Leaves from the Sporting Calendar : the Boat Race

Boat Race

And so the sporting year progresses to the Boat Race, which, as you can see from the date on this poster, is, like Easter, a Moveable Feast (in 1913 it was early, this year it seems late).  I don’t think I could explain why the date varies, any more than I could explain the timing of Easter, except that I imagine both have something to do with the moon and the tides.

It is not a sporting event that anyone would now invent, if it did not already exist.  I don’t have the impression that the small number of people who take a serious interest in rowing rate it that highly and there cannot be enough people who have a direct connection to either University to make it more significant these days than the “Varsity matches” in other sports.

In its heyday the importance of the race itself was overshadowed by the Night that followed it, which was a significant event in the police calendar as an occasion for drunken, violent disorder.  This was partly between rival parties of Varsity bloods: Bertie Wooster, for instance, famously spent a night in the cells for pinching a policeman’s helmet; on a more elevated level, T.E. Hulme was sent down from Cambridge for “over-stepping the limits of the traditional license allowed by the authorities on Boat Race night” in a brawl.

It was also, in the days before football hooliganism really took off, an excuse for “cockneys” (i.e. ordinary Londoners) to divide themselves into rival factions, watch a race that was, unlike most sporting events, free and then have an excuse for a punch-up afterwards, whether that was intra-cockney or cockney v toff (in 1984, for instance, an elderly “prole” reminisces fondly to Winston Smith about fighting a Varsity man who’d tried to push him off the pavement on Boat Race Night).

That aspect of the event must now, I imagine, be a thing of the past.  There will no doubt be drunken disorder in London tonight, but no more than on most Saturday nights.  There are few cockneys left in London and the large crowds the race continues to attract will, like the population of London itself, be made up largely of corporates and visitors from overseas, attracted to the Thames by an exotic spectacle, in the same way that they are by New Year’s Eve firework displays.

Finally, I think, the Boat Race falls into that officially unpopular and diminishing but – to my mind – necessary category of things that we do because we have always done them, and for me, in particular, it means that if the Boat Race is here can the Cricket Season be far behind? It cannot.

Come on Cambridge, by the way. Rah rah rah!

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