THE ENTHUSIASM ABOUT THE BOAT-RACE.
TRIS journal has not usually been accustomed to swell the strength of the Agnostics,—the party, we mean, who are so ostentatious in magnifying the number and magnitude of the pro- vinces of the Unknown and Unknowable. Bat we confess that we have not unfrequently felt a kind of astonishment at the enthusiasm that the University Boat-race elicits, which has at times led us to regard that emotion as one of the most mysterious, the least , known and perhaps the least knowable, of the social phenomena of England. It is not as if the Boat.race had often been favoured by weather such as that of last Saturday. Had it been so, any one might have said that the Boat-race was not the cause, but the mere occasion whichLondon eagerly seizes upon as an excuse for escaping to the beautiful banks of its own river. But last year the weather was bitterly cold, and about ten o'clock in the morning a driving snow and sleet-storm set in. The drivers of the long stream of blue-ribboned cabs forming a double queue all the way from Waterloo Bridge to the Strand had every opportunity of being "jolly under creditable cir- cumstances"; men of business going out by the South-Western line for their Saturday afternoon had to submit quietly to be dripped upon by the half-starved people who had come crowding into the carriages at Richmond and other places, and had perched them- selves upon the elbows between the seats; and the hundreds of people waiting shivering and wet through at every station from Mortlake to Waterloo must have found it very difficult to believe they had been enjoying themselves. We ourselves thought on that occasion that it was the more instructive and pleasanter course to ob- serve the aspect of London on the day of the Race from the windows of a well-warmed room, rather than be witness of the race itself at the risk of a severe illness from standing for houna in the cold and Wet. But not so thought Lend.m. The snow-storm, and the mud, and the prospect of bronchitis had no effect at all in depressing the enthusiasm of the spectators. We doubt whether the crowd was not almost as great as it was this day week,—when, indeed, as if to guarantee the sincerity of the longing of the crowd, the day threatened to be in another way almost as unpromising as last year. The glass had been falling on the Friday, and the first thing that was visible on Saturday was a dense yellow fog, which kept increasing, till at half-past eleven, when the Press Boat started, it was quite impossible to see anything more than two or three yards off. Indeed, we doubted whether the most absolute convic- tion that a boat-race would be soon going on within a few yards of us, beyond the curtain of fog, would repay us for the expedi- tion. And it certainly was most tedious work, stopping every few minutes to steer clear of barges, or to avoid running down row-boats that persisted in tempting Providence by crossing just under the steamer's bows, like children trying how many times they can get across the street before a cab. The chances of seeing the race at all, or even of seeing anything but the person next to you, seemed exceedingly small, and the hope of discovering the secret of the enthusiasm which the race excites appeared to be quite lost for this year at least.
But however discouraging this prospect was for men going not so much to see the Race for their own enjoyment, as to see it for others' enjoyment, and to see the process and study the secret of that enjoyment, it certainly did not daunt in the least a stream of sight-seers who had gone forth into a pitiless snow-storm on a like errand. And this time, at all events, faith was crowned with sight for the great majority of the beholders, though for the members of the Press the sight was not of the event of the day, but only of the multitudes on shore and river. At Putney the sun was shining gloriously, and with almost oppressive strength. The banks on both aides were crowded with people decked with the shade of blue which they favoured, the shining water was scarcely disturbed by a ripple, and the Cambridge crew were giving the multitude a good opportunity of staring at them, as they oiled leisurely out of the windows of the Star and Garter, in their pretty light-blue jackets and straw hats. Besides all this, trade
was going on briskly. Innkeepers and boatmen were reaping a perfect harvest—one boat making as much as five shillings in ten minutes by landing a party from a steamer—an enterprising tradesman had hired boats to row about covered with advertise- tisetuents of umbrellas, field-glasses, and what not. So there was at least no want of opportunity for observing the Lon- doners' exodus and their mode of enjoying it. And it was pretty clear,—alnuost as clear as last year,—that in spite of the actual enjoyment, it was not the prospect of enjoyment which took such crowds to the Race. A stern sense of duty was visible on the faces of almost all the sight-seers,—a serious conviction that it became a Londoner to be present at this celebration, and lend his little stock of purpose and earnestness to the solemnity of the day. There was very little of that appearance on the faces of the people of giving themselves up entirely to enjoyment which you see among holiday-makers of other countries, —in a Dublin crowd, for instance, at a Kingstown regatta, or at a funeral at Glasneviu. They seemed to feel a real anxiety about the event, and although Londoners always are dreadfully in earnest, they appeared far more anxious in their minds than if they had merely been amusing themselves with that indifferent sadness attributed to English pleasure-seekers by other nations. And this we suspect to be the fact. These multitudes went to the Boat-race for the same sort . of reason for which country strangers visit the House of Commons) and eagerly watch a great division,—because they felt that to understand and to take part in a great popular institution makes them more of Londoners,—because if they had been indifferent to the struggle and the event, they would have been like the member of s family who keeps aloof from the birthdays and other little domestic anniversaries, less truly a part of the society to which they belong. ,1Londiniensis sum, et Midi Loudiui a me alienum pato,' was the sort of sentiment you seemed to see on the face of these stern, sight-seers, who breast the snowstorm and start in the fog, not to amuse themselves, but to contribute their quotuui to the annual ardour of a solemn enthusiasm.
Of course the more difficult question arises, why is the Oxford and Cambridge Boat-race specially selected for the occasion of such an enthusiasm ? And to that we suspect that the true answer is that, like the English Constitution, the character of the race was not made, but grew. No doubt the start was given by the aristocratic example of the friends of the two crews. No festival is ever in the highest degree popular in England in which the upper classes do. not take the lead. Then, again, it is obvious enough that the pride of Englishmen in the strength of their youth is part of the explanation. The University Crews com- bine much of the fascination and freshness of boyhood with the vigour and capacity of men, and that makes a contest be- tween them extremely taking. But after all this only explains why this particular occasion rather than any other has become so great an occasion of festival. For the rest the enthusiasm felt about the Boat-race is rather due to the same class of causes which have always led, not merely to feasts and thanksgivings, but to ceremonies of social condolence and humiliation, often on very trivial occasions,—not the desire for a new enjoyment, but the desire to be included in the net of a wide-spreading superficial feeling. As an Englishman does not much mind whether another Euglishinau belongs to the Minis- terial or the Opposition party, but thinks the latter hardly an Englishman at all if he takes no interest in our House of Com- mons and is indifferent to our Constitution, —so a Londoner cares exceedingly little whether another Londoner is for the Light Blue or the Dark Blue, but rather despises him if he is for neither, and feels despicable himself if he himself has no wish in the matter. It is the crave of social instinct for fresh food which makes our great cities throw themselves in this eager fashion into any social occasion which appears to be capable of developing a new sense of common life. It is not the pleasure of these occasions, —that would be much greater with certainty as to weather, more quiet, less crowding, and less anxiety about seeing or failing to see the issue. It is the instinct that urges men to participate in a life which they know a vast number of their fellow-creatures are living at the same moment, no matter whether that life be unpleasant or the reverse, which drives men through the snow and fog to behold, or to fail in be- holding—it does not much matter which—these multitude-com- pelling spectacles. No one could have seen the thousands and thousands of people crowding the banks, standing actually in the water in someplaces, filling all the windows that commanded any part of the course, covering the roofs even to the parapets, sitting among the rafters of unfinished houses, and on the walls of half-destroyed buildings at a fearful height from the ground, last Saturday, without feeling convinced of the fact that a kind of interest is taken in the solemnity which is quite independent of agreeable sensations, or even picturesque eights. There is in the matter a sort of mystic desire for fellowship in a widely reaching, though extremely superficial, vein of emotion.