Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Today : Camp

We've never had widespread Summer Camps in the UK. This American institution would be a fine import, as it would stop parents complaining each Summer about having to look after and amuse their kids for a few weeks.

However, I am one of the very few who did go on a Summer Camp. Various youth clubs and Religious institutions have them. When I was twelve or so I went to a church one on the Isle Of Wight. I have five main memories from the experience.

1. On the train journey there I was joined by a couple of lads who got on at Sheffield. Our youth leaders knew each other and had agreed to join the parties together on the journey. One of the boys - Anthony - was clean cut and sensible: his colleague - Paul - was chubbily dishevelled and prone to over-excitement. He was the one who bombarded me with questions. One of which was "Do you come from Middlewood?" I didn't, I came from Leeds. But he kept asking "Are you from Middlewood? Do you live in Middlewood?" Eventually I caved. "Okay, if you want me to be from Middlewood, then I'm from Middlewood."

He broke up with laughter, turning red-faced and practically choking himself to a chubbily dishevelled and over-enthusiastic early grave.

The sensible boy, prompted by my total bewilderment at this response, explained. Middlewood was the name of Sheffield's main Psychiatric Hospital. Over its hundred year life its name became synonymous in the city with being a 'loony'. We had the same thing in Leeds, a place called High Royds in the village of Menston. In Playground parlance, you lived in Menston or were from Menston, or were a 'Menner', which nicely crossed over with one of the abbreviations for 'mental'. When I was very young I thought the fact that the words mental and Menston were synonymous, because I was confused about their crossover in meaning. Anyway, I guessed that being from Middlewood was the same kind of thing. If Paul could get me to say that I lived in Middlewood, then obviously I was a loony.

Yet at twelve I was befuddled. What possible entertainment could be gained by this? I had no earthly idea of what Middlewood was, and for Paul to get me to admit I lived there was no kind of trick. It required zero guile and cleverness. My conclusion was that Paul was a very very stupid boy.

However, I must admit that I have suffered the same kind of tactics from children when I have been teaching. Not long ago I cam across a difficult and unpronounceable name. The girl was called Eliza Prnecki, which I am aware is Eastern European in origin. Many immigrants anglicise their names (I once worked with a guy called Hardeep whom everyone called John). So Eliza's name could easily be Prernetski, or Prernecky. Whilst taking the register I asked her what the pronunciation was. A little squirt of a boy at the back got overexcited and squealed "He doesn't even know her name!" - completely missing the point that I had never met the girl, come across anyone with that specific name and that I knew enough Czech to know that it had two possible pronunciations. This was a class of fifteen year olds.

2. The second memory I have is of Hexagonal football. Basically this is a game with six teams, six goals arranged in as big an area as you can find, and as many football, rugby, tennis and any other balls you can get your hands on. The game is split into six halves. The object is simply to defend your team's goal and score as many goals in the five other nets as possible. An adult or responsible person is placed behind each goal to count the scores. Crowd mentality means that after each round the team with the least goals against is bombarded by the other five teams. This Jungian phenomenon extends into the final round, so that the team in the lead at the end of the fifth half ends up losing by conceding several hundred goals. Which is where my strategy came in. We played the game once a day for the entire camp. After the first game I worked out that sneaky guerrilla tactics were needed. I broke off two of my team and we proceeded, during each round to focus on one specific ignored goal at a time. Whilst forty or so mindless players were busy bombarding one goal, we'd each go to one of the other goals and spend the whole time passing the ball over the line from a yard out, where the score person (standing a yard behind the line) would pass it metronomically back. A little judicious use of mathematics meant that we could quietly manipulate the score in five of the six goals at will. When our goal was ignored, we would even go and score in it, just to keep our team away from being in the lead until the last round. Nobody cottoned on to the strategy for the entire week, and were repeatedly amazed that their maths had gone awry and our team (the Greens) won each game in a surprise result. The prize I don't remember, but it something like being provided with as much beer as we could drink, or maybe getting to go first to breakfast the next day and having first pick at the straw sausages, cremated bacon and watery scrambled eggs.

3. It was a god job my strategy meant not having to run around too much. As I spent half the camp suffering a very sore midriff. During an inter-team tug of war competition we struggled. Our Green team was comprised mostly of sickly, underdeveloped, runtish boys from the deprived north, whilst most other teams had at least a couple of strapping six footers who were marking time before they went to Eton and became England rugby internationals or Olympic rowing medallists. The Yellow team didn't have any of these strapping specimens, but their secret weapon was Owen. He wasn't strapping but was huge in other ways - mainly sideways. He was tall, sure, but this went along with a 'glandular' problem, which meant that he was also shaped like a 16 stone Weeble. And we all know what weebles don't do. As the anchorman of the yellow team it mattered not that Owen's crew were a group of meagre, uncoordinated weaklings. Owen was the immoveable object and only lost once, when he deigned to shift one of his feet and slipped on a stray bit of grass that had been in the shade and not lost it's dew.

I, as the largest northern boy, anchored the Greens when we took on the giant Reds. A camp leader showed me how to spool the heavy rope over my shoulder and then back around my waist. It was a no contest. Arrayed in front of me, my weedy, undernourished team-mates were about to get creamed. It was at this point that chubby Paul chose to kick his brain cell into gear. We held out for about ten seconds, but then a couple of our noodle-armed puny tuggers started to lose their footing. I leaned back as far as I could, trying to stem the pull and delay the inevitable defeat at least long enough to maintain a shred of dignity. It did not last long. Suddenly all of my team-mates were ripped off their feet, tumbling forward and losing their grip on the rope. Stuck in a rhythm and keen to inflict a total humiliation, the Reds continued moving backwards apace, chanting "Pull. Pull. Pull" like the rowers in a roman galleon (or the Olympic eight they would eventually join)

Only Paul, who was not on the team due to his asthma/hayfever/painful elbow/general laziness when faced with any Herculean activity, had a cunning plan. If he and two other wheezing hangers-on stood on the trailing end of the rope, their combined weight would help the greens overcome our inevitable defeat. So this is what they did. As the team in front of me melted away I was prepared to throw in the towel, only to find I couldn't, because the rope around my shoulder and waist was growing ever tighter. The weight of the boys stood on the trailing end offered quite some resistance to the combined reversing of the Reds. The rope knotted boa-like around me to the point where I let out an involuntary scream. At the same time I twisted and the rope over my shoulder was now against my throat, pressing with worrying pressure. If I could have talked I would have sworn loudly. Apparently our team supervisor, fearing my imminent bisection or horizontal hanging, was hollering at Paul and his cronies to get off the rope. But Paul was rather pleased that his plan was working and had tapped into a streak of previously undiscovered sporting competitiveness. The whole thing only lasted a few seconds, but when the resistance finally collapsed and the rope whipped from beneath the standing boys' feet and loosened its grip around me, I actually did fear that had been cut in two or horizontally hanged. There was a crushing, burning, feeling around my waist and I did that involuntary coughing-spluttering thing that recently choked people do in films.

Paul and his chums giggled and squealed like the stupid stupid boys they so obviously were until they realised that they were not , after all the sporting heroes they thought they'd become. The rope had ignored the feeble resistance of my T-shirt and burned a red stripe over my shoulder, across my neck and around my middle. It was agony and I was soon placed in the camp leader's Austin Montego and driven to the local A&E.

The camp was church sponsored, designed to promote stuff like teamwork, resilience and a fondness for outdoorsy activities, but also piousness morality and genteel forgiveness amongst young males. Everyone said grace before meals and each night we had a meeting where the lessons of the day were contextualised in terms of Christianity and upstandingness. The camp leaders must have been pretty committed, and all were quite evangelical in their Godliness. This didn't stop the main camp leader and the guy in charge of our Green tent and team standing idly by saying nothing as, on my return from the hospital (where they checked that my internal organs had not been turned to pate and that my windpipe had not been crushed like an empty sherbet dip) I sought Paul out and roundly punched him in his stupid chubbily dishevelled head several times. I guess they thought I could learn forgiveness at some later date.

4. At one point in the week we all repaired to the beach for beach activities. My main memory of this was the fact that some of us tried, in our hopeless twelve year old way to impress a small group of rather lovely local beach beauties a couple of years older than us and well used to the attention of hopeless holidaymaking twelve year old boys. Anthony did impress them somewhat by not realising that he wasn't in the changing room at his local Sheffield pool and removing his underpants to change into his trunks. Paul of course, shouted and squealed and pointed, which drew instant attention to the bottomless Anthony, who stood there frozen by the realisation that nobody had thought to stand in front of him holding a beach towel to save his embarrassment from the open air. The girls, sunbathing closeby in order to get, and thus rebuff, our attention, all smiled knowingly rather than pointing and laughing whilst Paul rushed around the beach telling everyone, including complete strangers, strolling pensioners and various Royalty down for Cowes week that Anthony's willy was on display.

As we prepared to leave the beach the camp leader issued a challenge. Whichever team could bring back the largest stone could have some amazing prize, like a Swedish Sauna with the beach beauties, or maybe it was first go on the assault course the next day. We Greens, perhaps still glowing from one of our many Hexagonal footie triumphs and keen to make up for the Tug of War routing, decided to a man that we must not lose. Cue a group of six or seven small to medium boys puffing and wheezing our way up the mile and a half hill back to camp carrying a flat stone that could have single handedly re-paved the Piazza San Marco. The thing weighed about as much as Owen, if Owen had been cast in bronze. The other difficulty was the shape. It was flat, but not quite wide enough for all seven of us to get close enough to carry it. So instead we kind of took it in turns. Everyone spent some time walking backwards up the hill carrying the front edge. One or two, such as Paul, just hung around the edge of the group looking as if they were helping but not helping at all. It took hours. When we got back to camp we had almost missed the evening meal. All the retrieved stones were displayed together on the veranda. The other teams had picked up pebbles, some hardly larger than ones you might skim, and sauntered back up the hill with them in their pockets. Our stone, placed, with much heaving, in the middle of them all, looked like a planet surrounded by a delicate belt of asteroids. I think of this whenever I see a documentary on the building of Stonehenge or the Pyramids.

5. My final memory is the one that inspired this nostalgia-fest in the first place. A couple of days ago I was listening to forecasts of economic doom and President Bush's Middle East trek on the radio and began thinking of how he and his government seem to have gone out of their way to, not only be incompetent, but to be proud of it, almost creating more unnecessary situations in which their selfish uselessness could shine. It reminded me of myself in the great Summer Camp Airfix model competition.

I have never understood Airfix models. If I stretch my imagination I can just about get my head around people making models of things. It's not something that I would spend time on doing myself, but there is the challenge, the creativity and sense of achievement. I grew up admiring a scale model of The Golden Hind which was made by my Uncle as a teenager. It is a magnificent and impressive model, everything hewn from matchsticks and Eat-Me Date boxes, and must have taken absolutely ages to complete. The commitment to complete such a project has to be pretty vast. I can also see the value in people at some time making models of things to then use as toys. Nothing is more splendid to a small boy than a pretend car or ship. These things are repositories of the imagination. In times when toys were scarce, if boys made their own then good luck to them.

But Airfix kits are, for a start, cheating. They are like flat-pack furniture for children, designed for boys who will actually grow to be the sort of men who will feel a rosy macho glow upon completing construction of a bookshelf called Olaf. Airfix kits are the easy way out. They require little challenge, a paltry level of commitment and zero creativity.

I have often thought that I suffer from selective A.D.D., in that I get very bored very quickly with certain categories of things. Model making is one of them. It's one of those things that I'm sure I could be competent or even very good at, except I simply can't be bothered to put in enough practice to get to that kind of level. Trainspotting, IQ tests and Sudoko fall into a similar category

One particular afternoon at the camp there was a range of indoor activity choices. At the time I was unaware of my aversion to Airfix kits. In fact I desperately wanted to be able to complete impressive looking models of submarines and spitfires (in the same way that I was always keen on having a broken arm or leg, but that's another story). It seemed like the kind of thing that boys were supposed to do, and enjoy. So I signed up to spend the afternoon model-making.

Anthony, for example, was exactly the kind of boy who made Airfix models as a matter of routine. I liked him because he was the antithesis of Paul. Clean cut and sensible, you could just tell that his Dad was an accountant and his Mum a Primary school teacher. So I found myself in a hut amongst an array of Anthony types, all armed with our boxed airfix kits. As always there was a prize, this time a series of lessons in the art of nude photography with the rather lovely local beach beauties as willing subjects, or maybe having a night off from the evening meal washing up roster. On the count of three we began.

As I began to snap the pieces of my model car from their moulded frame, I watched Anthony begin his work. It began when he wiped all the surfaces of the pieces of his model with a damp cloth. They remained attached to their frame. Then, after studying the instructions and the picture, he began to paint the pieces of his Hawker Hurricane. After the first tranche of painting he asked me if I wanted to go to the tuck shop. I joined him. Of course, it was just to fill time until the paint dried. Over the next hour he managed to paint all the pieces. Only then did he detach them from their moulded frame. He wasn't especially quick but was extremely careful and efficient. Whilst the rest of us splurged glue all over and spent much of the time trying to detach our fingers from our faces, somehow Anthony could squeeze minute blobs of glue exactly onto the place that needed glueing. He was actually like an aeroplane production line and was clearly going to triumph with his perfect pristine model plane. The thing actually looked better then the picture on the box.

My Ford Model T was starting to take shape. Unfortunately it was not the shape of a Ford Model T. It seemed that whilst we were at the tuck shop some of my pieces had escaped and the rest has mixed themselves up. Crucially I was missing a wheel, which would have been okay if I was making a model of a Reliant Robin. It was obvious that I would never win, so I decided to 'accidentally' drop the thing on the floor, which would give me licence to be creative. I slid my arm along the bench and the model T slipped onto the tiles, smashing in several directions. With the thing shattered into pieces I could now glue it back together in a freeform and creative manner. This kept me amused (in much the same way that later in life, during my Art O level, I spent the time painting pictures of Lenny Bruce, Tom Waits, Humphrey Bogart and Ryuichi Sakamoto, instead of the range of art that the syllabus required) but effectively ruled me out of the competition. I finished it with a flourish of Pollock-esque poured paint squiggles and came squarely last.

It was the last time I ever attempted to make an Airfix model and I can safely say that I don't feel that I have missed out in any way.

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