Confessions of a teenage camp follower

Most of us have our parallel lives, our secret societies with strange rites. Mine involved campfires, Elves and runny eggs

David Aaronovitch
Monday 23 August 1999 23:02

Most of us are freemasons in one way or another. This is the story of how, after more than 20 years, I travelled to Wiltshire and rejoined my own secret society. To the initiated, the three letters FSC stand for Forest School Camps. And what FSC is and does is just as difficult and embarrassing to explain to an outsider as are the rites and customs of the Grand Lodges.

It's the same for all of us, whether we are philatelists, golfers or Boy Scouts: aprons and handshakes; dib-dib-dob and woggles; Mauritian penny blues and rare first-day covers. Beyond the world of work, school, family, advertising, telly and chores, we enter a parallel world of freely chosen association.

Or, at least, I did have such a world. For 14 years, from 1963 to 1977, between the ages of nine and 22, I went camping in the holidays with Forest School Camps. "Is it a sort of Outward Bound?" I'd be asked. What could I have said? For several weeks of the year I, and a thousand others, would go off and live in camps of 80 children and a few adults. We would cook only over open fires, eat while sitting on logs drawn up in a great circle, wash in cold water, live and play communally. The youngest age groups were Elves, the oldest were Pathfinders. All took turns on kitchen duty, all - the most eloquent and the shyest - would eventually make a report to the rest of the "Lodge" at what was called Rally. At night, all would sit round a campfire and sing.

Those are the bones. What does it sound like: a holiday with funny names? It wasn't; there was real magic in it. There were the night games, when we were woken up at 1am and walked to a field or wood to stalk each other silently through the dark country and there was the lighting of a fire of wet wood with a single match, and cooking crisp bacon and runny eggs over it. And, above all, there was the camp fire. Wood smoke, guitars, sad songs, a democracy of voices, and a goodnight for each age group in turn, as they got their cocoa, cleaned their teeth, and went to bed.

FSC had come about after an inter-war experiment with progressive education, Forest School. The pioneers of Forest School believed, like many others, in the need to return to nature, to reject the industrial giganticism that, they felt, had caused the Great War. But theirs was also a humanist ethic; New Age, without the mysticism. It was based on faith in others, on the powers of persuasion and inclusion. The individual was highly valued, but the needs of others and of the community was always stressed. There was no hitting, no shouting.

The man who encapsulated this for me was an old chap, a camp chief with a red face, a hoarse voice, impossible knees and the nickname of Beefy. When I was an adolescent in the late Sixties, his were the camps I chose. The people I met became my parallel, "Masonic" friends. We were Pathfinders together, hiked together, became staff together.

Then, suddenly, I stopped. The women I fell in love with did not want to go camping (many of those who remained in FSC did so by marrying within the faith). Besides, I was now impatient with micro ethics. I had become involved in the big world of proper politics. It was more exciting; the sex was not so chilly.

Yet the flame, once kindled, never completely went out. Every now and again a breath from the past would stir my embers, make me wonder if I shouldn't go back. It just seemed so difficult, and got harder with every year. I wonder why do we do that? Why does it take death to prompt us to do what we long to do?

Last October Beefy died. In the spring a letter arrived. There would be a one-night camp held to commemorate him, would I come? I went out and bought a tent, sleeping bags for the two oldest girls and enamel mugs. Then, one Saturday in early summer, we left London and drove past Stonehenge, to the edge of Salisbury plain. There, miles from the nearest village, was an area of wood, an iron-age fort and sheep meadows. There too was a camp. As we walked into the fields we saw the Masonic symbols I'd told my daughters about: a lat (a dug latrine, surrounded by a square of see- through hessian); a kitchen area demarcated by a piece of string and two trestle tables, within which a 10 gallon dixie sat on a grid over an open fire; a rally place, with great logs drawn round in a circle.

Protected by the carapace of fatherhood, wearing my children like warm armour, I strode forward to meet people (some of them immensely dear to me) that I hadn't seen for a generation. In my memory they'd stayed unchanged for 20 years, like Briar Rose, frozen in sleep since last I slopped baked beans into their mess-tins. But I saw in most of them what they must have seen in me: miles of lines, fat, widened hips and grey hair.

Between the age of 20 and 40 the skin loses its sheen, lips their fullness, necks become scrawny. We searched each other for the teenager beneath and generally found him or her in the smile or the laugh. There was sad-eyed Andy, good-hearted and always about to be slighted, keen and lean Dave with his goatee; sharp, difficult, funny Lucy - now a mum of two - and her brother Simon, curly hair all grey, but with that same gorgeous grin.

Over tea, sitting in a great circle - while my mad tomboy middle daughter careered around the fields in search of axes - people came up, gingerly. "Hello Dave, you don't remember me, but..." would say someone who I'd wanted to see for a quarter of a lifetime.

As afternoon turned into evening we gathered round a great pyramid of logs, 100 or more. One by one, 30 or so of the people there stood up and remembered Beefy aloud. All very simple. The fire was lit, and a box with Beefy's ashes was placed inside. "Are those bits of him?" asked my Rosa, amazed. "Can we take some home with us?" her sister requested. Then we sang his favourite song, a song that most of us as kids had completely loathed. "The huntsman blew loud on his horn, loud on his horn! And all that he blew it was lost and gone, lost and gone!" I could hear Beefy's hoarse and enthusiastic baritone in my head. It was getting dark now. A guitar was tuned.

The whiskey came out, the girls, exhausted, went back to the tent, and the adults drew closer to the fire and got to talking. Oh, what happened to you, whatever happened to me? Some clearly hadn't moved on, and had clung to this one community, fearful of the big world. The rest studded the country, teaching, social working, helping in some way. There were a lot of divorces; one old friend had split up from a woman who was there that day, and married another, who was also there. One, who I had idolised back in 1968 when he was 16 and I just 14, told me about his divorce, his remarriage, and the diabetes that he said would kill him within a decade.

Then there were the people that weren't there at all. I asked about Rosie, with whom I'd spent a hilarious night on a Scottish hillside, when Nixon was president. I'd mentioned her in a piece I'd written. She never read it, I was told.

Rosie had died of breast cancer at 43 a few weeks earlier. There were two kids.

"Come back, Dave," said my old friend, passing the bottle again.

At 2am - rather drunk and in the deep dark - I made my way back to the tent, edged my way between my sleeping daughters, wormed down into the sleeping bag and - for the first time since that meadow by a stream in mid- Wales in 1977, fell asleep under canvas. The next day, early, my daughters looked on in utter amazement as their fastidious father sat down on the grass and scrubbed a huge blackened dixie until it was clean. Then we said our farewells, and drove back to the present.

I'd been wrong all that time ago. The formal politics hadn't led anywhere; but for 20 years my old friends had been helping to make saner, happier, better adults. I arrived home determined that my kids should have the benefit of this other family, should they want it - and that I'd help out.

So Dave's going back. Which would mean more to Beefy than the fact that my share of his ashes - carefully placed in an enamel mug - got washed up the next day.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments