12 August 2021
Chris Dodd and fellow rowing correspondents remember Mike Rosewell, a writer and coach never so aptly named.
Mike Rosewell, the distinguished rowing journalist who has died aged 84, was born into a family of watermen steeped in rowing and Thames lore over two or three centuries. It was hardly surprising that Mike was sucked into the sport at an early age, becoming a fiery and champion sculler, skiff shover and oarsman at Walton RC, a highly successful coach and a writer who combined nous and insight to report what was afoot.
The pinnacle of his writing career was as the Times rowing correspondent from 1989 to 2007 and deputy editor of Regatta magazine over a similar period. His by-line also appeared in a succession of papers in rowing’s foothills, including the Surrey Herald, Surrey Comet, Evening Mail, Oxford Times, Thames User and Rowing magazine.
He also edited the Friends of the Boat Race magazine and assisted in editing the British Rowing Almanack, the sport’s annual record. Not content with pulling an oar and pushing a pen, Mike was a member of the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing) Council for 32 years from 1968 where he did a stint on the executive committee and chaired the junior rowing and publicity committees. He acted as GB junior team delegate and team manager for England.
Mike was a robust debater who did not kowtow to the blazerati establishment if the subject in question did not warrant it. For years he wrote an anonymous column in various incarnations – ARA Alf, Just Alf, Son of Alf – in Rowing magazine that took issue with the governing body as well as poked gentle fun at the establishment.
Mike was born to Frederick Jack Rosewell and Anne Emma, née Helps, of Walton on Thames. After Woking Grammar School, he studied at the London School of Economics and Westminster College before forging a career as an economics teacher and rowing coach at, successively, Ealing Grammar School, St George’s College Weybridge and St Edward’s School, Oxford. He turned many crews into winners over thousands of miles riding the towpath, often reminding colleagues that he could claim to be the most successful coach in Britain for a number of years. His charges included the GB junior squad, Christ Church, Wadham and Trinity colleges in Oxford, the Oxford lightweights and eight years with the Oxford Women’s BC.
Mike and I travelled the world together on behalf of newspapers, together with other members of the British Association of Rowing Journalists (BARJ), often sharing cars and rooms, meals and sight-seeing, and most importantly camaraderie and jokes. Rachel Quarrell of the Telegraph and RowingVoice remembers him as a generous and lovely person to the newbie reporter. ‘He was benevolently kind and paternal, making sure I knew where to go and what to do, checking I’d got my accreditations sorted out, and very congratulatory when everyone discovered I’d stepped into Geoffrey Page’s shoes in 2002.’
He was also a big tease, trying to suggest spurious initiation tests for BARJ membership. He was also the best at timing the Boat Race, a task bestowed on a team of three aboard the press launch. Rachel and Mike would take rates and jot down times as we passed the Mile, the Steps etc., while my job was to yell out when the flags on the bank dropped as the crews sliced through the water.
Quarrell says she particularly misses the mischievous look on Mike’s face which indicated that he’d found some useful nugget of information that the rest of us had missed. Apart from being fun, Mike was a diligent rowing reporter. Mike Haggerty of the Herald remembers ‘many times when the rest of us would be sitting in a regatta press bar finishing off our second well-deserved post-racing refreshment while Mike revised his hand-written report again and again to fit a quart’s-worth of stories into the pint pot that was the word count allocated to rowing by the Times sports desk’.
When Hugh Matheson joined the press corps as correspondent of the new Independent in 1986, Mike was already a fixture. ‘His angle was to know slightly different stuff from everyone else. Often it turned out that he had coached whoever we were talking about at St Edward’s or had seen the baby Redgrave floating in his cradle in the rushes downstream from Marlow. I liked him mostly because we laughed at the same jokes and had the same distrust of editors, who did not know which end of the oar to pull on.’
This is echoed by Quarrell who says that she kept coming across people who’d been coached by Mike, describing him as brilliant, especially with the young, the uncertain and the new.
The photographer Peter Spurrier remembers that after his two great loves, Jill and Rowing, came other interests. A favourite topic on trips was the goings on at Fawlty Towers and how middle-aged Germans reacted to Basil’s goose-stepping behaviour towards German tourists who visited his hotel.
A running refrain was Mike’s excuse for lack of sleep. Robert Treharne Jones recalls breakfasts at the world championships in Aiguebelette in 1997, where Mike arrived in a grizzly mood, professing to have been kept awake all night. ‘It was one o’clock in the morning, there was this banging on the door, and you’ll never guess who it was… bloody Brigitte Bardot! Well, I told her to go away, the silly cow, but she kept moaning “Oh, Mike, I want you, I need you!”.’ He had us all in stitches as he paraphrased the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch from start to finish.
Mike was also a keen member of the BARJ band formed by Haggerty in a mad moment after he had cleaned out a Glasgow music shop of its stock of kazoos. This musical phenomenon made its debut at a World Cup in Munich, if I remember correctly, with an appallingly bad rendering of Deutschland über alles. The song that became BARJ’s anthem, however, was Always look on the bright side of life.
Mike’s talents extended beyond moving boats. He was a nifty dancer, seizing any opportunity to take to the floor anywhere where we could find a jazz haunt. At the Sydney Olympics, Mike, Spurrier and photographer Chris Milliman were billeted in a house near Penrith Rowing Club, not far from the rowing course. Jiving at the club with landlady Pam and her friends became nightly BARJ entertainment, as did similar circumstances in St Catharine’s, Ontario, during the 1999 World Championships.
Quarrell recalls a night in Poznan slithering on the cobbles of the main square to find somewhere to eat in a downpour. Eventually the BARJ contingent found an empty restaurant. Mike charmed the lady owner and before long music and dancing broke out, led by the Times corr as the life and soul of the party. Needless to say, repeat visits followed.
As Mike Haggerty says, Mike Rosewell was a fellow-traveller who made the journey a joy. Haggerty recalls daft slapstick moments in the press box at Henley, much to the annoyance of the properly-peeved serious journalist that was Geoffrey Page, who chided us like the unruly youngsters that we were (no point in going into details – you had to be there – but typically it would involve handing over/not handing over telephone receivers or race reports and fighting over seat cushions).
‘I remember Mike sitting incredulously as fellow Glaswegian (now deceased) Campbell Ferguson (BBC Sport producer) and I explained that we were friends despite being on opposite sides of the great West-of-Scotland sectarian divide, and explaining the tell-tale signs of which side someone came from, without being so crass as to ask (the giveaway, as I once explained to Steve Redgrave and BBC’s John Inverdale, is to ask what school did you go to. If the answer was St. Someone-or-other, you knew),’ Haggerty says. ‘Of course, the root of the divide between Campbell and I wasn’t catholic or protestant, it wasn’t even Celtic or Rangers – and we were on opposite sides in both cases. Rather, it was Clyde and Clydesdale rowing clubs. We were on opposite sides of that one too!’
I often shared accommodation with Mike on foreign jaunts, such as in Milan where we foiled an attempt to dip Mike in the metro, and in Athens where we shared a bungalow on a Hellenic Navy base next to a beach with an all-night taverna. When he was England manager, he gave me a spare seat on the plane to the Home Countries International in Cork in 1976, and we spent the whole weekend doubled in mirth.
Ireland was living on credit because of a month-old bank clerks strike, and Cork was living on cheap vodka from a Soviet factory ship arrested by the Irish navy inside territorial waters. The course was shortened for ladies and youths by cutting 500 metres off the end instead of the beginning, so the journos had to guess the finishing order of races. Road bowling was being played all over the district and most spectators had trannies tuned either to the all-Ireland shinty final or the Olympic regatta in Montreal where Sean Drea was striving to strike metal for Ireland. Being English, we were at sea for most of the weekend.
Throughout his life Mike had a fund of jokes and stories that he was pleased to share at the slightest provocation, usually beginning with ‘Did I ever tell you the one about…?’ Quite often we had heard that one, but that didn’t stop him telling us again. Robert Treharne Jones recalls long car journeys to GB trials in Belgium during which we had to limit his jokes to two per hour, ‘and he was suitably grizzly when he tried to start up again and we told him that thirty minutes had not yet expired.’
Mike was a key member of the press team at the 1986 Worlds in Nottingham, where one of his duties was to co-edit the daily new sheet On the Waterfront. In the days before electronic communication and social media it proved a great success, with its mix of hard fact, lighthearted anecdotes and general gossip, and its publication each day was eagerly awaited by everyone, including FISA President Thomi Keller, who picked up his copy one morning and is alleged to have remarked ‘Ah, more bullshit, I see!’
Jones recalls that as a regular member of the travelling press corps Mike always entered into the spirit of things following each day’s racing, when his preferred tipple was a glass of red wine. He was a regular member of the group that met on the balcony of Room 124 – the late Geoffrey Page’s room – in the Hotel des Alpes, Lucerne, for the Telegraph man’s Memorial G&T Party, and would often propose the BARJ toast – originated by Geoffrey one bleak evening in Brandenburg over a bottle of sump oil – ‘I could drink that!’. Sometimes things got a little out of hand, such as the occasion when we were being entertained to dinner by the GB sponsors, and Mike took a fancy to the waiter’s tie and suggested that they swap. Somewhere in Munich there may still be a waiter proudly sporting a Leander necktie.
As a former teacher and coach, Mike’s primary interest was schools’ rowing. When Treharne Jones was the Henley press officer, and launch tickets were made available to bona fide rowing journalists, he always knew which race Mike would want to follow come finals day. While others would have slayed their first-born to follow the Grand, the Stewards, or the Diamonds, Mike was always the only one to request a ticket for the Princess Elizabeth, and, as a result, probably followed more finals in that event than anyone else on the planet.
Until he gave up, Mike was a heavy smoker, and used tobacco to sustain himself during long hours in the press grandstand, where he also used a black sun shield, like an old-fashioned photographer’s hood, to prevent glare on the screen of his laptop. One of Treharne Jones’s abiding memories is seeing him crouched over his laptop, surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke issuing forth from beneath the hood, as he tapped out another knowledgeable, concise and readable report on the day’s rowing action.
Mike was a member of the Sports Journalists Association and successively chairman and president of the British Association of Rowing Journalists (BARJ). He was awarded the Amateur Rowing Association medal of honour in 1997 and became BARJ journalist of the year in 2007.
He met his wife, Jill Drusilla, née Orriss, when she was a cox at his rowing club. She and their daughter Anna, son Daniel and grandchildren Ben and Ruby survive him. Another daughter, Michelle, died in 2012.
Michael John ‘Mike’ Rosewell, born 22 January 1937, died 6 August 2021.