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The Painted Tent (1974)

Novel (248 pages, 66,405 words)

Heinemann first edition 1974
First edition, 1974
Penguin paperback 1977
Penguin paperback, 1977
Farrago edition, 2022
Trilogy, 1975

A Smiler Companion

The Book

Samuel Miles, known as "Smiler", aged 15, has been falsely convicted of stealing an old lady's handbag, and is on the run from an approved school (young offenders' prison). He is determined to stay free until his father, a ship's cook, returns from his current voyage and can help to clear him of the theft charge, but his father has missed his ship in South America and nobody knows where he is. Smiler hitches a ride with Jimmy Jago, son of "The Duchess", a former fairground fortune-teller who now runs a farm on which circus animals are housed in winter.

Smiler is allowed to stay at the farm, and takes care of the animals. The Duchess encourages him to study so that he can eventually train as a vet, and sends him to Mr. Samkin, a retired schoolmaster who also tutors a local girl called Sandra Parsons who flirts with Smiler. Sandra's jealous boyfriend Trevor Green releases some of the animals from their cages, hoping to get Smiler into trouble. As a result a peregrine falcon called Fria escapes and perches in a recess in a barn. It cannot be recaptured, but it needs help to get food since it has no hunting skills.

There is a derelict manor house nearby called Highford House where the peregrine eventually nests. Smiler finds her there and often goes to see her. Unknown to him, the cellar at the house is being prepared by Jimmy Jago as a refuge for his half-brother, Maxie Martin, whose escape from Dartmoor Prison he is planning.

Publishing History

This is the last part of the Smiler trilogy of books for children. It was published by Heinemann in 1974, and included in the single volume reprint, Smiler, of the three books about Samuel Miles, The Runaways, The Flight of the Grey Goose and this one. There was a Penguin paperback and a US hardback by Morrow. A new edition from Farrago Books has recently appeared, and an audiobook read by John Higgins is available.

A Smiler Companion by John Higgins is available from, and contains a life of Victor Canning, an explanation of how he came to write the Smiler books, and an index of locations, characters and themes of the three books.

The setting is near Barnstaple in North Devon, close to where Victor Canning was living at the time. The village of Eggesford exists, but Bullaybrook Farm and Highford House are fictional, though possibly based on real places. The same area features in two other Canning books of this period, Firecrest and The Mask of Memory. The Fox and Hounds Inn, where Smiler learns about the work of a vet, is also the setting for the denouement in Firecrest.

The names in this book have interesting echoes of earlier books. Jago is the surname of one of the families in The Wooden Angel, possibly the family which is closest to Canning's own. The escaped convict Maxie Martin echoes the master criminal Maxy Martingale who features in the Minerva Club stories, especially The Trojan Crate.

This book is a welcome return to the detailed and practical focus on wildlife that was such a feature of The Runaways. As in the first book, one of the main plot strands concerns the return to the wild of a caged creature, in this case the falcon, and the re-learning of survival skills involved. One learns a great deal about falcons from the book, and it ends with one of Victor Canning's ecological blasts:

"Death had come to [the tiercel], as it does to so many of his kind, through the slow poisons of man, spread over and leached out of the land, moving along the long chain of change in the bodies of insects, vermin, and birds, finally to reach and destroy the fierce heart and proud strength of the prince of birds."
(Chapter 12)

The Fox and Hounds Inn at Eggesford where Smiler is given a beer to drink and learns about being a vet.