Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

I never was a boy scout. Not because I had anything against camping, making fires, tying knots, reading maps, climbing trees, playing at soldiers or pretending to be a spy, but because the idea of doing all those things in uniform, under the supervision of a middle-aged man in short trousers, threatened to take the fun out of them.

The book that spawned the movement, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship by Lieut.-General R.S.S. Baden-Powell CB FRGS, first published in six fortnightly parts in 1908, is being reissued this month by Oxford University Press, with notes and an introduction by Elleke Boehmer, who teaches post-colonial literature at Nottingham Trent. In ‘Camp Fire Yarn No. 1’, Baden-Powell describes the inspiration for the organisation: the role played by a ‘corps of boys’ in the defence of Mafeking, of which Baden-Powell, in Boehmer’s words, ‘found himself in inadvertent command’. One of the boys’ tasks was to carry messages between forts on their bicycles.

I said to one of these boys on one occasion, when he came in through rather a heavy fire: ‘You will get hit one of these days riding about like that when shells are flying.’ And he replied: ‘I pedal so quick, sir, they’d never catch me.’ These boys didn’t seem to mind the bullets one bit; they were always ready to carry out orders, though it meant risk to their life every time.

Boys with experience of following orders were just what the Empire needed. Tell ‘another chap who has never cared to obey’, and he ‘would object, and would then be despised as a coward even by his former friends’. And what better way to get used to following orders than by becoming a scout?

Besides the uplifting anecdotes of heroic patriotism, Scouting for Boys is packed with advice about how to find north without a compass, tie a clove hitch, cut down a tree, build a camp fire, bake bread, distinguish a wagtail from a woodpecker or a sycamore from a spanish chestnut, track anything from an emu to a bicycle ‘on a hard macadam road’, fly the Union flag the right way up, and discern a man’s character from the shape of his face.

There are also plenty of tips on ‘how to grow strong’ and stay healthy. ‘The fit male form,’ as Boehmer remarks, not neglecting to point out the ambiguity of the book’s title, ‘is certainly the focal point of its aesthetic.’ To maintain his physique, a scout should always breathe through his nose; clean his teeth twice a day, with a frayed stick if he doesn’t have a toothbrush; not smoke; get up early (‘if you get up one hour earlier than other people you get thirty hours a month more life than they do’); and ‘clear out all dirty matter from inside your stomach . . . by having a "rear” daily’. A remarkably frank passage on the perils of self-abuse – ‘you all know what it is to have at times a pleasant feeling in your private parts’ – was left out of the original edition on the insistence of the publisher, much to the disappointment of Baden-Powell’s mother, whom he had consulted on whether or not to include it.

Scouts could work off the tension with a bout of manly ‘struggle’ (an activity in which ‘two players face each other about a yard apart, stretch arms out sideways, lock fingers of both hands, and lean towards each other till their chests touch, push chest to chest, and see who can drive the other back to the wall of the room’), or ‘wrist-pushing’, which can be played ‘by one man alone’, and is a bit like arm-wrestling yourself. Scoutly energy can also be expended in ‘war songs’, such as ‘The Scout’s Chorus’ and ‘The Scout’s Rally’. The Rally is the more famous ‘Be Prepared!/Zing-a-Zing!/Bom! Bom!’ The Chorus goes like this: ‘Een gonyâma – gonyâma/Invooboo/Yah bô! Yah bô!/Invooboo!’ It apparently means, ‘He is a lion! Yes! he is better than that; he is a hippopotamus,’ though Baden-Powell’s translations aren’t necessarily to be trusted. ‘In the Matabele War 1896-97,’ he claims, ‘the enemy called me "The Wolf".’ According to Boehmer, however, the meaning of his ‘African name’, ‘Impeesa’ or impisi, is closer to ‘the animal that skulks by night’: in other words, the hyena.

Baden-Powell described himself as a ‘boy man’. ‘The gap in the phrase,’ Boehmer neatly suggests, ‘can perhaps be seen as corresponding to the split between his two readerships, of boys playing at men, of men playing at being boys.’ All kinds of play are, well, at play in Scouting for Boys: playing at being soldiers; putting on plays (the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, for example); and, of course, playing up, playing up and playing the game. During the siege of Mafeking, the Boer commander, General Snyman, invited the British to a game of cricket. Baden-Powell replied that first he had to finish the present game, in which the score was ‘200 days, not out’ – an object lesson in being prepared, not least with a knapsackful of witty retorts.