In yesterday’s piece on foopball I gave due credit for the (correct) spelling of that word to Geoffrey Willans, chronicler of St Custards. I was led, naturally, to think of his co-creator Ronald Searle, and to realise how educational Searle’s cartoons were in my formative years. I still have the copy of The Penguin Ronald Searle which was on my parents’ bookshelves when I was growing up, and which I pored over with delight over and over again – and still do. It was from Searle that I learned of the existence of certain great books (Gibbon’s Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Roget’s Thesaurus), grammatical terms (the gerund), and historical events (the Relief of Mafeking). He did not of course tell me anything about them, but it was clear to me that they were part of an inherited cultural knowledge, things I ought to know about, that I would learn about at school as I grew older. Alas, it was the 1960s, so by the time I might have expected my teachers to enlighten me, the rot had set in. With the exception of the Thesaurus, I do not recall hearing about any of them at my 1970s grammar school. What knowledge I did pick up came from the same source as the cartoons themselves – the bookshelves at home.
If things were beginning to fall apart by the 1970s, how much have they crumbled to collapse today? I doubt the words “the Relief of Mafeking” have been spoken in a state school for decades past. It was, after all, a magnificent example of British Pluck, a concept wholly alien in our brave new world. Now British Pluck may be laughable – and it is, it is – but at the very least the tinies ought to be told about it. For younger readers wondering what in heaven’s name I am talking about, here is a quotation which encapsulates something of the spirit:
We certainly have the habit of stepping off the kerb without looking round, but this is not so much from blank foolishness as from the feeling that the road belongs to foot sloggers as much as to any motorist; and if, as a consequence, we get it in the back we merely die asserting our right. That’s British.
To which one feels compelled to respond, on the contrary, it is blank foolishness. But it is also magnificent in its way. It should come as no surprise to learn that those words were written by Robert Baden-Powell, a man who appropriately shared his initials with British Pluck. And Baden-Powell was propelled to fame, before he created the Scout movement, by his role at Mafeking.
Why did an insignificant railway siding on the line between Bulawayo and Kimberley assume such talismanic importance? News of the Relief of Mafeking gave rise to such unbridled rejoicing back in Britain that a new word – mafficking – was coined to describe it. And as we have seen, decades later Ronald Searle could make it the basis of a cartoon knowing that his audience implicitly understood the reference. Briefly, what happened was that, under the command of Baden-Powell, British troops hunkered down at Mafeking to resist an expected Boer invasion of the Natal Colony and to draw Boer troops inland, away from the coast, thus making it safe to land further British troops. It was, in that sense, a pre-planned siege.
No one really expected it to succeed, given the comparative strength of the forces on either side. But the Boers reckoned without the sort of man who would breeze into the path of speeding motor vehicles just because he considered it the inviolable right of an Englishman to do so. Baden-Powell seemed to consider the whole thing as a boyish prank, and employed “joyous little dodges” to outwit the enemy,
transmitting mock orders through a megaphone, sowing sham minefields, climbing through imaginary barbed wire, casting grenades by fishing rod.
There were other, more substantial defensive methods, of course, but what may really have tipped the balance was his ability to keep morale and spirits high. In those far off days, there was an agreed ceasefire every Sunday, and the future Chief Scout used the opportunity to provide well-organised opportunities for entertainment and recreation:
There were Beleaguered Bachelors’ Balls and beautiful baby competitions, cricket matches and horticultural shows, bicycle races and tea parties, gymkhanas and fetes . . .On Guy Fawkes’ Day he mounted a firework display, first having warned the Boers not to be alarmed. At Christmas he presided over a dinner . . . He arranged polo fixtures on week-days – when occasional shells added to the game’s excitement.
No doubt Baden-Powell was inspired, in both his tactical and entertainment activities, by the memory of his early days in the 13th Hussars:
their favourite mess amusement . . . was to pile all the furniture into a heap and turn somersaults on top of it while proclaiming ‘I am a bounding Brother of the Bosphorus’. The height of comic sophistication reached by the Hussars was to twirl the chandeliers at mess balls and spray the dancers with hot candle wax . . . [Baden-Powell’s] favourite music hall ‘artistes’ were the trick cyclist, the ‘fellow with a spring necktie’, and the ‘champion smasher of plates’ .
As with his road sense, one is tempted to dismiss Baden-Powell as a blithering idiot. It is a sobering thought, however, that it is precisely such blithering idiots, of the same mould, who explored the world and built an empire. They had British Pluck, and it is something that may never be revived, but is certainly worth remembering.
Incidentally, well to remember too that among the troops who arrived to relieve Mafeking was Baden-Powell’s brother, who had the splendid name Baden Baden-Powell.
NB : The quotations above are all taken from Piers Brendon’s Eminent Edwardians (1979).