The official Cubs green shirt was hairy and annoyed my skin while the elasticated sock suspenders, complete with green flashes, cut off my circulation and left elastic-shaped indents even in my stick-like legs still visible long after I’d got home from Cubs. Worst of all, Cubs night at St Andrews Hall for the 9th Cheam Cub Scout pack was a Friday, which always meant getting home after It’s a Knockout! had started on TV. It was my favourite programme, with teams of sideburned idiots representing towns which you would not care to visit, risking concussion and rupture in futile attempts to fill tall plastic cylinders with coloured water using a colander while succumbing to the tensions of a length of bungee tied round their waists, all the time being spattered with omelettes flung by the opposing equally hirsute team wearing sponge chicken costumes. The men weren’t much better at it either. Hosting the melee, everyone’s favourite uncle-cum-convicted paedophile Stuart Hall, who found every game a source for mirth far greater than the sum of its parts while the late, great, if often unintelligible Eddie Waring kept us abreast of the between-rounds mini-marathons. With each winning team in contention to take on European counterparts in the next series of the international equivalent Jeux sans Frontières, it inspired our parents to vote with that other unintelligible Eddie, prime minister Heath, to join the Common Market where such shenanigans and failures on greasy poles and slippery floors could take place with our new-found friends every day for decades to come.
Who wouldn’t have been upset about missing the 8pm start of the show– apart from Akela, head of our Cub pack, maliciously keeping us back it seemed to complete the evening’s formalities. These involved us 30 or more boys forming a circle round her, all crouching on our haunches, both hands on the floor in front of us before, thighs burning with lactic acid while all I could hear in my head was the jaunty theme tune to It’s a Knockout!, Akela seemed to take forever about the need to attend the church service on Sunday and to raise a quid or two through bob-a-job week before the next meeting. Finally, she would give us our cue to all spring upright, and land making the ‘Cub Salute’, ie a traditional right-handed salute, but left-handed, with thumb brought across to meet lowered little finger. We stood in our rough shirts, literally itching to leave, while the Union Jack that at been hoisted at the beginning, was lowered again. Finally, we could run off to our houses and our TVs, released from the pressure to ‘do our best’ to watch It’s a Knockout! with impunity and spend the week ahead free of our Friday evening pledges to do our duty to God and the Queen, help other people and keep the Cub Scout Law.
It had been Mums idea for me to join the Cubs, certainly not mine. I think she had looked at me, her gawky, socially inept son with the Bernie Winters teeth and decided that the Cubs offered a potentially inclusive environment for me to integrate with peers threatening slightly less propensity to bully me than those miscreant blaggards at the Boys Brigade.
There were lots of things I didn’t like about Cubs. There were the other boys, of course. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves too much, most charging round the church hall with far more vigour than I was prepared to expend during games of sock-football, beanbag cricket or ‘ships-and boats’. It was like PE at school, only worse, and with my skinny arms, I was more likely to beat the other Cubs at British Bulldogs than shin-up one of the ropes that dangled menacingly from the ceiling. The other boys seemed to suffer no such difficulty, and I could still hear most of them puffing long after we’d been made to sit on the hard wooden floor to recover from our exertions while Akela read us a Jungle Book story in the vain hope of quelling the pack’s manic excitement for a few minutes.
Yet, I must have shown promise or more likely dissent to Akela, because before I could persuade Mum to withdraw me, I was promoted to a ‘Sixer’. This meant that I was in charge of a team 5 other cubs, assisted less than ably, by a ‘Seconder’ who assumed control whenever I was ruled out having contracted yet another splinter while sliding on the wooden floor. We were the ‘Green’ Six, and my woggle was up-graded from plastic to a woven faux leather to reflect my new-found status while keeping my pack scarf around my neck.
You would not have wanted to be in the trenches with my Six, who lined up as follows:
Sixer – Me
Cub 1 – Graham – 6ft 3 high and 6 inches wide and looked like a drinking straw. Troubled by early-stage acne and a centre of gravity far above the minimum plausible for most games.
Cub 2 – Colin – Nice lad. An albino who had visual difficulties in the sub-optimal light of the church hall.
Cub 3 – Alex – Not so nice. Regularly scolded for pinching other members of his own Six. As keen as you like, but hampered in physical activities by his leg callipers.
Cub 4 – Derek – Hyper-asthmatic and after a fair start to most meetings, would quickly develop chronic wheezing from the dust kicked up from the first raucous game of the evening.
Seconder – Mike – Prone to regular, sudden, explosive nosebleeds that left stains on the wooden floor from one week to the next.
I’m not sure my Green Six was what Baden-Powell had in mind when he started the scouting movement, and while we always came last in every Six-based activity, none of us seemed to care.
The culmination of all my dislike of Cubs was met at a ‘Jamboree’, where Cub packs from around the South-East united to camp in a muddy field and share Cub-fun activities for a whole weekend. God this was an awful experience. Over 40-years later I am still ashamed, revolted and can only communicate about it in the form of bullet-points.
– 2 nights in tents with other cubs.
– I was homesick and cried the moment the coach left the church car park for pretty much the whole weekend despite my responsibilities as a Sixer.
– I missed ALL of It’s a Knockout! on the Friday night.
– We honestly had to sing ‘Ging Gang Goolie’ and ‘Kumbaya My Lord’ around a campfire too sodden to stay alight.
– Sleep deprivation.The cool Cubs kept my Green Six awake half the night with their talking, whooping and un-Cublike language while strumming their willies pretending to play air guitars.
– Asthmatic Derek, feet propped up on a crate, kept us awake the other half of the night with his damp, laboured and loud breathing. Under doctor’s orders he had to sleep with his feet higher than his head should he not want to die in the night.
There. I don’t even have to mention the inter-pack games that appalled me. One thing that embarrassed our Akela was the lack of badges sown on to her Cubs itchy shirts than the other packs. This is because at 9th Cheam, she always seemed to favour instructing us Cubs in physical activity than conducting more cerebral sessions with badge-earning potential. You could hardly see the arms of some of the other cubs for the number of the badges sewn on them. Looking back, the only non-physical activity I can remember doing was some sort of craft when in making a model butcher from an empty Sarsons vinegar bottle I nearly lost a finger when gouging a slot in its ‘stomach’ with a large screwdriver in which to prod a square of chequered kitchen roll as its would-be meat apron.
I like to think of myself as quite an honest and decent sort of chap, but the introduction of badge-earning activities to our pack after I’d survived the Jamboree led to a serious ethical misdemeanour on my part. It was so heinous that I even had to go on Ebay recently and buy a copy of the same ‘Cub Scout Handbook’ 1973 (cover price 23p – Ebay cost £3+ postage) to see again the page in question and verify my sin as I remember it. And there it was: on page 22. After Badge-gate, I was told that as a Sixer, I should aim to earn a Bronze Arrow and then a Silver Arrow before progressing to Gold and then start on the range of individual proficiency badges.
I’ve double checked the Handbook and have reminded myself that the award of a Bronze`Arrow came having passed 12 basic tests, ranging from Health which required the following:
(a) know how and why you should keep your teeth, hands and nails clean
(b) Know how to breathe correctly and prevent the spreading of colds
(c) Show what to do for a small graze and understand the importance of summoning adult help in cases of accident
to Exploring which demanded a cub simply visit a place of local interest and report on what you find out about it.
Each week I was tasked with meeting another of these, let’s face it, not-overly-challenging challenges at which point Akala would sign the appropriate page in the handbook as completed. Once all twelve had been signed, I would receive my Bronze Arrow badge, to be sewn on my nasty shirt over my right bosom. In the subsequent weeks I tied a reef knot (Knotting) and showed I knew how to look after my clothes and shoes, make a bed and do the washing up (Service) although mum would have challenged this I’m sure. I got through eleven of the challenges which left only one, the one I had been putting off and fearing for weeks – Entertaining. It may not surprise you to hear that I was a painfully shy kid and had more chance of shinning up a rope with my puny limbs balancing a medicine ball on my head than achieving the following: Act a simple mime alone or with another Cub Scout. I recall with shame, the complete panic that the threat of conducting such a fearsome task in front of Akela and the rest of the pack was way, way above my mental capacity, even as a Sixer.
So I did a terrible thing.
I looked at where Akela had signed me off for activities for Handcraft, Discovering Nature and Safety for example and studied her signature. Then I chose a felt-tipped pen, and in the ‘passed’ field on the Entertaining page I forged her autograph as precisely as I could.
As soon as I’d done it I felt awful: it was clearly the most incompetent, cack-handed, miserable, mean-spirited attempt at a forgery that there had ever been. I’d love to have my original copy of the Handbook to show you, but sadly I do not, though I do picture the same page from my Ebay copy, where the ‘passed’ section for Entertaining page has been marked off with a simple tick rather than a signature. Their Akela, must have been a right pushover. More fool him/her. No wonder all the other packs got so many blooming badges. I can see from the ‘Personal Record’ page that it once belonged to Ian Piper of Tavistock – a pack based very far from my own. Ian, if you are reading I can confirm that according to your record you were made a Seconder on 19th July 1976 – A very proud day for you I am sure, though I see that you never made it to a Sixer – unlike some of us.
. Akela ordered my cloth Bronze Arrow badge it for me having checked-off my book and presumably satisfied herself over its validity. She could not have failed to see that my Entertaining task had been signed off not by herself, or any member of the adult world, but by my panic-stricken and desperate self, if not a dyslexic gibbon. Perhaps she felt sorry for me, perhaps she was just under pressure to boost those badge numbers, perhaps she was in league with my mum to keep me attending. All I can say is that I wore it less than proudly because of the fraudulent manner in which I’d obtained it, and that I will take both my shame and my Bronze Arrow to the grave.
I never made it to Silver Arrow. God, Entertaining at that dizzy level would have required me to Perform a trick (scientific or conjuring) or tell a story, recite a poem, play a song or an instrument or perform a series of tumbling tricks!) There was more chance of me representing my home town in the rope-shinning game on It’s a Knockout! than doing one of those. Fortunately, age crept up and saved me. As the first fluff appeared on my chin, I was obliged to progress to the Scouts where, as one of the youngest pre-teenaged boys in a teenager’s world, Mum allowed me to give it up after one week.
It’s funny, in adulthood I became a volunteer helper when my own son, Jack, became a Beaver (ie pre-Cub group) where I was allocated the woodland creature name of ‘Stoat’. One meeting ended up with me taking Jack to casualty after accidentally treading on his fingers during a game of ‘beat the sock with a rolled up newspaper hockey’ game – but that’s another story. At least I didn’t tread on anyone else’s kid. When he chose against progressing to Cubs when his chance came, I couldn’t make him, could I? And he didn’t even have the start of It’s a Knockout! to miss out on.