A book ‘flavored with vintage Fairbairn’

10 May 2018 

Göran R Buckhorn takes a look in his book shelf, where he finds a hard-to-find book by Steve Fairbairn.

Famous rowing coach Steve Fairbairn is known for his new ‘method’ of rowing, which he claimed was not a new style. He was opposed to the so-called orthodox style with its ‘shoulder catch’, the oar’s ‘back-splash’ and the ‘lively recovery’. To popularize his method, Fairbairn published several books, which came out in numerous editions.

In 1927, the publisher Sporting Handbooks in Fleet Street, London, published Fairbairn’s Rowing Annual, Season 1927-28, which probably is Steve Fairbairn’s least known book, if one could say that it is a work by him. The book has information about a lot of the different areas of British rowing and results from various regattas from 1926 and interesting articles by some well-known people of the 1920s rowing Britain. The authors and the articles are: J. Bell, “Cambridge in 1926”; Jack Beresford, Jnr, “How to Scull”; Gerald B. Booth, “Kingston Amateur Regatta”; Dorothy Conyers, “Rowing for Women”; E. C. T. Edwards, “Oxford Rowing in 1926”; C. W. Kent, “Molesey Regatta”; Guy ‘Gully’ O. Nickalls, “The Way in which I think I Row”; Conrad A. Skinner, “Steering on the Tideway”; and L. Cecil Smith, “Public School Rowing”. Of course, the book also includes a few articles by Fairbairn where he is making his case for his ‘method’ of rowing. The book is, in the words of American rowing historian Thomas Mendenhall, ‘flavored with vintage Fairbairn [sayings]’.

The title of the book indicates that Fairbairn was planning a series of ‘annuals’ for coming rowing seasons, taking up the rivalry of the already existing British Rowing Almanack and Oarsman’s Companion, which had been published since 1861. In the foreword, Fairbairn writes: ‘There is, of course, the “Rowing Almanac”, a book of which I entertain the highest opinion, and which I can commend to every rowing man; but I feel there is room for another annual of a different kind, to be sold at a popular price. Hence this book.’ The price of the book was two shillings, while the Almanac was four shillings. Steve continues to write that while he is mainly responsible for financing the book, it is the publisher, or as Steve puts it, ‘those who are doing the hard work [who] are unanimous in asking that the production be called “Fairbairn’s Rowing Annual.” This is against my better feelings, but I must bow to their decision.’ So whilst the book carries Steve Fairbairn’s name, it is clear that he is not the editor of the publication. Fairbairn’s articles, though they are few in this book, never made it into any of the three editions of The Complete Steve Fairbairn on Rowing. Despite the good intent, Fairbairn’s Rowing Annual, Season 1927-28 would be the only one to be published of these planned annuals.

Coach and author Steve Fairbairn.

These days, Fairbairn’s Rowing Annual is tricky to find in the antiquarian book trade. If a book seller miraculously would have a copy for sale, you have to be prepared to pay a hefty sum for it, which, as a matter of fact, you have to do with all of Fairbairn’s books nowadays – except the affordable third edition of On Rowing by Steve Fairbairn, the e-book edited by rowing historian Peter Mallory and published by the online rowing portal Rowperfect UK in November 2014.

I was lucky to get my hands on a copy of Fairbairn’s Rowing Annual last year. With the help of rowing historian Greg Denieffe, acclaimed writer for this website, it not only found its way over the Atlantic but was presented as a generous gift to yours truly. Fairbairn’s Rowing Annual now has a special place in my collection of rowing books.

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