Chris Dodd writes:
Clearing out papers the other day – what the hell, it’s the silly season – I came across card-index notes for a long-forgotten attempt to write a novel. Having completed a history of the Boat Race, I thought it would be a great wheeze to invent mayhem and murder in the Boat Race. So in January of 1987, when I had earned a month’s sabbatical from my newspaper, I borrowed a friend’s cottage near Oxford to hibernate while sorting out plot and characters. The particular problem with characters was the sheer numbers involved in forming an Oxford or Cambridge crew.
Anyway, my plan was wrecked before it started by a revolt in the real Oxford squad against the president, Donald Macdonald, and coach, Dan Topolski. I spent most of the next four weeks trying to unravel a real-time mutiny which turned out to be much more intriguing than my imaginary one, even if mayhem mercifully stopped short of murder.
My novel was dead in the water from the moment that Macdonald’s men cast him out of the OUBC minibus, but not before I had solved the problem of names. The cards revealed pairs of bow side and stroke side oarsmen, recognisable if you know your British department stores: Waring and Gillow; Bourne and Hollingsworth; Arding and Hobbs; Swan and Edgar; Debenham and Freebody; Kendal and Milne; Marshal and Snelgrove.
Principle players were not named after stores. The only one I can remember is the Californian Adonis Sidewinder, called after the state-of-the-art nuclear missile of the day. Spookily, a real American oarsman turned up at Oxford a few years later who was uncannily similar to Sidewinder in appearance, background and character. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, but he was a loner who stroked the Dark Blues to victory.
My career as a thriller writer was over, but come to think of it, there was plenty of confusion and downright fiction in the actual Oxford mutiny of 1987. The much-vaunted book True Blue by Dan Topolski (with writer and newspaper columnist Patrick Robinson), published in 1989, is a highly unreliable account riddled with small errors. Ali Gill tried to set the record straight in The Yanks at Oxford (1991). Independent Rowing News (now simply Rowing) gave voice to reminiscences collected by me 20 years later, and what both Blues and mutineers said then redefines ‘True’ in this story.
Most of the department stores are dead or re-incarnated, although at least they have a story, unlike those briefly named after them.