Allan Seager’s Joy on the River Isis

A bump – not at “Toggers” but at Eights Week on the River Isis, by William Barnes Wollen, 1891.

29 October 2021

Göran R Buckhorn

Exactly 59 years ago today, author Allan Seager had a hilarious story about his outings on the River Isis published in Sports Illustrated. Bump racing has never been depicted this funny way, nor has a bump supper, Göran R Buckhorn thinks.

The Internet is a wonderful thing, well, most of the time.

I was reading an article in an old issue of Isis, the Oxford student magazine which was established in 1892.

The article was from the mid-1930s about an oarsman who was featured in the “Idol” section – the part of the publication where a well-known or famous Oxonian would be depicted in a lighthearted way. The article mentioned that “in Toggers and Eights his name is becoming a myth.”

While I had a good guess what “Toggers” meant, I was not 100 per cent sure. So, I decided to look it up on the web. It proved to be not so easy to find. It said it was another word for football (soccer) and also had a few other explanations, but these were not what I wanted. Eventually, I found out that it was another name for “Torpids” (which was what I guessed in the first place). Torpids is the first of two series of bumping races at Oxford, the second one being Eights Week (also called Summer Eights).

In my search for “Toggers”, I came across an article in Sports Illustrated from 29 October 1962. The 1960s were still a time when Sports Illustrated published rowing articles – now it happens only every fourth year for the Olympic Games.

The October 1962 article, “The Joys of Sport at Oxford”, was written by Allan Seager (1906-1968), who was a novelist and short story writer. According to his Wikipedia entry, he published more than 80 short stories in American magazines, including Esquire, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Sports Illustrated.

Allan Seager

Seager studied at the University of Michigan and was a member of the school’s 200-yard freestyle relay swimming team in 1927 and 1928. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford University, in the beginning of the 1930s (various sources give different study years from 1930 to 1934). Seager’s studies at Oriel were interrupted by a stint of tuberculosis, so he returned to the USA. He spent a year recuperating at the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York, before he returned to Oxford.

From his time at the sanitarium and in Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is located, and Oxford, came the semi-autobiographical short stories collection A Frieze of Girls: Memoirs as Fiction (1964), which by many critics is regarded as Seager’s best work. “The Joys of Sport at Oxford” is included in A Frieze of Girls. Many of his short stories have been widely anthologized.

After finishing up his studies at Oxford in 1934, Seager was appointed an editor of Vanity Fair. In 1939, he received an instructorship in English at his alma mater. Seager stayed at the University of Michigan for the rest of his life having been appointed professor in 1958.

The cover of A Frieze of Girls shows Allan Seager at his desk.

In 1963, Seager’s friend, the poet Theodore Roethke, died and Seager started working on a biography of his friend. The book, The Glass House, was published a few months after Seager’s own death in May 1968.

Sadly, Allan Seager is a forgotten author today.

Allan Seager’s Oriel College has been very successful when it comes to taking the Head of the River (Eights Weeks). Here is the 2016 Oriel’s Headship Crew. Left to right: Stevan Boljevic (7), Alec Trigger (4), Iain McGurgan (Stroke), Henry Shalders (Bow), Betsy Jones (Cox), Sam Salt (2), Rufus Stirling (6), Charlie Cornish (5) and Louis Lamont (3). Photo: Tim Koch

But back to Toggers and Seager’s article “The Joys of Sport at Oxford” in Sports Illustrated. Is it actually an article or is it a short story? As it is included in A Frieze of Girls with the subtitle “Memoirs as Fiction”, it might well be a mix of facts and fiction of Seager’s sports adventurers at Oxford in the 1930s, where “the boats” and swimming are the sports occupying his time. Well, that is when he finally decides that he should do sports at Oxford.

Fact or fiction? Either way, I find it a hilariously funny text, where Steve Fairbairn’s method of rowing is simply described as “if your oar blade was right, nothing else mattered”. This was a time when beer was believed strengthening and gin would keep coxswains small. Never has a bump supper been portrayed this amusingly.

Allan Seager: “Most of the members of your college are scrambling along the towpath beside you, yelling and shooting off guns.” A cartoon from the Oxford Mail in 1946.

Allan Seager’s “The Joys of Sport at Oxford” in Sports Illustrated, 29 October 1962, begins:

During my first week at Oxford I decided not to go out for any sports in the fall, or Michaclmas [sic! Michaelmas], term. My college offered Rugby, soccer, field hockey and something referred to as “the boats.” I had never done any of these. They were all outdoor sports, and outdoors was where it was raining. For a fee I could also have joined a team of chaps who trotted informally through the dripping countryside in mild competition with a group from another college. Or I could have subscribed to a beagling club and worn a green coat, stout laced boots and a hemispheric little green velvet cap and legged it over the fields behind the dogs in search of hares and perhaps gotten a furry paw glued to a wooden shield as a trophy to hang in my room. The rain discouraged me, however. I got soggy enough walking to lectures. The fall term seemed a good time to lie up in front of a fire and get a good start on my reading.

I did this. I read heavily, but after three weeks I noticed a nervousness coming over me. And after the fourth week I knew what it was. I had been getting up every half hour to look out of the window. Now, there was nothing to look at out of my window but the college coal pile and beyond it a 15-foot wall topped with broken glass to keep students from climbing in after midnight. I was looking for a girl. I had got used to having dates at home but, after a day or two of scrutiny, I could tell that I was not likely to see one poised like a mountain goat on top of the coal.

I had won a Rhodes scholarship because I was the only man at the state examination who had worn a stiff collar—an Arrow, I believe. I did not wear it to Oxford. Instead I bought shirts with what we used to call bootlegger (tab) collars, a tweed jacket and gray flannel “bags.” Not knowing that Americans move differently from the English—looser, somehow—and that you can identify one as far as you can see him, I believed my attire made me indistinguishable from an Old Etonian, and I had peeped at the English girls in the lecture halls, thinking that I had at least an even start with the Englishmen. I was appalled at what I saw.

Continue to read the full article here.

One comment

  1. My father, Adrian Stokes (New College BC and OUBC), told me how the college barges were towed to Henley for the Regatta. Thus I immediately spotted Seager’s error where he wrote: “They are houseboats, really, and they never go anyplace.” Tim Koch described this in HTBS on 22 May 2013 in the piece titled OXFORD: BEER, BOATHOUSES AND BARGES: “Not only were barges very agreeable meeting places and viewing platforms during Eights Week, they were commonly towed down to Henley to serve the same purpose during the Royal Regatta.”

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