The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell
In a famous eighteenth-century Japanese document, entitled Hagakure, there is one passage I find particularly arresting. In it the author, an elderly samurai named Yamamoto Jocho, advises his readers, presumably young followers of Bushido, or Way of the Samurai, to always “carry rouge and powder with one,” for “after rising in the morning, or after sobering up, we sometimes find that we do not look very good. In such a case we should take out the rouge and put it on.” This, he went on, is especially important when going out to do battle, for one must be beautiful even in death.
Yamamoto wrote his tract setting out the rules of warriorhood at a time when Japanese warriors had little else to do but worry about rules, appearances, style, for the major battles had been fought and the time was set for almost three centuries of uninterrupted peace. The old samurai was evidently worried that peace would sap the manly virtues of the warrior caste and wished to make sure the young retained their vigor through constant training of body and mind. The inevitable happened, however: warriorhood without wars was soon reduced to a set of stylish postures, adding another form of theatrical behavior to a period already so rich in dandyism. The Hagakure enjoyed a brief revival in the hands of one of the great dandies of our time, the late Mishima Yukio, who used it to castigate the decadence of postwar Japan.
Lord Baden-Powell, affectionately known as B-P, hero of Mafeking and the World Chief Scout, approved of Japan and of the samurai spirit in particular. There was nothing unusual about this, for many Edwardians found much to admire in a Spartan code that extolled such virtues as self-sacrifice, obedience, bravery, and comradeship. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905, when the great Russian bear, so it was thought, was defeated through sheer Japanese pluck, elicited considerable enthusiasm in Britain, and B-P was especially impressed by the way Japanese soldiers were prepared to blow themselves to bits for their emperor and country.
In this, as in so many enthusiasms (building empire, disciplining boys, shooting animals, etc.), Baden-Powell was a man of his time. Less common perhaps, though by no means completely eccentric, was his love of acting in drag, which he called skirt-dancing. Possibly related to this, and if not then certainly to Yamamoto Jocho’s philosophy, was a curious personal habit noted in Tim Jeal’s superb and exhaustive biography. Even during the partly self-inflicted rigors of roughing it in the African veldt, B-P insisted on using scented soap in his collapsible bath tub.
It is a small detail, but it seems so at odds with B-P’s cultish adherence to what he called “the flannel shirt life,” that peculiar predilection of hearty English gentlemen to revel in discomfort, and at such complete variance with his often stated fears of effeminacy, that it makes one wonder. Is there a point at which machismo turns into its opposite? And if so, did…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.