by Amanda Higgin
On the last day of Summer Eights, Oriel’s first crew walks away from the river exhausted and a little disappointed. A couple of promising bumps in the first races were followed by a few uneventful row-overs, leaving them the fourth boat on the river. Close enough to take the headship next year, they joke, patting each other on the back and passing around the cava as they make their way to the celebratory dinner.
This is 1939, and there won’t be any racing next year or for the four years after that. The Isis is eerily silent every May until 1946, when Oriel’s first eight comes back with an all new crew and races just as they did before the war. We finished second on the river, unable to steal the headship from Trinity.
On the walls of the boathouse, there are charts of colour-coded lines showing the progress of all the men’s racing in Torpids and Summer Eights. While stretching, I noticed that one of the charts was missing a column. In 1914, Oriel’s grey striped line finishes seventh on the river, having bumped up an impressive five places; then the chart reads, in carefully drawn block capitals, ‘1915 TO 1919 NO RACING OWING TO WAR.’
It was the full stop that I noticed. It conveyed an appropriate sense of finality, but also a matter-of-fact tenacity. For five years the Isis was quiet when it should have echoed with the cheers of inebriated students, but in May 1920 everyone picked up where they left off. Magdalen took headship from fourth, Oriel climbed into fifth and Univ, who had been head of the river previously, took Oriel’s former spot in seventh. There can’t have been more than a couple of men there from the last time they raced, but Oxford University wouldn’t let something like the First World War change the rankings for Summer Eights. There was a gap, and then they resumed.
Before All Soul’s Mass, I was scanning the list of organ scholars. Some of the names are brilliantly stereotypical: in 1965, David Michael Cochrane Elsworth Steen takes up the whole width of the list. There are 38 names in total, beginning in 1924, two of them female (shout out to Philippa Catherine Gower, 2002, and Tiffany Vong, 2011). The organ scholars’ list doesn’t announce it like the bumps chart does, but James Patrick Gerald Wise becomes organ scholar in 1939 and isn’t succeeded until Donald James Reid in 1948. I doubt James served in the chapel for eight years. The organ looks out over the chapel, and for years it regularly stood silent.
I don’t have a grand point to make here, but these little echoes of terrible calamity have struck me. One year cocky rowers competed for headship, the next the same men were losing their lives. In the regular cycle of scholars, James had no replacement; the man who might have taken his place was called away to a different kind of service. Their absence left a gap, as the trusty treadmill of tradition stopped still.
I have always found it difficult, when Remembrance Sunday and other such events come around, to comprehend not only the scale of those two almighty Wars but the reality of them. The horrors of a battlefield, an air raid or a gas chamber are wholly alien to me. But I can grasp the gaps in a bumps chart or in a list of scholars, and maybe grasp a little of what that silence means.