Day 27: Bad elf

Dear Readers,

This morning the younger flopsy-duckit refused to go to preschool until she had squeezed into a tutu-style dress that she has long since outgrown but which she can’t bear to give up wearing (Thanks, Mahin). Once she had struggled into it, she picked up a plastic sword and brandished it gleefully at me. “I’m a bad fairy,” she announced.

Ahh, like mother, like daughter. The duck-rabbit was never a bad fairy but it was, once upon a time, a very poor excuse for an elf. [1]

Pray, have you heard tell of the Woodcraft Folk? No? Allow me to enlighten you. The Woodcraft Folk is an organization for children that was founded in Britain in the 1920s. It is along the lines of the Boy Scouts or the Girl Guides, but it was and is open to both boys and girls, and its feel and ethos are quite distinctive. In the parlance of my youth, it is (or at least, it was, in the 1980s), terribly “right on.” This phrase might need some unpacking for my American readers. I couldn’t find a good definition in the OED, but did find this in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English:

right on informal

1 British English someone who is right on supports social justice, equal rights, the protection of the environment etc. – often used to show disapproval because someone does this in an extreme way [PC, politically correct]:

And here is the example they offer of correct usage, which is, uh, right on, in the other sense:

It’s one of those annoyingly right-on magazines about the environment.

I don’t think it’s quite right, though, that “politically correct” is synonymous with “right on,” although it may partly be that they feel like the product of quite different cultural moments. For the duck-rabbit and, by extension, for all English people, the phrase “right on” conjures up both a particular historical moment, which is Thatcherite Britain, as well as a particular character archetype, most perfectly embodied by Rick from The Young Ones, a show that was huge when I was in my last years of primary school. This is how the Wikipedia entry for The Young Ones accurately characterizes Rick: “Rick is a self-proclaimed anarchist who is studying sociology and/or domestic sciences (depending on the episode).”

I can’t say I honestly recall what the Folk Marshall (i.e. the adult leader of the local Woodcraft Folk branch) was like, based on the two meetings I attended. But I do know that it was a man and in my mind he was Rick.

From the beginning, the duck-rabbit’s feelings about the Woodcraft Folk were deeply, deeply conflicted. I wanted to be in it because, in the final couple of years of primary school (so, aged around 9-10), all of my friends were in it and they would always talk about how brilliant it was and I felt left out. But I didn’t want to be in it because it also sounded bloody miserable. In fact, I attribute my enduring suspicion of camping to the early trauma of hearing about Woodcraft Folk camping holidays.

Not that I ever got so far as to even contemplate going on one of their camping trips. I barely got through two of the weekly meetings, which had, as I recall, the following structure. They began with a gathering in a circle and a discussion of current affairs. The very idea of this filled me with dread. In primary school, I already felt acutely aware that my political consciousness was radically under-developed. I had no opinion on whether Neil Kinnock would be a worthy successor to Michael Foot. I had no opinion on Nigel Lawson’s economic policy. Yes, if pushed, I could muster up a reasonable display of contempt for Margaret Thatcher or approval for the CND, but these did not feel like opinions as such, but rather mere acknowledgements of the banally obvious. Such views had the same status, in my mind, as the view that Monday mornings were generally bad while legwarmers were generally good. I mean, it was just common knowledge.

No, my strong opinions were reserved for other topics, such as books by Noel Streatfeild (thumbs up), side ponytails (double thumbs up), the Eurovision Song Contest (would we ever again reach the skirt-ripping heights of Bucks Fizz in 1980? It seemed doubtful); and the relative merits of various Torvill and Dean ice dance routines (Bolero was overrated; Mack and Mabel was the best; that bit when he flips her over his head!)

I still remember the agony of sitting in the circle at the first meeting while a boy I knew slightly, Adam (he lived across the street and was the same age as me, but his Dad was a local councilor— Labour, natch—which felt like an unfair advantage), held forth, loftily, on the political issues of the day. He and a couple of other boys I knew from school dominated the discussion. I felt completely out of my depth, and felt emphatically that there was nothing I could possibly contribute. It was actually an uncanny foreshadowing of how I often felt in graduate school (especially in that Lacan seminar).

After the excruciating first circle of hell we moved on to the equally excruciating second circle of hell, in which we played non-competitive games. Those of you are keen on games (Claire; Natalie) know that I am slow on the uptake when it comes to competitive games, and this trait, which was already well-established in my primary school years, was one I hoped might actually prove to be an advantage at excelling in the non-competitive game field. My memory of this section of the meeting is just a blur of dropped beanbags and futile pleading with the Folk-Marshall to please just let me sit on the sidelines and watch. He refused so then I drifted aimlessly around the room pretending to play because I couldn’t follow any of the games, which meant, I reflected, with mortification, that I was now actually failing at non-competitive gameplay.

As I say, I can’t say I remember the specific games, but after perusing a list, today, of Woodcraft-folk approved games, this is the one that feels most familiar:

Catch it-Drop it : All in circle standing except one in centre. Centre person tosses ball to someone in circle while calling a command “Catch-it/Drop-it.” Person must do opposite of command i.e. drop if told catch. If wrong goes in centre.

I would dispute the notion that this game is, in fact, “non-competitive.” How is a game in which you can get something wrong, and for which the price you pay for being wrong is to stand, by yourself, in the middle of a circle of your peers, non-competitive? Obviously, the inept players are going to keep being in the circle and the skilled players are not. Which is why I didn’t want to play.

In the final circle of hell, we would each work towards earning our badges. Over the course of my two Woodcraft Folk meetings I desperately tried to memorize the elfin creed, which was the necessary requirement for earning the most basic of all the badges. There are many version of the creed, but the version I had to learn went like this:

I will grow strong and straight – like the pine;

Supple of limb – like the hare;

Keen of eye like the eagle;

I will seek health from the greenwood,

Skill from crafts,

And wisdom from those who will show me wisdom.

I will be a worthy comrade in the Green Company,

And a loyal member of the World Family.

You might be thinking: how perfect! The creed encourages the would-be elf to think of him or herself as embodying both rabbit-like and bird-like qualities. But, actually, I think it just serves to highlight how bad a fit the duck-rabbit was for the Woodcraft folk.

Think about it. An eagle soars; surveys; devours. A hare flexes; sprints; leaps.

A duck waddles, flaps, quacks. A rabbit lopes, dozes, twitches.

In conclusion: an eagle-hare is altogether a hardier, loftier breed of hybrid than a mere duck-rabbit.

I can’t remember if I ever earned my badge. All I recall is struggling to memorize the bloody creed. But somehow, as must be obvious to you by now, dear reader, although I could not commit the creed to memory, and although I only ever attended two meetings, never to return again, the Woodcraft Folk left a deep, lasting, scarring impression on me.

It helped me come to a series of realizations about myself.

  • I do not generally enjoy organized fun unless it involves dancing.
  • Talking about world affairs, playing games, and memorizing words that are meaningful to you, are all activities that can be deeply enjoyable. But they are not enjoyable for me when they are prescribed.
  • The Woodcraft Folk sucked all of the joy out of being an elf. As a child, I was obsessed with the Ladybird book version of The Elves and the Shoemaker. I still have my copy. My favorite part of the book was the unveiling of what I considered to be the elves’ masterpiece: a pair of lilac colored, gold-trimmed booties that I coveted with a passion. In fact, I still covet them. That is what being an elf should be all about. Benevolent mischief. Dainty stitches. Gold brocade. Soft leather. I could have been such a good elf.
The shoemaker's posture clearly conveys that he has never seen a pair of shoes this fucking fantastic in his whole life. And he's a professional shoemaker! And he's an old man!

The shoemaker’s posture clearly conveys that he has never seen a pair of shoes this fucking fantastic in his whole life. And he’s a professional shoemaker! And an old man!

Yours very truly,

Your very own furry, webfooted



[1] I was not a bad fairy although I was, it might justly be argued, a bossy one. When I was four I played the fairy on top of the Christmas tree in a dance recital. I was meant to tap my magic wand on large gift boxes out of which were supposed to emerge toys come to life, as played by a bunch of two-year-olds. But the two-year-olds were terribly uncooperative. I had to engage in a lot of vigorous wand-tapping and fierce whispering to coax them out.


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