By ROBERT LYND
Surely, one of the most unaccountable things in the world – the popularity of the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race. It is popular among people who care nothing about rowing, and it is popular among people who care nothing about Oxford and Cambridge. Some authorities declare that about 1,000,000 people – or about one in seven of the population of London – see it every year. Others with less generous imaginations estimate the annual crowd along the river-banks at about half-a-million men, women, and infants-in-arms. You could not get a crowd of anything like the same numbers to go to see Oxford and Cambridge playing cricket or Rugby football. Yet most of those half-million people, exclusive of the babies, are much fonder of cricket and of Rugby football than of rowing. For some reason they have got it into their head that it does not really matter which of the Universities beats the other at cricket or football, but that it matters a great deal which beats the other at rowing. It is one of those general illusions to which the human mind is subject. There are contests of skill and strength taking place every day, in which most of us do not take even a languid interest. Then, suddenly, for no reasonable reason, we wake up and find ourselves regarding a boat-race between two universities that most of us have never attended as one of the grand events of the year. We crowd the banks of the Thames to see it, though we know from experience that it is impossible to see the boat-race from the banks of the Thames. Most of those who have seen the boat-race every year that it has been possible for them to see it have never seen it yet. A boat-race, like a great poem, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But no man, standing on the banks of the Thames, can see the beginning, the middle and the end of the Oxford and Cambridge race. He may find himself with a good view of the end of the race in the year in which the decisive struggle took place about the middle, or he may find himself watching the middle when all the excitement was at the beginning or will be at the end. He must choose a single section of the race, and it will, as likely as not, turn out to be a dull section. The first time I saw the race I was fairly close to the finish, but Cambridge had won the race somewhere near the beginning, and the end of the race was as tame as a walk-over. It seems to me that it would be only fair to the spectators if, in the future, the race were run in three sections and if, at the end of each section, the boats had to start level again as if for a new race. The boat that won two out of three of the sectional races would be the winner. In these days, when it is so important to maintain the prestige of university education, events such as the boat-race should be used as propaganda. The more exciting the boat-race is made, the greater is the esteem in which the universities will be held by the great mass of Englishmen. This year’s race, for instance, was enough to convince an ordinary Englishman that a university education isn’t worth paying for. If such a fiasco had occurred at a cricket-match or boxing-match, there would have been what the newspapers call “scenes” among the spectators. Those who only saw the finish of the race, when Oxford had disappeared and Cambridge were left alone in possession of the river, may have seen a pretty exhibition of rowing, but they did not see a contest. Many of them must have felt defrauded of a Saturday afternoon. Yet they went home philosophically, unmurmuringly, and bought evening papers to see what kind of race it was that they had just been seeing.
Possibly, they did not even feel that their day had been wasted. It may be that most of the people who go to see the boat-race, go to see, not a contest, but an occasion. They go because so many other people go. They like to be part of a crowd. They will stand in the streets all day to see a prince driving past, if he is a prince whom everybody else will be there to see driving past. We go to see most of the things we go to see from an impulse of gregariousness. If “everybody” – that least trustworthy of guides – goes to see a musical comedy, we all feel that we must go and see it. “Everybody” has seen the Derby at least once, so you and I feel out of it till we have seen it too. I am sure that a large percentage of every crowd gets very little pleasure out of anything but being part of the crowd. Many people who go to see the Derby never look at the race and, indeed, could not see it if they tried. There is, I suppose, something admirable in this desire to share some common experience of your fellow-creatures. The happiest man may be he who can choose his own pleasures, but the second happiest is he who is content to let his pleasures be chosen for him by other people and who can enjoy anything if only enough other people are enjoying it. We must not underestimate the pleasures of communion – the pleasures that take thousands of people to Brighton and Southend rather than into the solitude of country woods and lanes. It is the same kind of pleasure that takes a man into a public-house or to a party. We cannot endure isolation, and crave for the presence of other people. There are times when it does not even matter if we like the other people very much – when any other people seem better than no other people. The love of company is more natural than the love of tobacco, and with many people becomes as imperative a craving. For some curious reason the crowded population of a great city is not company, but the crowd that gathers to see a great event or to enjoy itself with roundabouts and cocoanutshies on a Bank Holiday is. A man may feel as lonely in Piccadilly as in the Sahara, but, even if he is alone, he will probably not feel lonely among the crowd at a Cup Final. He does not instinctively share the experiences of his neighbours in the streets of London: he does in watching a Cup Final.
But there are, I fancy, other good reasons for going to the boat-race than the love of company on a large scale. Most people are fascinated almost from infancy by boats and horses. They are the chief toys of boyhood. I wonder if any boy has ever lived who never possessed a boat or made one for himself out of paper. It may be that our delight in boats and horses is a very primitive thing, and could be traced back to savage ancestors who by these instruments won for the human race superhuman powers on water and dry land. Even a penny boat floating in a pool among the rocks is a miracle if you are young enough. Even if you have to push it with the handle of a shrimp-net from one side of the pool to the other, or throw little handfuls of water after it to propel it across, it will be a long time before you cease to be entranced by the spectacle of this little hollow wonder of wood afloat. Almost anything floating, indeed, will attract a child’s eye. It can be happy all day throwing sticks on the surface of a stream and watching them as they are borne out of sight. Even to-day, if I am in the right company, I find myself taking pleasure in seeing sticks or grasses dropped over the side of a bridge into a stream and in going to the other side of the bridge to see them emerge triumphantly on the swirling waters and hurry off down the stream. Few men ever outgrow the pleasure of looking at boats floating in a harbour – whether fishing smacks rocking gently in the wind or coal-boats or ordinary pleasure-boats for hire. There is nothing that more immediately sets our imaginations at play. We may be indifferent to the pleasures of yachting or of rowing, but we cannot be indifferent to the pleasure of looking at boats. Are there a hundred men in London who can see even a barge on the river without being the happier for it? I doubt it. hence we need not perhaps to be surprised that the notion of a boat-race captivates the imagination of so many thousands of Londoners who have never handled an oar in their lives. The mere photograph of a boat with its crew in a newspaper – how it delights the eye beyond any photograph of a Lord Mayor shaking hands with a statesman on a railway platform or even the richest bride coming out of a church on the richest bridegroom’s arm! And a boat-race gives us a great deal more than that. When there does happen to be a contest of equals, how the very swing of the oars seems to pass into our blood and keep us at as taut a strain as the oarsmen themselves! What anguish if the nose of the wrong boat shoots a yard ahead! What joy if the right boat makes a mighty effort and the boats are level again! I should like to see such a race rowed on the Thames every year, and I should like to see a wide embankment built along each side of the river, so that all of us could follow the race from start to finish on the tops of motor-’buses. As things are, I am a little dissatisfied with the boat-race. I doubt if I should trouble to go to see it again if it were not for the fact that such attractive people live in Hammersmith and Chiswick, and that the boat-race is an excellent excuse for seeing them.