PsychoGeography #37: The truth about camping holidays

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The Independent Online

When I was a child I spake like a child and I acted like a child, so that when I came to be a man I found it impossible to change.

When I was a child I spake like a child and I acted like a child, so that when I came to be a man I found it impossible to change. Look at it this way: I'd spent many more years being a child than I had being a man, and the mannish act seemed altogether unnatural. Arguably I've now spent considerably longer being a man than I did being a child, but you have to factor in all those extra years when it was merely a poor impersonation. In the normal weal of life - driving cars, paying in cheques, performing sex acts - the man costume has some credibility, however there are certain specific situations in which it is quite impossible to be a convincing adult at all, and one of them is camping.

It's the shorts, it's the sleeping bags, it's the ghost of the woggle. It's the kit, it's the shit, it's playing at cooking. Let's face it, tents are playhouses and campers are cub scouts who never left the troupe.

My father - of whom there is rather too much in this column - didn't hold with camping at all. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and while intolerant types may have handed him white feathers at railway stations (almost everything in Britain happened in railway stations until the late 1950s), the truth was that it wasn't the Wehrmacht he feared but the prospect of bedding down under canvas. The one time I remember the family attempting to camp, my father slunk off after the tent had been pitched and checked himself into a local hotel. We children were demoralised, but our mother was way further down, pegged out beneath the groundsheet of utter disillusion. If she'd been handed a white feather big enough she would've beaten him to death.

After my parents split up, my mother cast around for Outward Bound-type holidays on which to despatch me so I could surf my testosterone surge safely away from built-up areas. She lighted on the Forest School Camps (FSC). The Forest School had been a Communist Party school in Kent and was long gone by the 1970s but its camps lingered on. They were part social experiment (middle-class kids subbed the worse off, there was a quota of the handicapped); part exercises in Woodcraft Folky proto-environmentalism (nonnys were heyed, latrines were dug); and mostly - by then - a den of superannuated pot-smoking hippies copulating under the stars. Needless to say, aged 12, I loved them.

I especially loved Beefy, who on the face of it was far from loveable. A spavined relic of the CP days, he strode around the windy hill in Derbyshire, where my first camp was pitched, in elephantine khaki shorts and a distempered singlet, his onion-root hair streaming. While the rest of us had entrained and coached to Lathkill Dale, Beefy had driven there in his Wartburg, an East German car of such low build-quality that it made a Trabant look like a Maserati. Beefy was a repository of country lore admixed with urban revolution, but most importantly for me, he had an angle on boils. I had a plague of boils at that age, which is about the most biblical thing that's ever happened to me. I had boils in my cheeks, boils on my neck, and during this particular fortnight, a huge carbuncle in my still hairless groin.

Beefy was in a state of permanent revolution against boils and attacked mine with a vengeance; not for him the painstaking business of drawing the wen to a head (marvellous expression that, so suggestive of the buried natural religion of our sceptical isle) with heat or magnesium sulphate, he preferred a more radical dialectic: thesis - boil; antithesis - steel point; synthesis - copious amounts of pus. I felt nothing but admiration for him as he stuck the miserable pig. It had been painful and humiliating beyond belief, but this aged weirdo had released me to frolic renewed. All the aspects of camping I'd hated before now appeared bathed in the golden light of relief. Shitting in a trench a doddle rather than the acme of embarrassment; getting soaked before breakfast (and then having to cook it) was a delight; I even stripped the willow.

I went on FSC holidays for the next three years, until the lure of more free-form camping spiked with LSD became too much. I remember stumbling off Striding Edge in a white-out, swimming in a recently flooded reservoir and seeing the grass waving in the submerged fields, and everywhere we went the companionable flap of canvas. Nowadays, of course, I take my own whelps into the wild so as to instruct them in the essential lore. Once I've quietened their fears, fed them their cocoa, and tucked them into their sleeping bags, I repair to the nearest hostelry for a good dinner and a soft bed. As I say, camping brings out the child in all of us.