May 2 2005

The Cubs had Akela and the Law of the Jungle. We had Noake and the New Moral World.
We (that’s me and my friend Bugs) were members of the Woodcraft Folk, the non-military youth wing of the Co-operative Movement.
If we had uniforms I don’t remember them, but we had a motto: “Span the world with friendship”. It lacked Kipling’s touch, but its heart was in the right place.
Given the Co-op’s revolutionary roots, it would be good to be able to say that we joined because of some precocious socialist leanings. In truth, we signed up because the weekly meetings were in a community hall next door but one to my Gran’s house in South Walls.
Launched in 1925 as an alternative to what its founders saw as Scouting’s militaristic approach, the WF aspired to “a world based on equality, peace, social justice and” – what else? – “co-operation”.
They planned to achieve this by teaching us to tie knots and to chop logs without decapitating ourselves or a fellow Elfin (er, that’s what they called six to nine-year-olds in the Woodcraft Folk).
Self-confidence was the name of the game and Noake deserved a medal for her efforts with Bugs and me.
The carrot was The Annual Camp.
The stick was the threat of not being allowed to go if we failed to learn log-knotting and such.
Miraculously, we found ourselves under canvas in a field near a wood, near a quarry, near Gnosall, a whole seven miles and a New Moral World away.
We chopped logs, we tied knots, we made plaster casts of animal footprints. Badger and deer, Noake said, but we suspected they belonged to cows.
And we sang campfire songs. None of your prissy dib-dib-dib. We learned Garibaldi’s rallying song, Avanti Popolo, and our favourite, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (how we sniggered at that one).
At night, the Venturers in our tent told us and the slightly older Pioneers ghost stories and we wet ourselves.
After two days I’d had enough of roughing it and Noake’s lumpy gravy. I cried non-stop and made such a fuss they sent me packing by train back to Stafford. The Venturer who came with me didn’t say a word all the way home. Bugs was back next day and although we never spoke about it I knew he blamed me for ruining everything. He probably still does.
I wasn’t exactly drummed out, but I never went back to the Woodcraft Folk.
Their headquarters in South Walls is now part of a civic car park. But, amazingly in a world of Playstations and skateboards, the organisation still exists. Their website (www.woodcraft.org.uk) continues to proclaim the same admirable aims.
Noake?
We met some years later – in court.
I was there as a very junior reporter. She was chairman of the borough magistrates.
If she recognised me, she didn’t let on.
And I never told her that to this day lumpy gravy brings me out in a cold sweat.

 

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