Tuesday, January 07, 2014


"Look, Alistair," said the leader of our Scout troop, leading me to a quiet corner away from prying ears. I blinked, not knowing what to expect.

"It's like this... we've decided not to promote you to patrol leader this time round. We didn't think your performance on the weekend hike showed the right kind of skills, and everyone thinks you need a little bit more time to grow into the role. Hope you're not too disappointed." 

That's how it should have been done, but the repressed memory of that occasion came back to be with a sickening thud last week, so much so that I sat on the edge of the bed gasping for air, the forty-seven year-old me vowing retribution in the name of my fourteen year-old self. Against who or what I didn't quite know – the man responsible is either very old or dead, and what would I say to the man that made me think my lot in life was to settle for second best anyway?

It's true to say that I wasn't at my best of the particular weekend hike. I was fourteen, an assistant patrol leader in the Scout troop, and a vacancy had arisen to lead Hawks patrol after one of the senior lads left the movement. The hike started at some unearthly hour with a 6am rendezvous at the station, followed by a train to Swindon, then a bus up to the Ridgeway. Being 14, lacking experience in the long-distance walking game, I had eaten all my chocolate rations before lunch on the first day, and spent much of the afternoon bowking rich, brown vomit all over Oxfordshire.

Then ill-fitting walking boots took their toll, and the load on my back was shared around the adults, poisoning my waters when it came to future promotion hopes. On the second day, as we staggered into Streatley-on-Thames, they were probably glad to see the back of me, and the chap parachuted in from America and touted as "one of the best Scout leaders" in the world had well and truly marked my card.

He wore cowboy boots and a huge Confederate flag belt buckle and had the hairiest hands I had ever seen. Straight from the start it was clear he knew about as much about leading youth groups as Gandhi did about Formula One motor racing.

So, it was down to Hairy Hands to tell me with all due care and kindness that I had been overlooked for promotion. And this is how it happened:

Parade night at the Scout Hut, and the evening's fun and activities are running down as the entire troop lines up in patrol order for the lowering of the flag. As usual, all the parents are there, waiting on the sidelines for the boys to be dismissed to their homes.

And Big Chief Hairy Hands announces that he has made up his mind about the new Hawks patrol leader. So, he marches over like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from the film Full Metal Jacket, leans into me so we are face-to-face and shouts so that the whole hall could hear what he has to say. 

"You, Coleman. You let me down badly on the route march. You'll never amount to much, so I'm promoting your brother instead of you. Let that be a lesson." 

He turned on his heals, crossed the hall, and pressed the PL's stripes into my younger brother's hand.

It should be pointed out at this moment that my brother showed his leadership skills that weekend by going to the Middle School Disco. Bu everyone agreed - I had let myself down badly in front of the Greatest Scout Leader In The World, and even doing nothing was better than that.

I don't blame Nigel for one second over what happened. In retrospect, he showed the kind of lust for life that I was sadly lacking, and prioritised the pursuit of girls and throwing some shapes in a darkened school hall over spending a freezing February night in a tent overlooking Didcot Power Station.

I was in Upper School. I didn't have a school disco to cop out into.

Nige had just about had enough of Scouts by then, and left to join his school friends in the Air Cadets. Hairy Hands mysteriously left soon after, and was replace by a bloke who drove a British Telecom van who drank meths on parade nights, and I soon got my PL stripes as head of Kestrel patrol, and copped off with a girl from Luton at the following year's camp, which was probably the high point of my life to that point.

By the time I mixed my metaphors and jumped ship for the Air Cadets, Nige was already a corporal and having far more fun than we ever had in a draughty Scout hut made of asbestos and string. But the stuffing had already been knocked out of me by Hairy Hands. I knew I was no good. My beret didn't fit properly, my boots wouldn't shine, but I was in with the right crowd and that's all that mattered. I eventually got my stripes, turned up for every cadet event they organised, and ducked out of school discos.

And three decades later, I shudder myself awake, sweating, telling myself that I'm not useless, that I don't have to settle for second best.

I'm a patrol leader, so screw you Hairy Hands. Screw you.


Anonymous said...

".....I had eaten all my chocolate rations before lunch on the first day, and spent much of the afternoon bowking rich, brown vomit all over Oxfordshire......"

I can think of no better place for such merit-badge-earning emetics. Can you?
Your neologism, "bowking" is almost as good as your other word, "yarch"(circa 2006) coined for the same activity. Your best, to date, is "noiks" - an onomatopoeic confection of lexical genius sent to you directly from the Gods on Olympus high to, well you know, bename those particular girly bits that come in pairs and make our jumpers bumpy(again, circa 2006)

"You, Coleman. You let me down badly on the route march. You'll never amount to much, so I'm promoting your brother instead of you. Let that be a lesson."

He may have been as Ghandi was to Formula One racing when it came to the intricacies of youth indoctrination, but still, he got that right.

Anonymous said...

"He turned on his heals" ... what chance could a working class duckling possible have against middle class oppression.