When I was ten I joined the Girl Guides. Briefly. My mother had decided that the Brownies were not for me. Too airy fairy and pink in outlook, dancing round a candle lit toadstool (no health and safety in them tha days) and singing silly songs was her idea of a nightmare. So I didn’t go. Unlike most of my friends who went and made friends dancing round that candle.
Thus, when I was into double figures and the Girl Guides offered ‘real activities’ that might be useful in my life I went and was most excited about going. I was even more excited about the uniform. Blue tunic dress, dark blue beret, substantial brown leather belt with exceedingly substantial buckle, whistle and pocket money purse. And a green sash for the sewing on of all the badges I was to acquire over the next couple of years.
My school didn’t have a set clothing list so the novelty of uniformity appealed. A bit too much for my mother’s taste. Indeed, she made me attend my first meeting in mufti. Why would she do that? Probably because she felt there was a chance I would hate the whole thing as I had hated being made to be a tree in my one and only drama class. The all girl environment might not provide the evening’s entertainment I was anticipating, the idea of being forced to make my bed for a month (bed making badge) might prove a hinderance in the desire-to-return stakes and the singing could be seen as onerous for a child with terminal tone deafness.
She didn’t foresee my utter determination to obtain that uniform though did she?
So, kit purchased (and not even second hand) from the Guiding shop just off Pipitea Street I set about getting my Colours. These were bright flaps of material that hung from one’s shoulder and denoted set and subset of belonging. You can see them in the above picture. Mine were to be either red and green if I ended up in Rata or black and white if Tui was to be my destination. I wanted Rata because the colour component was higher.
And I did enjoy winning my trail finder’s merit badge. 9.00 o’clock at night, pitch dark in the cemetery attached to St Mary’s Church we blazed a path to Brown Owl, our leader, hidden in shrubbery behind a largish tomb. She had the only torch so I think navigating around the fenceless sheer drop onto the main road below was part of the challenge. It certainly heightened the frisson of success I felt as we charged our leader. I got a book reading badge soon after. Not difficult in my house where bruised calves from book piles in the hall were simply a hazard of residency.
Two down and a multitude to go. I wanted my sash to look like this.
I was put into Tui so I did get a bird badge to sew onto my dress above the left pocket. It sat, somewhat skewed (Mum made me sew it myself) beside the brass Girl Guide badge that everyone the world over sported. I was quite pleased with that tiny portion of my outfit. But there was much to do if I was to be worn down by the weight of a be-badged uniform like my colleagues, the true Girl Guides who had their Colours and could make Tawny Owl (the second in command) smile, laugh and whisper in their ears. Those strips of black and white were eluding me.
Two big events on the St Mary’s Girl Guides calendar hove into sight. The first, a song (horror) and dance (ballet another thing Mother had eschewed on my behalf) competition to be held in our local community hall involving all Wellington’s guide troops and the second, a trip away to a Baden Powell camp site in the heartland of the North Island, Waipawa.
I can report that our guiding glee club won first prize with a somewhat raunchy rendition of, hmmmm. If the title of our tune escapes me the memory of a giant golden e safety pinned to my derriéred bloomers does not. I was the penultimate to spin round, bend over and flick my netball skirt up to spell, wait for it…….girl guides as the music faded out.
My prize was a Tom Jones’ single, Help Yourself. It was the first bit of music I ever owned and like a dog of Pavlov I will, ’til the end of my days, associate it with that weekend. It’s not a great association. High on adrenalin for the victory, Tawny Owl gathered Tui in the under stage dressing room to inform us that we were her chosen hall cleaner uppers for the next morning, 9.00am sharp. One would gain a Leader’s badge, another a Seconder’s and me, I would get those coveted Colours. The other three just had to appear, for the greater good because it was a team task. I was there at 8.50, shortly followed by Tui’s leadership designate. We began to clean the hall. We stacked many chairs. We cleaned basins and toilets (there is something to admire about 1960’s health and safety) and we waited for the other three girls. They didn’t come and we didn’t get our promotions. I was still in Purgatory. In a gleaming hall Miss Owl informed us that she knew one child was never able to come so we were never going to get the badges and tassels. I was very cross and very emotional and did say that I thought it most unfair. I think I got out of the hall before I started to cry but voicing my ten year old opinion may have sealed my fate that day.
Tawny Owl was a bully and used the Waipawa trip to reek her revenge.
I wasn’t the most bullied. Pariah of the whole group was D……. I do not know how she managed to stay sane. Perhaps she didn’t. And right here I have to admit I wasn’t kind to her. I’d probably have been locked in the sheep shed if I was. That is no excuse however. I was in survival mode and that’s a ghastly place to be.
If you look at the photos you’ll have no idea. That’s how a bully works. Tawny Owl staged japes and high jinks that we were instructed to photograph. Many of her golden girls had a great time I’m sure. She seemed to be in her element. But for me it was torture because I had no one to confide in and probably wouldn’t have anyway. Perhaps if I’d been a Brownie. No, she just didn’t like me and she enjoyed making my life hell.
She told me my hair was too messy to be a Girl Guide and that I would not be in the group photo if I didn’t neaten up. I was on the very edge of it, a little out of focus. D…….didn’t make the cut. God knows the reason.
She read my letters home so ‘come and get me, Mum,’ wasn’t an option.
Bath night and she told us there wasn’t much hot water so each was to have a two inch bath. I ran a two inch bath, got in and was washing myself when she came in (yes, it was the 60’s remember) and told me I couldn’t possibly get clean in that. That I was a dirty girl.
She told everyone that evening that I’d been trying to get out of washing. Why did Brown Owl not do anything? I was ten for heaven’s sake and 200 miles from home.
I left the Guides without telling my parents the real reason why. I left without my Colours. My mother sold my uniform to a girl who, I hope, was made of ‘the right stuff’ for Tawny Owl.
To this day I look at photos of groups of girls having fun and I wonder if all of them actually are. Sometimes pictures just cannot say a thousand words.