One July picture always remains clear in my mind. A heavy, sweltering heat, a dark sky with darker clouds moving across it, a promise of heavy rain — usually fulfilled — in the still air, a river flowing down from an ancient grey bridge between rich meadows, lawns and gardens and overhanging trees, vanishing beyond a wooded point beneath high leafy hills. Altogether, a beautiful English landscape, improved to my mind by the temple in eighteenth-century classic, which, if I remember, stands among the trees down stream; it is the Thames at Henley.
All the foreground of the river, on the town side, is full of boats, and the boats are full of pretty girls in pretty summery frocks talking to young men in blazers of every device with the arms of all colleges embroidered upon them. And the boats are gay with cushions of all colours, and queer entertainers wearing pink mortar-boards and blue coats and yellow trousers and black faces move up and down the river twanging the banjo and singing; altogether a very lively scene. Then, a gun is heard in the distance by the point, and up come the boats. The men row for their lives — and it is not their fault that in these days of the motor they cannot give the notion of tremendous speed — and the race is decided somewhere opposite to the boats full of pretty girls and blazers.
Now, it has once or twice been my business to be on a stand just at this point, and I have therefore had the opportunity of observing what happens to the crews when the race is over. They do not look happy. Some of them fall backward. Some of them lurch forward, their heads between their knees. Some of them have open mouths, and they gasp for breath after the fashion of fish out of the water. Some of their faces are blue. And there can be no doubt that some of them will suffer from the effects of that boat race for the rest of their lives. And the puzzle of it is that all this is done for fun. They row because they like it; it is not one of the ‘extraordinary punishments’ which the seventeenth-century Puritans accused the Star Chamber of inflicting; it is no cruel sentence of an arbitrary and oppressive court that has condemned these young men to so many minutes of bodily torture. And let it be remembered that there has been a long period of chronic unpleasantness before the acute agony of the race. All these men have kept a kind of athletic Ramadan. They have gone into training. Their meats and their drinks have been regulated for them, their stomachs have been handed over to the trainer, every muscle of their bodies has been under strict inspection, they have had to rise at abominably early hours and go to sleep soon after the children are put to bed — and, worst of all, their tobacco has been cut off. In fact, these men in the boat have gladly consented to a rule sterner than that of a Benedictine monastery, all for the sake of this final ten minutes of long-pumping, heart-wracking, muscle-burning torment, called a boat race.
There it is; and all done voluntarily, nay, eagerly, for the pleasure, the delight of the thing. It may be said that these rowing men endure what they endure and suffer what they suffer in order that they may win. And, very likely, the men themselves think so; but they are mistaken. The winning of the race, which is, formally and in theory, the object and the reason of the whole thing, is in reality an afterthought, a cunning excuse. Excuse for what?
The priests of Baal, it may be remembered, cut themselves with knives after their manner. They pretended that they behaved in this odd way because they wanted Baal to hear them, just as our young white-robed priests of the Holy Boat pretend they go through all the torments that have been described because they want to have absurd objects called Diamond Sculls and Golden Goblets in their nominal possession for the twelve ensuing months. Both sets of priests lie, as Dr. Johnson would say, or, as we should say, are mistaken. The priests of Baal cut themselves with knives because they liked cutting themselves with knives, and the priests of Henley subject themselves to almost intolerable distress because they enjoy doing so. And it won’t do to say that they turn blue and gasp because of the honour and renown, because the pretty girls in the summery frocks love him that gaspeth, whose face is even of the colour of lead. Watch the after career of one of these men. Likely enough, you may see him in a photograph, a year or two later. The scene is an awful one. All about are hideous desolations of ice and snow. There are black gulfs as horrible as if they were prepared for Titans’ graves. There are sheer depths that terrify even in a picture; precipices that your soul will remember in those dreams from which men awake sweating and shrieking. And high over these unutterable frozen wastes, high above four thousand feet of nothingness, a rock juts out precipitous. It is a smooth wall, and it leans, as it were, towards you as you look at the picture. On this sloping rock, stretched out like a spatch-cocked fowl, is young Blueface, late of Henley. He is holding on by teeth and feet and nails to fragments of uncertain stability; the failure of a quarter of an inch will send him plunging through those four thousand feet of empty air to destruction. If he is lucky, he will get to the top of that unpleasant rock and see a frightful landscape, not unlike the horrid lakes and mountains of the moon. He will then turn, and face the equal perils of the descent. And he does all this because he likes it; likes it even better than the induced suffocation and heart-disease at Henley.
And, this time, let it be noted, young Blueface has no admiring audience. There are no pretty, summery girls to be melted. There are no harmless drudges of the Press peering from their stand over the abyss, ready to record his achievement in double-leaded longprimer. There may be a paragraph in the ‘Alpinist’— only seen by fellow-fakirs — mentioning briefly Mr. Blueface’s successful climb of the Dummerkopf; or another sort of paragraph headed ‘Alpine Fatality.’ Blueface himself will never speak of the affair willingly. If you apply strong pressure to him you may squeeze out a sort of half-admission that ‘the last lap of the old mound was a bit tricky’; and then he will change the subject and ask you if you have heard anything about Bolter and what you fancy for the Cantershire. Again; there it is. The terrors and the horrible dangers and the frightful bodily and mental strain of Alpine climbing are faced freely and voluntarily because they are enjoyed. Nay, take Mr. Blueface in his leisure moments, when he is resting from his acuter pleasures. It is a hot, a very hot afternoon. The thermometer mounts to 87. Existence is just bearable if you keep perfectly still. The logical understanding suggests a hammock or a deck chair in the deepest shade, a curiously compounded drink with ice, in a very long glass, and a placid pipe. What does young Blueface do? He finds another like unto him, and they get into the full blaze of the sun with a net between them, and proceed to hit a ball with a racket in the most violent manner, and to rush to and fro with tremendous speed for the next three hours, till they are as like burning coals as human beings may be.
Long ago a French book was written called A quoi tient la Supériorité des Anglo–Saxones? What is the Secret of Anglo–Saxon Supremacy? So far as I remember, the work in question offered no very helpful solution of the mystery; perhaps, we may venture to say that we owe a great deal to the fact that we have invented an odd ritual, called sport, which gives one of the most deep-seated instincts of humanity an opportunity of gratification.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12