Terrible fate of being rowed over
I unhesitatingly nominate as Sportsman of the Month, and probably the Year, the fifth eight of Oriel College, Oxford, who four times running, at the bottom of the lowest division in the Torpids, or Toggers, or spring bumping races, "rowed over". Upon those journeys, a good deal of beer and tears must have mingled with the hallowed stream of Isis.
It can no longer be assumed that every reader of this newspaper knows what a bumping race is: for that matter, I do not quite know myself, as Oxford, in one of their periodical but forlorn attempts to revolutionize their rowing, now permit crews in certain circumstances to overtake as well as bump. This accounts for those sudden climbs and dives which destroy the classic purity of The Times diagrams.
The origin of bumping races is simple. You could not have, upon either the Isis or the Cam, all the colleges racing against each other because there is no room. So you set them off one behind the other, and every crew who bump the crew ahead move up a place in the order next day, or — if it is the last day of racing — next year. This has some drawbacks; it does not follow that the crew at the head of the river are the fastest (on the only occasion my own college crew, Queen's, were head, and were entered in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley, they were probably not the fastest Oxford crew), but the system is a reasonable way of getting the best competitive rowing from narrow rivers.
The names which you see towards the bottom of those columns of diagrams hide the identity of many men, good men, who will probably become famous and successful, but not as oarsmen. These are the rugby eights, or the cricket eights, or the wine lovers' eights, or whatever. They add to the gaiety of the river scene.
The same practice occurs even at Cambridge, where they call themselves the Prussians of rowing. At Cambridge, as is well known, it is mandatory to rise at six in the morning, go for a five-mile run, and thump your friends on the back with cries of "marvellous!" before tackling the cold shower and the bacon and eggs. Yet I heard not long ago of a King's College Choral Scholars' eight: four tenors, four basses and (I presume) a counter-tenor as cox. When the warning pistol went before the start, they would break into "Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I go"; when they made a bump, which was rarely, they would sing: "Now thank We all Our God"; and when they were bumped, they would leave the boat, stand on the bank with bowed heads, and sing nunc dimittis.
The worst fate that can befall one of these miscellaneous crews is to "row over". For men whose previous experience of rowing has been limited to taking their sisters for a trip round the Hollow Pond on Wanstead Flats, it is essential to bump, or be bumped, in the first quarter of a mile. In my time [he was born in 1923, so probably early 1940s,] there was a Queen's rugby eight near the bottom of the river; there were two boats behind it, which promptly bumped one another, and stood thankfully to their oars, removing the beer from under their thwarts. Unfortunately the six crews ahead had also bumped, in three pairs. There was no way to avoid the long haul up to Folly Bridge, and the roars of cheering with which they were greeted, as they pursued their sweating, wavering, cursing way home, five minutes after all the others had finished, were not sufficient compensation for the effort.
A year or two later, another crew faced a similar predicament, but had no nonsense about it. Straight into the bank in the Gut was their solution, after which they meanly ducked their cox: still, he was a second row forward and the heaviest man in the boat, so perhaps he deserved it.
There must have been some bad management for Oriel V to row over four times. Even odder is that Wadham IV, immediately ahead of them, rowed over on the first three days, though they moved up a place on the fourth. What could have been simpler than a gentleman's agreement whereby Oriel bumped Wadham on the first day, and Wadham bumped Oriel on the second, thus allowing them to start again on the third in their original positions with a minimum of effort. If Oriel V are Sportsmen of the Month, are Wadham IV Cads of the Month, and what would Fry, Simon and Birkenhead, all famous Wadham sportsmen, have had to say about it? Or do they now take their rowing seriously, even at the bottom of the river?
One reason may have been that Oriel V started only two places behind Oriel IV. Terrible penalties are prescribed for a college which permits an eight to be overtaken by one of its numerical juniors: a fine of the boat club, a formal change of title betwen the crews, and Chinese tortures in Christ Church Meadow [actually there is no record of any penalty for such an occurence]. It happened this year to Exeter II, who started four places ahead of Exeter III. Indeed Exeter II finished bottom but one on the river, overtaken by Wadham IV on the last afternoon. Oriel V will get them next year.
The most spectacular descent was that of Brasenose II — 10 places in the first two days, 12 altogether — but they had no third eight by whom to be overtaken. This seems an odd thing to say of a college which we used to think was so hearty that it had been transplanted in one piece from the Backs. Yet there were some arguments even upon the austere Cam. Trinity Hall IV, I gather, unsuccessfully claimed a triple overbump, which they had made upon a crew drawn into the side, a crew under the impression that they had already either been bumped, or made their bump. A single protest can send repercussions down the entire long spine.
You can see it is all quite as complicated as the diagrams, and would have been much simpler if only the rivers had been wider. "Isis and Cam, to patient science dear!" wrote Wordsworth, as if he were trying to work out a better system for oarsmen. Perhaps he was: for on looking up the quotation I see it comes from a poem beginning "Open your Gates, ye Everlasting Piles", and I bet that is just what the heroes of Oriel V are saying now.
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