Thai Food, and Trenton Oldfield did an Easy Thing
I made plans to watch it at a swanky-looking lunch held by the Oxford Alumni society in the Thai Square restaurant at Putney Bridge, which overlooks the race start. This wasn’t my first Boat Race. The first time I tried to see it was with friends in 2008 - we ended up lost in a Chiswick cul-de-sac, our ears cocked to the distant sound jubilation. The following year I got into an acrimonious beer-fight with a bellowing man in Kew. 2012, I hoped, would be the year I both actually saw the Boat Race and did not leave smelling weirdly of hops.
I’d been nervous about going alone, so decided to arrive 20 minutes late and minimise the time available to withdraw into a lonely corner and tweet woefully. This worked out pretty well because against all odds, the only remaining seat in the room was right next to the window, directly parallel with the Cambridge cox’s left ear. The tables were already laden with friendly, interesting, talkative people and bowls of delicious soup. ‘This is going well!’, I tweeted with exuberance. Well enough for us all to confidently assume that from here on in nothing would go wrong with anything.
I was about half way through a bit of bean curd when everybody started to notice a man in the water! Someone passed me a plate of fish curry and I nearly dropped it all over the shop. Within seconds people were mentally drafting the titles of the blog-posts and Facebook statuses about THE TIME THAT GUY FELL OUT OF THE BOAT AND INTO THE RIVER. It was kicking off on Twitter and for a second the internet forgot about Samantha Brick.
When it emerged that the swimmer was a saboteur, and that the whole thing was a demonstration against the snobbery of society’s elite, the debate at alumni HQ mostly returned to Trenton Oldfield’s being a damn fool. But looking around the room made it less easy to be glib. Everyone was well-educated, well-spoken and well turned-out: all the ‘well’s. People of a different race to the majority present were serving food. Boris Johnson was 20ft away on a catamaran. I wondered if perhaps, if you scraped away the layers of clumsy rhetoric, pretension and the grin on his self-satisfied face, there might have been some point to what Trenton Oldfield was saying.
Don’t get me wrong, blog-reader! I too have read the man’s political strategy and seen that it advocates minimum-impact subversion levelled at an undefined and invisible echelon of ‘Elites’ bent on robbing him of freedom or riches or urban fencing initiatives or whatever it is he wants. It’s just that Boris Johnson being 20ft away from you on a catamaran is the kind of thing that reboots the self-awareness centres in your brain.
So I started to give this some thought, and the conclusion I came to is that Trenton Oldfield thought he was making a very different point to the one he actually made. He thought he was engineering an act of ‘civil disobedience’ against the inherent pretentiousness of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. What he in fact did, when he slithered like a man-eel into the Thames, was to publically reject the notions of hard work and aspiration to remarkable things. Because the blue boats, but also the academic communities to which they belong, are united far more by a committedness to the relentless pursuit of brilliance than they are by relative standards of privilege. Trenton Oldfield thought his plan was a masterpiece of strategy, of ‘local knowledge, ambush, surprise and speed’, but in reality his achievement was being in the way. Owning a wetsuit, if we’re really pushing it. An appropriately waterproofed cat could have done the job with equal competence. Making Oxbridge as accessible as possible to people with talent and commitment is imperative, and we must continue to fight for it, but the actions of an unremarkable man, doing an easy thing to spite people who try, can only be doomed to miss the point.