Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 6 – The Ambermere Treasure

All too soon it was over. Malcolm Saville began the Jillies’ series in 1948 and ended it after six books in 1953. It was one of four series about older children, based upon big adventures as opposed to the more minor events of the Nettleford, Susan Bill, Michael and Mary or Brown Family series that focused upon younger children, but unlike the Lone Piners, the Fabulous Buckinghams and the Marston Baines coterie, there was to be no adult resolution, no suggestion of a life in relationships born of the deepening friendships begun in childhood.
The Ambermere Treasure is simply the last of it. Mandy, Prue and Tim, Guy and Mark get together one last time. They conduct a commercial venture successfully but improbably, they find a missing treasure rather more predictably, and when there’s no reason to end the series, they just wink out without a light and go.
I know the word is now an egregious cliché, but there’s no closure.
I’ll come back to that but for now let me explain the set-up. Ambermere, village and manor, is a tiny Surrey village within reach of Guildford. It’s been the ancestral home of the Anstey family for centuries, but the line is failing, the family is penurious and the house and gardens are falling to a very extended rack-and-ruin. The Colonel has died heirless, his only son having been killed during the War, and the last of the family are the two spinster Misses Anstey, Lavinia and Ella, transplanted from genteel retirement in Harrogate.
Into this atmosphere of decay and fade comes Patricia, the eight year old daughter of their niece, who married an unsuitable man (excuse me whilst I sneeze the snobbery out). Pat’s father has been seriously unwell, her mother has gone with him to Switzerland for treatment and poor fearful, upset, selfish and hostile Pat has been sent to the most unsympathetic place and people she could be dumped upon, her well-meaning but utterly out-of-their-depths Great-Aunts. Who decide they have to engage some kind of nanny. It just so happens…
Things are not good for the Jillies. Money is more than unusually tight and J.D. is unwell, run-down and unable to shift a racking cough he’s had since contracting bronchitis in March. Over his objections and refusals to deprive his children of such a thing, Mandy, Prue, Tim and Dr Harvey persuade him into a holiday in Austria, staying with the Schmidts of The Sign of the Alpine Rose, to recover his health, his strength and, cleverest touch, coming from Mandy of course, his creativity.
In his absence, Mandy places an advertisement for a job, near London, preferably working with children. Which is how she comes to be taken on at Ambermere Manor, to look after Pat, with whom she takes a no-nonsense but comradely approach that wins the child over.
The thing about old baronial manors and the like, they usually have a hidden treasure, concealed for centuries, waiting for the first pack of bright twentieth century children to come along and find it. It’s practically a law, or an ancient charter. Besides, it’s in the book’s title, not to mention Saville’s dedication, to all the boys and girls who wanted him to write a story about hidden treasure.
The treasure itself was hidden in Civil War times, by Mistress Deborah, just before she was captured and imprisoned by the Roundheads, who had already killed her husband in battle. Mistress Deborah died in imprisonment, only once seeing again the baby son she sent away with his nurse, leaving only a nursery rhyme jingle to sing to her boy and all succeeding generations of Ansteys.
One for sorrow sits on the wall
When the moon shines bright or not at all
Armed with the knowledge that the Anstey family crest features a magpie, can you work that out before the end of this post?
But whilst the treasure hunt is what the kids are here for, and there’s plenty of fun with the unprepossessing rivals – the Colonel’s former servant, John Bennett and ex-maid Amy Perkins – that’s not the biggest part of the story. From the outset, the Misses Lavinia and Ella not only take to Mandy but also treat her as an adult, and a friend on their own level. And Mandy approaches these strange creatures with not just respect but love, becoming a confidante. And, this being 1953, Mandy suggests the Misses Anstey start to build the finances they need by opening the Manor to tourists.
It’s pushing the envelope of credibility further than it really ought but, with the approval and assistance of Solicitor Mr Brewster, who is as taken with Mandy’s energy, drive and sense as the ladies, the rest of the gang are gathered to the Manor to set-up the opening of the Manor as a business taking tours of tourists! One seventeen year old boy, one sixteen year old girl, two thirteen year olds and kids aged eleven and eight.
It’s fun watching everything build up and recognising that whilst Guy is the more practical and thoughtful, and incredibly experienced in what appeals to tourists visiting stately homes, Mandy is the presiding spirit, her imagination and energy and sheer drive animating the whole crazy venture, which is hardly a holiday for any of them. These two are chalk-and-cheese, and the affection between them is still expressed mainly in banter, but they are a very good team, a lot more understanding of each other’s qualities than they ever let on, and with an unspoken satisfaction on both their parts that they are doing something together.
Saville teases his audience a little bit over Mandy’s efforts at publicity, using her vivacity and hinting that they’re saving up discovery of the Ambermere Treasure for Opening Day. Of course you know they’re going to do just that, though the outcome depends on Tim’s most juvenile idea. Anxious to play ghost with a sheet over his head, he gets Prue to come down to the abandoned, overgrown Chapel in the dark. Saville’s already set up a magpie fresco, freestanding in a window from which the glass has long since disappeared.
In the moonlight, the shadow of the magpie is thrown onto the far wall, onto a loose stone behind which the Treasure – rings and gold – has been hidden these four hundred years. Did you solve it before they did?
It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, the Treasure and a grand Opening Day, fuelled by massive publicity and curiosity about the Treasure discovery, and the Day, run by six children and two old women, aided by one Policeman guarding the loot and one AA scout on traffic duty in the car park is a resounding success.
Best of all are two letters, one for Pat, who has inevitably learned a lesson and is rewarded by her father writing to say how much better he feels, and another for the Jillies from J.D., also recovering rapidly and, including a line that binds together much of what has been so brilliant about Mandy, Prue and Tim in this far too short series of books: “I beg you, my Jillies, to remember that you are guests, and remind you that your letters, to which I look forward every day, give me infinite pleasure.”
It’s what I said in writing about Redshank’s Warning, and without wishing to be disrespectful to Guy and Mark, this series is first and foremost a success because of the Jillies. We like them, we love the life they carry around with them, and one of us at least is considerably impressed with Mandy Jillions, a very advanced character in her independence and eagerness to experience. The Standings, and especially Guy, are the straight men, the counterbalance, and it’s noticeable that the one book of the series in which they don’t appear, the Jillies fail to make much of an impression because they’ve no-one to impress themselves against.
The ending is a little underwhelming because it isn’t a real ending, just a stopping. In the Seventies, knowing he was nearing the end of his career, Malcolm Saville resurrected the Buckinghams to give Juliet Buckingham and Charles Renislau a future together, and I wish he could have stretched himself to a long-overdue seventh Jillies story, with the characters all about, say, two years older: old enough for Guy Standing to have finally had the sense to sneak Mandy Jillions into a corner and give her the biggest kiss of her life (so far), and allow Prue Jillions and Mark Standing enough growth to start turning their shared interest into a genuine affection. Tim? Younger brothers in Malcolm Saville’s books are definitely excluded though Tim, with his experience of and sympathy for his sisters, will have the edge over Simon Buckingham and Richard Morton when that never-time comes.
When I was reading these books as a Sixties kids, I did not look at publication dates so I had no idea that the series all took place before I was born. Indeed, the Jillies was the first series Saville ended, though that’s not a distinction I’d like to have.
There has been one fan-fiction ‘adult’ Lone Pine story, which I have already written about, but if such things were to be repeated, I’d love to see the Jillies meet the Lone Piners. I think that would be serious fun, even if you didn’t set Mandy off against Penny Warrender…

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 5 – The Luck of Sallowby

For the fifth Jillies book, we’re back. Back in England, back to the Standings and back to a decent plot which Saville wants to use to dramatise the dangers of flooding in the arable land of the Fens as based on the real-life events of 1947, whilst bringing a Jilly enemy back into the middle of a good, strong criminal plot.
We’re three chapters in before the Jillies actually come onstage, heading for a holiday in Ely with their spinster aunt, Bridget Singleton, the sister of their late mother, who has been successfully running a warm and friendly cafe, the Copper Kettle, for six months or so. Aunt Bridget wants to reacquaint herself with her family. Still, in the midst of all this rain, and the flat and superficially undistinguished land of the Fens, Mandy and Prue in particular are wondering what they’re going to do.
By then, the reader has a fair inkling. In a technique he would not introduce into the Lone Pine series for some time, Saville starts with the villains, in this case the small, pointed-nose, circumlocutory of speech Mr Beale – who we know is a villain because he kicks a puppy into the gutter – and the younger, smoother, but still repulsive Mr Chester. Beale is a man down on his luck, under Chester’s thumb due to certain papers the latter holds. And Chester runs a criminal enterprise devoted to identifying and… acquiring… valuable relics to be sold to the American market. Beale, who is something of an expert, is to act as his spotter here in the Fens. And pretty damned quickly.
Chapter 2 reintroduces the Standings, Guy and Mark, at their large and comfortable home in the Midlands, growing frustrated at the waste of half their school holidays, trapped by the rain. They’re kicking against the traces and thinking of a mini-cycle tour when a lengthy letter arrives from Mandy, setting up the visit to Ely and inviting the boys to cycle over (it’s only a hundred miles!) She even suggests Aunt Bridget could put them up.
It’s Mandy to the life and though the stiff-necked and prim Mrs Standing objects, Mr Standing is not only more favourably inclined towards the idea (and Mandy!), he’s on a business trip the next day that will take him to within twenty miles of Ely.
Once the boys are on their own, buffeted by the high winds and able to see for themselves the risk from the river levels and their raised position above the Fens, Saville is able to ease into the wider concerns that will take us into the threatening territory of the book’s second half. Guy and Mark identify a hole in a dyke, give a lift to Water Board Inspector Mr Curtis, whose thirteen year old son Francis is the owner of the kicked puppy and who becomes a contingent member of the gang, like Sandy Barton in Two Fair Plaits, and like any decent Saville children, show an immediate interest in helping out this increasingly desperate situation.
Even so, they still arrive at the Copper Kettle the same day as Mandy, Prue and Tim, and of course Aunt Bridget is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect a Saville adult to be, so they’re accommodated with ease.
Which leads to one of my favourite exchanges in all of Saville’s books. Mandy catches Guy alone, grasps the middle button of his jacket and asks him, seemingly as if the answer matters, if he thought she was being a forward hussy in inviting the Standings to join them. Guy, who is not as far forward in this relationship than Mandy, still knows what to say and, straightfacedly replies that he does. And Mandy leans in until she’s almost in his face (and certainly within kissing distance) before hissing, ‘Silly old stick-in-the-mud!’ and running off.
It’s flirting, Jim, if not quite as we know it. The Neglected Mountain was still to come (it would be the next Lone Pine book), but Mandy Jillions and Guy Standing were a lot closer to marking the long term nature of their friendship than David Morton and Petronella Sterling.
The boys – and this includes Tim and Francis – are eager to experience more of the flood protection methods, although Aunt Bridget has arranged for all of them to take afternoon tea with her friend Colonel Frensham of Sallowby Manor, a widower of limited means but with great local and historical knowledge and a family history extending back to the times, and the band of Hereward the Wake. Prue refuses to go out and cycle but Mandy has no intention of being left out and joins the boys on a long, exhausting day, during which they are several times treated as if they’re underfoot (which they are) and which ends with them discovering a leak and the Standings desperately (and dirtily) plugging it up until Mandy can summon help.
This is where the various strands of the book start to be tied together. AS the two parties converge on Sallowby Manor, the man we know as Beale is just leaving. Prue recognises him but can’t remember from where. Somewhat surprisingly, everyone takes her seriously, as indeed they should. Though Colonel Frensham has certain antiquities on display, he has something priceless concealed in a safe in his study that he permits only Guy and Mandy to see. This is the Luck of Sallowby, a short-handled, immaculately preserved battle-axe from the time of Hereward, handed down through generations, complete with a rhyme, tying possession of the Luck to the fate of Sallowby Manor.
And whilst the children are examining that, Mandy sees a face peering through the window that they all automatically associate with Mr Beale. As indeed they should, as once they return to the cafe, Prue recalls who he really is: Mr Sandrock, the art smuggler of Redshank’s Warning.
The gang warn Aunt Bridget, who doesn’t actually disbelieve but seems overwhelmed, and the next day Mandy and Prue take the bus to Sallowby Manor to warn Colonel Frensham. (They have an additional motive: Aunt Bridget twice called the Colonel ‘Charles’ – she clearly wants to marry him! They could end up related to the Luck of Sallowby).
But the increasing danger from the flooding remains the central focus, with the threat of Chester and Beale taking advantage of the confused situation and everybody’s distraction. At one point, when the banks have leaked and everyone’s milling about, they find Mark on his own and kidnap him to a nearby but very dilapidated pub (another of Saville’s tropes: all pubs run by characters who give shelter to villains are run down and dirty), though he escapes and gets back to Ely. Where he’s greeted by the ever-dramatic Prue with a hug and a sob and a heartfelt cry that they thought he was dead: Mark is to Prue as Guy is to Mandy, but this is the first and only expression of anything more than friendship on either side.
There are some wonderful individual touches in this book, that explode the kind of cliches Saville and other writers so often indulged in. At one point, having been formally and mutually recognised by the gang, and taunted about other names, Beale finds Mandy alone in the cathedral, clutches her arm and threatens her over forgetting any other name but Beale or any other encounter. When he relates this proudly to Chester, the latter bluntly tells him it was the most stupid and dangerous thing he could have done.
And when Mandy and Prue repeat their warnings to the Colonel after Mark’s adventure, and he shows them the Luck’s empty case, Mandy bursts into tears that they have let him down by coming too late, only to be reassured: the day they first warned him, the Colonel took the Luck into Ely and deposited it with his Bank. He took their warning seriously. Why couldn’t more writers do this?
Eventually, the water wins. The culverts burst, the road explodes, the flood starts in. Unfortunately, Mandy is caught by it. She and Prue have, as planned, watched the housekeeper steal the empty case and follow her as she delivers it to Beale and Chester. The headstrong Mandy insists on following the pair to try to get the number of their car for the Police, though she’s supposed to stay within the Manor grounds. When the road goes, she and they are trapped. All three make for an isolated farmhouse, that won’t last forever under the pressure of the rising water.
Everyone panics at her absence, with Prue in tears, but inevitably it’s Guy who sees the light Mandy manages to flash from the farmhouse. He joins the Colonel in the boat that goes out to rescue everyone, the subdued Mandy first, joining Guy in the boat and clearly very but quietly grateful that he is there, in a manner that leaves him without any words to say how important it has been to him that she is safe.
So all’s well that ends well, even if the threatened flood has happened, causing untold and uncounted damage to the Fens, its economy and the food supply to England, which gets forgotten in the dark, as Mandy briefly wakes to see Charles smiling at Bridget, and is sure there’ll be a wedding ere too long. How very Austenian.
After the disaster that was The Sign of the Alpine Rose and the contrivances to construct Strangers at Snowfell, The Luck of Sallowby was a welcome return to form for the Jillies. Such a pity then that Saville would only write them one more adventure.

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 3 – Strangers at Snowfell

Malcolm Saville set his 63 novels all over England and, in his later years, expanded his reach to cross the Channel to various European countries. In all that time, he set only one book in what we now know as Cumbria, home to the Lake District but, much to my disappointment, he never got as far as the Lakes nor even old Cumberland. His only visit to the North-West was the third Jillies novel, Strangers at Snowfell, and those parts of the tale that aren’t a direct follow-on from Two Fair Plaits take place entirely within the long-obliterated county of Westmorland.
It’s after Xmas in London. Guy and Mark Standing are still staying with the Jillies, Mandy, Prue, Tim and J.D., in their untidy Chelsea flat. They’re due to join their Aunt Katharine in Scotland to enjoy Hogmanay (though not under that name), but a telegram arrives asking them to come up a day early, and bring the Jillies with them, to the party.
So despite some automatic resistance from Mandy, who’s conquered before she gets a day out with Guy, just the two of them, the five children travel from Euston by train, for a long journey ending in a jolly good time. At least, that’s the plan.
Once again, Saville builds his story around twin tracks, the Jillies on the one hand and the ‘victim’ on the other. This time, it is not a vulnerable little girl but, in his own way, a vulnerable man in his fifties. Dr Charles Thornton (who is nevertheless referred to throughout as The Professor) is a scientist who, at the start of the book, takes rooms in Snowfell, a farmhouse near Shap, for peace and quiet whilst he completes his work on an undefined scientific breakthrough that will be of immense value to his country.
What he doesn’t know is that he is being watched by a spy for another country, anxious to discover the secret. The first inkling of this follows his completion of his work. Some instinct leads him to write to his son, Nicholas, in London, asking him to travel up and join him. But that night, someone breaks into his room, after poisoning the farmer’s sheepdog.
From here, the story bounces back and forth between Thornton and the travelling party, who want to claim a carriage for themselves but find themselves sharing with a mysterious young man who’s anxious to avoid being seen by a rather florid, camel-hair coated man who enlists the Standings to hunt out his ‘young friend’.
The young man, who is, of course, Nick Thornton, is not very good at concealing himself. He’s shaven off his moustache, swapped coats but he’s not changed his tie, which enables Mark to identify him from the bookstall at Euston, a detail that panics Nick into running.
This isn’t a winter for mild weather. The fog that gripped the nation in Two Fair Plaits has turned to a snowstorm that grips the nation in Strangers at Snowfell. The train gets slower and slower until at last it is stopped dead just short of Shap.
Things start to get serious. Thornton, in search of a working telephone, has been decoyed to a sinister, broken-down house, Callow, whose housekeeper, and guardian to a frightened and maltreated eleven-year old girl, Mary, that the Professor is determined to rescue, locks him in and assists in drugging him for his enemy, Major Calloway. If Thornton hadn’t been cautious enough to conceal the vital papers behind a loose stone in Mary’s secret place, under the bridge, the villains would have all they want.
The halt sets up the adventure. Nick leaves the train to make for Snowfell. Despite Guy’s reservations – he has the David Morton role, the sensible person who doesn’t immediately take anything on trust – the gang decide to shield him. The two elders, Mandy and Guy, set off through the snow in pursuit, carrying the wallet Nick has dropped, leaving the younger trio, Prue, Mark and Tim, to run interference with Camel Coat. Tim sets off exploring up the line and gets to the nearby signal box where he makes friends with the signalman in a way that the coated man doesn’t!
Guy and Mandy get all the way to Snowfell, where Nick, seeing them appear, comes out to meet them but falls trying to climb a wall, badly-spraining his ankle and rendering him hors de combat for the rest of the book. Guy and Mandy have to take his place, floundering in deep snow to find the Police.
Instead, they find Mary and, through her, the whereabouts of the drugged, imprisoned and searched, but still defiant Professor. Meanwhile, Mark, Prue and Tim have also left the train, there being no point in staying once Camel Coat has gone and even less point in missing out on the fun. They trail him into Shap, observe him going into Major Calloway’s cottage and, in a move that could have come out of the Morton Twins’ scrapbook, stow away in the back of the Major’s shooting-brake (an old-fashioned type of car, built along station-wagon lines, i.e., like an estate car), which gets them transported to Callow.
So everybody’s back together again. They can communicate with Dr Thornton, who obligingly writes a note for the Police. Forces must be split. Prue and Tim are about exhausted, and Guy asks Mandy to get them back to the train whilst he and Mark remain to keep watch on the Professor until aid arrives.
Thus far through the book, Mandy has been her usual, independent, combative self, asserting her equality with Guy, and responding to his attempts to assist through the deep snow and elsewhere by whistling ‘I can do anything better than you.’ But now, when things are serious, and even without his impressing upon her that she’s got to take care of her sister and brother, Mandy accepts this as her job. It’s a long struggle, and both Prue and Tim reach the end of their strength before they’re back at the rescue-snowplough, but despite being close to collapse, Mandy forces herself to the end, and has enough determination left to both get her siblings brought in and get the Train Inspector in to hear her – and believe – her story.
So everything is handed over to the Police to set everything straight, though the Standing boys still have a part to play, having arranged with little Mary to have an unlocked access to Callow that they can guide the Police in by. Dr Thornton’s rescued, his secret is safe, he’s reunited with his son, little Mary is rescued from her unpleasant Aunt, who the Professor is prepared to pursue into gaol if she’s actually harmed the little girl, and everyone has nice words to say for all the Jillies and the Standings.
In fact, all’s well that ends well, except for the no-longer snowbound train steaming away in the distance, with all the travellers’ luggage on it!
Still, the Police will telephone J.D. and Aunt Katherine, and the luggage will be held for them at Glasgow until they can catch up on the next train, and it won’t spoil the party because they’ll only be arriving the day Guy and Mark were originally invited for.
I enjoyed Strangers at Snowfell, the more so for the bantering relationship between Mandy and Guy. It’s as plain as anything that she fancies him like mad and he isn’t wholly unappreciative of her dark good looks. In that sense, they’re already way ahead of David and Peter. Yes, Mandy is very determined to prove herself equal to Guy, and after three years of being mother to her family as well as sister, that’s hardly surprising, but her cheekiness to him is easy to see as her method of flirting, even if Guy isn’t quite quick enough for flirtation as yet.
That said, there are a couple of areas in which Saville’s plot-contrivances are a little irksome. The adult in me is quick to notice that there is not the least indication of what Dr Thornton is working on, or how it will prove to be of benefit to his country first, then the world (as opposed to the presumably Communist country Calloway represents). I’m sure the kid I was didn’t care, but the completeness with which Saville makes the whole thing a mystery does undercut the story for me. In that respect, Saucers over the Moor is a better book than this.
There’s also that bit about Guy and Mark coming early by a day. That’s never explained, and when you realise that that extra twenty-four hours is the exact compass of the adventure, it starts to look like filler, neither adding to nor detracting from the story, except by its contrivance.
But the biggest bit of contrivance is highlighted by a rather shamefaced Saville himself in his foreword, pointing out that rather than Nick Thornton buying a ticket to Penrith – further on than Shap, where the train doesn’t officially stop – he would have bought one for Preston and changed there to a local, but he had to do the very thing he wouldn’t have done in order for the story to exist. That’s definitely something I wouldn’t have picked up on as a kid (not being a train nut like Mark and Tim), and I really dislike stories where characters do things they wouldn’t do in order to make the story happen. It’s poor writing, always has been, always will be.
And in those days, Saville really could do better.

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

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

Beyond the Lone Pine: Malcolm Saville’s The Jillies 1 – Redshank’s Warning

To my great delight, the inestimable Girls Gone By Publishers have begun reprinting another of Malcolm Saville’s children’s adventure series, The Jillies (1948 – 1954). The first book in the series, Redshank’s Warning,  arrived in October this year, in perfect time for my birthday, and was a wonderful exercise in nostalgia.

Though the Lone Piners are who and what Malcolm Saville will always be remembered for, he wrote no less than eight series in a career of sixty-three novels (and only two standalones!). Before my recent investigation of the Buckinghams series, I had only read one other of Saville’s series, and that was the Jillies.

Amanda, Prudence and Timothy Jillions, and their loyal friends Guy and Mark Standing first appeared in 1948, when Savile had already published at least four Lone Pine books and two Michael and Mary books (about which I know nothing). Their’s was a compact career, with all six books published in six years, during which Saville also published three more Lone Pine and two more Michael and Mary, plus introduced The Buckinghams (two books) and Nettleford (two books) series, for a total of fifteen books in a seven year period: this from a ‘part-time’ writer with a job in publishing.

I’ve been trying to remember if there was any particular reason why I only read The Jillies after the Lone Pine Club and I can’t think why. Redshank’s Warning was the third of Saville’s books to be made available in Armada paperback, which the first two also being Jillies’ books. The Marston Baines series began in 1963, but these were aimed at an older audience and something about them put me off. I don’t remember any of the other series, though plenty of them did appear from Armada.

So, after all this preamble, what of the book and its characters? As adventures go, Redshank’s Warning is a little simplistic compared to a Lone Pine adventure, but there is a different atmosphere from the off. We are introduced to the Jillions, whose friends call them Jilly’s, in their untidy, higgledy-piggledy first floor Chelsea flat, overlooking the Thames, midway through the Easter holidays. Their father is a commercial artist by day and a free-spirited artist all the time. He is unconventional, a little impractical, and in material terms maybe not the best father there could be, but in terms of his emotional relationship with his three children, his acceptance of them as adult already, and his encouragement of their individuality, he is far superior to many.

The Jillies’ mother has died three years before, putting a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of eldest daughter Mandy, nearly sixteen. Mandy, slim, attractive, bright and practical, wearing her straight black hair in a pageboy bob, runs the household whilst managing to perform well at school. Mandy’s strong-willed, independent and imaginative, the glue of the family, Right now, she’s nursed her younger sister Prue – a serious but exciteable, frequently dramatic thirteen year old girl who most resembles their mother, who silently envies Mandy’s slimness, and who responds most deeply to beauty and animals – through a bad case of measles of which she is now cured, as well as thoroughly bored after three weeks being cut-off from everything. Mandy’s also keeping a sharp eye on Tim,  a smaller, less tidy version of her in looks, an eleven year old, permanently hungry boarding school boy with his own ideas of fun.

Mandy persuades the Doctor to persuade JD (short for Jilly Darling, their name for their father) to take the family away for a week’s holiday. Prue, enthused about bird-watching, selects Blakeney on the north Norfolk coast. En route, they arrive at the same pub as the Standings, a more conventional family, more middle-class, more prosperous. They have two sons, Guy, tall, fair, thin, bespectacled, clever, and thirteen year old Mark, lively, outgoing, fun. Guy’s like a less crass Jon Warrender, though he does start off with a snide remark about the Jillies’ disreputable old banger. However, he’s quick to apologise and, when Blakeney turns out to be the Standings’ estination, and a familiar haunt, the two sets form a group with consummate ease. Oh yes, Guy and Mandy are going to have a future…

As I said, the adventure is very simple, and the conspirators typically unpleasant. Mr Sandrock, insistent on his privacy, has taken all the rooms in the boarding house the Jilies hoped to stay in and looks down his nose at them. Miss Harvey, the supposed photo journalist living in a hut out on Blakeney Point, is even more insistent on a privacy to which she has no enforceable entitlement, but she’s a bird expert who can’t tell the difference between an oyster catcher and a redshank, and she’s the kind of woman  prepared to keep a badly-injured dog tied up without food or water. The kids are quick to spot that this pair are only pretending not to know one another, and though Sandrock temporarily cons Mandy into believing he is a Detective, when it’s really the much more prepossessing Charles Martin who is, the kids play plausible parts in putting together the clues that enable this pair to be arrested for smuggling stolen paintings out of the country.

But the cops-and-crooks aspect is not the reason why this book works. No, that’s the Jillies. Guy and Mark, for all they try to keep up, and for all they act as the standard characters (Guy is also another variation on David Morton, save that with Mandy around he will never be the ‘captain’), it’s the Jillies we’re here for. In their widely contrasting, but easily dovetailing ways, Mandy, Prue and Tim and their abundance of Life make us just enjoy being with them. What they do is nearly irrelevant, they are just fun to be with. I recognised the life bursting out of them and would have welcomed a book twice the length.

And neither then nor now does the book feel dated. I never suspected, in the Sixties, that I was reading a series that had been completed befoere I was even born.

I don’t know how frequently GGB plan to put out the remainder of the series, one of which I never read, but one a month  – ridiculous optimism! – would suit me fine. Here’s to seeing Two Fair Plaits.