Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest breeze,
Blade on the feather,
Shade off the trees,
Swing swing together,
With your bodies between your knees,
Swing swing together,
With your bodies between your knees.
The Eton Boating Song
I have of late been thinking about my mother. This is not unusual for the time of year – she died six years ago at the end of February and her birthday fell within the first couple of weeks of March – but so to do does tend to leave me a little wistful and reflective regarding life’s strange twists and turns.
The regular reader might well at this point already be scratching his (or her) pate and wondering what this could possible have to do with the Eton Boating Song. That is, indeed, a good question – the which I will endeavor straightway to answer.
Before the war my mother was in the Sea Rangers and – I am pretty certain – rather enjoyed rowing, though I don’t know to what level she practiced it. As with many things that one thinks one ‘knows’ from childhood this may turn out to be a ‘false’ memory, but of one thing I am certain – on a number of occasions she expressed regret that I had not taken up rowing whilst at school. She was clearly somewhat enamoured of the notion of having a son who ‘rowed’.
My Alma Mater was a grammar school in north Surrey which was also my father’s school. It was – and remains – a good school, though it is now co-educational which it was not in my day. Whilst certainly not one of the ‘great’ rowing schools it has always been there or thereabouts. The school has its playing fields – complete with boathouse – on the banks of the Thames and it takes the sport seriously. The alumni include at least one Olympic gold medal winner in the shape of James Cracknell, of whom the school is understandably proud.
Much to my mother’s dismay I declined to join the boat club. I was a fairly stringy kid at that age – fast enough as a sprinter but without much in the way of upper body bulk. I have always considered myself far too much of a lightweight for such a physical sport. Besides – the rowers had to turn out for training at six in the morning – in all seasons! Since I lived a good hour’s journey from the school that meant getting up at an ungodly hour regardless of the weather – or of the fact that it was still the middle of the night! The final straw was that the master in charge of rowing at the time was the sort of petty tyrant fairly prevalent in grammar schools of the era. I had already had several unpleasant run-ins with him and I didn’t fancy making myself a target in yet another area.
Previous posts on this journal do attest – however – to my enjoyment of rowing as a sport. I was fortunate enough to work at two institutions which can truly be considered ‘great’ rowing schools – one of which built its own rowing trench (later used as the venue for the London 2012 Olympics) and the other of which is the current holder of the Princess Elizabeth Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta.
In light of all of this I like to think that my mother would have been looking down from god’s elastic acre on Tuesday last with a smile on her face. Had she done so she would have observed the Kickass Canada Girl and I – in the company of a couple of elderly (but most impressive) expat Englishwomen from the Victoria City Rowing Club – taking our first outing on Elk Lake in a quad scull!
How this came about is of itself something of a saga – featuring a conversation that the Girl had about rowing at a Burn’s Supper with a gentlemen who knew one of these redoubtable octogenarian athletes and who put her in touch with them. The ladies were marvelous… unbelievably fit and most wonderfully patient with the couple of complete novices. I don’t for a moment suppose that sculling in a four looks easy and I can assure you that appearances do not deceive. Balance – co-ordination – the ability to perform a sequence of contradictory actions simultaneously but independently… I was expecting muscular pain and shortage of breath. What I got was mental agony – from trying to stop my conscious brain from impeding the required subconscious rhythm.
Will we try it again? We may well do. For those brief moments when the four of us magically became as one and the boat flew across the water the sensation was magical – so who knows!
I think mother would be pleased!