Sunday, 24 October 2010

Yorkshire Coast Stories

Children’s stories which are set in an areas of moorland, sometimes adjacent to the coast, are not that difficult to find. Quite often all the places in the tales remain resolutely anonymous so that it is possible to think that they happened in one part of the British Isles without ever coming up conclusive proof. Such a story is The Secret of Curbchain Hall by John Maurice. It could have happened in Yorkshire but, after a few moment’s reflection, you realise it could just as easily have happened in Devon. Amongst the oddities of the storyline is the inclusion of a short section which describes the two boys later to be caught up in the adventure as pursuing an otter hunt. It’s an idea not often raised in children’s books. However, there is no blinking the fact that such things used to happen in Yorkshire and other parts of the country. Apart from this the rest of the book is mostly the cliches of the older boys’ adventure story. The exploration up river on the hunting trail leads them to a large and desolate house, the Curbchain Hall of the title, which the boys decide to revisit on a later occasion.
John and Peter are on a camping trip travelling round the countryside on their motorbikes, eating enormous meals and relaxing in the sun. Then Peter’s Uncle George, who is mysteriously connected with the Admiralty, turns up and begins to enlist their aid in tracking a stolen lorry. Their enquiries lead them to Curbchain Hall. It must lie somewhere on the route between Scotland and the south coast. The hall contains the inevitable secret passage and the boys are soon on the trail of an international band of agents who are determined to smuggle a new style of explosive mine out of the country.
The chase takes place on the moors on the way to a small harbour called Coldburn. There is a low road and a high road. The high road is a quicker route but naturally gets shrouded in mist. A car crash and an episode where the heroes pretend to be Irish labourers enliven the progression of the narrative from inland to the coast. With Uncle George immobilised through injury and concussion John and Peter are left to make their own desperate arrangements to thwart the enemy. As you will have deduced, there is plenty of rapidly moving action but the reader is required to supply the locations either from their imagination or from their memory. You are forced to the conclusion that a story which could happen anywhere really happens nowhere and is not a satisfactory read for the older age group for which it was intended.
The Blackspit Smugglers by Lennox Kerr suffers less from this reluctance to name Yorkshire as the locale. It also has the bonus of some extremely strong characterisation and two very vividly described pieces of action. The story begins with sixteen-year-old Tom Rennie home on leave from his apprenticeship in the city. He considers his surroundings on page 2 of the book.
“On his left the moor rose steadily to the sky line. There, Tom knew, were the steep, sheer cliffs falling to the sea, for this moor was a large bulge of land thrusting itself into the North Sea, a promontory known to every seafarer as Blackspit Head, and a favourite landfall for all vessels making a passage up or down the east coast.”
There’s no chance of Devon this time !
Again, however, fictional names are employed. Tom’s father is a coast watcher from the fishing village of “Fairhaven” in the north to a point twenty miles south. The nearest fishing village is called “Blackhaven” which is located on “Blackhaven Bay”. Nevertheless this time the author tries to give his readers a readily appreciable sense of place.
“Standing still, his nostrils sucked in the scent of the heather, and the clear breeze coming from the sea. Round him the moor rustled like a breathing being; gorse bushes were exploding outbursts of gleaming yellow, and, above, one solitary puff of white cloud drifted lazily across a sun-bleached sky. To Tom it was all beautiful, even the grim black telegraph poles strutting like a widely spaced army of giants alongside the roadway.”
When he needs to, Lennox Kerr, who also wrote many children’s books under the pseudonym Peter Dawlish, can bring a place to life. It’s a pity that his plot doesn’t live up to his characterisation and his scene setting. The articles being smuggled are drugs and the villain who is smuggling them is called Devlin, a smarmy, supremely confident type, who has no moral scruples but who inspires loyalty in his gang by his undoubted intelligence and courage. Matched against him is Commander Rankin, the fiery ex-Naval officer who has a roving commission from Her Majesty’s Government.
In smuggling stories there is always a secret cave and an underground passage to the sea. The Blackspit Smugglers is no exception. Tom Rennie’s part in the adventure is, for most of the book, rather unspectacular and ignominious. The smuggling gang see him off very easily when he pries into their secret cave and he is left to drown in the face of an advancing tide. This provides one of the highlights of the book as the reader shares in his desperate struggle for survival. Later Tom tamely walks back into the hands of the enemy when he calls at the hut of old Harry, a half-mad recluse who lives on the moors a full mile from the coast. And in old Harry we meet another quite extraordinary character who, brutalised and sent to the brink of insanity by his early life at sea, has built his hut over the entrance to the secret cave. Thrown into captivity with the old man, young Tom finds it difficult to retain his courage when listening to the old man’s ramblings about the “bucko” mate who had tormented him so many years ago.
A second scene of quite impressive intensity occurs not long before the end of the book when Tom is trapped in the cave with the residue of the gang who are waiting half-hoping and half-fearing that Devlin will appear again. The tide rises and they retreat higher and higher up the walls in darkness watching for the signs that it is on the turn and that they will be safe. In a surprising manner Lennox Kerr then begins to reveal the different character traits of the criminals who up to this point had appeared little more than stereotypical cyphers. There is the panic-stricken Cockney and the belligerent but cheerful Blackie who tyrannises over him. Even the law-abiding Tom is forced to admire the spirit shown by Blackie when the odds of survival seem very low indeed. Eventually, of course, Tom’s opportunity to show his mettle arrives and there is a splendid shipwreck to bring the book to its climax and conclusion.
Whilst Lennox Kerr and John Maurice may have been quite enigmatic about the setting of their stories in Yorkshire (or not) John Mowbray’s The Radio Mystery wants to trumpet the fact from the very beginning. The inside flap of the dust-wrapper has the following blurb,
“Espionage on the fair Yorkshire Moors ! Poor Toby, sent to England on a vitally important mission, that of testing his uncle’s ingenious new Radio gadget, finds himself in the midst of an unscrupulous gang of enemy agents who will stop at nothing to steal the invention for their own devilish uses. There is plenty of breath-taking suspense and the unmasking of the arch-fiend – whose name we must not mention – is most cleverly done by this master of espionage tales, John Mowbray.”
Of course, it is hardly fair to blame the author for the enthusiastic exuberance of the person who wrote this hard-sell but it is fair to say that The Radio Mystery does indeed live up to the worst of our expectations. Yet it has its moments.
The first page goes in for a little bit of patriotic and indeed Yorkshire chest swelling. Born in Africa and brought up in Kenya, Toby Yorke makes a fervent declaration of his allegiances.
“Oh, yes,” as he was telling his friend Brian Merritt, “you can call me a Colonial as hard as you like, and I’m jolly well proud of it…”
“Of course you are,” interposed Brian.
“But I’m English as well. And this Yorkshire of yours is my county, Brian.”
The two boys are resting on the cliffs which overlooked the North Sea. Inland they can see the sixteenth century farmhouse that has been in the Merritt family for generations. Just in case we haven’t got the message, Toby continues with his declaration of commitment.
“For ages you Merritts have farmed in that same Valley House. You are Yorkshire. And Yorkshire is you, Brian. And I am Yorkshire as well in my blood and my bones, Brian, for all my ancestors are English and come out of Yorkshire. And I tell you again: it’s good to be in England.”
By now the alert young reader will have recognised that we are in wartime situation – World War 2 to be precise and that a great deal is going to be demanded of the young heroes. The absence of any sort of parental control or protection is an essential feature in this sort of story. Toby’s parents are dead and Brian’s father has suddenly (and inexplicably) decided to go to Egypt. There’s only Brian’s twin sister, Meg, who is going to offer them any sort of company or solace. Fortunately, as Brian says, “she’s quite a good sort.” On the other hand it gets quite irritating when her parts of the dialogue are rendered by the author’s incessant use of the expression “Meg trilled” as she makes her contributions to the ebb and flow of conversation.
The invention mentioned in the dustwrapper blurb is an early form of “scrambler” device that will enable safe communication between the allies when the British Government decides to adopt it for the military’s use. Toby offers an explanation to Meg,
“Or would you prefer me to give you a lecture on pentodes and double diodes and . er, other –odes, together with Mutual Conductance, Impendance, Modulation, et cetera ?”
What matters from the point of view of the plot is that the invention is of vital importance and when threatened they feel it safer to turn over what they know to Sir Pascal Lanch, the local big-wig.
“He’s awfully popular. He’s got pots and pots of money which he spends like a king.”
Need I say more.
There is some attempt to suggest Yorkshire to us as a real place by the journeys taken by the three youngsters in the surrounding countryside. To get to “Epton” Toby has to catch the train from “Allerton Bridge”. On its way the train passes through “Uskdale” where it is delayed some minutes by “moorland cattle wandering across the rails”.
Another lonely mansion plays its full part in the story and there is a description which creates genuine tension when Toby climbs the side of the house for six storeys in pitch darkness and is just managing to cling on to the vertical ladder. Some time later in the story Toby is able to see the exact position of the old house and realises that it is on the coast and the beach below would be the perfect place for the arrival of the landing craft of a German invasion. However, let us leave some mystery for you to unravel yourself.
It is somewhat alarming to find that the locality of the North Yorkshire Moors has previously been a hot-bed of dramatic inventions and underhand dealing by the Germans. It is obviously something about its rugged remoteness and yet its apparent accessibility from the North Sea that makes it a desirable setting for boys’ adventure stories. The Secret of the Baltic by T.C. Bridges is set during the First World War and the main protagonists are somewhat older than those in The Radio Mystery. The hero, Guy Hallam, is longing for a chance to “do his bit”.
“Although at eighteen he was taller, stronger, deeper in the chest and broader in the shoulders than most grown men, yet that damaged leg and the slight limp resulting from it had cut him off from the chance of wearing His Majesty’s uniform.”
Instead of joining up he is helping Mr. Ingram, the scientist, in developing a new invention – an explosive that causes a complete vacuum over the whole area of the explosion. This means that “every cell in every living thing within that area must burst open”. The explosive is called “neonite” and (what else ?) could bring the war to an end in a matter of months.
The secret workshop is located on the coast at Galleon Gap – somewhere on the North Yorkshire Coast. One of the drawbacks is that living nearby is a man called Cratch.
“Who is Cratch ?” asked Anson.
“A fellow who lives in an old farmhouse near here. Pretends to be on a fishing holiday,” Guy answered. “But Wallace and I are pretty certain he’s a spy.”
They are right. Indeed he proves to be a pretty resourceful one, adopting at least three disguises and succeeding in capturing both the inventor’s son and then the inventor himself. Some of the other Germans in the book run more true to the jingoistic Hun-bashing tendencies of the authors of this sort of story.
“The Hun, scowling balefully up at them, was satanically ugly. He was quite short, but had the chest and shoulders of a giant, whilst his arms were as long as those of the original Black Dwarf. His head was bald as a coot’s, and the smooth skull was shaped like a dome. He had a great hooked nose, a gash of a mouth, and small, deep-set, pale blue eyes.”
Just in case we hadn’t got the message the author adds,
“Haughtiness, intolerance, and downright cruelty were written large all over him.”
The name of this charming specimen is Baron von Fromach and his voice and manner match the description given. He had arrived on the North Yorkshire Coast in a German bi-plane (scandalously disguised of course by British roundels on its side and wings) in pursuit of Lieutenant Dick Anson who has discovered a big German secret in the Baltic and then made his escape by drifting across the North Sea in a balloon. The German invention that Anson has found is even more dramatic than Ingram’s neonite. It is the ability to freeze anything that moves.
Naturally it is vital that Anson gets to London and the Admiralty to pass on this information. Fourteen miles away is “Brocklesby Junction” where the 8.30 train goes straight through. By now you will have anticipated that as soon as they get out the car a mist will start to fall over those grim northern moors and that desperate men will be lying in wait.
Later in the book more examples of the perfidy of the Germans are laid before us and T.C. Bridges introduces a few more features of the coast nearby. Thus when Guy and Wallace see two people on the Snout, a rocky point on the north side of the bay, who are bound to be cut off by the tide, they lose no time in coming to the rescue. Guy lowers Wallace down to the beach so that he can help. To his horror things don’t quite work out as he had planned.
“Close under the cliff Wallace lay helpless. His hands and feet were tied, and a gag was in his mouth. A few yards away were the two men. They were powerfully built, ugly-looking fellows, and having discarded their overcoats and flung aside their rod and net, now appeared in their true colours – as German sailors.”
Later Guy has to watch in impotent fury as his friend is rowed out to a waiting U-boat. The Germans (by a very dirty trick) have got the inventor’s son. By blackmail they also manage to get hold of the inventor himself and the secrets of his “neonite”. This time the U-boat comes near shore at a place called “Cleft Bay”, an even more remote spot than Galleon Gap. To get there they have had to pass through the “Singing Reef” a place of rocks where the water is “always talking and the swift tides humming among them”.
Guy contemplates with horror what has happened.
“It was all over. Neonite would at once be manufactured on a large scale, and within a few weeks it and the Cold Ray would come into effect on the Western Front.”
Fortunately Guy hasn’t just got a stiff leg, he has also got the stiff upper lip of a true Briton. Even more fortunately Mr. Vassall of Intelligence and the Royal Navy are waiting in the wings.
The Secret of the Baltic was written in 1919 and in its attitude and its contents was very much a product of its time. To be fair to T.C. Bridges it is worth saying that he was not alone in producing this jingoisitic sort of story about the Great War and his later adventure stories such as Wings of Adventure are less preposterous and genuinely exciting. Unfortunately they are not set in North Yorkshire.
It would be nice to think that both the bigotry and the plain “daftness” of this sort of story disappeared with the passage of time. However, when we turn to the work of Percy F. Westerman and his stories about the North Yorkshire Moors we discover this not to be the case. Standish Pulls it Off was published in 1940 and was just the latest offering in the long-running Standish series which includes such titles as Standish Holds On and Standish Gets His Man. The hero Colin Standish is a pilot and in the early stories such as The Amir’s Ruby and The Westow Talisman works for a commercial airline. By the time of Standish Pulls it Off our hero is a senior officer in the North Eastern Division of the Royal Air Constabulary. Already he has done his bit by dealing with an American tommy-gun gangster who flew over to England to embark upon a spree of bank-robberies amongst the limeys. It should be noted that Percy F. Westerman was just one of a clutch of writers serving up aeroplane stories to the very air-minded youth of the late 1920s and 1930s. Also churning them out were George E. Rochester, Rowland Walker, T.C. Bridges, John F.C. Westerman (Percy’s son), Major Charles Gilson and Captain W.E. Johns. Even the concept of the air constabulary and the air police had been done before and, with “Biggles’” retirement from the R.A.F. after WW2, was going to be done far better in the future.
To anyone who has read a large proportion of his more than 176 books it often seems that Percy F. Westerman had a dual identity. When he writes about life in the Merchant Navy or small boat sailing his stories drip with reality but when he steps on land or goes up in the air he is no more than a relentless hack with no feeling for people or place. Standish is the least satisfactory of his series heroes and Standish Pulls it Off must be amongst the worst of his books. It is gloriously awful.
Like T.C. Bridges Percy F. Westerman believes in doing things in a big way. In preparation for WW2 the British Government has decided to excavate a gigantic defence establishment under the North York Moors. Huge numbers of miners have been drafted in from all over the North and they are working day and night to complete some gigantic project. Naturally all this work is “off-limits” to the public. Even Standish and his fellow pilots only know that people have to be kept away from the potential danger area which you will find on the map marked as Westerdale Moors. However, the story starts off in a real place for Standish, based at Hawkscar (Ravenscar perhaps) is told that a suspicious aeroplane has been intercepted and forced down close to Hayburn Wyke.
“There was no need for Standish to consult his map. He knew this part of Yorkshire like the palm of his hand – perhaps better.”
The author then begins to tell us what he knows,
“Hayburn Wyke is a narrow, thickly wooded gorge bounded by the North Sea on the east and by a steep hill on the landward side. This slope is rendered even more difficult by a railway, with its attendant telegraph wires, running between Scarboro’ and Whitby.”
This is all very promising and begins to fill you with nostalgia for the lost railway that is now a coastal path. However, we are soon off into Ruritanian fantasy for the suspicious aircraft has come from Verdonia, one of this country’s implacable enemies. It was brought down by the use of the Z ray which had the effect of polarising the magneto of any fugitive machine. The ZZ ray is even more effective but I won’t trouble you with that..
Back to the reality part of the storyline - the Verdonian pilot had apparently been taking photographs and had abandoned his camera somewhere near Ralph’s Cross (nowadays the symbol of the North York Moors National Park). Colin Standish and his friend Don Grey are selected to be the ones that should recover it. They set off in Colin’s car for Castleton, expecting to complete the rest of the journey on foot. Almost immediately they run into a “red herring” and get on the track of an innocent citizen who actually has sent a loudly ticking watch through the post. Satisfied that it was not an “infernal machine” the two officers of the RAC (Royal Air Constabulary – remember !) return to their mission. As they drive along through Pickering and then take the turning at Kirkbymoorside Colin begins to put Don in the picture.
“You’ve flown over this district scores of times ?”
“Rather !”
“Seen anything unusual ?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Then that points to the excellence of the system of camouflage. We are now over an immense subterranean hangar, proof against the heaviest bomb. Within it is accommodation for a thousand machines with several exits so arranged that they can take off at the rate of ten a minute.”
No wonder Don Grey is surprised !
Eventually they arrive at Ralph Cross and, unobserved themselves, watch a solitary motorist actually climbing up the cross so that he can put something in the hollow on the top. Not long afterward they watch another individual come along and remove the article. In the middle of the night in his room at the Robin Hood hotel in Castleton Standish watches a huge military convoy heading up on to the moors. The next day Colin and Don pay a visit to Colonel Bonnington, the local commander of the vast underground establishment. He gives them a conducted tour of the works and they discover that conventional aircraft are not the main weapon being prepared against a possible enemy. In fact the North Yorkshire Moors have become a vast launching pad for V2 style rockets that can rain down upon the cities of any potential aggressor. This is a nice ironic twist when we consider today’s reality of Fylingdales and the “Son of Star Wars” project.
However, we have almost forgotten about the Verdonian pilot. His name is Jean Lensco and he has a big part yet to play in the visits to many well-known parts of the moors. The police have decided to move their prisoner to York en route to London for further questioning. As the car presses onward through Malton there is a sudden puncture that causes a crash from which only Lensco recovers quickly. Off he goes into the woods and then to a railway line where he manages to climb on to a freight train. He eventually ends up in a siding in Pickering. Unshaven and hungry, Lensco pretends to be deaf and dumb and buys himself a pie and a bottle of cider. Lest he look conspicuous he walks on until he comes “to a ruined castle with a bank in front upon which there were two or three seats”. This is still a fair description of Pickering Castle today. His next trick is to steal a bicycle and set off along the road towards Kirbymoorside.
It seems fairly obvious that Percy Westerman who lived and worked on the south coast of England did some genuine research for this particular story. The geographical details are based on reality and it’s only the preposterous plot that lets it down. No new territory is taken in from this point onwards, though it is worth mentioning yet another suddenly descending mist and its effect on a frantic car chase, and so, abandoning the action half way through, we move to another Westerman story which sees this prolific author trying out another format.
The Mystery of Stockmere School is Percy F. Westerman’s one attempt at writing a public school story. However, it is only by a process of deduction that one can work out that it must be set in Yorkshire.
The basic plot is quite interesting - somewhere in the north is the town of Colbury Monkton, a grimy industrial sort of place where soot hangs in the air and where Stockmere School is like an oasis in a desert. The school has a good reputation for academic success but in terms of sporting achievement they are a spent force. The boys spend their days either with their heads down over their books or coughing out their lungs. Even the
master who ran the Scout troop has given it up as a bad job. Then, for the Headmaster, an even bigger tragedy occurs for the school is going to be forced to close seven weeks early because an inspection of the drains has found conditions to be wholly insanitary. In other Westerman stories the boys would have set off on some sailing adventure using the time profitably in becoming "men" and frustrating the activities of some of the many cardboard villains that infest this sort of tale. This time, however, the Headmaster's brother persuades him to move the school lock, stock and matron up in to the hills some 12 miles to the north but with a distant sight of the North Sea. The site of an old aerodrome is available for rent and the school can take it over.
The sixth form boys (who are the heroes of the tale) are allocated a hut that has a mysterious visitor on the first night. Someone has been scraping away at the floor and left his knife behind. The next night the boys make their plans to catch the intruder but only succeed in snagging an obnoxious (and ineffective) teacher in their trap. Yes, there is even an illustration with a bucket of water on his head. The boys are chucked out of their hut
for their cheek. This mystery then lies in abeyance for most of the rest of the book. Meanwhile, you see, the younger boys are required to have a few adventures and, free at last of the poisonous atmosphere, to get themselves fit for the County Sports.
To cut a long story short here are just some of the more amazing things that happen:
A younger boy (about fourteen) is picked up by a golden eagle and he shoots the eagle with his Derringer pistol which a senior boy had decided not to confiscate because it wasn't his business to do so. Some of the boys find an underground cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites and the Headmaster's brother decides the best way to provide better access to this fragile underground marvel is to use blasting powder. To return to the mystery element two plain-clothes detectives spend 10 nights in the room where the intruder was seen attacking the floor and fail to find the trap-door that opens in the centre of it - it leads to a secret tunnel to the cave mentioned above. A boy ordered by his teachers to take a silver teaspoon to be identified by a local jeweller is arrested as a country-house thief. This same boy makes his escape from the police and runs two miles back to the school in order to take part in the school sports. He arrives at the starting line puffed out but still manages to win the hurdle race. Ten minutes later the same boy sets a blistering pace in the mile so that his team-mate who runs a steady pace can come through and pick off their rivals who have all run too fast. By the way the team-mate's only distinguishing feature is his enormous head - usually just used for passing examinations before the move away from the grimy town.
The school, of course, gets a higher pass-rate than usual and wins the County Sports by just onepoint.
You are cordially invited to follow the "wonderful adventures" of the two heroes of this book into their next volume Sinclair's Luck where they head off for East Africa. The blurb promises you : "it is full of exciting incident such as boys revel in".

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