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The BBC catches a crab

Henry Elkins joins Pedants' Corner whilst watching the Boat Race

A side-product of having a hobby interest is that, however weak your understanding of it in the vast scheme of such things, you do tend to be able to spot or hear a factual mistake when one occurs. Having been researching First World War soldiers on and off for over twenty years, I have acquired little knowledge on a wide range of related topics and some very detailed knowledge on a select few. However, on this subject (factual errors) it is enough to render me ‘fit for purpose’.

Yesterday, I settled in front of the television at 4.30pm to watch the BBC’s ‘live’ coverage of the 2014 annual Varsity Boat Race, an institution taking place for the 160th time since its inception in 1829.

It was not long before main presenter Clare Balding revealed that there was going to be just short of an hour and a half of build-up before the race itself got under way.

This scheduling seemed absolutely crackers to me.

Although going to watch the Boat Race is a splendid way of getting out for some fresh spring air after a substantial, probably alcohol-accompanied, roast lunch with all the trimmings, as a sporting contest it leaves something to be desired.

Firstly, there are only two participating teams and – with all due deference – neither of them is exactly world class,  especially if you discount those overseas students who come to Oxford and Cambridge for the sole purpose of gaining a blue. Secondly, most years, one crew is far better than the other. Thirdly, for whatever reason, as a contest, the outcome is usually decided well before half way. When you think about it, the bottom line is that it’s a lot of fuss about relatively little.

Nevertheless, this year, someone within the BBC sports department had plainly decided to allocate two hours five minutes of transmission time to an event that never takes more than twenty minutes and is sometimes decided in five. Whilst I accept there may be a potential audience for a people-watching outside broadcast in the spring from the banks of the River Thames, I’m not entirely convinced that the powers-that-be needed to weld it to a sporting event which – as with the Grand National – some of us, ordinarily disinterested, like to watch a form of annual ritual.

Especially this year’s Boat Race, which effectively ended prematurely, with a clash of blades and a Cambridge rower catching a crab, within six minutes of the ‘off’.

KellyHowever, I return to my subject of the day.

At one point during the build-up, Balding ‘threw’ to a short film made by historian Dan Snow – during this centenary year of the beginning of WW1 – about the 40-odd rowing blues who lost their lives in that conflict, including five of the 18 who took part in the 1914 Boat Race.

During his piece Snow told of Frederick Septimus (‘Cleg’) Kelly, a 1903 Oxford rowing blue and 1908 Olympic oarsman who was also a celebrated but minor composer of classical music. He fought both at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and was killed in 1916 at the age of thirty-five.

I know a little about about Kelly, not only because I have done a fair amount of research on Balliol College, Oxford, where he was in residence during the Edwardian era, but also because – through that connection – he had mixed in fairly exalted company after joining the Royal Naval Division, a regiment instigated by Winston Churchill, then secretary of the Admiralty, because of a surplus of Navy recruits at the beginning of WW1.

However, at one point during his piece, Snow told his television audience how Kelly had been a close friend of the poet “Robert Brooke, who died at Gallipoli”.

My ‘special knowledge’ antennae twitched violently as I heard this passage.

BrookeFirstly, of course, Snow was talking about Rupert (not Robert) Brooke, a Cambridge University man but a close friend of Kelly’s – they had both chosen to serve in the Hood battalion of the Royal Naval Division because they knew so many others from Balliol and elsewhere who were also doing this.

Secondly, Rupert Brooke did not die at Gallipoli.

He never got that far.

He died of septicemia complications following a mosquito bite, on board the troop ship that was taking the Hood battalion to Gallipoli, and was buried on the Greek island of Skyros.

Strange, in a way, that after two hours of coverage on a Sunday evening, the one aspect of the 2014 Boat Race that I shall remember in years to come is this lack of accuracy by Dan Snow and not the 11-length Oxford victory.


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About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts