What I’m reading on World Book Day

It’s World Book Day, which seems a suitable time to reflect on your own reading habits, as well as to think about literacies and their uses across our planet. Unless you’re a kid, of course, in which case your mum and dad will dress you up and put your photo on Facebook.

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I usually have two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, and one non-fiction. Ian Rankin is among my (many) favourite crime writers, so I’m currently catching up on the latest doings of his great anti-hero, Inspector John Rebus. Rather be the Devil has Rebus well into his retirement, though like me Rebus is treating retirement as a “phased transition”, and is constantly poking his nose into the dark corners of Edinburgh. Having given up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, Rebus is grumpier and more obsessive than ever. Scotland’s Capital is, as ever, a central character in the new novel, as are two other senior detectives and assorted Scottish ne’er-do-wells. Great fun.

I’m also reading Christine Krüger’s study of youth voluntary service in 20th century Britain and Germany. Krüger’s main focus is on the period after 1945, though she says enough that is interesting and new about the earlier decades for me to wish I’d read it before writing my own study of work camp movements. In particular, she traces the origins of contemporary youth voluntary service to female responses to male military service, arguing that female social service formed part of a repertoire of claims to legitimacy and recognition (a trend that she sees as rather conservative). She finds clear contrasts between the two countries, as well as some strong similarities; I’m finding it a fascinating study, and would like to see an English language edition soon.

After that what next? For non-fiction I am going to tackle a biography of the influental but largely forgotten write and political thinker Thomas Carlyle, which was recommended to me by a colleague at Dublin City University. And I’m finally going to read one of Sebastian Fitzek’s novels; he is more popular in Germany than Dan Brown, so at least I’ll find out what the fuss is about.

And what better day could there be to pay tribute to all those tutors and mentors who work so hard with adult literacy learners all year round? Hats off to them all!

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Shakespeare, the scouts and the work camp

Janet Suzman, the distinguished actor, recently poured scorn over claims that Shakespeare’s output was in fact the work of the 17th Earl of Oxford. Good on her: Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are only the latest in a long line of thespians who cannot believe that great art could be created by a middle class midlander. In a remarkable twist on a drab old conspiracy theory, Jacobi even compared the Earl to the victims of the Stasi in Communist East Germany, achieving two pieces of historical idiocy in one go.

This is, of course, all nonsense, however entertaining. But what does it have to go with work camps? Well, Castle Hedingham, the family seat of the Earls of Oxford, hosted one of the more unusual work camp schemes of the 1930s. In 1929, working with the Scouts, the Castle housed what its owner called a ‘Reconditioning Employment Camp’, training unemployed scouts as chauffeurs, gardeners, grooms, cooks and butlers.

Further camps followed in future years, at Hedingham, Quendon, Cirencester and Christchurch, training about 300 men a year. Members of the Rover Scouts were recruited to lead the camps. The camps themselves were run on scouting principles, with financial support from the Ministry of Labour and a number of charities, with the aim of turning the unemployed – who subsequently included a range of young jobless men as well as scouts – into active citizens as well as workers.

The camps were the brainchild of Hedingham’s owner, Miss Musette Majendie, who was keen to help unemployed scouts find work. An energetic philanthropist and scoutmaster, she and her close friend, Doris Mason of Eynsham Hall, launched a movement in 1929 to provide training camps for unemployed scouts from the distressed areas who wished to emigrate. Within months, though, the global economic crisis brought an end to male emigration, and the two women turned their minds to domestic servant training.

Musette Majendie inherited the Castle from her ancestors, the De Veres. As the name suggests, they had been granted the land after the Norman Conquest, acquiring the earldom of Oxford a century later. For three months, the men lived in an old army hut on the estate, undertaking a work placement with the neighbouring gentry combined with physical training sessions and lessons in scouting.

The camps ran well into 1939, closing only when war became inevitable. Majendie became a Dame of the British Empire in 1935, in recognition for her work with unemployed scouts. She died in 1981, but the Castle stayed in the family, who now run it as a tourist attraction.

Unemployed scouts training as chefs in Hedingham Castle