6 February 2017
Tim Koch rambles on a bit but eventually remembers to write about rowing:
In late 1980, fresh out of university and grateful to the cheap flight pioneer, Freddie Laker, I made the first of my trips to the United States. It was a romantic cliché, but on that initial visit I spent a month travelling from coast to coast courtesy of the Greyhound Bus Company, imagining that I was some sort of movie anti-hero, filmed in long shot to a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. I was shown great hospitality in radical Berkeley, gay West Hollywood, small town Texas (which was neither radical nor gay), and in a New Mexico Native American reservation (among the only Americans who are not immigrants). For those of us who have long had a great affection for the United States of America (for all its faults), the last two weeks has been like watching a slightly eccentric but much loved relative rapidly decline into dementia. In his first week in office, the 45th President, amongst other things, declared himself in favour of torture and (on International Holocaust Memorial Day) issued an Executive Order that some would say was based on a xenophobic view of the quarter of the world’s population that follows one of the major religions. I cannot think of anything to say about the man and his un-American activities that has not been better expressed elsewhere, so I will content myself with reproducing a few historical British political bons mots which could, at first view, have been intended for the present Commander-in-Chief:
He would kill his own mother just so that he could use her skin to make a drum to beat his own praises. Margot Asquith on Winston Churchill.
He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened. Winston Churchill on Stanley Baldwin.
The Right Honourable Gentleman is indebted to his memory for his jests and to his imagination for his facts. Richard Brinsley Sheridan on Henry Dundas.
If a traveller were informed that such a man was the leader of the House of Commons, he might begin to comprehend how the ancient Egyptians worshipped an insect. Benjamin Disraeli on Lord John Russell.
While American democracy is surely strong enough to survive an authoritarian President, making sense of the situation is difficult because it is as if the rules have been rewritten – but kept secret. It is popularly supposed that there is a Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times. We seem to be living in very interesting times indeed and I suspect that they will continue long after the departure of the current POTUS (whenever that may be).
Amongst all this cynicism, we should remember that politicians occasionally say sensible things about important matters – such as rowing. In my report on the 2016 Lords v Commons Boat Race, I wrote on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rowing (APPGR). The Group, comprising Members of both Houses of the UK Parliament and of non-Parliamentary Associate Members, has the aim ‘to support the sport of rowing both within Parliament and outside’.
On 5 March 2015, the UK Parliament’s second chamber, the House of Lords, had an hour long debate on ‘women in rowing’ when Lord Thomas of Gresford asked the Government ‘what plans they have to encourage women to participate in the sport of rowing at every level of ability’. I will not attempt to summarise their Lordships individual eloquent and well researched arguments but I have extracted a few choice but probably unrepresentative lines from some of the nine speeches made. For those that want a more accurate picture of what was said, the transcript of the whole debate is here.
Lord Thomas of Gresford (Liberal Democrat): My Lords, on 11 April , Oxford and Cambridge women’s crews will race over the Putney/Mortlake 6.8 kilometre course for the first time ever. When in 1927 the first women’s race between the universities took place at Oxford, large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath to protest. It was conceded that it was unladylike to row side by side, so the crews competed on time and style. Oxford were quicker but some of the umpires thought that Cambridge were more stylish. Prejudice persisted. In the 1960s, a Cambridge college captain—male, of course—objected to women racing altogether. He complained, ‘It is a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility and physiologically dangerous…..’
The times of patronising women’s rowing have long gone. It is a sport that has earned the right in this country to be treated with equality and parity……
Lord Holmes of Richmond (Conservative): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford for securing this significant and timely debate. As a swimmer, I have always had more than a passing admiration for rowers. As we splash around in the pool, they seem to be able to glide gracefully on top of the water, clearly as a more evolved species……
Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat): My Lords… In the United States there is a thing called Title IX legislation, which makes it an offence for publicly funded institutions to discriminate in funding between boys and girls or men and women. That may not be appropriate here but we need to find a way of achieving the same result…..
Baroness Grey-Thompson (Cross Bencher): My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has been able to secure this debate today. Rowing is a fantastic sport with many fans. I am one of them…..
If we look back at the history of the [Women’s] Boat Race, in 1927, there was much discussion about whether the women should be allowed to wear shorts or more demure gym tunics. One of the Cambridge rowers had to sit on a stool in front of university staff, simulating the action of rowing, to ascertain which clothes best preserved her modesty. Even in 1985, there was a picture in one of the papers, which is shown on the BBC website, of the women’s team in their gowns and fishnet tights, showing their legs. I hope that we have moved on a little from that……
Lord Addington (Liberal Democrat): My Lords, I must declare one interest. I am the third member of the House of Lords boat to be here. I am afraid I have to say to my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford that it is his fault, because I could not row before I got in there. I can now row badly. My other sporting claim to fame is that I am what is left of a rugby player…
Do we remember the idea of the Big Society? I know that is an election ago now, but amateur clubs in sport are probably the epitome of that. If you take on a public good, you make sure that you can do it properly. You bring in bigger organisations and build a social background to it. Making sure that this can happen is incredibly important, and what the Government do is vital…
Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone (Conservative): My Lords, it is most unusual for anyone in this House to hear me say anything derogatory about the Member of Parliament for West Worthing [her husband, Peter Bottomley MP] — but on this occasion I feel a need to do so. There are magnificent rowing clubs in Worthing and I salute and pay tribute to them, but my condition for getting married was that my husband would come to Henley, because I come from a rowing family. My son is a member of Leander, my father was a member of Leander, my great-uncle rowed in the Blue Boat, my nephew rowed in the Blue Boat. This was a very important matter and his rowing is quite appalling – shameful. He swims well, he has joined British Canoeing, but rowing is not him….
Lord Collins of Highbury (Labour): My Lords….. British Rowing now  has 31,000 members, of whom 43% are female, compared with 38% in 2009. In the year following London 2012, 50% of new members were under 18 and 48% were female. As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, British Rowing is committed to promoting equality within the sport, setting an example for other national governing bodies, from grass roots to Olympic and Paralympic rowers. …..