9 June 2012

Scouting for Boys

Tales of the Windrush....

Otter Patrol - Burford 1962

When Scouting for Boys was first published in 1908, Lord Baden Powell’s experience of warfare, particularly in South Africa, informed his writing: A scout, as you know, is generally a soldier who is chosen for his cleverness and pluck to go out in front of an army in war to find out where the enemy are….. But he also acknowledged that, besides war scouts, there are also peace scouts, and he cited a variety of examples, such as the trappers of North America… missionaries over Asia…. The constabulary of North-West Canada…. real men in every sense of the word…. to support his thesis that Scouting also comes in very useful in any kind of life you are like to take up, whether it is soldiering or even business life in a city…..

So, of course, Scouting (a noun of sorts) was for boys….  Guiding was for girls.    How times have changed!  My edition of this seminal work was printed (and bought) in 1962, and although it has not been particularly well thumbed in recent years, I can still dip into it for essential advice on how to live my life.  From the initial Promise – On my honour I promise that I will do my best…..  through The Scout Law which includes No. 8, A Scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties,  (the whistling has got me into all sorts of trouble) and No. 10, A Scout is clean in thought, word and deed, (which I shall come to anon,) I can turn to page 89, Sign Round a Dead Body, where I read that, Twice lately bodies have been found which were at first supposed to be those of people who had hanged themselves; but close examination of the ground around them…. showed that murder had been committed!  There is so much I need to know here:  Very often after a murder the murderer, with his hands bloody from the deed and running away, may catch hold of the door, or a jug of water to wash his hands…..

And on page 131 I read the good Lord’s memorandum that, When I was a fairly active young bounder I went in for skirt-dancing.  It amused people at our regimental theatricals and it was good exercise for me…..  This and other useful pieces of information may not be in the latest editions of the work, but I could lend my copy, in a plain brown paper wrapper of course……

Anyway, back to the real world. With reference to my own experience as a Boy Scout, I chanced upon a 1974 edition of The New Era where Arthur Sadler, the longest serving Scout in the world, remembered the early days with Baden-Powell. He (Sadler) was 82 at the time and in robust good health, doing push-ups and other vigorous exercises every morning. He had been brought up in Essex, where he and his companions spent many hours hiking and camping in the copses surrounding Colchester, and they especially looked forward to the annual summer camp, which Baden-Powell often attended. Their favourite campsite was a seaside resort town named Walton-on-Naze on the east coast. To them it meant surf swimming, salt breezes, and a whole summer full of fun squeezed into one week. Reading on, I see that, thanks to his experiences in the First Colchester Troop, Scouting soon became an indispensable part of Arthur’s life. When his work took him to Berkhamsted, England, he was made assistant Scoutmaster of the local troop and organized a fife and drum corps, and perhaps it was his influence that created the pattern for the camps I attended in the sixties, although, At the age of 23, Arthur emigrated to America, arriving in Chicago on July 4, 1915…..

At camp, Sadler remembered how each day began with tent inspection. Everything, and I mean everything, was removed into the open air and arranged strictly as to detail. The bottom canvas was rolled up around each tent, and the entrance flaps were tied back to let the fresh sea breezes blow through. After that came the inspection of patrols and individual Scouts. This was just how we began our days, though not before the duty patrol had removed and emptied the brimming bucket of urine that had been filled overnight next to the flagpole. Those ancient bell tents, brailed and furled open to air away the condensation of nightly exhalations, had canvas like the Cutty Sark, and it was a finger-scarring job to tuck the toggles into the coarse loops stitched onto the outsides of the walls for this purpose.

Then, the days were spent in physical exercises, Scout advancement work, and fun. The high point of most days was the swim period. And in our case this was not in the brine off Walton-on-Naze, but in the chilly Windrush, reputedly the coldest river in England, though who was responsible for that particular folk-lore I cannot say. Our pool was formed where a disused mill race sluiced back into the mainstream, causing a broad and weedy expanse of water to swirl as currents met, a veritable maelstrom which nearly deprived us of my dear friend Ben. The remembrance of the sharp cold makes me shudder to this day, though no more than the thought of current health and safety regulations and what would be said today if a hoard of children were allowed to dive and splash at will in such a place. On one occasion, having been visited by my kind parents who had brought fruit cake and cider for a treat, I developed the most agonizing abdominal pains whilst swimming that for several hours after I vomited and screamed in agony as I felt a mole wrench tighten on my guts….. It was a wonderful time. At least Joe laughed!

And then, as Sadler recounted, Each night there was singing and storytelling around the campfire. Each Scout was expected to contribute something…. The spot where we held our campfire is still amongst the blackthorn bushes, sensibly away from the highly flammable camp, and I especially remember the joys of singing native South African songs as the sparks flew upward in the dark night of the high veldt…..

Something has got to Give

The photograph of me and others (above) has the following inscription on the back:

Forgive my handwriting, but the caption was added some years after the picture was taken (hence the uncertainty about the year) and it’s the only record I have of the first of three summer camps I attended some fifty years ago. The names Dunbar, Meir, Tooley and Terrell being those Otter patrol mates who, I guess, shared the tent behind us in the picture. Their whereabouts now, and in fact almost everything about them besides that canvas idyll in 1962, are a mystery to me. In my mind there are many vivid memories, but whatever happened to Dunbar, Meir, Tooley and Terrell I cannot say.

One memory is linked to the fact that in Brentwood, Los Angeles, on Sunday, August 5, 1962, a Sergeant in the LAPD received a call at 4.25 am local time from Dr. Ralph Greenson, a psychiatrist, proclaiming that, having been alerted by her housekeeper, he had found Marilyn Monroe dead, on her bed, at home. Later toxicology reports showed high levels of Nembutal (38–66 capsules) and Chloral Hydrate (14–23 tablets) in her blood. The level found was enough to kill more than 10 people. Now, although it may seem irrelevant, had the LAPD been properly trained and had read the relevant pages of Scouting for Boys, then they would have known that, When a Scout has learned to notice ‘sign,’ he must then learn to ‘put this and that together,’ and so read a meaning from what he has seen…. (page 103). Marilyn was found lying face down on her bed, but bruising and marks on her body showed that she had died on her back – any Scout would have seen that! And that was not all. Marilyn could not take tablets without being sick – and even if she had been able to she would have died well before the concentration found in her stomach had been reached. This particular evidence may have been beyond Baden Powell’s training, but as the great man said, Let nothing be too small for your notice, (page 91).

Anyway, the picture of us in a state of merriment was taken on the previous day, Saturday, August 4th. No such cheerfulness invaded the camp when front pages of the Monday papers brought the shock to our attention. I am not sure now quite what Norma Jean can have meant to me at the age of eleven; I doubt whether I had seen any of her films (repeats of Some Like it Hot could not have started, or if they had we would not have seen them as we had not yet got a television.) I suspect that her fame filtered to school boys through the concept of the pin-up, which must have been how the majority of her millions of fans became intimate with her, even if none of us ever possessed such an image. It is also possible that our adherence to the Scout Law was being tested here, and Law 4, A Scout is a friend to all…. meant that we could not resist the feeling of horror at death, especially of one who at 36 was probably about the same age as our mothers.

And also our sense of suspicion, our instinctive feeling that something was not right about this demise, was aroused. Not perhaps so much as to instinctively suspect the Kennedy brothers of involvement at the time, but enough to want to question Peter Lawford more closely. And, I suppose, in addition, there may have been some other, possibly pre-pubescent arousal? The naked lady, known to have been beautiful.…. Perhaps we felt guilt at the testing of the tenth article of the Scout Law, (A Scout is clean in thought…..)

That said, the site has changed little, although the field has gained a wood to the right which simply was not there in the sixties.  The human traces are gone; archaeologists could perhaps unearth broken toggles, bent tent pegs, or rusted Swiss Army knives, which would prove that once the First (?) Berkhamsted Scout Troop accessed this landscape, but presently the occupants are cattle, and ghosts…..

The precise location is on the:

Or at OS grid reference 273123, just north east of the remains of Widford Village, where the little church of St Oswald still stands. This is less than a mile from the village of Swinbrook, and about two miles from Burford. Our journey there, in an antiquated charabanc, took some three hours or more from the school at Berkhamsted. The final stages, with sick bag in hand, took us up the narrow Blacksmith’s Lane from Fulbrook, to the gate at the head of the field. Having disembarked we would follow our lorry down the track into the field where we would unload the ton or so of tents, poles, kitchen equipment, supplies, and essential items of kit (axes, shovels, pegs, buckets, et alios). Pitching camp was formulaic, disciplined and hard work. No self-erecting glass-fibre poled ultra-lite tents for us, no field kitchen caravans, no portaloos. It was digging and hammering and pulling and pushing, until the city was established. Although it didn’t cross my mind at the time, this must have been how Alexander the Great travelled, or how Henry V established himself before St Swithin’s Day at Agincourt. Our own packs would then be unravelled, sleeping bags and slippery ground sheets smoothed out, vainly trying to find a patch that was (a) flat and (b) comfortable, without clods of earth or stones to keep us restless all the night long.

The next step would be to scamper down to the river, passing St Oswald’s, and the manor house at Widford. The church, which I believe must have been kept locked when we were there as we never ventured in, is now breathing new life, though in a very ancient way. It has 19th century box pews, a slab stone floor, crumbling plaster bearing traces of 14th century frescos, and plenty of woodworm in the pulpit. Internally it is divided in two by a gothic arch from the 13th century, though it has remnants of an 11th century Saxon or Norman building; in 1904 it was found to have been built on the base of a Roman house or temple and there were two areas of uncovered Roman mosaic (though they are now in the Cirencester museum). The manor house, this church and one or two cottages are all that remain of a medieval village that must have grown up on the site of a Roman Villa. One significant treasure that now stands within the west end of the church is a Morphy Richards electric convection heater, exactly the same as one we had at home in the early sixties. Somehow I felt an emotional bond with this strange object – just as I felt when looking up at the two great boards in the nave which bear the Ten Commandments in bold script.

Then we would run to the disused mill (now reconstituted as elegant homes) where with hardly a moment of hesitation we would leap and dive into the swift currents. Now these river banks are partly garden and partly overgrown, private and inaccessible, though a glimpse of the mill race from the road to Burford will give an idea of the excitement to be had in that sparkling water. 

The pattern was the same most days. An evening meal served by the staff, who included some of our dads, including Ben's, but who were mainly part time Scouters from the teaching staff. Elsie (from his initials, ELC) Cunnell, until he abandoned us for a teaching post in Corsica; Roger le Bargy, whose rendering of Winnie the Pooh was the best I ever heard, but who sadly died under a train at Berkhamsted station some years later; Roger Beavis, I think, among others, as well as Philip Coates, a cellist and music teacher whose enthusiasm for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition nearly cured me of serious music for life. After the sausages had been consumed, and the greasy plates clattered in a bucket of cold water, we were put to bed, to be serenaded by sounds of laughter, clinking and then singing from the canteen marquee, reminding us, if only we knew, of scenes from Animal Farm that might have stirred left-wing tendencies had we been so bold.

Leisure time was often spent swigging bottles of Corona, a fizzy drink which came in bright colours (lime green, raspberry red, agent orange, etc) and which we bought from the Quartermaster’s stores (about whom we sang lustily by the camp fire as well).  We also had one afternoon completely free and I remember once making the trek into Burford with my friend Denys, where, with mischief aforethought, I bought ten Rothmans, to smoke dangerously in the woods above the camp, the acrid smoke seeming so illicitly exciting, and making me feel much older than the new chaps who played so innocently below.  They made me feel dizzy too and were seriously against the Scout Law and BP’s precepts of being healthy (A scout does not smoke.  Any boy can smoke; it is not such a very wonderful thing to do.

  But a scout will not do it because he is not such a fool…..  Any scout knows that smoking spoils his eyesight, and also his sense of smell, which is of the greatest importance to him for scouting on active service…..)  Of course I knew….

Sundays were special, and Church parade was to Swinbrook, where we filled the nave and where one of us would read the lesson.  One detail of the church caught our eyes, which was the repaired stained glass which remembered an event of some twenty-two years before, an unnerving thought now that more than fifty years have passed since then.

The church is also visited for the remarkable tombs of the Fettiplace family who for generations found repose in their niches here. This was not something we were aware of then, but revisiting turns another page.

Another famous family have links with the locality. Asthall Manor, just down the Windrush another mile or so, was where the Second Baron Redesdale and his wife made their home early in the twentieth century. Their seven children grew up to achieve fame in different ways, with Unity becoming a friend of various German Fascists, including Hitler. At the outbreak of war in 1939 she supposedly shot herself in the head (though another theory is that she was hospitalised to bear Hitler’s child). She certainly survived and came home to Swinbrook, where the family then lived in Mill House next to the Swan Inn, but she never fully recovered and died of meningitis some years later.

Meanwhile, her sister Diana married Oswald Mosley and spent the war in Holloway prison. On the other hand Jessica became a communist and lived in the United States after participating in the Spanish Civil War. Both she and Nancy became well known writers. Nancy, Diana and Unity are buried in Swinbrook churchyard, and their brother Thomas, who died in action in Burma, is commemorated on a plaque within the church. The longest surviving member of this family was Deborah, the youngest, who married the Duke of Devonshire and was instrumental in the revival of Chatsworth House, their Derbyshire home. She was, until her recent death, also the owner of the Swan Inn in Swinbrook, and had something of a hand in renovating this pub, which will do for a night’s comfort now that pitching a tent in a nearby field may not be acceptable to the local farmers.  [It was also where David Cameron took Francois Hollande for lunch in January 2014....]

I love to walk alongside the Windrush and in the surrounding countryside.  The landscape is delightful, especially when dappled by cloud; the villages of finest Cotswold stone, the woods and fields fresh with restful colour.  There’s the intrusion of massive US warplanes shuddering in and out of RAF Brize Norton, or Fairford, and the old wool town of Burford (with its fine church) is now a bottleneck to traffic and overrun with trippers, many of whom are from Japan, but it is still a wonderful part of this country, where perfection is always around the corner.

We all have our memories, and our reasons for remembering. Fifty years ago my friends and I were schoolboys and Scouts, and we were brought here unthinking perhaps of where it would take us, or what it meant. We learned some things and discovered some things – perhaps as much from the shocking death of Marilyn Monroe (and almost at the same time of Tony Hancock....) as from the teaching of Baden Powell, but who knows? One thing is certain, and that is that our lives flowed on like the river and developed in different, if perhaps predictable ways. Some thirty years or so ago I returned, to look at Swinbrook Church with my parents and my wife and her mother. It was a happy visit, adding another layer of memory within my mind. But then that too will still one day, and what then remains will be in someone else’s head.

I am grateful for the memories. No harm came of our experiences  and I am sure that, despite my scepticism, there are benefits to be had from the relative innocence of the Scouting movement. There were pleasures to be had at the time, too, from the urgency of swimming in cold water, one of the better experiences of the outdoor world, to the laughter we had, whether competing at welly-throwing, or making and baking unleavened breads over an open fire. I learnt to enjoy the delight of waking to a damp morning, the soaking wetness of dew and the smell of the earth.

On 24 hour camp (when exiled to one end of the field, out of sight of the main camp) I first encountered a rabbit with Myxomatosis, the poor creature blinded by the irritation, hopping hopelessly towards its doom. We heard things through the darkness of the bell tent teepees, as well, that made us feel as if we were on grand prairies, or in the densest of forests. Noises of the world going about its business; sounds of life beyond our experience.

A wanderer is man from his birth.
He was born in a ship
On the breast of the river of Time.

(The Future by Mathew Arnold)

It is still not too late to learn…..


Nostalgia is a fine thing

(in retrospect)