Tuesday 1 July 2008

The Aquatic Lounger

'Henley on Thames' by 'A Thames Lounger'
From the American sporting magazine The Outing, July 1890

Stuck in the middle of this flowery Victorian word-picture of the Thames at Henley is a interesting description of a recreational rower of the time, presented for an American audience by, I suspect, an English writer. He is labelled 'the aquatic lounger' but all the idleness and devil-may-care attitude is all a front - he is in fact, according to the writer, a hard-working, hard-playing professional gentleman, and an Old Etonian to boot.
The individual was clearly a 'type': only a few years later he enters into history when he appears in Wind in the Willows as Ratty.
The whole article can be found at the LA84 Foundation. We join the writer at a lock, where he spots a sportsman having a break:
There [at the lock] also that product of the Thames, its native genii, the aquatic lounger most does congregate. Burly of form, muscular of development, sunburnt of countenance, much given to smoking the fragrant weed from the recesses of a meerschaum pipe, at the locks he rests from his labors and hears the gossip of the river.
He knows everybody and everybody knows him, for has he not swung his lusty arms and skimmed his outrigger, like a swallow, up and down the Thames these twenty summers past, and passed and repassed every lock hundreds of times? Every locksman knows him and every roadside inn, in all its courses, has had him for a welcome guest.
With such men the Thames becomes a fascination. Every day they can snatch from the serious business of life they are off to its waters. The Thames lounger may, in the intervals, be a busy scientific teacher, or an engineer all but buried in the pressure of weighty contracts, or he may be a literary Gideonite hewing the wood and drawing the water for a voracious and hardly grateful public; but be he what he may his one relaxation is his boat and his favorite haunts on the Thames.
Here lawyers safe from legal toils,
And peers released from duty,
Enjoy at once kind nature’s smiles,
And eke the smiles of beauty.
And it is not surprising that over such men the Thames holds such a sway: setting aside the healthy exercise, the fresh air, the freedom, the lack of all the restraints of fashion in dress and meals, it appeals to all the artistic, historical and patriotic feelings of the educated man.
From the grim Traitors’ Gate at the Tower, whose portals for centuries closed on the martyr and the victim of faction and of religious persecution, to the farthest fanes of Oxford it teems with reminiscence. At one place he rows over the still standing black piles which mark, beneath the water, the work of the Roman engineers who first taught the Briton how to build. At another he passes the farfamed field of Runnymede, where the barons wrung from King John the Magna Charta on which were founded the liberties of the Western world. To-day he saunters through the gardens of that palace which the great Cardinal Wolsey built at Hampton Court, whose stately walls attest the magnificent taste of the great prelate. To-morrow he spends his leisure hours in the precincts of that huge pile, rich with the tradition of a thousand years, wherein the sovereigns of the realm have dwelt and held their court, Royal Windsor, or on the opposite bank he revisits the playfields of his early days at Eton.

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