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As usual I tuned in expectantly to the Easter weekend’s Oxford and Cambridge boat race, my hopes heightened by the close-run things of recent years. But it soon became clear as Oxford steamed ahead with barely any hint of a clash of oars at Craven Cottage that we were back to the dull old days.
Oxford was so determined to win this year that it stuffed its boat with men each a stone and a half heavier than their Cambridge counterparts. The race was over before it had even reached that building where Harrod’s keep their spare bits of furniture.
Why the excitement of this race? Yes, yes, ‘our finest traditions’, and all that. It was good to see that only half the oarsmen involved this year were foreign mercenaries hired to fight for a cause that had hardly demanded their allegiance since the cradle. There’s also some attraction in the race being one of the early rituals of spring, but that still doesn’t quite explain it.
It goes back to childhood. I can recall kids on the morning of the race on the streets of the then old and plain Islington adorned with ribboned rosettes in the colours of the two universities. If I had to fix a date I’d say this peaked at about the time of the build-up to Suez 1956. Our nation’s oldest institutions needed our help; my dad and uncles, having served in major campaigns of the second world war, were called up again into the army reserve. And years later we would learn that our prime minister, though he never admitted it, had lied about our motives for war.
I favoured Cambridge because I liked sky blue more than dark. This was hardly a basis for rational decision making, but a variation of it I went on to use - to the approval of my family - when stating an early preference for Conservative over Labour; I liked blue more than red. I even went on to vote for the Tories in 1970, the first election I could vote.
But what a hold the old universities had over us. There was never any chance of going there. Hardly anyone I knew was poor, but no one I knew then went or had been to a university, let alone to Oxbridge. Uncannily they made sure you followed them at boat race time, but also that you excluded them from your expectations. Cheering them on was as senseless as a Black South African supporting the apartheid republic’s rugby or cricket teams.
In the 70s, when going to university, there was only one to go to, in my case Sussex. The new universities were where the excitement was. Oxbridge was old hat.
This began to change under Mrs Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She didn’t like Sussex and other such places: too much humanities and Russian studies. Teachers came under far more pressure of work; the carpet on the library stairwell became decidedly tatty.
And now it’s all swung back. Kids and parents are again thinking that Oxbridge is the place to go. Again there are the easy assumptions that this is where you have to go to be someone and that doing so will set you up for life.
On boat race day this year we remembered the sad times of the 1970s under James Callaghan. Memories of the late prime minister highlighted the ‘winter of discontent’; I also remember some great summers. But then came the sadness of the 80s, the decade that set us up for a return to ‘elite’ thinking. Today learned and well-researched pieces on further education are written on our need to return to encouraging the elite more because they are ‘our future’.
The boat race doesn’t quite have the grip that it used to; we live in more interesting times. It still guarantees the raising of some ‘old school’ passions, as seen when my colleague Tom O’Sullivan wrote a piece in criticism of it for the FT magazine two years ago and prompted several outraged responses.
But it is not ‘old school’ anymore, i.e. twits on the tideway, but more the aforementioned muscled mercenaries. I’d guess they’re as academically dim, or at least quite unrequired to be academic. The idea that anyone can take so many months off to meet the demands of modern rowing and be serious about university is about as ridiculous as those old communist regimes claiming that their football teams hired by the Soviet army and KGB were amateur.
So what is the boat race’s modern purpose? To advertise the elite again, a crew now vigorously touting for your business but to which soon you’ll have no access unless you have a lot of money.
Well, let them float off alone, and encourage your kids to go to other places out of the conventional mainstream and where they might learn about life. As for the boat race, I’ll keep watching it, because it brings the promise of better weather, the hope of a clash of oars or something close to a dead heat between the crews, and every hundred years or so the prospect that they might sink.