The Boat Race and Me

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.

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2 Responses to The Boat Race and Me

  1. Eric ormsby says:

    A nice piece, this one. Keep them flowing and good luck with the weather! I.

  2. Such a small world again Hugh…I met, loved and photographed Felix Topolski How did I meet him?? Was it through you. We met numerous times,how wonderful he was. first in my studio,then more at his Waterloo studio.Underneath the Arches? Music please. I was spell bound. He slept high up on a tower of scaffolding … No prostate problem there. I imagined my self in my basement Chelsea flat doing the same,but banging my head! what happened? I must have lost touch when I too left my country of birth. How paths cross,to be be recalled when reminded of each others past.

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