Forty years ago last month, a letter appeared in The Sunday Times that was to produce a remarkable effect. It was from the Bishop of Portsmouth, one Launcelot Fleming, who proposed a new form of social action to bolster Britain's impact overseas. He had just finished chairing a committee of the nation's great and good that had probed the then-emerging rock 'n' roll culture - and he had come to the conclusion that there was Something To Be Done with what he described as "suitable boys". Rather than be corrupted by newfangled pinball machines, motor scooters and other contemporary vices, he felt that young chaps (he never mentioned girls) should go and do Good Work around the world.
"I know of urgent appeals from Sarawak, from Uganda and from west Africa," he wrote, in a 350-word epistle to this newspaper, printed under the headline The Year Between, "not for money but for volunteer assistance, in the field of primary teaching, youth work, community development, adult education and social welfare generally, where a readiness to give service would not only be of value in itself, but could act as an inspiration to the young people of these countries."
This letter is now pasted into the front of my notebook as I fly with photographer David Harrison above an orange west African landscape. We are seated near the back of a 19-seat Beech 1900C, built in Wichita, Kansas, heading 400km north from the city of Accra, the coastal capital of the republic of Ghana. Seated around us are six Protestant missionaries who chatter excitedly about "planting churches". I ask their leader if business is good. He grins and tells me it's "excellent."
We are here because of what grew out of that letter: Voluntary Service Overseas, or VSO. After its publication, on March 23 1958, a retired colonial official named Alec Dickson, in cahoots with Fleming, contrived an apparently spontaneous write-in campaign from friendly headmasters and chums overseas, giving Sunday Times editors and the newspaper's readers the impression of a groundswell of support. Letters poured in and, within weeks, what had been a sub-editor's inspiration to fill a single-column, two-line correspondence page heading was taken up as the interim title of this body. They called it "The Year Between".
How the bishop squared taking part in this deception presumably god only knows, but 1958 was as different an era to ours as the Beano is from Nintendo. Many columns of that weekend's Sunday Times were filled with talk of the H-bomb. The paper reported that 40% of households had television sets, and the radio listings included such Light Programme treats as the Billy Cotton Band Show. Celebrity medical stories included news that Lady Harwood had mumps, and the page 1 splash was:
- SIR WINSTON IS
- 'NOT TOO WELL'
In this environment, the bishop's proposal must have sounded like a Billy Bunter jape. "If, as I believe, there will be no difficulty in finding volunteers," he explained, "it will be necessary for some body - or bodies - to accept responsibility for three things: for selecting suitable boys and suitable projects, for finding travelling expenses, and for ensuring that at the other end there is someone who will meet the boys and set them on the right road."