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All This Jazz: In The Brownies...

“I’ve bought the uniform, and YOU’RE GOING!” said Jill Grant’s mum. But jazz-singer-to-be Jill was not made for the Brownies, though the Brownies were made to spark her sense of humour.

Read, enjoy, laugh out loud. And make sure you stay in touch with Jill’s lively words by regularly clicking on All This Jazz.

Disclaimer – my nieces are in the Brownies and love it. It sounds far more exciting than it was in my day, the early Sixties. Then, it was a pile of brownie stuff, all steaming hot.

I wanted to join because the kid up the road was going, and had already earned an armful of little yellow badges. Ho hum. I found out later that you didn’t have to, say, learn how to ride properly to get the horsewoman badge, just manage not to fall off during one circuit and bump round the schooling ring. The rest were as futile. Heat up a tin of soup and know how to make ground coffee. Not make the coffee, you understand. Ground coffee was an unknown commodity in our working class neck of the woods. Camp coffee with chicory essence was as exotic as it got. Long thin bottles of the nasty stuff.

However – Mum trotted off to Paynes the Outfitters and I got togged up in my Brownie outfit. Brown tunic with military-style pockets, brown leather belt with unfastenable buckle, silly yellow triangle that you had to fold into a tie (why?) and hideous – you’ve guessed it – brown beret that on me looked like a pimple on a pig’s bum (I have a large head).

It didn’t take me long to figure out what a pile of brownie steaming stuff it all was. However, Mum was unamused by my objections. “I’ve bought the uniform, and YOU’RE GOING!” she told me, forcibly.

Where do I start? Brown Owl might be a good place. There was rather a lot of her, and it all stank. Rancid bear’s grease mixed up with eau de Pepe le Pew. She was universally known as “Brown Owl, Bucket and Smell”. To get the full effect of this epithet, you have to know that in the local southern England accent, “smell” would be rendered as “smaaaall”. Dunno where the bucket came in. That thing she didn’t wash in, presumably. Taking your report card to her to be marked was not much fun – we all looked like we’d got adenoids (all that mouth breathing).

In the middle of the room where the meetings took place was a leprous-looking plaster of Paris toadstool, red with white spots and distinctly flaky. Lucky kids that we were, we got to prance round this object, singing songs such as this one:

“We’re the Brownies, here’s our aim
Lend a hand and play the game”
Game? What game? Shades of Billy Bunter and Jennings Goes to School. No fags, though, not even the kind people smoke behind the bike sheds, cupping them in the hand to avoid detection. That came later – in the Guides.

Our malodorous matriarch informed us that we could abbreviate “Lend a Hand” to “LAH LAH LAH”, and demonstrated, shaking the ground as she skipped and disseminating clouds of guff in her wake. We were divided into “Sixes” and each one had its own song. I was a Pixie (don’t laugh) and our song was a gem of the songwriter’s craft:

“Look out! We’re the jolly Pixies
Helping people when in fixies”

Johnny Mercer, eat your heart out.

We had a whole ream of maxims to learn, of which mercifully I can only remember one: “A Brownie gives in to the older folk. A Brownie does not give in to herself”. I can think of few worse preparations for adult life than that one.

Looking back, we never did anything at all exciting – certainly no going off for camping holidays as my nieces now do. Learning the flags of all nations and how to tie knots – that’s what we did. Not even slipknots, the better to dispatch annoying people in our lives. Shame. The headmistress of my primary school would have been a prime candidate. I’ll tell you about her one day.

Saving the worst until last, I come to – Church Parade. Oh the boredom. Every week we marched two by two down to the local parish church. The good girls (that is, toadying little creeps), got to carry THE PENNANT. Sounds more important than it was, as it consisted of a smallish triangle of brown (what else) leather with the Brownie emblem stamped on it, and stuck on top of a long pole. Having marched more or less smartly into church, we settled into our rock-hard pews to enjoy the perorations of the vicar. He had a nickname too – Flea Box Butler. Doesn’t require any clarification really, except why “box” and not “bag”? Something to do with his shape, perhaps, which was a little on the square and boxy side.

Before too long I was skiving off in favour of a bit of extra time in bed with Just William (WILL you shut up at the back there!). Old Bucket and Smaaall soon hauled me over the coals. “You promised on your honour to do your duty to God and the Queen. Doing your duty to God means going to church.” Daft old tart. Even at that age, I knew that there was more to it than that.

It was never explained to me what doing your duty to the Queen entailed. Refraining from fomenting bloody revolution, I presume. Pity. I have a surreal vision of platoons of Brownies, all bearing pennants and advancing on Buck House, singing the Internationale.

So I turned over a new leaf and began attending Church Parade again – and so didn’t miss one of the true horse-laughs of my life. The choir had been rehearsing for some time for a Sunday performance of Stainer’s “Crucifixion”. Nothing inherently funny in that piece of music, perhaps but something about the whole shooting match struck me as irresistibly comic. By the time the choir had taken their places in the choir stalls, I was well on the way. Perhaps it was the strange Saxe-blue tricorn hats that the women wore? The choirmaster, a fussy and pompous little man, raised his baton and the choir ululated:

“Fling wide the, fling wide the, fling wide the, fling wide the GATES The SAVIOUR WAI-AITS!”

Oh boy. I pretended I had dropped my hymn book and ducked out of sight, where I piddled myself laughing, more or less silently. Rotten little moo, when they’d worked so hard – but I just couldn’t help it.

Anyway, I stuck it out until even Mum agreed I’d grown out of the uniform. Most Brownies “flew” up to the Guides, which meant jumping over the toadstool. Not as much fun as jumping the broomstick, I imagine. I sort of snuck up, as I was too idle and cynical to get my “Brownie Wings” by passing some ludicrous test or other. I just left old Bucket and Smaaall one week and arrived at Guides the next. The Captain was one Batty Beryl.

Why I ever thought I’d like the Guides when I hated the Brownies, is another story………


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