diamond geezer

 Monday, March 27, 2023

20 years ago, when this blog was in its infancy, my posts were mostly about news, popular culture and the minutiae of life. The blogosphere in those days was all about personal commentary and links to other sites, hence you might have read screeds about last night's TV, troublesome parcel deliveries, a trip to the cinema, electroclash, the Iraq War or the joys of digital watches. What I hadn't yet started doing was going to places solely so I could come back and write about them, mainly because I didn't have time. But then BestMate emigrated to America and I suddenly had a lot more empty weekends on my hands, so two weeks before Easter I used a dice to pick somewhere random to visit.
1) a walk along the Greenwich Meridian
2) a walk along the Thames west from Docklands
3) a randomly chosen museum from this list
4) a randomly chosen art gallery from this list
5) a random dice-controlled journey on the Underground
6) a trip to the Boat Race

I threw a 6 so headed off to experience the Boat Race in person for the first time. And then I came home and wrote about it.
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.
By complete coincidence I found myself down by the river in Putney yesterday afternoon, a few hours before the Boat Race was about to kick off.

The weather was wetter than 20 years ago but people were still milling around, many of them looking for somewhere to drink with their jolly good mates before the main event. The BBC had already bagsied their spots along the riverbank, not that six million viewers would be watching. A lot of green jackets, smart shoes and boatcrew badges were in evidence, suggesting the Boat Race remains a draw for those who enjoyed a paid-for education. A hospitality company dressed in black tie were unloading supplies from a van on the quayside and hurrying it aboard Oxford's HQ cruiser. I noticed rather more police officers than there'd been in 2003 but times change, plus there is a heck of a lot of potentially mischievous riverbank to keep an eye on.
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.
This year's holding pen for earlybirds was the Fulham Fun Park in Bishop's Park. I don't think they had such fripperies twenty years ago, let alone screens large enough to be visible to a large crowd. Visitors could enjoy drinks provided by two of the race's chief sponsors, be that an £8 goblet of English sparkling wine or a variety of Kentish lagers, suggesting the organisers had taken my advice regarding plastic glasses. Other sponsors had their own stalls for attendees to browse, suggesting a fairly limited definition of 'Fun'. Greater joy was evident beside Putney's war memorial where the local independent radio station had set up a stage upon which six girls were performing a dance that might well have been rehearsed in their bedrooms. Proud parents beamed. Meanwhile a lorry turned up to cone off one of the lanes on Putney Bridge, thereby making the lengthy jams attempting to cross the river even jammier.
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 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.
That's the only photograph I have of the 2003 Boat Race because time has not been kind. I only uploaded one photo to the blog because image storage was awkward and potentially costly. It's tiny because bandwidth and screen sizes dictated miniature images back then, and it's blurry because my processing capability was poor. Then a few years later my hard drive corrupted and I lost almost every digital image I'd previously taken, so I can't even go back and make my original better. But from what I saw on TV this year the object of the image hasn't changed much - still two yellowish boats and eight oarsmen apiece powering their way upstream. Because I didn't hang around to watch the 2023 race go by, I'd learnt my lesson on that first visit.
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.
So much in that final paragraph has changed over the last two decades in ways we now take for granted. In 2003 my phone was not smart so was incapable of acquiring real-time updates on how the race was going, let alone the identity of the winner. I only got to watch the full race because I'd set my VHS recorder before I left the house, there being no streaming service or catch-up TV back then. And the idea that anyone would discover the result in a morning newspaper now seems ridiculous - not that sport was secret back then, the BBC News website was in full flow, more that a significant proportion of the population still bought a daily newspaper and devoured it. These days if I wanted I could stand beside the river and watch the whole of the race on my phone, pausing only to look up when the real thing rowed by.

A week after writing about the Boat Race I was out blogging the London Marathon, that being the year Paula Radcliffe smashed the record. I was soon out blogging Big Brother locations, then some pioneering flashmobs, and in August I kicked off my first Local History Month. These days you think nothing of reading my in-depth reports from central museums, suburban parks, peripheral postcodes, waterside walks or far-flung county towns. But arguably it all started 20 years ago when I rolled a dice and threw a six, and what a fortunate outcome that was.

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