Some Good Old Stories Told By Cleaver

I feel that I am not yet ready to let go of Hylton Cleaver‘s The Vengeance of Jeremy (1953), which I wrote about on 28 November. Cleaver is well-known for his sport books about rowing, but this is a fictional book about the young boy Jeremy, who in the beginning of the story loses his father. Jeremy’s father is a newspaperman who drops dead in front of his editor after he mysteriously got stabbed researching a front-page story for the paper. Jeremy follows in his father’s foot-steps to try to find out why his father got killed. This leads him to the Metropolitan Rowing Club, which has an eight training for the regatta at Henley. About the town of Henley, Cleaver writes:

“Henley itself is an old riverside town halfway between Oxford and London, and spread over three counties, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. All three meet where it stands. As a world-famous course it has one peculiarity. For most of the year there is nothing to suggest that a regatta is ever held there. The racecourse at Epsom on which the Derby is run is permanent; the Twickenham stands rise gauntly towards the sky as stolidly in the summer as on the days of Rugby internationals; the famous Long Room in the pavilion at Lord’s is there throughout the winter, to be seen and studied; and the Stadium at Wembley never changes.

But the race-course at Henley is built afresh every summer; the piles and booms are set in those dead straight lines by experts only just in time for the regatta to open, and as soon as the last race is rowed the same gang of craftsmen start to dismantle it again. When racing begins those enormous grandstands, vast marquees, flower gardens, restaurants, band-stand, boat tents, rafts and judges’ box, look as if they had their roots there. But the river is a King’s Highway; the tow-path cannot be barred to the public; and so every year 10,000 has to be spent in setting out the lavish scene, and then removing it again as if by magic.”

In the same chapter, called ‘Water Jockey’, Jeremy gets a question by the eight’s coxswain: “You’ve never been a cox? […] Don’t take it up, then. You have no idea what it’s like to spend your time sitting cramped in a boat about a yard away from the face of your Stroke, and to be forced to keep on starring into it for an hour on end.” The cox continues: “On the water […] the jockeys are called coxes”, and in a most unflattering way, he then says: “Horses may be a little less stupid than crews, and they do at least face the right direction, whereas the slaves who ply the oars in these galleys have their backs to the winning post, and can be told any story about how far away it is.”

In the next chapter, ‘Coaching Days’ the Metropolitan RC’s coach, Mr. Harkwright Startin, tells Jeremy some old, ‘true’ stories about Leander, Cambridge, Oxford, and Henley and these stories would later reappear in the magazine Rowing and his A History of Rowing (1957).

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