Tom Weil’s Portillo Moment

The finish of the Harvard – Yale Race, 1906.

31 January 2018

Tim Koch takes the train to New Haven.

British readers will need no introduction to Michael Portillo. The more mature ones will remember him from his time as a Member of Parliament. Paradoxically, the once a ‘rising star of the New Right’ was a Thatcherite Conservative despite having an exiled Spanish Republican as a father.

It has been observed that ‘All political lives…. end in failure…’ and Portillo’s best known political legacy is probably ‘The Portillo Moment’, a rather insubstantial bequest from a man who belongs to that very overcrowded institution, ‘the ex-future Prime Ministers Club’.

Younger HTBS Types (if there are such creatures) will be more familiar with him as a genial broadcaster/media whore (delete as appropriate). Portillo is one of those politicians who, when the pole proves too greasy and they leave politics, appear to go on television at any opportunity, and for any reason – serious, frivolous and vacuous. One of his most successful attempts at appearing on British TV screens has been to front a series of popular programmes, which began with “Great British Railway Journeys” and which were followed by “Great Continental Railway Journeys” and, most recently, “Great American Railroad Journeys”. These programmes have, in fact, very little to do with trains, the railway tracks simply literally and metaphorically connect a series of local stories in what is part travel guide, part lightweight history programme. The Daily Telegraph summarised them thus: ‘Over a mild half-hour, Portillo travels from landmark to landmark, talking to enthusiastic locals and pondering the course of history.’

All this sounds rather critical, but Portillo and his show are entirely watchable – particularly an episode of his American odyssey that was first broadcast on the BBC on 26 January titled ‘New Haven, Connecticut, to Mount Washington, New Hampshire’. The programme guide tells us, ‘In New Haven, a crash course in rowing takes place on a stretch of water where college teams from Yale and Harvard have battled for victory since 1852’. This is not strictly correct, the Harvard – Yale clash has changed venues four times in its history. Wisely, the ‘enthusiastic local’ Portillo talked to for this experience was rowing historian, collector, benefactor and former Yale oarsman, Tom Weil.

Rowing historian Tom Weil (left) entertains broadcaster Michael Portillo (right), in the Trophy Room of Yale’s Gilder Boathouse.

Portillo began the five-minute rowing segment by noting what a very big business American collegiate sport is – but gave rowing the credit for starting it all. He went to Yale’s fantastic Gilder Boathouse, a 22,000-square-foot, purpose-built facility opened in 2000. In the Trophy Room, he met Tom who told him that rowing began at Yale in 1843 when seven students purchased a gig for $26.50, thinking that ‘it might be fun’. The picture then cut away to the historic Gales Ferry Boathouse in New London, the scene of the annual Harvard – Yale races. Tom explained that these began in 1852 when the local railroad company covered the costs of a rowing regatta between the two great universities in the hope of developing tourist traffic on their trains. This was, Portillo was told, the beginning of intercollegiate sports in the United States.

Tom Weil among some rowing treasures.

Nice archive film from the inter-war period followed, showing that trains not only brought the spectators to the races, but that open observation carriages ran on the tracks alongside the lake so that fans could watch the action from start to finish. Some later archive film followed, showing a Yale crew going afloat for a race – but the programme-makers also included a shot of their opponents on that day, and it is unlikely that they knew that this was the Cambridge Boat Race Crew, fresh from their 1951 victory over Oxford. In their U.S. tour, the Light Blues beat the other Dark Blues, Yale, and later, the Crimsons of Harvard.

Archive film showing observation cars following a race.

Finally, Portillo had a rowing lesson from Dave Vogel, the legendary rower and coach whose career in the sport spans more than four decades. Unfortunately, the ex-Cambridge man proved a poor pupil, he had clearly wasted his three years at Peterhouse by spending all his time there working for a First.

Dave Vogel (right) tries to teach Michael Portillo how to row.

UK residents can see the programme on the BBC’s ‘on demand’ service, iPlayer, for the next month by clicking here. As some compensation to those who cannot access the programme, below are some splendid archive images of ‘The Race’.

Harvard Rah! Rah! Rah! c.1911.
More of a stiff upper lip from Yale c.1911.
Glory Days, 1881.
The 1891 Race.
More from 1891.
Manly Fellows, 1893.
At the1908 Race: Yale Alumnus, WH Taft, U.S. President, 1909 – 1913.
Yale’s base for The Race – Gales Ferry c.1910.
Harvard’s base for The Race – The Red Top c.1908.
1910: A rowing report from “A Journal of Civilization”.
1914: When rowing made the headlines.
1939: Rowing on the front page of the “New York Times”.
1931: ‘King of Siam sees race aboard yacht’.
‘The Rock’, sited just before the finish line at Bartlett Cove. Traditionally, it bears the colour of the winning ‘combination crew’ from the race between the spares. Clearly, this was Yale’s year.
The Rock in a Harvard year.

One comment

  1. Chapter and verse for rowing as the instigator of collegiate sport in the USA can be found in Thomas C Mendenhall’s magnificent book The Harvard-Yale Boat Race 1852-1924, published by Mystic Seaport Museum.

    An account of Cambridge’s 1951 separate matches against Harvard and Yale is in this author’s The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. The tour began with fun and games because the winning crew in the Oxbridge race was to be rewarded with a trip to America. When Oxford sank soon after the start, a re-row was ordered two days later on Easter Monday. Cambridge won the re-row by an embarrassing dozen or so lengths. The winning one-piece Cambridge boat had to be rushed to Southampton to board the Queen Elizabeth, while the crew flew to the USA a few days later.

    Mendenhall the Yale historian also wrote an entertaining account of his visit to the Melbourne Olympics in1956 with the USA eight, aka Yale, in Have Oar Will Travel.

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