The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew, Icon Books Ltd, 2008

Reviewed by Dick Matthews

The Oxford Cambridge Boat Race is an enigma on so many fronts. An amateur rowing race contested by two provincial  English universities, in London, rowed by oarsmen from all over the world, many of whom are seasoned internationals.

Mark de Rond, a Cambridge ethnographer ,  has produced a book that resembles the flight of a butterfly, flitting from one part of the narrative to another without ever landing for long.  We learn something about rowing, coaching, training, sacrifice, elation and despondency but unsatisfyingly little about each.

The editor/publisher must be congratulated on the positioning of the photographs. The work up to there is almost tediously dull and an effort of will to get through. From there on it is impossible to put the book down, it is compelling reading, building to the race. The selections, the last minute change of personnel and the race left me breathless but also frustrated because I wanted to know more. Especially about Jake, one minute dropped, dejected and out; the next back in.

The author brings sexual narratives into the text that seem so out of place.  In the first page of the introduction we are treated to detailed references of the female anatomy. Later two pages are dedicated to the relative size of the male appendage before the orgasm is dissected in some detail. The relevance is lost and detracts greatly from the book.

The underlying message is clearly the value of the outsider in the team dynamic. Mark de Rond becomes a mentor, a sounding board, confidant and recognised mediator. The value of the role is clear and warranted more discussion. The section on mediation, though short, gives a valuable insight to the worth of bringing in someone from the “outside”. Long live the consultant!