Boss of the Plains

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations by Paul Fussell
    Oxford, 284 pp, £9.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 19 503102 4

Paul Fussell’s 34 essays were written in different moods and time-zones for different British and American journals, between 1967 and 1982. Some are boyishly truculent, politically partisan, denouncing wrong-headed fellow Americans (so that the British reviewer whistles between his teeth, thinking: ‘They can’t be as bad as all that’). Others are what he calls ‘ironical’, with complaints against Americans who misunderstand his tone: he seems to expect British readers to do better. Still other essays – about warfare and his own military experiences – are so confessional and impassioned that the British reviewer feels he needs to be very tactful.

A prevailing theme is the matter of American idealism, innocence and patriotism. Often he recommends Americans to emulate the wiliness, the ‘irony’ and ‘sophistication’ of wicked old Europe. Sometimes, though, without his confusing ‘irony’, he urges his fellow citizens to hold fast to the simpler values of the log cabin and the little red schoolhouse. He admires E.A. Poe’s ability to ‘occupy imaginatively and plausibly such scenes as Eton, Oxford or the back streets of Paris’. But his patriotic heart is with ‘the perennial and democratic concretes’ of Walt Whitman. ‘If Whitman is really the kind of poet their critical view implies,’ he thunders against literary opponents, ‘God help the Republic. The Republic’s not finished yet, and no one knows what it’s going to be.’

Where does Fussell finally stand? He has nailed his colours to the mast by printing, first and foremost, his essay of 1979 in praise of the American Official Boy Scout Handbook. (This must not be confused with the British Scout Handbook, reprinted in 1983.) An American professor of English literature, with a strong admiration for George Orwell and Kingsley Amis, Fussell uses his nation’s Handbook in their fierce, blustering way, to challenge the conceptions of trendy-left and radical-chic folk, explaining to them that a boy who tries to obey Scout Laws, whatever else he does, will not grow up like Richard Nixon. (In Britain, of course, where Scoutcraft entails wiliness, such a boy might well grow up like Harold Wilson.)

On Fussell’s cover is a picture of a keen-eyed lad with ‘Boy Scouts of America’ stitched on his khaki shirt: he is wearing the B.P. hat – to which American boys are fully entitled. Robert Baden-Powell, a skilled dress-designer, ordered those cowboy hats from the States in 1900 when he was kitting out his nurses and constables in Africa. B.P. has recorded: ‘They were known in the trade as “Boss of the Plains” or “B.P.” pattern, which brought about the mistaken notion that they were something to do with me.’ What Baden-Powell and his followers like about America is the cowboys-and-Indians bit, powwows and wigwams, tom-toms – and jazz (highly praised by Baden-Powell). It is the same with Asia, Africa and Australasia. British boys have been persuaded to enjoy jamborees and corroborees, to imitate Zulu trackers and Indian scouts, to learn campfire yells and Kim’s Game (part of the Great Game against Russian imperialism) and ‘Hold him down, you Swazi warriors’ and (when transmogrified into Asian wolf-cubs): ‘Akela! We’ll do our best!’

A Scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout, no matter to what country, class or creed the other may belong. (At least, that was the rule when I was a boy: it’s been trimmed down since. The Scout Laws are not immutable, as Paul Fussell supposes.) Let me draw friendly, fraternal attention to certain differences between the British and American traditions. British Scouts have been encouraged to ‘go native’ (like Kim or Greenmantle or Colonel Lawrence), to learn the skills and ceremonies of pre-industrial peoples while stealthily introducing the Anglican values of the Christian soldier, the happy warrior. Paul Fussell will remember (for he quotes it in his book, Abroad) Evelyn Waugh’s sly description of a British Scoutmaster instructing Arab boys in Aden. The Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, went to a school where ‘the great god was Baden-Powell and the principal recreation soccer’; the African playwright, Wole Soyinka, served under a Scoutmaster nicknamed ‘Activity’. So those Scout-like writers of the Commonwealth are not quite so exotic as they might seem to Little Englanders.

But the Boy Scouts of America, by Paul Fussell’s account, represent more inward-looking, almost isolationist ideals: they are thought to be innocent – maybe too innocent – but they express the civic virtues of American plain folks, patriotic citizens, republican and democratic. They don’t anticipate foreign wars. Paul Fussell’s impression may be illustrated by Dave Brubeck’s jazz march, ‘History of a Boy Scout’, jaunty but elegiac, commemorating brave, innocent American boys following the flag of their Republic into a subtly evil outside world where they will feel ‘disillusioned’ – thinking their ideals to have been illusions. The music is in the mood of ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ – the song of an idealistic, disillusioned capitalist, lamenting: ‘And I was the kid with the drum.’

The American flag on their Scouts’ sleeves does not stand for military or imperial manoeuvres. It means: ‘I can be put to quasi-official use. Like a fireman or policeman I am trained in first aid and ready to help.’ So says Fussell. He holds that the flag-badge ‘conduces to dignity by imitating a similar affectation of police and fire departments in anarchic towns like New York City’. In Britain, I think, the nation’s flag is not so frequently displayed on purely domestic duties.

It is the piece about Scouting that binds Paul Fussell’s collected essays into a real book, provocative and haunting, rather like those Old Etonian books of the Thirties, Enemies of Promise and The Road to Wigan Pier, in which the author blends his views on life and literature with confessional autobiography so that the reader may see how the writer came by his subjective standards, whether he and the writer are in sync. The reader has the opportunity to allow for the author’s similarities with, or differences from, himself, in background and experience, in space and time. Much depends on the wars of the 20th century and the relationship between our birthdays and the dates of declarations of war. For instance, my father was 18 in 1918 and, in middle age, his anecdotes of war service were as funny and charming as Baden-Powell’s. Paul Fussell’s father, in another time-zone, was 20 in 1915: as ‘a debater and student leader at the University of California’, he was invited to go on a peace-making trip to Europe on a ship called Oscar II. Henry Ford had organised this attempt by American eccentrics ‘to persuade the Allies and the Central Powers to stop fighting the First World War’. The project was a flop, the United States entered that war in 1917 and the Oscar II was sold as scrap, to the Japanese. Paul Fussell tells this story, very well, in the ‘Americana’ section of his book – under the title, ‘Sincerity Abroad’.

Paul Fussell writes with a sort of schizophrenic hindsight about the Oscar II, because of his own experience and understanding of armed conflict. In the 1940s (when I was but a Boy Scout) he was a 20-year-old infantry officer, ‘leading 40 riflemen over the Vosges Mountains and watching them torn apart by German artillery and machine-guns’. He describes the experience, the causes and the results in the fifth and most impassioned section of his book, ‘Versions of the Second World War’. He writes: ‘Those who actually fought on the line in that war, especially if they were wounded, constitute an in-group forever separate from those who did not ... There is the accidental possession of a special empirical knowledge, a feeling of a mysterious shared ironic awareness ... ’ Younger readers, though excluded, can at least recognise something of his difficulty in discussing his experience with a divided general audience. Should he apologise – to pacifists, or to cooler soldiers? Need he stress that he is not boasting of his war record?

Since then, he has written a book called The Great War and Modern Memory and he is currently working on a study of ‘the behaviour of the imagination’ during World War Two. His Section Five essays about armed combat are expressed in a voice of experience: he describes himself as ‘really a pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator’. But the ‘Americana’ essays of Section One are about the voice of innocence: he truculently pays tribute to his young father and to Henry Ford on their hopeless Oscar II expedition. ‘Ford perceived that war is murder,’ he asserts. (A more cautious writer might have preferred ‘supposed’ to ‘perceived’.) He demands respect for those American eccentrics who were ‘led abroad by Henry Ford in the innocence of his poor, uneducated heart’.

After his war, Paul Fussell did not want to be innocent or uneducated. He went to university to study English literature – ‘persuaded that poetry and prose could save the world,’ he remarks (ironically?). The Augustan rules of 18th-century literature were as satisfying as Scout Laws. Paul Fussell is responsible for half a dozen scholarly books on the Augustan world and Dr Johnson’s weighty drum is beaten pleasantly throughout his essays. Fussell developed a taste for European ‘sophistication’ and wrote a book called Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars. Thus, Section Three of these Handbook essays is all about travel and travel-books; and Section Four is entitled ‘Britons, Largely Eccentric’. The Britons discussed are notably comical or vulnerable men of talent (Boswell and Corvo, Ivor Gurney and Evelyn Waugh), men whom an American can patronise a little. Graham Greene does not appear here, since Paul Fussell is suspicious of him. Greene is inclined to patronise Americans: he is one of those over-subtle Europeans, like Nabokov, to be closely interrogated in Section Two of the Handbook essays, under the title ‘Hazards of Literature’.

In this jolly but reckless section Fussell has a Johnsonian essay on being reviewed: he holds that authors have no reason to expect thoughtful and sensitive criticism and that authors who weep over reviewers’ beastliness ‘could profit no end from a reading of The Boy Scouts Handbook’. (A Scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties?) As if to illustrate his point, he prints his own destructive review of Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, under the title ‘Can Graham Greene write English?’. At first I supposed Fussell was being ‘ironical’ in the old Socratic sense – asking a silly question to provoke a silly answer. But no. Fussell seems to be quite serious. He is wearing his ‘Boss of the Plains’ hat. He appends an exam paper, listing examples of Greene’s casual and Shakespearian handling of proverbial phrases, singulars and plurals, who and whom. He instructs his imaginary candidates: ‘Correct the grammar! Eliminate the cliché!’ (Fussell gets fussed about apostrophes and quote-marks too.) He accuses Greene of ‘a thematic hokiness’. Surely, this must be a parody of American academic discourse? No. Fussell positively likes that sort of vague pejorative. He praises Kingsley Amis for using the word ‘crappiness’ so much: it must sound kinda demotic to him.

Fussell finds Greene a slippery customer, even apart from his rule-breaking. ‘Who is he anyway? He seems so conspicuously an international figure ... that it’s surprising to be reminded how intensely British he remains.’ There is about Greene ‘a whiff of evasiveness, lodging with us the suspicion that perhaps his problem is that he has the soul of a spy.’ Fussell develops this suspicion in his essay on Somerset Maugham, who, he supposes, was in the inter-war years ‘still working for British intelligence as an aging but loyal Ashenden. As with Graham Greene, it’s hard to believe that a man who’s once worked successfully for The Firm is ever allowed to resign.’ Any Briton who wishes to confuse the enemy will be quick to fan these suspicions: probably Malcolm Muggeridge is Graham Greene’s spymaster, now that Tom Driberg has gone, if he really has ...

It is in this area of speculation that Fussell exposes himself as more of an infantryman than a scout, or a spy. He admires The Official Boy Scout Handbook for its emphasis on candour and strict obedience to rules. Baden-Powell was different. Himself an accomplished spy and spy-catcher, he encouraged boys to respect the military skills involved, to practise Stalky-like cunning and deception on behalf of the Crown: it was all part of ‘being prepared’. But Fussell says of the American handbook: ‘From its explicit ethics you can infer such propositions as “A Scout does not tap his acquaintances’ telephones” ... Not to mention that because a Scout is clean in thought, word and deed, he does not, like Richard Nixon, designate his fellow citizens “shits” and then both record his filth and lie about the recordings. A Scout tells the truth.’

To British Scouts life seems more complicated than that. ‘The worst of spying,’ sighed Baden-Powell, ‘is that it makes you always suspicious, even of your best friends.’ Most of his spying was done in Russia and Central Europe, from his Maltese base, but he once went out spying on the Matabele with a Zulu friend he much admired: the Zulu observed that the enemy were laying a trap for them and he slid off, naked in the darkness, to inspect it. Baden-Powell remarks: ‘I quietly crept away in another direction, and got among some rocks in a small kopje, where I should have some kind of a chance if he had any intention of betraying me and returning with a few Matabele to capture me.’ A Scout is not excessively trusting.

The ‘clean in thought, word and deed’ rule is, perhaps, open to interpretation. When I was 16, I went to help another troop-leader with a difficult troop. Two nasty, self-righteous little boys brought a prisoner to him. ‘Here, Arfur. ’E swore!’ they said virtuously. Arfur responded: ‘Ow, pour some water dahn the bugger’s arm.’ That took the wind out of the little prigs’ sails. Even swear-words can be cleanly used.

I am emulating Baden-Powell’s anecdotal mode of moral instruction. He followed Nathan, rather than Moses. ‘The Scout Law,’ he said, ‘was not framed as a list of DONT’s.’ (Paul Fussell would write ‘Don’t’s’.) ‘Prohibition generally invites evasion since it challenges the spirit inherent in every red-blooded boy or man. The Scout Law was devised as a guide to his actions rather than as repressive of his faults. It merely states what is good form and expected of a Scout.’ The form was ‘A Scout is loyal ... ’ rather than ‘Don’t be a traitor,’ ‘A Scout is clean ... ’, rather than ‘Don’t be filthy.’

Paul Fussell is more bossy. He harangues ‘liberal intellectuals’ and ‘social, cultural and literary historians’, urging them to ‘recognise the vigorous literary-moral life’ of The Official Boy Scout Handbook, ‘one of the many interesting books humanistic criticism manages not to notice’. He barks out the instructions he has found in the book.

Never use flammable liquids to start a charcoal fire! Make a list of things that please you, another of things that should be improved! Set out to improve them! Reading trash all the time makes it impossible for anyone to be anything but a second-rate person!

We are reminded of the off-putting public notices of Manhattan and the notorious ‘Walk! Don’t Walk!’ instruction to pedestrians, satirised in the libertarian pop-song. Such commands, as Baden-Powell knew, invite evasion among the red-blooded.

He was acquainted with the New York peremptory style. ‘I went for a walk in the Central Park, but as I entered the gate I was called to heel by a burly policeman with: “Say, young fellar, think you’re an automobile that you go on the roadway? That sidewalk was made on purpose for you, take it and use it.” America, the Land of the Free, is full of laws for the safety and regulation of its inhabitants ... ’ But, Baden-Powell went on, American regulations do not secure obedience. He had entered the country without a passport: ‘I have never found any difficulty about entering and leaving the States without one.’

Being almost as ethnocentric as Paul Fussell, I deplore his putting his account of Baden-Powell in Section Three, ‘Britons, Largely Eccentric’, while his eulogy of Scouting is neo-imperialistically seized for Section One, ‘Americana’. I strongly feel that Scoutcraft should be catalogued under ‘Britannica’ and that it is the Americans who are largely eccentric. Baden-Powell appears in Fussell’s essay, ‘Kingy and some Coevals’, about Edward VII and certain Edwardians. In pro-British mood, Fussell wants to defend them against modern mockery – ‘not that, with the exception of Baden-Powell, they are easy to like. Lord Northcliffe seems a gift to the satirist ... ’ Baden-Powell, so Fussell believes, was ‘hung up on sexual purity’; despite this failing, his work should not be mocked as ‘a symptom of the Edwardian nostalgia for the nursery ... Anyone who in a long if rather silly life commits as little evil as Baden-Powell deserves instead something close to celebration.’ (Fussell is perhaps too free with great nouns like ‘evil’ and ‘goodness’.) His wan tribute to Baden-Powell might be strengthened by a reading of The Adventures of a Spy and Lessons from the Varsity of Life. ‘I have had the luck to live two distinct lives,’ wrote Baden-Powell, ‘one as a soldier and a bachelor, the second as a pacifist and paterfamilias; both having the common attribute of Scouting, and both intensely happy.’ Yeats is said to have been ‘silly like us’ – but was Baden-Powell? If we look at the statue of this bald, caped, almost Gandhi-like elder, outside Baden-Powell House, we may be reminded of Kipling’s story, ‘The Miracle of Purun Baghat’, as interpreted by Shamsul Islam in his book, Kipling’s Law. A Scout may have more than one life: sometimes he is a soldier, sometimes a pacifist.

Baden-Powell’s serious views on warfare deserve Paul Fussell’s serious attention. Baden-Powell quotes an American soldier saying: ‘War is not Hell, and any young fellow who thinks it is is dead from the neck up’ – and then the old ‘pacifist’ admits that he had himself sometimes thoroughly enjoyed the risk and excitement of armed conflict. His pacific energies were directed to promoting class and race harmony, but he still held that ‘politicians make war, soldiers end it.’ Certain wars may be prevented by scouting, good military intelligence (as, we may think, the Falklands campaign should have been). But Baden-Powell is simply not horrified by warfare in general, the way Paul Fussell seems to be. There are worse things than (some) wars – the policing methods of the Soviets and the Nazis, the Argentines and South Africans, for instance. (Baden-Powell agreed with his friend, Edward VII, that it was a mistake to allow Boer ‘self-government’ in South Africa.) In peacetime as in wartime there are many doors to death, and some are less tolerable than others. Besides, one soldier’s war is very different from another’s. ‘Before bombing by airplanes came into vogue, our enemies across the North-West Frontier fought us with a mutual liking and admiration,’ wrote Baden-Powell. ‘But bombing, whereby women and children have been killed, has produced a bitter feeling.’

Paul Fussell writes that his students have asked him about ‘the docility of British troops in the Great War. They will not accept, and I doubt if they’ll willingly participate in, a world’ – misprint for ‘war’? – ‘where an infantry assault is thinkable.’ Surely, some infantry assaults are more thinkable than others? Fussell’s students may be right to compare the British in the Flanders trenches with ‘ur-Jews in an ur-Holocaust lining up and marching to destruction’: there are wartime ways and peacetime ways in which to ‘die as cattle’. Auschwitz was not a war horror, like the Battle of the Somme: it was a police-state horror, more like the Gulag Archipelago, almost a horror of peace. Politicians created Auschwitz. Soldiers removed it.