Some Books: Henry Cecil’s ‘Independent Witness’


Since 2014, when I went in search of books I had once read and re-read enthusiastically from Didsbury Library, I began an occasional series about re-discovering such books after something like thirty years. I am curious about whether I still find them appealing, and if this is for more than nostalgia for the times they are associated with.
I’m assuming it was after I’d started directing my efforts at a Law Degree and a career in the Law to follow that I started reading Henry Cecil from my local library.
Henry Cecil was the pen-name of Henry Cecil Leon, a County Court judge who, between 1951 and 1977 (posthumously), was a successful novelist, mostly of comic tales with a legal background, for which he drew upon his own experiences. His first big success, Brothers in Law, about his time in training, was converted into a BBC sitcom with Richard Briers in the main role.
Cecil was a prolific writer, well-represented in Didsbury, and I must have read between two-thirds and three-quarters of his output, though the last few books were not up to the general standard of his work. There are probably a dozen or so that I would remember on re-reading but only one that I’ve kept in memory all these years. Recently, I was reminded of it and, finding a paperback copy available cheap on eBay, laid hands on it to read again.
Independent Witness (published in 1963 and first read probably in 1973) had a profound effect upon me at the time of reading it, and taught me lessons that I’ve observed all my life since. Though it contains Cecil’s usual gentle comedy, ultimately the story is serious, one might almost say deadly serious, and it is that seriousness that impressed itself upon me.
The set-up is simple. A car arrives at a road junction and stops at the Halt sign. Seeing no traffic, it starts across the junction. A motor cyclist tears round a blind bend and hits the car. The cyclist is thrown over the car’s roof and suffers serious injuries. The motorist drives off, leaving half a dozen or more independent witnesses behind.
MP Michael Barnes comes forward a couple of days later to admit to the accident, and is charged with dangerous driving. His wife is suffering from an extremely difficult pregnancy, hence his rush to get home to her, she having collapsed. There are some mental issues involved, and she needs to be kept free of agitation.
At first, the case, which is to be heard at the Old Bailey, in front of Mr Justice Grampion, who is notorious for his lacerating comments about drivers and levying maximum sentences. Against Barnes are these eight or nine independent witnesses. They do not know either the accused or the victim, they have no axe to grind, they are presumed to give wholly objective and truthful evidence because they have no stake whatsoever in the verdict. In short, they are Independent.
Anthony Wimbledon, Michael’s Solicitor, engages a QC named Oliphant to conduct the defence. However, Michael’s journalist friend Andrew Mortlake, employs a dirty, underhand, unethical trick (worthy of the legal profession, that man) gets Grampion out of the way by engineering a ‘casual’ bumping into the Judge, during which he and Michael exchange derogatory words about Grampion, unaware (well, Michael is) that it is the very man who’s about to try the MP.
Grampion, who may be down on drivers, is nevertheless scrupulously fair and offers the Defence the chance to request he stand down which, amidst a paean from all sides to the Judge’s ethical standards and ability to exclude personal considerations, Oliphant jumps at.
I was actually quite disappointed at that twist. It wasn’t the underhand nature of the trick, but it came over as a cheat on the reader. Cecil goes to great lengths to set Grampion up as a fearsome threat, a dangerous arbiter, an obstacle to Michael’s hopes of acquittal, and then he’s removed before he can say a judicial word, in far too easy a manner.
All of this is the set-up, the context for the purpose of the book, which is Oliphant’s cross-examination of the witnesses. This is why we’re here, authorially, and this is why I’m here forty-odd years on from first reading the book.
Oliphant can’t attack each or any one of the witnesses. That would invite disaster, both in the hardening of their testimony, and in the eyes of the Judge, who will respond harshly to harsh conduct to the witnesses.
What Cecil draws out though, through the careful, patient, controlled cross-examination by Oliphant, is that though the testimony each witness offers is honest, and given in a sense of public duty, not one of them can be relied upon. And each is undermined, their reliability in the eyes of the Jury gently demolished without their characters being in any way traduced.
Because not every independent witness is truly independent. Some have thoughts and opinions that are brought out by prejudice against the Defendant. Some are too independent, people going about their business, their concerns, who did not see what actually happened but genuinely believe in their testimony, though it’s shaped by talking afterwards with others, and constructing a narrative of what they think must have happened.
Each of the witnesses gives the same story: the car raced across the junction at a mad speed, without stopping for the Halt sign (ancient Road Traffic laws, you stop at a Halt sign, no matter how clear everything may be) and that the cyclist was driving at a moderate speed. We know that isn’t true, having ‘seen’ the accident for ourselves on page 1. But these witnesses are adamant, and honest, in describing it diifferent.
The storyis an object lesson in objectivity, especially for one who was working towards making his career in the law around which this revolved. I was completely absorbed in the forensic nature of the questioning, a technique of constantly returning to the actual scene, to what the witness actually saw, and confronting them with the logical inconsistencies between what they thought and what was actually possible, until the honest admitted their mistake, and those who had invested themselves too deeply in what they believed they’d seen blustered too much in defence of their testimony to remain credible.
But the point I took away was that the witnesses were honest, and said what they believed they had seen. Oliphant’s point, made patiently and gently, aimed at getting the idea into the juror’s heads rather than getting the witness to recant (one does, but in an admirably tough-minded piece of plotting, the Prosecution subjects her recantation to exactly the same doubts Oliphant is raising).The actual point is that none of them had seen the actual incident. Each had been thinking about their various preoccupations, had looked up at the sound of the collision, had talked to one another and had retrospectively constructed a version of what they hadn’t seen to fit their reaction to the injury to the unprotected cyclist and the driver’s rapid departure from the scene.
There’s a substantial twist near the end. The Prosecution rests. All Michael Barnes has to do is to go into the witness box, give straightforward testimony, and his acquittal is assured. But Michael refuses. Oliphant gets round it admirably in his closing speech. The Defendant is not obliged to give evidence, in fact until sixty years previously (then) he wasn’t even allowed to. Michael Barnes is a public figure. He is entitled to a verdict that he can point to and say there was no credible evidence, I did not even need to answer it.
Michael is acquitted, even though his legal advisors more or less assume he’s lied to them throughout and did commit the crime: what else can you think? All Oliphant’s patient work in undermining the witnesses and they were right all along. But here comes the double-twist: Michael was not driving the car. It was Sheila. And he’s taken the rap, risked his whole future, to protect her. He just couldn’t lie on oath and say he was the driver.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that every single witness could have been shot down as unreliable on the most basic of points: they all said the car was driven by a man!
The concept and the story still holds, though I am less enamoured of some of the diversions Cecil includes to pad the book out. One witness is Cecil’s recurring character Colonel Brain, a garrulous, rambling, beer-drinking idiot who I may have found funny once but who now is an intolerable nuisance. Worse however is the eighty year old Mrs Benson, obsessed with getting her licence back so she can drive again and getting muddled up between her testimony and her application to have her licence restored, for pages at length. If your attention doesn’t wander through this bit, you should have yourself checked for rigor mortis.
But to come back to why I remember this book out of all the Henry Cecil’s I enthusiastically read, it is down to that central point. Be observant. Be objective. Be accurate with yourself. Separate what you actually see and hear from what you think might explain it. Be clinical. It is vitally important that you bear true witness to things. That was the lesson I took away, and I adhere to it still, to the best of my ability. Stick to the facts, man. And retain this book.

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Beyond the Pine Tree: Malcom Saville’s The Buckinghams


Back in 2017, on a whim, I reacquired the complete Malcolm Saville Lone Pine Club series that I’d loved so much as a boy in the Sixties. As well as re-reading the series, more than once, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about various aspects of the books and the characters in them.
My rediscovery of Saville has roused a bit of curiosity about others of his books. He was a prolific author of children’s books, all but two of them in series that ran to a minimum of three books. The only other Saville books I read in the Sixties were the Jillies’ series, five of the original six books, which I enjoyed as Sixties stories without being in the least conscious that these were books written and set before my birth.
With one exception, I don’t remember seeing any other Saville series back then, though the evidence of the Armada books editions available for so many varying prices on eBay clearly demonstrates they were there if I had wanted to hunt further afield. The exception was one of the Marston Baines’ books, a series clearly intended for older readers, which I turned down when the one I looked at in the Library had a scene involving kissing!
Whilst I wouldn’t mind re-reading the Jillies, and of course the one I missed first time, I am conscious that the Armada versions, much like the Lone Pine books, will be heavily edited down, and the originals tend to be a bit expensive for my budget, given the other books I am simultaneously pursuing.
But in the late 2000s, Evans Books, the original publishers, put out commemorative editions of the first three Buckinghams books, in a similar format to the GirlsGoneBy Lone Pine editions, albeit without any editorial material. Still, these are complete first edition texts with the original Alice Bush illustrations, and I could get decent copies of all three for about a tenner through eBay.
The Buckinghams series is a bit of an oddball. Saville wrote three books in the early Fifties, a fourth a decade later and then returned to the characters in the early Seventies for a final two stories. You’d expect these last two books to be easier to get in the Armada editions and, given that Saville was, by then, pretty much writing directly for Armada, I’d be willing to take on trust that these are complete. A quick survey on Book Finder reveals that, as assumptions go, that’s a pile of fetid dingo’s kidneys. It may be some time before I can do an article on the later books..

So: who are the Buckinghams? There are two of them, brother and sister Simon and Juliet (often called Julie). Juliet, who is described immediately as pretty, and has striking blonde hair, is about eighteen months older than her brother, the pair being fourteen and thirteen respectively in their debut, in The Master of Maryknoll.
There may only be two Buckinghams but the books are about the adventures of a trio, the other member being the half English, half Polish Charles Renislau, a talented violin player and son of a highly regarded Polish composer.
The Master of Maryknoll introduces Charles first. It’s England, post-War. Charles’ father has been missing, presumed dead, since the outbreak of World War II in Warsaw when, a patriot, he went to war to defend his country. Renislau managed to send his English wife and young son out of the country, with his violin, since when they’ve lived with Mrs Renislau’s brother, businessman Martin Strong, in the Midlands.
Charles is unhappy. His Uncle is unsympathetic, his Aunt Mary a social-climbing snob who makes it clear he is beneath her, and his cousins Cyril and Derek are ignorant and offensive, forever making plain the distinction between them, who go to fee-paying Boarding schools, and Charles, who goes to the local Grammar. Charles has little or no interests in common with any of his family other than his mother, and when the book starts, she has gone to Switzerland for mysterious purposes: Charles fears she is seriously ill and this is being kept from him. The adult reader quickly works out what her absence is really about.
But in the meantime, Charles falls foul of his cousins. Cyril demands Charles bowl at him but Charles is far too good a cricketer and humiliates him. This leads to a fight, to Charles going indoors when two snobbish neighbour girls arrive to play tennis, offending his Uncle, and eventually leading to a major argument with his oh-so-charming cousins, who maliciously tell him he and his mother are charity cases and no-one wants him there.
Stung o the quick, his pride rising, Charles decides to run away and prove he can keep himself. Naturally, he takes his most prized possession, his Dad’s violin.
Enter the Buckinghams. Dad’s a writer, like Saville himself, whilst the effervescent and energetic Juliet is an aspiring actress, and one with a degree of talent. Simon’s just a kid brother, home from boarding school for the first time. But there’s a very good relationship between the two siblings: the banter is affectionate but both respect each other and make time to act in concert.
It’s an odd first encounter: the enthusiastic Juliet gets everyone up early one morning, to have breakfast outside in the garden of their house, Leasand, somewhere to the south of Ludlow (aha, we are bordering on Lone Pine territory here!). And they are eating out in their garden when a boy of similar age to Juliet cycles by. Between her and him, the family ends up asking Charles to share their breakfast table, in return for his helping with chores around the place. And despite the fact he refuses to give them his real name, or where he has run away from, everybody intrinsically trusts ‘John Brown’. And neither parent objects when the Buckingham children decide to follow this perfect stranger travelling under an admitted false name to help him with his adventure.
Yes, it’s a different world, in space and time, but I find this much much harder to accept than the licence given to the Mortons the day they met Peter Sterling. Juliet and Simon are planning to be away for days, without their parents knowing where they are unless they phone home, and intending to sleep in barns and under haystacks.
There’s a very different dynamic between the three characters. Charles varies between being grateful to his new friends for the assistance and company they provide, and driving them, or at least Simon, away with his tendency towards melodrama and emotionalism. You see, whisper it, but Charles isn’t fully English. He’s half foreigner, which makes him over-emotional (I’m not sure what the image was of Poles in the early Fifties, but Charles is treated like a toned-down version of a French boy, and you know what they’re like.)
This is a Malcolm Saville book so there must be a menace of some sort. This is in the form of Septimus Bland, the titular character, who has opened his grounds for an extensive flower show to which the children are admitted. Charles and Juliet put on a popular mini-recital, but Bland shows great interest in Charles and especially in his violin. Charles finds himself effectively a prisoner, under pressure from Bland – who will eventually be revealed as a fence of stolen goods, particularly artistic ones – who ends up stealing the violin with the intention of selling it to an American collector.
It takes the Buckinghams to get Charles out, and it takes their father and uncle to intercept the dealer in London, who proves to be too ethical to proceed with the intended purchase of the stolen violin.
By now, everybody is in London. Charles has had to promise to go back to his Uncle’s but things have changed dramatically, in a way nobody’s telling him about but which isn’t hard to guess. His mother is back from Switzerland, his father’s Violin Concerto is to get its first English performance at the Royal Albert hall, and everyone is to attend. And not until Charles is reunited with his mother is the secret revealed: his father is alive, he has escaped from Poland after years of imprisonment and torture, and he is here: in fact, he will conduct his Concerto himself.
It’s a moment of great emotional release for everybody, a triumph on every level. And the book ends with Charles walking towards the father he has believed dead for a decade.
It was odd to read a non-Lone Pine Club book by Saville, for the first time in over forty years. The dynamics were completely different, first in there only being three characters, with their own individualities, and secondly for the melodramatic aspect arising naturally from the circumstances of Charles and affecting him personally, instead of being a formulaic criminal enterprise into which the Buckinghams stumble. And I was interested that, long before Peter Sterling was described as going-to-be-beautiful-one-day, Juliet Buckingham was not only described in physically striking terms but was openly stated to be pretty from the outset.
Not that there was the least element of sexual tension between her and Charles, though the likeliness of this is obvious to modern eyes. They are just boy and girl of similar ages, free of emotion or any kind of soppiness. Juliet simply believes in Charles on sight and gives him friendship. The only other girls in the book, his cousins’ stuck-up tennis partners, are beneath Charles’ contempt. In that respect, he’s a bit like a distant Jon Warrender.
Overall, I’d call it as a minor book in comparison to the Lone Pine series, though it is refreshingly free of many of that series’ flaws (and I don’t just mean the Twins). Then again, it has its own flaws, mainly in the distinction it is determined to draw about how Charles is different, because he’s not wholly English.

The Buckinghams at Ravenswyke appeared in 1952. Unlike the readers’ insistence on the Lone Piners staying the same age, Saville was under no such pressure and the two year gap between the books is reflected in the story. Two years have passed and Juliet is now sixteen, and has moved on from being pretty to beautiful: indeed, her appearance is so striking, heads are turning wherever she goes.
She and Simon have not really kept up with Charles Renislau: an exchange of letters, and then Charles has been spending time adjusting to having a father, and to a father who, whilst he is returning to composing and has become a British citizen, is still traumatised by the memories of his years of imprisonment, torture and escape.
Just as Juliet and Simon are not getting very far with their parents over the prospect of a holiday away this summer, a very long letter arrives out of the blue from Charles, updating them, getting far too emotional even for Juliet, and offering them a holiday. The Renislaus have moved from London to Ravenswyke, on the edge of the North Yorks Moors, near Whitby, where Alex can compose more peacefully, and invite the Buckinghams to stay.
Whilst the Lone Pine books are all about the adventure, Saville clearly has more creative freedom with a less popular series. There is an adventure, which once again arises organically from the characters’ situation, but this comes in the middle of the story and, though overwhelming at the time, is more or less put away with long before the end. The novel’s structure in that respect is a bell curve.
The drama involves the disappearance of Alex Renislau, in Whitby, on the day the Buckinghams arrive. Charles is very disturbed, not least because his father had been acting happy, and relaxed, more so than he’d ever been, and then changes demeanour on seeing a sailor in the harbour.
The ‘sailor’ is actually a spy, and a torturer that Alex knows from Poland. Alex follows him to a junk shop but Jan has already recognised him and Alex is taken prisoner. The Buckinghams and Charles are taken more seriously by the Police than the Lone Piners usually are when they report the disappearance (this is what happens when you’re not dragging the Twins around with you), and between them they find where Alex is held and assist his release.
That’s not the whole of the drama. Jan turns up incognito as a beach artist at Robin Hood’s Bay, who sketches Juliet whilst Charles and Simon are watching cricket, and when the children get lost on the moors in a sea-roke, and have to take refuge in an occupied cave overnight, it’s pretty obvious who’s been hiding there, but even though nearly everybody shifts to London for the last couple of chapters, Jan is captured pretty much offscreen.
No, those last few chapters shift well away from the action, to holiday concerns, and Charles’ debut for the Ravenswyke Cricket Club in a manner that would never do for David, Peter and Co.
One final point that struck me: Juliet’s now 16 and clearly very attractive. She doesn’t mind being appreciated, but nobody tries to be more than appreciative of her good looks, so her own emotional maturity remains untested. Given that he’s of similar age and has been described as handsome from the beginning, Charles is an obvious interest for her, like Mandy and Guy in the Jillies’ series.
But not only is Charles all but oblivious to Juliet as anything more than a dear friend (when the Cricket Club’s star twenty year old batsman displays obvious interest in the fair blonde, Charles is momentarily disgruntled, but this lead is not followed up at all), but Juliet is frequently snappy with Charles, and to his face, about his un-English over-emotionality. Even when he is openly rude, she makes it clear she doesn’t want an apology, when one is clearly merited.

Once again, two years passed before the third, and for nearly a decade, last book, The Long Passage, two years for the reader at any event, but not the Buckinghams. Once again, there seems to have been no meetings between them and Charles since the last book, contact having been limited to the exchange of letters between the golden-haired Juliet and her handsome friend.
What precipitates matters here is the arrival of a substantial royalty cheque for Mr Buckingham, on the strength of which he hires a caravan for a fortnight and takes his kids on a touring holiday aimed at Brighton and Sussex, his home county and perhaps their next home. Mrs Buckingham, not being into caravanning, goes off on her own for a week: it’s a good job this is a Malcolm Saville book or tongues might wag.
By coincidence, once they reach Brighton, the Buckinghams see Charles there. His Dad is touring, and he has written to tell them, in the hope they can get to Brighton, though the letter arrived after the party left Shropshire, and has to be forwarded on to them.
This time, the gang is transformed by the addition of two new characters. First there’s Maisie Dallas, an American girl, whose family have become firm if unlikely friends with the Renislaus. Maisie is sixteen, dresses like twenty, talks all the time and is truly getting up Charles’ nose (even if his reactions are expressed in a way that suggests he’s seriously not ready for girls yet). Naturally, she’s the occasion for the green eye from Juliet, but her enthusiastic adoption of all Charles’ friends when she meets them disarms our lovely blonde and there’s no serious rivalry between them after all.
The other is Sarah Temple, a young girl, eleven and nearly twelve, who meets the Buckinghams unpropitiously when, on a late evening ride on her horse, the family’s guest and new friend, antiques shop owner Mr Foster, startles her horse, throwing her. Though she’s initially rude, as who wouldn’t be, the family’s kindness and patience quickly wins her over and she wants Juliet and Simon to visit her home the next day. And Simon seems taken with Sarah, despite her being about eighteen months younger than him.
The thing is, Sarah’s father has recently died and her mother is having to sell their ancestral home and its possessions. The auction is tomorrow. In order that her mother should not be the only one to lose her things, Sarah, a brave little girl, has put some of her things, including a china cow once given her by her father, that she loves, into the auction as well. Taken by the girl’s sacrifice, Simon and Juliet buy it for her at the auction, only to find that the old box it comes with has a secret panel, inside which an exquisite, and no doubt valuable miniature is concealed.
Both the Buckinghams and Charles have already seen Foxy Simmonds, the assistant to Septimus Bland in The Master of Maryknoll, set up in Brighton, and still crooked. The five strong gang, with Maisie and Sarah accepted quite naturally, are out to foil attempts to steal the miniature.
There is a twist, a rather unSaville-like twist, when the friendly Mr Foster turns out to be part of the gang. I saw it coming, in his appearance out of the blue at a significant moment, but it’s a move Saville never attempted in the Lone Pine series, where imposters always failed to convince the astute Lone Piners even if they took in the grown-ups.
The increase in numbers works quite well and smoothly. I assume Maisie was a one-off, given where her family come from (and Saville really cannot write convincing Americans) but it wouldn’t surprise me if Sarah Temple returns in the fourth book: she gives Simon a partner of his own age, and a sense of responsibility, although at the end the youngest pair go all Twins-like when they think they’re being left out, and have their own, rather contrived adventure, which does at least justify the book’s title.
On the other hand, the increase in the cast, and the use of a problem that arises from the outside makes The Long Passage the weakest of the three books. Consciously or unconsciously, Saville is shaping the series towards the formula of the Lone Pine books. Doing so might make the writing a little easier for him but it doesn’t serve the character of the Buckinghams and Charles, nor is it helpful to turn them into second-rate copycats.
It’s interesting to note that after this book, Saville discontinued the series. It was nine years before he returned to the Buckinghams with a one-off story, and another eight years after that before two final books that took place abroad, instead of in England. Could it be that he recognised that with The Long Passage he was in danger of plagiarising himself, and stopped until a genuinely new idea, or ideas, came up?
Overall, it was refreshing to read a few Saville books that didn’t conform to the tropes of the Lone Pine series, and I’d enjoy reading the other three in the series. It could simply be that I was reading these for the first time, without familiarity, but the books came over as relatively minor works. That impression may well change on a re-reading, but I did enjoy the relative naturalness. This was an enjoyable experiment, and one that determines me to get access to the Jillies books again. GirlsGoneBy, are you listening?.

Under a Solitary Tree: The Love Story of David and Peter (Part 3)


Treasure at Amorys

There’s a very good case for saying that Not Scarlet But Gold is the end of David and Peter’s story, and indeed at one point it was going to be the end of the series. But Saville had two more relationships to attend to, to bring to their proper conclusions.
Peter isn’t present for Treasure at Amorys. Her status as David’s girlfriend is accepted and her absence is felt, but as usual, Jon and Penny take the forefront.
Penny’s loyalty to Jon has been one-sided for over 90% of the time we’ve known the Warrenders, and his dismissive attitude to her has far too frequently been condescending and cruel. His every now and then decency doesn’t begin to make up for all the times he has ranted at her, anywhere that is except in Penny’s heart and mind. She has worshipped him since before they were first introduced, and it is significant that it is only now, when their long relationship is about to be ended, that Jon decides that he likes girls after all. Even then, it shows itself in a twisted manner, with Jon deciding that the prospect of Penny becoming engaged or married to someone else is ‘disgraceful’.
He’s taken her for granted for so long, only seen her as an object for his disparagement. Even when he decides he’d rather have more than one day alone with her before the Mortons arrive, he’s calling her a little fool when she cuts her ankle, swimming. But God forbid she should look at even an imaginary other man.
No, I do not have much, or indeed any sympathy for Jonathan Warrender in his path towards the happiness and the love that his cousin has wanted all along. He does not deserve her, not for a second. But he’s what she wants.
The Morton’s visit is supposed to be a last hurrah, but as always Miss Ballinger is hanging around. Penny is kidnapped and terrorised, Jon turns into a righteous fury and rescues her almost single-handed, and the pair end up kissing frantically.
But that’s as far as Saville could let himself go. He’d set up the Warrenders as cousins long before the idea of any romances between Lone Piners could ever have been considered and his beliefs couldn’t allow Jon and Penny the same outcome the other loving couples merited. Their future would forever be blurred.

Man with Three Fingers

Tom and Jenny’s story has been pretty much a background one in this long essay, because it has simply been there, established quickly and unchanging. It started offstage, between Seven White Gates, when the two meet, exchange no conversations, and we’re told that Jenny hangs rapturously on Tom’s every word, and The Secret of Grey Walls where Jenny’s commitment to Tom is already established, and Tom is her determined champion.
And that’s how it is, book in, book out, always more than just boys and girls who are friends, but never anything else. Jenny frequently suggests Tom is neglecting her, and he always phlegmatically points out that his time is not his own, and but when he can he makes time to see her. Jenny is the more overt: remember that lovely moment in The Neglected Mountain when the Twins assume that the boys and the girls will make up separate pairs, and Jenny and Peter exchange nervous glances. It’s always been those two, and it always will be.
The first overt suggestion of anything more comes in Not Scarlet But Gold. Tom turns up, deus ex machina style, to rescue Jenny from a brutish lout. To her, his miraculous appearance is all that is needed, but though he says nothing, though he’s never been responsive to her affection, Tom sees her hurt and realises that he feels for her what she has felt for him for so long.
Typically, though, he says nothing to her. That’s left to Man with Three Fingers where Tom, more than any of the others, is facing adolescent blues. It’s him rather than anyone else, because his, beside Jenny’s, is the most restrictive life, a small farm, hard work, no regular contact with friends and an Uncle who hasn’t yet begun to adjust to the idea of Tom as an adult. A slightly older friend who offers a glimpse of a wider life, Ned, disturbs Tom’s equilibrium. And the person most concerned with his equilibrium, Jenny, who is reaching the point where she can at last be explicit about what she wants, is full of fear that he will be pulled away from her.
Tom’s thoughtlessness extends not merely to Jenny but to the Mortons, and Peter, who is worried up to the last minute that David, far away from her, in the big city with thousands of girls… distractions, will have forgotten her. But David is constant: Peter is now his only concern, and the Lone Pine Club, despite having been the foundation of lifelong friendships, is a distraction from the all too brief pleasure of being with Peter.
But Jenny’s misery and anger about Tom’s defection is overlaid with fear when she learns he’s been attacked and injured. Peter’s father counsels understanding and patience, but Jenny can’t help herself and shows her anger towards him, only to be totally disarmed by a present he had bought for her. It’s only cheap beads, but it’s a sign she very much needs to receive, and it gives her the confidence to kiss Tom, for the first time. And it’s no peck, but a very prolonged and serious kiss.
That’s almost all there is. Tom is still too easily open to manipulation by his histrionic friend, but Jenny shows sense in acting as if she’s a given in his life, and she gets her reward in Shrewsbury: Tom goes off following the man who assaulted him, but before he does he tells her, she’s his girl, and kisses her.
All that’s left is melodrama, and Tom reconciles with his Uncle who’s been a father to him, and that includes telling him Jenny will one day come to Ingles as a farmer’s wife, something Alf and Betty have known for a very long time, could not be happier about, and welcome as a long overdue commitment to Ingles’ future.

Rye Royal

There was one more Warrender book and one more chance for Saville to give Jon and Penny the conclusion all his fans wanted, but once again he was unable to do so. Penny hasn’t gone to India, for which no explanation has been given, but which is no doubt related to her parents being due home, for good, at Xmas. She’s at domestic college, training for her future role as manageress at the Dolphin and he’s studying something very clever at University, and they’re treating each other as boyfriend and girlfriend.
But that’s all. Jon and Penny’s bar appears to have been crossed but Saville has nowhere he can go to take them forward and, indeed, he afterwards thought long and hard about breaking them up, but was persuaded out of it, sensibly.
This is the last halfway decent Lone Pine book, and there are some good moments in it, the finest being that Peter, at long last, has come to Rye, to see the Dolphin and share Xmas, and her first request on arriving is that her friend Penny should walk her up to the hotel, girls alone in a Rye night under stars. Despite their different natures, despite Peter’s initial suspicions about the redhead, despite the fact they have seen each other so rarely, there is an affinity between the two girls and this is a wonderful moment for both of them, so relaxed in the knowledge that they have the boyfriends they have loved for so long.
And the two pairings are relaxed and secure. There’s an early moment from Jon, reminiscent of how he’s usually treated Penny, but this is different, it is mere teasing, understood and accepted on both sides. Jon can look at David and Peter, and himself and Penny, and conclude that that is how the world should be.
For David and Peter, there is but one serious moment. In the basement coffee shop, with its crowded, stuffy, noisy scene, and David cornered by two painfully earnest college girls, arguing across, around and through him, Peter suffers what we’d now call a panic attack and has to get out. Even so small a town as Rye has proved too much for her, and she’s afraid of what it means for her and David. We’re a long way from the utterly self-confident, natural Peter, who now dismally confronts what she sees as her narrow limitations. The girls around David are invaders but they are invaders she sees as being from David’s world, natural to him, and she fears she cannot be enough for him if she can’t bear entering his world.
Judith Wilson comes to her, speaking words of wisdom. It’s wisdom of the times and it sounds compromised to us: if Peter is to marry David, she must be prepared to go wherever his job takes them. Yes, the wife must submit to what suits her husband. Nowadays we recognise it’s a truth but a limited one: the husband must also submit to what suits his wife, or rather not submit, but share and balance.
It won’t be like that for Peter, though. Saville may be socially conservative but David, dear staid, sometimes stuffy David, sees his life with Peter differently. He follows her, shrugs off the girls as the evident pain they were, understands why she has been uncomfortable and promises her that he will never take her away from the county she calls home: he will live and work there, for he loves it too. Judith’s words and David’s concern inspire Peter to rise above her crisis and promise that wherever he will be, she will be, in love and happiness.

Strangers at Witchend

And when the decline came, it was rapid and conclusive. David and Peter, Tom and Jenny, both pairs have passed beyond the adventures that still motivate the Twins. They want nothing more than to be together. Dickie even recognises that the Club is breaking up, as it inevitably must.
This is Harriet’s last appearance, and as if Saville is now locked into relationships as the centre of the Lone Pine Club series, this splendid, solid girl develops a massive crush on the unprepossessing Kevin Smith, so much so that when he leaves, for the most unlikely and unconvincing family reunion, Harriet’s final moments are a demeaning blur of tears.

Where’s My Girl?

The penultimate book saw a return to Dartmoor, to the same place as the long-ago Saucers over the Moor. This is Warrender territory, especially as Penny’s father has bought King’s Holt and is developing it as a high class hotel and stables. But Saville’s limitations left him unable to do anything more with Jon and Penny so, by an awkward contrivance, they’re shunted off to France and, thanks to an even more awkward contrivance, Tom and Jenny get away from Shropshire for the first and only time.
It’s a poor book. Saville brings the Lone Piners up against gun-runners, a step far too far. Jenny’s panic when Tom is injured, at Ingles, reduces her to an hysteria that is embarrassing to watch, and she takes far too long to apologise for the things she says. At least it comes as part of a scene where she and Peter are alone, and Jenny touchingly asks for confirmation that when they’re both wives, they will still be friends.
It’s a seemingly unnecessary question, but it’s of its time, or maybe slightly earlier than that. The nineteenth book may have been published in 1972, but Saville was awkward and out of sync with the era, a product of times when marriages were driven by the man, and women’s friends were not automatically welcome.
The only other aspect of the story relevant to this essay is Dan Sturt. The cub-reporter of 1954 is a multi-media newsman in 1972. He still fancies Peter something rotten, and still tries it on to get her to go off with him, alone, but that boat has long since sailed. Peter gently puts him right and David only displays a tactful jealousy. These are not children any more.

Home to Witchend

With this book, Malcolm Saville completed both the stories of his Lone Pine Club and his career as a writer of children’s fiction, begun thirty-five years earlier in Mystery at Witchend.
I don’t believe it’s a good book, but that’s not the point. It did as much as Saville could towards the endings that his audience wanted, the promise of never-ageing long forgotten. Would David ask Peter to be his wife was the drama behind the book, but the only real drama would be if he didn’t, and that was never going to happen. Saville teased a couple of scenes, one of which only older readers would have understood, but yes, at Peter’s eighteenth birthday party, he put a ring on it, and everyone cheered, in the book and outside it.
Tom and Jenny, the working pair, also made that commitment, on their own, in private, as an adjunct to David and Peter: the undemonstrative pair, who had achieved their special relationship off the page and almost never wavered from it ever since. Even more than the Club’s leading pair, theirs was only ever a matter of time.
There is, of course, no such resolution for Jon and Penny. They get a Penny-dominated chapter, including a Jon-dominated kiss, but their future is left to the readers to decide. Practically everyone will be reflecting that when Penny gets married, she won’t be changing her name.
It nearly wasn’t so. Saville toyed for a long time with giving Penny a happy ending by palming her off to an engagement to Dan Sturt, with Jon getting an unhappy ending by swearing eternal brotherhood. This was wrong on so many levels that it’s painful to even think that Saville contemplated it. Thankfully, he was persuaded otherwise, though it’s noticeable that he doesn’t completely expunge the notion: the moment Dan’s tribute is finished, he wants to know where’s Peter’s ‘red-headed friend’.
There might have been a 21st book, but the quality had dipped so far so fast that it was preferable not to have more. What more could be done with the senior Lone Piners? And how could a New Lone Pine Club of 12 year olds and under have an adventure, even if they were led by Harriet Sparrow and not the Twins? The story ends here, from a mountain to a barn, from loyalty to love, and from love to marriage and parenthood.

Terminus Est


Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost a master.

It doesn’t matter how much we may have expected it, for he was 87 and had not published a book in four years, it still comes as a deprivation from which it seems impossible to recover, that it has been announced that Gene Wolfe has died.

He leaves us his stories, and we should be content for those stories contain not just worlds but Universes, and not just Universes but trickery and puzzles and things that go bump a long way beneath the surface of the words you are reading. Wolfe never explained. And now he never will explain, and we are left to use our own imaginations and intelligences to try to divine what exactly he meant in hundreds of cases.

He leaves us whole books, concealed with the pages and the lines of books we have read, and as long as one unguessed at secret remains unpenetrated, he will not die. He will live a very long life that way. And we will thank the God in which he believed so deeply that we shared those years in which he wrote, and not an era in which such things did not exist.

Terminus Est.

Under a Solitary Tree: The Love Story of David and Peter (Part 2)


Saucers over the Moor

The Neglected Mountain was a step forward that Saville was not anxious to take too far. But it’s significant that it was followed by the first non-Shropshire book to feature Peter, travelling down to the new setting of Dartmoor to join the southern half of the Lone Pine Club.
There are no especially overt signs that David and Peter’s relationship has evolved, not from Peter’s side at any event. David and Jon have, between themselves, worked out the travelling itinerary to get everyone to Dartmoor, Jon to arrange the drive from Rye and David the trains from London and Shropshire to enable Penny’s friends to be picked up en route. The three parties are to converge on Exeter’s railway stations. It just so happens that Peter’s train will get in sufficiently later than the Mortons that the Warrender party can’t wait, leaving David behind to pick up and escort Peter on his own. There’s no suggestion that he’s manipulated the travel times to create a chance to have her on her own for a while, but after The Neglected Mountain, you wouldn’t put it past him.
Peter’s glad to see him, but she’s equally excited to have made such a long journey: unlike the much-travelled Mortons, this is the first trip she’s made outside her own county. It’s significant that only now is she willing to relax her loyalty to her father. She’s unsurprised to find only David waiting (no doubt she’s known about this in advance) and she’s certainly not unhappy about it. Indeed, it’s her suggestion to prolong their journey alone by hiring bikes instead of a car.
But their bike-ride almost runs into trouble, firstly as Peter’s brakes fail her going downhill, and then when her bike is stolen by the cub-journalist, Dan Sturt, who grabs it to pursue a story and is not only completely unapologetic about it but has the nerve to blame Peter for its brakelessness!
What’s more, when he finally looks at her, he starts trying to get off with her. Not as overtly as that – Peter is still only a 16 year old schoolgirl, and dressed like it, whilst Dan’s 18 – but enough to get up David’s nose since he’s doing this in front of young Mr Morton.
It doesn’t go any further than that. Peter doesn’t snuff it out, perhaps because she’s enjoying the sight of a David clearly jealous. But she does insist on their helping Dan in a manner that, from Penny would be coquettish, and doing this in front of the boy who’s so recently made plain what she means to him is a little surprising. I know if I were David, I’d feel hurt, but then they go on to spend most of their time together.
And the little touch of Mary refusing to let Peter risk being lowered to the ground on a makeshift rope is a subtle touch of continuity to the previous story.
Nevertheless, this is a Warrender book, and whilst Peter is a welcome addition, and it’s nice for her and Penny to meet up again, ultimately the book is about its unfortunately outdated subject matter, and in Jon swinging a perfect punch to floor the birdwatcher, Mr Green, after he’s terrified and hurt Penny, it’s more an advance on their story than anyone else’s.

Wings over Witchend

Once again it’s a winter holiday, this time in the run-up to Xmas, back in Shropshire. Peter’s been asked to meet the twins, who’ve been sent off on their own, after a bout with whooping cough. Witchend is all but snowed in and Peter has to stay there overnight, and in fact it’s so bad, her father abandons Hatchholt for Seven Gates and leaves Peter with the Mortons for Xmas.
That’s an interesting move. Peter’s intense loyalty to her father doesn’t seem to be operating at quite the same strength since she’s perfectly happy to share Xmas with her other family, which of course includes David. Her enthusiasm for his arrival is vivid! And once he and the parents arrive, the pair resume being a pair with complete naturalness.
The issue is tree-rustling from the State Forest that had appeared on the Long Mynd in real life, but which came as a heck of a shock in the Lone Pine timeline. The Lone Piners, with Peter at their head as the one with the comprehensive knowledge of the countryside, offer their assistance.
It’s a little incongruous therefore that she should lose herself, and Sally, though the circumstances are forgivable: Peter is upset and hurt at what appears to be an outrageous snub from the high ranking Forester, Donald Gibbs, and rides off heedlessly, getting herself caught in white-out conditions, probably the only circumstances in which she would not recognise her whereabouts. She’s in a dangerous situation, but David comes to her rescue (with Tom, but she only has eyes for the boy who has never let her down), finding her by chance, or is it?
And when he rouses her and asks her to slip out at night with him, there is no resistance this time (although the fact that this is a case, and not a wild whim, plays its part). The pair go down the Witchend lane, but are startled by the sudden arrival of an unlit Police car. Peter slips and falls, winded, in front of the wheels, but David risks himself to haul her out of the way, forever her protector. It’s another moment to be wholly private, and to be stored in that increasingly collective memory they have.
When it comes to officially helping the foresters, the four senior Lone Piners are supposed to crowd into the observation tower, but David and Peter go off on their own to prowl the forest rides, much to the consternation of the traitor. But there is nothing more special than this. They aren’t found conducting a sneaky snowy snog or anything like that, but it’s once again the increasingly obvious preference for each other’s company.

Lone Pine London

There’s no place for Peter in the only city-set Lone Pine adventure, not even by way of being consulted over telling Harriet Sparrow about the Club and inviting her into membership. No doubt David is confident that she will back his judgement, as he backed hers over Jenny especially as it’s echoed by the Warrenders and the Twins.

The Secret of the Gorge

The eleventh Lone Pine book is not among my favourites. It takes place in Shropshire, though further than ever before from Witchend or Seven Gates, and it features a stupid and brutish foe carrying an iron bar, who’s more likely to commit serious violence than any before. It requires a rather more adult response than before, yet Saville chooses to revert David and Peter back closer to their selves of Mystery at Witchend than at any time since.
Yes, it’s now the back half of the Fifties, and there are cosmetic changes among the girls, with Jenny tying her hair back in a rock’n’roll pony-tail, and Peter, who has been determinedly retro in her hair-style since her introduction, having bound her plaits up in coils. But Peter’s behaving very childishly, almost Twin-like in her foot-stamping whenever someone expresses a mature opinion, and David is uncharacteristically thrilled by a diamond hunt, to the point where you expect him to start saying “Gee whizz!”
There had been no further overt changes to Peter and David’s relationship since The Neglected Mountain, but the pair had become eager to pair up together, and there is a constant, naturalistic undertone to all their conversations demonstrating their warmth and affection. But as any writer of series fiction will tell you, the longer the series lasts, the more the characters themselves start to dictate what they will and won’t do.
The Secret of the Gorge reads like an attempt to revert the series back to its beginnings, when the Lone Piners were only children and did not behave as anything other than children. Saville had promised his audience, and repeated that promise in every book, that the Lone Piners would not age. I believe that as a creative writer, he was coming under pressure from the Captain and the Vice-Captain to let them move forward to the next stage.
What I’m reading here is a conscious effort at resistance.
But trying to reset the characters as children is awkward in the face of the changing times and the first really vicious villain of the series. And it doesn’t work. When it comes to splitting the Club, David and Tom pair up, leaving Peter and Jenny. Yes, there’s a plot purpose to this but it’s noticeably out of character, and despite a perfunctory wistfulness about preferring their usual ‘partners’, the main objection is that the girls are being left unprotected.
And they’re confronted by the sallow, jazz-loving Sid and his stereotype girlfriend, locked into a derelict cottage whilst the unprepossessing pair wreck the Lone Pine camp, and get themselves out at the cost of a serious cut to Peter’s knee.
And as soon as David sees that, all bets are off. He goes very still, walks across to Peter and touches her arm very gently, clearly seeing nobody but her, throwing away all the emotional neutrality of the book so far, and then he challenges Sid to a fight. David intends to beat the thug who’s hurt Peter. He’s not a particularly good fighter and gets a few lumps himself, but he’s completely oblivious to that: he is wreaking revenge and even though Sid is older and bigger, he basically kicks righteous ass on him.
Peter makes no comment on this macho response. When she’s initially startled by David putting himself on guard duty that night, she’s tense enough to begin by having a go at him, but as soon as she realises he’s looking out for all of them, her affection for him overcomes everything. Her comment of “My brave Hero,” is a little ironic, but it’s more than she could yet express in public, and it is nevertheless sincere. David has made a public show of her importance to him: Peter needs more time.
Ultimately, there’s another of those occasions where Peter responds instantly to someone else’s peril, leaping into the flood when Harry Sentence is swept away, and David leaping in after her, with his eye on her safety. And in her cold, wet, exhausted state he’s ordering her about again for her own good. But the book feels out of order, as if it should come before The Neglected Mountain. Before The Secret of Grey Walls, even.

Mystery Mine

Mystery Mine is only the second book where Peter goes outside Shropshire to join in a Warrender story, and that’s not till almost halfway through the story. And whilst it’s less of a regression than The Secret of the Gorge, and she and David openly accept each other as their first, best choice for company, Saville is still holding back. Their conversations lack the nuance that ran through every line they spoke in Saucers over the Moor and Wings over Witchend, the sense that these were a couple who shared a private wavelength that gave every word an undermeaning.
But this is a different Peter from the girl we used to know. Her coiled plaits are replaced by a bun that her friends have gently mocked, and I should think so too. I know this is taking place at the turn of the Sixties, but a sixteen year old girl, one that even her father recognises is turning beautiful, wearing a bun? And though she’s coming to a country area, Peter isn’t wearing her regulations jodhpurs and blue shirt, but is going around in a skirt. It’s not that Peter is turning into a girl, but rather that she’s turning into Saville’s idea of a girl: and Saville was nearly sixty.
But, digression though it is, once again it’s Jon and Penny’s relationship that occupies most of the attention. The Warrenders have been invited to stay with the Mortons again, as long as they want, but literally the moment they arrive, David and Jon plot to go off on a long-distance hike, alone. It’s an awful slap in the face for Penny, the Lone Piner who will feel this most, and she rages at them. I know this is 1959, but it’s dispiriting that not only does no-one take her side, not even Mrs Morton, but that nobody seems to feel that she has a leg to stand on.
Penny rages. She rages at David on Peter’s behalf, though their circumstances are far from the same: David can’t get to Witchend without his parents, and Peter well knows this and takes a philosophical attitude to her chances of seeing her special friend. But Penny’s case is different and her rage at Jon is completely valid. She’s been invited to London to stay with her friends, which include the cousin she thinks the world of, and she’s not been there more than a couple of hours before he’s planning to abandon her to the mercy of the twins and Harriet.
And barely has that happened when they too are on the move, to the North Yorks Moors, leaving Penny with only the Morton parents.
It’s unforgivable behaviour from Jon, and to a lesser extent David. In isolation, their selfish expedition wouldn’t be exceptionable if arranged in advance for Jon alone, but they’ve invited Penny only to abandon her immediately. Jon remains completely oblivious to the idea that he can have done anything wrong at all.
Sensibly, Penny scoots off to Hatchholt and Peter, who takes this all without fuss because it’s what she’s used to. David’s not independently mobile, nor can he stay at tiny Hatchholt with any propriety. But he can write letters, and even though we don’t get to see what he writes again, there’s still two whole pages of it that she won’t read out to Penny (who’s openly described Peter to David’s face as his ‘girlfriend’, without contradiction).
We have to imagine what he has said, how open he has been, and whether, like a true English boy, he has been more open in print about his feelings for her than he can be to her face.
Once everyone is all together – and if Harriet were being classed as a Lone Piner instead of still an other person, this would be the largest Club complement since The Secret of Grey Walls – Jon and Penny assume prominence. Jon thinks he knows what it’s all about but won’t say anything until he’s checked in Whitby Library (this is either admirable scientific concern or an adolescent wish to not look stupid if he’s wrong, and I’m prejudiced towards the latter). Penny goes with him, not even saying anything when he comments he hasn’t seen much of her lately. They separate, agreeing to meet later, but Penny gets on the trail of the villains, leading to kidnap and a terrifying ordeal. She’s massively late for their rendezvous, and both go running around Whitby looking for each other.
But when they meet, Jon launches into the angriest and most insulting diatribe at Penny, accusing her of major stupidity, without one second of thought that, as they have enemies in the vicinity, Penny may have been in trouble. Penny shouts back at him, but whereas Jon’s words ought to signal a major breach between the pair, over their shocking vehemence, Penny recognises that his outburst is based on fear for her. And at the same time she realises that he means more to her than the pseudo-brother he has been until now. Completely undeserving though he is of that affection.
Once this scene passes, there’s more room for David and Peter. Everyone goes on a trip to Coram Street, the dead village, but Harriet sprains an ankle and has to be taken back by Peter and Mary. Peter, showing rather more naivete than we’re accustomed to from her, is decoyed out of the way whilst the two younger girls are kidnapped, and then most uncharacteristically, panics, asking herself what David would do?
This isn’t the independent, forthright, natural Peter we knew. Since The Neglected Mountain, she hasn’t appeared in a story without Saville telling us that one day soon she’ll be seen as a very beautiful young woman. The more feminine she gets, the less distinct she becomes, especially as Saville is trying to keep her relationship with David from going further forward. Who is this girl and what has she done with Peter? All she can do is run as hard as she can, to hand everything over to David to save the day. At least he is concerned primarily with her, and her distress, than the news she brings. But this is taking their relationship into awkward corners through not simply letting it grow.

Sea Witch Comes Home

When all else fails, leave Peter out entirely. Leave everyone else out entirely. Include a new girl but have her be only 12, so there’s no question of David being distracted. Put things off. But the decision is going to have to be made.

Not Scarlet But Gold

Though there are other elements – Harriet’s formal induction as a Lone Piner and a missing treasure plot of sorts – this book is about one thing only. Saville signals this in a short message to his readers, replacing the regular statement promising them that the Lone Piners will never get older with one that acknowledges that though they will stay their present ages, it is time for them to act like young men and women, and accept the responsibilities of what they are to each other.
It is the artist in Saville, knowing that he can no longer freeze David Morton and Peter Sterling in place, that they need to be free to grow, and act upon their feelings towards one another. And Saville gives the pair full range to explore these.
The story begins long before the book starts. Peter, after long and loving searching, has selected a Xmas present for David, but he’s neither thanked her nor acknowledged it. Hurt, she doesn’t write again. For half the year, for it is the Summer holiday at Seven Gates that is now upon everyone, she and David haven’t been in touch.
To make matters worse, with Harriet coming up to Shropshire to officially become a Lone Piner, David has snubbed Peter by writing to Jenny to ask her, not the Vice-Captain who is nearer, to retrieve the Club Documents from the Lone Pine.
It’s the first ever rift in the Club, and the chances of fixing it are hit with a succession of bombshells on the very day the pair are to see each other again. Peter’s updated her appearance once again, this time to a simple shoulder-length style. That day Saville has warned about has arrived, she is a beautiful young woman, and she’s about to get evidence of that, but on the day she’s to ride to Seven Gates, her father breaks the news to her that they are to lose their home, the only home Peter has ever known. He has gotten too old for the Water Board to be prepared to risk him being snowed in at winter, and he will retire to Hereford, to live with Uncle Micah. Hereford, miles away from the Mynd, from the Shropshire hills, from anywhere Peter feels comfortable. Hereford, where she will not be able to keep Sally.
It’s a massive upheaval, on top of her nervousness about meeting David again, and it’s compounded when, taking shelter from a cloudburst, she meets a tall, bare-legged, handsome walker, who looks at her admiringly, and who talks to her not as a schoolgirl, but as a very attractive woman, and one with whom he’s interested in spending time.
Despite Peter having privately told herself that before much longer she’s going to have no eyes for any man except David, she’s been given a hormonal jolt on top of everything else that has turned her comfortable world on its head. She just about manages to keep her head around John and rides off, but nothing is going to go right.
She’s impossibly awkward with David, insists on telling no-one about Hatchholt and will go no further with Jenny – who is as invested in David and Peter eventually marrying as she is in herself and Tom – than to admit things are wrong.
There’s a chance that everything could be sorted out very quickly. Peter is unusually waspish at Harriet’s induction, making a remark about the oath that’s directed at David, but as the evening winds down, he asks her to come outside with him, intent on reconciling. But John appears out of the night, another man showing a proprietorial attitude towards Peter, and clearly (and insultingly) treating her as the only adult in the pack in front of all her friends. And Peter betrays her oath to the other Lone Piners, just as she has been castigating David over it, by not merely letting John stay, but overruling her cousin Charles, behind his back, and forcing the rest of the Club to accept him for her sake.
It’s an absolute mess. Why does Peter invite John to stay? It’s partly the after effect of the hormonal charge, partly her instinctive sympathy for the underdog who literally hasn’t got any other friends, but we can’t deny that she’s also motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by the fact that it will wind David up.
And you might say that she gets a little bit of unintentional comeuppance for that motive: disturbed in the night, Peter spots a fire and calls for everyone to wake and help. David, as we know, is a very sluggish sleeper and she has to shake him awake by his hair: unaware of who is meting out this rough treatment, he swings an arm and hits Peter on the side of her face. How much lower can things sink between them?
Peter’s still defiantly unrepentant about having allowed John to stay, and her attitude continues into the following day, so much so that when Charles warns her about him over his attitude to Kate Clark, Peter insists on riding out to speak to him herself. David volunteers to go with her, but she refuses. This is something she has to do for herself, but if there’s any suspicion on her part that it’s his jealousy speaking, his shocked hurt, barely concealed anger at his rejection, and his reminder that he is looking out for her as he has always done, gets sufficiently far through to her that, despite herself, she rests her hand on his hair before she rides away, acknowledging that there is something still beneath their estrangement.
And David, being David, follows anyway, on one of those bicycles that Lone Piners always ride to a place and abandon, denouncing it as torture. Well that he did, because Peter is on the edge of risk, as she is now seeing John for what he is, cold and self-concerned. All he wanted her for was the possibility of sex: David’s imperturbable insistence of looking out for her reminds him of his value.
It’s a start. They’ve passed through their nadir, and from hereon in they are obeying the subconscious impulse towards each other. There is suddenly a human element between them again, even though there are still questions that need answering.
David sends Jenny and the youngsters into Shrewsbury to get them out of the way. He wants Peter to lead them, but she knows him too well, and has read his intent. She is not going to leave his side now. They have always gone into things together, and although she knows his intention is her protection, she is not going to break that connection now. The ‘adventure’, sordid as it is, has to be cleared away so that they can then resolve their issues without distraction, and Peter is determined to achieve this.
She’s even prepared, for the first time, to lie to David. He’s going into Greystone Mine, and wants her to stand watch outside. She pretends she will do so just to get the pair there, to move them forward, and because she has had enough of the distance between them. She wants no more arguments. Peter is moving faster than David towards what they want of each other. She wants to tell him.
And inside the Mine, where once they unspokenly cemented their future together, a rockfall traps them, forces them into a situation of greater danger than they have ever experienced before, one that this time might genuinely be fatal for this young pair.
There, trapped with the now-abject John, a weary Peter slips for a moment, calling David ‘darling’. There’s no response from him, focused as he is on saving her life, and in part he’s still unprepared for that final step. David Morton is surprisingly sensitive for his age, but he’s still an undemonstrative young man, a product of the Forties and Fifties, for whom emotion is not easy to express.
But when it comes to the last moment of despair, when it looks as if this is the one they won’t come back from, Peter abandons her wish for a mutual resolution and tells David that, if this ends now it’s not too bad because she is with him, even if John is present, and that though she has for a long period not understood its meaning, she has loved him from that first meeting on the mountain.
It demands an answer, but David is prevented from responding by the roof falling in. But this opens up a way for Peter to get above ground and call on the handily-present rescue to save everyone, albeit without any words between our pair except in relief that they are alive, that things go on.
It postpones the final step until the next day, after the ‘treasure’ has been found. That’s not a cheat but rather a set-up for the last moment. The space enforced on the couple leads to a role reversion. Peter is shy, almost nervous. She’s given her feelings to David and is dependent upon his response.
This is to take her into the woods to talk, away from everyone else. He’s primed with the news that Peter has to leave Hatchholt, to which he reacts with almost as much horror as her, and the beginning of the conversation is almost accusatory as he wants to know why she’s not told him. But the days of awkwardness and distance are over. David has heard Peter’s declaration and suddenly he’s kissing her, and when she laughs that he’s never done that before, he kisses her again and calls himself a fool that he hasn’t done so earlier.
All this comes on the last page, an upheaval in how we’re supposed to regard the Lone Piners with no chance to think. Saville disposes of the initial breach, the Xmas present, briefly and slightly awkwardly, leaving David and Peter to make their commitment to one another without any explicit words. Every sentence between them thus far has been imbued with nuance and undercurrent, but henceforth their words will be clear and transparent, and Saville can gracefully withdraw and allow us to imagine them: there is, after all, nothing new to be said. From loyalty to love.

Under a Solitary Tree: The Love Story of David and Peter (Part 1)


It begins here. Everything begins here, in a nameless, narrow hollow, high on the flank of a Shropshire hill, with an excited little boy floundering into a bog and getting stuck. His big brother will rescue him, will work out how to set things straight, as soon as he comes out of his initial shock, but before he can recover his wits, he’s interrupted by a rescuer: a clear, cheerful voice sounds from above and a girl on a sure-footed hill pony picks her way down towards the three strangers, and organises the boy’s escape from the cloying bog.
David John Morton meets Peter (Petronella) Sterling and lives change, above all theirs. The Lone Pine Club will be born, a circle of lifelong friends will come together, crooks galore will be foiled and hidden treasures produced from previously mysterious hiding places. Out of sheer chance.
I’m not the first Malcolm Saville fan, and as long as his books are read I won’t be the last, to see the series as an extended romance between David and Peter. Jim MacKenzie has already written a splendid analysis, which I hope won’t too overtly influence this piece.
But as a writer interested in the process of writing, and in series fiction in which characters develop over several books, the relationship between David and Peter, and the influence their meeting has on other people, fascinates me, and how Saville develops the same over thirty-five years, against an ever-changing background, is worth examining in some detail.

Mystery at Witchend

Though in later years, Saville had to blur the circumstances of the Lone Pine Club’s founding, in Mystery at Witchend, the book itself can’t be divorced from when it was written and its Second World War background. David Morton is the first person we meet. His age isn’t established here, but we can judge him as being on the cusp of 14/15. He’s a sturdy, steady boy, almost completely serious, but then how could he be otherwise, given the circumstances? The country is at War, his father is away in the RAF, he’s being evacuated from his Hertfordshire home to a completely strange place in the country, and his father has placed on him the burden of being the ‘man’ of the family in his absence. David has the responsibility to take care of his mother and his younger siblings.
The context here is very important. A great many fathers were going away to war and every child lived with the knowledge that they might not return. Mr Morton would be safe, but not everybody had that fortune: Tom Ingles would lose all his family, Jon Warrender’s father would not come back from Normandy. Sons everywhere, no matter how young they were, dreaming of earning their father’s respect and pride, were being asked to see themselves as responsible long before they would be capable of it. David Morton not only has to look after the Twins, but, even though his mother is in real charge, has to see himself as responsible for as well as to her.
Who is David Morton before he meets Peter? With the exception, much later in the series, of his school friend Paul Channing, we never meet nor hear mention of any friends outside the Lone Pine circle. David goes to Boarding School, an all boys school. We don’t know if he ever has any local friends in Hertfordshire. We have to assume that the only girl David knows is his younger sister, Mary. Peter is the equivalent of a seismic quake in his life.
Who is Peter Sterling before she meets David? Peter is simultaneously a simpler and more complex person than David. Saville presents her as completely natural, self-confident without being arrogant, energetic and independent. She overwhelms the Mortons in her eagerness for friends, but her enthusiasm for them is so great that she wins round the Twins literally within minutes of crossing them with her insensitive response to Dickie’s embarrassment. No-one else gets round them that quickly.
But Peter is who she is because she has grown up without a mother, with an elderly but devoted father who has taught her to be what she is, and she is independent because she has never known any other way to be. It makes for some awkwardnesses with the Mortons, because Peter has simply not had to deal with other people’s wants and opinions, but she is a very rapid learner. And Mrs Morton brings her into the family within minutes of their first meeting.
Like David, we’re not given any clear indication of Peter’s age at first, just that she’s about the same age: she will settle into being six months younger than him. Like the Mortons, she goes to Boarding School, in Shrewsbury, an all girls school. Off her own ground, Peter has not made any real friends.
So what makes the meeting with the Mortons so special? Peter admits that life in the holidays is a bit dull because there is no-one about. Looking between the lines I think it’s significant that Peter is on her own ground. Given her background, I think that only here can she feel confident enough in herself to let others in.
And she, like David, has no apparent experience of boys her age. They are each other’s first friend of the opposite gender.
In the future, both will go back as far as this meeting for the root of their love. On the page, it’s just children meeting for the first time. Peter and David are of an age, the Twins are younger, but at first she draws no distinction between any of the Mortons and, if anything, favours Mary. The first thing that might be identified as a personal spark is when she and David share the sight of the Twins both asleep after lunch, in the first of Peter’s hidden hollows.
Peter has no particular thoughts about David, except that he’s ‘nice but a bit slow’, until, that is, he comes to lunch and to swim in the reservoir with her. David pays a bit too much attention to Mr Sterling’s explanation of the mechanisms, to which Peter reacts angrily, and with hurt. At first, David’s angry back, but then he controls his temper and, with a sensitivity unusual in a boy his age, wins her over by acting as if nothing’s wrong and as if the swimming is the only thing. And he challenges her to a race and loses.
Nowadays, we’d be likely to see that as condescending, but Peter recognises it as an apology, and is impressed by how decent David is to her. That’s the point from which their relationship really begins. From that point, he’s at the front of her thoughts, and she’s shyly eager for him to learn to ride, off her, so they can ride together.
David is less responsive to Peter, overtly. He’s inclined to deny that he’s been exceptionally good to her, but when someone says something that suggests she has been at fault over the Hatchholt bomber not being forestalled, he’s hot in defence of her.
The meeting on the mountain is their icon, the beginning that’s the beginning, but there is little to suggest that it is truly significant to the love they’ll develop for one another. And why should it? This is 1943, and fourteen/fifteen year olds are still firmly children, both to adults and to themselves. David and Peter have nascent romantic and sexual instincts (in the broadest sense). They have no previous experience. First love can take root, though neither of them could be aware of it, and they would certainly be too embarrassed by themselves to express this in any way.
Since I’m going into such detail, I can’t resist commenting upon the Lone Pine Club itself. It’s a classic of the time: Peter suggests the Club, she and Mary find its HQ, Dickie names it but it’s David who becomes Club Captain. It could never have been any other way: David is not just the oldest, but he’s a boy, and boys are leaders, not girls. Peter isn’t any way frustrated by this. She’s Vice-Captain, and whilst she isn’t always in agreement with David, and isn’t afraid to say so, she supports his leadership, and accepts his decisions.
And David relies on her. It’s noticeable, and I’ll point it out when it happens, that he never exercises his authority over her as Captain against her will, except when he is knowingly relying on her accepting his role, to force her to do things for her own benefit. From the beginning, David and Peter implicitly accept each other as equals. And as time goes by, the steady, sturdy, serious, responsible, unimaginative David will show himself to be incredibly sensitive to the girl on the pony who superseded his authority on their first meeting, and changed everything that would happen to him. And others.

Seven White Gates

If Mystery at Witchend was David Morton’s book, giving him the principal viewpoint, Seven White Gates is Peter’s. She is the catalyst for everything that happens, and she is the source of the events that change her family’s life and its future ever after.
We start with Peter at school for the first and only time. Though Peter is, and will in future be portrayed as a lonely girl who hasn’t realised she was lonely until the Mortons became her surrogate family, she’s clearly very popular among the other girls, and Margaret not only gets close enough for Peter to confide in her about last summer’s events, but wants her to come home for the Easter holidays.
But Margaret is too late, and never appears again. Peter’s loyalty to her father, who has directed her to Seven Gates Farm and her unknown Uncle Micah in his absence at his employers, means that she has to follow his instructions. She’ll miss him immensely. But she’ll also miss seeing the Mortons, against which Margaret cannot compete.
What contact have David and Peter had since last summer? The country is still at War, Mr Morton is still on active service, it’s implied that, apart from their school terms, David and the Twins have been at Witchend still. But Peter and David have progressed to a regular correspondence, one that’s close enough for her to talk about thoughts and feelings as well as things that have happened. And when she decides to tell Margaret about her adventures, the other girl eagerly asks if it was a romance? Peter doesn’t say it is. But she doesn’t deny it either. She’s willing to admit David is her ‘special’ friend, a way of admitting without admitting, a code.
They’ve been close enough for Peter, unselfconsciously, to link her arm with David several times, for her to accept his initiative, and for him to decide at a celebration feast that his seat is next to hers.
Peter’s coming to Seven Gates is the traditional pebble that starts an avalanche, even before she gets there. Because she is who she is, she is on the road early, eager for her journey by bike. Because of this, she is in the right place to save the runaway gypsy caravan, instinctively putting herself at risk for others. Without her being there, at that moment, the caravan crashes, and the little girl Fenella is almost certainly killed or at least severely injured. Peter’s bravery earns her the eternal friendship of Reuben and Miranda, and the promise of their help. But most importantly, it saves lives being ruined.
Her second encounter is equally important, though nothing like so dramatic. On the way into Barton Beach, tired, her tyre punctured, she meets Jenny Harman, who gives her a lift. Though Jenny is initially frustrating, and Peter not so receptive as she usually is, the girls become friends. Peter promotes her as a Lone Pine member, and her stock with David is so high that Jenny is accepted, sight unseen. And without Peter, Jenny will not meet Tom Ingles, and that relationship will never have the chance to form.
And Peter’s instinctive thought on arriving at Seven Gates, and meeting her sympathetic Aunt Carol, is to get the Mortons over there. And because she succeeds, the Twins develop an immediate sympathy for the lonely and outwardly unlovable Uncle Micah. They follow him on one of his night expeditions up Black Dingle, they trap themselves in the mines, they meet the American platoon, and most of all they meet the Lieutenant who they identify as Charles Sterling, Micah’s estranged son, and they engineer their reunion.
All because Peter Sterling met David Morton on a Shropshire hill one day. The ripples spread very wide.

The Gay Dolphin Adventure

I know it’s technically a digression but I can’t help asking, who are Jonathan and Penelope Warrender before the Lone Pine Club?
Whilst David and Peter is Saville’s long story, Jon and Penny are the next most important pair (Tom and Jenny are only very rarely outside their friends’ shadow), and in the beginning the latter is of direct relevance to Peter.
The Warrenders are a pair from start to finish. Though they’re formally cousins they are actually a surrogate brother-sister pair, though their appearances are contradictory: Jon is tall, fair, untidy, clever, Penny is short, red-headed, neat in her dress and emotional. Penny has lived with her Uncle’s family for an indefinite number of years because, in a colonial echo, her father works in India and she schools in England. That’s just about allowable in The Gay Dolphin Adventure, which is set in that narrow period between the end of the War and India’s Independence but it rapidly becomes horribly anachronistic once it becomes just a device for not splitting the pair up.
Saville never intended any romance to develop between any of the Lone Piners, and when it did rear its head, the Warrenders’ cousinship gave him serious problems that his own Conservative, Christian mindset could not enable him to solve.
The Warrenders take up half the book on their own. The War has placed them in their new setting of Rye. Jon is the other side of the coin to David: his father died at Normandy, there was no reunion for him, or Penny, who loved her Uncle. As for so many families, it provoked a crisis: though we have to assume that the expatriates are sending regular financial support, the widowed Mrs Warrender has total responsibility for the welfare, upbringing and School fees for her son. The Gay Dolphin falls into her lap as a desperate measure upon which much hard work and serious responsibility hangs, a lot of which can be alleviated if Jon and Penny can do what others have failed to do, and find the lost Treasure. Hah! That’s like a Terry Pratchett one-in-a-million chance.
Enter the Mortons, the Dolphin’s first guests. The two families meet, make friends, and the Mortons offer their near-professional assistance. Peter’s not there, but her presence is far from unfelt. The Twins rag David about his ‘girlfriend’ whom he misses, and we’re unsurprised to discover that he’s written to her about the Warrenders, suggesting them as Lone Piners. Of course, as Vice-Captain, her approval is essential, but there’s an underlying sense that David wants his friend and ally’s approval, and the trust between them is enough that, just as David approved Jenny’s admission because Peter vouched for her, Petronella trusts David’s recommendations, sight unseen.
The mention is brief, and we don’t see either letter, but it would have been very interesting for Saville to have printed these for a reason that would be more fully introduced in the next book, but which at this early stage is outside any consideration. Penny Warrender is only the second girl contemporary with whom David Morton has been involved (remember that Jenny Harman was originally presented as being a twelve-year-old, to David and Peter’s fifteen). Though Saville describes her here as ‘not-yet-pretty’, she’s still a bright, engaging, fun and involving character, as well as being volatile, impulsive and at times quite infuriating.
But David never treats Penny as anything but a friend, though his admiration for her at one point has Jon looking a bit askance at him. Jealousy? Or just shock at the idea of anyone finding Penny appealing? He needn’t worry: in fact, it’s Jon who goes on to become David’s best friend after Peter. Peter’s role in his life is unthreatened. Anyway, Penny is completely devoted to Jon, even now, and she will be even more loyal to her ‘man’ than Peter to David, or even Jenny to Tom. Penny’s loyalty comes in the face of treatment from Jon that is frequently totally shitty: adolescent at best, but often too nasty to be excused as merely thoughtlessness.
But that’s for another essay. Peter isn’t here, but her spirit is present. All we have to ask ourselves is, why are the Mortons in Rye and not Shropshire? It’s vaguely dismissed as ‘couldn’t get to Shropshire this year’ but really, why not? Was this down to any kind of immediate post-War travel restrictions?
Obviously, the Mortons are back home in Hertfordshire, but they’re retained Witchend, to be their holiday home (and I think David’s undemonstrativeness would have undergone a nuclear reversal if it had been suggested they weren’t going to be visiting Shropshire any more!). Why not use it, then? Though Peter could have been part of things if she weren’t so loyal to her father: the Morton parents invited her.
Because the parents didn’t go to Witchend, Jon and Penny Warrender are brought into the Magic Circle and, by extension, Harriet Sparrow will become a Lone Piner several books from now. Without that, Miss Ballinger wouldn’t serve several impossible to account for prison terms, nor would James Wilson get half as many exclusive stories. Because of a meeting on a hill.

The Secret of Grey Walls

The fourth Lone Pine book was the first in which Saville formally, and fatefully, promised his eager fans to keep the Lone Piners frozen in time, forever the ages at which the readers loved them. This was a perfectly reasonable commitment from a children’s writer to his audience, especially in the late Forties, but it was also a yoke about his neck, or rather about the necks of his characters, and they would force Saville to struggle with his writers’ instinct about the needs of his characters, within a decade of that much-repeated promise.
And it’s doubly ironic given that The Secret of Grey Walls sets up the Lone Piners’ third romantic pair in Tom Ingles and Jenny Harman, or should that be the other way round given that it’s Jenny’s love for Tom that drives it? And, without a word to be spoken, it’s obvious as can be that Jenny, who barely met him in Seven White Gates, loves Tom already. Saville bypasses all the beginnings, which we assume are meetings and encounters in Shropshire whilst the Mortons are in Rye, and that Tom, though not anywhere as far along and inclined to treat the thing as slightly a joke, cares for Jenny as a close friend, and has appointed himself her defender.
The Secret of Grey Walls is the only book to feature the extended Lone Pine Club in its entirety, eight Lone Piners in the same adventure. It’s a winter book, set between Xmas and New Year, initially in a break at Witchend, that Saville subverts quickly by two letters. One summons the Morton parents back to London to sign business letters, the other calls housekeeper Agnes to Clun to take over her sister’s boarding house. The only way for the holiday to continue is for the children to go to Keep View, which is big enough to not only house Tom and Jenny, but also call up Jon and Penny, to meet the other half of the club and get their formal initiation.
Except that Peter feels threatened. It’s actually due to David. He’s been surprisingly sensitive to Peter so far, but here he is talking up Penny, saying how wonderful she is. Peter’s never had a boyfriend before, she’s not even ready yet to acknowledge David as a boyfriend, and here he is meeting other females and getting all excited about them, and you might think she’s just being stereotypically jealous, but Peter, for all her innate self-confidence, is in strange waters here, and it’s unsurprising that she feels vulnerable.
Ironically, David thinks he’s being supportive. He’s impressed by Penny and his boosting her to Peter is actually meant to build her up as a friend to Peter. After his early sensitivity, it’s refreshing to see David displaying a more traditional adolescent obtuseness.
And Penny herself is brilliant. David’s obviously praised Peter to her and she’s the Lone Piner Penny most wants to meet, eager for the two to become friends.
Paradoxically, even though Penny at her most winsome can be irresistible, Peter still can’t fully relax with her because if the redhead is so appealing, she must be appealing to David.
Peter doesn’t properly accept Penny until the three girls have to go out to save the three boys. Jenny heads for Bury Fields, Alan Denton and external aid, Penny is determined to go direct in search of Jon and Peter, though her head says Jenny is right, goes with Penny, determined not to be outdone in devotion. Only then does Peter completely relax about Miss Warrender, secure in the knowledge that her new friend is wholly committed to Jon, not David.
David, on the other hand, is not really aware of Peter’s doubts. Though he is anxious that his old friends and his new friends get along together, Peter is his first concern. When she arrives, last of all, in the dark and exhausted at Clun, he is quick to order her to go inside, rest and eat, and he takes over unsaddling and brushing down Sally. He makes it an Order too, from Captain to Vice-Captain, which takes Peter slightly aback, but whatever her concerns, he is still David, and she trusts him with her beloved pony, and rather enjoys being catered to. Not that it disturbs her fears over Penny, since she flares up at him over the actual initiation of the Warrenders (especially Jon, a neat bit of displacement), which confuses David even more!
But it’s still David she turns to first, when Mr Cantor patronisingly suggests she’s making up the lorry that drove through Clun in the middle of the night.
Everything ends well, the Warrenders are fully accepted in the Club, and everyone winds up secure in their friendships. Peter and Penny have become friends, but the Warrenders will never come to Shropshire again, and will never see Tom and Jenny again until they all end up as extras in the last book.

Lone Pine Five

The fifth Lone Pine book is Jenny Harman’s book. She is its central character, she creates the adventure (and overcomes by her enthusiasm everyone else’s slight reservations: nobody can bear disappointing her) and it’s her energy that carries the story.
Jenny is one of the lucky ones. Her Dad came back from the War, though that leaves him in between his second wife and his daughter, with the latter doing her best not to cause trouble for him. Indeed, Mr Harman often seems to take his daughter’s side, though not explicitly. The most important person to her is Tom. He started as an evacuee from London, like the Mortons, but the War is a few years back and he’s still at Ingles, with Uncle Alf and Aunty Betty who have adopted Jenny as an honorary niece. Something is obviously wrong, but Saville remains silent, for rather too many books to come, on the fate of Tom’s family. By now, we all realise that it has gone wrong for Tom, wronger than for Jon Warrender.
Back in wet and rainy Shropshire, Jenny brings everyone back to Seven Gates to support Mr Wilkins, a Seven Gates where Charles is now installed as master, albeit in partnership with Uncle Micah, and then off to HQ4, the Club’s fourth headquarters in only five books.
David and Peter are not quite background characters in Lone Pine Five but not far from it. They’re fresh from Peter being in London for a fortnight, which, as a country girl, has been a mixed blessing for her, but which reinforces her close relationship with all the family. But really she’s there because she’s David’s friend. The Morton parents are clearly happy to encourage the relationship.
There’s a very comfortable, very relaxed atmosphere about them. Peter’s not quite flirting with David, but her teasing is very affectionate, and he’s relaxed. They are very much a pair now, and happy about it.
They are also inseparable, until the climax of the book. When the Twins and Percy go over the edge, into the underground pool, David takes charge, sending Peter for help. She finds it already close at hand. Though she’s lucky about that, David gives her a look of trust and a word of thanks, seeing only the girl who will never let them down.
Then, when everyone is rescued, and the ground opens and the underground river emerges, Peter reacts instantly, unthinkingly, racing down the Dingle to try and warn those in danger below. David is behind her: he doesn’t have quite the same instinctive response to the situation, but he has it for Peter, though he needs rescue by her.
But it is David who has the control of the situation to persuade Smithson that this is not a time to continue rivalry, and talk him into assisting the mopping up operation, and who pulls rank on his Vice-Captain to order her to get straight back to Seven Gates. On the surface, it’s so that she can organise things for everybody else’s benefit, but nobody believes anything other than that David is making sure Peter gets warm, dry and fed ahead of anyone. The Captain isn’t necessarily thinking of the good of the entire Club here, though his solution is the best in the circumstances.
Peter, who isn’t used to being ordered around, has to acquiesce, and gets a little pink about it. It comes over like an old-fashioned boys give orders, girls obey them, but it’s pretty clear Peter knows exactly what’s on David’s mind, and her pinkness is at the thought of how he’s put her first.
This contentment is doomed not to last. Mr Morton arrives to shut off camping in this wet, and brings a telegram from the absent Warrenders, returned from their exchange visit to Paris: they have seen Miss Ballinger again and want the Lone Piners on notice…

The Elusive Grasshopper

We’re back in Rye and it’s more or less the same formula, with the Warrenders in the first half of the book, complete with their charming continental friend, Arlette Duchelle, and the Mortons coming in halfway. The other Lone Piners stay behind, and indeed the Mortons are only really available because it’s become too wet to stay in Shropshire.
Tom and Jenny are workers, to all intents and purposes, but Peter’s excuse is loyalty to her father: she’s been in London with the Mortons, then Seven Gates and she’s not shooting off a third time when she knows how much her presence means to him.
It’s probably a good idea. David reacts no more to Arlette than he did to Penny: when she has to pair up with someone it’s with the newly-introduced James Wilson. David sticks with Jonathan, in accordance with biblical precedent. Still, it’s a good idea not to throw him into her company if Peter’s there to witness it…
But though absent in body, Peter remains a presence in The Elusive Grasshopper. For once we are allowed to read a letter from David, about their enthusiastic arrival in Rye. David’s scrupulously addressed his letter to Jon and Penny, and she just as scrupulously has avoided opening it until her cousin can join her, in the face of his obvious and offensive assumption to the contrary. Jon is once again as supercilious as he can be to Penny most of the time, only rarely showing any human decency towards her.
And David can’t bring himself to leave Peter out of his letter and his thoughts, missing her already even as he understands her loyalty to her neglected father, and Penny quietly points out that David knows how to stick up for his friends, and would never allow anyone to say a word against Peter. Who’s not even in the book…

The Neglected Mountain

If there was ever to be any doubt where David and Peter would end up, The Neglected Mountain removes this. Once Saville had written this book, he made it impossible to retreat. From here, Not Scarlet But Gold is only a matter of time.
And there is so much in this story that feeds into and leads up to that moment of unspoken commitment. Every conversation, every word, is underscored with a nuance that is natural and unconscious.
Unusually, Saville begins with an ending, not a beginning. An unusually adventure-free Easter holiday at Seven Gates is on its last night and the Lone Piners are openly regretting their break-up, not least Jenny, who beneath her silly chatterbox surface is the most sensitive of the sextet, and the most lonely when her friends are away.
David’s in an oddly skittish mood, challenging Jenny’s superstitions about the Stiperstones and, by extension, his best friend Peter’s. It’s an early indication that he isn’t entirely his placid, steady self, and it comes before Romance enters, in the form of Charles Sterling’s engagement to Trudie Whittaker.
The girls are thrilled, the boys pleased but not much moved. David’s already conscious of not seeing Peter again for the next twelve weeks, and it’s that rather than any inspiration from Charles that leads him to waken her on hearing an aircraft with a faltering engine, and ask her to go up to the Devil’s Chair with him, on their own. It’s not Peter’s idea of fun (these are still, in their own eyes, children and David is being typically a boy in this) but she agrees, because it is David who’s asked her, asking herself tartly if he’s ever noticed she never refuses him, but persisting in asking why her, and not Tom, until David quietly tells her: he wanted some time with her on her own. She doesn’t say anything more.
The Twins are predictably disgusted at this ‘betrayal’, but Jenny, and even Tom, have a much better idea of what’s going on. Nevertheless, it’s still the last day. Jenny leaves in tears, and Peter and David demonstrate how much they’re on the same wavelength by simultaneously saying, “Twelve weeks.”
Peter’s letter that follows, describing her unsettling experience on returning to Hatchholt, is significant in two different respects. It’s noticeable how comfortable she is with sharing her private thoughts and feelings with David, before she gets on to the purpose of her letter, but also that, the more it goes on, the air of slight cattiness that creeps in, as if on an unconscious level, Peter’s being defensive about opening up to David so much, preparing herself for disappointment if he fails to take her concerns seriously.
In that, she is actually correct. Distracted by cricket, David fails to take in what’s being asked of him, that he overtly supports Peter. He writes back, at length, but we see nothing of this letter, and Peter is dismissive of it in the summer. Indeed, she’s sharper with David than she’s been since the incident at the reservoir in Mystery at Witchend, and when the Twins, predictable as ever, start going on about being left out of secrets, she’s genuinely angry with them.
But she’s really angry with David for not being reliable. Not that it stops her, when the ‘race’ to Bishop’s Castle is mooted, from wanting to go with him. The Twins naively assume the boys and the girls will pair off (have they even met Jenny?) but the nervous glance shot by the redhead at Peter is equalled by the one she gets in return.
Before anything else stupid can be said, David rather awkwardly insists that Peter will go with him, as he has Club business to discuss with the Vice-Captain. Nobody believes that excuse for a second, but Peter’s content. And after living in her favourite blue shirt and jodhpurs, she turns up in the new frock her Daddy has just bought for her: dressing like a girl, hmm.
It has David looking at her, admiringly, and thinking that one day, and soon, people are going to look at Peter and see a very beautiful girl. It’s a theme that Saville repeats, authorially, over the next half dozen books.
And it’s a nice day, a relaxed day, for all its difficulties, in the guard dog attack near the RAF station, and little Johnnie’s missing puppy in the Barton Beach woods. Saville gets in a nice line too during the former, where Peter’s animal skills avert a potentially dangerous situation. David has no false pride about her being their saviour, but Saville lets the Guard describe the frock-clad Peter as a “beautiful female spy”.
In the circumstances, it could be passed off as a joke, but it’s not when, with the Club in a crisis over the missing Macbeth, and Peter indignant over their failure to do what they should have done earlier, David finds himself looking at his friend in admiration. Admiration for her force of character, her naturalness, her strength. He loses himself in these realisations about her, so much so that he stares and she becomes embarrassed, and self-conscious with him for the first time.
It’s a distraction for them, but it’s a precursor to something much more serious. David has for once put his foot down and separated the Twins, taking Mary with him and Peter. They return to the Mine, where Robens has his makeshift laboratory and the drugged Macbeth is rescued. But Robens returns and Peter, seeking refuge, precipitates danger by leading them up a loose bank. Mary slips, and David must secure her, Peter is slipping the other way, with only David to secure her, but this brave girl has no doubts that David’s responsibility is to his sister: she lets go and falls.
And in danger, and darkness, David and Peter cross a line that neither can or will ever wish to retreat across. In a way, it’s easier for her: she loses consciousness, and when she wakens to pain, it is with David holding her, keeping her safe, pouring out his heart to her, telling her that her being alright is the only thing that matters. She’s too woozy for anything but the relief to register, that she who has risked her life will be alright because David Morton can be relied upon until the stars go out one by one.
But he has been the one who has been put through a fear no-one should have to face, and certainly not at the age of 16. Peter may be badly injured, she may be dead. He can get down to her, he can hold her in his arms for the first time, he can surely tell she’s breathing, but until she finally speaks he has to live with the terror that everything might be over just when he is beginning to get the first sense of what everything might be. Once he knows she’s alright, he can be David again, steady, reliable David who knows that he can make everything right for her again.
It’s been a crisis: a crisis too soon, really. They are still only sixteen, not ready yet even for first kisses. But the friendship between them has gone through the fire and inside, where they carefully bank it up until the time comes to grow to meet their future, they both know that they are on an undivided track.
There’s no need for histrionics, or even words, when Peter’s released from the hospital. David devotes himself to her comfort, and takes time out to tell Mr Sterling what he know she won’t have told even her father, that she risked her life for him and Mary. Sterling takes the news quietly, knowing now if he had not already realised that his daughter’s future is safe with this young man he already approves of, and that she is worthy of the pride he has in her.
The pair won’t talk of what’s happened. What it could have been is only too real to them and they would like nothing better than to forget that. But there are memories Peter will keep forever, and David understands what she means. Only Mary, the only one to see and hear, comes close to spelling it out, and her Twin is far too obtuse to understand.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘A Borrowed Man’


The most recent of Gene Wolfe’s novels, A Borrowed Man, published in 2015, is another first-person narrative, tending towards the incapable writer approach of which I complained last time. This is told by Ernie A Smithe, a reclone. The difference between reclones and clones is never explained, but as set out in the book, they appear to operate on a similar basis as Vanessa Hennesy in Home Fires, save that the reclones are grown before having a brain scan impressed upon them.
Reclones appear to only be writers. They have no individual legal status in a society that has all but foregone paper books. In effect, the reclone is the book, and is stored in a Library from which they can be checked out. Literally, they live on shelves, in small and spartanly-appointed ‘apartments’.
Ernie, or the original, flesh and blood Ernie, was a writer of mystery stories, unsuccessful in life, his books all but disappeared. He rarely gets borrowed, but then not many reclones do get borrowed, and it seems he is on the path towards eventual withdrawal from circulation which, just like an unwanted physical book, involves burning.
The world of the book is very different to ours, and as usual Wolfe makes few direct references to the distinctions. According to the book jacket, the story takes place in the Twenty-Second century, and humanity, at least in the equivalent of America, lives in towns of presumably smaller size, whilst the cities are ruined and abandoned.
We’re told that the Earth’s population is now about a billion, as opposed to the 57.7 billion of 2119, but that people still believe that to be too high and want to reduce it to half that size (Wolfe, a devout Catholic, makes no outward sign of disturbance at this). Reclones do not count in this number: they are property, not people. They are forbidden possessions, any form of independent life and, worst of all, given they are all writers, they are barred from writing: mental regulators prevent them from doing so.
Ern, or Ernie or Smithe, however you call him, exists 137 years after the life of his original. ‘He’ was once married to, then divorced from, poet Arabella Lee, who he still loves, and two contrastingly-behaving reclones of whom he meets during the story. Which starts with Ernie being borrowed by Collette Coldbrook, an attractive young woman with violet eyes to die for. She’s the daughter of financial wizard Conrad Coldbrook Senior, who has recently died naturally, and the sister of Conrad Coldbrook Junior, who has even more recently died unnaturally. The only thing in Conrad Senior’s highly secure safe, when it was opened, was a copy of (original) Ernie’s book, ‘Murder on Mars’.
Collette wants Ernie, a former writer of mystery fiction, to unravel the secret the book contains or represents. There are other parties interested in the secret, and at various points Collette and Ernie are attacked in Collette’s apartment and stripped naked, Collette is abducted, and Ernie borrowed by a pair named Payne and Fish, who beat him for all manner of answers about the Coldbrook family.
When it comes to Ernie’s book, it appears that not only may no other copy of it exist, but that it’s existence has been wiped completely from all consultable records.
Once Collette is apparently abducted – though this turns out to actually be taken into custody by Dane van Patten, another official ‘tough buy’ whose role is less cop than Tax Collector, Ernie obligingly checks himself back into the nearest library, before being sent back to his home Library. Payne and Fish borrow him, out for all manner of information on the Coldbrook family.
Ernie eventually escapes, and goes on the run, so to speak, picking up a couple of drifters along the way, Georges (a pseudonym for a former Police Captain) and his mute companion, Mahala who, if taken, will be committed to an institute because she cannot speak: apparently, the world requires protection from the sight of imperfect people.
Ernie takes them to the Coldbrook family home where, without ever taking hem properly into his confidence, he uses their skills to investigate the murder mystery. In an awkward twist, the mystery turns out to be that Conrad Senior has discovered or created a spacial portal to a distant planet, which he keeps in an upstairs room, where he has discovered an emerald mine. It’s simultaneously a stretch to incorporate such a notion, impeccably SF though it may be, into a dystopic future-Earth milieu, and actually a bit banal.
Unfortunately, and especially once Ernie, Georges and Mahala get together, there are yet more and more pages of conversations assessing means, motives and evidence for and against theories about what other people have done, or may have done. I was tired of it in The Land Across and my receptivity to it has not increased in A Borrowed Man, which is also a rather more lightweight, and shorter piece of fiction than its predecessor.
Along the way, and typically without attention being drawn to it, it becomes apparent that Conrad Coldbrook, Junior died after Senior, and not before, as Collette had led Ernie to believe. The book’s ending has Ernie explaining whodunnit, not to the cat in the Library, but to the murderess on her own: Junior thought Senior dead and went into his Laboratory, the angry Senior strangled Junior in front of Collette, who then poisoned him.
In order that this reveal not be exposed to the authorities, all Collette has to do is check Ernie out for a couple of days, once a year. That way, he’ll be kept indefinitely, and not burned. And so it ends.
A Borrowed Man was Wolfe’s 31st and, it appears, last novel. Soon after it came out, his Wikipedia entry was referring to a sequel, Interlibrary Loan, for publication in 2016, but that disappeared a very long time ago. A couple of years back, I heard that Wolfe was writing it, but not for publication. There are no new references to it online.
Gene Wolfe is now 88. He’s undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery, and lost his wife of sixty years, Rosemary, first to Alzheimer’s then to death. It does not appear that he will write anything more.
What we have is good enough for any one man’s lifetime. If some of the books towards the end are weak in comparison with his major works, if I’ve been critical of books that, for various reasons have not worked for me, everything Wolfe has written is worthy of investigation. He is at the least intriguing, and even in the weakest book, there are hidden puzzles for the reader to tease out, puzzles that Wolfe will take with him, unconfirmed, when we lose one of the greatest writers we have had.