The Boat Race and Me
This week is Boat Race week. The Putney boat houses have all week been dominated by the Gods from Oxbridge who like human sky scrapers are so tall that they seem to reach the sky. Like creatures from another planet , although we can see them they cannot see us. Everyday their sponsored wagons, their teams of flunkeys, squads of attendant press and platoons of coaches not to mention beaming parents and girlfriends dominate my walk along the front to Sainsbury’s. On Sunday we will have a small lunch party ,take a couple of bottles down to river and watch the eights start their long way round to Mortlake.
My first memory was probably in the very early l950s. I remember standing in the rain in my wellingtons with the river lapping around and being thoroughly disappointed about the whole experience. My parents being both Oxford graduates, we only had one team to support. But sadly, throughout my childhood during the fifties and early sixties Cambridge were dominant.
In my teens my mother was on the edge of the Labour establishment. This included local MP Hugh later Lord Jenkins. He had a flat by Putney Bridge which overlooked the start of the Race. And since most of the 4.5 mile contests are decided in the first 500 metres, an all important position. So many years were spent with vegetarians and town planners watching the Race.
As a working journalist I managed to convince Financial Weekly that coverage of the Boat Race was vital. For several years I would interview Dan Topolski,a very successful oarsman ,Oxford coach, philanderer and sometime TV director. Also son of the even ,more famous artist,Felix, who incidentally is one of my favourites.
Two abiding memories resulted from these interviews which at least once, took place at the Topolskis family home in one of the grand houses round Regents Park. On one occasion I turned up on time. There was no answer. I rang the bell again and still no answer. Eventually an upstairs window opened. A tousled haired Topolski said, can you wait a minute. Five minutes later the door opened and out ran a very pretty and scarcely dressed blond. The interview could begin. Maybe because of that he took me on the Oxford launch to watch one of the last practices before the Race.
In a HM Bateman competition sponsored by a drinks firm I won a prize for imagining the scene at the London Rowing Club of the “ man who asked who came third in the Boat Race.”
Another of my heroes Max Beerbohm cracked the best Boat Race joke. There they stand the Oxford crew. Eight men. Eight oars.Eight hearts. Eight fighters. Eight heroes. Eight ambit ions. One thought…..…If that.(Its how you tell them).
I once went to a wedding and the groom was a double rowing blue, as handsome as his wife was beautiful and it breaks my black heart to say, gracious and well mannered. He is of course a famously successful fund manager and although all my dark instincts cry Fold Play and Damn His Fortune whenever I meet him his warmth and apparent sincerity disarm me.
Victoria Fangen,one of my closest friend’s daughter (and a rowing international)married the coach of the Cambridge (number two)Goldie boat. Victoria is also Vivien’s god daughter. The village church at Iwerne never looked grander than when adorned by those oars and those college blazers. Iwerne is the Dorset village where Fangen and I went the school. The church is where I was christened days before my confirmation. Somewhere along the line I inspired a mug and post card for the Putney Society bearing the legend “Putney Home of the Boat Race”
Then there was my two years of rowing out of poor man’s Barn Elms. A suburban 400 metres from the main Putney boat houses. This career ended a year or so ago. Our crew in a quad scull consisted of a coach/minder coxing, a blind woman stroking(I kid you not), a municipal gardener at number two, a language teacher at three and me out of the way in the bow. One day ,on our Wednesday morning paddle, the Oxford boat cruised along side.
This was it. Mano a mano. The Hemingway moment. I cried to my pals, lets show them. Not a pair of dark glasses flickered in the Blue boat. We pulled hard,pain was no matter, glory was on offer, and though the memory can play tricks, we happy crew, we fearless band of brothers and sisters held them for two strokes.
But most of all the Boat Race has meant thirty years of parties. This week a pale shadow of previous years ,but party we will. I have one nephew who only a few years ago rowed in the Oxford bumps as did my father before the war. I have another nephew who as chairman of a Cambridge post graduate common room went to the Boat Race Ball. The Boat Race not only flows past my house(if you lean out the window you can see it) but through my veins.
Lets hope the weather is better than over the last few days. It was so bad on Saturday that the Head of the River in which 400 crews row the Boat Race backwards had to be cancelled.