The Colditz Night Exercise in 2019

No-one will remember, in years to come, the fact that this year’s Colditz Night Exercise was in fact cancelled due to flooding on some of the country lanes where the hike was due to take place. But already at the point of cancellation I could see that COVID-19 was going to rear its ugly head. No-one would have batted an eyelid had I cancelled the hike due to the Coronavirus.

The Colditz Night Exercise is not unique; any number of similar events take place each year in Scouting up and down the country. When I lived in Derby, there was something called the “Fez Night Hike”, named not for a Turkish hat but for the first names of the three Explorers that started it. The arrangements may differ – but the principle is the same. Young people in Scouts and Explorers gather in teams to conduct some form of initiative hike during the hours of darkness, then sleep on the floor of a hall or Scout hut, have breakfast, followed by a brief award ceremony.

We’re all stuck indoors now: so I looked back in my diary and found a brief account of the 2019 hike, to cheer us up.

I‘m very tired this Sunday afternoon after Colditz. Outside there is an attractive long and slanting summer light, dust-filled and orange, fading to evening as I sit here. Just now there was a brief and somewhat indistinct thunderstorm…This was my third Colditz as District Commissioner. I fretted and worried beforehand. I always do. I organised and administrated my way through the preparations in the weeks beforehand and I had my deep concerns. But it was alright on the night. It all went well. All my concerns were unneedful in the face of the unstinting efforts and tireless contributions of my colleagues and fellow Scouters. A few people stood out; I’ll name them not on a public blog. But everyone contributed something; All played their part – the drivers, the caterers, the spotters, the adult walkers themselves.

We recce’ed the course. In the grey afternoon we put out all the signage at the checkpoints. In the evening we gathered at the school gym. The young people and their elders arrived to the usual organised chaos – an empty hall soon disappeared under a sea of roll mats and sleeping bags. We watched in dismay as the weather deteriorated. The first teams were delivered to the start of their hikes around 9 p.m, in lashing rain and gusting high winds. The rain beat on the tarmac, thundered on the roof of the minibus. Flooded roads, gouts of white water spraying up from the bus.

The last teams got “on the hill” as it were (or onto the North Downs country lanes) at 22:11 – about eleven minutes behind the ambitious and detailed plan created by my ADC (Scouts). So far so good. On events like these there then follows a quiet time. One recalls previous Colditz Night Hikes. Driving along a road sometime after 2a.m through patches of mist. A team of girl Scouts sat in the minibus on the way to their drop-off, singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at the top of their lungs. The time the Surrey police called out their helicopter because a suspicious householder thought they’d seen armed men in the woods. Or perhaps it was just Scouts with sticks? The time a group of Explorers went the wrong way through the woods – and found and rescued an old man who’d fallen over on his way home.

A few minor hiccups emerge: a checkpoint at such and such a location has fallen over and can’t be seen – drive out there and fix it. A youngster is poorly and needs pulling out and escorting home. Then, not long before 1 a.m, the fastest team – group of Explorers – calls in to say they have finished. How did we do this before mobile phones? The weather starts to clear, and by 2 a.m it is a cold and bright moonlit night. Up on the North Downs, where this year’s routes are, the temperature starts to fall.

I pop up to the refreshments base at Botley Hill to see how things are going. Everyone is standing around shivering, adults and youngsters. Soup and hot chocolate are flying off the shelf. While I was there, two Saturday night idiots, one of them in a red sports car, arrive and start to show off, drifting and skidding their cars round the tiny Botley Hill roundabout. Scouts and leaders look at this display, shaking their heads. Everyone is somewhat bemused by how crass and stupid it is. These people are supposed to be grown men! What did Shania Twain sing? “OK. So you’ve got a car”.

In deepening cold the last teams were extracted from up near Chelsham Common at the quite late time of 4a.m. But they finished! A big shout out to all for their efforts put in. It really is true to say that it is the taking part that matters, not the winning. A distinctive of these slower teams was that little or no navigational assistance was offered to the young people by their leaders. That is certainly not true of all the teams, whatever the leaders may say…

Running back with the last team, I experienced a deep, almost physically nauseating wave of weariness. Anyone who ever stayed up overnight will understand this – tiredness comes in waves. But you may be sure it was most unwelcome while driving a minibus full of Scouts. Only by a supreme effort of will and opening the driver’s window, did I avoid putting the bus onto the grass verge.

Back at base at the Oxted school gym, I needed a break and a cup of sweet tea. While I was “resting” two of us laboriously cleaned one of the minbuses, removing the protective plastic sheeting we’d installed on the seats earlier in the evening. These buses were rented to us by St Bede’s School in Redhill, and they were almost brand new. They even had that “new car” smell. A shame to let them get dirty, even if they are there to be used. Even the best behaved teenagers are in general very hard on the interior of minibuses.

The Scouts slowly settled to some sleep. The ADC (Scouts) laboured over the sums – who was going to win? A hero (again unnamed) drove round all the routes and removed the signposts at the checkpoints. In the cold blue light of early dawn, a colleague and I drove through to Redhill so I could drop off the cleaned minibus, and he gave me a lift back. A trip from Oxted to Redhill and back – twenty miles round trip – in less than fifty minutes. All but impossible in the day time. Back at base, an hours kip. Then, it’s bacon buttie time and the awards!

Who did win? It doesn’t matter – every youngster who ever took part in a Colditz Night Hike has won. How many people do you know have escaped from Colditz right here in rural East Surrey? How many people do you know have hiked through the night in pouring rain, dove into ditches hiding from cars, enjoyed that camaradie of tiredness, and finally fell asleep in the company of others, on a cold hard floor? #iscout #skillsforlife.

What is wealth?

Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
– Bob Dylan

In a short story by Len Deighton, common soldiers on the front line were discussing what wealth was. Some said true weath was posession of land. Others, said it was energy- fuel, oil, gas and coal, even wood. Still others, said it was gold. One said it was time. For many in the world, it may be not having to scrounge their next meal.

What then is true wealth, where is true value? What things are the most important in our lives? What – conversely – is dispensable? C.S Lewis paraphrases Jesus’ hard-hitting story in the gospel by noting that there is a journey every one of us must go on, a journey on which we may not take our right arm or our right eye. What is really important?

I’ve been thinking about wealth during this first week of working from home. As a boy I read a children’s book on survival (Puffin, “How to survive“), and in it there was an acronym for helping you get your priorities right in – for example – an air-crash. The acronym was PFAWF. Protection – First Aid – Water – Food. In that order. It strikes me as being a most instructive acronym. and indeed possibly quite counter-intuitive. It’s not obvious. Dealing with someone’s wounds or looking for water won’t help you, if you and your casualty can’t survive the night.

As a Scouter taking young people to camp, I recognised a number of things that someone looking after people out of doors in the UK cannot have too much of. The first would be hot water. The second, tarpaulins. As someone who has done a lot of business travelling, I’ll acknowledge that in the end, the only really important things on my person for a long-haul journey would be my passport and my credit card.

In the garden yesterday I picked up a piece of flint – there is much of that round here, situated as we are at the foot of the chalky Downs. More of that flint later. What’s important? What is wealth? Water? Air? Of course. What represents wealth? Cleanliness may – or may not – spring from wealth. Plenty of poor people are clean and tidy of course, and there may be unclean rich people, but it’s fair to say that the means to keep oneself clean and tidy – access to water, clean clothes etc – is itself wealth. As Andrew Marr writes, poverty may be difficult to define, but you can smell it. Wealth is access to cleanliness, access to privacy or indeed, being able to feel the sun on your face.

For a prisoner in a labour camp, wealth may be access to slightly more food. Prisoners held in slave camps dream of fatty foods – cakes and so forth. Wealth may be a brief moment of respite and peace; it may be just a cushion under your arse. It may be a pair of shoes that don’t leak. It may be a pair of shoes. It may be shelter from the rain and the grinding, incessant winter wind.

Back to the flint: our ancestors used flint as a tool. There was a far-off turning point in pre-history when humans became greater than animals, a point when our ancestors’ lives became slightly more bearable than the life of a brute beast. At that point, you find sharp objects – tools. You find pieces of flint. Tools. Knives. Lewis and Clark explored North America with little more than rifles, knives and axe heads, and the means to sharpen those tools. Today for all the technology that surrounds us, we could barely live like hunter-gatherers without sharp implements. That piece of flint once represented wealth. We should consider today what is important -what represents true wealth, and that which is dispensable.

One who looks forward

“One who looks forward must see this: that things will not remain as they were”

So says J.R.R Tolkien’s character Hurin to his wife Morwen, on the eve of a great battle in the elder days of Middle Earth. On my morning walk today, before starting work-at-home, I could see that things would not remain as they were. The very first thing I saw was that an elderly neighbour, taken to hospital after a fall yesterday, was now back at home. The next thing I noticed was that London’s orbital freeway, the M25 – within six hundred yards of us here – was as noisy and therefore as busy, as on any other day.

But then I heard woodpeckers – their distinctive noise the machine-pistols fired by the advance guard of spring. And I knew that things were going to change. There’s a hint of colour in the air; the depressing grey of winter is slowly fading to green. The birds are singing. Spring is coming.

What will become of us? This is a legitimate question, not defeatist or negative in any way if asked appropriately. Often, dystopian stories portray apocalyptic events as happening suddenly – almost overnight. In a hundred brief minutes in the cinema Hollywood shows us earthquakes, super-storms, wars and plagues, fiery meteor strikes. We see what happens first to the collective, and then, a focus perhaps, on one hero or heroine and their family.

But changes are now afoot that are not so sudden, nor so dramatic – yet, nonetheless profound, deep-rooted and potentially long-lasting. Changes that have the power to affect us all individually as well as collectively. Changes wrought not so much by the disease COVID-19, as by the consequences it brings in it’s train. Our leaders are starting to calculate the human and economic cost of those consequences, and they are, I think, proving to be very difficult sums. There is perhaps a thin, unyielding mathematics to be performed. As yet, most of us have not so much as sat down in front of the maths teacher.

Big events are being postponed – football matches, concerts, gatherings, parties. But there’s an implicit assumption that things will return to normal, that in due course things will be as they were before. I am not so sure. As one who does looks forward, I foresee that things will not remain as they were, nor will they return in the short term to how they were before. To 2019, there is no returning.

Of course we must take care to be positive, upbeat and appropriately encouraging – but at the same time, we must prepare for living differently. Living kinder, living slower, living more locally. A lot of people face financial difficulties in the months ahead as the economy shrinks. There’s potential hardship and ruin for many, except we find a way of sharing what we have, better than we do now. God knows I’m no expert on this…but I think there’s opportunities ahead for us all to demonstrate that we do see that things have changed, and we can do things better and differently.

A journey through a nuanced apocalypse

We’ll remember yesterday’s date for some years, that’s for sure. The day when the time of closed-in living began for middle England. Putting aside all the shameful panic-buying (who ARE those people?) middle England is actually very supportive and helpful when the chips are down. Or when old gaffers fall down. I was walking along the road into town yesterday afternoon when I saw a gathering up ahead. A couple of cars were stopped; two or three ladies were stood in the road. An older gentleman was sat on the grass verge, which at this point, was a steep bank a foot or so above the road.

An old fellow, making his way home along the awkwardly cambered footpath, had slipped and fell into the road. All the ladies had gathered round to help, rather than pass by on the other side; one offered to call an ambulance. But the chap seemed to have suffered little more than bruises and getting mud on his trousers. He seemed a little unsteady, and it was appropriate that I rather than they should to offer to escort him back to his home. Which I did. It reminded me a little later of an incident in John Wesley’s journal. Writing nearly three hundred years ago, he recounts how as an older man he fell over on a street in some town in England. Someone helped him up and brushed him off. Someone from a nearby barber’s shop brought a chair out for him to sit on. Someone else fetched a glasss of water.

By the time I’d seen him safely home, and turned back to the shops to do what I’d set out to do, I missed most of the astonishing announcement from the PM which changed everything. I missed a call from my boss getting behind Boris’s instructions to us all, reiterating that I should work from home henceforth.

This morning for a walk through the fields, before starting work at home. My thoughts might be a little unsteady – a walk out is always good to help with that. We listened uncritically to the PM and his advisers yesterday. They’re doing the best they can; doing a difficult job in difficult, unprecedented times. It would be churlish to find fault with them personally – though I see on social media that there is no shortage of people doing just that. It might be slightly easier, and more legitimate, to question their wisdom once – as the French say – “l’esprit d’escalier” kicks in. We’ll see as events take their place. One thing seems clear – though perhaps not yet to everyone. There’s going to be no swift return to “normal” life as it existed as recently as yesterday afternoon about three o’clock. It’s not quite the end of the world; it’s quite not the apocalypse. Not as we know it.

“You have arrived at a complex junction”

As a youth learning computer studies in the evening at the local technical college, I and others from my school used to have access to a large computer. One of the programmes on it was the text-based adventure game “ADVENT”. This game is the ancestor, really, of all modern graphics-based computer games. When playing this game, the player typed in command – “Take weapon”, “Fight dwarf” “go left” etc., and the computer would in due course respond with a new situation. E.g. “You have arrived at a complex junction”.

This phrase came unbidden to my mind the other day when I was sat during my lunch break in Upper Grosvenor Park, that small triangular slice of grass and plane trees a couple of hundred yards from Victoria Station. I believe in running with my thoughts and hunches. I don’t think there are coincidences, and God above does direct our thoughts as He sees fit.

Both in my personal life and in the life of the world and the nation, this time is one of complexity. We often say that we live in unusual or interesting times. That’s been true throughout my adult life, even allowing for a healthy degree of English understatement. But now, in these times of the Corona Virus, we live in extraordinary times, even – and I don’t like this over-used word – “unprecedented” times. I think this is a badly overused word, misused by journalists chasing a cheap sensation – for there to be “unprecedented” weather or storms is the most common example I’ve seen recently. Really? Was it? Rather like describing something as an “incredible” experience. Yes, I rather think it probably was.

Yet, nothing like this has happened in our lifetime. Last week many of us were literally waiting on the outcome of the Cabinet office “COBRA” meeting. We’ve heard of any number of such meetings for one crisis or another – but since when did ordinary working people wait on the outcome of those meetings? The press briefing on life TV afterwards was sane and sage and measured in it’s tone: but what could happen? What does “delay phase” mean, what does “herd immunity” mean? In the meantime the trains get quieter, and London’s Victoria station at 7 o’clock in the morning looks oddly deserted.

The Chief Commissioner for Scouts in the UK, Tim Kidd, has written to members noting that we must continue to respond to the developing situation in a calm, measured and appropriate way. More typically English sound and sage advice, for I fear that the recent news frenzy about Corona Virus has not been calm, measured or appropriate. The media scramble over tiny scraps of news, like the gangs of monkeys so recently filmed fighting over a banana in some city in S.E Asia. Everything is hyperbole, journalists and reporters hyperventilating, almost, with excitement. And yet, it’s not even really started yet. Where will we go – which exit will we take from the complex junction? Both as individuals, and collectively as a civil society?

The end of the world is nigh”...What, right nigh? We remember this one of the funnier Ronnie Barker sketches with a wry grin perhaps. We use the term metaphorically – but it is literally true of every day – the world we know disappears at sunset and is made new the following morn. As Linkin Park sing, “things aren’t the way they were before“. After this, things won’t be the way they were before. 2019 is more inaccessible than the other side of the universe. We can’t go back there. Companies will go bankrupt. Habits will change. Society will grow and alter under the influence of what is happening around us. People will die – yes, we knew that and it is deplorable, but no-one lives for ever.

It’s already been noted that pollution levels are falling in some places as a consequence of there being fewer aircraft in our skies. We find ourselves wondering what we can do in these times to be more careful of the vulnerable and the aged around us – how can we help when there is enforced self-isolation? Perhaps one way forward from the complex junction at which we find ourselves, is towards a world where we are much more deeply aware, both of the need to look after our planet, and also of the need to look after our nearest neighbours.

The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter, one of the most prominent sci-fi writers around today, has written a sequel to H. G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds“. I confess I never read Wells’ original, but like most people of my generation I’m familiar with the story. Jeff Wayne’s concept album has played it’s part in that familiarity of course; “Forever Autumn” remains one of my favourite songs. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to see the stage show live in London – a real experience. It’s a story that touches every human heart.

I’m no real fan of H.G Wells, whilst acknowledging him as the outstanding futurist of his generation and one of the grandfathers, as it were, of the science fiction genre as we understand it today. I did read one of his short stories – written in Edwardian England more than a decade before the Great War and the invention of the tank – in which he describes great metal wheeled “landships”. It’s pleasing to read Baxter gives them more than a passing nod in this sequel.

The story, written in the same laconic narrative style as H.G Wells, recounts a second invastion of Earth by the Martians, in 1920. It’s readable and a page-turner, but I will reveal no more about it other than recommending it highly.

But here is where I enthuse about Stephen Baxter’s work, for alternative history is his real forte. He manages to challenge the idea that what happened in our past was immutable and things could only have been that way. The Martians invaded in 1907: they were foiled in their attempt by deadly pathogens. But as a direct consequence England and the British Empire never joined what his characters refer to as the “Schlieffen War” in 1914. In his history, there was no Great War, there was no Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks were all defeated and tossed into prison.

The theme of “what might have been?” has entertained thinkers for all of history. What if Alexander the Great had lived? What if he had not recovered from a dreadful war injury he received when he was younger still? What if Henry VII’s oldest son had not died as a youth, leaving the throne open for his brother who became Henry VIII? What if the Nazis had successfully invaded?

Stephen Baxter in a number of his works, covers the the space-age era in this kind of detail. In “Voyage” he argues that humankind might have gone on from the Moon to visit Mars in the 1980’s – we could have; we just didn’t, for whatever reason. In “Titan” he sees an expedition to circum-Saturn space using Apollo-era technology, whilst Earth collapses into war, recrimination and apocalypse. In his short story “Sheena 5“, genetically-modified intelligent squid are sent to the asteroids to explore on behalf of humankind, because sending people is too expensive. They were betrayed: they were supposed to be unable to breed, but they could, and they did. Aggressive, intelligent, and capable of hard thinking, they return to Earth decades later as a space-faring species, to find humankind again mired in war, recrimination and apocalypse.

In “War birds” we see an alternative twentieth century far worse than our own, far worse than the worst nightmares of those who look down their nose at Donald Trump. The title refers to NASA’s space shuttles, which are seen and used almost entirely as fighter/bombers. We see Nixon rehabilitated; Tehran destroyed by an American atom bomb. A nuclear rocket blows up, rather like Challenger did in 1986, smearing radioactive material across the Florida sky. Reagan’s response is to start a nuclear war and destroy the Soviet Union. It gets worse…Stephen Baxter is willing to imagine the unimaginable in a quite relaxed and very English understated way. In his novel “Moonseed” (which does end on a positive note, though not before the Earth has been destroyed with billions dead) someone notes (after Arthur’s Seat becomes an active volcano) that “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”.