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When Father Ted presented her with a machine that would 'take the misery out of tea-making' TV's most aesthetically challenged housekeeper Mrs. Doyle lamented 'some people enjoy the misery'. It's more or less the way I feel about camping; I certainly don't camp for any pleasure I derive from it, rather a belief that it's somehow character building and morally robust. I'm certainly not the first to think so and in 'The Art of Camping' Matthew de Abaitua takes us on a trip back in (fairly recent) history to look at those people for whom camping was a means to rehabilitation or a way of instilling certain values, using socialist principles in particular.
Part history, part memoir (though happily much less so than Emma Kennedy's 'The Tent, the Bucket and Me', a recent book about remembered camping trips in the 1970s that was so awful it set my teeth on edge) 'The Art of Camping:The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars' reminds us that while a camping can be a much needed tonic from the irritations of modern life, a way of getting back to nature and temporarily forgetting the rat race, the practice has also been (and continues to be) advocated by extremists and oddballs.
There was the Anglo-American Ernest Thompson Seton who Baden-Powell credited as inspiring the Boy Scout Movement. Seton, a wealthy eccentric who lived most of the time in luxury on Fifth Avenue, encouraged young delinquents from the city to attend camps and to 'think Indian'. At his 'woodcraft' camps the boys were encouraged to take control of the camp and to seat themselves around the campfire to form a council. While Seton's methods undoubtedly promoted character developemnt and team work, the idea of communal living still provoked suspicion from the mainstream.
In Britain the slightly eerily named Kindred of the Kibbo Kift were a progressive group that organised experiments in camping and outdoor activities in the equally as unnervingly named Sandy Balls in the New Forest. This group aimed to establish co-educational camps and were keen to empower women in particular; as a result the Kin captured the imagination of one -time suffragettes, some of them rather radical in their views and this group attracted the attention of Special Branch who originally had them down as Communists but later revised their appraisal to 'cranks'.
De Abaitua takes us through the basics of camping: where to set up camp (always consider the prevailing wind!), car camping ('Sticking our own badge, GB, to the rear of the Cortina and putting a yellow refractor on the headlights completed our preparation; the car was ready to go abroad') and tips on what to look for in the perfect tent (who'd have thought there was so much to know about the dome tent?). The author combines practical information with well researched detail and a healthy dose of humour.
If, having been reminded of the weirdo roots of the modern camping movement, you still feel like pitching your tent under the stars, Cath De Abaitua closes the book with an indispensible appendix that will help you know exactly what to pack for a successful trip (as it doesn't need ice, mead is the ideal booze to take with you). Not only will Cath's suggestions prevent many of the crises that befall unprepared campers, it makes perfect sense for those encumbered with little campers.
'The Art of Camping' makes an ideal present for anyone who loves camping, who'd like to go camping or who recalls childhood camping trips, either with terror or fondness. As entertaining as it is invaluable, it's a must for anyone planning a holiday under canvas.
This is an edited version of my review that first appeared at www.curiousbookfans .co.uk