THERE was good news for woggle manufacturers this week.
Figures released on Monday showed the number of scouts in this country has surged towards half a million with 16,500 new members last year – the biggest increase since 1972.
The organisation is so popular that 33,500 would-be recruits are standing on the sidelines, waiting for spaces to open up for them.
It seems that scouting is cool. Apparently young people – starved of excitement by schools that have replaced playing fields with risk assessment forms – are seeking out adventure with Baden Powell’s lot.
Today’s scout can look forward to activities like rock-climbing, canoeing and abseiling – the kind of things that have headteachers trembling at the thought of a menacing letter from m’learned friends.
I don’t remember health and safety being a massive concern when I was a scout 20 years ago.
Back then, it wasn’t a good evening’s session unless you came home nursing a bruise or a cut knee.
I remember one game we played most weeks where the leader would stand in the middle of a circle of 20 scouts swinging an old rope with a heavy weight on the end.
He would start off swinging the rope at ankle height and we’d all jump over it.
Then the leader would increase the speed and height of the rope, sometimes getting up to knee height before some unfortunate scout mis-timed his jump.
I can still remember the sound that rope made as it rapped itself around some poor boy’s leg.
Down he would go onto the wooden floor and that was him out of the game.
It was painful when it came to your turn to hit the deck, but it was great craic nonetheless.
I did many other things – like archery, cross-country running and swimming – during my time in the beavers, cubs and scouts.
As one of the scrawnier kids, I wasn’t that good at any of these activities – except maybe the running – but I don’t remember ever feeling bad about this. I always wanted to go to scouts and have a good time doing physical things.
And then there was the camping.
Dozens of us from the 4th East Belfast would go off somewhere like the Mourne Mountains for a weekend, cooking food on a campfire and singing songs.
Sometimes we would sleep under trees in bivouacs we made ourselves.
It was there that I developed my love of the outdoors. It lay dormant through my teenage years and early 20s when the nearest I got to nature was a pub garden.
But when I got to about 26, it all came flooding back to me as I took up hiking again, dragging myself up hills with a heavy rucksack on my back and feeling very sore and very satisfied at the end of the day.
Looking back now, the scouts gave me a passion for outdoor exercise which will serve me well for the rest of my life.
But it would be wrong to romanticise the scouts too much. Even at the time, there were parts of it that made me uneasy. I didn’t like the weekly swearing of allegiance to God and the Queen – neither of whom I believed in then or now.
And I didn’t appreciate one particular scout leader who seemed to have a vendetta against me.
But you have to look at these things in the round. I wouldn’t swap all that time in the scouts – despite its problems – for another couple of hundred hours spent watching TV when I was young.
I don’t blame the scouts for any of my negative characteristics – I developed them all by myself, thank you very much.
But when I consider some of my better features, like perseverance and physical robustness, I look back to those days of jumping over a rope in Knock Presbyterian Church two decades ago. And I think they had a lot to do with making me the man I am.