Wake-up call for our lads

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Almost a century after the formation of the Boy Scouts movement, Sean Lang scrutinisesits founding principles, now in a new edition

Scouting for Boys

By Robert Baden-Powell

Edited by Elleke Boehmer

Oxford University Press pound;12.99

Scouting is one of the most enduring legacies to the world of the British Empire. Its founding text, Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys, has been reissued in its original 1908 format with erudite and revealing commentary by Elleke Boehmer. At a time when Britain's experience of Empire is beginning at last to receive the sort of attention and interest it deserves, this is a timely reminder of the role played in the imperial story by the Edwardian ideals of manliness, hygiene and the rigours of outdoor life.

Baden-Powell was always a controversial figure. He made his name in the plucky defence of Mafeking against the Boers, defiantly mounting amateur theatricals in the face of the enemy while gravely reporting that Boer artillery had killed a donkey. His system of using the boys of the town as runners was the origin of the later idea for scouting. Yet B-P (the initials conveniently stood also for British pluck and, later, "be prepared") has been severely criticised for leaving the black Africans in Mafeking to starve, and even for instigating an entirely unnecessary siege in the first place.

The experience of fighting in the South African veldt runs right through Scouting for Boys. Boehmer points out that Baden-Powell's African name Impeesa - "the wolf that never sleeps" - is more literally translated as "creature that skulks by night" or simply "spy", and no wonder.

Boys are constantly urged to keep their eyes open for "the enemy", whether tracking across the English countryside or walking down a street, noting faces and suspicious-looking foreign boots as they go. The enemy, however, is not primarily a foreign one; it is the home-grown slacker or loafer whose lack of manliness and spunk is contributing to the rise of hooliganism and the deterioration of the race.

This was a widespread fear, and while Kipling looked to the United States to "take up the White Man's Burden", Baden-Powell saw reinvigoration of British youth as the best way to preserve the Empire and hold back the forces of degeneracy. Alongside notes on how to imitate the call of the curlew or tie a reef knot, therefore, is a chapter on "Our Empire: how it grew - how it must be held", including instructions on how to fly the Union Jack the right way up.

Nevertheless, Scouting for Boys is surprisingly colour-blind. True, there is a rather shocking playlet in which a British governor humiliates an Indian prince, but on the whole colonised peoples emerge as figures of wisdom and folkcraft, from whom the British would be wise to learn. Scouts are given a Zulu chant to shout while marching (Leader: "He is a lion!"

Chorus: "Yes! He is better than that; he is a hippopotamus!") and even a war dance to perform. Baden-Powell laments that British boys are not automatically taught to be scouts, as happens among the Zulu and Swazi tribes, and the "Japs", fresh from humbling the Russians, crop up frequently as examples of martial prowess and knightly honour. Above all, the Native American emerges as the archetypal scouting hero for his skill in tracking across country, which Baden-Powell saw as essential if the Empire was to be saved.

Inevitably, much of Scouting for Boys now seems irredeemably comic.

Baden-Powell's obsession with footwear as a clue to character gets steadily more bizarre: "Heels worn down on the inside signify weakness and indecision of character." He also has a thing about the Victorian fashion for waxed moustaches, which "often means vanity, and sometimes drink".

Armed with these helpful tips, readers should find it no surprise to find him recommending leaders "send scouts out for half an hour to look for, say, a brutish character, or a case of genteel poverty, etc." And surely - surely - Baden-Powell was joking when, directly under a picture of the scout uniform of Canadian "Mountie" hat, long colonial shorts, coloured neckerchief and long Asante staff, he wrote: "A scout does not use a showy uniform, because it would attract attention."

Physical and moral hygiene was central to Baden-Powell's thinking, and this edition carries as an appendix his forthright condemnation of masturbation, omitted from the original edition at the insistence of his publisher. The results of "self-abuse" are terrifying - "always - mind you, always - that the boy after a time becomes weak and nervous and shy, he gets headaches and probably palpitation of the heart, and if he still carries it on too far he very often goes out of his mind and becomes an idiot". While we might laugh, it is worth considering the torments of guilt inflicted on generations of boys by scoutmasters preaching this sort of nonsense.

Equally hard to live up to is Baden-Powell's insistence on breathing through the nose rather than the mouth, even when asleep, lest your snoring betray you to the enemy.

Baden-Powell was accused of militarism even before scouting got properly under way, and other youth groups, such as the pacifist Woodcraft Folk, were a reaction to the quasi-military style of the scouts. Baden-Powell indignantly denied the charge, and even laid it himself against the Boys'

Brigade. But the military application of scouting is never far away, and the book ends with an exhortation to boys to be prepared to help their country in time of war.

Baden-Powell approved of Mussolini's ballila, the fascist version of scouting, and urged the scouts to arrange joint activities with the Hitler Youth. But then he was never quite at home in the real world. His favourite reading was Peter Pan and there is certainly something of the eternal boy about him, forever living in a fantasy wilderness and wearing short trousers into old age. Baden-Powell was undoubtedly a man of vision; his creation has adapted and changed almost beyond recognition, but still upholds his ideals of loyalty, honour and active citizenship on an even wider global scale than the Empire he sought to save. Not many books can claim to have had the worldwide impact of Scouting for Boys.

Se n Lang is reader in history at Anglia Polytechnic University and a former member of Merlins patrol, Tiffin school scout troop, Kingston upon Thames, 1973-1975

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