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A knotty problem: confessions of a boy scout

Friday 10 August 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, reflecting on the centenary of the boy scouts movement, confesses that as the scouts were preparing to celebrate their golden jubilee, he won his knot-tying badge...by cheating!

LAST WEEK, I had decided it was time to confess. The guilt has been nagging at my conscience for more than 50 years. But then a dead otter turned up half a mile from my back door and that gave me the excuse to brush my crime back under the carpet (see August 3 column).

Alas, as 40,000 boy scouts and girl guides were going home to all corners of the world last weekend, my desire for public exculpation grew and grew. So here it is: I cheated to get my boy scouts knot-tying badge!

Scouting centenary
Photo: The Scout Association

Those 40,000 young people came to Britain two weeks ago to mark the foundation of what was - and is - in my opinion, the world's finest youth movement. It started a century ago exactly when Lord Baden-Powell, a much decorated hero of the Boer War, took a mixed bag of young lads on a camping expedition.

The "mixed bag" is important: although the phrase "social inclusion" had not yet been coined. B-P, as he became known throughout the world, believed that all social classes benefited by mixing with each other. So the lads who went on that historic camping trip came from either public schools or London slums. And after initial suspicion, they got on like a scout bonfire.

I found what that meant when I joined the scouts more than fifty years ago.. Living as I was on the edge a big town next to open countryside, I had to walk to my scout troop meetings through some pretty tough slums, wearing the old fashioned pointy-hat and long shorts. And the slum kids I passed never said a word - except the odd one who asked how he could join.

I adored the scouts. I enjoyed camping, even though one Easter we woke with six inches of snow on the tent roof; I enjoyed building rafts, even though I did fall in once; I was taught how to snare a rabbit and check the snare twice a day to kill any prey swiftly with a chop to the neck.

And I was taught how to skin and joint the beast, and cook it outdoors on a sheet of corrugated iron over an open fire - skills that would no doubt send modern social workers into apoplexy. That's sad, because it might help reduce the plague of rabbits virtually over-running our countryside.

However, I was seriously lacking in one of the major scouting skills. For reasons that only a skilled psychiatrist could work out, I was totally incapable of tying a bowline (pronounced as in Anne Boleyn), one of the most important ways of twisting rope in the whole knotty world.

I could do a reef knot and a sheepshank, a half-hitch, a clove-hitch and even a rolling hitch, but I had some sort of dyslexia when it came to bowlines. This was to serve me ill in future when I took up sailing. With more than 1,000 hours logged on both the Irish and North Seas, my skipper let me work sails, steer a compass course, and be ship's cook - but he never trusted me to make fast the yacht in harbour.

I am delighted the boy scouts and girl guides are growing in popularity again after a slump which began in the Swinging Sixties

I could do a Thames bargee's knot (a much stronger way of tying up, I reckon) but No, I couldn't do a bowline, even though he spent hours at sea trying to teach me. Strangely, in my fly fishing career, I quickly learned to attach an artificial fly to a flimsy piece of nylon with a classic turle knot, which looks exactly like a bowline to me. But I could never do it in rope!

So back to the horrible truth. I had been told I might be made Second of my Kestrel Patrol (that's second in command) but without a knot badge, it would be difficult: it was considered essential for a boy of rank. Then one night when it was my job to sweep the floor after a scout meeting (cleanliness was very much second to Godliness in those days) I came across a piece of rope discarded under a bench.

And at one end was a classic, beautifully turned, bowline. I am shamed to admit that I pocketed it, took it home and presented it as my own work a few weeks later. Skip looked a bit suspicious and I was terrified he would ask me to untie it and do it again. I suspect he suspected but he nodded it through and I got my coveted badge.

I did my best from then on and, as far as I can recall, never offended again against scout's honour. I still remember those days with deep affection and I am delighted the boy scouts and girl guides are growing in popularity again after a slump which began in the Swinging Sixties. Perhaps modern parents have more nous than they are given credit for. And by the way, I can still light a fire with one match...

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