The English countryside in the mid-1920s, near Stonehenge perhaps, somewhere, ideally, with the afterglow of ancient strangeness about it: the first harbinger of the Kibbo Kift is the sound of distant music, the strumming of a lute, the singing of what White Fox, Kibbo Kift’s “Head Man,” John Hargrave, a compulsive manufacturer of hopefully evocative compound nouns, dubbed a waysong:
If you love the camp life,
Open air and sun,
Just fall in behind us ere the long trek’s done.
Swing along together, let your step be free
Hey ho! Hey ho! Kibbo Kift are we.
A group of young people come into view, hiking in wedge formations—dubbed “woks” by the Kibbo Kift, their lexicon an invented echo of Heorot.
To the Daily Sketch, struggling to summarize one of Britain’s more bewildering new movements, the practical, Utopian, playful, and earnest Kibbo Kift was a “camping fraternity” combining “the ideals of scientists and Red Indians.” Well, sort of/not really, but that’ll do for now.
A group of young people come into view, hiking in wedge formations.
If the woks aren’t singing, they may be walking in what Hargrave described in The Confession of The Kibbo Kift (1927) as “perfect silence” except, perhaps, for an “outcry of joy for the furze bush that bursts into a sunlit blaze.”
The men are wearing shorts, knee socks, stout shoes, and hooded jerkins. The women sport similarly sturdy footwear, simple one-piece dresses, leather belts, and, in the early days of the Kibbo Kift, wimples, later replaced by suede headdresses, with, explained Hargrave, “something of the Valkyrie” in their “helmet-like design.” A “cope and cowl” (a hooded cloak) could be worn on those English days with little in the way of sunlit blaze. This clothing, which came in browns, grays, and greens, had, said Hargrave, something of the Middle Ages about it: it was “suitable for the journeyman-craftsman, the pilgrim, and the camper,” if less so for the Roaring Twenties.
Some marchers are carrying staves crowned with hand-carved totems: an eagle, a wolf, and, in one case, a plaster cast of Piltdown Man’s skull, one of the “Dawn Men” from whom much, they believed, could be learned (the Kibbo Kift was not the first sect to be taken in by bogus bones). These totems were often finely crafted, renderings of an idealized primitive seen through an unmistakably deco lens. A year or so ago a few of them—along with other offbeat, sometimes strikingly beautiful Kibbo Kift artifacts, banners, vestments, even the “Bok Scamel” (to you and me, a lectern)—could be viewed at an intriguing exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.
If you missed the show (“Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred”), the marvelous volume by Annebella Pollen that was released in 2016 to accompany it fills the gap—and more—not least with its own opening flashback to the sight and sound of a wok on the march. The book is lovingly produced, gorgeously illustrated, and, despite problematic nods to contemporary political correctness, is shrewd, perceptive, informative, and fair. No less invaluable is Designing Utopia (2015) by Cathy Ross and Oliver Bennett, which contains far more on Hargrave’s switch to the more specifically political activism that effectively superseded the Kibbo Kift in the early 1930s.
Before we get to that, travel back to that day nine decades ago. The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, to give them their full name—“one of the greatest movements in human affairs,” to give them their ambition—have set up camp, all tents (some elaborately decorated, many handmade; self-reliance was a key part of the creed) neatly aligned. That task completed, there will be exercise sessions, talks, pageantry, and, maybe, a somewhat misleading promise of ghastly antiquarian entertainment, “mumming.” Fresh costumes, a rainbow away from the gray, green, and brown of the hike, are donned. Members of Kincouncil—the Kindred’s ruling body—wear purple cloaks with white edging over white tunics and shorts. A white cloak with purple edging signals the superior status of the Head Man, the only Kincouncillor whose counsel really counts.
And then there are the ceremonial vestments. These were designed, writes Pollen,
in the simplest of T-shapes, and made up in bright primary-colored felt . . . the surcoats combined elements of a Roman Catholic surplice with the tabard of a medieval knight. Some featured an all-over design, like the extraordinary Herald’s surcoat, decorated with elemental signs for wood and water, a woodcraft axe, and a red lens symbol of parted lips at its center. Most others were plain but for an abstracted and sometimes highly cryptic symbol of office in the form of an embroidered circular motive or “sigil,” designed by Hargrave and stitched by his wife and her group of Kibbo Kift needle workers, the all-women Skein of Emblazoners.
Skein of Emblazoners?
The shoulders or “wings” of the [surcoats] were worn in soft and loose drapes for women, but when stiffened internally with buckram for men, they stood in dramatic right angles, cutting a heroic and outsize silhouette that offered little reference to any sartorial tradition; instead the garment had more in common with the contemporaneous experimental theatre of the Bauhaus and the anti-fashion fantasies of the Italian Futurists and the Russian Constructivists.
They were a reminder that the Kindred’s aesthetic—not unlike what passed for its ideology—drew on the modern as well as a heavily mythologized past.
The Kibbo Kift took its name from what was (supposedly) an archaic Cheshire dialect term for “test of strength,” but it owed more to ideas hatched at the very beginning of the twentieth century, ideas which finally took flight above the ruined landscape—intellectual, spiritual, and physical—that the war to end war had left behind. What had been destroyed could be remade, for the race, for the proletariat, speeding towards a machine age, returning to a lost Arcadia, or, in Hargrave’s view, both.
Born in 1894 into the precarious existence that was the best his father—a jobbing artist—could provide, Hargrave joined the nascent Boy Scouts in 1909, but he was more directly inspired by Ernest Thompson Seton, the British-American whose “woodcraft”—a peculiarly imaginative interpretation of Native American life—was incorporated into scouting while remaining a distinctive strand within it.
Seton called for “picturesqueness in everything,” “titles and gay costumes, of the beautiful in ceremony, phrase, dance, and song”: “The effect of the picturesque is magical, and all the more subtle and irresistible because it is not in the face of it reasonable.”
Check out the astonishing photographs of the Kinsfolk (some can be seen in Pollen’s book) taken by one of their own, Angus McBean (later famous for his surreal photographic portraits of mid-century celebrities): three hooded figures, say, spaced equidistantly on a distant prehistoric mound, arms outstretched in the Kindred’s greeting of the Open Hand, a salute with increasingly unfortunate, if accidental, resonance.
As Pollen notes, the picturesque appealed to Hargrave’s “strong visual imagination,” an imagination that found expression far beyond the talents as an illustrator that had brought him his first paychecks. The distinctive look of the Kibbo Kift was something the Head Man obsessed over (the right shade of green, the right G-string, oh yes—leather, Native American–themed—and so on) in a shifting series of edicts. But it was also something that he wove into a wider web of imagery (Hargrave worked in advertising for many years), verbal and ceremonial as well as visual, designed to win over and entrance the Kinsfolk and those who might be tempted to join them.
Hargrave knew that much of this would look ridiculous, but this was feature, not bug.
Hargrave knew that much of this would look ridiculous, but this was feature, not bug. The Kinsfolk’s garb was, Pollen observes, “dress as dissent,” but it was also both barrier—to discourage casual participants—and beacon. Hargrave regarded the Kindred as an elite in the making (at their peak they probably numbered fewer than a thousand), a vanguard showing the way to a better tomorrow. Those who had eyes to see would see. Once drawn in, there was plenty to induce recruits to stay, from the hiking, the camping, and the theatricality of it all to something rather deeper: the feeling that this mattered, that they mattered. They were the chosen who would weather the coming crisis of civilization—itself a thrilling prospect that, as a belief in imminent End Times tends to do, added drama to otherwise humdrum lives. They were drawn even closer together by training (hikes under the stars!), a shared sense of purpose, and by rituals, regular, repeated, large and small, saturated with spiritual meaning and—a topic well-covered by Pollen—hints, and more than hints, of the occult.
That the Kindred were “mostly clerks, minor civil servants, garage hands, and teachers” (jeered Rolf Gardiner, the former “Gleemaster,” who later defected from the Kinsfolk for the questionable pleasures of hardline folk-dancing and the Aryan cause) only added to the appeal of this escape route out the everyday. They adopted new names evocative of dreams not easily fulfilled in suburbia—Little Lone Wolf, Deathwatch, Silvertongue—the names by which their old comrades remembered them—Smiths and Browns vanished beyond recall—decades later.
Hargrave may, sniffed W. H. Auden, have been “terribly lower-middle class” and a “half-baked culture addict.” But he was also ambitious (too much so for a not unsympathetic D. H. Lawrence), clever, handsome, charismatic, an original thinker, intolerant of disagreement, humorless, controlling, unhinged, certain of his world-historical significance—just the type, in other words, to create and lead a cult. And lead it he did. The Kibbo Kift only had one leader, as disapproving of differing opinions within its ranks as he would have been on a wider stage. The “hot-headed, unsteady” masses were too easily gulled. It was, counseled Hargrave, much better to leave matters to “a quiet thinker with a profound knowledge of a difficult subject.” Who could he have had in mind?
In Ecology in the 20th Century (1989), an intellectual and political history of the ecology movement, Anna Bramwell suggests that Hargrave was “probably the nearest England had to a Hitler,” a suggestion that would have irritated Oswald Mosley, and not one Bramwell appears to take too seriously herself: “Exclusivist nationalism does not work if you try to include everybody.”
To be sure, Hargrave was no democrat and, with his strongly autocratic personality, had little respect—personally or politically—for those who did not see things his way. Like Hitler (a considerably less talented artist), Hargrave saw the potential in the intersection of aesthetics and propaganda. Both were convinced of their own heroic role and both peddled a politics in which nostalgic fantasy was merged, however implausibly, with a vision of a transformed future, but the comparisons cannot be pushed very far.
Hargrave denounced Hitler, rejected fascism, was an internationalist, a pacifist, and— despite occasional recourse to revolutionary language, particularly as the 1930s drew on—rejected political violence. Of partly Jewish descent (“White Fox,” sneered Gardiner, himself someone also, confusingly, of partly Jewish descent, “is a Jew, and he knows it”), Hargrave disdained politics of both class and race. His affinity for the Anglo-Saxon past was a matter of culture not ethnicity. It’s better to see the eugenics-flavored aspects of his agenda as revolving around health rather than the creation of a Herrenvolk, even if the boundaries between the two were too hazy to be entirely comfortable. The times were what they were. But they did not turn Hargrave into a Führer-in-waiting.
Hargrave’s route to the Kibbo Kift ran through Seton’s forest fantasies, Scouting for Boys, and Gallipoli (a Quaker by background, he had enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps). Invalided out after that fiasco, Hargrave resumed his ascent within the Scouting hierarchy, but his experience in the Dardanelles had sharpened his distaste for Scouting’s jingo. Scheming for the schism to come, he drew up lists of those more interested in woodcraft than the defense of the empire. He founded The Ndembo, a name from the Congo with a touch of H. Rider Haggard about it too, a secret society of what Pollen describes as seven “young Scout leaders of a mystical bent.” Talk of the Kibbo Kift as a “woodcraft kindred” started to appear in Hargrave’s writings, and in 1921 he was expelled from the Scouts. Writing later, the Chief Scout depicted the Head Man as “a clever young fellow in a way, good at writing and sketching, but eccentric, swollen-headed, communistic.”
Baden-Powell was wrong about the communistic. Although there was a reasonably conventional leftwing tendency within the Kibbo Kift, much of it broke with Hargrave at the 1924 “Althing,” the annual general meeting named, náttúrulega, after the suitably Nordic, suitably antique (founded in 930 A.D.!) Icelandic parliament. Pinning down what the Kibbo Kift did stand for—essentially whatever Hargrave was thinking at the time—is not straightforward. But there was, however, a consistent distaste for what he considered the debilitating effects of civilization, grubbily commercial, dirty, dehumanizing—urban. Lacking any neighborhood Visigoths to sweep the whole rotten edifice away, White Fox wanted to cultivate the barbarian within.
Hargrave saw the potential in the intersection of aesthetics and propaganda.
With the help of tom-toms, totems, and Tolkienesque flummery, the Kindred would voyage to a mythic and madly eclectic past, Anglo-Saxon, “Red Indian,” Norse, Egyptian, Piltdown—pick your appropriation—where they would rediscover the qualities that civilization had stolen from them. They would then emerge reborn “new and virile,” disciplined and serious, Spartans against “sloth,” “[not] easily moved to laughter” (although the same could not be said of all of those who came across them). This “active few” would return to save bumbling humanity from its own foolishness, and—characteristic of an age when Utopias were in vogue—lead mankind towards a “new renaissance” and a World State. It’s no surprise that H. G. Wells was a member of its advisory council. It’s even less of a surprise that the advisory council may never have actually met.
Much of what Hargrave advocated fit fairly neatly into the progressive counter-culture of that era (and not just that era), whether it was asceticism, pacifism, alternative spirituality, fetishizing a faux primitive, or the fixation on the benefits of the outdoor life, albeit not always taken as far as it was taken by hardy Millican Dalton (Adventurer), the caveman of the Lake District and (he claimed) the inventor of shorts. White Fox’s notion of the future, however, was not, unlike that of the more orthodox unorthodox, anti-technological. Instead he was concerned with how people should live once industrial production became, as he forecast, the work of machines, not men. The creative, independent, and hardy Kindred of the generations to come would never be Eloi.
As might be expected for a future “World Political Party,” there were plans—many plans. Kinsfolk were to spread the word at work and in the broader culture too. There were plans for the creation of a “state within a state” by purchasing land, setting up schools, and, amongst other schemes, taking over the banking system, the latter a project that Hargrave reckoned, optimistically even for him, would require capital of about £1 million. A permanent base—Kin Garth—was envisaged, which could also double up as a redoubt in which to sit out that civilizational crisis to come. Sadly, fund-raising for all this only pulled in £150, slim pickings for such a rich reverie.
Woodcraft, ceremony, and exotic apparel were never likely to be enough to take the Head Man, for all his talk of a mission that would continue “long after we have all crumbled into dust,” to the destiny he believed he deserved—and sooner rather than later. Crusading for “social credit,” an eccentric economic theory tailor-made for an eccentric autodidact, he hoped, just might. Yet another “third way” between communism and capitalism, social credit’s principles are too convoluted to go into here, but they included elements of distributism, mistrust of “money power” (and sometimes—if not from Hargrave—some of the seamier baggage that can come with that), as well as the notion, nearly a century before today’s talk of a universal basic income, of a national dividend payable to every citizen, for reasons that anticipate the anxieties of our own age of automation.
Achieving economic security for the individual became, Hargrave decided, “the One Principle,” “the middle-timber of all our work,” something that didn’t delight those of his followers who were there to play in the woods. Numbers dwindled to a couple of hundred, but Hargrave redesigned his movement, junking the old fantastic, Wes Haels, totems and all, in favor of a harder political edge more suited to a darkening Europe, eventually remaking it into the Social Credit Party.
Much of the esoteric language was dropped (thus “Nomad Chiefs” were replaced by Local Organizers) and the old motley was given a paramilitary makeover. Hargrave’s Green Shirts—more numerous than the Kindred—arrived on Britain’s streets, but more as performers than brawlers. Green was not Black—or Red. Their rise and fall (from no great height) was punctuated and, in grim times, probably subverted, by traces of the former playfulness. There was also a plot to take power in Alberta.
His moment—such as it was—swept away by the Second World War, Hargrave finally abandoned politics after Britain’s 1950 general election when the voters made it clear that politics had abandoned him. He gave novel-writing (yet another activity) another go, but publishers were not interested. Having read a couple of his prewar efforts, including an embarrassing “modernist” offering admired by John Steinbeck, I can understand why. Despite turning, as messiahs tend to do, to healing (in his case by “hand radiation” and by producing “therapeutic psychographs” designed to treat the patient who looked at them), Hargrave mainly made his living as a cartoonist and illustrator. He also took on the British government over an earlier invention—Hargrave’s Automatic Navigator—allegedly copied for use in the Concorde: he lost, possibly unfairly.
“Time you saw Hargrave,” wrote Ezra Pound, “man’s got a mind.”
Hargrave died in 1982, still convinced he was right.
1 The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, by Annebella Pollen; Donlon Books, 228 pages, £35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 15
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