This is Oxford: why rowing always scared me

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Two weeks ago I sat at home on a Saturday afternoon doing what I always do one Saturday. Watching the Boat Race. I have a strange personal relationship with Oxford. But Boat Race day is the one day a year when I am dark blue through and through. It seemed like a good time to write about rowing, something that ‘s never far from the “what I think about when I think about Oxford” list.

People have those lists, don’t they? “Things to do before I die”, “27 second names I must call my gnomes once I’ve painted their pointed hats pink” and that kind of thing. If you’re a student at Oxford then rowing has to be pretty much at the top of your to do list. Right up there with catching a glimpse of Kevin Whateley on set and going punting in a boater with an old-fashioned gramophone.

I was a student at various levels for ten years, but I never rowed. I was a postgraduate before I discovered sport at all, and when I did it was powerlifting and the one sporty thing I got to represent the university for, discus and hammer throwing. But I watched the Boat Race religiously on TV. Most students seemed to head down there en masse and stand by the Thames getting wet or sunburnt depending on the weather, and slowly picled whatever the weather. Which for some reason not only didn’t appeal, it scared the willies out of me. I was terrified of crowds. It’s the reason I didn’t go to Trafalgar Square to see in the Millennium. It’s the reason that until 2008 I never went to a festival (of course, I’ve since discovered that I love both crowds and festivals).

That wasn’t the only reason rowing scared the hell out of me. Nor was the 5 o’clock winter alarm (though that wasn’t a point in its favour, I’ll admit).

I was a young, impressionable child in the 70s. It was the decade of many things – strikes, flairs, punk. But for me it will always be the decade of the Public Information Film. Giant hogweed, flying kites near substations, playing with saucepan handles. And worst of all – rabies.

But public health fear didn’t die out with the end of Jimmy Saville infofilms. When I was a student, the word on the street (well, in the common room at least) was Weil’s Disease. A rat-borne Armageddon that filled the Thames and would reach in through the slightest skin abrasion and turn the city streets to a field of baby-eating zombies. And the stories played into every one of those imprinted childhood night terrors.

So there we have it. Rowing, the genteel face of Oxford summers. Only it’s not. It’s the devil’s work, feeding every single one of our darkest fears.

The postscript is that, too late of course, I no longer have my fear of rowing. And that other great rowing mystery – the erg – is something these days I actually enjoy. I have moved on.


~ by danholloway on April 10, 2011.

2 Responses to “This is Oxford: why rowing always scared me”

  1. sometimes I wonder if we just fit our fears to fit our fear, if you see what I mean.

    I am reminded of the AIDS ads in the 80s (not adverts for AIDS!) and I can trace my fear of sex back to them. But really I am just justifying my fear with the memory of those ads. Is that too psychoanalytic?

    It’s lovely to read some non-fiction by you Dan.

  2. I was about 12 or 13 when those ads came out – the 80s left as much an impact on me as the 70s. I think those icebergs and broken graves affected a whole generation of us. Threads and When the Wind Blows were the other things that left deep marks on our collective psyche.

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