Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Monday, April 8, 2013

Of those that go down to the River

The famous coach, writer and poet of light verse, Rudie Lehmann’s name stands out when it comes to rowing matters. In 1889, he and some fellow Cambridge students founded the magazine, The Granta, and Rudie took on the position as its first editor. Later, he joined the staff of Punch. However, he was not the only one writing light verse on rowing at Cambridge. In 1895, Owen Seaman (on the right) who had been admitted to Clare College, Cambridge, in 1880, published Horace at Cambridge, a small book with witty poetry, some dealing with rowing. All of the poems had earlier, in one form or the other, appeared in The Granta. In 1897, Seaman joined the staff of Punch, and between 1906 and 1932, he was the editor of the magazine. In “Of those that go down to the River”, Seaman gave the rowing freshmen a taste what they could expect if they were drawn to the river:

WHERE Boating Captains on their beat
Go shepherding the tortuous fleet
Of tubs along the river's reedy hollows,
I marked the Genius who addressed
A Freshman with a beefy chest;
The views of Camus were expressed
Somewhat as follows.

“It first behoves you to undo
Of all your buttons just the two
Topmost, and chance the weather being breezy;
Then, swinging stiffly from the hip,
Cause your prehensile heels to grip
The stretcher; at the signal, nip
Great Heavens! Easy!

Where were we? Yes. There is a rule
Whereby the oarsman, though a fool,
May guarantee the boat against inversion;
Observe your blade; the thing is bent
Obliquely to the element;
Square it at once, and so prevent
Needless immersion.

Again; deposit, if you please,
Your stomach well between your knees,
Aim broadly at the bottom of the vessel;
Swing early, often, long and late;
This is the doctrine up to date,
With which the most immaculate
Fresher must wrestle.

Reck nothing though the process pain
Your blistered hide and make you fain
To be a scaly merman with a sea-tail;
A time may yet arrive when you
Will be as hardened as a Blue,
And have a soul superior to
Matters of detail.

That future waits you far and dim,
And in the awful interim
You have to pass a pretty hot probation;
‘Much is to learn, much to forget,’
And now and then you'll feel regret,
And never, never, fail to sweat
With perspiration.

Full often, rowing like an ox,
On you the curses of your cox,
Falling like blasts of some Tyrrhenian trumpet,
Will rend the horror-stricken air
With language fit to curl the hair
That clusters nicely round the fair
Crest of your crumpet.

Then will you at your rigid thwart
Restrain the apposite retort
And like the parrot merely think profanely,
The while your heavy head you wag
Panting as pants the hunted stag,
And wear your ‘Pontius’ to a rag,
Sliding inanely.

Perchance you will mislay your oar,
When quickening to forty-four,
And learn a little jargon from your skipper;
Or get an unexpected spank
Straight in the centre of your flank
From some inordinately rank

Those coaches you shall come to know,
That trot with caution to and fro
And wish their knowledge of the chase were larger;
Your valour shall divert the way
Of Nestor-Jones’s* blinkered grey,
And draw a compliment from J.
B. ** on his charger.

Eventually you will land
Triumphant after trials, and
Talk frankly like a father from the saddle
You have the makings of a tar,
And should, with fortune, travel far;
Meanwhile you might get forward. Are
You ready? Paddle!”

‘Nestor-Jones’ (*) was of course Henry Trevor-Jones, described by Seaman in a footnote as the ‘popular and perpetual coach of Trinity Hall’. In a second footnote Seaman wrote that ‘J.B.’ (**) was ‘J. B. Close, President of the C.U.B.C., 1894-5’ which demands an explanation. James B. Close rowed in three winning Cambridge crews in 1872, 1873 and 1874. The latter year, he was president of Cambridge University BC. For the 1895 Light Blue crew, Close was elected president again because he lived in Cambridge, but he did not row that year. With a non-rowing president, the cox Francis Begg undertook the captaincy of the crew. James B. Close’s one-year-older brother, John B. Close, also rowed for Cambridge, earning his Blue in 1871 and 1872. A third brother, William B. Close, earned his Blue in 1875, 1876 and 1877. In a second edition of Horace at Cambridge, which was published in 1902, the stanza in which Trevor-Jones and Close was mentioned was removed.

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