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Haste Ye Back

The joys of Scouting

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.
  • 30 March, 2020
  • Donny O’Rourke

Haste ye back. Haste ye back. Haste ye back and don’t forget. Happy days, here at Blair Atholl. May God bless our Jamborette…

Not great poetry I agree. But as harmonised by a thousand people at the end of an emotional international gathering, against the backdrop of a Perthshire castle, amidst some of Scotland’s most romantic scenery, those pieties have a certain power.

I composed that song when I was eighteen. It celebrates Scouting and could only have been written because of it.

In the schools and universities I attended and from my training at the BBC, much about writing was learned. But I owe more to Scouting.

This despite the movement’s colonial antecedents, the flags and uniforms; the intrinsic conservatism and its charismatic founder’s well-documented eccentricities.

Around the campfire with every skit I honed my wit, found my voice as an interpreter and composer of songs, discovered how to pace a yarn, to lead community singing and curdle blood with ghost stories, as well as the invaluable life skill that is improvisation. It was a local Scout magazine that first published my poems. And as the precocious teenage writer, director and cast member of what became the annual pantomime, I took my debutant’s lime-lit bow. The literature of Scouting – the handbooks, cookbooks, guides to character and conduct, memoirs, manifestos and manuals – was written with surprising fluency and flare. To its authority the tyro author responded with a mimic’s zeal.

Yet all of this I’d been doomed to miss. It was my father who forced me to join the Cubs. Often lost in bookish abstraction, without wishing to, I provoked him. ‘That boy of yours is a jessie’, he’d mutter to mum. And so at only seven, almost a year before the official age of entry, I was quite literally dragged to the village Scout hut and abandoned. Akela gave way. Hooray! Loving everything about this instant idyll, I pleaded to stay.

Until my mid-twenties.

Not as a Cub, you’ll be relieved to hear, but as a member of a worldwide movement and in which my self-confidence, creativity, gifts as a communicator and capacity for leadership were nurtured in an impeccably liberal and progressive manner.

The Jungle Book, so redolent of that complacently Anglocentric world view, had a mesmeric hold on my burgeoning imagination. To this day, if my university students are struggling with rhythm and rhyme it is to Kipling the master prosodist (and contemptible jingoist) I send them.

For political instruction, I learned early to look left; and our leaders, mostly conservative with varying sizes of ‘c’, looked askance and away — but never patronisingly or dismissively. Indeed freedom of thought and expression were strenuously encouraged as being indispensable to the open society Scouting believed itself to be part of.

‘I was a Boy Scout in Saint Mirin’s Troop…’, sang Gerry Rafferty who’d been at my Catholic boys’ grammar school. In the sectarian west of Scotland, my socialist parents wanted me to mix with lads of all religions and none. God and Queen were owed an allegiance no longer necessarily avowed. The earliest joke I can recall making was to Uncle Frank, when I was ten, and we were sitting through the national anthem before a film. ‘We won’t stand for it’, I quipped. At Windsor, receiving the Queen’s Scout Award from my equal, the head of state, I inclined my head fractionally as I would towards any older woman. My republicanism bothered no one, a quaint quirk, like the oddball peccadilloes of Baden-Powell, indulgently to be overlooked.

A sense of the sublime pervaded our activities, the wonder of woods, water and wildlife, hiking and canoeing, dawn patrols to the summits of mountains, the bugled taps at sunset before the crimson crackle of the campfire and stories beneath the stars. Then, as now, I experienced ‘God’ as awe, humility and gratitude, reverence for life. The Sunday ‘Scouts’ Own was inclusively non-denominational and involved extemporised prayer. That civilians could give inspiring utterance to warm, wise and witty, unportentous and unpretentious, poetic thought and feeling, influenced my ‘spoken word’ fascination with unprompted rhetoric on the stage and on the page.

The amateur anthropologist B-P understood the significance of ceremony and ritual. Every stage of the initiate’s progress required its own investitures, incantations, symbols and solemnities, a collective mystique.

Tribal semiotics to be shaken on.

With the left hand.

And so I ‘went up’ from pack to troop, the six giving way to the patrol, the anti-militaristic ethical equilibrium continuing to balance the rights and responsibilities of individual, small unit, and larger group.

Scouts were never self-centred and always self-reliant.

We rigged up rustic showers from dried-milk cans, made ovens from biscuit tins, cooked all our meals on an open fire. Rope bridges spanned rivers. We cut staves from trees. Risks were run. I can still tie a bowline and lash fallen branches together to construct a makeshift chair.

‘A Scout leaves nothing but his thanks’, our leaders would remind us as we got ready to break camp.

Soon, as proficiency badges proliferated there was no more room on the right sleeve of my forest-green uniform shirt. Space had to be found on the left arm. I was able to tell one cloud, leaf, flower, knot, semaphore signal or bird from another. My proud mother’s exertions with needle and thread earned her no emblem of seamstress’ merit. There was, naturally, a badge for writing. Mum duly sewed it on.

Just before the third stage of my ‘career’ in Scouting, I had been selected, after fierce competition, to represent Scotland at the World Jamboree in Lillehammer, Norway, a camp hosted jointly by all the Nordic countries. When asked about hobbies on the application form, I just wrote ‘Words’, a callow oversimplification, yet true. The fees were forbiddingly unaffordable for a working-class family. My Scout leader’s fundraising efforts were heroic. I learned how to pen a persuasive appeal. An account of our ten days in the midnight-sun ski resort I submitted to the national Scout magazine was prominently published; my journalistic debut.

Four pieces of writing, ambitious in every sense, helped further my journey towards a job in journalism.

Our tiny unit of just five Venture Scouts won a prize for a research study we conducted concerning the future of fishing in the East Neuk of Fife. I wrote the report.

With a friend from another group, I walked from Linz to Vienna, my task to compose a daily travel diary, his to produce sketches. Today a leading architect in Australia, he drew brilliantly, cataloguing our project (a survey of the church in Austria) pictorially. Our partnership gained us Explorer Belts. Uniquely we were spared the viva at Baden-Powell House in South Kensington. More validation for my wordsmithery.

By then a Venture Scout and leader at the aforementioned Blair Atholl jamborette, editing the camp newsletter and broadcasting twice a day to participants from scores of countries, it occurred to me to approach the local newspaper with the brass-necked notion that it might print a supplement about the camp. Astonishingly, the editor agreed. These glossily professional, arrestingly typeset inserts convinced me, and my mentor at the Perthshire Advertiser, that I was employable.

‘Be Prepared’?

I had been.

The final instalment in this lexically propitious quartet began when Headquarters urged me to stand as the Association’s candidate for the chair of the British Youth Council (Scotland). The hustings necessitated the writing of a CV, manifesto and election speeches. Words did not fail me. I went on to become the elected leader of the British Youth Council and Vice President of the European Youth Council. ‘Superscout’ had morphed into ‘Red Donny’. An appearance as a panelist on Question Time led to job offers from London Weekend Television and the BBC. The skills they sought and saw in me had been honed round a campfire.

But in my head, ‘Taps’ was already being elegiacally sounded once more. I wanted Scouting to change and to reform itself. Speedily. Most of the movement’s professional staff was liberal, progressive, and keen on catching up with the times.

I should have stayed.

At sixty, I recognise that my life has been blemished by many walkings away. Football. Debating. Law studies. Politics. Broadcasting. ‘Impostor Syndrome’ no doubt and a high achiever’s low self-esteem.

When twenty four, I was asked to sit on Scouting’s international governing body. ‘Day is Done’ played plangently again. I left the committee and the movement.

Nearly forty years later, everything I advocated has come to pass, including not just the acceptance of but positive attitudes towards LGBTIQ young people and leaders.

One summer a wee while ago I was given the chance to return to Blair Atholl to lead the ensemble in a rendition of my valedictory ‘anthem’. Another invitation turned down.

I was wrong to refuse.

An old Scout comrade, sharing that conclusion, forwarded a Youtube link in which by the light of a single candle, a young man quietly plays the guitar and lilts the lyric. After the last hushed note and chord, he extinguishes the flame.

Suddenly, abidingly, its light glowed again in me.

‘Haste Ye Back and don’t forget…’.

I never will.

Words. So many words. Most of them gratefully received from Scouting.

Donny O’Rourke has published more than a score of poetry books and albums of songs. The sixer of the Green six and patrol leader of the Swifts, he still has his scarlet and grey neckerchief. And woggle.

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