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Archive for the ‘Janie Hampton’ Category

This week is not going well.  There are various things going on at work (can you call it ‘at work’ when you work from home?) that are frustrating me to no end.  One moment I want to cry, the next to yell.  Yeah.  Frustrated is the right word.  Basically, I’m a big grouch and I hate that.  My goal in life is to be happy and helpful at all times, which can be a stretch even in the best of moods.  I cannot stretch that far this week.  Instead, I’m just doing my best to calm down each day after I finish work.  The weather has finally turned nice so I’ve been spending my afternoons and evenings going for long walks to burn off some of the stress.  If these walks should occasionally lead me past a used bookstore, so be it.

But do you know what another great way to cheer yourself up is?  By talking about great books that you’ve recently (early April is still counts as recent, right?) read, like How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton.

In University, I wrote a very successful final paper for one of my marketing classes on how the struggling Girl Guides of Canada, in the wake of launching a ridiculous advertising campaign, needed to rebrand by returning to their roots.  Structure and sisterhood, equality and excellence are timeless ideals that have always appealed to me.  I have always loved the idea of the Girl Guides, even if my reality never quite lived up to expectations.  And this book?  This book was about everything I ever wanted to be growing up.  The Girl Guides mentioned in it, whether they survived hardship in occupied countries or did their bit on the home front, are the kinds of heroines I revered as a child.  How thrilling to be so young and so capable!  I was, and still am, the kind of person who loved to read about girls who kept calm in a crisis, administering first aid to dozens of wounded while brewing endless pots of tea and possibly baking a few hundred scones – on a campfire, of course – but I am not that person.  I like to think I am but, more than anything, I avoid drama and adventure.  I was never meant to be the heroine of an adventure story it seems. Hampton’s Guides, on the other hand, certainly were.  Just consider the Polish Guides who attended the ‘Pax Ting’ or Peace Parliament summit held of Girl Guides from 32 countries in August 1939 inHungary:

The Polish contingent understood better than anyone the threat of war, and at the last moment they altered their plans.  The night before they left forHungary, the younger Guides were replaced with First Class Rangers experienced in mountain expeditions.  They were issued with special maps which they sewed into their uniforms, so that even if they lost their haversacks they could find their way home.  If, as was thought likely, the German army invaded Poland during Pax Ting, these Guides were to return home on foot over the Carpathian mountains that separated Hungary and Poland, in small groups or alone. ‘Be prepared’ had always bee the Guides’ motto; now these girls might have to put it to the ultimate test.  Only weeks later, many of them would travel in the opposite direction, out of Poland, on even more dangerous adventures. (p. xxiii)

All the instances like that of brave, uncomplaining Guides had me tearing up throughout the book.  The Polish Guides are especially touching, from their work with the Resistance, to their role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to their efforts in keeping up morale in concentration camps.  I had actually heard about the role the Polish Scouts played during the war but this was the first time I had heard anything about the Guides.  Though just children themselves, the Guides there engaged in some incredibly dangerous but helpful activities:

Guides and Scouts wanted to wear their uniforms to show their allegiance, but they soon realised this was too dangerous.  In the face of the Nazi threat Guides hid their uniforms and became part of the wider Polish underground movement, using the codename ‘Clover Union’ and later ‘Be Prepared.’  In order to prevent their arrest and deportation to labour camps, the Home Nursing Council (Rada Glowna Opiekunoza) issued Guides with identity cards stating that they were their employees.  Guides then worked in daycare centres, open-air kindergartens and summer camps.  Those who completed a Red Cross course were permitted by the Germans to keep a first-aid kit and to move around during the air raids.  Doctors and nurses from hospitals including Ujazdowski Hospitaland the Central Pharmacy handed over medications and dressing materials for the Guides to hide in their homes and use to treat resistance workers. (p. 80)

And there were Guides in Japanese POW camps in China!  I love to read about life in POW camps (which seems odd and morbid when I think about it but I blame it all on early exposure to the Spielberg film The Empire of the Sun), to hear what daily life was like there for civilians, particularly children, and this more than satisfied my curiousity.  Even better, the camp was the one where missionary Eric Liddell, the Olympian immortalized in Chariots of Fire, was also interned.  All sorts of geeky interests overlapping here!  And did I mention there were Guides who were captured by pirates?  Pirates!!!  Admittedly, that turns out to be less exciting than you would think but still.  It happened.  These exotic heroines do make the Guides in theUK seem rather less glamourous, but the girls in theUK were able to contribute to the war effort in valuable and meaningful ways.  And what did they do?  What didn’t they do?:

They built emergency ovens from the bricks of bombed houses.  They grew food on company allotments, and knitted for England.  They became the embodiment of the Home Front spirit, digging shelters and providing first-aid.  All overBritain, Guides held bazaars and pushed wooden two-wheeled trek carts around the streets, collecting jam jars and newspapers for recycling.  In one week in 1940 they raised ₤50,000 to buy ambulances and a life boat which saved lives at Dunkirk.

Guides painted kerbs with white paint to help people find their way around in the blackout.  They collected sphagnum moss to dress wounds.  They helped evacuated children leave cities, and helped to care for them when they arrived in the country…(p. xvi)

I loved this book.  I was practically humming with pleasure the entire time I was reading it, so delighted and moved by the stories on each page.  There were even random tidbits of information that seemed specially dropped in just to delight my detailed-oriented self: for example, did you know that “[b]y the end of the war the General Post Office had registered thirty-nine million changes of address – for a total population of forty-seven million”?  How did Juliet Gardiner fail to pass this knowledge on to me in any of her books?

If my experience with the Guiding movement had been even half so exciting as this, I never would have quit.  These girls knew things; they were proficient and had actual skills.  From what I remember, all we had to do to get our knitting/needle work/I-really-have-no-idea-what-it-was-called badge was to present a sloppy, tiny square sample of our work.  Oh standards, how I miss you.  I think that if I’d felt I was actually mastering a skill, if I’d been learning something valuable and becoming skilled at it, if I’d felt the kind of camaraderie talked about here, I could have loved Guides.  As it was, I learned how to do a number of things rather badly and on my own. Sparks, then Brownies, then Guides was just another after school activity rather than a close-knit sisterhood.  I quit Guides after only a few weeks, put off as much by the awful uniforms of the era as anything.  Who would want to wear polyester trousers and blousy button-down shirts?  Better perhaps than today’s sweat pants or jeans but hardly appealing.  I wanted order and discipline, bravery and loyalty.  My favourite part about Guides was the handbook – so inspiring! – but absolutely nothing about my experience lived up to its promise.  I did, however, come away with some impressive sales skills after hawking countless boxes of cookies door-to-door, a skill that has proven incredibly useful in my adult life.  Far more so than, for instance, my outdoor cooking abilities.

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