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The Truth About Camping

On childhood misadventures.

The smell of hot canvas, now rare in my life, can set off an explosion of memories so powerful that I wish I could work out what other aromas I might seek out to pierce the veil of the lost past. There was a lot of camping in tents in my childhood, almost all of it mixed up with school rather than home. And in most cases those tents were the heavy old sort, as used by the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons stories. It was emphatically supposed to be good for us.

One school headmaster used to compel us to camp each summer in the grounds of his establishment. His tent was not like other tents. It was a monstrous sage-green affair the size of a small cathedral, which must surely have dated from before the Second World War (many things still did, in those days). You might have used it to invade Baluchistan or Somaliland, or to accept somebody’s surrender. It took half a dozen trained personnel to slot together the poles, lay the groundsheet, deploy the flysheet, adjust and fasten the guy ropes, nearly as complex as the rigging on one of Nelson’s warships. But the headmaster, who had risen to the rank of major in the Hitler war and had designed the British Army’s ammunition boxes, was more than equal to this. His tent, unlike ours, never fell down or leaked.

To digress from this digression, I think you can still buy a British product known as “Camp Coffee,” a bottled essence popular in the days before powdered instant coffee. My grandfather drank it drowned in hot milk at eleven o’clock each morning—and for many years, I thought this was what the word “coffee” meant. Its label shows just such a tent, surmounted by a flag, bearing the stirring legend “Ready, Aye Ready.” In the foreground a kilted Scotsman in elaborate Highland rig used to sit, holding a cup of this substance which has just been served to him by a turbaned Sikh. But nothing remains the same. In more modern versions, the Sikh and the Highlander are sitting together in egalitarian post-imperial comradeship. To digress one step further, the Scottish soldier in the picture is believed by some to be General Sir Hector MacDonald, who shot himself in a Paris hotel in 1903, after the publication of scandalous allegations which an official inquiry later dismissed as false. Anyway, it was that kind of tent, though I don’t think it ever had a flag on top of it.

We used to follow the headmaster’s example with much smaller, more modern tents of our own, which usually let in water and in which you could not stand up or plan a campaign. They were alleged to be waterproof but were not. In this way we gained some idea of the delights of outdoor living, but without the dangers of prowling beasts or angry farmers or the unpleasantness of latrine pits. The school grounds were large and picturesque, with a full-grown river rushing through them. We could slip back into the school buildings when absolutely necessary and were once forced to abandon the whole exercise a day early, thanks to a violent deluge which soaked everyone and everything beyond repair. This was the only form of camping I have ever even slightly enjoyed. We cooked on open fires, gutting fish before grilling them (can one of the more useful boys have caught them from the river? It is possible), sang songs and told stories late into the night, and being small, and not quite yet introduced to beer or wine, we then actually slept under canvas, a thing I have never successfully done in all the years since.

At a later school, those like me who declined to take part in the Officers’ Training Corps, or “Combined Cadet Force,” as it was rather feebly called by then, were compelled instead to join the Boy Scouts. I had managed to evade this organization all my life till the age of fourteen, and so missed all the badges and strange language. Even so, my first scouting mission will live in my mind forever. I and a group of other scapegraces and nuisances were dumped in the middle of the Cambridgeshire countryside one warm summer Friday evening after supper. We were not told where we were. We were given tents, sleeping bags, a compass, and a specially prepared map from which almost all the major physical features of the landscape had been removed. Our instructions were to arrive at a stated six-figure map reference by the following evening, where we would be collected and driven back to school. It would have been a fine test of our survival skills, if we had had any. There was also a bag full of provisions, and equipment for lighting a campfire. Incompetently, we assembled our tents and crawled inside them, in my case lying wakeful as I listened to the savage noises of the English countryside after dark.

Dawn came. It fell to me to open the bag of provisions, which had originally been a parcel of sausages, some eggs, a loaf of bread, a bottle of milk and a jar of marmalade. But as somebody quite heavy (not me) had sat on it during the journey to our starting point, it was now a dangerous and uneatable mess of broken glass, squashed eggs, etc., tinged brown by the coffee powder and made wet and sticky by the milk and marmalade. Well, of course, if we had been proper enterprising schoolboys of the sort who built the empire, we would have swiftly trapped a few rats or squirrels, eviscerated and barbecued them, quenching our thirst from a clear, bubbling spring. But we were not. So we just dumped the mess in a ditch and began puzzling over the map.

Reader, we were lost. And we stayed lost, blundering about in the growing heat of what must have been one of the warmest days I have ever lived through, famished and parched and, as a result, increasingly stupid. I think one of the others must eventually have found one of those telephone boxes that used to dot the English countryside, and called for help. By then I was, I think, actually delirious. Even the school authorities, wisely unsympathetic to teenage claims of sickness, were so worried by my state that they put me to bed in a darkened room in the school sanatorium, where I vaguely remember waking with a full bladder at midnight. I did not really know where I was, and made an unfortunate mistake about the true whereabouts of the lavatory. The only joy of the experience was my accidental discovery, on the sanatorium bookshelf, of Keith Waterhouse’s work of genius, Billy Liar. I laughed my way back to full health and have felt indebted to Waterhouse ever since.

I actually deserted from another such character-building exercise in the Highlands of Scotland, in which midges, those relentless, tiny biting insects they never mention in Scottish tourism brochures, came for me night and day in their thousands. The unceasing rain only encouraged them. Thanks to my past experiences, I had made sure I had some money with me. Ignoring all pleas to stay, I hitch-hiked to the nearest railhead and went home, scratching myself vigorously. On one final expedition, my dissident group camped in the back garden of a country pub on the glorious North York Moors while we should have been trudging about. The authorities never found out. The camping was, as usual, awful, but nobody had sat upon the food, the beer was good, and the Moors so beautiful that I fell hopelessly in love with them there and then. To this day, I enjoy staying in comfortable hotels there. But not camping.

Since then, I have met any suggestion from anyone about the joys of going camping with stern resistance. If any of my children wanted to sleep in a tent, what was wrong with the back garden? On the one occasion when I gave in, I was astonished by how much harder the ground had become since my childhood, and how much more often I needed to get up in the night. I greatly enjoy the portrayal of camping trips in Bill Watterson’s unrivaled Calvin and Hobbes strip. I do not think these bleak names were chosen by accident. The deluded paterfamilias, presumably marked for life by reading too much Thoreau, dreams of a simple, elevating week among lakes and woods. He repeatedly drags his wife and child with him. As they arrive, a particularly dense, cold, gray type of rain begins to rush from the skies, and does not stop until they go home. To me, this is the truth about camping, and I wish more people would realize it. Much the same goes for several other kinds of supposed holiday. Having spent so much time and money obtaining an actual house, with plumbing and electricity, furnished with books and wine, why would I abandon it for a night among mosquitoes, on ground so hard that I can count my very bones, gnawing at things scorched on a fire? The pleasures of others are one of the great mysteries of life.