Tuesday, July 24, 2007

'Scouts in Bondage' Prout, Geoffrey (1930)

'Scouts in Bondage' often crops up as an example of an innocently-titled book which has assumed unintended connotations. For instance, a bookshop in Lewes has a copy in its window, not for sale but splitting the sides of passers-by for many years - the owner has even magnified the hilarity by compiling a collection of details of similar books, under the same title. It also features in the Bizarre Books anthology, and is mentioned in several web pages...


We own a copy and its spine has radiated mild amusement from our shelves for quite some time. I decided to actually read the book, as a way of honouring the original text and perhaps learning more about Scouting (so that I can drop knowledgeable Scouting references into conversation with Mike Nolan.)

So, ending the sniggering (well almost, the fact that Geoffrey Prout is 'also author of "Trawler Boy Dick"' made me giggle - was the man incapable of writing anything without a future double entendre in it?) I ventured into the book itself, 'A Story of Boy Scouts in Strange Adventure'. The foreword does something unusual for thriller - reassures the reader that it will all turn out fine in the end. 'The Scouts in this story, though fettered for a while by a period of bondage, are just the jolly, good-natured, determined boys who are typical of a country Troop struggling for existence...what a stirring series of adventures they all had before they came triumphantly and with honour out of their bondage to a state of strength and proprietorship!' I'm sure some of Prout's author contemporaries, such as 'Sapper' and Dornford Yates, would have puffed on their pipes and advised him not to defuse any sense of jeopardy in this way.

The story is actually tame enough. A professor (who 'wore an old quilted black-satin dinner-jacket and a skullcap with a tassel on it', just like my professorial colleagues) engages the Scouts to help dig up remains of a ruined chapel, seeking blocks of masonry with inscriptions. Assembled together these reveal the location of a secret treasure, actually a document which restores the rightful owners to the local mansion. Along the way, various lower-class 'wasters', 'hooligans' and even 'hobble-di-hoys' attempt to thwart them. Punches are thrown, rivers forged, cars crashed, tables full of pies demolished - and all is well in the end. It is an enchanting period piece. The text is punctuated with cries of 'Crumbs!', 'By Jingo!', Right-o!' and 'Well, I'm blest!' Prout was a Scoutmaster apparently and his enthusiasm for the movement shines through every page - it is in effect an advertisement for Scouting. (What little I know of the movement comes from Ian Hislop's recent programme about Baden-Powell, which left me seeing Scouts as having always been rather a modern organisation, with its open-ness to boys of all creeds and backgrounds - and BP as a fascinating character, among other things a manipulator of his own celebrity (rather like Paris Hilton.) All of this has given me a benign view of the whole business, even a sense that my youth spent reading in darkened rooms, puny arms barely able to turn the pages, may not have been living life to the full. Perhaps like Prout and chums I should have sought to emulate 'frontiersmen ...unfettered by any laws but those of their own making, which were dictated by the manliness and humanity of the type.' Well, never too late to dream...)

So a nice book. But hang on - when did the bondage happen? I had expected the Scouts to be trapped or imprisoned by the baddies - perhaps escaping using Scouting skills, like lighting a fire with only two matches. But no Scout is confined in any way. Has Prout tricked us with his warnings? I had expected scenes of imprisonment so prolonged and claustrophobic that I'd be grateful for the knowledge that it must, eventually, end. Instead - nothing. The only 'bondage' is the Scouts deal with the professor, whereby they dig for stone in return for a new hut - a kind of economic serfdom I suppose. Strangely, the professor does hint that he realises he's in a novel, when he first appears:
"Welcome to Welbeck!" he said in his jovial, thin, cracked voice. "Splendid alliteration, that! Sometimes I think I would be better at cheap fiction than histories. Ha, ha!"
So either there's a Marxist subtext or it's an early experiment in postmodern reflexive fiction. Or, more likely, a simple adventure story of its time, designed to promote the values of Scouting. In any case, a book worth more than a laugh at the title.

6 comments:

Mister Roy said...

A feminist theologian comments on how the book came into our possession:
http://thinkingofwittering.blogspot.com/2007/07/hey-big-spender.html

Mike Nolan said...

Nice summary - I've never actually read any of these old Scouting books but they're obviously just advertising, and pretty successful by all accounts. Maybe someone could write a novel about how Jez overcomes "bondage" to save the day...?

Mister Roy said...

Jez vs James Bond mght work...

Rob Spence said...

Congrats Roy - I'm pretty sure this is the first time Baden Powell has been compared to Paris Hilton.

Mister Roy said...

Er - their birthday is in the same month?
http://www.holidayinsights.com/bday/february.htm
Clear evidence of reincarnation.

franzgeistworm said...

For those interested in books with double-entendre titles, I might suggest Horatio Alger's first foray into boy's fiction: "Ragged Dick."

It contains this bit of humor:


"I've seen you before."

"Oh, have you?" said Dick, whirling round; "then p'r'aps you'd like to see me behind."


Perhaps this is an unconscious revelation of what I understand to be Alger's tastes and proclivities.