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of writing my biography of World Rowing’s global coach Thor Nilsen, or wandering and wondering amid George Pocock’s (unpublished) memoirs… as I say, delving has revealed many amusements and definitions of what we are all mixed in.
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…
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
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
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
‘ ‘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…
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
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…
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’
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
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
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’
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
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
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