A few years ago we were gathered round the television to watch the Boat Race. I explained to the children that we supported Cambridge. The boats set off. The children and I cheered for Cambridge. Then, about five minutes into the race (that is usually when it becomes clear which crew will win), Oxford pulled ahead. One of my sons, aged about five, suddenly changed his allegiance. From being a confirmed Cambridge man he became, in a split second, a fanatical Oxford supporter. That was not altogether surprising. His approach to sport was always to be on the winning side. But most of us, of course, tend to be rather more loyal.
I have always supported Cambridge. It’s not that I went there. It’s just that my father did, and therefore there was no question as to which shade of blue I should be. Many British people commit themselves to either Oxford or Cambridge with no family connection to either university. But that doesn’t weaken their support for one or the other.
I have an embarrassing memory from my own childhood. I must have been about ten. The whole school was watching the race on the television. Oxford won. I was enormously distressed. I fear I booed. Don’t worry, I was suitably chastised for my unsportsmanlike behaviour. But neither the shame of having behaved like a cad, nor the punishment for having done so, led me to stop supporting Cambridge. I would, for ever, be a Cambridge man.
I do understand that there are circumstances in which it is inevitable that someone will change sides. The child who has always supported Cambridge and who then accepts a place at Oxford is bound thereafter to favour the dark blues. But those circumstances don’t arise for most of us. We just stick to our guns.
What, then, am I to do on 2nd April this year?
I must explain. I have an immensely charming, bright and kind godson. He is called William Warr. Along with all his other talents, William happens to be an outstanding oarsman. I think I must have written, two years ago, of my delight when he was chosen to row for Cambridge in the 2015 race. I cheered lustily for him and his fellow crew members. Sadly, Oxford won. But I still felt great pride that my godson had taken part in the most famous boat race in the world.
We are now approaching the 2017 race. Who is to row at bow for Oxford? You’re there already, and you’re right. William has moved to Oxford and will be rowing for his new university against his old.
I wish I had thought of the headline in the Evening Standard: “Oxford wins tug of Warr”. But I have cause for more concern than my failure to come up with that witty line. I have to decide whether my loyalty to William can overcome my lifelong allegiance to Cambridge.
Oxford was rowing against the Leander Club yesterday in a race at Putney. I wandered down to watch. I remember that, in the early 1980s, such events would draw large crowds, not because people were fanatically interested in rowing, but because pubs were not allowed to open in the afternoons and special licences were granted to caterers who erected beer tents at regattas. Now, of course, those in search of a drink don’t have to pretend to have an interest in rowing: they can drop into any pub anywhere. And there are no longer any beer tents by the river (though there are pubs there so one doesn’t have to be dry). The result was that, as far as I could see, I was the only spectator who was not involved with either the Oxford University Boat Club or with Leander. That didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the spectacle.
As with so many boat races, when one stands at the start, one gets to see which eight pulls away fastest (it was Oxford). One then watches the boats disappear into the distance without having the faintest notion which one is ahead. Fortunately, yesterday was quite a mild day in London. I suffered no discomfort as I hung around by the water’s edge for the next hour or so to wait for the Oxford eight to return to their borrowed boathouse (Westminster School’s). And I was pleased (Leander is not Cambridge) when William told me Oxford had easily won.
It was probably that long wait by the river which led me to my decision as to which side to back on 2nd April. A few yards from me was the Cambridge crew. They were taking part in another race. I thought back to two years ago when, on the same stretch of water, Cambridge had kindly entertained me and my children in their borrowed boathouse. I did feel some loyalty to them. But then I remembered that the only reason I had been there with them was that my godson was rowing for them. This year he is rowing for the other side. True, Oxford did not provide me with any refreshment, and I was certainly not invited into the boathouse. But, again, I was only there because of William.
Yes, I am, and will be for years to come, a Cambridge man. But I am also a William man. He must come first. I just hope Cambridge can live without my support for one year.