15 June 2021
By Peter Pegnall
Peter Pegnall, an Old Latymerian, is a poet of seven collections, translator of one, editor of another. He writes obituaries for The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, reviews for The Catholic Herald, Poetry Ireland and Ploughshares. Pegnall is currently working on a verse translation of Sophocles’s Electra. In this piece, written exclusively for HTBS, he looks back at rowing in the 1960s at his old school, Latymer Upper School, in west London. He also celebrates more current events where girls from the school have been successful at Henley Royal Regatta.
Picture a waterfront tenement in Hammersmith, jagged glass or cardboard in many windows, pigeons and rats the remaining tenants. Every school day, they are disturbed by boys of varying stature and a vast vocal range. Somehow, they shrug aside the Dickensian squalor, they may even rejoice in the evidence of hurried love and cheap booze. They certainly add their own modest artistry to the graffiti, all of which they pretend to understand. Even in the icy blasts, the atmosphere exudes a kind of raffish courage: their mothers certainly would not approve and that’s good enough for any teenager. How could anything truly noble thrive in such a crumbling hulk?
With difficulty and dedication. Alan Watson, the rowing master at Latymer Upper School, had been an Olympic oarsman and lived and breathed the sport. His classroom overlooked the Thames, and he was never fully on land; he wore two stop watches around his neck and kept an eagle eye on waterside characters, whether unkempt or elegant, ordered or chaotic. His utter commitment did not lead towards oafish brutality, but to rigour, excellence and joyful friendship. The result was a First Eight that could compete with any far more affluent or prestigious crew, in particular St. Paul’s, whose boathouse at the time was only minutes from its Direct Grant School rival. The neat, cottage like exterior with a stylish balcony and obviously superior facilities were a constant rebuke. The only response was to defeat them and defeat them the Watson Boys did. Week after week, the captain of rowing ascended the stage during assembly, holding aloft some new trophy from a regatta or applauding an astonishing performance in a Head of the River Race. The truly remarkable fact is that they operated from this condemned building, that on one occasion the stroke put his foot through the floorboards, on another the rotting landing craft almost tipped the entire crew into the river. Add to this the lack of showers, a misanthropic boatman, who especially loathed schoolboys, and a river so polluted hospital treatment was essential for boys overboard and their achievements were not so much a triumph as an annihilation.
Given another year together and Henley would have been a serious target. They knew how to party as well. This was the early sixties and sport had not become the science of self-affliction it was later to resemble. Groupies in competitive hats and Biba gowns lined the towpaths, not yet ready to make their own, imperial mark.
Shift the focus a few years. No more squalor, no more immediately evident health hazards. A gleaming new boathouse, nestled next to Rivercourt House, the only elegant building on the Latymer campus.
A fitting home for the young Olympians. Well, yes and no. Yes, to the showers, the cleanliness (in so far as ‘clean’ and ‘teenage boys’ are not contradictory concepts). Yes, to the new boatman, ‘arry, wonderfully ironic, but also affectionally dedicated to the cause. Very much yes to the splendid new First Eight shell and to the small fleet of single sculls, a four and a clinker-built training boat. Finally, to complete this prestigious venture, a riverside reception room in which to display trophies and photographs of past glories.
There was the rub. For too many years, Latymerian crews simply didn’t approach their redoubtable ancestors in skill or power. The dedication was there, the coach remained as inspirational, but those golden Monday morning assemblies of displaying the latest victory to thunderous applause and the occasional smirk of dissent seemed over. Had the magic and the muscle dissolved in too much luck and comfort? Were the Emperor’s new clothes all too transparent?
I would argue strongly against this, in a way that may not delight the rowing purist. Set your sights a little lower, at The Latymerian Third Eight, coached by Brian Binding. Brian was small in stature, but colossal in style and charisma. He gathered together a raggle taggle crew, potential mutineers in any other hands than his. Skipping games would have been their athletic pursuit of choice, opening packs of Silk Cut their most strenuous exercise. Consulate for the health fanatics. Somehow most of them made it to the river, most of the time, even on Saturday mornings in November. They complained with obscene eloquence. Their rowing kit reflected their backgrounds and predilections: Chiswick Dave sported a ‘Donovan’ cap, from which his unruly curls escaped; Martin’s mum had pressed his socks and ensured weekly maintenance of a ‘coconut’ hair cut; Rob simply couldn’t see beyond his fringe, so it was as well he was stroke; Peter was christened ‘fifty thousand combs’ by ‘arry, with some justice.
They would never have thrived in a Regatta, although a handful of them certainly had the skill and the tenacity. They wouldn’t or couldn’t train enough, many of them working at the week-ends, several more doing their best to swing in the sixties. Latymer’s sports results may sometimes have suffered from the outlaw mentality which has always thrived within its little chunk of West London. Out law, but in common, gladly. This was the glory of Brian’s Third Eight: almost despite themselves they learned to rely on each other as well as to posture apart. Above all, the extraordinary privilege of sometimes getting it right, to be in unison against wind and water, at the very core of man’s eternal affinities. Fixtures were arranged with other schools’ more conventional crews and victories enjoyed with all the gusto of winners of The Grand Challenge Cup. Likewise, defeat hurt deeply, although bravado may not have confessed to that. Unsung, until now, the magnificent nine carried more than a boat with them when they trod on dry land.
It may take a very partial view to celebrate the cool dudes of 1966, but no such generosity need be applied to the girls’ crew of 2019, triumphant in The Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup. The times had certainly changed, to borrow a Nobel Laureate’s defiant vaunt, but Henley Royal Regatta took a good long while conforming to mainstream social values. It was the early nineteen nineties before women were to compete at this enclave of the male Adonis, the female role being mainly decorative or maternal: coat hangers or hampers. This is not an accurate reflection of the sport in general, but the very establishment of a Women’s Henley Regatta in 1988 was a testament to a need for greater recognition, for acknowledgement of the sheer growth in numbers, as well as the skill and commitment of women athletes. Leading by example may always be the best vehicle for change: in 1993, The Royal Regatta abandoned its gender prohibition.
It was not merely sporting stereotypes that were being shattered at Henley, it was the deconstruction of insidious assumptions about ‘female’ character. Corporate effort, selfless tenacity, the individual only effective as part of a unified whole: these were virtues only grudgingly ascribed to women within male dominated institutions. Enter Latymer’s 2019 crew for The Diamond Jubilee Cup. These young women had begun as outsiders in an entry of 53 crews, but staked their claim well before the final triumph. They offered not only determination and guts, but impeccable style and tactical intelligence: their performances enthralled many more than their own supporters. Headington School were compelled to witness defeat from choppy water, ready and willing, but beaten almost from the starting signal.
There has been something of a subtext behind this survey of more than fifty years, an endorsement of the human qualities required and developed by competitive rowing. Above all it can engage the whole person and his or her experience of their fellow crew members, often in spectacular natural surroundings. It’s my belief that it also nurtures acceptance of failure and respect of opponents, however much that may hurt. Consider the photographs of the 2019 triumph.
One of them shows the crew coasting home, in harmony with each other and with their watery element. ‘Sweet Thames’ indeed, when it is home to such force and beauty. Now examine the awkward, staged photograph after the race. The strange mixture of schoolboy caps and blazers with floral print dresses have nothing whatsoever to do with their titanic struggles. A discarded motto for Latymer was paulatim ergo certe, ‘little by little and therefore surely’, with a nifty concealment of the founder’s name slap in the middle. These days the ambitions are somewhat bolder, more dynamic, no less self-aware: a healthy society modifies as well as preserves its traditions.
Special thanks to Siân Davis, Alumni Relations Manager, Latymer Foundation.