Book Review

Thriftwood: A Personal History of Scouting by Alice Wickenden

great memoir about youth and scouting

cw: sexual assault mentioned

16th June, 2022, Tottenham

Alice Wickenden’s 2021 memoir, Thriftwood, is an engaging exploration of the kind of suburban middle English childhood and teenage years that is likely quite familiar to the readership of Triumph of the Now, certainly to any readers of my 2020 memoir, the pleasure of regret, as tho the consequences and details are as similar as you’d expect when the difference in setting is less than 200 miles and just under a decade, it makes sense that Wickenden’s book and my book share a publisher – the Michael Marks Award-winning Broken Sleep Books.

It’s nice and familiar to see another lower middle class narrative in print, as that’s a demographic traditionally ignored in publication for the – kinda justifiable – reason that it lacks the shock and awe of so-called misery (i.e. poverty) memoir or the presumed familiarity of the high status literary reader. Yes, there are many of us who neither use summer as a verb nor have no shoes because we ate them. We exist! (I say that as someone currently unemployed and just hanging out1 for the summer, maybe even for longer!)

Actually, is it nice?

Is it good to recognise the existence of the self in print?

Maybe.

Wickenden writes here on similar themes to me – sexuality and love and the contradictions thrown up by the regular overlap and occasional incompatibility of these – and they are tied together in this book with the recurring visits made to the eponymous Scouts-affiliated (and real) campsite called Thriftwood, as well as a big international scouting trip to Sweden.

Wickenden writes about scouting and camping as if inseparable, and though there are occasional references (towards the start of the book, mostly) to the connections between the scouting world and the military and therefore fascist-adjacent ideologies2, there never comes a point in the book where the meaning of scouting is really interrogated. This doesn’t feel like a problem, though, because as one reads through Thriftwood, this makes sense: the tweenage Wickenden might have been in the scout hall to learn bushcraft and knots and do amateur dramatics, but by the time she is in her mid-to-late teens, the lure of scouting is the freedom found in the scout camps, which are romanticised here without feeling inauthentic.

Cooking on a wood fire, making out in the forest or in a tent, splashing around in lakes and sleeping under the stars – the Scout leaders recede as the teenagers are given more opportunities for mild misadventure, appearing only to reprimand, like scolds, when the children get a little too close to each other for their sense of old-school propriety. They preach abstinence rather than safe sex, “don’t do that” rather than “do that safely”. Despite this being, as I said, almost a decade after my own teenage years, there is a more restrictive and repressive overtone than I recall from middle England, but presumably this comes from the Scouts’ weird connections to Christianity, without doubt one of the absolute worst Abrahamic religions.

The book – through occasional references to camping in popular and literary culture – sets sleeping and being outside as inherently transcendental acts, escaping civilisation and normative rules, a Bacchic journey into the animalistic origins of the self.

This is – I believe knowingly, but maybe not – undercut by the location of Wickenden’s camping trips always being far from actual wilderness.

There are tens or even hundreds of other scouts within earshot, there is a toilet and a shower block, there are planned activities, there are tables for eating at and – most important of all – there is adult supervision available whenever it is needed. I don’t think this is a text about failing to grasp the far-reaching arm of society, but instead it is about the healing power of the natural world: you don’t have to disappear and sleep rough in the Pyrenees for two nights to have a potent, refreshing, experience in capitalised Nature – a field is a good place to be, capitalised Nature can be experienced in a valid way even if you’re stood somewhere a paved road leads to.

As the narrative goes on, chronologically, the actualities of sex and sexuality and the heartbreaks and regrets that come from this increase in their potency, which comes to a rather shocking head when one of the scout boys they’ve grown up kissing and playing with is charged with sexually assaulting a much younger girl, a shattering revelation that both does – and doesn’t – force a reconfiguration of the entire way these experiences have been remembered and presented. 

///

Thriftwood is a memoir about teenage life, about growing up and growing into adult identities, and learning from and leaving behind the chaos of adolescence.

It’s a great piece of autobiographical writing, though I can’t help thinking it would have been a slightly neater text if there had been a summing up that directly questioned the trad patriarchal and Christian structures of the Scouts and the ways in which these institutional ideologies pressed upon the individual scouts and scouting experiences discussed. But, in the end, that isn’t the book Wickenden chose to write, and as creative nonfiction about coming of age in 2010s Essex, it’s a great read!

Highly recommended, and definitely responsible for me wanting to go camping for the first time in many many years!

Order direct from Broken Sleep via this link.


1. I originally typed “fannying about” here, but then thought about it for a minute and realised its definitely a phrase with misogynistic roots, so I deleted it.

2. All armies are inherently authoritarian and therefore fascist-adjacent and if you disagree with that, grow up and stop watching those Hollywood blockbusters you like.

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