Five Go Mad In Area 51.
The shadow of Enid Blyton certainly looms heavy over Malcolm Saville‘s Lone Pine series of books. They are, essentially, ripping rural adventures in austerity Britain, with a team of public-spirited youngsters (whose number include, inevitably, a girl with a boy’s name and a small, plucky dog) wading into battle against dastardly pockets of untrustworthy cads and suspiciously secretive ne’er-do-wells. And for a time, the careers of the two writers seemed virtually intertwined: a matter of months separated the launches of their most enduring literary serials (Famous Five in 1942, Lone Pine in 1943) and in 1954, a year before Saucers Over The Moor was published, Saville succeeded Blyton as editor of the Sunny Stories children’s magazine.
Saville arguably had more of a leaning towards contemporary concerns though, and Saucers Over The Moor is a bold and slightly incongruous attempt to steer his own flexible collective of stout-hearted adolescents into a realm more typically occupied by 1950s US B-Movies. From book to book, the Lone Pine gang operate a Rafael Benitez-style squad rotation system, but in this eighth instalment of the series, the starting line-up comprises “nearly 17-years-old” Jon Warrender and his doting 15-year-old cousin Penny; stolid 16-year-old David Morton and his 10-year-old twin siblings Dickie and Mary (who even the other characters in the book concede are deeply annoying – and they are); friend Petronella Sterling (known to all as Peter, she can “swim faster than most boys of her age and ride ten times better”) and the Mortons’ fearless Scottish terrier, Macbeth.
Those seeking the multi-layered storytelling made commonplace by later generations of children’s writers are likely to be disappointed. The story is slight, and told at a glacial pace. Meeting up at The Gay Dolphin guest house run by Jon’s mother at the beginning of the summer holidays, Jon and Penny – chasing owls and quoting Shakespeare in the balmy evening air of Rye – are disturbed by the sight of a “flying saucer” in the dark skies above Dungeness. And, indeed, a vaguely familiar figure (“That’s Mr Green from the Dolphin!”) sharing the experience through a pair of birdwatching binoculars.
The duo summon the other members of the scattered Lone Pine gang to pass the the summer at King’s Holt, a rented cottage in the wilds of Dartmoor, where – bolstered by the presence of tweedy 18-year-old local reporter Dan Sturt – they find their holiday increasingly dogged by further UFO sightings. And, indeed, the dubious reappearance of Mr Green and a similarly shifty sandy-haired accomplice. The youngsters speculate about the rumoured presence of a secret government facility high on the moor, and the possibility of Green and “Sandy” being employed by nefarious (but resolutely unnamed) enemy powers to collect information on the experimental craft being tested there by plucky British boffins. Saville attempts no sleight-of-hand with regard to this main thrust: at the risk of spoilering a resolutely straightforward 66-year-old children’s novel, all of the above transpires to be true.
So, no real surprises. But the aspect of the book that some Lone Pine aficionados seem to find most disappointing is perhaps now its most interesting element. Saville was clearly fascinated by the media hysteria surrounding 1950s UFO sightings, and the inclusion of the incongruous saucers make his book the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull of its day. He’d done his research, though: in a gloriously patronising info-dump to the rest of the gang, Jon references the 1954 “Coniston UFO” story, the notoriously shaggy tales of George Adamski (“who says he has spoken to a being from Venus”) and “a report of a man in Norwich who saw a saucer through his telescope”. I’ve been unable to match up this last sighting with any genuine 1950s news reports, so I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who can supply more information about this particular encounter.
What’s fascinating is the societal and cultural context into which these conversations are placed. In 2020, I wrote a feature for the Fortean Times about the “Psychedelic Shift” in popular culture, a movement that profoundly changed the depiction of the otherworldly in (especially) children’s entertainment from the late 1960s onwards. Before the emergence of the hippie counter-culture, the “weird” was simply depicted as an element of the natural world yet to be crossed off the “to do” list of the scientific community. But, dash it… as soon as our eggheads stop tinkering with those wizard new H-Bombs, all those marauding Martians, Yeti and poltergeists will be pressed into service lickety split and made ship-shape for the service of Queen and British Empire. From the opening brass parps of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, however, that attitude changed: the uncanny was suddenly the refuge of freaks, weirdos and hairy-flarey kids willing to dance around stone circles at the drop of a corduroy cap.
Saucers Over The Moor belongs firmly to the earlier age, with the de facto establishment figure of Jon unhesitatingly accepting the veracity and – indeed – military potential of UFO sightings. “Others say that some of the stories and photographs are hoaxes, but I don’t believe they are,” he insists. “I believe that travel by space rocket may soon be out of date, and that the saucer is the new way of conquering space”. This eminently slappable smugness is clearly intended to reassure – in particular – Penny and Peter, whose earthy reactions to the sightings lend themselves much more readily to modern empathy. With the atomic age gathering momentum, both are understandably intimated by the terrifying new science that Jon finds so intoxicating. Reacting to her first saucer sighting, “Penny felt a sob rise in the throat: this was something she did not understand and she hated and feared it”. Peter too is clearly shaken: “Can’t we have fun without interfering with things that don’t seem to belong to this world?” she pleads to her dismissively unwavering friend. Of all the Lone Pine gang, she’s the character who clearly least enjoys being in a Malcolm Saville novel.
Elsewhere, the novel bristles with the “Keep Calm” brio of mid-20th century children’s literature. With wartime rationing only fully rescinded two years before publication, the book is a celebratory cavalcade of chocolate biscuits and sizzling bacon, and I was particularly taken with the “two egg and chips and ices each” enjoyed by Peter and Dickie in the Moorland Pixie cafe. There are gloriously daffy coded messages sent between the story’s bungling spies (“NO NEED TO PROLONG HOLIDAY AS AUNT EDITH ARRIVES WITHOUT FAIL TONIGHT”), an escape from a locked bedroom window using a rope made from strips of curtains, resigned indifference to a primary school child being kidnapped by an acknowledged wrong’un (see also: The Box of Delights) and, ultimately, the villain of the piece being felled by a swift uppercut from Jon. “That was the most wonderful bonk I’ve ever given anybody in my life!” he exclaims, immediately afterwards. Stop laughing now, or we can all stay behind for detention. It’s not my time you’re wasting, it’s yours.
Another of Saville’s stories – Treasure at the Mill – was adapted by the Children’s Film Foundation for the big screen in 1957 (as discussed here with Vic Pratt from the BFI), and Saucers Over The Moor certainly shares the wholesome, tank-topped aesthetic and consequence-free derring-do of the earliest works of the CFF. Imagine Michael Ripper as the sinister Mr Green and Sam Kydd as Donaldson, the grizzled King’s Holt domestic, and our work here is done.
POINT OF ORDER: Huge thanks to Gavin Hogg, presenter of All FM‘s rather splendid Charity Shop Classics radio show, who found Saucers Over The Moor for sale in one of his favourite local chazzas and was kind enough to donate it to me for Musty Books approval. He was particularly tickled by the titles of other books in the Lone Pine series, including The Elusive Grasshooper, The Man With Three Fingers and The Gay Dolphin Adventure, and was also keen to point out the book’s illustrated cover star (the tweed jacket suggests Dan) is vaguely reminiscent of a young Jarvis Cocker.
FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: Penny Warrender was also the name of Jan Francis‘ character in the 1980s sitcom Just Good Friends. Was writer John Sullivan a Lone Pine fan? It seems an unlikely coincidence.
MUSTINESS REPORT: 9/10. My copy is undated but appears to be a late 1960s reissue from Merlin Books, who specialised in reprints of earlier children’s classics. The pages are the colour of a mid-20th century pub ceiling, dotted with light brown blotches – quite possibly from sizzling bacon – and, as I was reading, the first 24 pages of the book effortlessly detached themselves from the spine. The cockles of my heart have rarely been so reassuringly warmed.