I had an interesting virtual experience yesterday. As you’ve probably done yourself, I was avoiding working by mooching through Twitter, when I came on a retweet by Brian John Spencer the cartoonist. I know and like Spencer (though not well enough to know if he’s called Brian or John or Brian John) so it caught my attention. It was a picture of a dissident republican group in Lurgan, with full paramilitary uniform and masks, standing with their back to the camera. Nearest the camera was a little girl in a dress; in the ranks of the paramilitaries was a smaller figure which I concluded was a young woman, but which Brian John Spencer’s retweet seemed to suggest was a child.”Shocking images of children at masked march in Lurgan” the caption said. So in a moment of bored irresponsibility, I put up an image of some members of the Boys’ Brigade marching behind a banner, with the comment ‘A bit like this, then?’
To borrow a presidential phrase:Wow. The twittersphere lit up with abuse of all kinds, unanimously directed at your humble scribe. I wasn’t described as a spawn of Satan but I was described as disgusting, old, half-witted and more. So it set me thinking: are there in fact any parallels between what Brian John Spencer appeared to be suggesting, that Lurgan children were being somehow inducted into the dissident ranks, and the Boys’ Brigade?
Well the nomenclature of the Boys’ Brigade is obviously modeled on the military: it’s a brigade, there are companies and divisions, they have different ranks, they march, they emphasise discipline and obedience.
The militarism link with the Boys’ Brigade isn’t exactly new. In 1938, at the annual gymkhana of the Greenock Battalion of the Brigade in Greenock Town Hall, the local paper reports that Captain E J O’Brien Croker, superintendent of the Royal Naval Torpedo factory, expressed regret that “there should be today a certain number of people who suggests that the Boys’ Brigade was not desirable, basing their argument on the view that drill might instill ideas of militarism in the boys’ minds.” The Captain rejected this, and that the drills and exercises of the Boys’ Brigade were likely to prejudice the chances of peace. If all men were thoroughly disciplined, he said, the possibilities of war would be more removed than ever, because it was just the lack of discipline that was at the bottom of all trouble.
You’ll find other writers on the subject who accept that the Boys’ Brigade were led in the past by soldiers, that they wore uniform, learnt discipline and obedience, and in some cases drilled with weapons; but they emphasize that the BB rejected (and I’m sure rejects) claims of militarism. “Can a child wear a uniform, carry a weapon and hold a military rank without being encouraged to absorb military values? The leader of the major Victorian and Edwardian uniformed youth movements certainly claimed they could, but many commentators, at the time and since, have disagreed”.
Certainly the Boys’ Brigade are aware of this claim. In a report in the Sunday Times of 12 February 2006, Marc Horne has an article under the heading ‘Boys’ Brigade tries to shake off military image’. He says that the Brigade is launching a £215,000 rebranding exercise. This will involve considering ditching the blue uniform, replacing military exercises with such things as football and computer games.
The Boy Scouts, an organisation often mentioned in the same breath as the Boys’ Brigade, has also carried militaristic overtones. In an article entitled “Baden-Powell, Militarism and the ‘Invisible Contributors’ to the Boy Scout Scheme’, Martin Dedman of Middlesex University cites those scholars who argue the militarism case at all seriously “have tended to find in scouting more militaristic features than its advocates would admit’.
The founder of the Boy Scouts, Baden-Powell, at the start of his book Scouting for Boys, declares “Every boy ought to learn how to shoot and obey orders, else he is no more good when war breaks out than an old woman.”
I’m sure it’s true that the Boy Scouts and the Boys’ Brigade have developed from this early militarism, but it’s flying in the face of historical fact to go ballistic when someone suggests that at least in its origins, there might be military parallels.
Incidentally, the militaristic seems to join with the colonial in another statement Baden-Powell made regarding the lesser breeds without the law:
“The stupid inertness of the puzzled negro is duller than that of an ox; a dog would grasp your meaning in one-half the time. Men and brothers! They may be brothers, but they are certainly not men”.
And incidentally 2: I will be on Talkback shortly after 12 noon, when William Crawley will throw me to the lions…