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It’s once again time for that great Oxford tradition – the Varsity Boat Race. I think I said pretty much everything I wanted to say on the subject last year, but I can’t let the event pass unnoticed on my blog, so here’s last year’s entry again (slightly edited to reflect it not being Easter and there being a different team etc) in all its glory. And now I’m off to the river. Go Oxford! 


In my books and, occasionally, on this blog, I write about all sorts of Oxford traditions, but there’s nothing as high-profile and popular as the annual Varsity Boat Race against Cambridge.

An awful lot of Oxford’s traditions seem to be deliberately complex and odd, almost as if half the point is to confuse outsiders: Merton students running backwards around their quad on the day the clock changes, ultra-prestigious professors at All Souls hunting the ghost of a duck, or the almost pagan-seeming celebration of May Morning at my own old college of Lilith Magdalen. Not to mention the fact that said college is pronounced Maudlin. Now that one I really do think is purely for the purposes of making tourists look stupid.

Even the normal term-time boats race between colleges are pretty complicated if you’re not used to them, based as they are around several boats setting off at once and trying to bump the ones in front of them.

The Varsity Boat Race however is entirely simple. In fact I’d say it’s one of the most straightforward sporting events going. The participants are always the same – one boat of eight men and a cox from Oxford and one from Cambridge. They row along a stretch of the Thames and the first one past the finishing line wins. There’s no offside rule or complicated scoring system to worry about here.

Perhaps because of this, pretty much everyone in Britain seems to at least vaguely like the Boat Race. In some countries, university sport is really popular. In the UK, that isn’t the case and the Boat Race is pretty much the only university sporting event that gets mainstream news and television coverage. And if you go down to the river, you always find the sort of crowds you’d usually only associate with a major national occasion. I think some of the bars near there must be kept afloat almost entirely from their takings on this one day.

The really weird/fun thing is that in my experience, most people with no connection at all to either university seem to have a team they nominally support. I liked the Boat Race long before I ever seriously thought about applying to Oxbridge, and to my eternal shame, when I was very young I randomly supported Cambridge. I think I liked their colours better or something.

There’s lots to admire about the Boat Race. It’s one of the few genuinely big ticket amateur sporting events left. Although in practice both teams nowadays often contain a good few people who row for their country and are doing slightly suspect post-grad degrees, in theory I love the idea of normal students training so incredibly hard for their moment of glory, and you still always get a few rowers who genuinely fit that mould. Looking at last year’s Oxford squad, one is a doctor and one is a vicar – in what other sporting event would that happen?

The other great thing is just how physically demanding it is. With the possible exception of those really long distance cycling races, I think it probably requires some of the highest fitness levels of any sport. They row for 4.2 miles at top speed.

Now, in my first term at Oxford, for some reason best known to myself, I thought it would be fun to give rowing a go. I’m 5’2”, 8 stone and have all my life been reliably rubbish at any sport I’ve attempted. However, I spent most of that term in a bit of a frenzy, wanting to do Oxford properly, so taking up rowing, a sport predominantly based around being very strong and very fit, seemed eminently sensible because IT’S WHAT PEOPLE AT OXFORD DO.



Although I immediately gave it up once that term was over, it actually didn’t go so badly. In fact (and I hasten to add that this was in no way thanks to me), my college’s women’s boat actually won the term’s competition. The point of this story though is that the race I did was over a course about 750 metres long. And afterwards I was absolutely physically exhausted. I literally cannot imagine how tiring rowing for 4.2 miles must be. It actually makes me feel slightly sick when I think about it too hard! So my respect for the people who are fit enough to do this is phenomenally high.

And speaking of being fit, every year at least some of the crew are just gorgeous. And usually the really attractive ones tend to be really quite posh too, which needless to say is a combination I like. Here are this year’s squads – http://theboatrace.org/men/squad-list Though I’m sadly slightly unwhelmed this year on the whole. 😦

Despite all this, when it comes down to it, what I really love is the tribalism. I want Oxford to win to an extent that borders on the irrational. And that’s just the way I like my sport. As a rule, I love sport, but generally only if I have some personal interest in the outcome. Growing up in Sheffield, everyone was into football. You supported either Sheffield Wednesday or Sheffield United, and you did it wholeheartedly. I was (and indeed still am)  firmly in the former camp, because supporting Wednesday was what my family did, going back several generations. On Steel City Derby Days (when the two teams play each other) the city wass like a ghost town. Everyone was watching, at the stadium, in a pub or at home on TV. There is no logical reason to love one group of footballers based in your home town and hate another group of them based in the same place, but there’s something oddly satisfying about doing so. It creates a real sense of belonging. Occasionally, in London, in the middle of a busy street or train, I’ve spotted someone in a Wednesday shirt and I’ve just had to go over and speak to them.

hendersons_wednesdayIn Sheffield, even condiments come in rival team packaging


In Sheffield, even the condiments come in team colours! 

The Boat Race gives me a similar feeling and arguably with slightly more reason. I went to Oxford. Oxford made me the person I am today. I owe it my job, my fiancé  an awful lot of my friends, some of my hobbies and interests, and I suppose, my books (I’m not convinced I could have made “UCL Blood” work). So watching those boats speeding down the river, I really feel like the result personally matters for me.

Anyway, the race is on the BBC at 5.55 UK time  (for foreign viewing, see here:http://theboatrace.org/men/tv-and-radio). Whether or not you have any connection with Oxford, Cambridge or any other university, I strongly suggest that you pick a side, get yourself a glass of Pimm’s and settle down