I was never ashamed to be a Scout – not until 15 minutes after I was formally enrolled. I was 11, it was the summer before I started at secondary school. My new patrol leader was 16 and went there already. He told me if I ever ran into him I was to pretend we didn’t know each other.
But I stuck with Scouting because it turned out to be almost scandalously exciting. On night hikes in remote countryside, unaccompanied by adults, we marched in pairs till dawn, burning up our torch batteries at the start then having to walk in darkness over hills and through forests. In the Lake District, I climbed a sheer cliff with bare hands and built a bivouac using sticks and leaves, nearly drowning inside it one night after heavy rain. In Scotland, I took part in remarkably violent games of hide and seek.
Additionally, I confess, Scouting appealed to my inner swot: I could tie all kinds of knots, could you? But I was glad our troop put little emphasis on the religious and paramilitary aspects. Before and after weekly meetings we threw on our uniforms to raise and lower the Union Jack, and that was about it.
This month, the handbook that indirectly inspired my adventures, Scouting for Boys, has been republished, with ponderous footnotes from an academic who plainly dislikes the author. Among other charges she levels at Robert Baden- Powell, founder of the worldwide Scout movement, are “verbal excesses of a racist and class-based nature”; cannibalising other texts; self-promotion; a short attention span; and the use, even in rugged terrain, of scented soap.
Reviewers, many acknowledging that they were never Scouts themselves, have gleefully mocked the book, starting with the title that lends itself so well to smirking double-entendre. Fair enough: there’s plenty to laugh at. But to a former Scout, the mockery is mortifying. What never seems to be acknowledged is Scouting’s compelling appeal. Believe it or not, this was the best-selling book in English, after the Bible, for nearly half of the 20th century. Not for nothing did the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn describe Scouting as an exemplary “invented tradition”, authored and authorised by a single inventor and set up virtually at a stroke. Baden-Powell deserves to be recognised as a visionary, with much to offer us still.
The Scouts were revamped in the 1930s, then in the 1960s and most recently in 2002. Perhaps the most significant changes include accepting girls, adding cargo pants to the uniform and subdividing Scouts into narrower age ranges. (There’s also less emphasis on passing tests and earning badges, perhaps because children jump through enough hoops at school.) At its peak, as late as 1988, some 676,988 Britons were involved in the Scout movement. Today, the figure is just short of half a million adults and children. I recently met some of them, at the 12th Hampstead, a troop in north London, where the parents, I’m told, include millionaires, a government minister, a pop star and many less privileged.
The leader, Nick Dewdney, was never a Scout himself but one of his friends suggested he come along to Scout meetings to give a talk. He was soon hooked on what he describes as the “incredible” spirit, and after passing various tests was certified as a scoutmaster. In the 12 years since he took over, the troop has grown from just eight Scouts to nearer 50. When I stepped inside the borrowed school hall where they meet on Monday nights, the 10- to 14-year-olds were playing a four-way tug-of-war; the blast of noise nearly blew me back outside.
After that mayhem, Dewdney invited the scouts to sit in patrols for a spot of first aid. He quizzed individuals on what to would do if, say, they found their brothers lying motionless beside a Scalextric set, screwdriver in hand, amid the stench of burning. Or if they walked into a room and found somebody with a severed arm. Any schoolteacher would be impressed by the respectful silence attending this gory seminar. “First aid is nasty,” he cautioned. “You’ll feel sick. Some time ago, a 10-year-old cub was witness to a car accident. The driver had cut his carotid artery. This cub was shaking and terrified but he just stuck his thumb into the wound. And a doctor said later that if he hadn’t done that, with his little 10-year-old thumb, the man would have died. Any questions?”
Later, there was a competition: to build the best structure capable of sustaining a kilo of sugar, using only masking tape, plastic drinking straws and a copy of the Daily Express. Then another physical exercise – a knockout – in which the Scouts hurled footballs at each other. Eventually one small boy named William faced four opponents alone. After several seconds, he managed to knock out one, then another – before eventually being hit himself. For showing such pluck, William earned 10 bonus points for his patrol, the Falcons; he walked slowly back among his them with an expression of lip-biting pride that could easily have been mistaken for the moment before shedding tears.
The hardest thing, says Dewdney, is mixing physical activities with intellectual ones. “You need to develop the kids in each of those areas.” If meetings become too physical, quieter children drop out. And that often happens, Dewdney says, because Scout leaders are usually hard-pressed individuals with day jobs. “It’s easy to think, ‘Let’s just play British bulldog,’ rather than invent ways to make the learning interesting. And if it’s not interesting, the kids think, ‘Oh, God, it’s like school.’”
Dewdney’s bluff leadership reminds me of Peter Riches, who ran the troop where I was a Scout and whom I admired almost to the point of hero-worship. Pete was good at sport, knew his stuff, trusted us to get on with whatever we were doing, was strict when necessary, and capable of inspiring real effort. When Pete left us – he got married, started his own business – Scouting didn’t seem much fun any more, so I left too. I recently tracked him down, and met him this week for the first time in two decades. I asked why he bothered with us – the lost weekends, the planning, the possibility that one of us might fall off those cliffs. As somebody who has never volunteered for any comparable community service, I’m expecting his reply to be humbling, but he just says he liked helping people. Altogether, he was a leader for 19 years but he wouldn’t do it again if he was paid, because times have changed. “Imagine my night hikes… you’d be sued out of existence.” (In fact, though I was hardly aware of it, Pete and his assistants watched over us from a distance.) “I used to tell parents, ‘If he comes on this hike he’ll get cold and wet and probably lost.’ But nobody wants little Johnny to get cold and wet any longer.” Then there’s the paperwork. And – though I haven’t the heart to mention it to Pete – the suspicion nowadays attending any man who wants to spend time with children.
Baden-Powell created the Scouts because he feared the British Empire was about to go the same way as Rome, its young citizenry weak and incapable of defending it. “Much preventable [physical] deterioration is being allowed to creep in among the rising generation,” he writes more than once. “A great amount of poverty and unemployedness results from boys being allowed to run riot outside school as loafers and then finding themselves without any knowledge of a trade.”
Has much changed? A report published last month indicated that children’s waistlines have expanded by two clothing sizes since I was a Scout. Another, commissioned by the Prince’s Trust, identified a “lost generation” of more than a million young people lacking the necessary “supportive network” to improve their lives. This is worrying, for several reasons. As Louise Casey, head of the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Unit put it recently: “Bored teenagers… need help, but there are some who don’t realise that we as a community find gobbing at old ladies unacceptable.”
To which Baden-Powell might have replied: “Discipline is not gained by punishing a child for a bad habit but by substituting a better occupation that will absorb his attention.” And you, if you’re horribly cynical, might add that there is no hope whatsoever that latter-day delinquents will join the Scouts. I’m not so sure. A close friend of mine, now a successful property developer, grew up despising the Scouts. Back then, he would have called us tossers, though now he says more politely that we were “a bit square”. After he was expelled from his public school, Daniel’s parents dispatched him on a remedial course in the Scottish Highlands with other reprobates, many of them state educated. “I thought I was going to get my head kicked in,” he confides. In fact, that didn’t happen. On the contrary Daniel enjoyed much the same activities that I did, around the same time, in the Scouts: climbing Ben Nevis, jumping off bridges, building rafts. He even wore a uniform.
The specific programme Daniel followed, in the mid-80s, is no longer available. But local government schemes are essentially the same. The latest, known as Youth Inclusion Programmes, are aimed specifically at those teenagers deemed most likely to become offenders. Participation is voluntary. Teenagers are targeted with variety of interventions, including music groups, holiday clubs, environmental clean-up projects, participation in sports and even drama workshops. In every respect, Yaps find their counterpart in Scouting for Boys. And I daresay the social workers who run them would agree with Baden-Powell’s warning to instructors: “With boys, if you try to preach what you consider ‘elevating matter’ you won’t catch them. Any obvious ‘goody-goody’ will scare away the more spirited, and those are the ones you want.”
On the BBC’s Panorama, last month, a reporter visited a YIP club and described it as “a magnet for youngsters on the estate”. Later in the same programme, she visited the mother of a difficult teenager in Blackpool. For years Pat Robinson had begged for help from Social Services – until her son, Matthew, found himself facing a possible charge of attempted murder. His behaviour has improved, Panorama reported, not least thanks to a scheme like the YIP. (His new hobby, it turns out, is climbing.) “Could more have been done earlier on to help Matthew?” the reporter asked with some urgency. Well, without wanting to seem frivolous, had Mrs Robinson tried taking him along to the Scouts?
Scouting for Boys
The Scout movement has changed a lot since Baden-Powell wrote Scouting for Boys. Indeed, the Scout Association takes care to stress that this is “not a handbook for today’s young people”. (The current handbooks are rather different.) But these highlights may show you why children have found his book powerfully motivating.
2376 words. First published 13 March 04. © The Financial Times