My rowing career was brief. In 1972 the medics at Queens’ got together to form a rowing eight. The college’s élite rowers were, naturally, the First Boat. We were the Sixth Boat. That in itself says something. (We later became the fifth boat because the original fifth boat couldn’t stay the course, but that’s another story and anyway I can’t remember it).
However inept we may have been, we took our ineptitude seriously, up at 6 for ‘training’ three days a week. This masochism enabled the second year medics to get to lectures at 9. By that time I was in the third year and was studying History of Art, Well, I say studying—what I suppose I mean is, attending three lectures a fortnight and striking a studious pose. I was not so pressed for time.
Rowing is what you might call a solitary team sport. Each individual oarsman is responsible for his (a men’s college in those days) own little compartment, but can’t do without the others. That’s the sort of teamwork that suits me just fine. None of these silly meetings to discuss tactics and marking opponents and watching what they’re doing. You just get in the boat and pull like hell.
We did well enough in the 1972 Bumps (‘a form of rowing race where competing boats start simultaneously but at fixed distances from each other. The aim is to bump the boat in front before being bumped by the boat behind. If neither happens, you are said to row over. A significantly dangerous pastime, and therefore an excellent spectator sport.’ See Cambridge University Jargon). We bumped on two of the three days and rowed over on the third.
All good things come to an end, but in this case they got better, for later that year in London I was fortunate to find that there were enough of us to make up a King’s College Hospital Medical School eight to row on the Thames. We hoofed off to a Putney boathouse on Saturday mornings, messed about on the river, and sampled Young’s ale afterwards.
Two highlights stand out particularly clearly in the memory.
The first was rowing all the way from Putney to Hampton Court to take part in the Kingston Regatta a few days later. Then of course, we had to row back. About 17 miles each way. Lovely weather, glorious views glimpsed between grunts and gasps through dripping sweat: Harrod’s Furniture Depository, Kew Gardens, The Star and Garter, Eel Pie Island, Ham House, Teddington Lock. I think it took us about 3 hours including a stop or two for a rest. A lovely, wonderful memory.
The other highlight was taking part in the 1974 (I think) Tideway Head, one of the great Thames rowing events. This was serious stuff, and before I tell the story, you need to understand that the convention in this race was that if a boat was about to be overtaken, it should do the decent thing by moving to the side to let the faster boat past. Got that?
Our most accomplished oarsman was a big fellow, academic high-flier, who had rowed at school and then Cambridge. He was quietly spoken and rarely said anything very much, but when he did speak it was considered, apposite and admirable. This man was respected by all for his discernment, ability and gentleness.
We were doing well, powering along the Oxbridge boat race course in reverse. We’d overtaken one or two boats, if memory serves me right, when we found ourselves almost upon the boat in front, a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells from Wapping or some such place where they eat jellied eels.
Our bow made contact with their stern (this is not good). Our oars clashed (this is terrible).
Would they pull into the side? Would they hell-as-like.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and a stentorian voice boomed forth from the midst of our boat announcing not peace on earth, goodwill to men—rather the opposite actually—but ‘get out of the way, you … wankers.’ It was the voice of the gentle giant, of such volume as had never before been heard issuing from his larynx, nor, in my experience, any larynx since.
He, it must be said, inserted an adjectival present participle between ‘you’ and ‘wankers’ that since I am a Rector I can not bring myself to type, but let’s just say that it begins with f, is very rude, and is not unrelated to the Latin expression futue te. This is not an unusual term of endearment, you understand, but it is one that on that occasion on that day stunned us all, not so much for the sentiment—it was after all in accord with the regulations, and stated in terms that would have been, and indeed were, understood by the intended audience—but more for the origin and force of its utterance.
Eventually our friends from Wapping admitted defeat, pulled over and allowed us to proceed to the finish at Putney Bridge, dazed, sweaty, ecstatic, but deeply, deeply conscious that we had heard a voice from the belly of a whale.