book are almost all about Bridget, Anthony and Frances. The Hunterlys are staying with their Aunt Angela in London, and being under the unnecessary watchful eye of the unprepossessing nurserymaid, Constance. It’s raining half the time, there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go, they’re bored and boisterous and most of all they’re not on Exmoor. They’re missing the previous summer, Cloud Farm, the valley of the Oxus, Peran-Wisa and Bridget’s mount, Talisman.
Oh, and they’re also missing Maurice, the mystery boy, the Persian chief.
Things get under way immediately. Bridget is reading a book about German prison camps in the Great War, and about two Officers who escaped and got out of the country by train inside twenty-four hours, with only the equivalent of ten shillings each. Bridget strikes up a bet, which Aunt Angela doesn’t comprehend for one second, that the three children, without grown-up assistance, with only ten shillings each, can get 200 miles to Exmoor and Cloud Farm within twenty-four hours. If they can do so, they get to stay there for the remaining two weeks of the holiday.
It’s taking advantage of the poor woman, but that’s alright because they can’t manage it. Unless Maurice organises it for them. Maurice’s plans always work. But Maurice is a mystery. The Hunterlys don’t know where he lives, and they don’t know his last name. But where there are teenage authoresses, there is always a way, and Maurice is almost immediately seen, or glimpsed, entering a tube-station the Hunterlys are leaving after having had a visit to the swimming baths cut short by the disagreeable Constance. He’s in London! Miracles will happen!
The Hunterlys make contact by placing a personal column ad on the front page of the Times (everybody – that matters – reads the Times) asking him to ring them at a certain time. And so the escape to Persia is on.
Maurice assists the Hunterlys to get out of the house in Hilary Street via its coal cellar, but the master-plotter is very much off-form. Maurice’s plan is to take a bus-ride to the terminus, hitch a ride, in the middle of the night, to Reading, take the train as far as they can go on their remaining money (which is Taunton) and them improvise from there. Not exactly water-tight. And he’s not going with them.
Still, it works. The last leg, from Taunton onwards is accomplished by hired bicycles, with Bridget’s gold foxhead badge and Antony’s silver(ish) watch as security for payment, and the Hunterlys arrive at Siestan (the tribe’s name for the Cleverton’s home) out of the blue. Everything is still the same it was, down to Mr Cleverton’s total renunciation of parental responsibility, giving them a lift over to Cloud Farm and assisting them in convincing Mrs Fradd it’s all an above-board booking…
So far, so good. The book has maintained an eager narrative flow, energetic and buoyant, the Hunterlys fully engaged in exactly the same way as Hull and Whitlock. But here is the same principle flaw that Brogan detects in Coots in the North and which he holds up as the main reason that book was never completed. It’s one thing to set Joe, Bill and Pete off on their escape from monotonous reality, but what do you do with them when you get them to their destination? So too Bridget, Anthony and Frances: the moment they get to Cloud Farm, the book loses its impetus, never to regain it, and all that’s left is ‘more of the same, only different’.
The scope is limited by three things: the shorter time available, the frequently wet weather and the fact that you can’t discover the same things twice.
Though the energy sags a little from there, it should also be noted that the girls’ writing abilities have expanded. They are a little older than the children they have created but still completely in touch with the things that concern them, and the things that go through their minds as they move about their world. And there’s an ever-burgeoning strand of poetry amongst the direct, descriptive language.
The things that matter in the short time they have are much more down to earth. Repairs are needed at the neglected Peran-Wisa, Maurice’s log-hut, though the broken window gets no more than a curtain over it.
There are other children in the valley of the Oxus, overlooking the activity at Peran-Wisa. Somewhat patronisingly, the Tribe dub them the pygmies (small ‘p’). When they fail to respond to the kind of come and help note that Maurice delivered the Hunterlys in The Far-Distant Oxus, they’re deemed enemies, but in a deliberately bathetic conclusion, it’s discovered that instead they’re… French.
What adventures there are are episodic. There’s a visit to a Point-to-Point where Maurice is approached by a family friend to substitute as a rider after the man’s son breaks a wrist in a car accident. This is Maurice, we naturally expect… but Hull and Whitlock have grown, and he only comes in second to the favourite.
The hired bikes have to be returned to Taunton. Mr Cleverton comes over in the Bentley to bring everyone back but in pouring rain the car gets stuck in the mud by an unfordable river. Help is needed to haul it out and during this Maurice’s dog, Ellita, pursues a hare and gets lost, to be returned next morning by an old man with a one-sided smile, who happens to be a notorious local poacher.
This leads the tribe to their last great adventure when Frances overhears keepers plotting to trap the old man. Maurice repays a debt of honour, organising the tribe to help get the man clear at night.
Maurice is still the Marvel Boy in everybody’s eyes, and he’s still quite the Mystery, but this time round the girls allow a succession of glimpses into his head. The Clevertons know something but are sworn to secrecy: only the Hunterlys must be excluded. Why is never explained, though Maurice debates letting them in with himself.
But no. He must keep his real identity secret. To let the others know would be to spoil everything. Things could never be the same..
The most plausible explanation, to me that is, is that Maurice, or his family, is somebody. Somebody big and powerful, rich, outstanding, famous: heir to a Dukedom or something like that. Something that would destroy the easy, natural social fraternity with everyone if it were known. Deference to his abilities is one thing, but deference to his status would undo everything, and that can’t be allowed.
Other readers may prefer other explanations, but this guarded opening up of the mystery introduces new and intriguing depths, as well as grounding the mystery boy as someone with a foot in reality.
Still, at the end of the story, the young Persian chieftain slips off into the night, leaving his tribe asleep at Peran-Wisa awaiting the return to dull old London, and School, in the morning.
Maybe he really is Persian?
One thing that this book does possess, that you won’t find in any of the Swallows & Amazons series, is a sense of mortality. That seems an unusual thing to claim about a children’s book written by children, but as Escape to Persia winds down to the end of a truncated and unexpected holiday, there’s a growing air among the Hunterlys, overtly expressed, of the possibility of loss. Arthur Ransome’s books, for all that they are attached to a period of time almost a century ago, are eternal, and the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums are eternal children. Holidays will come round every year, unchanged and unchanging: there is no future, just a glorious repeat of what has always been. But whilst the valley of the Oxus will always be here, and the moors and Mount Elbruz, even they are liable to change. The future creeps on. Next summer, Bridget, Anthony and Frances might be back out in Sumatra, with mother and father. Mr Cleverton might be selling Siestan. And who and what is Maurice that he should resist the passage of time? They may never see each other again, this might be the end of all things between them.
We know it’s not, that there will be one more book, but the Persian tribe don’t know that. They understand that change will occur, that the only way a place and a time can be frozen is in memory. This Persia they have created on Exmoor is for now but not forever, and they are old enough, and mature enough, as are Whitlock and Hull, to face that prospect.
Whatever its flaws, Escape to Persia is an infinitely more mature book than even the best of Ransome for containing, and demonstrating that knowledge.

For Children, About Children, By Children: Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock’s ‘The Far-Distant Oxus’


‘For children, about children, and by children’ was the tag-line Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock came up with for themselves, and one doesn’t have to read too much of The Far-Distant Oxus to know that the last part of that almost-too-good-to-be-true piece of self-promotion is certainly correct.
By that, I don’t mean to be dismissive of the book, and certainly not of the achievement it is: a marvel of clear-headed thinking, instinctive sense, innate professionalism and an energy and directness that could not have come from any but teenagers themselves.
But the book, for all its plentiful merits, does contain more than a few things that show the authors’ naivete, and despite Arthur Ransome’s disclaimer of it being any kind of pastiche of his Swallows & Amazons books, it can’t have escaped his notice that the story structure bears a clear resemblance to Swallowdale.
But we’ll look closer at such carping when we’ve got the story established.
There are six children of differing ages in Swallows & Amazons, split among two families, and there are six children in the Oxus series, also divided between two families, allowing, that is, for the cuckoo child in the nest, Maurice.
We’re first introduced to the Hunterlys, Bridget, Anthony and Frances in descending order of age. Ages are not given but left to be guessed at from behaviour, which is difficult as there’s not that much difference between Bridget (14?) and Frances (10?). As to appearance, the two sisters are cut from the same cloth, both with long dark hair falling in sweeps either side of their faces, Bridget with long legs and Frances much sturdier. Anthony in contrast is never described, and we can only infer that he is different in looks and hair-colour.
The Hunterlys are staying at Cloud Farm, in a small Exmoor valley, for the summer, under the care of the elderly Mr and Mrs Fradd. Like Penny Warrender they are the children of parents who are something overseas. They used to live in Borneo, where they had native servants, but the children were sent back to England whilst the parents are now in Africa. And that’s all we get of background, negligible as it is. Where they live, who they live with in England, is irrelevant to the summer holiday this pony-loving trio will share. Note that the influence of parents, and any check that they may place on their children’s gallivanting, is wholly absent.
The second family are the Clevertons. Peter and Jennifer are fair and slight, but no less pony-freaks. They live across the valley from Cloud Farm. Unlike the Hunterlys, they have a parent in stock, a father (wot, no mother?). And Mr Cleverton is an unbelievably complaisant father, who makes not the slightest attempt to regulate his children’s activities, who trusts them to be as responsible as the next grown-up: not him, the next one, since he shows no sign of understanding responsibility at all, he’s even prepared to write a letter that’s a complete lie because his children ask him to, without questioning the purpose of the lie. No, Mr Cleverton is one big signpost as to the tender ages of the writers.
And then there’s Maurice. Maurice the Marvel boy. Maurice without a name, without a background, Maurice the Cuckoo Superboy. Maurice is something of which there is not a trace in a Swallows & Amazons book, because Arthur Ransome was not a pair of teenage girls. Can you tell what Maurice is, yet?
Maurice is the drive, like Captain Nancy. But he’s much more than that. He provides the imaginative structure of Persia, taken from Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, on this Exmoor valley, the valley of the River Oxus, bordered on one side by Siestan (the Cleverton’s home) and on the other by Aderbaijan (Cloud Farm), and the watersmeet that becomes the children’s private place, is Peran-Wisa, home to the log cabin that six children build in a single afternoon, from base to roof including sawing out space to fit a window exactly, AND with time left over to build a three-hammock treehouse.
And Maurice is the inspiration, the brains, the genius. He’s the best rider in the world, he can knock out a seventeen year old village boy with a single blow, He can learn a part in minutes and act everyone else offstage. He brings the two families together and binds them to his will, which is appropriate for a worshipper of Ahura-Mazda. He goes to the same school as Peter but even in this single point of contact with reality, he’s an enigma. He loses his temper with Frances when she asks him a direct question about his name and where he’s really from, screaming that no-one must ever know.
Maurice has dark hair and dark eyes. He’s here on Exmoor alone for the whole summer, camping out with his pony, Dragonfly, who is black, and his faithful Labrador, Ellita, who is black, and he couldn’t be a bigger symbol of the enigma of burgeoning female sexuality if the young ladies had written from here until they were both twenty.
None of this is overt but on the other hand it’s obvious, never more so than in the depiction of Jennifer Cleverton. We can only guess at her age, but she’s a shy, quiet girl, with less confidence in herself and what she can do than everyone else, which means that her besottedness with Maurice goes unremarked. It’s a real indication of Hull and Whitlock’s abilities that they present several scenes of Jennifer just looking at Maurice without drawing attention to it.
As for Bridget, the only girl who is the same or similar age to Maurice, her attentions are divided between Maurice and her treasured pony, Talisman, the only pony to come close to Dragonfly. Perhaps because of her height, she comes closest to being an equal to the boy wonder, which gives her a level-headedness around him that doesn’t conceal that she quite clearly fancies him.
But in all of this, don’t think for a moment that there is anything remotely overt or sexual. These are two teenage girls, writing for children like them, in the mid-1930s. Despite Ransome’s injunction not to allow anyone older than themselves to interfere, anything too clear of that nature would, I’m sure, have been ruthlessly purged from the book.
I mentioned above that The Far-Distant Oxus has a similar structure to Swallowdale, by which I don’t mean to say that they’re identical. The second (and longest) Swallows & Amazons book is a mainly land-based story in which Swallow is ship-wrecked and the Walkers have to make a new camp in the eponymous secret valley. There’s no melodrama such as the stealing of Captain Flint’s trunk, or any of the later, and much better handled climaxes, just the building up of the expedition to climb Kanchenjunga (commonly agreed to be Coniston Old Man), a secret from the adults.
In the same manner, the first half of the book is a succession of episodes, light, insignificant, taking place not just against the natural background but entirely of and within it, mini adventures. The creation of the camp in Swallowdale is paralleled by the building of the log cabin they name Peran-Wisa, their secret headquarters. And for the second half of the book, the sextet take off, unknown to all the grown-ups, to follow the course of their far-distant Oxus down to the Aral Sea, or the English Channel to you and I.
It’s a lovely demonstration of the fact that this group of children are full of common sense and practical skills to go with their Arnoldian fantasy. And in case that seems too good to be true, it’s alleviated by the realisation, when it’s far too late to do anything about it, that poling a raft downstream is one thing, but poling it back against the current is another entirely.
To get out of it, the girls fall back on improbable, but convenient coincidence. Down at the Devon coast, the children happen to bump into Mr Harold Fradd, brother and near-twin of the owner of Cloud Farm, who happens to be sending his donkey and trap to his brother, making it available to Maurice and Co. to ride it up there for him.
So everyone gets home, albeit very wet from incessant rain over the last day, and whilst Mrs Fradd is displeased at the Hunterlys sneaking off like that, there’s no comeback on them and, quite unfairly, it’s Jennifer who ends up catching a cold.
The only comeback is that the holiday is almost over, and packing is beginning for the return to School. There’s one final flourish, the gathering of brushwood and it’s piling on ‘Mount Elbruz’, highest peak in the ‘Indian Caucasus’, guarded by an impenetrable bog that only Maurice (of course) knows the secret way through. So the story ends with the lighting of the beacon at the coming of night, followed by the sudden and flurried departure of Maurice on horseback, crossing the moors and setting other beacons on other tops, all across the moor and into the night, like that brilliant scene in The Return of the King, as the flames leap forward across the wild mountains, until the summons arrives in Rohan.
And the Hunterlys and the Clevertons wait for their leader’s return but this is Maurice’s farewell, an enigma to the last.
It’s easy to nitpick about certain aspects of this book, those points at which the writers most clearly reveal their age. An adult knows that six children, none older than fourteen, can’t build a log cabin in four hours, even without the other things they do in the same time. An adult wouldn’t make Mr Cleverton into so conveniently complaisant. An adult would have foreshadowed Mr Herbert Fradd instead of making him so complete a rabbit out of a hat.
I’m on less secure ground in suggesting that maybe an adult author wouldn’t have made Maurice into so complete a fantasy figure, so superior to everyone around him, especially in modesty, but that’s to suggest a change that might possibly go against the girls’ intention. It’s quite certain that in all other aspects, this story is controlled by them, and completed according to their deliberate intentions, plotted in full before a word of Chapter One is penned.
Beyond these matters, and in the context of The Far-Distant Oxus as a whole they are nit-picking, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock produced a book for which they can only be applauded. The concentration, the focus, the energy and the naturalism of their writing, and their ability to invoke the thoughts and impulses of youngsters their age, not to mention their ability to shape a story that, for any similar pony-enthusiast, would make a brilliant summer holiday, gives them the right to have all the good things they did emblazened.
Of course there had to be a sequel. Thirty odd years after first reading this book, I can now discover what happened next…

For Children, About Children, By Children: The Books of Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock – Introduction


The valley of the Oxus

Back in the earliest days of this blog, my first book series was about Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons series. As part of that series, I told the story of his wonderful act of generosity in respect of a book called The Far-Distant Oxus.
The story behind that book was the story of two teenaged schoolgirls, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock. The girls went to the same school but did not meet up until one afternoon on a Cross-Country run, when taking shelter from a thunderstorm in a deserted barn. Hull was aged 14, Whitlock 15.
The girls discovered they had several interests in common, most significantly a love for Arthur Ransome’s books, ponies and writing. They decided to work together to write their own Ransome-inspired novel. Where he and his characters were obsessed with sailing, they would write about characters who loved ponies. They would create their own, real-life Exmoor setting,and populate it with names taken from Matthew Arnold’s classic poem, Sohrab and Rustum, which gave them their title: The Far-Distant Oxus.
The girls didn’t just pitch into it. Instead, they took an entirely professional approach, plotting the book in detail and dividing it into chapters, which each girl would write alternately, exchanging each completed one for editing and re-writing.
Once the book was complete, Pamela Whitlock sent a copy of the manuscript to Arthur Ransome, explaining its background. Ransome read it and was massively impressed. Unable to believe at first that this delightful story had been produced by two girls in their mid-teens, he was even more impressed when he had verified that the story was true in every respect. With the permission of the parents, he took the manuscript to his publishers, Jonathan Cape, announcing “I have under my arm the best children’s book of 1937.”
Of course, the publishers’ polite response was, “When did you write it?” but Ransome soon disabused them of that. He was genuinely enthused about the whole thing. Ransome was a writer of adventurous fiction for children, but to him this was the pure thing, stories for children by children. He became Hull and Whitlock’s mentor, always encouraging, guiding them and their parents through the maze of publishing, encouraging Whitlock to provide illustrations which, though crude, were still the equivalent of his own contributions to the Swallows & Amazons series.
But he refrained from advice about the writing itself. This was to be the unspoiled thing, for children, about children, by children. Let no adult interfere!
The Far-Distant Oxus was published by Jonathan Cape in 1937. Though it did not rival Ransome in popularity, his endorsement gave it a great cachet, and the book was very popular, going through several impressions. Hull and Whitlock wrote two sequels, featuring the same children, 1938’s Escape to Persia and 1939’s Oxus in Summer. After the Second World War, the girls – now women, returned to write a final novel, Crowns, but that was the end of their career.
The books went out of print and were available only in second-hand copies that accumulated in price for years. In 1988, The Far-Distant Oxus was republished in a replica edition. I saw it in an Ambleside bookshop, now sadly closed. I can’t remember if I knew of the book from Hugh Brogan’s excellent biography of Ransome by then, but I can only think I must have. I bought it, read it, enjoyed it, and keep it with the Swallows books, where it belongs.
But no such future was available to Escape to Persia or Oxus in Summer. Being both mentally and physically a completist, I wanted to read these, but the rare copies that turned up from time to time were out of my price bracket: £50 plus at best.
Until recently. Recently, an impulse search turned up copies of both, from the same seller, at a combined total of just over £50. This was too much a bargain to ignore, especially with a significant birthday in the offing, so I bought them both.
I shall now dig out The Far-Distant Oxus, to prepare the ground for these two new arrivals, and write a few words about the books. As I do.

Lou Grant: s05 e17 – Blacklist


Blacklisted

There was the core of a decent, and quite possibly very good episode in this week’s story, but in typical Lou Grant fashion it all went for nothing for the series’ refusal to give their set-up an ending. Then again, give that the title indicates quite clearly that we’re going to be dealing with the infamous Fifties, Joe McCarthy, HUAC and the Red Scare, and this was being broadcast in Ronald Reagan’s America, anything remotely pro-Communist was off the table. And how do you treat with the blacklist without condemning it for the sick, ugly thing it was?

For the episode, two new Trib reporters were introduced. Freddye Chapman guests as Abby McCann, introduced out of nowhere as not only working alongside Joe Rossi but also going ut with him. The exact extent of the relationship is blurred, mainly because rossi is white but Abby is black. It doesn’t bother them, but it might bother the audience (according to the imdb review, they share a ‘chaste kiss’: not in the syndicated version I’ve just watched they do). The other can wait his turn in the story.

Rossi and Abby are just two of many frustrated by late responses to requests under the Freedom of Information legislation. They are investigating why a certain physicist was refused a project headship for which he was eminently qualified, on security grounds, but the bulky file is ninety percent redacted. One thing that is left in is a name: F. J. Obler, interviewed in 1952, interview itself redacted. Could that possibly be Frank J. Obler, Trib reporter (William Schallert)? Would I be mentioning him if it wasn’t?

But first we have to go to the source. Abby’s father, Price McCann (Graham Brown) is in LA, to play at a folk concert. Mr McCann is a practical man (is this just a bizarre coincidence or did someone on the writing stuff really want to tip their hat to The Move’s ‘Curly’), a house painter. Thirty years ago he was a folk singer, of growing reputation. Until he was dragged before HUAC as a Commie, refused to name names, and was blacklisted.

The same thing happened to his friend Larry Hill, once an actor, who played Macbeth, and then a teacher of photography. With a certain amount of deliberate poignancy, Larry was played by Jeff Corey, an actor who was blacklisted.

Abby’s sensitive to what happened to her Dad – she was seven at the time, which would make her 37 now, and Freddye Chapman didn’t look 37: it seems impossible to find her age online – and it makes her sensitive to job situations. she’s the only reporter on the Trib who hasn’t applied for the investigative Reporter role that’s come vacant. She’s loathe to approach Obler over her and Joe’s story. When they do, however, Obler denies absolutely knowing the man or ever hearing of his name, but you know he’s lying from his thoughtful air of puzzlement.

Meanwhile, Price and Larry discuss everything and finger Franklin J Obler as a Fink, who hung out with everyone only to give secret testimony to the FBI. To use the terminology of the times, Obler was a Creep, and Abby refuses to work with him when they are abruptly paired in connection with the B story I’ll mention shortly.

Everything’s set up. The Pinko hatred is alive today. Price McCann has had a two page letter this week, in vile terms (not too vile to be read out on Prime Time TV, mind you). It’s a living problem.

And the show lets it all fall apart. The blacklisted, who were denied the careers their talent led to, are full of wise and moderate understanding towards those who ratted (I wonder if Jeff Corey really felt that way). After all, they didn’t starve, and painting houses is a perfectly adequate substitute career for a talented singer who’s still got it even now. As for the Fink, Obler starts off by defending himself: he’d gotten interested in some of the Communists’ social ideas but grew disillusioned, left the party, hated Reds, and gave evidence becauise he didn’t want to lose his job, but then is allowed to admit that he hates the choice he made, he could have fed his family some other way…

And there is no ending. Lou has admitted he doesn’t want to work with the creep but there’s nothing on what happens to Obler. Oh, we won’t see him again, but that’s because he’s a one-off guest star: we’ve never seen him before either, but there’s no outcome.

And there’s no that much of one for Price McCann. He performs at his concert, reminds his audience that America is great, America is a land to love, it wasn’t America that persecuted him (I’m calling it persecution but the episode won’t) and he launches into ‘This Land is My Land’ because ‘God Bless America’ won’t entirely fit, and everyone sings together and no doubt in the unexpurgated version this is where Joe and Abby share their intuh-racial kiss.

As for the B story, it involves Dr Valentine’s column, discussing sexual issues in direct and honest terms for teenagers. It’s controversial: concerned mothers castigate it as filth and campaign to have it removed, the Trib’s Advertising Manager wants it dropped, the paper defends it, one silly mother yelling utside blames the Trib for making her sixteen year old daughter pregnant, never knew the old dog still had it in him. It also goes nowhere, as much because it can’t be afforded a decent amount of space to enable it to breathe and develop whilst attention is being devoted to the Blacklist story that winds up being rather more Greylist, or even Beigelist, because no-one was going to offend anyone on an offensive topic.

If you want a rather more accurate picturee of the times, treat yourself to the film The Front starring Woody Allen, featuring one of the world’s most brilliant and deserved ‘Go fuck yourselves.’ File this Lou Grant under A, for Anodyne.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Evidence


Christopher Priest’s latest novel was published just in time for my recent birthday and was gladly received as a personal present. It’s a return to his near-forty-year-old habit of titles featuring the definite article, and a welcome return to the ever-fascinating environment of the Dream Archipelago: unmapped (unmappable), undefined, a protean landscape of near-infinite malleability.
Yet again, Priest has introduced a mysterious phenomenon, the effects of which will influence the life of the narrator, here being Todd Fremde, professional crime-fiction writer. This is a strange effect, prevalent only on some islands in the Archipelago, those sited upon or close to a geological rift, which is called mutability (small ‘m’).
Mutability appears to arise from gravitational anomalies. Things undergo physical changes, such as a mountain changing shape, that are impossible. Afterwards, the change reverts, and ceases to have actually happened, though anyone dying of it remains dead. In places where it is present, crime-detection is hampered because evidence is rendered completely unreliable.
You might think that you can immediately see the possibilities for crime and crime fiction but, in this respect, and in many others throughout what is, appropriately a detective fiction story, the only possibilities you can see are in your own head. This is a strange book, in which Priest holds out a series of possibilities, a string of questions at all stages, that threaten to be of significance, only for their portended significance to either vanish unexplored, or to turn out to be flat and unexciting.
Summarised simply, this is a book in which a crime fiction writer who has no respect for crime fiction finds himself unwillingly investigating a crime whose ramifications turn out to be banal and cliched, giving the impression that Christopher Priest has no respect for crime fiction, has attempted to write a crime fiction story that exposes crime fiction’s lack of validity and has instead made his own book pointless.
Let me demonstrate immediately by taking the unusual step of quoting the sleeve blurb in its entirety. Todd Fremde, an author of police procedurals and criminal thrillers, is invited to talk at a conference on the remote island of Dearth, far across the Dream Archipelago. How can Dearth claim to be completely crime-free, yet still have an armed police force? Why are they so keen for him to appear, but so dismissive when he appears? Is his sense of time confused, or is something confusing happening to happening to time itself? And how does this all connect with a murder committed on his home island, ten years before, and seemingly forgotten? Fremde’s investigation and research will lead him to some dangerous conclusions…
Now it was Samuel Johnson for once, instead of William Shakespeare, who said that ‘in lapidary inscription a man is not on oath’, nor can the same be said for book blurbs, but this is extraordinary stuff in a Christopher Priest novel. It’s so uncharacteristic that I’m tempted to wonder if this was written by Priest himself as an ironic counterpoint to what the book is really about, because there is no part of this blurb that, except in stick-figure manner, has nothing to do with the book.
But then, as Fremde and Priest constantly remind us, crime fiction has nothing remotely to do with real life, real crime, real transgression.
I can give the answers shortly; because Dearth has re-named crime as civil transgression, changing the terminology not the event; that they do has got nothing to do with anything; it’s the mutability, stupid: and because, for no reason other than to fuel the story, a semi-retired Police Commissioner fastens herself to Fremde, gives him a lift and tells him a story of a crime that bears scant relation to what actually happened.
Frejah Harsent attaches herself, seemingly casually to Fremde in the bar, and the next day offers to drive him all the way across Dearth to the airport, saving him two uncomfortable days on the train, not to mention securing him a much-needed refund that almost obliterates the losses he’s made on a mutability slip. On the way, on the apparent need that Police officers have to tell crimewriters about an interesting past case, she relates a story about a murder on another Salay island, in which it was ultimately found that the victim committed suicide by bashing himself on the back of his head with his own baseball bat. She insists on his recording her story and even ensures he gets correct spellings of the unfamiliar names.
The problem is that, when Fremde’s partner, Jo Delson, and his Police researcher, ex-Detective Inspector Spoder, look up details for him, it’s very easy to identify the case but practically every detail Harsent has given is incorrect.

For a moment, the veteran Priest reader pricks up their ears. Surely we are entering the familiar territory on Unreality, of irreconcilable versions of things that happened, equally valid. But for once we’re not. Harsent is lying. Why is she lying? Why does she want to draw this mater to Fremde’s attention only to later complain about him poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong? Valid questions. Priest doesn’t bother to provide answer to those, either.

In fact, at first it’s Spoder who is the enthusiast, opening up the field of the case to include an actual unsolved murder and insisting on Fremde accompanying him to Salay Sekonda to inspect a murder scene left untouched for ten years, even though Fremde desperately wants to get back to his latest novel. By then, Fremde has solved the ruled-suicide death of fifteen years ago that’s baffled the Police of two islands simply by noting that the victim had an identical twin brother (gee, and the Police didn’t think of that), and going off on a discursion about how the identical twin solution is dead in crime fiction as being cheap and unrealistic.

Perhaps the Unreality in this novel is the schizophrenic attitude Todd Fremde and Christopher Priest have towards crime fiction because neither of them seem to like it or think it worthwhile in any way.

Events multiply.

The second most indefensibly mysterious thing about this story at least fits more with the background of the Dream Archipelago, Back on Dearth, the Hotel Plaza gave Fremde a cardkey for his room door, plus a second, almost identical card, not to be used except under strictly advised circumstances. Needless to say, whilst drunk he uses it, leading to the extra charges that nearly wipe him out. And he overlooks handing it in when he leaves.

Back on Salay Raba, which has pretty much overtaken Muriseay as the financial centre of the whole Archipelago. Fremde discovers he still has it. It has embedded computer chips on both sides. It’s a hotel card pass for a building on a radically different island so, as you do with such things, Fremde pops it into his computer and overrides his security to load up a completely unknown programme that takes hours to instal. As you do.

Then, when it wants to identify his social level to key it to him, Fremde decides that the truth would make it too easy to identify him personally and deflects to the Financial Sector. As you do.

I make this point because, from the moment Fremde loads up this programme, the Salay economy becomes fucked up beyond all recognition. Cashpoints stop delivering cash. Banks fail. Thousands lose their savings. Everything goes to custard. Fremde, who has been do quick to seize on the twin as the mystery murderer, does not show the same mental acuity when it comes to his mystery super-dense programme.

As the story progresses, and I refuse to go into any more detail, the shape of the criminal conspiracy (which is also outdated and unrealistic in crime fiction according to Fremde) begins to appear. There were five participants. It started with Dearth Detective Inspector Enver Jexsid, whose wife abandoned him, taking their twin sons Lew and Deever to run off with a rich man. When she died, stepdaddy abandoned the boys, leaving with them a bag containing shitloads of money to be used by them and anyone else involved. Jexsid went to Salay the fifth, taking with him, for support, his Police partner Frejah Harsent and her then-husband Hari Harsent.

A deal was done to create a tontine (tontines are also old-fashioned and unrealistic in crime fiction. Bet you hadn’t guessed that.) In its pure form, a tontine is a substantial sum of money held in trust, usually among a family to be inherited by the last survivor, though here it’s being used to create an income for the five partners.

The whole thing started when the boys got greedy and decided stepdad meant all the money for them alone. Then Lew wanted to take his share out, so Deever smashed his head in and took the money. After five years of his denying it, Hari Harsent killed him. Jexsid killed him because he’d killed both his sons. Now he’s trying to track Fremde down and kill him because somehow – don’t expect an explanation – he’s sussed out that Fremde’s cardkey has crashed the economy, including all his savings and believes he’s hacked the system to do it deliberately.

Before I move on to the ending, the only other aspect of this novel that is orthodoxically Priest is an odd focus on the social structure throughout the Archipelago. Past novels have referred in outline to seigneurial control, but there’s a greater examination of this, namely that most of the Archipelago runs on a modernised Feudal system, with a twelve-level hierarchy, ranging from serf and citizen serf (Fremde and Jo’s status as freelancers) to Seigneurial status. Frejah Harsent is very status conscious and whilst Fremde tries to avoid even thinking about it but isn’t very successful at that.

Even this aspect isn’t very enlightening. We look at the Dream Archipelago as a kind of funhouse mirror, presenting situations that don’t and can’t work in our world and examining their effect, such as the mutability. This is a social system that is a bit more complex than our own historical feudal system, even if it uses several of the same terms, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the overall story.

Which is about to come to an end.

Fremde’s already been reminded of his cardkey when an update message asks if he wants it concatenating. He has no idea what that means but it goes by the way when he’s delayed from acting and it automatically does. However, he has corrected the protocols to apply to freelance crimewriters, not the financial industry, and things start reverting to normal, a process accelerated by uninstalling.

However, this is too late to forestall the cliched climactic meeting, the library equivalent out on the patio. There’s Fremde and Spoder, and Jo inside showering after returning from her business trip, not to mention Jexsid and Frejah, both with guns they won’t put down and the inevitable happens: the frustrated and half-mad Jexsid points his gun at Fremde and he is hit in the chest.

It’s an ending he automatically rates as unworthy of and unrealistic in crime fiction, if you can stand hearing that again. But this is where mutability rears its head. Fremde wakes up two days later, in hospital, alive but with a very sore chest. What’s now happened is that Jexsid missed, because Spoder, anticipating his move, swung round and punched Fremde very hard in the chest, knocking him out of the way but causing him to fall over and hit his head.

At least I’m assuming this is the effect of mutability because Fremde doesn’t even think about it and it’s so short a space of time afterwards that under normal mutability conditions, witnesses would not have forgotten the first version, but if it isn’t mutability, what the hell is the point of introducing the concept into the book at all when the only other thing it does in switch Fremde’s hotel lights on and change the gauge of his railway train’s tracks?

No, I cannot say that The Evidence comes anywhere near in quality to any of Christopher Priest’s previous work. It is a crime fiction in a world where special conditions affect crimes and criminalities but which appear to have no effect on this story. It sets up multiple questions, it has melodramatic chapter titles emphasising mysteries about trivialities, it has an author – two, in fact – pouring only slightly alleviated scorn on crime fiction and an almost deliberately banal explanation for a murder mystery investigated with not the least motivation to do so.

In short, it is a pointless book. All I can say is that I hope Christopher Priest writes another good novel. He is a decade or so older than me and I’d hate to have to remember this as his last novel, the way I have to remember The Shepherd’s Crown when it comes to Terry Pratchett.

A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘The Summer People’


The Summer People is the fourth and last of this short series revisiting my memories of reading John Rowe Townsend in the early Seventies. It was published in 1972, his ninth novel, making it the latest in his career I’ve re-read, and it is, fittingly, the most mature, complex and atmospheric of this group. Indeed, were it not that the story is almost entirely about teenagers, I’d be rolling up my sleeves and preparing to argue that this is not a children’s book at all.
At first, when I was selecting books to re-experience, I did not think of The Summer People. There were The Intruder and the two Hallersage books only. But there was another book of which I remembered only one moment, and nothing else. Titles in his bibliography meant little or nothing to me. It had to be an early one. I tried to find out about some of his books through Goodreads and the moment I read the least bit about The Summer People, I knew I had solved my memory problem. So here we are.
The book begins with a short letter addressed to Stephen and Carolyn, whoever they may be. It is a covering letter for a mass of paper written by Philip Martin, our narrator for these events. Philip will tell his story of a summer in the first person and the present tense, bringing events of a quarter-century to life in his own eyes and mind by the primitive ritual of re-experiencing them as if they were still happening.
Who Stephen and Carolyn are we won’t learn until the closing page, though Philip drops out of his account a couple of times to address them directly. They are the coincidence that drives Philip to his memories, to explain something that happened, and to resist strenuously glossing over his own less-than-stellar part in what came about.
The Summer People are three families, friends and business partners. Each family owns a beach bungalow at Linley Bottom, an east coast fishing village and miniature resort in Yorkshire. Traditionally, the families – the Martins, the Pillings and the Foxes – holiday together, five adults (Mrs Pilling is a widow) and seven children, all but one of them aged between fifteen and eighteen. This will be the last such holiday: the ‘children’ are growing out of the kind of childish holiday they’ve always enjoyed, Linley Bottom is slowly dying, both economically and physically, as the waves eat away at the land. And there is another reason why this will be the last holiday. This is August 1939.
Philip is aged 16. He is the middle child in the Martin family, the only boy. His sisters Paula and Alissa are 18 and 7 respectively. Sylvia Pilling is his exact contemporary, born the same day. They have been lifelong friends and confidants. All three families regard them as a ‘suitable’ match and are happy to let them go off together all alone all the time. But Philip and Sylvia know each other too well for any romantic or even erotic frisson to exist. Sylvia’s brother, Brian, is 15. As for the Foxes, there is Rodney, aged 18, very intelligent, thoughtful and quiet, his eye attuned to the news headlines, as convinced that War is nigh as his vulgar father is that it will never happen, and the buxom Brenda, aged 15, who’s definitely feeling her budding sexuality.
The threat of War hangs over this latest holiday, which the adults trying to pretend their removal from it. The Martin-Pilling small clothing company is in danger of collapse. Early on, Philip taunts his father and hurts him deeply over how a war would be the business’s saving. It’s adolescent awkwardness, and cruelty, but by the time War comes about, his father admits the firm should have closed a year ago and he had kept it going so long out of desperate hope that this might happen.
But this is not the foundation of the story. That is Sylvia’s wish that she and Philip go off together, away from the family, every day, not out of a yearning for his company, but because she has fallen for Harold Ericcson, a young Scandinavian God of a fisherman. Harold has to be kept a secret: her mother would throw a fit: the difference in social class…
Philip agrees to provide his friend with a cover, but on the first day the arrangement becomes real for him as well. Exploring the cliffs, he decides to try to get into the furthest of a trio of cottages now abandoned to the crumbling cliff-edge. This is where he finds Ann.
Philip draws an immediate contrast between Sylvia, blonde, beautiful and, it is heavily implied, with a seriously hot figure, and Ann, dark-haired, pale, not pretty, flat-chested. Ann, whose surname is Tarrant, lives with her mother, receptionist at the Imperial Hotel. She’s recuperating from time spent in a sanatorium, which automatically leads everyone to think of tuberculosis, deadly and contagious. But Ann is recovering from pleurisy, getting her strength back. Not only is she skinny and under-developed but she is physically weak: she is not allowed to swim, and long walks exhaust her.
Philip isn’t even attracted to her, curious as she looks. The pair are awkward with each other, only able to converse with any natural fluidity when they hide behind nineteenth century formal language, which becomes both a private language as well as a screen for them. There are so many reasons for Philip not to be interested in her, and he is conscious of all of them, not least the fact that the class barrier operates between the two of them.
But Ann draws him, in part against his will. She is dependant upon him and his company, the only one she has. Gradually, the pair settle into a relationship. Ann tells Philip she loves him and in turn he says the same to her. The pair hug frequently. They even kiss, but never more, not that it stops Mrs Tarrant giving him a warning about not getting too excited about Ann that exactly parallels the warning he gets from Mrs Pilling about Sylvia.
There’s a strange intensity to the relationship that, without ever conforming to the usual development of a boy-girl interest in each other, goes far beyond it. But Ann is the more committed of the two, and Philip, aware on a number of levels of the impossibility of things continuing, disturbed in his emotions, acts abominably towards Ann on several occasions, creating a shame he admits outside his narrative, directly to Steven and Carolyn.
Things come to a head as they must. Harold’s enlisted in the Navy and is going off early to see a pal in Newcastle, good pals being more important than girls. This comes on top of Sylvia and Philip’s subterfuge being exposed by Paula Martin, a thoroughgoing dissatisfied, nasty-minded bitch. Everything explodes. The War arrives. The holiday breaks up. And so do Philip and Ann.
Philip has been honest enough throughout this account to expose all his faults and failings with regard to Ann. One is the moment I remembered before I remembered the book: the youngsters go off for a picnic on the sands, like they used to, a last and forlorn gesture to the past they’re all leaving rapidly, on different courses. In the car on the way back, busty Brenda pulls Philip’s face down to hers and they snog. It’s a betrayal, and Philip knows its a betrayal. But still he snogs Brenda. Not because he wants to but because it’s easy to do and not have to think about, unlike Ann.
But things have not yet ended. Philip promises to see Ann on Tuesday, but delays and delays. Even though he’s drunk, he keeps his promise, arriving at the abandoned cottage at 11.30pm. Ann’s there, in bed, planning to sleep overnight. With borrowed and oversized pyjamas, Philip joins her. No, they don’t. But they hold and they talk and they breathe each other’s breath, content and trusting in each other. It’s the zenith, the apotheosis. In the morning, the Martins urgently return to London. Philip and Ann don’t say goodbye, at least they don’t use the word. They never see each other again.
Philip brings his account to an end by summarising what followed, over the years. Everyone in the three families prospered, had great success in life and business. Ann never replied to Philip’s letters, if she ever got them, but by chance he learned she had become a Librarian, emigrated to Australia and married, only to die early, in a road accident. Her daughter is Carolyn. She is at a university in America, and is a couple with Steven. Steven is Philip’s son. His mother is Sylvia. Philip’s story is of a great coincidence that only became a coincidence because of a second, later coincidence.
That ending set the seal on the book for me. It is an excellent story, written carefully and clearly. Townsend creates the atmosphere of the time, of that febrile, never-to-be-completed summer with a concise skill that brings it to life. Linley Bottom, with its ongoing decay, as much physical as it is economic, is both setting and symbol for a tale of disintegration. I reached the end, in the sense of the separation of Philip from Anne, both disliking of his betrayal of what was real between them, and clearly with the capacity to be important beyond measure, and yet sympathetic to his confusion, his ultimately inability to escape the expectations of his family, but most of all his underlying fear of the responsibility being asked of him, for Anne and her feelings and her needs, far greater as far more important than those of the ‘suitable’ Sylvia.
Yet that smug synopsis, that recounting of the fortunes of the three families, their middle-class entitlement, made me hate him and them. Mr Martin openly admits that he’s kept the firm open this long in the desperate hope of a War to save its prospects, and it is the company’s success, in war and after, that is, that is the building block for a host of good lives, successful lives, sweeping all before them lives. Lordships and Headmistressships and War Heroes and Members of Parliament, successes in business, prestigious marriages. Even the most eminently suitable marriage between Philip and Sylvia, in defiance of genuine feelings.
And Anne, the one real individual amongst them, the outsider, left to live a pallid, uneventful, quiet life, to die early from the irony of an accident and no fault of her fragility. But Anne’s fragility was more than in body and the Summer People left her behind.
No, this is a most powerful book, and I am so glad to have rediscovered it, but I cannot say that I have come out of it admiring and respecting its narrator or any of his families.

Except in the way that most children’s authors retain a fandom long after their death, even as their books disappear, John Rowe Townsend is now forgotten. Not for him the aura of a Ransome or a Garner. But I would rate The Summer People as worthy of the same immortality that belongs to Swallows and Amazons or The Owl Service.
I am profoundly grateful that I remembered it in time.