Why we shouldn’t demonise Trenton Oldfield


On 12th April 2012, Trenton Oldfield, in protest against 912 years of elitism, disrupted a boat race between Oxford and Cambridge. For those of you who are not in the know, this wasn’t any old boat race, it was The Boat Race, with the finest [sic] athletes of two of the world’s finest [sic] universities seeing who can move a boat the fastest around a couple of bends on the Thames. The right wing press was outraged, the left wing press went ‘meh’, and the world spins on. What was exceptional about this event was not the drama on the day itself, but the hypertrophic vilification of a peaceful protestor whose actions have been transmogrified into a potent morality play set in the macabre civic theatre of the right wing media and Waitrose stocked dinner tables across the land.

How can we explain this? Of course, it was disappointing for the athletes to have their “big day” interrupted, but let us not forget that Emily Davison, now an icon of the Women’s movement, was in her time derided as a “brutal lunatic woman”, and would have been prosecuted had she not so tragically died. The Boat Race was restarted, and as far as Cambridge were concerned their victorious journey across the finish line was tickety boo thank you very much. Mr Oldfield’s actions were no danger to anyone but himself. The only “danger” for the boat crews was an institutionalised culture of physical masochism so potent that one competitor rowed himself to the point of collapse.

So was it the subject of the protest? An unfortunate consequence of the personalisation of politics is that as opposed to focusing on the issues (elitism), the discussion centred upon the character of Mr Oldfield and the somewhat incoherent ramblings on his website. But a quick search of British Prime Ministers and a cursory glance at last years admissions statistics is all we really need to see that Oxford and Cambridge continue to play a powerful role consecrating and legitimising a bourgeois elite.

We need to skip all of this moralistic chaff and see that the obdurate focus on the specifics of this protest conceals the fact that a majority of its critics are not against this protest specifically, but the act of protesting itself. Deference to authority, reproduction of the status quo, the sacralisation of “hard work” and middle class respectability are central to the conservative worldview, and are often precisely the values that people are protesting against. No surprises then that an intervention that challenges authority and with a smug grin gives a two finger salute to the establishment is the target of fiery condemnation.

The lead-brained verbal ejaculate of the OUBC was no doubt an aggravating factor, though everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten that the crash was their fault. Following the restart Oxford took an aggressive line, and despite being told to move away 4 times, crashed into Cambridge. Obsessed by the glamour and the spectacle of the occasion, the Oxford team were humiliated, and desperate not to bear the burden of defeat, unleashed a tirade of abuse on Mr Oldfield, who by all rights had nothing to do with their failure. They claim that he was obsessed by his ego and craved publicity, but let me ask this: What would a sportsperson do? Dignified and gracious in defeat, a sportsperson would want to re-run the race, not for the cameras, not for the glory, not for the occasion, but for the love of the sport itself; for posterity.

Their silence is worth more than a thousand words.

Luke Buckley