18 October 2018 (written City of London, 11 October 2018)
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd dines out for HTBS. (Unless otherwise stated, pictures, courtesy of Leander, are by PE Holland Photographic Services. Captions: Tim Koch.)
I alighted from the silent Prius hybrid to the cobbles at Guildhall to be sucked into a cavernous reception chamber for the members and guests of Leander Club celebrating, once again, their 200 years of being, their 100-plus appearances on the Olympic and Paralympic medal podium, and their 200th win at Henley Royal Regatta. While quaffing Digby Fine English Leander Pink, I ran into Paul Mainds, the former CEO of the River & Rowing Museum, who chaired the Pink Palace’s centenary committee; Peter Mallory, the famous historian; and Andy Trotman, editor of the club’s centenary book; plus a few chums that I recognised before I suffer the usual fate of the vertically-challenged at rowing events, being engulfed in a circle of shirt-fronts and acquiring a crooked neck.
Five hundred of us were gathered together at the concluding celebratory episode of self-regard. Once we sat to sup in the grand and lofty cathedral of the City of London’s banqueting hall, retiring president Jeremy ‘Rass’ Randall confessed that his year had been onerous. He had selflessly struggled to attend all but one great Pinkos’ event.
It began with the launch of Leander’s history book at No 11 Downing Street, continued with tea on the terrace at the House of Commons, evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, a giant hippo auction in Henley organised by Caroline Mulcahy of the club’s management team, barbies and receptions in Henley, an exhibition at the RRM, and the erection and opening of a new gateway to the Henley premises that is wide enough for a hippo and a fully rigged boat to pass through. These were interspersed by Leander dinners in Dublin, Sydney, New York and Jo’burg. Rass cocked up his return from Sydney and missed the South African feast, but otherwise, his wining and dining record is exemplary.
The evening’s proceedings began with a heroes’ welcome for a procession of Leander’s Olympic and Paralympic medal winners. Gazing up to the eves that were completed in 1440 – Guildhall trumps Leander by a few hundred sobering years – I spotted a pink scarf around the neck of a massive stone effigy of a former City luminary. Yes, remarked the retiring president later, they will wonder how we got it there, and Yes, we will be in trouble. In a characteristic stream of near-the-knuckle wit, Rass recalled for us that President Kennedy claimed to be a doughnut when visiting Berlin and that the French military wears brown trousers. He also warned the company against bad behaviour with the bread rolls. ‘The last time the hall was wrecked was on the night of 29-30 December 1940 when the Luftwaffe destroyed the roof.’
Rass then shared with us his recent correspondence:
‘As your local Member of Parliament, and as a member of the club myself, I am pleased once again to offer my congratulations on this wonderful milestone,’ wrote Theresa May, MP and PM. The way things are looking down Whitehall way, I reflect, Leander’s may be the only milestone that she passes this year.
And from Mrs Windsor: ‘Please convey my warm thanks to the members of Leander Club for their loyal greetings… As your patron, I much appreciate your thoughtfulness in writing as you did and, in return, send my best wishes to all those who are present for a memorable and successful event. – Elizabeth R.
The illustration on the menu – a poor image of Searles Yard and Boathouse in Lambeth – served to remind her where her royal barges were kept when Leander was born and before the new St Thomas’s Hospital obliterated them. It was, of course, good of HRH to pen a note to Rass at a time when her mind must have been distracted by how to persuade Phil ‘The Greek’ Edinburgh to arise in time for his grandchild Eugenie’s (pronounced ‘Ewejenny’, according to her Mum) wedding later that week. The hall dutifully rose to Her Majesty’s loyal toast, and gave Rass a rousing three cheers.
Château Bel Air Blanc, a fine 2017 Entre Deux Mers, was served with the starter (tempura of sea bass, pumpkin risotto and pea purée, not forgetting the lemongrass drizzle, since you ask). The seating plan must have been a nightmare, but the 30 or so famous Olympians on parade were spread about, so that everyone was in sight of Someone. I was in hailing distance of Tim Foster (Sydney 2000) and Alison Mowbray (Athens 2004), within missile-throwing distance of Ed Coode (Athens 2004) and caught sight of my co-author of Grobler’s biography More Power, Hugh Matheson (Montreal 1976). Oarsome. A further sobering thought is that before there was a Guildhall, there was a Roman amphitheatre, somewhere beneath our feet. And Lord Mayor Dick Whittington and his cat once trod these flagstones.
During the main course which consisted of ‘canon of saltmarsh lamb, rosemary and thyme crust, redcurrant jus, Dauphinoise potatoes and baby carrots’, my left-hand neighbour, Jane, quizzed Ron on her left about what Leander was for, and Ron recited a hymn sheet of ways in which the club raises money to support its main purpose, its rowing programme. Enjoying the Château Pipeau Richotey, Bordeaux 2016, my thoughts took an excursion to the world of Gog and Magog, two giants associated with the hall ever since (so the story goes) they were chained to the gates of Brutus of Troy’s palace on the site of Guildhall after suffering defeat at the hands of the tyrant. Seven-foot-high wicker effigies of the two basket-cases hang about somewhere in the building, courtesy of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, no less.
‘Afters’ was described as a ‘dark chocolate boat with rum crème brulée and raspberry sorbet’ and was challenging. The choc canoe seemed to be made of carbon fibre. Soon 500 diners were hammering away with spoons and forks in an endeavour to break off pieces of the dark stuff. Fortunately, Gog and Magog were not aroused from their slumber. Fairtrade coffee or Tregothnan Cornish tea and chocolate truffles followed, and Barāo de Vilar Port or Courvoisier VS Cognac accompanied the toasts. Rass Randall proposed the Olympians and Lt Pete Reed OBE RN, triple Olympic gold medallist, proposed ‘The Club’.
The split times for courses and speeches in no way matched their forecast on the menu, and by the time the good Navy lieutenant had run out of people to toast, carriages were stacking up outside like Dover after Brexit. As the throng emerged into the cobbled yard I admired the grand entrance of the east wing of the south front, constructed in Hindoostani Gothic in 1788 – a merry gavotte by the architect George Dance, if you ask me.
As I searched for my carriage, I thought that Guildhall was not a bad place for Leander Club to celebrate its bicentenary. (By the way, the hall never uses the definite article, whereas Leander used to reach for ‘The’ in olden days when its rowing prowess was as low as its nose was held high). The hall has heavyweight history and legend going back some, while the club is hell-bent on adding another 200 years to its journey, and is well on the way to its 200th Olympic/Paralympic medal.
Leander can match Guildhall for giants, legends and myths. Despite the scholarly questing of historians, big questions remain. Does anybody know for certain why Leander called itself Leander in 1818? Or if Star and Arrow formed it deliberately or accidentally?
Or who chose pink for livery, and why? Or why the colour is called cerise, or whether pink and cerise were near as dammit the same?
Or whether the club adopted the hippo, or the hippo adopted the club? Or why?
Or who first wore pink socks?
Carried away by these thoughts, I was expecting the cobbles to echo with the hoofs of a coach and eight, clattering out West full to the brim with pinkos with their noses in the air heading for a nightcap in the bar of the Pink Palace (once described by an Irish friend of mine as ‘the best crapper in Henley’). But alas, the Henley contingent were boarding a couple of executive cruise-liners, while I was on my mobile locating the hybrid that would take me across the Thames to the South, passing close to the site of Searles’ yard.
Corpus Leandri spes mea, whatever that means!