A Mass of Imperfections

Rudolph Chambers ‘R.C.’ Lehmann (1856 – 1929), coach, politician, writer, poet and lyricist.

23 May 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on getting the message across.

Assuming that one day life will revert back to something like we were experiencing until a few months ago, I will eventually return to teaching young people and adults the fundamentals of rowing. People sometimes ask what the difference between coaching these two groups is; the answer is ‘very little’. Both contain a number who understand what is happening reasonably quickly and both contain a number who are a little slower, not least because they seem to forget English as she is spoke. I am not talking about ‘special’ rowing terms (front stops, catch, feather etc) but ‘normal’ words used in a normal way. I have had engineers who lower their hands when asked to raise them, doctors who bend their arms when asked to straighten them, and lawyers who confuse forwards with backwards. Eventually, however, most people learn the basics and may move onto more ‘advanced’ coaching, but, unfortunately, understanding what an instructor is trying to say does not get any easier. Rudie Lehmann recognised this with his poem, The Oarsman’s ABC, published in his book, Rowing (Isthmian Library, 1898).

The Oarsman’s ABC is in the form of a plea from a keen but confused group of Freshmen rowers. The first five verses establish how much they enjoy rowing and how hard they are trying to learn and to improve but, unfortunately, they are dumbfounded by many (or perhaps all) of the terms, criticisms and commands coming from their coaches. Perhaps addressing Lehmann himself, they say:

So forgive us if we ask you, sir—we’re dull, perhaps, but keen—
To explain these solemn mysteries and tell us what they mean.

Several verses later, they give alphabetised examples of the mysterious ‘coachspeak’ that is confusing them. The photographs are from Lehmann’s Rowing and they show his idea of the stroke cycle on 16-inch slides and fixed pins. The oarsman in the pictures seems to be the author himself.

There’s a stroke who ‘slices awfully,’ and learns without remorse
That his crew are all to pieces at the finish of the course;
There’s A, who ‘chucks his head about,’ and B, who ‘twists and screws,’
Like an animated gimlet in a pair of shorts and shoes.

And C is ‘all beginning,’ so remark his candid friends;
It must wear him out in time, we think, this stroke that never ends.
And though D has no beginning, yet his finish is A1;
How can that possess a finish which has never been begun?

And E apparently would be an oar beyond compare,
If the air were only water and the water only air.
And F, whose style is lofty, doubtless has his reasons why
He should wish to scrape the judgment seat, when rowing, from the sky.

Then G is far too neat for work, and H is far too rough;
There’s J, who lugs, they say, too much, and K not half enough;
There’s L, who’s never fairly done, and M., who’s done too brown,
And N, who can’t stand training, and poor O, who can’t sit down.

And P is much too limp to last; there’s Q too stiffly starched;
And R, poor fool, whose inside wrist is never ‘nicely arched.’
And, oh, sir, if you pity us, pray tell us, if you please,
What is meant by ‘keep your button up,’ and ‘flatten down your knees.’

If an oar may be described as ‘he,’ there’s no death half so grim
As the death like which we hang on with our outside hands to ‘him’;
But in spite of all our efforts, we have never grasped, have you?
How not to use ‘those arms’ of ours, and yet to pull it through.

S ‘never pulled his shoestrings.’ If a man must pull at all,
Why uselessly pull shoestrings? Such a task would surely pall.
But T’s offence is worse than that, he’ll never get his Blue,
He thinks rowing is a pastime—well, we own we thought so too.

Then V’s ‘a shocking sugarer,’ how bitter to be that!
X flourishes his oar about as if it were a bat;
And Y should be provided, we imagine, with a spade,
Since he always ‘digs,’ instead of ‘merely covering his blade.’

Lastly, Z’s a ‘real old corker,’ who will never learn to work,
For he puts his oar in gently and extracts it with a jerk.
Oh! never has there been, we trow, since wickedness began,
Such a mass of imperfections as the perfect rowing man.

The passage of time has not made Lehmann’s observations any the less true.

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