Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Seven White Gates

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)

First books in series are about set-up, second books are about how to follow up.
Enid Blyton’s solution for the first Famous Five sequel was to give the Kirrins more of the same, only Xmas, putting the adventures indoors, with secret passages. This was to be the pattern throughout that series, with the setting changing several times, but always in the seemingly safe, gentle countryside, but the Five never going much beyond the template established in their first adventure.
Arthur Ransome stranded the Swallows ashore for most of Swallowdale, and was constantly looking out for new angles and subjects.
Malcolm Saville would, so far as his stories went, adhere more closely to Blyton’s template, contriving adventures over and over again, either by finding hidden treasures or exposing criminals to the Police. But like Ransome, he was not content to settle in one place so, whereas Mystery at Witchend took place under the shadow of, and along the smooth, rolling flanks of the Long Mynd, Seven White Gates takes place under the shadow of, and along the broken, rugged flanks of the Stiperstones.
And whilst David Morton is perhaps the signature character of the first book, the sequel belongs to Peter, and centres upon her family. And the treasures and the crooks are still some way off, for this is a personal story, and a surprisingly adult one, about loneliness, loss and grief, and as the final chapter feast boldly pronounces, Reunion.
We begin with Peter, nearing the end of term at boarding school in Shrewsbury, an evidently popular, but still isolated girl, even though her classmate Margaret issues an impromptu but entirely genuine offer to come home with her for the holiday when Peter’s plans are so drastically disrupted.
There’s to be no Hatchholt, Sally and the Mortons, for Peter’s father has been summoned to the Water Company in Birmingham for several days, so she must go to family: her unknown and mysterious Uncle Micah at Seven Gates Farm, just outside Barton Beach, under the shadow – literally – of the Stiperstones.
It’s not very tempting for a fifteen year old girl, and the reality is even worse, for though Aunt Carol is as friendly and welcoming as can be, Micah Sterling, with his dark clothes, his long black beard, his intense silences and air of being an Old Testament fundamentalist, is not just off-putting but frightening.
What’s clearly needed, and not just for Peter’s sake, is the Mortons: the Twins are to be let loose on Uncle Micah, with a mission to cheer him up!
Incidentally, we also learn that Peter’s father’s name is Jasper. Saville never makes it clear which brother is the elder, but with the names it’s clear Peter’s grandparents must have been mineralogists!
Despite her disappointment over her holidays, Peter is determined to make the best of it, and be a dutiful and good daughter and niece. She cycles from School to Seven Gates, a long day’s ride made longer by two significant encounters. The first is dangerous: an Army tank disturbs a horse which bolts. It’s dragging a bright, cheerful Gypsy caravan, with only a little girl hauling on the reins. Peter instinctively, and at some risk to herself, stops the horse before there’s a potentially fatal crash, thus earning the lifelong gratitude of little Fenella’s parents, Reuben and Miranda. The Gypsies will reappear in almost all the Shropshire books. Fenella makes Peter a gypsy whistle that she keeps with her always: if she is in danger, she need only blow it, and the Romany will come to her aid.
Less important, but more significant, in the late afternoon, hot, tired, thirsty, pushing a bike with one flat tyre and no puncture repair kit, Peter begs a lift off an odd twelve-year old girl: red-headed, talkative, volatile and terribly superstitious. This is Jenny Harman, and she’s to be the Lone Pine Club’s next member.
In the meantime, she helps fuel the story. Behind that talkative, and seemingly happy-go-lucky exterior, Jenny is deeply unhappy and lonely. She lives with her stepmother above the General Stores in Barton Beach (her father is in the Army). Mrs Harmon is a shrewish, unpleasant woman who acts tyrranically towards Jenny, who is forever running away, albeit with no apparent consequence. Add to this her compulsively romantic nature, her love of books and her masses of superstitions about the Stiperstones, Black Dingle, Seven Gates Farm and Micah Sterling, and it’s no wonder that she begins by being awkward and unreliable, and even irritating.
But Jenny is desperate for a friend, and Peter recognises this. She’s only now become aware how lonely her own life has been, and she’s prepared to persist with Jenny. Peter has earned the Mortons’ trust, enough to secure their agreement, sight unseen, to inducting Jenny into the Club. Then she and David will gently bully Jenny into recognising that she is braver than she can imagine.
Peter’s determined, even before she arrives at Seven Gates, to get her friends there, and in Aunt Carol, who is a complete stranger to her, she wins an immediate ally. Carol is Micah’s second wife, who seems for much of the book to have undertaken him as a duty, a service, rather than for love. But she’s very aware that her husband, and his farm, is not the ideal holiday environment for a bright, active fifteen year old girl, and she wants to introduce a more youthful atmosphere to the farm, to try to connect her husband more to the present day.
For though Uncle Micah has made Seven Gates work, by dint of hard labour, in the process he’s made his neighbours in Barton Beach fear him, superstitiously, especially under the myth-haunted Stiperstones, with its crown known as the Devil’s Chair. He’s lost his wife, Aunt Martha, to an early death, and his son Charles, to a grief-fuelled quarrel, after which Charles left for America. Peter is shocked to learn that Uncle Micah pays her school fees because of Charles, though he has never seen her since she was a child.
With Aunt Carol as an ally, Peter identifies the disused and almost cathedral-like barn with the whitewashed doors that are the seventh ‘White Gate’ as an ideal indoor camp. Aunt Carol talks Uncle Micah into agreeing its use, letters of invitation go with the Gypsies to Witchend: Aunt Caroline to Mrs Morton, Peter to the Lone Piners, and the Mortons are on their way.
Tom Ingles is included in the invitations, but he’s a working boy, and can’t be spared until the weekend. So, ironically, Tom isn’t present for Jenny’s induction: they don’t even properly meet until the big feast at the end, and even that is limited to some brief hero-worshipping from Jenny!
The Mortons travel by bike, with David in nominal charge of the Twins, as far as the Hope Anchor, an isolated country pub that appears solely to exist to have something halfway between the two mountains. Then it’s on foot, over the ridge, on a crumbling, lonely, dangerous path, on a hot day heading for torrential storms. I’m not saying this is unwise, though it is, but it is incredibly unwise with the Twins in the mood they demonstrate, which is Next to Impossible.
They’re rude, cheeky, boastful and unmanageable, unwavering in their conviction that the Lone Pine Club is essentially for their benefit, and even more paranoid that every single word spoken between any of the elder children without their being present is a plot to make plans without their being consulted and more than likely without their being included. Crossing the Stiperstones in the conditions Saville has created, it’s downright foolhardy and bloody dangerous.
Still, everybody survives, soaking wet, and everyone loves the barn, which immediately becomes HQ2. Peter’s delighted to have them, Jenny fascinated, and then there’s Uncle Micah.
His reaction is the standard fascination with their identical appearance, but their response is extraordinary, and quite moving. It’s primarily due to Mary, who with a sensitivity that would normally be beyond her years, sees through the grim, offputting exterior to the very lonely, grieving man within. Then, in the night, when Uncle Micah goes out walking on the mountain, unable to sleep, the Twins slip out and follow him up the lonely, forbidding Black Dingle. They get lost. They wind up inside the mountain, in the disused caves, slipping past a rocking stone and, Dickie being Dickie, unable to resist testing just how much it rocks, causes it to fall over after hundreds of years, and traps them both inside.
Thus another hunt begins. David, Peter and a reluctant Jenny comb Black Dingle, find Macbeth, and work out where the Twins have gotten to. Peter is left as a sentinel whilst the others go to summon a rescue party. She follows a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be Tom, a day early. He diverts her along another ridge, to an engine house, that powers a cable car across the valley to the mines: when the rescuers return, with Peter not at her post, Tom takes it into his head to get them across in the cable-car, only the brakes don’t work and they wind up in the mines too.
Meanwhile, inside the mines, the Twins have discovered the source of all the mysterious goings on in the mist that have been terrifying poor Jenny, not to mention disturbing the usually rational Peter: American soldiers on manoeuvres. They’re under the command of a captain with an inexplicably deep knowledge of an area he’s only seeing for the first time, a captain who winds up trapped, with a busted ankle, after a cave-fall.
But he is the key to everything. Mary intuits it, and she is right, and when everybody is safely rescued by the party organised by a suddenly efficient and aware Uncle Micah, she gets the old man to trust her long enough to blindfold his eyes whilst she brings the two together, for she is right to realise that the ‘American’ captain is Micah’s son, Charles Sterling, Peter’s cousin. And the rift can be repaired, and Uncle Micah’s heartbreak ended.
This brings us to the great Reunion feast, with a suddenly cheerful – and clean-shaven – Uncle Micah killing the fatted calf, not to mention Jenny’s fear of him. And there’s something for everyone, nearly, with Peter’s father back from Birmingham, and an unexpected RAF pilot home on leave, eager to see his wife and children.
Only Tom and Jenny are left out. Jenny’s father would get back from the War, offscreen and unscathed. But for Tom things would be different. This was the second and last Lone Pine book be written during the War. Tom would not appear in the next story, and when the Lone Piners return to Shropshire, the War is behind and no longer mentioned, but he is still at Ingles, and still working for his living.
It will be a long time before this appears in the pages of a Lone Pine story, but Tom’s entire family are apparently killed in an air-raid. It is difficult to reconcile that terrible tragedy with the normal, cheerful, even excitable Tom of this book, and we have to assume that at this time, in 1944, he is only separated from his parents by geography.
That is one of the problems of writing for children, when what you write becomes too serious for what was once believed to be their capacity. By the time it is brought up, it has become a thing of the past, buried in Tom’s emotions.
Overall, Seven White Gates was a worthy sequel, and survived the 1969 edit surprisingly well, though the detail lost makes the full book more satisfying. The introduction of the Gypsies was, and mostly remained local colour. Their portrait is a stereotype – fortunes, baskets, hedgehog roasts, bright clothes and a standard of cleanliness that mightn’t meet everyone’s highest expectations – but Saville’s children make friends of them without hesitation, and the loyalty goes both ways, with the Lone Piners forever quick and determined to defend their friends against unfounded accusations based just on their being gypsies.
And despite the evidence of Bertram Prance’s illustrations suggesting that Peter is only as tall as a ten year old when set against her Uncle, she and David act and talk considerably more mature in this book. I don’t know how much of that was deliberate, and how much a subconscious recognition that if David and Peter were to share a certain accord, they had to be old enough to deserve it.
But they are more typical of the characters we will meet over and again, as, unfortunately, are the Twins. Let’s leave that behind for now, and prepare ourselves for the third Lone Pine book. Because three is when it gets to be a series…

Cheap Cumbrian Thrills

I’ve never been a particular fan of detective stories, not in print at any rate. The only crime fiction books I own, and which I’ve kept for thirty years, are the Philip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler (probably the Twentieth Century’s most frequently – and ineptly – imitated writer), though more recently I had a then-complete collection of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (in a fantastic variety of paperback editions) which had to go when it became necessary to downsize my collection.

I don’t dislike crime fiction, probably because I don’t read enough of it to get thoroughly tired of its tropes. I read the entirety of Agatha Christie when younger, courtesy of Greater Manchester Libraries, and solved the story before the detective exactly once, and that in a short story, but I couldn’t force myself to read another page of her ever again. I read most of Ellery Queen in the same period, with rather more enjoyment but similar bafflement (I hated that period of ‘his’ career when the crime would get solved about five-sixths of the way in, only for Queen to then pull a completely new fact out of his ass that invalidated everything that had gone before).

Only recently, but long enough ago for me to have completely forgotten how, I came across the name of Martin Edwards, a well-established and highly-respected crime writer based in Liverpool. Edwards was born the same year as I and also became a Solicitor, although he’s still in the profession and has got a lot higher in it than I did. He started off with a Liverpool-set series featuring Solicitor Harry Devlin, but what caught my interest was that he has also written a series of crime novels set in the Lake District, the first ever to do so.

You’re not going to be surprised at me immediately wanting to sample them. Unfortunately, Stockport Central Library could only offer me the latest Harry Devlin book, which was alright, though not particularly special, and that’s allowing for my anti-Liverpool bias. However, a rare visit to a remainders bookshop recently turned up copies of the second and third books in the six-so-far series, cheap enough to indulge myself upon.

It was meant to be light reading, inconsequential entertainment. One unexpected side-effect of this blog is the growing difficulty I have in reading anything without analysing it as if it were to be the subject of a blogpost. Unfortunately, the first one I read was so abysmally shite, despite all the praise Edwards has received – and from people who ought to know what they’re talking about, like the aforementioned Reginald Hill – that, despite the other one being a little better, I found it impossible not set down why these books are such a disappointment.

Let me first make it plain that, as crime books, as detective stories, they’re neither better nor worse than most that I’ve read. The Cipher Garden is an orthodox puzzle, presenting a long series of suspects without ever really tipping its hand about the guilt or innocence of any of them, before revealing the culprit as the only one with no seeming part in the game, right at the very end. The murder is nasty, and there are a couple of other deaths and one psychosexual revelation that ought to have been disturbing but which everybody seemed to take very casually (no, it wasn’t brother and sister for once, thankfully: even Reginald Hill got caught up in that overused cliche, I’m sorry to say).

In contrast, The Arsenic Labyrinth is more of a missing person plot, although the person ends up being missing because she’s dead. This time, it’s pretty clear whodunnit, since he plays a pretty major role in the forefront, the real puzzle being why this has all happened (the death is accidental, more or less, but it’s why the victim was where she was to suffer her accident that eventually unravels), and there’s a pretty similiar last minute death of a perpetrator as in the preceding book.

Both novels include a sub-plot mystery, one involving the titular Cipher Garden and what exactly it is concealing, the other a second, much older murder victim found in the same Arsenic Labyrinth. In both cases, the sub-plot has nothing to do with the story, not even as a reflection or complement.

But then I don’t read crime fiction for the crime or, primarily, the solving of it. I read it for the characters involved: for Marlowe’s cynicism and dry wit nevertheless not concealing a code of ethics that, battered and strained as it may be, is the bedrock of what he has to see when he looks in that mirror, or Mid-Yorkshire’s finest trio, the Fat Man, the Graduate Copper and the Impassive Model of Efficiency.

So who does The Lake District Series offer? It’s basically a two-hander, one pro, one amateur. Or should that be the other way around? Edwards’ blog indicates that he first grew interested in the amateur, Daniel Kind: former Oxford Don, a historian who approaches history as a detective, puzzling out the truuth of the past, and thus an interestingly plausible character as an amateur detective in the present. To counterbalance him, Edwards wanted a strong female character, hence Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett who, to complement the historical theme, is the head of the recently formed Cumbria Cold Case Review team.

Both characters come with baggage designed to clog down the seemingly inevitable (and horribly slow on the evidence of these two books) progression into each other’s bed (or at least a common one). Daniel has recently lost his partner Aimee to a suicide for which he feels guilty. His life has been changed by the beautiful, passionate livewire magazine writer Miranda, who persuades him to downsize from job, home and TV career and relocate with her to a remote cottage in the remote (and fictional) Lake District valley of Brackdale.

Hannah, in contrast, is a rising figure in the Cumbria Constabulary, that is until she makes a mess of the Rao trial (which may or may not be further explicated in the first book), allowing the accused to go free. Because of this mess, she has been shunted sideways to head the newly formed Cold Case team, complete with a former Detective hired as a civilian consultant (hark, do I hear Denis Waterman singing, ‘it’s alright, it’s ok’? …). Hannah lives with her long-term partner, bookseller Mark Amos, and, coincidentally, is linked to Daniel by the fact that her mentor in the force was Daniel’s estranged father Ben Kind (now deceased), who abandoned his wife and two children years earlier for a younger woman.

So Hannah investigates cold cases, whilst Daniel gets intrigued by historical incidents that somehow end up overlapping with these cases, and both spend lots of time trying to put the other out of their mind because they, just like the other, have a partner they are at the very least turned on by (so far, the copious, but only lightly described sex is between our couples), whilst trying not to come on too personally to each other when they do cross trails, in case the other gets the wrong, i.e., right idea. The fact that Miranda breaks up with Daniel at the end of book 3 no doubt does nothing to accelerate this pair’s progress.

Curiously, though perhaps not so curiously, whilst Edwards is always quick to provide brief descriptions of all the supporting characters (especially when it comes to the skirt levels of the females), he doesn’t provide any substantial descriptions of either Daniel or Hannah. We know that the latter is gradually lightening her hair a shade at a time from book to book, on the way to being dazzlingly blonde, and that she doesn’t have pneumatic breasts, but that’s as far as it goes.

Nor are we given any hints as to their ages, which are presumably contemporary to some degree. Hannah’s young enough to get pregnant (but suffer a very early miscarriage) in The Cipher Garden but given the respective career paths to be travelled to reach, on one side, a Detective Chief Inspectorship and, on the other hand, a professorship at Oxford, I’d have though the pair must be in their forties at least. Six months pass between the two books, and Daniel shoots off to America after the latter, delaying book four until his return, so tempus is fugiting, yet Hannah’s Mark (who doesn’t want to become a father) is still plausibly arguing they have years yet to make a decision

I can’t say I’m impressed by either of them, as you may have guessed by describing the first of these two reads as ‘absolute shite’ and, if you’re the kind of perceptive reader I think you are, who knows how much I love the Lake District, and who has noted that whilst I said I was interested in these books because that’s where they’re set, but I haven’t mentioned that side of it yet, you’ve no doubt guessed by now what part of these two books I am SERIOUSLY not impressed with. So here we go.

The first of these two books is set east of Esthwaite Water, around a fictional village of Old Sawrey that’s an addition to the real landscape of Near and Far Sawrey, with their Beatrix Potter connections. The second is set in Coniston Village, with an added post-industrial feature transplanted from elsewhere in the form of the Arsenic Labyrinth. Cumbria Constabulary Divisional HQ seems, somewhat improbably, to be set in Kendal rather than the more obvious Carlisle (Kendal having been part of the long-obliterated Westmorland, pre-1974). Daniel and Miranda’s Brackdale feels to be somewhere in the south-east Lakes in the first book, though it’s never defined: indeed Edwards on his blog confirms that he visualises it being between Kentmere and Longsleddale, so score one for my perceptions.

And Edwards admits to fictionalising geography to one degree or another. As for the rest of it, his research has been thorough, detailed and a genuine pleasure for him. And, as far as I am able to discern, from a Cumbrian grandfather and an association with the Lakes stretching back over fifty years now, conducted with a completely tin ear. There is nothing, and no-one in either of these boks that remotely suggests the Lake District. There are place names, bandied about with no context but names, there are fells that are named with no thought for what they look like, what shape they give to the landscape – fur hilven, the word fell only appears once in either of these books, as part of the generic name of the fictional Tarn Fell in Brackdale: every single reference to the fells is as mountains! There are no fucking mountains anywhere near Esthwaite Water, the whole point of the place is that it is purely pastoral.

And not a single person in either of these books sounds like a Cumbrian for so much as a sentence. I’m not asking for dialect and phonetic spelling, but please, if this is supposed to be authentic, why does nobody speak with the slightest inflection in their voice, the slightest suggestion of Cumbrian rhythm, not even a suggestion of any slowness of speech. There is nobody in either book who sounds as if they have ever been to the Lakes for more than a half day trip, no matter how long they’re supposed to have lived there.

And Edwards seems obsessed by the idea that there is a motor-route called the Hardknott Pass. Not once does it get mentioned as anything other than the (as opposed to any of the other Hardknotts sprinkled round the place, or maybe the other Passes, not one of which has a name remotely like Hardknott) Hardknott (as opposed to, ooh, say, Hard Knott – since it’s name is derived from the definitely-spelt-as-two-words fell overlooking it) Pass. It’s Hard Knott Pass, and it’s universally referred to as Hard Knott, because there is probably only one person in every thousand who knows there is even a Hard Knott fell, and no-one in my fifty eight years of life has ever referred to it as the Hardknott.

That little gem featured prominently throught The Cipher Garden where it was the scene of a long ago alibi, and where it was the Hardknott Pass to Wasdale, which it is if you ignore the fact that it comes down into Eskdale, down which you have to travel a long way before there’s a road round into Wasdale – and that’s Eskdale, by the way, not, as people seem to think in the other book, the Eskdale Valley. As for the oh so closely researched The Arsenic Garden, much of the action, and indeed the murder, takes place in Coppermines Valley, between the Old Man and Wetherlem, Coppermines Valley, the scene of quarrying and mining, centuries worth, Coppermines Valley, which rises to the largest body of water this side of the Coniston Fells, Levers Water.

That’s Levers Water with an ‘R’. It is not Levens Water, NOT Levens Water with an ‘N’, is there nobody with an ounce of knowledge of the Lakes who could at least proof-read these books?

So pardon me if I cannot sympathise with the ultimately banal concerns of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind and in which book they will eventually satisfy their non-existent sexual tension (there was more tension in the relationship between Daniel and his law lecturer sister than I could finding his essentially schoolboy yearnings about the equally schoolgirlish DCI). I am thoroughly repelled by the complete lack of understanding or conviction on the writer’s part about the Lakes, the balloon thin conviction of place and the smugness with which he thinks he’s got it.

Try reading Reginald Hill’s The Woodcutter instead. It might have a brother and sister having it off, and a highly melodramatic climax atop Pillar Rock, but if you want to feel that you’re in the Lakes, you’ll know it.