Carla Carlisle on the Boat Race

The photographs that hang in the Downstairs Loo trace the sporting achievements of Carlisles as far back as 1860. The same names—Carlisle, Buxton, Barclay, McCorquodale —occur with varying initials through the generations. Most of them date from Harrow—straw boater, fez with tassels—but one wall is Oxford, where my husband’s grandfather was captain of Oxford cricket.

Although I consider this the Men’s Loo, sometimes I study these sepia photographs. The young men look so serious and so young, and I wonder how many survived the First World War, the Second World War. This week, my friend Charlotte mentioned similar family photographs. Her husband’s family were rowers, so hers aren’t ‘team’ photographs but ‘crew’. She has the bonus of ancient wooden oars, souvenirs of a Kingsley-Tubbs who rowed for Cambridge in a Boat Race in the early 1920s. She agreed with me: they do look incredibly young, but, she adds, ‘because they were young’.

I’m rather jealous of the wooden oars that look like sculpture. Still, even in the age of fibreglass and titanium, there’s something timeless and beautiful about seeing rowers skimming the water, like a corps de ballet choreographed by Balanchine. And, behind the timing and grace are power and discipline, and hands as bloody and blistered as any dancer’s feet.

I began watching the Boat Race when I lived in Putney. I felt like an insider, telling anyone who’d listen that the coin tossed is an 1829 sovereign—the year the race started—and that the winner chooses which side of the river they’ll row on. I’d explain that the race is rowed upstream, timed to start on the incoming flood tide; that the fastest current lies at the deepest part of the river; that the best tactic is to go fast early on, because a crew that gets a lead of more than a boat’s length can cut in front of their opponents.

Now I live in the country and my small audience prefers the expertise of ITV. Watching the race on television, one race begins to look very much like another.

Except for the 2003 Boat Race, when Oxford won by a margin of just 1ft. It was the most exciting race in memory and we were still talking about it the next day as we drove to the Palm Sunday service at the cathedral. We’d just settled into our pew when my son grinned broadly. Sitting in front of us, between his parents, was John Adams. The day before, he had been rowing for Oxford. John Adams, local hero, Eton, Oxford, son of two GPs, was 20 years old, an undergraduate rowing for Oxford. Three of the 2003 Oxford crew were 20, one was 19; the cox, at 25 was the oldest, but the average age was 21. Only two of the crew weren’t British.

But five years on, the rowing gets rough. You may have gasped when you saw that one of the rowers for Oxford was 36 years old—the Olympic rower Mike Wherley. Or that there was only one undergraduate in the entire race (Tobias Garnett, Cam-bridge) and only three Britons in the Oxford boat.

The number of foreigners and postgraduates gets bigger each year—the defence is the lack of home-grown talent. But hey, this is the Boat Race, not Arsenal. We need to bring it back to where it belongs, with undergraduates and the best of British. Keep rowing in this direction—sponsorship, TV deals—and it will sink into a sea of cynical commercialism. As for the cloakrooms of the English country house…