6 May 2020
By Chris Dodd
After his recommendations made two weeks ago, Chris Dodd samples some recent books on rowing.
Rowing writers have been prolific in the past couple of years. I can’t pretend to have read all the books mentioned here, so this is more a pointer to recent stories rather than a review. The centenary of WWI inspired a clutch of commemorative volumes from Britain and Australia, all of which are worth dipping into. They include John Beresford’s moving compilation of his father Jack’s letters from the Front (An Olympian at War, The Cloister House Press, 2019); London Rowing Club’s volume on members who gave their lives in the 1914-18 conflict (LRC 2018); Bruce Coe’s story of the King’s Cup, the trophy won by the Australian Army at the Henley Peace Regatta in 1919 (Pulling Through, Slattery Media, 2019); Scott Patterson has also written on the Australians at Henley in 1919 (and after) in The Oarsmen (Hardie Grant Books, 2019) but the two books are complementary, both worth reading.
Recent biography includes Andrew Larkin’s account of rowing at Harvard under the great Harry Parker, and his post-Harvard life on rivers in Alden shells, a highly pleasurable book. Larkin also goes into detail on Parker’s eight’s support for the demonstration at the Mexico Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave Black Power salutes on the medal podium. They and the crew ran into trouble with the U.S. Olympic Committee and IOC boss Avery Brundage (My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow, Off the Common, 2018).
The lives of two giants of World Rowing, Thomi Keller and Thor Nilsen, are now between covers. Thomi and Thor both fill a room and are the movers and shakers of post-WWII rowing, Thomi as president of FISA for 30 years until he died in office in 1989, and Thor as the coaches’ coach and driving force behind the federation’s development programme.
David Owen, a former sports editor of the Financial Times and a senior contributor to Inside the Games, sets out Keller’s championing of athletes and his battles with the IOC over commercialism and other issues (Thomi Keller, A Life in Sport, Independent Publishing Network, 2018).
Yours truly follows Thor Nilsen’s life from Nazi-occupied Norway to setting up perpetual coaching academies in Banyoles, Piediluco and Seville. His story takes him and us around the world where a diversity of development schemes have spread rowing on five continents and preserved its place in the Olympic Games. Thor’s is a success story that was a joy to write, an experience which I hope spills into the reader’s own (Thor Nilsen, Rowing’s Global Coach, Independent Publishing Network, 2019). The Thomi and Thor books complement each other, and it is fortunate for our sport that the pair of them were pals, thus avoiding what might have been a disastrous meeting of irresistible force and immovable object.
While blowing my own trumpet, I would recommend Hugh Matheson and my biography of Jurgen Grobler who is approaching – probably – his last Olympics as the coach with the Midas touch since 1976. It’s a helluva story and rip-roaring stuff (More Power – The Story of Jurgen Grobler, the Most Successful Olympic Coach of All Time, HQ-Harper Collins, 2018).
Still on biography, I came across Derek Winterbottom’s portrait of Bertrand Hallward who was the first vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham. Before that, he was headmaster of Clifton College during WWII, taking it to the top of the independent schools’ academic league table and moving it to rural Bude while General Omar Bradley and the U.S. Army planned D-Day in his cloistered classrooms in Bristol. I studied and rowed at Clifton after Hallward and Nottingham during his era at the university, where from 1948 to 1965 he turned a small university college into a top-rank Russell Group institution that has never looked back. As a former master in charge of rowing at Clifton, Winterbottom pays respect to the sport, recording that although Hallward’s bag was rugby, hockey, sailing and mountaineering, the Head supported rowing at Clifton and the V-C did likewise at Nottingham. A fascinating life of a dynamic and charismatic educator (Bertrand Hallward, First V-C of UoN, University of Nottingham, 1995).
Histories of clubs continue to be written, the most sumptuous recent one being Leander’s first two hundred years by many hands and edited by Andy Trotman (Leander Club: The First 200 Years, Leander Club, 2018). It includes a chapter on the history of early days on the Thames at Westminster by Peter Mallory, and one on the Pink Palace’s treasure by Thomas Weil. Further upstream, Hugh Digby has written a history of one of the leading junior powerhouses (The story of Abingdon School BC, Pinfold Publications, 2016).
William ‘Bill’ Rose used to run the Phillips auction house annual maritime sale at Henley, and there is no-one with as deep a knowledge of things upper Thames as he – although his wife Penny runs a close second. The stalwart of the Thames Traditional Boat Society has built a stupendous collection of traditional boats and all kinds of Thamesiana, and he has privately published a scrumptious catalogue of it, only slightly marred by an introductory rant at various institutions and authorities that would have been better placed elsewhere. Worth delving into if you share the trades and lore of the river (So Many Boats, So Little Time: The Rose Collection of River Thames Pleasure Boats, 2019).
While on the Thames, Simon Wilcox has written a charming account of travelling along the river guided by a 19th-century map (Mudlark River: Down the Thames with a Victorian Map, Simon Wilcox, 2014). And Rebecca Caroe has published three miscellanies of rowing tales and anecdotes (Rowperfect UK, 2017, 2018, 2019).
Lastly, but by no means least, is Robin Poke’s comprehensive history of rowing in Australia. The first volume takes us from 1770 to 1939, and although this is an academic book written for Poke’s PhD, it contains plenty of human stories and lively incidents as one expects from a prominent journalist. Examples are early regattas in Tasmania, harbour races between locals and crews of visiting ships, and how a string of seven Aussie professional scullers held the world professional title for 22 of 31 years between 1876 and 1907. Volume 2 cannot come soon enough (Looking Back, Rating High, A History of Australian Rowing, 1770-1939, Walla Walla Press, 2019).
Are you ready? Read!