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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Rubik's Cube

A Rubik’s cube has more combinations than light travels inches in a century. This is my favourite illustration of how a very small number of factors can produce an absurdly complicated situation. A silly little toy, with only three squares in each of its three dimensions. How can that get complicated? Well, as anyone who's ever tried to solve one just by guessing will tell you, it gets very complicated. The number of possible combinations is 43,252,003,274,489,856,000. Forget billions - that's 43 quintillion and change. (In fact the cube's manufacturers just said ‘billions' in their advertising, figuring that no one would know what a quintillion was. It's a billion billion.) The number of inches light travels in a century, meanwhile, is a mere 37,165,049,856,000,000,000. Or thereabouts.