The Henley Regatta
Back on the train, there are actually more people here for it to be possible to apply the Henley personal space rule, it is now just like a London tube train. I’m shut in the corner, right by the door. I’m a day tripper, what do the people who are just trying to get home from work think?
Twyford on my way home, a transportation exodus, people leave Henley and dissipate. A guard shouts information from the opposite platform to mine, over two rail tracks. Stay behind the yellow line, he orders. He informs them that there will be a fast train to London, not advertised on the departure board, specially for them.
I’m now sitting in an amply sized carriage beside a woman wearing a crêpe de chine skirt. People sit back, silently enjoying the flow of cool air through the windows, all of which are open. At Reading nearly everyone leaves and I have nearly all of the carriage to myself; I lay back and rest my feet, job done.
29/VI/12 – I move to the standard class carriage and enter, slotting myself into an unoccupied space, waves of hat-wearing souls appear on the platform, probably from the arrival of other trains which terminate here, adding to the carriage. It’s now about full, though not as densely packed as a London tube train – these southerners insist on adopting a honeycomb formation with 1.5ft of free space around each person. Hampers, hats, badges, and blazers – the most ornate I have seen up to now: terracotta, rough wool and every conceivable choice of stripe and hue.
Not a soul alights at the station before Henley. Then as Henley arrives everyone gathers their hampers and bags and either curses their lack of a brolly or unfurls one. We then file in the same arrangement as before to the ticket office, while also adopting a sort of tortoise formation with our umbrellas, moving from the land of trains into the town. We then progress, umbrellas still deployed, through the settlement and to the river, which we cross with the racecourse on our right, and after the Leander Club, arrive at the Stewards’ Enclosure. As I walk, I notice all the ornate hats, divided fifty-fifty between the traditional straw and the more striking fabrics, smiles; and rowing teams in their polo shirts, with a unified colour, walking in step like squadrons.
This area is green, spacious and ordered;
Those attending the Regatta in the Stewards’ Enclosure must dress in accordance with long-established tradition.
Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers with flannels, and a tie or cravat.
Ladies are required to wear dresses or skirts with a hemline below the knee and will not be admitted wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind. Similarly, no one will be admitted to the Stewards’ Enclosure wearing shorts or jeans.
Whilst not a requirement, it is customary for ladies to wear hats.
I stand at the finish line behind a chap with pink trousers, and watch my first live race finish, women’s skulls. As each boat progresses across the crowds, it provokes a pre-emptive wave of applause, sometimes with one breaker or with two if one boat has a generous lead.
I decide to go to the grandstand, and sit high. I ask the gentleman next to me about the way in which the Umpire warns crews about ‘their steering’; he tells me that this is because each team must stay on its own side of the course – Bucks or Berks; Buckinghamshire or Berkshire, the counties which are separated by the Thames over this stretch. We watch as, during one sculling race, a young woman at the back of her boat has to deal with an oar jumping from its rowlock. The boats were incredibly close when this happened, with the one in question slightly behind. It is excruciating to watch her oar become trapped under the craft and, without her power, to watch as the competition speeds away while their boat limps onward as she tries to regain her implement. Finally, she manages to get word to her team, so they slow, allowing her to replace the oar – to cross the line at a remote second place. I discussed this incident with those sat next to me; Terrible shame. I said, Not for Borlase, he replied, referring to the team who had just taken the race by a spectacular lead.
It is important to note the strange and poetic nature of a boat’s motion through the water: The rowers or scullers dip the gargantuan tips of the oars into the drink and use them to surge the boat forward, they then pluck them from the fluid and rotate them by 90 degrees to minimise the air resistance, pulling them like blades as they retake. But as they do so the weight of their bodies – moving on a mobile seat in the direction of travel – mean that, according to Newton, the boat slows dramatically, riding up in the water; ready to descend and surge once more.
As each race develops, the commentator will periodically announce the rate of striking, I can guess what this means, but I am not sure. An amiable-looking man sits behind me, so I ask him. He explains that someone will be positioned on the bank with a timepiece, they will be charged with counting the number of oar strokes which each team is achieving per minute. He has dark hair and a relatively sunned face and wears a double-breasted navy suit jacket, to it is pinned a yellow badge like mine, alongside a round silvery pendant with a pink cross carrying the writing – Leander 2012 – a member of the Leander Club, dons of rowing.
As he answered he noticed that I was taking notes and asked what I was doing; I explained that I was writing an article on the occasion. He took interest in this and expanded on his previous answer. He explained that the average rate of striking for a crew is 33, and that crews will start at a painful 45 per minute to drop to their average and, when they are sufficiently close to the finish, may reach a greater speed again without having to concern themselves with maintaining energy. Also, he explained, the coxswain can institute a burst of speed, 10 strokes at perhaps 39 per minute – this being the functional unit of the race, through which a crew will attempt to take the lead. This is what the current leaders seem to be doing over their opponents, Mitsubishi.
Mr Leander also told me that the boat will move faster according to the extent to which the crew match their stroke exactly and, interestingly, if they are good friends. He also told me that a coach and crew member will have to understand and utilise gearing – the length of oar which is allowed to stick out from the boat through the rowlock – the more oar protrudes from the boat, the longer the stroke, though a smaller crew member may find it difficult to handle a bigger length due to the leverage. Finally, he amazed me by saying that, not only do the rowers or scullers rotate their oars to minimise the wind resistance but, if there is a draft from behind them, they will present the paddles’ wide edge like a sail to the wind to make use of its force.
His team races now. The classic wave of applause erupts across as Leander lead by a boat length and a half. Their boat is directly ahead of us; my compadre emits a strong but restrained: Here here. They cross the finish with a favourable victory; that’s how it’s done; he observes. He lifts up his foot and shows me his pink Leander socks – his team are the only one to be represented by single colour. He then departs for luncheon, wishing my article well – Thank you for the information, I say as we shake hands.
I decide to walk the length of the Stewards’ Enclosure. One gentleman belongs to a club whose colours are black and yellow, meaning that with those stripes lining his blazer, he looks rather like a walking warning. Then I glance at a man-giant, chinos, blazer, polo shirt untucked, stubbly and with long blonde hair – a rower.
The Stewards’ Enclosure runs along the length of the course, for about a quarter of its length, ending at the finishing line. I’m standing at the closest point to the start of the course. To my right is the Regatta Enclosure, open to the public, but with a curious group of Stewards’ Enclosure people who stand in the Regatta Enclosure to make use of their phones, which is prohibited in the Stewards’. One constantly has to resist the temptation to reach into the pocket and check the phone – in a way, it’s liberating.
The atmosphere is excited and convivial; the sun makes its efforts known through a hole in the clouds. Pleasure barges, quiet, large and stately, amble down this stretch of river, separated from the race by a sturdy wooden boom. There’s quite a wind, my hat is pressed quite tightly to my head. Men are mainly grey, white or navy, women can be any colour imaginable, which is often the case, also with men in blazers. Only Pimms Served – declares a large sign above one of the bars.
Power; muscles ball, the gruh of the oars, the cox hoarsely yelling encouragement. The rowers directly juxtapose the spectators – vests, shorts, nylon, sweat – eight great men and a tiny woman, almost vicious in the tone of her encouragement. Or is there juxtaposition? We make an effort to dress smartly, they make an effort to exert themselves. The fact that the rowers and scullers, heroes of the occasion, would not comply with the dress code enough to be admitted to the Enclosure is rather telling. It would be silly for them to wear knee-length dresses or lounge suits for their sport, as such it is not about what you wear, it is about attitude.
Sometimes different crews create a different sound as they plunge the oars into the water; Molesey’s sound an impacting shush, Oxford Brookes produce a guttural ghub.
– Luncheon –
* * *
27/VI/12 11:03 – I’m sitting at my desk; to my left is an open window, a black vista. However, the window does let in the sublime air of this type of night which, for some reason, tastes a lot better than usual. After a day like today – humid, then clear, then overcast and humid – evening appears and the temperature drops, some of the humidity condenses, producing an atmosphere that one can savour. I noticed it as I walked into the garden, with the bats upon the wing, clarity; that which we should always do if we were actually to live our existences to their full capacity, savour the air. In return for the air I’m pumping out a soft amplification of Beethoven’s 29th piano sonata, Hammerklavier.
To my right is a Bloody Mary, in a highball glass, on the rocks. I made it with the last measure of vodka from the first bottle of vodka which I ever bought. It was on the night after I saw The Rum Diary at the cinema in Rednal. It’s strange, I suddenly had the idea that some vodka would be a good idea; the film was good too, so I stopped in at the supermarket which is on the way. This is amusing because, by chance, the assistant who served me, in all my months there, only ever served me with spirits or matches. And this is the last measure, in this glass, this particular vodka eon comes to a close.
I remember quite precisely that I sat down in front of my computer on that night, full of enthusiasm, rage at the state of society, maybe love, with a measure of that drink, but found that I couldn’t write, or that there was nothing to write. Fiction, non-fiction, writing – it’s a strange and twisted operation, and one of the main reasons for continuing with pieces which are terrible or non-existent at a given point is that I know I have genuinely taken writing from that stage to a vague resemblance of readability.
Also, on that night, as I poured myself a measure, I found that I no longer liked neat vodka. In my days of indestructibility – the spikes, the partially shaven head – I used, for some reason, to enjoy neat vodka. No longer; but it has to be. This me, the ex-Philip Anselmo-esque metalhead, can actually taste the nuances of a single malt, rather than only being able to differentiate one from a blended whiskey. What this meant was that I had a moderate quantity of vodka with not much by way of a real use, which meant action, action in the form of Bloody Marys.
Today, I spent most of my time seeing if I could find someone to accompany me to the Henley Regatta on Friday. I asked a number of people whose scene I thought that it would be. One friend I asked didn’t know of Henley or the Henley Regatta; another friend coveted the offer, he is in the Cambridge University rowing club. I asked quite a number of people, friends, acquaintances, casual acquaintances, secondary school paramours, though nobody could make it, which was a damned shame.
The process of searching for a compadre was interesting in itself, somehow amorous, but also disturbing. I asked one young woman with whom I went on a visit to Auschwitz, another whom I’ve only met outside work once. I asked one young woman who I met through the Religious Society of Friends, but discovered that I have no contact information for her, and that her Facebook account has disappeared; has she died? Got bored of Facebook? Or just bored of me?
My cousin Nick, a member of the Stewards, gave me this opportunity in response to a conversation which we had online. The Stewards Club is a private association of a few thousand members, with a ten-year waiting list. Members have access to a private enclosure on the Berkshire side of the river, adjacent to the finishing line – so rather a treat for me.
Nick and I had a brief exchange over the tax affairs of Jimmy Carr (which originated as a response to my post on immigration.). My cousin asked me about morality. I replied saying that the responsibility of the Prime Minister should not include moralising; rather he should concentrate, with the Chancellor, on adjusting the tax system so as to make avoidance more arduous. This was, I said, because people’s moralities differ so drastically, that individuals should be expected to obey the law, rather than to obey the asserted morality of another, such as the Prime Minister.
On the floor, in bags and sometimes separate, on surfaces, is my luggage for tomorrow. I have to make it obvious so that I can minimise my chances of forgetting anything. I make a list too. I’ve established that my mind is so full of considerations over art, love and building a just city, that there exists a high probability that I will forget something important. I take two measures to address this: I write out lists of what I need and where it needs to be, I print out timetables and maps, so that I’m so swamped with information that I should have to make an effort to forget something. I’m also in the habit of having a small panic when I’m on the verge of leaving, which causes me to search myself to make sure that all is present and correct.
This is not to say that I no longer forget things; there is a certain type of distraction which sometimes causes me to leave things in places, the kind of interest which cuts the train of planning and allows me to leave without what I needed. On one occasion, as my train was pulling into Birmingham New Street, I was so absorbed in my efforts to produce a cool and moody image for an attractive young woman with whom I shared the carriage that I left my guitar in the luggage rack. Smart, aren’t I?
There is now a sizeable corona of flies bumbling around the single, unshaded fluorescent light in the middle of my ceiling – I really should do something about this. They’re tugged towards the addictive light, like we are towards celebrity, to our paramours, maybe to our ambitions. The difference being that these flies and bugs can reach the light and loiter around it, where there isn’t really an analogue in our case. Heartbreakingly, the two crane flies which were enthusiastically bobbing around have both been snared by the adhesive webs of their fellow arachnids. My plan is to extinguish the light and then to leave my stereo on, hopefully causing them to congregate there, rather than around me.
* * *
I’m sitting in Café Buendia for refuelling; coffee. It’s a fantastic place, perhaps half the width of a normal establishment of its function, and right now it is chock-full. I would come just for the froth on the cappuccino; the almond croissants are better even than those in the parliamentary café of Portcullis House.
I was sitting on the Buckinghamshire side of the river, eating an apple, when a woman approached and asked whether she could ask me a question. She wore a beige, belted mackintosh and I would put her at around 60. I assented and answered her question, saying that the barge opposite was indeed the Queen’s. She thanked me and commented: I saw you and said to myself: ‘I knew that that young man would be able to help me, as he is wearing a nice yellow badge’.
– Post luncheon –
I’m now about as far as I can get towards the finishing line. The sun gleefully warms the skin; smiles and pretty frocks flock to see the climax of the races. I’ve just noticed, as one team rowed the length of the course to get to the starting point, that, in this case, they exhale en masse as well. For this race London and Durham will combine to form a single crew.
Beside the boom, in the space of river which remains after the racecourse has been enclosed, a family have lashed together two canoes, on which they placed a table and from which they quaff their Pimms and take their luncheon. The house which exists adjacent to Phyllis Court, with a lovely mooring at the front, has a structure attached which resembles a garage for boats, at water level, with a covered area on top.
I recline in a deckchair on the river bank, the sun places a burgeoning heat onto the ground, driving out the moisture from the rain of previous and producing a short-term humidity, pale suits and chinos are ablazen. Women tackle the problem of the soft ground in a variety of ways, some wear flats, some seem to manage in stilettos. I saw one woman wearing stilettos with a plastic item attached to each heel, which acted to widen the base.
Noisy and aggressive muscular Russians from St. Petersburg vs. the calmer and lighter Oxford Brookes. The Russians, in their semi-transparent orange vests, row with a sort of brutal impatience, and lead Brookes by about a boat length.
The boat tents are after the finish line on the side of the river, meaning that each team will have to row the length of the river to get into position to start the race – which is better than having to traverse the length of the course after the race. The teams row and scull with a sort of louche, latent power, making an economy for the race ahead, especially the women, who seem to be ably holding back an explosive effort.
Occasionally one will see small private boats being rowed around the river, with a common design. They are made from a pleasingly shiny dark wood with long and finely made oars. The rower sits in the middle with a seat which moves on runners, their passengers sit on a cushioned seat at the back, controlling a rudder with two ropes.
In a race a boat can lead another by a margin (of increasing size) measured in feet, then a canvass (five feet), then a number of boat lengths, from half onwards, then easily.
I stand outside the protection of the Stewards’ Enclosure, at somewhere inside the first mile of the course. Behind me booms the bass, trumpet, drums and banjo of a jazz band. I have just had a very short meeting with an old school friend, about four or five years my senior. I don’t really know what to do on these occasions, when one sees an old friend but when they haven’t yet seen one; so I called his name and tapped his arm – he looked with disdain and then recognised me. I told him about my writing and he told me about his law degree; ‘A long way from Builth Wells High School’ he commented, ‘Look at you, Oli! Stewards’ Enclosure.’ he said as he noticed my badge. We wished each other well and departed, having told the other his plans.
I am quite near to the start now. Between me and the water is a solid mass of picnickers and, separated from me by a hedge and on the other side, blazers and drinking. The sun, still set to full volume, creates a vivacious atmosphere. These people are happy, they seek adventure and a good time with their companions; without battles or scorn or conflict, the only battle is sport. As such, they create an aesthetic masterpiece.
Eton is rowing the course now; they provoke jeering cheering applause, growing, burgeoning, people move from their reclining position in their deck-chairs to stand upright. [At this point, the writing in my notebook becomes incomprehensible, so some of the adjectives may not be the absolutely true and original account.] The wind picks up too, and I steady my hat; the energy of these people, encouraging jeers, cries of Go Eton, a brawny cantata of noise affection and appreciation.
I seem to be among some kind of mass migration; ah… it’s teatime.
– Tea –
Beside the finish line is positioned a row of bar stools, which is where I sit now. As I relax, the stream of sizeable barges moves along the free half of the river in both directions. This is teatime, a hiatus, no races; people are using this time to chill, to stoke up, to watch the lazy traffic and to prepare themselves for the next set of tense races. After closer examination, most of the domestic houses on the opposite side of the river have boat garages – whatever one’s political views, they do look rather fine.
Jettisoning my politics, momentarily; sometimes the acidic frameworks of nihilism and determinism can make a rigid or egalitarian ideal or system seem non-buoyant. When those ideas are absent, one of the few directives which has any authority can be to have a good time – and these pesky southerners seem to do so with an able and generous degree of prowess.
I’ve entered the prize tent. A picture of the Regatta in 1966, it looks like a particularly wet music festival. 1956 – no houses on the banks. I witness a series of large and ornate trophies. The Grand Challenge Cup: 2.5 ft, silver; perhaps the most beautiful being the prize for the one of the women’s sculls, a brooch formed by crossed oars bound with a precise silver-gilt bow.
– Post Tea –
A red kite rides the thermals directly above the racecourse; I wonder what it will make of the race. Abingdon (a school to which many pupils of my mother’s prep school are sent) vs. Gonzaga, America; we’ve only just started to be able to see them, black shapes on the water’s surface, but have heard commentary on the PA system while they were invisible, building a frustrating expectation. Abingdon is somehow able to decrease its stroke rate while increasing its lead, perhaps something to do with gearing; the tension layers. Separate rowers now become visible, and movement. Go on Abingdon. Go on both.The applause develops, rippling muscles, open mouths. Abingdon – pink and black; Gonzaga – purple and white. Abingdon takes it by a length, then the Umpire boat ambles past.
* * *
28/VI/12 10:56 – I’m on the train now, which was unusually punctual. The air today, a gross exaggeration and mutation of the air last night’s, is probably more humid than I have ever felt it, wavering between rain and low cloud constantly; it feels unnourishing to breathe, but offers a certain comfort to the skin. Arriva Trains Wales have given us two carriages today, what generosity!
1:14 – On my second and far more luxurious train now. The company has fitted onboard screen-based entertainment systems to the back of each seat; the fare is varied, one can choose tat television or Yeats on audiobook. While it seems handy, a pessimist may predict a state in which trains resemble the spaceship in Wall-E, in which the passengers sit, isolated, absorbed in their personal, singular entertainment system.
I have just been mobbed by some exceedingly drunk people. They saw me, noticed my straw trilby hat and flopped over,
‘Bleeergh – lok ud ‘im – Wheeereeeeer.’
Another one arrived and half collapsed on me, nearly hitting me with his head. ‘He – yoofrum Inglund?’
‘As it happens, I’ve come from Wales.’
‘Gluuuuur – We like yuh hat.’
‘Thank you, I appreciate that.’
After that they left me alone, and the intoxicated and depraved episode was closed, though I could still hear their occasional outbursts at other passengers, usually women, act as punctuation.
1:38 – A ticket officer has now started scolding the drunk person – he sat in his seat, drinking Stella, which the buffet car should not have sold him, and mumbling incoherencies at unfortunate passers by. The ticket officer posses the question, ‘Where would you get the money for your Stella if we didn’t work and pay our taxes?’ – Is this a little outside his remit?
He’s thrown off the train; the officer says ‘Smile for the CCTV on your way out.’ He walks away from the carriage, peppering his speech with f…s, now hounding and following the ticket officer, now standing with his leather-trussed mutt on the platform.
3:06 – Suddenly the train accelerates and shudders into a vista of deciduous trees, long grass and Romantic painting brooks. We’re here, the South, again.
* * *
The most notable character of the Regatta was that it was fine and fun and jollity, a sterling day. The second is of a slightly more political nature. I notice, in a variety of situations, that a general and low-level animosity can be present among people, that individuals can impress a sense of antagonism and competition, aggression without any provocation. The Stewards’ Enclosure is one of the few places in which this tendency is not present. My theory is that these people have nothing which they need to prove – inside the Enclosure there is no labour market, no need to show off one’s wealth or strength or fashion, we all have a yellow badge, and we’re where we need to be; we can relax, we have achieved what is necessary. In that sense, the Enclosure is a temporary classless society, an egalitarian paradise. The economist Milton Friedman once quoted an acquaintance of his, an ex-communist, who stated that: Socialism will be possible when everyone is wealthy enough to have two servants – which, one might say, is a crude approximation of the Stewards’ Enclosure. The experience was refreshing, while simultaneously depressing in that I had to imagine the return to public places in which people are aggressive without provocation, and in which people erect a wall of misanthropy to protect them from the possible misanthropy of others.
Confidence is an extremely defining quantity, one which the people in the Enclosure sweat. A failure of confidence is corrosive for an individual, both internally and externally; such as when an individual, because of the nature of their education or upbringing, is convinced that they cannot achieve what they really can; and such as, perhaps more corrosively, when children of poor means scorn those who have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument or who read.
One could say therefore, that society could nurture its citizens far more effectively if people were able to engender a greater esteem and confidence – so that when an individual is presented with a person or situation which is their superior, that their response should be the desire for self-improvement rather than to disparage the success of those before them; then to desert the fraternities which revel in each other’s under-achievement.
To an extent, the British education system has a tendency to produce two broad categories of people: those who, when given the imperative ‘Jump.’, will reply ‘How high?’ and those who will reply ‘Why?’ Confidence is the quantity which fissures these two responses.
OMC – 5/VII/12