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.