I happened to see this on the returns trolley in the children’s library where I work, and I picked it up because of the lighthouse on the cover. I like lighthouses and tend to associate them with Blyton, despite only having read one book (you can all guess which one) with a lighthouse setting. I suppose they are mentioned a few other times, normally in conjunction with some sort of night-time signalling.
Anyway, I noticed that it was set in and around Dundee which piqued my curiosity. I borrowed it there and then, and now, some months later I have actually read it! I actually read the whole thing while sitting on the beach at Carnoustie, (in between paddling and rock-pooling) which is about as close as you can get to the lighthouse on land. If I had thought about it I would have taken a nice photo of the book on the beach with the sea in the background – the lighthouse not being visible due to the curvature of the Earth – but you’ll have to make do with a stock photo of the cover instead.
The lighthouse and the wreck
The basic story of the wrecking of HMS Argyll is a true one. In 1915 the Bell Rock Lighthouse was in darkness, to prevent enemy submarines using the light to navigate to their advantage. The HMS Argyll, having travelled from Devon, up the West Coast of Scotland and then down the East – attempting to avoid the more dangerous waters off the south and east of England – got caught in a storm off the coast of Angus. They requested that the Bell Rock Lighthouse was turned on to aid their passage past the treacherous shelf of rock upon which the lighthouse sits.
However, the lighthouse at that time had no radio and could only be contacted by boat or by signalling from the mainland. Due to the storm neither or these methods could be used and so the light was not lit. Nor was a message passed back to the Argyll to warn them of this, and so, expecting the light to be lit they didn’t know they were passing the lighthouse and ran aground.
The lighthouse itself is a pretty fascinating one. It is the oldest working sea-washed lighthouse in the world, having been built between 1807 and 1810. Despite being over 200 years old (and the lowest 15 metres being underwater) the masonry base hasn’t been upgraded or replaced since it was built.
Shamefully, despite it being within 25 miles of my home, and only about 10 or 11 miles off the Angus coast – where I frequently visit the beaches – I didn’t know anything about the lighthouse until I read up on it after reading the book. While reading I was picturing a lighthouse at sea, but sitting on at least some visible rock. But as you will see in pictures it’s very much just a lighthouse sticking out of the water!
Mr King or Mr Roland?
The story begins with Nancy sneaking out of her house to follow her teacher, believing he is a spy. Her evidence is fairly flimsy, but he does go walking each evening, late at night, in the direction of the docks or the railway station.
Her first night of following him is a bust, but on the second she meets a boy known locally as Jamie the Howff – so named because he lives in the ancient (and very much still there today) graveyard behind the high street of Dundee, the Howff. He saves her from a couple of other boys who are hassling her and accompanies her on her endeavours.
The question is, will her teacher turn out to be a Mr King (sneaking around on the side of good) or a Mr Roland (sneaking around evilly as charged).
In their search by the docks Nancy and Jamie stumble upon a (fabricated for this novel) plot to signal a German U-Boat with the HMS Argyll’s route (unbeknownst to them the aim is to relieve the HMS Argyll of some critical war intelligence). The policeman at the docks won’t listen to them, so it’s off to Arbroath on an ambulance train to try to warn the shore signal station there – and then back the same way to try to catch one of the culprits
The other side of the story
Meanwhile, the alternate chapters tell the story of 15 year old Midshipman Harry Melville as he is on watch for the Bell Rock Lighthouse and is issued with orders to protect the intelligence documents at all costs.
Then of course the ship runs aground and they must try to evacuate in the middle of a storm. Spoiler alert (as much as it can be a spoiler when it’s based on a true story) due to the daring actions of a couple of two destroyers all men were saved.
The ship was destroyed soon after it was emptied and it’s still down there, and apparently still diveable if you’re capable of that sort of thing!
Is it Blytonian?
This isn’t the most Blytonian novel I’ve read, I’d admit that. Firstly it’s set a fair bit earlier than any of her works – though I do recommend books from a wide range of eras so that isn’t exactly an issue.
Secondly it’s set very specifically in war-time, (WWI, naturally) while Blyton generally skirted around WWII in her books. Even the ones that did mention the war were a bit oblique about it.
Thirdly, it’s based on a true story which, as far as I’m aware, Blyton never wrote any fiction based on real events.
None of these are reasons not to read it, of course. It has a fast pace (which is very Blytonian) and a girl teaming up with a homeless boy to solve a mystery unaided by the police.
If I had one criticism it would be a slight lack of description. It’s a short and pacey book – we meet Nancy at 10pm one evening, Jamie not too much later. The next evening they set off again around 10pm and everything is done and dusted by the middle of the next morning. There’s not a whole lot of room for long descriptive passages, but it could have benefited from Blyton’s skilful way of describing people and places.
For example the poor state of Jamie’s clothes are described – this is important to show us why the police and others would not want anything to do with him. However nothing about Nancy is described leaving us with no idea what she looks like other than she had a coat on at one point. I knew fine well this was set in WWI, and I know more or less what the fashions were, and yet I ended up with a very 1940s or 50s image of Nancy. The same goes for the car that features. A 1915 car is a very different beast from the 1940s or 50s kind I was picturing.
Over all, though, it was an exciting read. You could feel the frustration of Nancy and Jamie as they travelled the Dundee and Angus coast trying to contribute in their own way to the war effort. The few helpful characters they met along the way were (if rarely physically described) were well-written and clearly the whole thing was very well researched.
I enjoyed the setting in particular, as of course I am familiar with all the places mentioned (with the exception of the lighthouse, of course. But I am putting Arbroath’s Signal Tower Museum on my list of places to visit). Your mileage may vary on that, depending on how much you know of this area.