In this piece from the summer of 1973, Tina Brown recalls her time spent observing the boat races of Oxford’s Eights Week, an afternoon soundtracked by the call of “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” Brown, wearing a flowered hat that will end up on the water, observes the peculiarities of student affairs: one man wears a cardboard nose as he waves a rattle along the tow-path; young men ridicule each other about their sex lives; a “familiar face” who was once the “most illustrious non-entity of his year” and is now a “giant in the Media”, tells her that “nothing’s changed” since his days as a student. Everyone is hoping for sun, which will complement the Pimm’s nicely, but they aren’t so lucky. “As the weather deteriorates,” Brown writes, “the Past is on everyone’s lips and memories of Previous Eights weeks are told off like beads on a rosary.”
A cheer goes up. Not because a race is won but because the sun has come out. For one brief, dazzling second it is all before me, the river and the myth. The oars cut into icy water. “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” roar the hearties, exaltingly while each ecstatic face is thinking “There goes the Oxford that I knew”, forgetting that the fragmented past never had this clear precision. “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” The roar goes up again while along the tow-path trudges a young blood sporting a huge red cardboard nose and strenuously waving a rattle. Have I at last found Eights Week?
“Oh my God. There goes Williams,” remarks my escort wearily. “Still wearing that bloody cardboard nose. He wore it at Matriculation, you know. I think there’s something the matter with him.” For the millionth time I curse the false friend who advised me to wear an Edwardian dress and flowered hat. If she is such a stickler for tradition why is she muffled to the eyes in a duffle coat and fair isle sweater? “Hello, Tiny,” says an amiable young lord who spent five years getting a “pass” degree and has now returned in search of the boathouse camaraderie that always eluded his grasp in undergraduate days.
“Stock Exchange a bit grim. Stately H. falling to pieces. Otherwise life’s pretty damn good.” He hurls his empty glass into the river and watches it bob gaily out of sight. Once he had yearned for wagger pagger baggers and lights out, but now Vincent’s and the Gridiron club had been added to the growing stockpile of things to be missed.
When my sugar walks down the street
All the little birdies go Tweet Tweet Tweet…
On a nearby barge the last of the Big Spenders, top-hatted, cluster round a Pygmyphone, doling out Pimm’s from a madly recherche plastic dustbin.
“Robin! you incredible phoney!” roars a spotty young man, like a stick insect in his green trousers and steel-rimmed spectacles, “What the hell d’you think you‘re playing at over there?” Robin waves regally, confident in the knowledge that he, more than anyone else in Oxford, is Sebastian Flyte’s true heir. “I‘m not a phoney. In fact I couldn‘t be more authentic.” In a sense he is right. No one more than he has so painstakingly pieced together the Thirties‘ bright ephemera and made it a way of life.
“Spotty little homosexual!” bawls the stick insect ungenerously, realising with sudden rage that all through life he will be relegated to the tow-path. “We all know where you’ve been sticking your pound of flesh.” “HOMMosexual, if you don‘t mind,” replies Robin. “The prefix is Greek.”
[see also: The born-to-rule Oxford Tories]
The barge continues its gracious downstream progress. “Do you remember last year when the cox got snarled up with the stroke… when Jones set fire to Gubbins’ boater… when Bostock relieved himself in the crème brulée… when the Christ Church heavies ran naked through Tom Quad after the Bump supper fiasco in ’62…” As the weather deteriorates the Past is on everyone‘s lips and memories of Previous Eights weeks are told off like beads on a rosary. Reed-slim freshmen sprawl on the wet grass, Beethoven’s Fifth booming from a nearby transistor – “I went up to Semple after the race,” remarks one “and said jolly well done.” He unpeels a banana. “I wasn’t entirely serious…”
“Bloody cold out here,” says his friend. His remark, however, goes unheeded; for as “the goblins walk over the Universe” each one has his vision.
Meanwhile, back at the boathouse the nostalgia is less potent than the Pimm’s. Brasenose and Oriel are already drunk dry, so we oscillate between Christ Church and Trinity, roaring allegiance to whichever college is still offering refreshment. It is only here, in the Stygian gloom, that memory lane is abandoned for the real nitty-gritty. Beside the bar, Poet and Hearty attempt a rapprochement:
“I can’t see that it matters if one goes to bed with man, woman or goat,” says the Poet, whose own predilection could be for any of these in the boathouse‘s unflattering gloom. “A man can make love to peach trees for all I care and…”
“No good!” snaps the Hearty. “Gut reaction. Can’t rationalise it. Don’t intend to. Whichever way you slice it. Unnatural perversion.” The Poet, resigning himself to the fact that tonight at least it will be peach trees, slips away into the crowd.
The boathouse doors swing open, disgorging the rowers like gladiators bearing their boats. “Move along thar! Move along thar!” A fresh-faced American stabs feverishly at his camera. “They’re so god-damned sexual” he cries brokenly. “S-troke!” quavers an old man dangerously near one himself and unaware that the race is over. “S-troke! S-troke!”
It is ten to six and a wind that must have originated from the tundra tears my hat off and sets it spinning across the water. Momentarily, the swans have reclaimed the river, sharing it only with my hat.
About now I meet up with a familiar face. Once the most illustrious non-entity of his year but now a Giant in the Media. “Nothing‘s changed,” he tells me with a Parnassian sneer. “They’re still doing the same things.” He scans the crowd with the full weight of six months’ absence behind him. “Of course, when I was here I had the best of all worlds really… A lot of work done. A lot of chicks laid, a lot of dope smoked… I suppose people found it difficult to accept my own self-polarisations. Careerist, academic, painter, yet with all that, Oxford’s earliest…” I never find out. Suddenly that roar again. It is the last race.
As if on cue the sun comes out and for one brief dazzling second it is all before me again, the river and the myth. “House! House! House!” roar the hearties as out of the dark tunnel of the bridge the boats shoot into the light, knifing between the swans. “House! House! House! YES!”
Then – “Do you remember how the last of the Big Spenders doled out booze from a dustbin… How that wildly original chap in the false nose fell in the river… How the laughter in the next room grew louder and louder…” And:
Do you remember the Pimm’s, Miranda,
Do you remember the Pimm’s… ?
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