Rowing in Verse and Worse 

THE rowing book shop – Way’s in Friday Street, Henley.

18 November 2022

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd browses among the literary types.

Recent browsing hither and thither reminded me how much print is thrown up by rowing every year. If it’s nothing else, rowing is a loquacious and literate sport with a high rate of ‘how it was for me’ and ‘how to do it’ books. 

Delving in a recent novel by Bonnie Garmus, or a tome of quotes about the late Philly coach Ted Nash, or a heavyweight volume of German boathouse architecture, or a lively autobiography by London RC’s Hugh Burkitt, or helping out with Julian Ebsworth’s forthcoming  history of London RC’s boathouse, a structure that we think may be the oldest building in Britain to cater for the social life of rowers as well as rack their boats, or refreshing my mind with the fifty or so people I interviewed in the course of writing my biography of World Rowing’s global coach Thor Nilsen, or wandering and wondering amid George Pocock’s (unpublished) memoirs… as I say, delving has revealed many amusements and definitions of what we are all mixed in. 

Parts of Speech by Tony Millett (Brown Dog Books, 2022). Image: Neil Goodwin

Even going off-piste with a book took me back to my wet-bob life on the Trent that was cut short when I vacated a seat in Nottingham University BC’s boat to edit the student newspaper. The book in question is Parts of Speech by Tony Millett, a contemporary who also edited student publications and soared into ITN while I headed for Fleet Street. His book is an eminently readable account of how he has lived and worked at all stages of life with a stammer. It is thoroughly recommended if you or someone you know stammers.   

What I am getting around to is an excuse for bringing to your notice a random selection of short and sharp definitions and eccentricities concerned with moving forwards while facing backwards. Come forward: Row! 

Rowing, the beginning… 

Peter Haig Thomas coaching a bank tub on the Cam, 1933.

Observe how with a rapid poke 
I keep this bike-wheel spinning; 
That’s what I mean, my worthy stroke,
By getting the beginning.

 Anon on the banks of the River Cam

Rowing, the art of it

Leander, Henley Women’s Regatta, 2016.

It’s a great art, is rowing. 
It’s the finest art there is. 
It’s a symphony of motion. 
And when you’re rowing well, 
Why, it’s nearing perfection. 
And when you reach perfection
You’re touching the divine. 
It touches the you of you’s 
Which is your soul.

George Yeoman Pocock, boat builder and philosopher 

Rowing, the fun of it 

Having fun: Royal Chester at the finish, Henley, 2017.

As any non-rower can tell you, rowers are not fun. This is because rowers only ever want to talk about rowing. Get two or more rowers in a room and the conversation goes from normal topics like work or weather to long, pointless stories about boats, blisters, oars, grips, ergs, feathers, workouts, catches, releases, recoveries, splits, seats, strokes, slides, starts, settles, sprints, and whether the water was really ‘flat’ or not. From there, it usually progresses to what went wrong on the last row, what might go wrong on the next row, and whose fault it was/or will be. At some point the rowers will hold out their hands and inspect calluses. If you are really unlucky, this could be followed by several minutes of head-bowing reverence as one of them recounts the perfect row where it all felt easy. 

Bonnie Garmus in Lessons in Chemistry

Rowing the Olympics 

Lightweights Paul and Gary O’Donovan beat shocked Romanian heavyweights, Ioan Prundeanu and Marian-Florian Enache, at Henley in 2018.

‘ ‘Tis a fairly simple sport, like. There’s a start line and a finish line. Your man says, “go” at the start and there’s a stopper at the finish.’

Gary O’Donovan, Olympic medallist in Rio on the Graham Norton show

Rowing, the how…

 ‘Close your eyes and pull like a dog’.’  

Paul O’Donovan, Olympic medallist and brother of Gary to Graham Norton

Rowing, blister and boil…

The Summer Eight Oar Races at Oxford – A Bump Imminent. William Barnes Wollen, 1891.

So these are our joys, and this our toil;
And this is truth that I now record;
Rowing is – what with blister and boil, 
And the rain and the sewers – its own reward.
Yet every day it is just the same 
Though my nose be red and my fingers blue,
I visit the river and sink my name 
And become one-eighth of an eight-oared crew.

Anon, a la Newbolt

Coxing in the fires of hell

The 2016 Women’s Boat Race.

Which direction we are going 
There’s no knowing where we’re rowing 
Or which way the river’s flowing 
Is it raining? 
Is it snowing? 
Is a hurricane a-blowing? 

Not a speck of light is showing 
So the danger must be growing 
Are the fires of hell a-glowing? 
Is the grisly reaper mowing? 
Yes, the danger must be growing 
‘Cause the rowers keep on rowing 
And they’re certainly not showing 
Any signs that they are slowing!

Willie Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

…and rowing from gun to done…

Scots College, Australia, Henley 2022.

But ‘Five ’ made answer solemnly, ‘I heard them fire a gun, 
No other mortal thing I knew until the race was done.’

A Trinity Boating Song by R. C. Lehmann

Rowin’ and blowin’

Simon McCarthy, winner of Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1984, congratulates the 2020 winner, James Berry.

Bendin! bowin; strainin; rowin;
Perhaps the wind in fury blowin;
Or the tide again you flowin;
The Coat and Badge forever. 

Anonymous waterman’s apprentice on the Doggett’s Coat and Badge 

Two sides of Bletchley Junction 

Oxford (from west of Bletchley Junction) lead Cambridge (from east of Bletchley Junction) in the 2022 Boat Race.

I don’t know why my breast should swell 
With pride of those whose only function 
Is to defeat the men who dwell 
On t’other side of Bletchley Junction

R E Swartwout

Corked by the black and white   

Trinity College, Dublin, and Jesus College, Cambridge, in the 1934 Ladies Plate at Henley. 

They were cheerful and gay
In their English way
And they never looked to be troublin’, boys, 
Till they caught a sight
Of the black and white 
Of the Trinity College, Dublin, boys.

Punch catches sight of Leander at Cork International Regatta, 1902 

Rowing in spicy ‘Ongkew’ 

Detail: The Shanghai Regatta with a View of the Bund, 1850.

No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy cocktail smells,
The bamboo an’ the gin-tail an’ the
whiskey in the spells;
No! you can’t go out today
Where the sampan coolies play,
An’ the smells come up like poison outer
‘ongkew’ crost the way! 

E. Kraps (aka C E Sparke), Shanghai in 1937, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling 

Rowing in Pagan Borneo 

War canoes of the Dayak People of Borneo (1878). Picture: Wikipedia/Public Domain.

His most striking achievement was that he induced the pagans of Borneo to give up head-hunting as a method of settling tribal disputes, and take to boat racing instead.

Freddy Brittain on Charles Hose, an oarsman and civil servant in Sarawak, 1940

…and in Pagan Chester 

Chester Regatta, 1843.

The Rev J. Folliot was appointed chaplain to the club in 1843. The office has since been found unnecessary. Royal Chester RC Centenary History, 1939

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