Review: Adventures Underground

Following Alan Jefferys’ review of Concrete Evidence by Victor S Wigmore, Darkness Below heard from Jim Pennington who came across another novel by Wigmore. Jim now takes up the tale …

Adventures Underground grabbed my attention in an Oxfam shop – it carried a politely salacious inscription: “To Marjorie, With many thanks for ‘services rendered’. Victor S Wigmore, Xmas 1935“.

The frontispiece illustration had such a Five Get Up To Mischief look that it just had to end up with me back home for a little nostalgia downtime. I did a search around: there was only the one copy on Amazon and just the one hit outside of used-book websites – Darkness Below and its excellent review of the now intriguing and unpublished Concrete Evidence.

The background information on Victor Wigmore dragged me further down the rabbit hole. Victor’s autobiography is called Memoirs of a Concrete Consultant. The very same week that I had found Adventures Underground, there was a BRMCA (British Ready Mixed Concrete Association) lorry spewing its noise and slurry outside a neighbour’s house. Wigmore was a leading light in its formation. Because I am lucky enough to live near to the British Library I went down to read their copy of his Memoirs. Sadly, he only makes one brief reference to caving – when he has to check out some fracturing pipes just large enough for him to stoop through as if he were down a duck.

Even so, I was smitten by such an irresistible set of bric-a-brac circumstance and have now even bought a copy of Gemmell and Myers’ Underground Adventure as reviewed here as well. That book has some great photos. I’ve never been down a cave but I feel I have now. And Wigmore’s book in particular has brought back the delights of my adolescence in the English countryside during 1960s’ summer hols.

Adventures Underground is set in a mid-1930s summer and everything jollies along in a pretty and idyllic manner. I’d even say it is about one of Wigmore’s school holidays because the style and characterisation reads like a first essay back at school entitled ‘What We Did On Holiday.’ There is a catch-all statement that the characters in the book are fictional (usual code for ‘faction’) and we are told right from the start that “This story will take the reader into … underground caverns … in Somerset and the approximate positions of the caves are mentioned.” So when the cleft Rock of Ages is mentioned, it is pretty clear that the caves are those near Burrington Combe and we know exactly where we are.

Fact or fiction, the plot goes like this … 16-year-old Ned ‘Andy’ Andrews is packed off to a farm with his French school friend, Pierrot, who can’t go home because of measles in his family. They are a little anxious to learn they are to be joined by the son of one of Andy’s father’s patients. This young fellow, Johnnie Brown-Podger, has been prescribed a summer in the country as a cure for his unhealthy weight – the sub-text is that he needs to get away from an over-anxious mother. Andy and Pierrot are dreading having an invalid to look after but Podge (as he is immediately nicknamed) turns out to be a good old sort, eager to muck in, adores the pet dog Nicky, and has an occasional stutter which his new friends are quite happy to tease him about. He also turns out to be an excellent bowler and he saves the local village team from an ignominious defeat at the hands of arch rivals. Andy, of course, can slog for six any ball that’s short of a length, while Pierrot, despite being French, knows what to do at long stop. (I never did – the trick is to pay attention and not day-dream in the loneliest out-field position there can be.)

The cricket match is just one part of one chapter. The other chapters are mostly spent larking about: fishing, exploring caves, getting muddy and eating from tables laden with cakes made by the farmer’s wife, Mrs Martha Vowles. We learn early on that Martha used to be a cook in the Andrews household but married Matthew Vowles to become a farmer’s wife. They soon had a son called Charlie but he died aged only two. Mr and Mrs Vowles often talk of how Charlie would have been had he grown up. The couple use this as an inspiration and as a measure of how best to treat and feed the holiday-time boy guests. This slightly incongruous psycho-sentimentality is mentioned a couple of times but never developed (a bit like an overlooked aven or, dare I metaphorise, a choke?)

Meanwhile, Podge’s self-esteem (it’s not called self-esteem, of course, which had yet to be invented), boosted by this cricket success, gets another uplift when it turns out he can do bird calls. On the crest of this wave, he gets the courage to decide to go looking for his lost watch, last seen on a ledge underground; but, fatal H&S error, he doesn’t tell anyone where he is off to. The frisky mutt, Nicky, is by his side. Podge slithers down the swallet. The dog whimpers and doesn’t follow, which is just as well because the rope Podge secretly took with him is 20 feet too short. Podge falls off the end, twists his ankle, hits his head and lies unconscious until woken by drips of water that threaten to turn him into a stalagmite. Luckily Nicky has scampered off back to the farm where he does a very convincing impression of Lassie by running up several times to Andy and then running away with a cute come-hither look. “There’s something wrong,” Andy said, quietly. “Pierrot … fetch a long rope. and your torch. Quickly.”

It would be unfair to spoil the ending, though you can be petty sure it isn’t dark – like the depths of a bottomless pitch. In fact, the whole tale, despite the twisted ankles, muddy cold, annoying dogs and an  evangelical farmer’s wife, has quite made me want to book up a Somerset B&B for a long weekend. But I’ll wait until the summer for the full effect of an Adventure Undergound.

And in case the reader wonders who co-author A.M.W. might be … I will join you in that wonder.

Reviewed by Jim Pennington

Adventures Underground
Authors: Victor S Wigmore and A.M.W
Published by: GT Foulis and Co, London
Published 1935
Copies are occasionally available from amazon.co.uk and abebooks.com