The best Boat Race story ever

A man on a boat and a man with some flags ...

So there's another change to London's sporting calendar - this year the Boat Race is on a Sunday rather than its traditional Saturday. Never mind: the history's still there to enjoy. Everything from the race originally being from Westminster Bridge to Putney Bridge, through Hugh Laurie being one of the Cambridge rowers in 1980, to the event's role in Cockney rhyming slang (‘go wash your German bands, your Boat Race too'*). But surely the best story is the one about John Snagge and the flagpoles ...

The best Boat Race story ever

Snagge was the BBC's commentator on the Boat Race for decades, until his retirement in 1980. He operated from a boat chugging along behind the teams, an angle which in a close race made it hard to see who was leading. During the 1949 event he even said at one point: ‘I can't see who's in the lead, but it's either Oxford or Cambridge.'

At Dukes Meadows, on the north bank of the river, were two flagpoles, one with a light blue flag for Cambridge, the other with a dark blue flag for Oxford. A man was employed to raise and lower the flags according to which team was prevailing. Obviously being at right-angles to the action he had a much better view, so for that section of the race Snagge used to watch the flags rather than the boats, and do his commentary accordingly.

At a party after his retirement, Snagge was told that the flag operator was present. He went up and complimented the man on his actions. ‘You must have been very good,' he said, ‘to keep an eye on the teams and raise and lower the flags at the same time.'

‘Oh not really,' replied the man. ‘I just used to listen to that John Snagge on the radio.'


*From The Self Preservation Society', of course, the theme from The Italian Job. Quincy Jones wrote the song after a crash course from Michael Caine in how a good Cockney ditty should sound. It needs to go something like “duddle-ud-a-duh-duh - brown bread," said Caine. Jones came up trumps. He and the actor were born on the same day, incidentally, both turning 80 a couple of weeks ago. Happy birthday, chaps.  


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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.