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This review is from: True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny (Hardcover)
Picture this scene and try to imagine what it is all about. `A lone figure was standing up...balancing like a statue....His mighty arms were raised upwards to the sky, and his face stared in ecstasy into the heavens beyond....Donald Macdonald was alone with his God.' Was Mr Macdonald perhaps a survivor of the massacre of Glencoe? Had he routed the minions of Butcher Cumberland? Well, no. This Mr Macdonald had just won the annual Oxford/Cambridge boat race in 1987.
I have never been sure of the propriety of invoking the help of the Almighty in achieving victory in sport. Does He really tip the balance in favour of whoever prays hardest (assuming that both competitors have kept to the rules and put in equivalent amounts of effort)? That sounds to me like obtaining an unfair advantage. I quite agree that top-class sport is a serious business, but surely there comes a time when obsessiveness over it begins to seem just a trifle silly? Even if we let divine intervention take its own course (and I could think of more pressing priorities for it in 1987) does some - any - annual rowing competition really amount to a matter involving lifelong enmity? I have just read Dan Topolski's memoir of this eventful event with genuine interest and a sense of involvement. In all conscience it was quite a saga and the issues were such as he or anyone would have needed to face with proper seriousness. Nevertheless what kept springing irreverently to mind was a tale of dirty work behind the scenes in the preparation for the vicarage egg-and-spoon race in one of the Jeeves stories, and I experienced an increasing longing to have this narrative retold for me by P G Wodehouse.
The background was that Oxford, perennial underdogs in the boat race, had been coached to a string of victories by Topolski followed by a bad defeat in 1986. A gifted American in the 1986 crew saw salvation in bringing other gifted Americans to Oxford for 1987, and these showed determination to have things done their way rather than Topolski's. Topolski's main ally was the Oxford `president' (sc captain of the crew) Macdonald, and both were opposed with contempt by the new Americans. The imbroglio that followed centred round two matters - the training methods and the tactics used by the `mutineers' to get their own way. Topolski obviously tells it all his way, but he makes what seems a genuine attempt to be fair while remaining convinced that he had it right. As regards the training I am completely unable to judge of the issue. Topolski imposed a gruelling regime, and the Americans did not wish to be gruelled. As regards the `political' battle, Topolski depicts the Americans and their growing band of supporters as taking the stance `if you just capitulate there will be no problem.' How the other camp saw it I don't know, but the picture is at least a familiar one from similar battles in large organisations - a party taking this attitude and then encountering resistance typically acts the victim and alleges unreasonableness, perfidy and character defects to the other side whom it was trying to attack.
The American who set the process off was not the prime mover and shaker as it developed. That was another American, studying at Oriel College, and the epicentre of the shaking is referred to throughout as `the Oriel bar'. From my own considerable experience of that in the previous generation, I'd guess that any brimstonish plotting would have more likely taken place in the Oriel junior common room, the rooms of the various insurgents and the Bear Inn. Oriel was represented particularly strongly among the candidates for a place in the university boat, and to crown matters the headquarters of the crew was, coincidentally, Oriel Square just outside the college gates, so that Oriel came to have a significance for Topolski of something like Mordor.
The revolt grew and gained a large following, and Topolski's picture increasingly becomes one of the saintly Macdonald fighting unscrupulous and implacable opponents, finally winning first the tactical battle of procedures and then the 1987 boat race. The latter triumph was against all odds, as the American stars had been thrown overboard and what was largely an Oxford B crew defeated what appeared to be a particularly strong Cambridge outfit. Clearly, Topolski and Macdonald were justified by results, but the arguments still went on afterwards and the malcontents achieved a minor victory in the selection of the next president, although Topolski's appendix summarising their subsequent history has an unmistakable air of virtue triumphant from his point of view. His tone becomes more biblical as it all goes on, even involving latterly opposing factions from two redoubts of Catholic monasticism. As a closing vignette we hear a brief exchange between the Jesuit prophet of the angels and the organiser of the axis of evil who upbraids the former for being an American who spoke against the American side.
I have no reason to doubt Topolski's version by and large. What I don't really understand is how the revolt got itself so many adherents, although Topolski's simple explanation, namely that these didn't know what they were talking about, could be the simple truth of it. One slight disappointment, considering that Topolski is by career a photo journalist, is the photographs. With each twist and turn of the narrative, I tried to inspect the features of the protagonists, but the selection seems rather random. In particular one picture that ought to have been memorable, of a punch being thrown by a particularly upstanding Englishman at an American cox depicted throughout as odious, fails to depict that in any way I can see. The picture of the American who started it all off rowing in an Oriel boat also puzzled me until I found that he had returned after completing his Oxford course to provide coaching at Oriel, which had not been his college. The upshot was that the Oriel boat, on paper the strongest in Oxford, was knocked out in the first round of its next competition. I lament this from the point of view of Oriel, but I suppose they need to take care who they deal with or it will all end in tears.