Publish date:


During my first week at Oxford I decided not to go out for any sports in the fall, or Michaclmas, term. My college offered Rugby, soccer, field hockey and something referred to as "the boats." I had never done any of these. They were all outdoor sports, and outdoors was where it was raining. For a fee I could also have joined a team of chaps who trotted informally through the dripping countryside in mild competition with a group from another college. Or I could have subscribed to a beagling club and worn a green coat, stout laced boots and a hemispheric little green velvet cap and legged it over the fields behind the dogs in search of hares and perhaps gotten a furry paw glued to a wooden shield as a trophy to hang in my room. The rain discouraged me, however. I got soggy enough walking to lectures. The fall term seemed a good time to lie up in front of a fire and get a good start on my reading.

I did this. I read heavily, but after three weeks I noticed a nervousness coming over me. And after the fourth week I knew what it was. I had been getting up every half hour to look out of the window. Now, there was nothing to look at out of my window but the college coal pile and beyond it a 15-foot wall topped with broken glass to keep students from climbing in after midnight. I was looking for a girl. I had got used to having dates at home but, after a day or two of scrutiny, I could tell that I was not likely to see one poised like a mountain goat on top of the coal.

I had won a Rhodes scholarship because I was the only man at the state examination who had worn a stiff collar—an Arrow, I believe. I did not wear it to Oxford. Instead I bought shirts with what we used to call bootlegger (tab) collars, a tweed jacket and gray flannel "bags." Not knowing that Americans move differently from the English—looser, somehow—and that you can identify one as far as you can see him, I believed my attire made me indistinguishable from an Old Etonian, and I had peeped at the English girls in the lecture halls, thinking that I had at least an even start with the Englishmen. I was appalled at what I saw.

There are four women's colleges at Oxford. Most of their undergraduates were going to be schoolmistresses and looked it. They wore rugged tweeds full of sticks of heather and twigs of gorse that stank in the wet weather, and they had big, frightening muscles in their legs from bike riding. A beautiful American girl would, I thought, be glad to make the acquaintance of a compatriot because of her loneliness.

I spotted an American girl in one of my lectures and she was beautiful. By asking around among other Americans I learned her name, which I have forgotten, and her address. I called. A maid let me in and went to fetch her. When she came in I said, "I wonder if you would care to drink some sherry with me this afternoon and bring a friend." I didn't want her friend, but the university had ruled that young women could visit young men's rooms only in pairs.

"I don't think so," she said coldly.

"Tea, perhaps?"


"Ah, milk?"

She walked out.

I didn't know then, as I came to later, that American girls in Oxford don't want to meet Americans; they want to meet Englishmen.

After this rebuff I might have lingered before my fire until spring in a dangerous inertia, dangerous because the elements of English diet are extremely reluctant to move without help after you have ingested them. But I was asked to go on the river. I was flattered to be asked, and I went.

The river is the Thames, but it is mysteriously called the Isis where it flows through Oxford, and the way to it is past the walled garden where Lewis Carroll, himself an admirer of girls—but girls rather younger than those who interested me—wrote Alice in Wonderland while he was a don at Christ Church. Then you go down a long alley under tremendous elms and you come to the college barges. They are houseboats, really, and they never go anyplace. They are moored tight to the bank and are used as dressing rooms. They are painted white, highly ornamented with colored moldings, and they made a pretty sight lined up along the riverbank.

The only rowing I had done was to pull a flat-bottomed rowboat over the weed beds of small lakes after bass. I was not the only novice, however, and we all had to put up with two or three days of "we call this an oar" kind of instruction before they let us sit down and try to put our backs into it. The president of the Boat Club, Tom Smith, was the coach. There was no professional coaching in any sport—there still isn't—except that the varsity cricketers and swimmers had professionals come to look at them occasionally during the season. Tom Smith told me I might make a No. 6, and he gave me politely to know that Six was supposed to move a lot of water. At 12 stone 9 (180½ pounds) I was the biggest man in the boat and, as I found out later, in the college. The English had been children during World War I. They had grown up on rationed food, and I think this is why they were not very big.

At my college we were lucky. We began the season in a proper shell no thicker than a cigar box. I saw an unfortunate youth step right through it into the river because he had not set his foot exactly on the keel when he climbed in. We also had movable seats on little wheels and swivel rowlocks (pronounced "rollocks"). I kept hearing a saying: "English rowing is 10 years behind the times; Cambridge rowing is 20 years behind the times. Oxford rowing is 40 years behind the times."

The varsity boat and those of some of the colleges began training exactly as their forefathers had done when Victoria was a young queen. In the first weeks of the season the varsity eight swung grandly down the river in a craft that resembled the war canoe of some obscure tribe. It was heavy enough for the open sea. It had board seats and the rowlocks were merely two straight pegs you laid the oars between. A month's workouts in this scow certainly preserved tradition, but it also gave a man a set of boils as big as walnuts. A varsity oarsman spent more time on his feet than a cop, and when he sat down he bellowed. With such a fine start, the boils lasted all season even after the varsity shifted to the shell they would use against Cambridge. At my college, Oriel, we avoided all this pain. Daringly unorthodox, we rowed the Jesus style.

This was not blasphemy and we did not kneel in prayer before taking to the water. The Jesus style was developed at Jesus College, Cambridge by a man named Steve Fairbairn. Succinctly put, it was "blade form." This meant that if your oar blade was right, nothing else mattered. Opposed to this was the practice of the varsity, all the other colleges and, I believe, American crews, called body form, which meant that if your body was correctly poised, the blade had to be right.

A body-form crew was coached right down to its fingernails. You were supposed to keep a straight back, to stare perpetually at the fifth or sixth cervical vertebra of the man in front of you and never move your head. A body form crew is impressive to watch. The muscular decorum makes its members look virtuous and clean-limbed. Perhaps this is its own reward, for a blade-form crew, rowing with backs bending comfortably and gandering around at the blades, may look raffish and sloppy but probably is going as fast as the body-form boys.

We trained all the fall into December. It was mostly just rowing. The Thames is a canal with locks all the way to London and, if we were taking a long paddle, say, eight or 10 miles, we had to pass Iffley lock when we went one way and Osney lock when we went the other. I can remember sitting in Osney lock one dark afternoon, waiting for it to fill, with ice forming on the oars and flakes of snow as big as goose feathers wetting the back of my skimpy little Jaeger shirt, and it was no consolation to remember that the Miller's Wife in The Canterbury Tales had probably lived within a furlong.

On short days when we stayed within Iffley lock we were coached by Tom Smith riding a bicycle beside us on the towpath. I doubt if we rowed as much as Washington or Yale. There was no other training. Beer was believed strengthening; gin would keep coxswains small. No one spoke of cigarettes at all. As green as I was, I didn't know whether I was in shape or not, but it didn't make much difference, because term ended about the middle of December and I took off for six weeks in Paris.

The Bump Races come in two sets, late in January and early in May. They are rowed for six days, Thursday through Saturday and Monday through Wednesday. The colloquial name for the January races is Toggers; the formal one, Torpids; but no one could tell me why. The May races are called Eights, and they are quite social. If you have a girl, you bring her, give her luncheons of hock and lobster mayonnaise and she sits on the top of your barge to watch you sweat. Toggers are grimmer because January is grimmer.

Bump races are examples of much made of little. The Thames is a small river at Oxford; in fact, I think Ralph Boston could jump over it at a place called the Gut if he took a good run. There were about 25 rowing colleges at Oxford, and each college put two boats in the river, the larger colleges, like Balliol, three, sometimes four, so there were perhaps 60 in all. I doubt if you could row 60 eight-oared shells abreast at Poughkeepsie, and you certainly can't on the Isis, so they start one behind another and chase the one in front.

Small stakes are driven into the bank 60 feet apart. To each stake a rope 60 feet long is fixed. The cox holds the other end and lets the boat drift until it is taut. Each boat has a starter. Five minutes before time all the starters gather at a little brass cannon in a hayfield to synchronize their stopwatches with a chronometer. Then they come back and stand on the bank beside their boats saying, "Two minutes gone. Three minutes gone," to the yawning oarsmen in the river below. In the last minute they count off the quarters, and finally, "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, come forward, are you ready?" and "Bang!" goes the little brass cannon. The college bargeman gives you a hell of a shove with a boathook and away you go, the cox howling the beat at about 50 strokes a minute. It is very common to black out completely during the first 30 seconds. As soon as you are under way, the stroke drops to about 40, but not much less, because the course from Iffleylock to the top of the barges is only about a mile and a half.

Most of the members of your college are scrambling along the towpath beside you, yelling and shooting off guns. You can't tell whether the boat behind you is gaining, because you are watching Stroke's oar or your own, but if the cox's voice rises to a scream and he starts counting to raise the beat you know you are overtaking the boat ahead. When your bow overlaps his stern, the cox turns the rudder sharply. Bow touches stern. This is the bump.

When you make a bump, the next day your boat starts in the place of the bumped boat. You go up or down each day according to your prowess. The final aim, which may take several years to achieve, is to become Head of the River, the first boat in line.

I came back from Paris not in the best of shape. A wisdom tooth had started acting up. It ached and swelled monotonously. I made my apologies to Tom Smith, and he found another Six. For a week I tried to ignore it, hoping the swelling would go away. It didn't and I asked the dean to recommend a dentist. I found this man in what I took to be a large bedroom with the bed moved out. The walls were covered with flowered wallpaper, and a chromo of Watts's Hope hung on the wall. He sat me down in a chair with four legs. He took a look and, as God is my judge, he prescribed an infusion of camomile and poppyhead—not opium, poppyhead—with which to bathe the afflicted parts. I was not sleeping much and I was smoking about 50 Players a day, but I bathed away conscientiously. It didn't do any good. The swelling went gruesomely on. When I looked as if I were trying to conceal a scarlet pippin in my cheek I went back to the dentist and said, "Lance this, will you?" He bumbledand said at last, "I can't. I'm not a dental surgeon." So he took me to a real surgeon, who had his learning son in the office, and there before a blazing coal fire the three together gave me gas and lanced it. Afterward I didn't feel good, but at least I didn't feel like a bomb about to go off.

That night I was sitting in front of my fire, reading and bathing my wound with a little neat whisky when Tom Smith knocked at my door. He said that his No. 6 had just come down with a bad case of flu. Toggers started the next day. Would I care to fill in? It was so casual and the honor of the U.S.A. depended so heavily on it that I said I would be delighted—which was a lie.

On the first day of Toggers I was personally lucky. I had to row only the first six strokes. When the little brass cannon went off, we laid into the first strokes hard. The cox had just shouted, "Six!" when No. 7 in front of me caught a crab. If you are quick you can sometimes lie flat and let the oar pass over your head. Seven was not quick. He was probably blacked out, and the butt of the oar caught him in the belly and jackknifed him out of the boat. Falling, he broke his oar smack off at the rowlock. The boat staggered. There were cries of "Man overboard!" and Dawson-Grove, the cox, was yelling oaths like a banshee. I don't believe it is possible to overturn an eight-oared boat, but we nearly made it. In the confusion, Exeter came tearing into us from behind and sheared off all the oars on the bow side. It was a mess. No. 7 avoided having Exeter's keel bash his head in by cannily staying under water until after the collision; then he swam soggilyashore. Our race was over for that day and I was barely winded.

The next day, with new oars, we caught St. John's on the Green Bank and made a bump. In fact, we made five bumps in all during Toggers. If a boat makes five bumps in Toggers or four in Eights the college is required by custom to stand its members a Bump supper. It is a big jollification in honor of the Boat Club. The manciple (head chef) outdoes himself and provides a really good meal, with fresh soup (I think) and champagne at will. Alumni gather and there are sherry parties. Since many Oriel undergraduates study theology, many of its graduates are parsons, but Church of England clergy are not stuffy. They go to sherry parties, and they don't stand around with a glass in their hands for the look of things, either.

At our Bump supper the hall was in an uproar because of the sherry parties beforehand. Cheers were started but forgotten. Boating songs were begun, broken off and begun again. A stately portrait of Matthew Arnold, once an Oriel don, hung on the wall. A swaying youth, his boiled shirt coming out in welts from spilled champagne, pegged an orange from the centerpiece clean through Matthew's jaw just at the muttonchop. A bonfire sprang up in the front quad, fed by side tables, chairs and Van Gogh reproductions. The son of a Scottish laird broke into the provost's lodgings, stole all the shoes belonging to that good old man (now knighted for his translations of Aristotle) and hurled them all into the flames.

High above the quad in a third-floor bedroom a man named Antony Henley crouched, waiting for the supper to finish. Tony had collected half the chamber pots in the college. (They used them then, and it is no more than even money they use them now.) In a room directly opposite, another man had collected the other half. A rope hung in a curve from one window to the other. At last the dons appeared under the porch of the hall, chatting only less than boisterously from the champagne. They were in full fig—dinner jackets, long M.A. gowns and mortarboards. They walked down the steps in the wavering light of the bonfire. At that moment a shower of broken crockery fell on their heads. Tony and his friend were sticking the rope ends through the pot handles and letting them slide down the rope two at a time. When they met they broke and fell on the dean, the provost, the bursar, the Goldsmith's reader, a bishop or two and other dignitaries. Big joke. The party went on all night,consuming untold bottles of Pommery and Piper-Heidsieck and much of the movable furniture of the college. At one point, I was told, seven drunken archdeacons danced around the bonfire, a spectacle very likely unmatched since the martyrdom of Ridley and Latimer, who were burned years earlier in Broad Street and from the top of whose Gothic monument the Oxford Alpine Club hangs a chamber pot each year.

The next morning the groans of hangover were decently stifled by the mists in the quad. The scouts were out with rakes and shovels, cleaning away the empties, the shards of crockery and the ashes of the bonfire strewn with the nails and eyelets of the provost's shoes. Antony Henley was haled before the dean, presented with a bill for upward of 150 chamber pots and laughingly fined £l0. Toggers were over. I have never rowed since nor drunk so much champagne.

I was not, so to speak, an oarsman by trade, I was a swimmer. The rowing I had done, while exhausting and in some ways amusing, merely passed the time until the swimming season opened in the third, or Hilary, term. The trouble was I couldn't find anyplace to "go out" for swimming. There was no varsity pool, I discovered. But I heard somewhere that the swimmers used the Merton Street Baths.

The Baths were in a grubby brick building, built long before with what seemed an ecclesiastical intent, for they had long Gothic windows in front. The pool itself, gently steaming in the cold of the building, was a gloomy tank, trapezoidal in shape, and I learned later that it was 25 yards long on one side and exactly 22½ yards long on the other—which made for some tricky finishes in a race. The bathing master said there hadn't been any gentlemen from the varsity near the place in months. He suggested that I see Mr. Pace in Merton College, the club president.

After I had knocked, Pace opened his door six inches, no more.

"Yes?" he said.

"Mr. Pace?"

"Yes," he said.

"My name is Seager."

"Yes?" he said.

"I wanted to ask you about the swimming."

"Oh. Ah," he said. Then he opened the door. "Do come in."

I went in.

"Seager? Oh, yes. Someone mentioned your name. From the States, aren't you? Mitchigan? A good club, I believe."

"We were national champions last year."

"Really? Just what did you want to know?"

"When do you start training?"

"Oh, I'll let you know. I'll send you a note round the week before we begin. Will that do?"

It was the Oxford manner again. He was effortlessly making my enthusiasm seem not only comic but childishly comic. However, it is just as well to be candid. I was after their records, and I didn't know then that he was Oxford's best sprinter. "I'd like to start now," I said, "I'm not in very good shape."

"I daresay you could use the Baths. Cost you a bob a time until we start meeting."

He waved his hand nonchalantly.

"Cheers," he said, and I left.

It was only later that I learned I had committed a faux pas. I was always finding out things later. You did not "go out" for the varsity. College sports, O.K.—you could turn up whenever you liked. But the varsity was strictly invitational, so much so that in my day the Varsity Boat Club had never used an American oar. There was a faint general resentment of Americans and Colonials taking over Oxford sports. However, I paid my shilling and trundled a slow half mile every day up and down the bath. It was like swimming in church.

In a couple of weeks Pace sent his note round and the season opened. I was astounded. It was not so much that they swam badly—I had more or less expected that from their record times—it was that they worked so little. In fact, they didn't work at all. They swam until they felt tired and quit for the day, refreshed. Where was the old pepper, the old fight? Slowly I began to comprehend the English attitude toward sports, which, unless Dr. Bannister changed it drastically with his great meticulous mile, is this: sports are for fun. If you are good at one or two of them, it is somewhat in the nature of a divine gift. Since the gift is perpetual, it is there every day and you can pull out a performance very near your best any time. With a little practice to loosen the muscles and clear the pipes, you are ready for the severest tests.

I was drinking beer one night in Balliol College with several men, one of them an Olympic runner, a 1,500-meter man. It is rare that a subject so trivial as sports would come up in Balliol, the intellectual center of England, but it came up and eventually came down to the question of how fast could this Olympic man run 1,500 meters at the moment? We all piled into a couple of taxis and drove out to the Oxford Sports Ground, where there was a cinder track. The runner, full of confidence and beer, supplied a stopwatch and a flashlight, and there in his street clothes, in the rain, in the dead of night, this man took off and ran 1,500 meters in just over four minutes. This proved to me that the English were right, but it did not prove to me that I was wrong. I knew I could not swim 100 yards in less than a minute, untrained.

But I stayed untrained. It seemed to be overly zealous to go on chugging up and down after all the other members of the club had showered, dressed and come to stand at the edge of the bath to watch me as if I were a marine curiosity, like a dugong. I tried it a couple of times and quit. I swam as little as they did, no more. Then there was the problem of entertainment after the matches—they didn't call them meets. There was little university swimming in England, so our competition was usually a town club whose members might be aquatic plumbers and carpenters—not gentlemen, you see. With a splendid condescension, we set out a table loaded with whisky, beer and wine after each match, and we had to drink to make our guests feel at home so that caste differences would be concealed and we could pretend to be all jolly good sportsmen together. After a match, say, in London with the Paddington police, the coppers would set out a table of whisky, beer and wine, and we had to drinkto show our appreciation of their hospitality. This drinking was not a detestable chore, but it meant that, with two matches a week, we were getting mildly stoned twice a week just in the way of business. This was not how I had been taught to train, and it came over me suddenly how far morality had invaded sports in the U.S.

I won all my races except one, but the times were shamefully slow and I was chased right down to the wire in all of them. In May, John Pace had the whole club to tea in his rooms. There was an hour of conversation interspersed with tomato and cucumber sandwiches. Then Pace stood up by the chimney piece. "Now, chaps," he began facetiously (I never heard anyone use "chaps" except facetiously). "You know we swim the Tabs two weeks from now." "Tabs" meant Cambridge, from the Latin Cantabrigia. "Please smoke only after meals and cut down your beer to a pint a day. And do try to swim every day between now and then."

People clapped and cried, "Hear! Hear!" as if Pace had been in the House of Commons. I gathered we were in hard training from then on. I had not gone under 61 seconds for 100 yards yet, and I had heard that Cambridge had a fancy Dan named Hill who had done 58. I was scared.

Someone said, "This rationing of beer, John. What if we're sconced?"

"Behave yourselves and you won't be," Pace said.

In Oxford dining halls a sconce is a penalty exacted in the spring of the year for some breach of taste or decorum. It is a welcome penalty, eagerly exacted. If you showed up late for dinner or wearing something odd like a turtleneck sweater or if you said something that could be remotely construed as offensive, you were sconced. Once I said something slightly off color.

"We'll have a sconce on you for that," the man next to me said. He wrote my offense in Latin on the back of a menu, "Seager dixit obscenissime" and had a waiter take it up to high table to be approved by the dean. It was a formality. The dean always approved sconces. "What will you take it in?" I was asked. In theory you had to drink a silver quart pot of some liquid, bottoms up. In practice you had no choice; custom said old beer. Once I saw a man take it in fresh cow's milk and he never lived it down. It is the sort of thing planters discuss in Kenya and Borneo 20 years later.

The strength of English beer is indicated by the number of Xs on the barrel. Ale is the weakest, one X. Bitter beer is two Xs. Old beer is five Xs, about as strong as sherry. It is never iced, but in college it comes from the cellars and it might as well be. It looks almost coal-black and it is as thick as stout. It is hard but not impossible to drink it all down at one go. If you do, the man who sconced you has to pay for it. If you fail, it is passed around the table like a loving cup. But the minute you set the pot down empty, you're drunk.

The Cambridge match was held at the Bath Club, then on Dover Street, London. It was a posh club. (I like the origin of posh. When people used to tour the Orient from England the most expensive cabins on the P&O boats, those that made the most of the prevailing winds and the least of the sun, were on the port side going and the starboard side returning, so the luggage for those cabins was marked P.O.S.H., that is "port out, starboard home.") We took an afternoon train down to London already dressed in white ties, black trousers and our blazers, and with an affectation of gaiety we sauntered up Piccadilly in the early evening and into the Bath Club. I knew I had to fear this Cambridge speedster, Hill, who had done 58 seconds, because I had done only 61 that season. (I had done 61 when I was a long, whey-faced boy of 15 in high school in Tennessee.) My fear was degrading. That's why I was mad: it was a real fear. And I felt that my teammates had begun to wonderwhen I was going to demonstrate that I didn't fit one of the stock British images of the American, lots of noise and no performance.

I figured I could take Hill in the 50 if I scrambled, but in the 100 I knew I would have to swim and I figured I could swim about 75 yards before I blew up. Since the English started slow and finished fast, I figured I would start fast, get a big lead, frighten him and finish on whatever I had left.

The Bath Club looked like a court levee, the ladies in those English evening gowns, the men in white ties and tail coats, and the Old Blues wore their blazers. Diamonds glittered. I detected dowagers with lorgnons, a colorful throng, posh. The club pool was 25 yards long on both sides, but it was dark at one end. Since you can bump your head into a goose egg or even oblivion if you slam into a turn you can't see, I wet a towel and hung it over the far end in my lane to make a white spot. As I walked back I heard resentful murmurs from the spectators, "He's an Ameddican," as if what I had done were cunning and illicit.

The 50-yard race went as I had expected. I scrambled. I won in a record time of 25 seconds. I went back to the dressing room to worry about the 100. Hill was a little fleshy fellow whose fat might hide more stamina than I had.

I swam the first two lengths of the 100 in 25 seconds, and after the third length I looked back at Hill. He was 30 feet behind, but I was not encouraged because I could tell I was going to blow up. I blew and finished the last 25 yards with a frantic overhand, dazzled by fatigue, my head out all the way so I could breathe. But I won by a yard, and they said it was a new record, 57 seconds. My teammates shouted and pounded me on the back as if I had done well. My shabby little victories gave Oxford the match.

The adulation of the English for sports figures is greater than that in this country, possibly because a sound sports record keeps a chap from being too "clever"—which is repugnant (Churchill was too clever by half, right up until the blitz). Let a man die who has not specially distinguished himself as an admiral, a cabinet member or a press lord, and if he has been a Blue, Oxon or Cantab, the obituary will very likely be headed OLD BLUE'S DEMISE. That is what is important. A few months after my victories I was having tea with some people at a public tearoom in Oxford.

A man came up to the table, a student, and said to me, "Is this Mr. Seager, the famous swimmer?"

I looked him straight in the eye for maybe three seconds. He seemed to be perfectly serious. "I'm Seager," I answered finally.

"May I shake your hand?" he said.

I shook hands and he went away pleased, apparently. Nobody at my table seemed to think that any of this was strange, and I let my self-esteem expand a little.

It didn't get punctured for two years. I was back in Ann Arbor then and I happened to run into Matt Mann, my former coach.

"Say, I hear you got a couple of English records," he said. Matt was born in Yorkshire, and he had held English records himself.

"Yes," I said. I couldn't look at him.

"What were your times?"

"Twenty-five. Fifty-seven," I mumbled. I had been a bad boy.

"Fifty-seven! Were you dragging something?" he said jovially.

Surprising myself, I said defiantly, "Matt, it was fun."

And it had been, all of it, the massive courtesy of the swimming policemen, the singing in the pub afterward, the soiree at the Bath Club—not real glory, which means work, but a hell of a lot of fun.


For January's Bump Races the Thames often is rather cool, with snowflakes big as goose feathers.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Allan Seager was a member of the University of Michigan championship 200-yard freestyle relay swimming team in 1927 and 1928. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1931, '32 and '34 and is now professor of English at Michigan. He still swims nearly every day; his best time for 100 yards as an undergraduate was 54.8.