Tales of the Unexpected II – No Direction Home

The simple cardboard cover of “Boat Racing in Britain 1715 – 1975” showing all of its 45 years of shelf life.

1 June 2020

By Greg Denieffe

Greg Denieffe finds that browsing around his collection of books has a regal quality.

Regular readers of this site will have noticed that one of the recent themes has been ‘good reads for HTBS Types’. In my small collection of rowing books there are a couple of thin volumes that may be unique or nearly unique, not in their content but their binding. 

One of them is a copy of the very first ‘rowing history’ book that I bought – Boat Racing in Britain 1715 – 1975 by Keith Osborne, which was published in 1975 by the ARA to celebrate the holding of the World Rowing Championships that year in Nottingham.

The book is a treasure trove of information, especially for those with a passing interest in the rowing history. It whets the appetite, at least it did mine, for further reading. Its one big drawback was that it was poorly bound and even with careful handling, it became little more than a cover filled with 40 loose leaves.

Richard Way, 54 Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames.

One clever person decided that the way to preserve and enhance this book was to have it bound in hardcovers, which they did. It found its way onto the shelves of Richard Way’s bookshop in Henley and thence to mine where it has pride of place alongside another privately bound book Ned Hanlan (1978) by Frank Cosentino.

The ‘hardback’ edition of ‘Boat racing in Britain’ does not include the original cover within its pages. It has a scholarly ‘look and feel’ that only a book lover would understand. The grey marbled endsheets consist of a pastedown and a flyleaf at both the beginning and the end with a hollow back allowing for ease of reading.

Keith Osborne (1921 – 2016) was the Hon. Editor of the British Rowing Almanac for 50 years and he was the obvious choice to write the history on behalf of the ARA. Amongst his other rowing books are One Man Went to Row (1998) – a reflection on his 60 years of rowing, and 1000 Years of Rowing on the Dee (2003) – the story of rowing in Chester from the time of King Edgar in 973 up to 2003, the 270th year of Chester Regatta.

Keith wasn’t from Chester – he moved there in 1967 – but he became a part of the city’s rowing folklore over the near half-century that he lived there. Chester became part of mine in 1982.

In 2005, I took the liberty to write to Keith when it was advertised that he was selling copies of 1000 Years of Rowing on the Dee. I ordered a copy and asked if he would kindly sign it for me. I cheekily asked about hardback editions of Boat Racing in Britain and he replied confirming that “only softcover editions were on public sale” and that he “had a copy bound” for himself. I consider myself in good company and his handwritten note lives in my HB edition and acts as a bookmark.

Frank Cosentino could not be more different to Keith Osborne as someone who you would expect to see as an author of a book on rowing history. He was a professional quarterback in the Canadian Football League before turning his hand to writing sports books, amongst them the highly collectable Ned Hanlan (1978) published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in a series of books on famous Canadians.

I spent years trying to find an affordable copy of Ned Hanlan and when I did, it cost me one Canadian Dollar plus p&p. It proved to be more than a bargain because not only had it been rebound in a hardcover, it was a discarded delight, being ex-library from Kitchener Public Library, situated about 100 kilometres from Toronto where Hanlan grew up and learned to row.

I suspect that it was the library that bound the Hanlan biography as a way of protecting its softcover. The cover was removed, stuck on boards which were then covered in clear sticky back plastic before adding plain white endsheets. Like Boat Racing in Britain, in now has a pastedown and a flyleaf to both its beginning and end, and a hollow back.

The Boy in Blue.

As I mentioned above, Chester became part of my rowing folklore in 1982. The Carlow R.C. crew that I was in was having a successful season and our coach decided that we should enter Senior B (the name for under 23 events at the time) at Nottingham International Regatta (NIR). Unfortunately, only three clubs entered the Senior B 4+ event and it was pulled from the programme. What to do? Chester Regatta was scheduled to take place the same weekend as NIR and we entered there instead. The local paper was informed and somehow (guess who was Press Officer), Carlow’s entry for ‘Royal Chester Regatta’ made the sports pages the following week.

We made our way to Chester via the Dublin to Liverpool ferry route and settled into a lovely B&B close to the regatta course. Chester is a stunning walled city with a town crier, a racecourse, a famous zoo, and the beautiful River Dee. First impressions count and on day one, Chester delivered. On race day, we wandered down to The Groves where the rowing clubs are located and sought out changing room accommodation. Royal Chester R.C. had no room at the inn but luckily their near neighbours, Grosvenor R.C., were hospitable enough to allow the five of us to change and shower in their busy locker room.

We didn’t return the favour; we beat them in the semi-final before taking the scalp of Loughborough Students R.C. in the final. Shortly afterwards we made our way to The Red House Hotel, where the main enclosure was situated, to receive our pots, presented by Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster. I left the enclosure with a pint-size pewter tankard engraved with the logo of Bass Brewery and a copy of Boat Racing in Britain. ‘Royal’ regatta may have been a bit of a stretch, but we intended to make the most of it, and our last night in Chester.

Suited and booted, we found a lovely restaurant in the heart of the oldest part of town and the friendly waitress took our orders. Enquiring about our accents, she said that there were some other Irish customers in that night and felt that news of a winning Irish crew would bring them some cheer. In fact, it was a contingent from the Royal Irish Rangers that the waitress had server earlier and it was more jeer that cheer that greeted her news. By now, I was considering dropping ‘Royal’ from the following week’s rowing column.

In any event, we were due an early night because instead of heading straight home the following day, we planned on making a trip to Nottingham for day two of the International Regatta. This entailed a trip of more than 100 miles in the opposite direction to Liverpool and with one of our club members racing in the Irish Junior 4+ [Racing as IARU (Squad)] and an ex-captain of the club in the Irish Lightweight Men’s 4-, we felt a 200-mile round trip was a quite an acceptable way to while away a Sunday.

As well as celebrating the 10th anniversary of NIR, the ARA was celebrating its centenary and a special effort was made to encourage international squads to compete. The British [rowing as ARA Squad] were there in numbers and there were entries from the Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Swiss, Italian and Irish federations. If memory serves me well, it was a beautiful sunny day and the tail wind behaved itself so much that record times were set in most events. Carlow man, Jimmy O’Neill, was back in Nottingham having raced there in 1973 at the World Junior Championships (officially, a FISA Championship). He won on both days, but the junior crew we wished to see had an equipment failure outside the starting zone and that ended their and our interest in the rowing.

“Rowing”, the Independent magazine for enthusiasts everywhere, included a review of NIR by Richard Ayling in their July 1982 edition. The Headline was “The Sleeping Giant awakes” and the above photograph by John Shore, shows Ireland’s IARU ML4- of Jimmy O’Neill (Neptune R.C.), Gerry Macken (Dublin University B.C.), Nick Dunlop (Dublin University B.C.) and Barry Currivan (Neptune R.C.) rowing down Great Britain’s ARA crew of N. Howe, R. Downie, P. Zeon and S. Simpole [open to correction on the crew names] in Sunday’s final.
We split up and went exploring – me for souvenirs – and agreed to meet back at the trailer in plenty of time to make the trip to Liverpool to catch the overnight ferry back to Dublin. Apparently, time flies when you are enjoying yourself and not everyone made the rendezvous on time. By the time we did leave, we were an hour behind schedule. Bank holiday traffic, a boat trailer and a sour atmosphere do not make ideal travelling companions but at least we were on the road.

Three NIR Pins (and an unidentified imposter) from my 1982 trip.
This lot cost about £5.

It wasn’t a bank holiday weekend at home, and we all had jobs to go to – yes, straight from the ferry. When we reached the M6 motorway, it was time to get some sleep. A couple of hours later, we noticed the junction for WIGAN slip by the windows. Even George Orwell would have sworn. There was nothing for it but carry on to the next junction and do a U-turn back down the M6. Regardless, everyone in the car, like NIR itself, was now awake, and the trailer fairly hopped along as we tried to make up the time.

We certainly were not the first to board the ferry; we may well have been last, but board it, we did. Ten hours later, we were back home in Carlow and with our local regatta the following weekend, I had a preview to write and that had to include news of the club’s double success in Chester (Senior C Sculls was added to the four’s win). In my haste, ‘Royal Chester Regatta’ as it was called a week earlier, became ‘Chester Royal Regatta’.

As all rowers know, there is no ‘royal road to success’, but for a short period after success, every road becomes royal, even the M6 to Wigan.

One comment

  1. Greg,

    Fantastic article.
    It was our first foray into top flight international rowing.
    I remember the GB Crew who rowed in a red Empacher boat sponsored by Mobil Oil. On the Saturday we beat the Italian Crew who later went on to win the World Championships in Lucerne. To be honest we knew we had good boat speed, but did not expect to perform so well. My abiding memory was the rush back on the Holyhead ferry that evening (no fancy flights in our time), as I had to sit an exam in Trinity the next morning. Our coach John Holland had to miss the Regatta as his wife Theresa was expecting their son Barry, younger brother of Derek, well know rower and coach to be born. Jimmy O’Neill was a fine rower, coach and a stalwart of both Neptune RC and Carlow RC.


    Gerry Macken

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