Ian Hislop on Robert Baden-Powell

Writer, satirist and broadcaster Ian Hislop was born on July 13 1960 in Swansea. He‘s been editor of Private Eye since 1986, but is arguably better know as a razor-sharp team captain on ’Have I Got News For You‘. Recently he‘s made documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, the latest of which is ’Ian Hislop‘s Scouting For Boys‘, part of BBC4‘s ’The Edwardians: The Birth Of Now‘ season

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  • My interest in Baden-Powell started as an 11-year-old when I wrote a project about the Boer War in which he featured heavily. Recently I realised it was the hundredth anniversary of ‘Scouting For Boys’ so I decided to read it again, and it is the most extraordinary book. It’s completely bizarre and rather brilliant. With the BBC doing this Edwardian season I thought it was a good time to make a film looking at why this book was such a roaring success. There’s a very good biography of Baden-Powell by Tim Jeal in which he says that by 1980 more than 500 million people on earth had been Scouts or Guides. So Baden-Powell had a fairly major influence on the world.

    The second Boer War was mostly a disaster for Britain, but it made his name. He was sent out to South Africa and ended up leading a garrison that was besieged by 8,000 Boer soldiers in Mafeking. The enemy were at a distance which was just out of easy sight, so he had men walking around hammering posts in as if they were laying barbed wire, when in fact they had no barbed wire. He also laid out a fake minefield and blew up one stick of dynamite in the middle leading the Boers to believe there was a real minefield. It was a terrible siege – soldiers starved and were killed by Boer guns – but there was Baden-Powell putting on plays at the theatre, and running entertainments. It was this light-hearted bravado and stiff upper lip that the famous ‘Carry On’ scene is based on. Eventually the siege was lifted and the Boers defeated – Mafeking was one cause for celebration amid a Pyrrhic victory.

    When the siege at Mafeking ended in 1900, London went absolutely mental – it was like VE day, but with knobs on. I found this extraordinary collection of Baden-Powell memorabilia from Mafeking Night. You think the merchandising’s bad today – even then there were Baden-Powell shaving mugs, tea towels, egg cups; a Baden-Powell alarm clock and a Baden-Powell fan for the ladies. Heroes appeal in particular to small boys so when he came home and wrote this book about training boys and Scouting it was massive on a scale he didn’t expect.

    In Mafeking he’d had this group of 14- to 16-year-old boys operating as a minor cadet force, and that was the wellspring of the Boy Scout movement and forms the meat of ‘Scouting For Boys’. The book’s an extraordinary mix of his own personal life – military service, etc – plus lifted bits from Kipling, speeches he’d read, poems and odd novels. There’s lots of bushcraft, and then big chunks of information about how Zulus knew how to turn boys into men and their skills in the wild – unusual for a supposed imperialist. There’s a big chunk in it about how the big problem in Britain is unemployed boys hanging around on street corners smoking and looking for trouble. He wrote that in 1907! Other bits don’t read so well to modern eyes. He’s not very keen on agitators and socialists and it’s full of totally irrational prejudices – he’s continually warning boys against men with waxed moustaches, and there’s only about five lines on women. So the book contains all his strengths and all his weaknesses.

    When it was published, his fame started snowballing and he found he had to give up his army commitments in order to concentrate on being Chief Scout. Troops of boys were just forming asking ‘What do we do? Where do we get the uniform?’ So he had to set up a business to provide a uniform, a magazine and organise meetings. It burgeoned and he became its figurehead.

    The idea of World War I horrified him. While patriotic and imperialist he was not a warmonger; it’s strange that this war hero founded a movement which was about helping old ladies across the road, and not being snobbish. He was terrified the war would mean the Scout movement would be turned into a cadet force, so by the end of the war he’d shifted the focus to an international outlook, and he hoped it would create peace. By the ’20s it was about international jamborees and the promotion of friendship through understanding. It dominated the rest of his life until eventually he retired to Kenya which is where he died.

    I’m really glad there’s been some revisionism about Baden-Powell recently, and that history is being slightly kinder to him. The standard view in the ’60s and ’70s was that the whole Scout movement was run by ‘poofs’ and my view of the Scouts was very coloured by that when I was growing up. Since he married very late, biographers have generally been convinced he was a homosexual, if not practising then repressed. Nowadays people seem to think he was more asexual if anything. The allegations that he had more than just a paternalistic interest in young boys seem to have been discredited and I don’t really buy them. He would have had plenty of opportunity but there was no incident reported and I think he was far too self-controlled, even if he did have those urges, to do anything about it. I just think he liked boys and they liked him.

    The great thing is that he wasn’t scared by them. A lot of people now see a 15-year-old youth and think he’s about to kill them, and it was the same for Baden-Powell’s generation who wrote about feckless, unemployed layabouts. But he refused to write them off; he said, ‘There’s no such thing as bad boys, just boys under bad influences.’ I think the modern, paternalistic Tories are Baden-Powell to a tee. The next challenge is who’s going to do something equivalent for the twenty-first century. Maybe the Scouts isn’t the answer, but it’s interesting that the question is the same.

    ‘Ian Hislop’s Scouting for Boys’ Monday, May 14, 9pm, BBC4.

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