I was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1976 (yes, I am that old) but sadly I did not go to see a rock musical called The Kibbo Kift at the Traverse Theatre which was, as far as I can remember, at that time, a rather ramshackle room up some metal stairs.
I am very sad I did not see the musical, written by Judge Smith (his real name) who co-created heavy metal rock group Van der Graaf Generator in 1967.
But last night I went to a Sohemian Society meeting to hear Judge Smith (now bald – aren’t we all) extol the eccentric virtues of the now almost totally forgotten 1930s movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift… and its highly charismatic leader John Hargrave – an illustrator, cartoonist, wood carver, thriller novelist, inventor and psychic healer.
By the age of 17, Hargrave was Chief Cartoonist for the London Evening Times.
After the First World War, he joined the Boy Scouts and, a charismatic outdoor man, he was soon appointed Commissioner for Woodcraft and Camping. In 1919, now calling himself ‘White Fox’, he married the leader of the Merry Campers – part of the Camp Fire Girls movement – called Ruth Clark (her ‘Woodcraft name’ was ‘Minobi’)
John Hargrave started the Kibbo Kift Kindred in 1920 as an anti-war breakaway from Baden-Powell’s more militaristic Boy Scouts. Hargrave’s aim was to encourage “outdoor education, the learning of handicrafts, physical training, the re-introduction of ritual into modern life, the regeneration of urban man and the establishment of a new world civilisation.”
These aims were to be accomplished by hiking and camping. “Picturesque and dramatic public speaking” was also encouraged.
The man sitting next to me in the Sohemian Society meeting last night had come down to London all the way from Leicester just to find out more about this extraordinary group.
During the Kibbo Kindred’s weekend hiking and camping extravaganzas, members were encouraged to make their own tents and wear handmade uniforms – long Saxon-styled hooded cloak , belted tunic and shorts for men; knee-length dress, leather belt and Valkyrie-style leather helmet for women. They liked a bit of elaborate ritual and ceremony, did the Kibbo Kift. At larger ceremonial meetings, the KK’s different Clans, Tribes and Lodges paraded with their tribal totems – everyone was encouraged to carve their own personal totem pole and parade round with it. Their tents were decorated in bright colours and their elaborate robes and regalia embossed with symbolic designs were somewhere between Hiawatha and Art Nouveau.
They used the native American greeting of the outstretched arm and raised open hand (to show you held no weapon) and Hargrave was “somewhat annoyed” when he discovered that the Italian Fascists’ raised arm salute looked exactly the same. Hargrave dropped the hand greeting when too many photos of Nazis in Germany with raised arms “caused confusion”. He did not like Fascists.
The Kibbo Kift sound like a bunch of amiable loonies but, involved in the Kibbo Kift, were suffragette Emmeline Lawrence, photographer Angus McBean, social reformer Havelock Ellis, biologist Julian Huxley and author H.G.Wells.
By 1925, Hargrave had switched his interest from ‘back-to’nature’ to the political Social Credit movement, which aimed to eradicate poverty and unemployment. The Kibbo Kift Kindred split when Hargreaves refused to recognise a new South London Lodge called ‘The Brockleything’. He formed the more political Green Shirts; the ‘back-to-nature’ diehards formed The Woodcraft Folk organisation (which still exists today).
In 1930, Hargrave formed a “Legion of the Unemployed” in Coventry. Wearing green paramilitary uniforms and berets, these political activists became known as the Legion of the Kibbo Kift and, by 1935, were known as The Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit, marching through the streets with their own bands of drummers. In 1935, they put up a Parliamentary candidate under the banner of the Social Credit Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but lost their deposit.
As Judge Smith explained to the very crowded room above a pub last night, the Green Shirts were the largest uniformed paramilitary street-army in 1930s Britain. They supported and promoted the Social Credit movement which, basically, said the Western banking system based on massive debt (the economic system makes money by lending money) is mad and inevitably results in periods of boom and bust. They had more followers than Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, yet have been totally forgotten.
They were idealistic and had a particular dislike of ‘fat cat’ financial institutions, Communists, Fascists and the Governor of the Bank of England.
During the Second World War, Hargrave invented an ‘automatic navigator’ for aircraft. The RAF tested it, decided it worked well but, as it required a gyroscope and all the gyroscopes were being used for bomb sights, they never took up the idea.
After the War, Hargrave decided he had the power of psychic healing and dissolved his organisation in 1951, making a living as an author, illustrator and cartoonist for Vanity Fair and the Daily Sketch.
In 1967, he discovered that the new Concorde supersonic airliner had a ‘moving map display’ which sounded remarkably like the ‘automatic navigator’ he had invented during the War; but he had allowed his patent to lapse. Despite this, eventually, in 1967, he forced the British government to hold a full Public Enquiry which, basically, decided that Hargrave’s idea had, indeed, been nicked but he would get no money for it as he had let the patent lapse.
In 1976, now in his eighties, Hargrave went to see Judge Smith’s rock musical The Kibbo Kift in the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe and enjoyed it thoroughly though, Judge Smith said last night, this may have been because he was “pretty deaf by then and this very loud rock music may have been the first music he’d heard for years”.
Before he died in 1982, Hargrave set up the Foundation of the Kibbo Kift Foundation.
All the paper records are now held by the London School of Economics; the costumes, banners and other physical stuff is held at the Museum of London.
Unjustly forgotten. As Judge Smith said last night, “one of the most unusual things about this very unusual man is just how little-known he and his movement are today. There’s no biography; there’s been no TV documentary. But he is far more interesting, significant and downright entertaining than many personalities of the time who are still famous today.”
On my way home from the Sohemian Society meeting, a girl opposite me in the tube train was making up her eyes with her right hand, using her Apple iPhone 4S in her left hand. She had it switched on to the camera, using it as a video mirror.
Times change. Lateral and creative thinking continues.