4 June 2020
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd and some old fake news.
The death of the Bulgarian artist Christo, on 31 May, who, with his late wife Jeanne-Claude, had a penchant for wrapping structures like the Reichstag and the Pont Neuf in plastic, took me back to Boat Race Day in 1995.
Three coincidental things gave me an idea. The race was on April the First. Hammersmith Bridge’s Surrey tower and carriageway as far as the Second Lamppost – under which coxes try to position themselves to take maximum advantage of the tide on the Surrey bend – had been swathed in contractor’s plastic for weeks. And during the period running up to the race, Christo was in the news because the German parliament voted to allow its building to be wrapped, against the wishes of Chancellor Kohl’s Government.
If Christo were to parcel up the whole bridge, the crews would not be able to pass under it. I rang the picture editor at the Guardian, Eamonn McCabe, and put the wheeze to him. Next time the paper’s photographer, Frank Baron, was aboard the press launch snapping the crews at practise, I tasked the skipper, Chas Newens, to take a wide sweep to the bridge so that Frank could get a wide-angle shot of the whole span.
While the office set about doctoring the image so that sheeting covered the structure from end to end and top of towers to high water line, I concocted a story explaining that Christo’s latest wrap caused the Boat Race to be run from Putney to Hammersmith and back. The crews would have to turn around a stake just below the bridge. In order to keep spectators happy, the Isis-Goldie race would run from Mortlake downstream against the tide to Hammersmith, round a stake and back to the Finish.
I let Barry Davies, the BBC commentator, and the two presidents – Light Blue Richard Phelps and Dark Blue Jeremiah McLanahan – into the April foolery while making up quotes from coaches, punters, the Port of London Authority et al, and filed the story. It made the perfect Page 1 lead for a broadsheet, with an eight-column picture of Christo’s handiwork and a plausible story with quotes from the presidents of how they had been secretly practising turning an eight round a stake etc.
The only thing that went wrong was that the Guardian decided not to run it. The new editor, Alan Rusbridger, still green round the gills, had written an April Fool of his own, and decided that one was enough. Yah Boo Sucks! The Christo story was better than his obscure classical joke. In fairness to Alan, he was faced with the challenge of maintaining his paper’s reputation after the Guardian had discovered the republic of San Seriffe a few years before, the April Fool to crown all April Fools to that date.
By the way, Cambridge won the 1995 Boat Race by four lengths. And I should point out that the Guardian was not in the habit of doctoring photographs.
Incidentally, the Boat Race of 1886 almost came to grief under Hammersmith Bridge when it was under reconstruction, and the centre span was narrowed by temporary piles. The crews were level when they reached the bridge, and they were forced to knit their blades to emerge together from shooting it.
In 1965, the first of April was a red-letter for Jim Rogers, ex-Yale cox of Isis. He steered his crew to victory over Oxford’s Blue Boat, almost driving them off the Tideway, two days before the Boat Race. Rogers was an angry man because he was the victim of a dispute over selection involving the Aussie coach Sam Mackenzie. Anyway, on 3 April, Rogers and Isis won the first-ever Isis-Goldie race by seven lengths, and Oxford won the Boat Race by four lengths. Next year Rogers coxed Oxford’s Blue Boat to victory.