12 June 2019
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch watches otherwise intelligent people trying to hit each other.
In his biographical work, The Last Enemy (1942), Richard Hillary noted that ‘Oxford has been called many names, from “the city of beautiful nonsense” to “an organised waste of time.”’ I think that the phrases ‘beautiful nonsense’ and ‘an organised waste of time’ can also be applied to the sport of rowing in general and to the ancient university’s dominant boat racing events, ‘bumps’, in particular. After my 2014 visit to Oxford’s summertime bumps, ‘Eights Week’ or ‘Summer Eights’, I wrote that
it is a truth universally acknowledged that the British, if they possibly can, will take a perfectly sensible sport and devise a race:
1) With rules so complex that they are almost impenetrable to an outsider.
2) Which is so potentially dangerous that, had it been invented today, it would be banned.
3) Where there is a clear hierarchy that is very difficult to challenge.
4) That has its own nomenclature and arcane rituals.
5) Where the spectators can drink copious amounts of alcohol in very pleasant surroundings and treat watching the racing as an option.
The form of boat racing known as ‘bumps’ at Oxford (and Cambridge) ticks all these boxes – but this is not a criticism. In fact, ‘bumps’ are a brilliant and fair way of allowing the maximum number of participants of extremely varying abilities to race on a most unsuitable stretch of river and, moreover, it results in a large portion of them becoming ‘winners’ in one way or another.
Bump racing between crews from most of the 43 colleges and halls that make up the university originated because the Thames at Oxford (the Isis) is too narrow for side-by-side racing. In the four-day event, divisions of 14 crews of similar ability chase each other in single file, each trying to catch the boat in front without being caught by the boat behind. Once there is physical contact or overlap, both boats withdraw from the race and pull into the side. For the next day’s (or next year’s) race, they will then swap places in the starting order. For the best crews, the ultimate aim is to climb to the top of Division 1 and to be ‘Head of the River’. As a rise of four places in a year (i.e. making a bump every day) is rare, the journey is a long one and, frustratingly, can resemble a game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’ when some good years of bumping other crews and rising through the rankings is negated by being bumped and dropping back down the table.
On Saturday, 1 June, I visited the final day of the 2019 Summer Eights. In this, the first of my two-part report, I am posting pictures with two of my favourite themes: how things change but stay the same, and ‘people watching’. Part two will actually be about rowing.
Bumps: plus ça change
Eights Week provides a great opportunity for ‘people watching’. Reviewing my pictures, I am not sure they all truly reflect the ‘typical’ competitor or spectator but I hope that they still give an idea of the spirit of the occasion.
Part II will be posted tomorrow.