diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 06, 2003

6) a trip to the Boat Race

The Boat Race is one of the most popular events in the British sporting calendar and attracts a massive crowd of around 250,000 to the banks of the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake. This year it was 250,001.

I come from a very Cambridge-supporting family, so it was a bit of a shock to them 20 years ago when I switched allegiance and got a place at Oxford instead. Not in the rowing team, you understand, but the university. Rowers are a very keen band of people, and so during our first week at Oxford all us freshers were gathered together in an upper room and asked if we wanted to join the college rowing team. Those of us from comprehensive schools had probably never really considered rowing as a participatory sport before, so we were a bit bemused. From what we saw before us, rowing appeared to be about long spindly arms, breathlessness and long periods spent in the college bar after every training session. I wasn't taken in, but the girl in the room next to mine signed up, at which point I discovered the real problem with rowing. Her alarm clock would ring, loudly, at half past five every morning so that she could be up and out for the early-morning practice session on the river. Be it mid-November or mid-May, she was freezing and I was wide awake. All that pain and hardship, and still the college rowing team lost every single race for the rest of the year. No Oxford Blues in our college, just Oxford blues.

It beats me why eight grown men (and one not-quite-so-grown man) would ever want to climb into a small boat and row more than four miles round a bendy river when there's a perfectly good train service that can do the trip direct in six minutes flat. However, that doesn't seem to have stopped Oxford and Cambridge from battling it out on the River Thames almost every year since 1829 (current score Oxford 71, Cambridge 77). This afternoon I went along to see what all the fuss was about. I could have stayed in and watched saturation coverage on the television but no, my dice had spoken (see below) so I was off to experience the whole heady event for real.

I reached Putney Bridge with five minutes to spare before the reserve race began. The whole area was full of tourists looking lost, families looking bored and yuppies looking drunk. I made my way down to the river, pushing past the acres of pushchairs, and tried to see if anything was happening. I was glad I'd remembered to wear the right colour blue. The crowds were one-deep, looking out across the river towards the boathouses in case anything was actually happening. The sensible amongst them had brought radios to find out what was going on, thermos flasks to keep them warm and a football to keep the kids occupied. The less sensible had brought cold meat picnics and grandma. There were a lot of twenty-somethings in the crowd, a lot of courting couples, and a high proportion of students using the race as a social opportunity to meet up with their jolly good mates during the Easter break. The BBC were blocking the towpath, making sure that six million TV viewers could watch the event, even if we couldn't. The reserve race kicked off at 4pm to muted cheers, at which point a number of people left and went home thinking they'd just seen the main event.

I wandered upstream, trying to get to Hammersmith Bridge before the proper race arrived half an hour later. I was forced to make a detour inland around Mr Al Fayed's football ground at Craven Cottage, after which the riverside was noticeably less crowded. The spectators here tended to be families, and very middle class in the same way that nobody in East London is. Some people looked like they'd not been anywhere near London since the Countryside Alliance march last year, and weren't planning on coming back until they needed their Barbour jacket re-tailored. The Boat Race also appeared to signal the beginning of the UK barbecue season, even when the temperature was only ten degrees Celsius, and the smell of burnt sausages drifted across from gardens backing onto the river. The residents of an old people's home were having a Boat Race party, beaming broadly beneath blue-ribboned bonnets. The crowds were thickest within fifty feet of the few riverside pubs. The event's sponsors should consider replacing their logo with a plastic lager glass, as this seems to best represent why most spectators turn up.

not actual size I stopped in sight of Hammersmith Bridge, which the police had helpfully closed just in case anyone might get a decent view. Trees on the opposite bank were bursting into leaf, although the sun was defiantly not shining. Somewhere in the distance came the welcome sight of two tiny boats edging closer upstream, a helicopter buzzing overhead marking their position. We waited for the action to draw nearer. Eventually the two boats swept past, neck and neck, or maybe the yellow boat was just ahead of the yellow boat, it was hard to tell. The two teams were followed by a flotilla of champagne-fuelled launches, spread out across the river, making the most of their eighteen minute chase. I made the mistake of whipping out my digital camera to record the spectacle, so I ended up concentrating more on the camera than the boats at the crucial moment. And then, as fast as they came, the boats disappeared off under the bridge, round the bend and out of sight. The small crowd turned to look at one other, shrugged and headed back to the nearest pub.

It struck me that, by attending the Boat Race in real life, I had completely failed to experience it. From the riverside it was impossible to tell who was winning and, ultimately, which team was the winner. By the time the race ended I was already descending into Hammersmith station to start my journey home, totally oblivious of the result. I eventually got back to watch the whole thing 'properly' on video from earlier in the afternoon. Only then did I discover how exciting the race apparently was, how close it had been all the way through, and how the whole thing came down to a breathtaking photo finish. The two teams differed by just one foot after four and a quarter miles. Outstanding, record-breaking, even epic, apparently. And I missed it because I was there. Next year I shall stay at home and watch the race on television. Or maybe just check the result in the paper on Monday morning.

And who won? Who cares. If I've learnt one thing about the Boat Race today, it's that 'who won?' is the one fact that really doesn't matter.

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