Miles Kington: Forget Asia, spend your Gap Year in the West Country

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The Independent Online

The other day I got a letter from a man who organises gap years. That is, he wants to help people who have just left school and who, after 18 years of learning, know how to do nothing but pass exams, now want to do something useful for a change.

"Dear Mr Kington," it said, "The 12 months between school and college could be the most profitable year in the world for you. For a mere £2,000, we can enable any student in the world to find a niche where he is not only doing good but feeling good. Think about it. £2,000. It doesn't sound a lot. It isn't a lot. But once it starts mounting up..."

I wrote back to him immediately. "Dear Mr Inchback, I cannot help feeling that at my age it may be far too late to inculcate feelings of responsibility and conscience in me. I suggest you get in touch with someone like my 18-year-old son, who, unlike me, has not yet lost all signs of caring and empathy for other people, and who might well welcome the chance to work in a Bolivian school for children with special needs. In fact, I may pass your letter on to him if he ever gets home alive from the Reading Festival..."

Mr Inchback wrote back even more promptly.

"Dear Mr Kington, I would prefer my letter to be read by no one of school age. It was to you and you alone that I wished to write. You see, I hoped very much that you would become one of our Gap Year Hosts. All you have to do is look after a caring student for a year and £2,000 is yours. Look after 10 of the blighters, and £20,000 is yours. Do you get the idea?"

I was, frankly, puzzled by the whole concept and told him so.

"Dear Mr Inchback, Please forgive my obtuseness, but I thought the whole idea of Gap Year projects was that the student would travel to a far-off exotic venue in somewhere like Africa or Asia, and combine do-goodery with having a great time abroad, learning the customs of foreign people, and possibly getting to sleep with some of them.

"As I live in one of the more mundane parts of the West Country, I cannot see what exotic attraction I would offer."

Mr Inchback was eager to put me right, even if his tone was becoming more exasperated and less urbane.

"Dear Mr Kington, Oh, for heaven's sake! Do you think that it is only people in Britain who go abroad on gap years? Far from it! Wake up, man! Do you not realise that there are wealthy students in Asia, Africa and Australia whose parents are longing to get rid of them for a year?

"I have discovered a lucrative niche market, the foreign Gap Year student for whom a visit to Britain is akin to a Third World experience! A young man or woman who has grown up in the safe urban cocoon of Singapore or Hong Kong will find many challenges in the wild borderlands where Wiltshire meets Somerset!"

Which, I am sure, is exactly how Mr Inchback would describe my home patch in his brochure. But while I was still pondering how to answer him, events took another turn. A young man arrived at my house from South Korea, claiming that he had been sent here to start his Gap Year experience. As if to prove it, he slipped a large envelope into my hand. It contained £2,000 in cash.

"And what do you expect to do here?" I asked, shaken.

"To get to know the ancient hill folk of Wiltshire and Somerset," he said, "and then to examine the causes of the endless fighting between them, and to help as much as possible in the field hospital which Mr Inchback tells me you are setting up here to deal with the results of the strife. I am happy to do any work, however menial, Mr Kington!"

If anyone can tell me where I go from here, I would be delighted to hear from them.