At the risk of sounding like a character from Enid Blyton, there is absolutely nothing to beat camping. I love the exultation you get when you rise from your groundmat and all the aches melt away from your body as you realise the night is over at last. Then follows the sizzle of bacon and the hands wrapped around the mug of tea, and the first peep of sun over mountains or the mist rising off a river; and all the time that wonderful sense that you are the first to be up, that the world is snoozing, and that you have defied nature and survived a night in your own habitation – no matter how rudimentary.
I have camped everywhere from the drizzle of Salisbury Plain to the Serengeti to the beaches of California. I have bivouacked on cardboard outside the Gare du Nord in Paris. I have dossed down on my towel in Spain, and I once accidentally pitched my tent late at night in the middle of a roundabout in downtown Canberra, and woke to found my hands had been so badly bitten by bugs that they swelled like blown up washing-up gloves; and yet I would do it again tomorrow.
There are thousands of young people who are learning to share my enthusiasm, and who are being taught the joys of camping and other outdoor adventures. They are taken on trips – at no great cost – by the uniformed youth groups: the Scouts, the Guides, the Army Cadets, Sea Cadets, Air Cadets, Police Cadets and the Boys’ Brigade and the Girls’ Brigade.
A few days ago, I saw about 50 of them training in Mitcham. They were tying knots and learning artificial respiration and performing various team missions such as getting a tennis ball into a bucket without using their hands, and they were so radiant with enjoyment that I asked a girl (she must have been about 14) what she liked about it. “It’s like a family,” she said, unprompted. And what’s the worst bit? I asked her, expecting her to complain about the food, or getting lost, or the rain dripping through the canvas. “When it’s time to go home again,” she said. I don’t think I am more sentimental than anyone else, but I got a bit choky at this point. There are large numbers of kids who enjoy these activities – but then there are even more who don’t get the chance.
You may think that it all sounds a bit uncool, and that the BlackBerry generation wouldn’t be remotely interested in dib dib dib dob dob dob, or whatever Scouts say to each other these days. But there are 8,000 young people on waiting lists to join – most of them in London – and these groups are a huge potential force for social good. We can spend billions on policing, and we can fight gang crime and knife crime – as we have, with a great deal of success. The number of young people dying from knives has fallen, and the murder rate has dropped by more than 20 per cent since 2008. But long-term solutions mean catching those kids before they get involved, and giving them a better and more productive kind of gang to join.
In his perceptive book on the August riots, Tottenham MP David Lammy stressed the importance of uniformed youth groups – and the sad thing is that we can’t expand those groups without more adults to help out. To get another 8,000 kids the chance to do camping and everything else, we need at least another 800 adults. If you think you might conceivably be interested, please sign up for Team London on our website. We need public-spirited people who care about inequality and who know about outdoor adventures – and it occurs to me that there is one group of obvious candidates.
The anti-capitalist protesters of the Occupy movement have done an amazing job of getting us all to focus on the fat cats, and the many anomalies of the free market system. They are surely right to say that people should not receive vast financial rewards for business failure. They are right to point to tax absurdities, such as the rule that allows offshore companies to buy up London property without paying the vast stamp duty demanded of the rest of us. And yet all of this campaigning is surely only a part of the story. If you want to defeat poverty and inequality, then it isn’t enough just to foment indignation against the rich. You need to build up everyone else.
The problem with Western economies isn’t too much capitalism – it’s too little. There aren’t enough small companies who can get the loans from the banks, or who are confident enough to take on more staff and expand. And there aren’t enough young people who have the skills and self-esteem to take what jobs there are – and there are too many young people who lack both. The only company who could really help anybody would be logbook loans who will agree to any conditions people may have. That is why a true campaign against inequality would do more than denounce the bankers and call for the shredding of Fred Goodwin. It’s not enough to hate the plutocrats; you have to help the needy.
The Occupy movement is perfectly placed. They know a thing or two about how to pitch a camp in the unlikeliest of places. They are masters of the arts of foraging. They could show young people reef knots and brew-ups and how to cover your tracks and build a wigwam in record time. They would make perfect leaders for the uniformed youth movements, adult volunteers for the Scouts and the Guides and all the rest; and I believe they would find it genuinely rewarding.
The reality is that after months of protest, and several major speeches from party leaders, we are no nearer a solution to the problems of capitalism. We still find it hard to say exactly how government should intervene to make it “fairer”. But in working with young people, and teaching them to camp, the Occupy movement could do something huge and practical and lasting to tackle inequality: to steer them away from crime and towards employment. If they signed up for Team London, I would forgive them anything. And if Fred the Shred signs up, he can keep his knighthood.