The River sections from 'Oxford Life' by Dacre Balsdon, 1957, -
HILARY TERM - COLD SPELL - p.174
What of the poor rowing man?
If anybody's life in Oxford is governed by a rigid routine, it is the life of the rowing man. He might indeed have been wound up by clockwork before term started and left to row for himself. Torpids in the fifth week; he is moving to that end as irresistibly as an electric hare to the end of its track. And now, what if there will be no Torpids? This is a panic-thought, but it must be faced.
The University Eight - so the papers announce - has moved from one spot downstream to another, because of the ice. And now the Isis itself freezes. What are the rowing men to do, with Torpids only three weeks off? There are blocks of floating ice that could damage the fragile shell of a racing eight. So, intent on their training, the men skip and run in the Meadows, and then rush back to College to listen to the radio for the weather news. No sign of a thaw as yet. What is to happen? Hilary Term without Torpids is unthinkable. Surely the Almighty could not permit such a thing to happen. ...
The skaters are happy. There is Port Meadow for them ... There is even the Cherwell. But the rowing men sicken.
Then, when the experts have said the frost will last for ever, that there is no sign of a thaw or break of any kind, you will wake and hear the noise of shunting. When you hear the noise of trains at night, the wind is in the south-west, and with the wind in the south-west there will not be frost or snow or cold in Oxford. Yes, you can even sniff the gas works. Better still. The thaw has come. The pipes have burst and the water is running down the staircase. But no matter; there will be rowing after all.
At last the drab, flu-ridden, monotony of term is interrupted. Starting on Wednesday in the fifth week, there are the Torpids (or Toggers); and a fortnight after that there is the O.U.D.S.
Two changes have come over rowing at Oxford in the last thirty years. For rowing men themselves, rowing has been degraded from an iron discipline into something quite like a sport. And those who do not row - the drybobs - no longer are victims of a social convention which treats rowing as if it was a religion, criticism or mockery of which is tabu. What has killed the cult has been, in part, an acute shortage of sacrificial victims, following the 1939 war; for the undergraduates of the post-war years, married men often, sometimes already parents, were in a hurry to get their degrees and were not attracted to rowing because they had not the time to spare for it. For rowing is a great time-consumer, demanding almost every afternoon of the rowing man’s week.
Once half a College ran along the towpath, shrieking breathless encouragement to its Eight - as often as not, out of hearing - in Toggers and in Summer Eights. Now, except when a boat has shown itself a successful boat and there is a Bump Supper in the offing, the party of supporters who barge their way along the towpath beside an Eight is a small one. Once it would have been unthinkable for a College cricket or tennis team to arrange a match during Eights Week in the summer. This is no longer the case.
Toggers, of course, have never been a social attraction, like Summer Eights. The weather in late February is enough to prevent that. They are, in the main, an attraction for the freshman, for they give the freshman his first experience of a bumping race, whether as participant or as spectator.
In Michaelmas Term the rowing freshman has graduated from tub-pair to four and from four to eight, awed and inspired by the sight, every now and then, of one of the University Trial Eights making its smooth and easy course up or down stream, its cox bawling at any undisciplined craft which did not scurry to get out of its way; and at the beginning of the Hilary term the powerful majesty of the University Eight itself was in the home waters. As, graceless and inept, he spoons up or fails to touch the water with his oar, the freshman nurtures the secret hope that one day he will himself be in the running for the pink Leander or the Full Blue scarf.
Early in Hilary term the University Eight moved downstream and the Torpids then had the river to themselves. Up the river and down the river they have paddled and rowed, afternoon after afternoon, except when their coach has easied them and, leaning over the handlebars of his bicycle has coaxed, cajoled and bullied them with his instruction and advice. And then they have started off again, and the coach has bicycled like a madman beside them, stop-watch in one hand, megaphone in the other.
A rowing baptism is no longer a baptism of blood.
No longer are the freshmen required, like galley slaves on fixed seats,
to row a layer at least of skin off their bottoms.
And when the crews go into training three weeks or so before the races,
it is not the rigorous training of thirty or forty years ago.
They knock off smoking, it is true, but in most Colleges
they are not forced any longer to go for runs before breakfast or to take cold baths.
With the rigour of training some of the compensations have gone too. At dinner time there is a "rowing table" in Hall still, where rowing men can eat rowing food and indulge in rowing talk, but there are no more rowing breakfasts. This homage to the rowing man has disappeared gradually. Still in the nineteen-twenties a list was posted in the Junior Common Room of a College when training started, and an undergraduate was expected to write his name against a vacant day to indicate that on that day he would be happy to entertain the Torpid or The Eight to breakfast. The morning came. His Scout had obtained from somewhere or other ten chairs and a table large enough to seat his nine guests and himself. His bovine guests arrived and seated themselves. The gargantuan meal followed: porridge, fish, bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, oranges. The host nervously took whatever place was left for him. The large red-faced men paddled steadily through the meal. There was no conversation for, as training wore on, their reaction-times grew slower and slower. Thinking by this time was past them and so, at that hour of day, was speech. One might say to his neighbour, "Who’s that chap? We don’t know him, do we?" in reference to his host, but that was all. They ate and, having eaten, they went, indulging perhaps in a little light-hearted horse-play and breaking a chair or two in the process. They rarely remembered to say Thank you. The host was left with the bill to pay and the broken chairs were sent to the College carpenter to be mended.
During the [nineteen-]thirties these breakfasts took place in Hall instead of in rooms and men combined in syndicates to do the entertaining. They shared the expense of the bill, and it was not necessary for any of them to attend the ceremony itself. Then came the war and rationing. Rowing has come off its pedestal and, if it was suggested to an undergraduate today that he should spend three or four pounds on entertaining an Eight to breakfast, he would tell you that he had better uses for his money, and nobody but an old rowing man would disagree.
Anyhow the proof of the breakfast is in the rowing; and boats seem to row as fast now as ever they did before.
In rowing the prospects are always good, and there has never been a boat which did not start the races with high hopes of success, for rowing men are the most sanguine people in the world. All that they have in evidence before the races are the comparative times of courses done by themselves and by the boats in front of and behind them. A boat’s own time is always good - either good absolutely, or good despite all evidence to the contrary. For if the stop-watch suggested that the time was bad, that was because the stop-watch itself needed repairing, or there was an extra strong current on that particular day, or a bad headwind, or Cox made a silly mistake in steering, or Six had a cold, or Stroke hadn’t completely thrown off his flu or ...
On the way down to the river and back from the river during the
races, nobody ever runs dry of conversation. Among themselves, rowing men build a great scaffolding of hypothesis.
If this happens, and that happens, then we are sure of our bump.
And - on the way back - if this had happened, and that had not happened, then we should never
have been bumped at all. If there are guests, strangers, there is the
necessity of explaining to them what bumping races are and how they
happen, even if the only result of the explanation is that incredulity
takes the place of incomprehension.
“What happens, John?”
"They row in divisions, ten boats or so to a division.”
"The river must be terribly wide.”
"No, they row behind one another, and each tries to bump the boat in front."
"What happens then?"
"All of them ?"
"No, just the ones which have bumped; and the next day they start in a different order."
"How do they fix the new order?"
"Oh, the one which bumped the night before starts one up and the one which was bumped starts one down."
"I see. And how do they manage about the divisions? How do you get from one to the other?"
"The top boat in one division rows as the bottom boat in the division above."
"What? At the same time? How can they?"
"No, at different times. Each division is three-quarters of an hour or an hour later than the one below it."
"It sounds terribly exciting. Has your boat got lots of bumps?"
"No, as a matter of fact we’ve been bumped every night."
"Oh dear, I am sorry."
"Still, tonight we expect to get a bump. We expect to get the boat which bumped us last night."
"But isn’t it faster than you, if it bumped you?"
"Not really. They are fast at the start. That’s where they got us. But we are just as fast over the whole course. So we might get them back at the end."
"But mightn’t they get the boat in front of them first?"
"They might, of course. That’s the snag. Hullo, there’s Peter. Peter, how did the second boat get on?"
"It was bumped again."
" "It never ought to have been. If Cox had steered better and the boat in front hadn’t spurted when it did, our boat might easily have got its bump first. We’re far faster really than the boat that bumped us - I mean, if we’d been going all-out and Cox had been cleverer.”
"And Three caught a crab, which didn’t help. If he hadn’t, we’d have got away for sure."
"Mary, you don’t know Peter Brook. This is Mary Finch."
"I’m sorry about your being bumped."
"All in the day’s work. Anyhow with luck we might easily bump them back tomorrow. You see, it’s only over the whole course that they are faster. We’re much faster at the start, and we might easily get them tomorrow."
"Whereabouts do you think?’
"Oh, at the New Bridge."
The weather may have been terrible, Ice on the river may have
threatened to stop the Torpids, or even floods. Yet there are not many
years in which during Torpids week you do not on one day at least
have a blinding foretaste of spring. The birds are its harbingers and, if
your College has a garden, you will know from the early-morning
singing of the birds that such a day is on its way. And here, suddenly,
it is. The sun is almost warm. The snowdrops look tired, for they have
had their day, but the crocuses are out, in all the rich vulgarity of
saffron and of purple - in some gardens at ease and natural, as if they
had planted themselves, in others with an arch preraphaeite look, as if
Nature was a word that they had never heard. The earliest and best of
the prunuses - Pollardii - is already showing the pink of its buds (keep
an eye on the one just inside the gate of the Botanical Gardens facing
Merton new buildings) and the Chinese willows, which are every
where in Oxford - there is a very good one in the Christ Church
Memorial Garden - are freshly and vividly green. Winter is over.
Never mind that it may well be snowing next week. Everybody is out,
and everything: undergraduates in the sunny corners of quadrangles,
old men on the seats in Dead Man’s Walk under Merton, ladybirds on
the branches of the early almonds.
Go to Iffley in a bus. Iffley is nowadays the ugliest village in the world, but once, with its Norman church and its few splendid houses perched above the river, it must have been one of the loveliest. (Read, for a story of this core of Iffley, Santayana’s The Last Puritan.) There are still snowdrops to be seen in the churchyard, but they are not the sight that thay once were. Go down to the lock, pay your halfpenny toll (much may it enrich Lincoln College, its recipient) and cross above the swirling lasher. If you see an undergraduate lying about by the lock reading a Greek text, you can be certain that he is in for Classical Mods in ten days time and that he dare not waste a minute between the races. Go down the river a little, and look at Iffley Church across the water for, with the trees bare, you will see it better now than in summer.
Suddenly there is a deafening cannon shot. The undergraduate closes his Greek text and gets up. Follow him. That was the five-minute gun and already, spaced at their stations, the Torpids are waiting, up-river from the lock, their supporters on the bank, all a flutter of nerves, before the race. Cox clutches the bung, a large round cork, at the end of a rope which is pegged to the bank. The waterman - the only man who shows no sign of nerves - stands with his long pole.
"Quarter of a minute to the minute gun. Sweaters off."
Sweaters are off and thrown to the bank. The waterman pushes the boat off with his pole; the rope in Cox’s band is fully extended.
"Touch her gently, Bow. Steady."
"Thirty seconds to go."
"You ought to get them in the Gut."
So a powerful figure, a captain of men, instructs.
"Ten - nine - eight-"
"Good luck, chaps."
"Three - two - one - one-"
Two shots of the cannon. They are off. Oars tear up the water. The cries of rowing supporters fill the air.
"Lovely start, boys. You’re going up.. . ."
You walk up the tow path, left farther and farther behind by the shouting and excitement. As you reach the O.U.B.C., the crowd is thick and the going harder. You cross in a punt to your barge or your boathouse and see the boats which have completed the course paddling back. Then home through the Meadows to College. The evening is drawing in, and this is a time for fine skies at evening. Sometimes as you come back from the river, the clouds are pink like icing-sugar; sometimes they are carmine, and their texture is of velvet.
Sunday morning. Toggers are over. There was not much noise in the streets last night. This morning, however, there are scattered reminders that all was not innocence - an oar in the embrace of a scupted saint or one of the Graces; or some formal and conventional impoliteness red-painted on the wall - "BLOODY BALLIOL" ...
TRINITY TERM p.204
The beginning of Trinity term is a mischievous and puckish joke on Nature’s part. You return to Oxford, and summer is there to greet you. ...
You walk by the river; and there the occasional swan sits pompously on its crude nest, purposely sited, as it seems, to attract a public. Young ducks - offspring of the unions which you watched at the end of Hilary term - are skidding about on the water. Below Folly Bridge Maple- durham, Henley and the rest of Messrs. Salter’s fleet, which you saw being laid up in the autumn, are receiving their final lick of paint. In Christ Church Meadows beside the Cherwell, where Nature laid down a red carpet for you last October, you may encounter two or three men walking up-stream at the river’s edge, tugging, at the end of a rope, twenty or thirty punts to their summer station at Magdalen Bridge; and as the Armenians in Herodotus carried each a donkey in his collapsible cargo-boat as he travelled with the current down-stream to Babylon, so you will see, in two or three of the punts, bicycles to convey the towers back to Folly Bridge, from which they started.
There are soft nights, when the clocks strike gently and caress the evening air, and early in the mornings the birds in College gardens put on their best voices to greet the day. Trees are hurrying into leaf; and there are the particular trees which at this time of year must never be missed, like the huge double white cherry between Merton and Corpus in Merton Grove. White cherry flower against a clear blue sky - it is the very perfection of clean colour. Spring’s the season, and summer is at hand - with May morning to perform the official opening ceremony.
So the sanguine plans are made. You will be up at five on May; morning, to hear the choir sing the pagan invocation to summer from the top of Magdalen Tower at sunrise.
'May Morning 6am' from Oxford Life Dacre Balsdon 1957 p.208
You will hire a punt. You take breakfast on the river. Particularly will you do this if you are a freshman and have never done it before.
'May Morning 6am on the Cherwell under Magdalen Tower' from Oxford Life Dacre Balsdon 1957 p.208
Fool. You have fallen right into the trap which Nature has laid for
you. It is always cold at six at this time of year, and on May morning
it is doubly cold, and probably it is raining too. If you are in the streets,
so is everybody else, and you cannot hear the singing for the clatter of
other people’s feet. On the river, instead of the exhilaration that you
expected, wetness and cold is everywhere: macintoshes, umbrellas
Still, May morning it is. The choir sings.
("Why?", Mr. Krushchev asked on his famous visit to Oxford.
"Because they have done so for five hundred years," was the President of Magdalen’s reply.)
The bells ring. The Morris dancers dance. And at what seems like lunch-time, you get the post and the morning papers, full of news about places on the continent which anticipate May Day riots.
THE RIVER p.214
You can avoid the river in winter. But to avoid it in summer is beyond the limit of possible human folly.
The girl who was coming up to a woman’s College last October and who was told by the wise woman at the fair that she would shortly cross water and meet a handsome stranger, could feel happy; for, except from the North, you cannot reach Oxford except by crossing water; by crossing the Cherwell, if you come from the East, the Isis if you come from the South and an anonymous betwixt-and-between stretch of water if you come from Botley in the West, past Osney Island. The whole of Oxford, indeed, not merely the small stretch between two arms of the Cherweil, could be called Mesopotamia. Sometimes early in the morning there is a razor-stropping sound to remind you of the fact. It is the sound of swans flying over the city, taking the shortest cut from one part of the river to the other.
From Iffley Lasher to Godstow the Thames is not called the Thames. First, past the barges, it is the Isis. Then, above Medley, it is the Upper River. Above Godstow it is the Thames again. Walk upsteam six miles or so, past Eynsham, and there is "the stripling Thames at Bablock Hythe."
Language at Oxford is highly technical. If you say, "I am going down to the river,"" that means that you are going down to the Isis, to the barges, to row probably. If you say, "I am going on the river," you may be going to row or to punt or to canoe on any part of either of the rivers, the Isis or the Cherwell.
Day after day in winter the river reflects the willows with a sullen beauty; and then it turns mischievous, with a river’s mischief. It floods, and fools the rowing men; it freezes, and fools the ducks. In flood- time, if fortune is kind, tbere will be a still, clear day when you can get to the far comer of Addison’s Walk and see Magdalen Tower reflected in a still expanse of water. And when the river freezes, you can skate sometimes on the Cherwell; there are old men who have skated the whole way from Oxford up to Islip.
In summer the river is the chief of all Oxford seductions. You cut through it in a swift canoe; you move over it slowly in a punt - flop, flop, flop, when there is a little breeze on the water - or you plunge into it and bathe. There is no human activity for which a punt is not suited. You can work in a punt, though not for long; you can sleep in a punt; and you can philander. Punting is nowadays a part of woman’s prowess; so that you will as often as not see a man comfortably recumbent on the cushions, while a woman stands up and punts. Good punting is grace itself; bad punting is a mangle of ugly distortion.
Or you may bathe - anywhere from a punt or from the river-bank, if you are costumed; with your family in a square enclosure of galvanized iron by the rollers in Mesopotamia, created in the 'thirties and called "Dame’s Delight." If you are a man you may bathe unclad (or, if you dislike bathing, remove your clothes and lie on the grass) next door to Dame’s Delight, at Parson’s Pleasure - which is presumably, "Pattens’s Pleasure near New Park" where, in Wood’s lugubrious times three people at least were drowned. For women, who cannot go to it, and for men who do not go to it, this male nudist colony is provocatively interesting. Healthy young men are there, and obese old ones, terrible reminders of the unkindness of the years. At one end of the river is a large glittering pool, edged with reeds and encircled by open meadows like the Elysian Fields; the other end is a tunnel of black poplars - sinister like the Styx, entry to Hell. In between you may float on your back and gaze lazily at a sky that is papered with William Morris willow-pattern paper.
For the Oxford river gods, these are days of bereavement and sorrow. One by one, the barges are being pulled out of the Isis, old teeth which leave gaps. In the island opposite the O.U.B.C. the boathouses are going up - hideous, uniform tool-sheds for rowing men, no part of a living river. And whenever the inner relief- roads are built, which are the planner’s prescription for paradise, the rivers will be chief sufferers, bridged here and bridged there. The nudist sanctuary, Parsons’ Pleasure, may have to go; and what will the fat old men do then?
EIGHTS WEEK p.219
In half a century the glory of Eights Week has been dimmed, though not to extinction, for the races and the excitement are the same, though since a year or two back they last only for four nights, no longer for six.
The curtailment was no ordinance of kill-joy Authority; it was the wish of ardent rowing Expertise. Six days were too many, said Rowing Expertise; Cambridge, which for years had rowed better at Henley, rowed, in the Mays, for four nights only. Q.E.D. Anyhow, rowing men at Oxford have always hated the Monday night races.
If the weather is bad, the trees drip and the river is deserted. But sometimes it is fine.
When it is fine, barges and boathonses are crowded; the towpath is crowded too. The barges, like famous courtesans of a past age, hide their years under a brilliant layer of paint. They have style; and in their presence the neat young boathouses cannot conceal their own vulgarity and ill-breeding.
Barges are crowded, and boathouses alike. Undergraduates are there, with their girls. Dons are there, with their wives and obstreperous young children. There is tea. There are ices. Every now and then there is a race, though sometimes the race is over before anything comes in sight. There are the Old Rowing Men, to tell you that nothing is as good as it used to be. And, in all their peacock pride, there are the Rowing Men themselves - eight men in a boat, and Cox with his lilies, his roses, his irises or his peonies.
There is something in what the old men say. Before 1914 you would have been thrown into the river, had you come down to the Eights dressed in anything but white flannels. Once, opposite the Green Bank, there was a whole punt-park of punts. Now there is hardly one. For years, in a nice nostalgic way, the Thames Conservancy continued to drop buoys marking the outer limit of this punt-parking space, though for years no punts parked there. Now even the Thames Conservancy has turned realist and faced the facts.
Eights is a matter of gay liveliness and of unbearable apprehension; it is a thing of magnificence and a thing of pathos. Its liveliness is the chatter of the barges, the movement on the towpath and all the busy ferrying of passengers from one bank to the other. Its apprehension is down at Iffley.
"Quarter of a minute to the minute gun. Sweaters off."
"Touch her lightly, bow."
"Ten, nine, eight, seven. . ."
'The Eights, 1956; Balliol rowing Head'
from Oxford Life, Dacre Balsdon, 1957 p.208
The magnificence of Eights is the Head of the River boat, out of all
danger from its pursuer and cutting through the calm water with a
dignity that even the swans concede as, with offended pride, they move
out of its way; and the pathos of the Eights is a lonely boat at the
bottom of the Fourth Division or the Fifth, churning its ugly and
painful way up the long, long river with a great distortion of ineptitude.
Ahead there is not a boat in sight; on the towpath a single
flat-footed supporter runs, purposeless stop-watch in one hand,
purposeless revolver in the other, and between heavy panting he
"You’re going up; you’re going up, boys."
Will there be a Bump Supper in College Now that there are only four nights racing and four bumps are needed, the issue is in doubt until half past six on the Saturday night. Yet the Supper must start at eight. So the Steward has made his hypothetical plans. The Chef has prepared his hypothetical meal. The faggot-providers stand by to provide the hypothetical faggots for the bonfire. The Head of House has prepared his hypothetical speech.
There is a bump, and all is well. An explosion of revolvers. Cox is thrown into the river. Quietist dons sigh. The Chef gets busy.
Or there is not a bump. A mother on the Barge is heard to say to a friend, "There won’t be a Bump Supper now. That means that John will be able to come to theatre with us."
Bump Suppers in Colleges are gay and noisy, to undergraduates enjoyable, to tired old dons in prospect unendurable, in the event not quite as bad as they expected. The heroes, the members of the crew, dine with the dons at High Table. Noise silences talk. Speeches. A crash of breaking glass; someone has knocked over a wine glass. The High Table retreats with what dignity it can. The heroes excuse themselves, and return to the company of their fellows. An old boat - of little value - is burnt.
The quad empties, and the celebrants charge out into the streets: the Proctors’ anxiety, no longer the Deans’. In an hour or so they are back. More noise, And sometimes wanton destruction is done. But here at least, over fifty years, there has been great improvement. It is now a rare thing for such destruction to occur as once on these occasions was customary. Once dons alone protested; now the protests come from the profound good sense of the majority of undergraduates. Recently, indeed, the Cherwell protested against a case of such destruction and, because it got its figures wrong, the editors were summoned by the Proctors and made to pay a fine!