Tuesday, April 8, 2014


It’s supposed to be meritocratic, but in fact it’s dominated by the white male products of Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of public schools, along with a sprinkling of foreigners who have been allowed to dodge the citizenly duties of the rest of us.
It’s completely dependent on the sponsorship of the financial services industry. It’s frozen in Victorian tradition. It’s pretty obvious before the start who’s going to win, and completely obvious five minutes after the start. And it’s inescapably centred on London. In other words, it is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with British society. But I still love the Boat Race.

There must be hundreds of other races involving boats on the Thames, and thousands on other rivers around the world, but there is only one Boat Race. The arrogance continues in its official title, the Universities’ Boat Race, as if there were still only two. (I’m reminded of a headmaster I worked for once who, asked which university an applicant for a teaching post had attended, answered ‘Neither’.) But perhaps the arrogance is justified by the archetypal nature of the occasion. Two teams of eight men, a river, and a trial of physical strength: for all the chatter about tactics with which the commentators try to fill up the spaces, that’s about it. There’s also something almost levelling about two universities predicated on intellectual elitism, at the heart of a society where status is determined nowadays far more by mental than physical prowess, deciding their relative merits by muscle alone.

It is a thoroughly London occasion. As part of the pre-match warm-up, a reporter interviewed spectators on the terrace of a pub by Hammersmith. ‘The Boat Race attracts interest from all over the world,’ she said breathlessly. ‘I’ve got people here from Russia, Poland, Australia, New Zealand.’ She made it sound as if they had flown in long haul specifically to stand in the rain and watch the grunting crews strain by for three minutes. More likely it was their local where they were having their regular Sunday afternoon drink, and were wondering bemusedly where all the extra people had come from. Thus the multinational population of the city dips in and out of native traditions.

It’s a London occasion too because it centres on the Thames, which runs both literally and metaphorically through the city: the foundation of its prosperity from Roman times till the closure of the docks in the 1960s, the most common mode of transport for hundreds of years, the silver ribbon that guided the Luftwaffe by moonlight to the near destruction of London in the Blitz, and the great dividing line that denominates social standing. The Thames is especially important to me because I live three hundred yards from it, and cross it daily via Richmond Bridge for shopping, travel, church, and my daughter’s school. Every working day I cycle its towpath up to Hammersmith Bridge, covering half the Boat Race route.

And, though I never picked up an oar in my three years there, Cambridge is important to me, too. It was a formative time in my life, the source of lasting friendships and a space to read and think. The letters after my name haven’t done my career any harm either. So I feel a visceral loyalty to the Light Blues. (The colouring is interesting. The two institutions are essentially the same, different shades of one colour, but with the suggestion that Cambridge is a little lightweight by comparison to Oxford’s Dark Blue, having been around a mere eight hundred years to Oxford’s nine hundred and something.)

Oh, and the result? After a clash of oars five minutes in, one of the Cambridge crew slipped from his seat and lost his rigger, the metal hook which keeps his oar in place. (At first I heard the commentator say he had ‘lost his rigour’, which lent a rather moralistic tone to proceedings). Thereafter, Cambridge, who never had much chance, had no chance at all, and the race was over. Oxford eventually won by eleven lengths, the biggest margin since 1973, and their fifth victory in the last seven years. Five minutes! All the early starts, the duvets abandoned, the textbooks untouched, the girlfriends ignored, the beer undrunk, all gone in five minutes. I hope they enjoyed the process. And I hope that the Boat Race will still be going in another hundred and sixty years, and that Cambridge will start winning before then.

Next Sunday it’s off the river and onto the streets for the London Marathon, a much more inclusive, civic and generous spirited sporting event. But Lifelong Londoner will be in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.

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