saucersMy parents brought me up to be an Enid Blyton snob so I never read any of the FAMOUS FIVE stories — for me the kids-in-gangs-solve-crimes milieu begins a bit obliquely, with E.Nesbit (intra-family adventures in and around the home, no crimes solved) and Swallows and Amazons (adventures involving various families in various holiday-type locales, occasional v.v.minor crim types encountered and foiled except in the anti-realist piratical fantasies). I don’t even know if Blyton invented the sub-genre; I do know that Saville, who succeeded Blyton as editor of Sunny Stories magazine when she set up a rival — wrote some 80 children’s books, many in this general territory, between the mid-40s to the late 70s. The ones he’s best remembered for feature the LONE PINE CLUB. I’ve reread the 4 Lone Pine books I owned as a kid — which is a mere 4 out of 20, so I may not do Saville’s overall oeuvre justice, I don’t know.

The LPC format: in the opening pages of the book you were introduced to the 6-9 primary members (the club grew a little down the series; the full complete membership were almost NEVER involved in any given tale).There was an oath signed in blood buried in a biscuit tin under a Lone Pine near Witchend, a farm in South-West Shropshire. In each book there would be a map of the locale, usually drawn by David Morton, the central character. As a reader you yourself were invited to become a sort-of member as a reader, corresponding with Saville: part of the sense of inclusion was presumably that you might holiday (or indeed live) in this general area, and enjoy recognising features in the landscape.

LONE PINE FIVE (1949)*: set in London; the villainy is ART FORGERY — which tho a bit outré for kid-lit is apparently CANON for the Pinies (in fact they’ve encountered these very villains before). David and Jonathan, the oldest boys, get kidnapped, manhandled, bound and BEATEN UP — which slightly surprises me as an adult, in regard to Acceptable Conventions of Kiddifiction Violence. At the time I found this aspect of it memorable and exciting and fantasised myself bravely resisting similar torture — hmmmm.

SAUCERS OVER THE MOOR (1955): set in Dartmoor, best title but — despite the EXCELLENT ILLLUSTRATION ABOVE — most disappointing follow-through really. The saucers are not from O.Space despite Jon’s world-historical excitement abt alieng contact — and are also REMOTE-CONTROLLED MODELS chiz chiz. It is never clear which SINISTER FOREIGN POWER the blundering spies they foil work for — and the fact that the low-profile mode of transport the spies use is NOISY HELICOPTERS further absurdifies the tale.

SEA WITCH COMES HOME (1960): set near Southwold on the Suffolk Coast, with a slightly vestigial art-theft plot, and spectral echoes of both WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA and THE NINE TAILERS, the central event in this book is the sea breaching the coastal defences and seriously flooding several villages. Reference is made to the disastrous 1953 flood — at the time a great national calamity, now largely forgotten — and TWO PEOPLE ACTUALLY DROWN (tho no one we’ve met — it happens in a town up the coast).

NOT SCARLET BUT GOLD (1962): set in Shropshire, a lot of it in the lead mines under the Stiperstones. The villain is an unlikeable German lad who WEARS LEATHER SHORTS but eventually sees the error of his ways; the macguffin is NAZI GOLD BURIED IN THEM SHROPSHIRE HILLS (the German lad’s missing father was a spy during the war). Given this slightly deliriously ludicrous plot-motor, this is easily the best of the four discussed here. There’s well-explored tension within the gang (newbie vs oldster; plus a veritable FOG of sexual tension between David and Peter, both 16) (for more see Sex below); and one of the nearby grown-ups is justifiably angry throughout almost the entire book with how irresponsible (not to say lunatic) some members of the gang can be. The German element is surprisingly anti-chauvinistic — unlike his obnoxious son, the spy actually LOVED England and hated the war (how he disappeared, and presumably died, is not told). As in the previous one, the climactic scenes — which involve elemtal forces rather than two-bit art-forgers — are genuinely gripping: “Suddenly Mary squeaked, ‘There’s something horrible coming out of the hole! Dickie! Dickie! I hate it!’ Slowly, laboriously, a slim, human figure dragged itself over the edge of the hole and stood for a moment loking towards them.” (I love that comma before “human”!)

PLACE: In his intros, Saville carefully outlined which elements were geographically real (villages, streets, hills), and which were not (specific houses). I lived in Shropshire, and knew Shrewsbury and the Stiperstones pretty well, so I can attest that this device had considerable allure. I considered writing off to be a member, but never did. In the age of Antiques Roadshow, we can look back and see how prescient art-forgery was a crime that carries you through the regions.

PERIL: Menace of actual physical violence from some crims. By the 60s (based on my too-small sample) Saville lost interest in this and switched to natural disasters.

CLASS: The adventures happen in the holidays — and in-between times, with the exception of Tom, I think Jenny and latecomer Harriet, everyone is away at boarding school. This is entirely in the backstory — it’s only ever referenced to make the point that they’re not in each other’s pockets the whole time. It feels a like a time-capsule curiosity now — this kind of fact would now be almost freakish in a tale in this genre; back in the 40s I suspect it was so much the norm that no one thought twice about it (in particular, readers who weren’t at boarding schools themselves, found the idea that adventures happened to kids who WERE entirely unremarkable). Some of the villains are middle-class and well-off (they run art forgery rings); others are poorer and slightly more thuggish. We don’t see enough of the minor villains in Sea Witch, bcz the sea intervenes, but there’s fun boss-minion tensions between them. (One of the kids in the earliest book discussed here uses the phrase “a poor type” to describe a particular minion they’ve encountered before — but he means poor as in “poor specimen”.) Anyway they don’t look down on anyone, even when they dislike them, and some of the rural families have money troubles themselves. I think — though I haven’t read it in years — that the original encounter between the city-bred Mortons and farmer’s boy Tom Ingles — explores this area a bit. Some of the Cockneys have accents — no one rural does. There is a Gypsy-ish farmlad in Scarlet who is a bad lot hrough and through, but his mother — though weak — is portrayed fairly sympathetically.

ENSEMBLE DYNAMICS: David, Jon, Peter and Tom are all 16. Penny and Jenny are 15. Harriet the latecomer is 12. See below for their interraction — but add to it Saville’s most fascinating formal device, the 10-yr-old Morton Twins. They are boy-and-girl identical (isn’t this medically impossible?) and fanatially loyal to the 9th Piner, a small black scottydog called Mackie who can instantly spot — and will certainly bark at and often bite — a wrong’un. The Twins are very close, semi-telepathic, speak a weird book-fuelled code (they like to use BIG WORDS for semi-comic effect), they are unfazed by adults and “handle” them by being FRIENDLY PESTS (villains prepared to thump David or Jon don’t know how to manage Mary and Dickie). They are THOROUGHLY UNREALISTIC and function as a kind of gang-within-the-gang (some of the older Piners find them competely exasperating). They function as a sort of condensed symbol of the Blyton-esque style gang — by contrast heightening yr interest in the more realistic, off-topic teen subcurrents among the older gang members. I can’t imagine ANYONE identifying with them.

SEX: Somewhat daringly — given its date (post-Blyton but pre-60s) — the timelines for the adventures are structured round no less than THREE evolving teen lovestories (David and Peter**; Tom and Jenny; Jon and Penny***). One of the advantages of this is that there’s a subcurrent of illogical hormonal passion sometimes running through the intra-gang relationships — something entirely missing in Swallows and Amazons for example — as well as small rivalries, jealousies and joking-apart conflict. Obviously there’s NO PHYSICAL STUFF and it’s never quite clear if the sweethearts even realise that’s what they are. Certainly I as a reader aged 10-12 didn’t (I also missed all the sex in A High Wind in Jamaica). In Scarlet there is the most ultra-veiled hint that the German spy had an AFFAIR with a Shropshire woman — but it is so sketchy this may be my digraceful lateborn overheated imagination.

CONCLUSIONS: They are dated and a bit hard-going as thrilling reads, to be honest — fascinating as social documents but no longer very easy to warm to. The bind Saville found himself in — the fans wanted the characters to stay much the same age, and on the whole they did — slightly undermined the most interesting element, which was realistic-yet-always-respectable pre-60s portrayal of SUBLIMATED TEEN URGES: it placed the realistic development of friendships and more in a soap-opera-ish time anomaly (eg Jon is never 12 or 20, but forever “nearly 17”). Saville concluded the series in 1978 with Home to Witchend — at which point Robin C steps in to continue the tale (scroll down to “david morton”), complicating it with a sinister new character!!

*Publication dates as given by Wikipedia — my copy of LP5 actually says “first published in 1957”, which I assume refers (albeit a bit cloudily) to the specific edition.
**Calm down: Peter is a girl — full name Petronella.
***YOU CAN STAY UNCALM: Penny is Jon’s cousin.