Books June 2004

Young Men in Shorts

The 1908 Boy Scout manual was, our reviewer writes, "one of the very few books of the twentieth century that actually led to the formation of a worldwide movement"

In 1988, shortly before the expiration of communism in Eastern Europe, I was waiting on the platform of a Prague subway station. The idea was that a member of the civic opposition would recognize me by the book I was carrying and escort me to some illegal gathering. The precautions were hardly necessary, since the regime was by then in an advanced state of decay and inanition, but I am glad I went through the "drill," because I might otherwise have missed witnessing one of the symptoms of that decadence. Onto the platform was led a spiritless troop of pre-teenage boys, all wearing makeshift uniforms of shorts and blouses. Round their necks were faded red kerchiefs. In command was an adult Communist of scarcely believable bloat and scrofulousness, who looked as if it would be beyond his power to motivate his charges even to whistle, let alone to sing an uplifting anthem. They were trudging off on who knows what futile errand of party-building. I thought of Milan Kundera's caustic reference to "pointlessness" as one of the special arts of the system. Here was another prefiguration of the coming fate of "actually existing socialism": its listless Young Pioneers were clearly no match for the pack of keen-eyed, clean-living, Kipling-quoting lads whose organization had long outlived the empire it had been formed to uphold and defend.

Happy, perhaps, the country that needs no "youth movement." In common with its comparable rivals, Victorian Britain managed quite well without one. There were some church-inspired groups for the children of the deserving poor, and conscription and emigration took care of many of the rest. The South African, or Boer, War, however, altered the picture in two ways. Sudden reverses in the field meant that new drafts of manpower were required at short notice, and the establishment discovered to its shock and dismay that Britain's cities and slums were producing narrow-chested, knock-kneed, wheezing, rickety specimens. Sir Frederick Maurice wrote a treatise concluding that only two out of five recruits were physically fit for military service. (The authorities were to make very much the same "discovery" in 1914 and 1939, before deducing that a welfare state was cheaper in the long run.) The second catalyst was the siege and eventual relief of the town of Mafeking.

Some pseudo-events cease to be pseudo because of their sheer aptness for the moment. It is likely that Mafeking was never in much danger, and the Boer farmers were in any case always the military inferiors of the vast British army. But the "siege," which went on from October of 1899 to May of 1900, was presented at home as something Homeric. Moreover, Mafeking's gallant defender, a British officer named Robert Baden-Powell, possessed all the qualities that the British public adored. Handsome and humorous, with a solidly researched and popular book (on wild-boar hunting, or "pig-sticking") under his belt, he excelled as a raconteur and a producer of impromptu dramatics. Picture Flashman without the seamy side. The perfect gentleman amateur cheering up what had been a distinctly sordid and depressing colonial war, he brought the public-school virtues of Kipling and Henry Newbolt to vivid life. One of the more inspired schemes during the siege was to organize the British boys of the town into a troop of "scouts," and to use them for running messages and doing the simpler sorts of reconnaissance.

A third catalytic element, in my opinion, was the death of Queen Victoria, in 1901. Take a society that has just endured a demoralizing war, lost its reassuring regal figurehead, and simultaneously been made aware that its "stock" is becoming unfit. Add a challenge from nearby European empires—most notably the German one, which had backed the Boers—and one is in grave peril of having to look for a national savior who can appeal to the spirit of youth. All things considered, then, it could have been a good deal worse than it was.

Baden-Powell was not a megalomaniac (though he did at one point say that the Scout motto, "Be Prepared," was inspired by his initials, which were also his scouting nickname). Nor was he a sadistic, repressed pederast. He was a racist and an imperialist and a monarchist, all right, but most of the time to a temperate degree. The British skill at "pig-sticking" was, he asserted (in another reference to a subject he could hardly bear to stay away from), proof of a natural superiority. He had charm and courage, and a knack with the young, and he could draw excellent freehand illustrations. All these qualities are evident in this best-selling manual of 1908, now cleverly reissued by Oxford University Press. It's one of the very few books of the twentieth century that actually led to the formation of a worldwide movement.

Difficulties obtruded themselves as soon as the Scout appeal caught fire and began to spread. In principle its ethos was supposed to be universal, just like the empire itself, yet also a matter of Britishness. The idea was to recruit boys from poor backgrounds, although Baden-Powell believed in a near caricature of middle-class ideals. And the plan for a eugenic redemption of the young from all forms of degeneracy was awkward by nature, since it involved teaching boys about subjects that were generally thought to be unmentionable. Thus B-P's famous account of the perils of self-abuse has been allowed to eclipse almost everything else he wrote.

Having with admirable matter-of-factness described what the temptation to solitary vice actually involves, the old boy went on to warn, "The result of 'self-abuse' is 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." This admonition was driven home, as it were, by the further warning that "several awful diseases come from indulgence—one especially that rots away the inside of men's mouths, their noses, and eyes, etc." What a terrifying "etc."! (For a hilarious but sobering account of a boyhood blighted by this kind of advice, see Dalton Trumbo's epic letter to his son Christopher in Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo.) B-P counseled his readers to lay off for another reason: namely, that misuse of the "parts" when young would render those parts useless when it came time to procreate.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. He is writing a biography of Thomas Jefferson for the Eminent Lives series. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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