Monday, April 09, 2012

Girls in boats

This weekend's bizarre edition of the boat race had me trawling through the collection I came across in my previous post about life thirty years ago, so I hope you will indulge another collection of my ancient photos.  In the tradition of another "packet" of reminiscences I was at my mother's again on Friday and returned with all my old photo albums.  I had thought that these were in my own loft but no, they were over the other side of her loft, behind the water tank (near the hole under the eaves where the squirrel got in years ago and not only ate the box of my Matchbox Monty's Caravan but also all my Kim Wilde posters).

It's all bad for Zoe de Toledo

For those who missed it, it was turning into the closest boat race for years.  Cambridge (boo!) had a stone a man weight advantage and had won the toss, meaning that they also had the inside of the Surrey bend.  They should have had a good lead but Oxford, coxed by the redoubtable Zoe de Toledo, were not only holding them, despite having to go the long way around the bend, but were actually a quarter length in front.  Things were looking good for an upset win when an incredibly stupid Australian appeared swimming right in front of them.  Quick thinking Zoe spotted him and ordered evasive action.  He didn't get a serious head injury from a blade (sadly) and no-one on a boat was injured by the impact with an inanimate object either (luckily).

One man throws the entire Olympic security organisation into panic

Then things started to go awry for Oxford.  The referee (a former captain of Cambridge) rightly ordered a restart but he took the starting point back so far that Oxford had to row the unfavourable bend again.  I still can't see the reason for this.  As a result young Zoe (who had been earlier caught urging her crew on with some very unladylike language) needed to push left to keep as close in to the bend as possible.  There is a very fine line in this sort of coxing between competitively aggressive and bending the rules.  She coxed the bend in the first part of the race brilliantly.  Overlapping blades is not at all uncommon in the boat race but Oxford caught one of theirs and it snapped, leaving them with seven and an untenable position.  Gamely they kept going but in fact I think they should have pulled up, which would have voided the race and spoilt Cambridge's day (which is the whole purpose of the contest).  I wonder whether Cambridge's peculiar rig, with two central blades next to each other on one side, contributed to this clash.  With the usual rig of alternating left and right there is plenty of space for the blade of another boat to operate freely in between; with two on the Cambridge starboard side so close together I'm not sure.  Anyway, Zoe battled them on to the line (and they weren't that far behind considering that they had lost an eighth of their power and were crabbing somewhat due to the imbalance) where Oxford's bow collapsed and had to receive medical attention.  So, a hollow victory for Cambridge and whilst we wouldn't say undeserved (Zoe's appeal for a restart was declined because she had received a warning shortly before the blades clashed), we still think Oxford would have won if the race had continued as it should have done.

The Legatus' own rowing career was pretty short. I attended Hampton School, still one of the top rowing schools in the country, and then absolutely number one (even after Eton poached our rowing coach we continued to beat them).  The Olympic medal winning Searle brothers went to Hampton.  Other than rowers the school produced quite a lot of pop musicians: Matt and Luke Goss of Bros, Brian May of Queen, Murray (One Night in Bangkok) Head and Paul Samwell-Smith, founder of the Yardbirds. In addition, the school has produced a Home Secretary (Kenneth Baker), marine artist Geoff Hunt, whose wonderful paintings adorn the covers of the Patrick O'Brien novels and even my Uncle Wally (Walter Hayes) who while working at Ford commissioned the Cosworth engine and took Ford into Formula One.  Eventually he ended up as chairman of Aston Martin.

Anyway, (you just know that this is going to be a rambling entry) if you were my height (six foot at fourteen) at Hampton, you were made to join the boat club whether you wanted to or not. Typically, Hampton inducted its new rowers onto the river in February (just as they made you swim in Hampton's then unheated outdoor pool in early March - I had never understood the term breath-robbing until I jumped in there one freezing morning).  Most rowing clubs will put new recruits into an eight or a four with more experienced rowers.  Not at Hampton.  You were strapped into a single scull (no quick release for your feet in those days) and pushed off into the Thames.  As I nervously drifted away from the boathouse I realised that the hulls of these craft were only about twelve inches across and they didn't naturally balance; they were inherently unstable.  I was fine until I had to turn around and come back and immediately found myself upside down in freezing, murky water desperately trying to unstrap my feet.  Well, it didn't take many more sessions like that to prove that rowing was not for me.  My class mate Nick Connington, however, persisted and won a silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

Fortunately, the school athletics coach came to my rescue and told me that there was great future for me in the 400 metres. So I spent the summers sitting around the school field watching the girls in the school next door (the one my daughter is at) playing netball or at out of school competitions enjoying the toned girls from many other schools.  There was a particularly nice girl from a girls' school in Egham's 100m relay squad with whom I even went on my very first dates.  When I got too lazy to run anymore (I had a series of bad knee injuries but had acupuncture, which was amazingly effective but I never let on to the school that I was cured)  I needed something else to do sports wise (I was always hopeless at anything to do with games involving a ball). So in the sixth form I joined the local archery club, which I was allowed to as an alternative to school sport on Wednesday afternoons.  I persuaded the relay girl  to join as well and after loosing a few arrows we used to slope off to matinee shows at Staines cinema (long demolished).  Certainly my mother was pleased that I was taking an interest in girls instead of toy soldiers at last!

After the cinema I used to walk relay girl (A) back to her house which was a long way (a couple of miles there and back from the cinema).  Sometimes, if it was hot we would walk on to Runnymede where the river bank was low and she would dangle her legs in the water.  One afternoon she pulled her skirt up to the top of her thighs (she had great legs) to get some sun and I was mesmerised by the golden hairs on the top of her legs.  Girls in those days didn't wear short skirts or shorts so you only got to see their legs above the knee if they positively wanted to show you (or were in athletics gear).  It was only on subsequent trips to the river, which were getting later and later in the evening, that I twigged she was trying to lead me on by flashing her lovely legs.  Brilliantly, I worked out one evening that she couldn't possibly get a tan as the sun was too low.  Doh!  I had not been brought up to believe that girls could be predatory!  One of the best discoveries of my life.  

The 218 in Staines.  The cinema is tucked behind the building on the left (which now houses a Games Workshop)

The 218 bus, which was the way to get from the archery club to the cinema, was my lifeline when I was a teenager.  Not having learnt to ride a bicycle (I didn't do so until I was thirty three) it was my only means of long distance transport.  You could get into Staines, which gave you access to Gamleys toy shop and Johnson & Clark's department store (also long demolished) both of which had a great selection of Airfix soldiers and kits.  I particularly liked Johnson & Clark because the girls in there were so hopeless at maths there was a good chance you would get too much change back.  Gamleys (which was part of a chain based in Hove) closed many years ago and is now a haberdashery shop where my sister's particularly delicious friend C works. Going in the other direction you could get to Kingston which had a good art shop and was where I got all my drawing and painting materials.

The 218 near Shepperton station passing the HQ of Ian Allan (who lived around the corner from us) the well known hobby publisher

This was also part of my route to school: 218 to Shepperton, train from Shepperton to Hampton and 111 bus from Hampton station to school. It took about an hour and a half.  All these children who get driven to school these days don't know they are born.

Laleham village in 1978

Whilst looking for a picture of the 218 for this post I found the above on a bus site and, amazingly, caught just behind the Austin Maxi following the bus is my sister standing outside our house.  It's like that TV series about the picture library Shooting the Past by Stephen Poliakoff.

Anyway, here, in a very blurred photo, is a picture of one of my early solo wargames.  Helpfully, the date is printed on the side so I know it is no later than April 1975.  I had two boards at this time; one was two boards pushed together which I used to set up in the dining room and measured 6'6" x 7' and this one which was small enough to set up in my bedroom was about 6' x 4'.  At this stage it wasn't properly painted but here it is serving as a Pacific atoll being invaded by US Marines in a DUKW, a Buffalo, some of those rubber boats from the pack and some pontoons from the Airfix pontoon bridge.  The hills are polystyrene and the beach is Plasticine.  The two darker hills on the left were built by my friend Bean-kid (now Dr Bean-kid) who was always better at modelling than me.  This was helped by the fact that he had access to Teddington Model Shop and could get things like Mod-roc ((so he could build Terence Wise style hills) which I didn't have access to.  I do wonder whether a lot of youngsters are put off getting into wargaming today by the pressure to have everything painted.  Games Workshop are responsible for some of this but also wargames shows produce, what to many teenagers, are unattainable levels of quality in painting.

Agent Provocateur in Cornhill.  I've spent a fair amount in there myself!

The issue of access to a model shop was always a key one for me as the shops in Staines just didn't have the sort of railway scenery items that would have been so useful for my wargames.  It was only when I got to Oxford that I found that Howes on Broad Street had everything I might need (including Mod-roc).  Of course it was just at this point that I acquired my first serious girlfriend, who I had met at interview the year before.  We had bonded having spent three days in a series of damp students rooms full of other prospective interviewees, cigarette smoke and dreadful music.  C and I soon broke away and relocated to various cafe's around town.  Possibly our better mental state as a result contributed to us doing well at interview.  It was on one of these exploratory trips out from college that I discovered Howes the model shop.  C (who was a bossy sort from Edgbaston) absolutely wouldn't let me go in to have a look, on the basis that it was "childish".  Not wanting to offend someone with such lovely red hair I demurred and ever after, whenever I went into Howes I always felt rather furtive, as if C would jump out from behind a stand of Esci tanks and tell me off.  It was rather like when I had an office in the city opposite a branch of the lingerie shop Agent Provocateur. It was always amusing at Christmas watching the older City gents appear to be walking determinedly past the door and then dodge in sideways at the last second whilst glancing around to see if anyone had spotted them.

C was a petite girl and we hadn't been in College for more than about a day when she was approached to try out for cox for the college rowing club.  She turned them down in her usual blunt manner but other petite redhead, J, who became my girlfriend after we left college, accepted, became cox of the first eight and has an impressive number of inscribed oars on her wall as a result.  I started at Oxford the first year most of the colleges went mixed and this was also the time that women were starting to cox men's eights.  Small girls found themselves very popular, therefore.  Oriel, the best rowing college, were the last male college to go mixed, six years after the rest, and it was rumoured that their initial female intake was made up of lots of really tiny girls.

Now runs a very big bank

Given my own taste, at that point, for petite women it was only natural that a fair few were coxes for eights as well.  M (above) was the cox of one of the ladies colleges (there were still three all women's colleges when I was there).  In M's college if you had a gentleman guest in your room in the evening you were supposed to put your mattress outside in the corridor, presumably to prevent any hanky-panky (it didn't work).  Amazingly, someone was actually sent down from my (mixed) college for being found in bed with a girl by the scout ( we didn't have to make our own beds or clean our rooms - these elderly gentlemen did it for you - all very Brideshead Revisited) in the morning.  I think it was worse because she was from another college (possibly even Lincoln - horrors). This sort of thing stopped very quickly as they discovered that with all these extra super-hormonal women in the university they just had to give in to the inevitable.

The gorgeous M ready for action

It was about this time that I acquired my first SLR camera (a Canon A1) and so happily used to rush around snapping pictures of the colleges and...lady rowers.  By this time my involvement with  a number of college coxes had got me involved, peripherally, in the rowing scene, whilst having to continue to dodge invitations to start rowing myself from people who had discovered I went to Hampton.  My college was not exactly a rowing powerhouse so many of the squad had not done rowing at school and had taken it up there. Even my limited experience on the river made me a target, therefore. The college's women's eight was far more successful and featured the impressively constructed and impossibly posh M, very much the squad's rowing mascot.

Another splendid redhead

Personally, I preferred another redhead, C, who, was a tall, rangy specimen with long legs and an athletic figure.  On the whole, however, I found the actual lady rowers quite scary.  One of them, T, who I had a brief thing with, was six foot three and used to play the cello which she carried under one arm as if it was a mere fiddle.   I soon discovered, however, I didn't like going out and about with someone who was two inches taller than me, drank real ale and occasionally smoked a pipe (it was more to do with Lord of the Rings, I discovered, than any proto-dykeiness).

I soon discovered that the second or third (at the women's colleges) eights crews featured much more normally proportioned girls however, compared with the monsters in the first eights.  Anyway, I decided to largely stick with lady coxes and it was from them that I discovered the complexities of the role and the levels of aggression needed to motivate eight huge men (or women).  One of these girls, K, was a gentle creature with a lilting Welsh accent.  Put her at the stern of an eight, however, and her language would have shocked a cage full of miners.  In fact most female coxes I knew could swear like troopers (and girls did not swear as much then as they do now).

One thing that proved popular, especially with photographers, was the tradition of the winning cox getting thrown into the river.  This became particularly popular, as there were more and more women coxes, for the photographers as they not only tried to catch them in full flight (girls flew much further) but also then emerging from the river in wet tee shirts.  Disgraceful!

The lovely Sue Brown

We all started travelling to London for the boat race, of course, but the one I remember the most was the 1981 event where Sue Brown became the first woman, as Oxford cox, to take part in the race.  Personally, I think the boat race should be confined to undergraduates only.  Sue was the girlfriend of my former classmate, Nick, (the one who went on to win a medal at the Olympics) and was  a lovely girl.

The 1981 boat race trophy

The race was much less popular as a spectator event in those days and it was quite easy to move along the course and get down to the finish area after the race to participate in the celebrations (I think I had to demonstrate we knew one of the rowers by naming them and their school but that was it), as my photo of the trophy from 1981 shows. 

So, all of this came flooding back on Saturday, as we stood around wondering what on earth was happening.   Not much wargaming content in this one, I'm afraid, but that was because lady rowers had supplanted model tanks at this point in my life.  My next post will be about soldiers, I promise!


  1. Have you ever thought about writing a book of your exploits!?!

    Not sure what "certificate" it would be!

  2. Never thought a post about the 218 bus and lady rowers/coxes could be sop entertaining...! :o))

  3. You are quite right about the idiot who stopped the boat races!

    As an Australian can I say please feel free to hang draw and quarter him. He is a serial pest and the only thing he does is produce Carbon Dioxide which we have in abundance anyway.

    I hope that Karma comes around to bite him in the ass!

    Rant over :P

    Very interesting post.

    Kind Regards,


  4. Another fascinating read and insight into your past. I only fear any of the photographic entries stumble across your blog and read your dialogue - you may get some rather interesting entries in the comments section!

  5. Allan, I don't hold it against Australians (I have relatives who are Australians). I certainly left a few choice negative comments on his blog before he had to clear it off!

    Scott, I doubt any of the young ladies (well they'd all be middle aged by now) would object (I do still see a few of them from time to time) and I suspect they don't read wargames blogs. I'll probably take some of the pictures off after a while...