Friday, May 28, 2004

“The Silence of the Cam”

I am now well inside the zone of behaviour marked “Grade A Smug Bastard”.

When your response at 4.30 in the afternoon to the question, “How are you?” is “Rather the worse for cheap champagne” - and minutes later a woman you’ve met once before is stuffing toilet paper down the front of the embarrassingly large deficit in the bodice of your sequined gown – you can be fairly confident that your exams are over.

Wednesday, my exams finished. Yesterday my only commitments were champagne punting and picnicking, and a costume fitting for the play. (In one of my roles, I play an aristocrat, pretending to be a mountain bandit, pretending to be a female dancer. We have decided to pad the dress, rather than have me wear one of the director’s bras.)

Yesterday was possibly one of the most perfect days I’ve had in Cambridge. Sunlight is never quite so cheerful, fresh air quite so refreshing, pretty passers-by quite so pretty, as the day after exams.

And if this city is beautiful in Spring, it is astonishing from the water.

So there we were, two punts full of champagne and strawberry fuelled chaos, me, another early finishing Australian LLM mate, a batch of her college friends and one of the college friends’ assorted Canadian cousins.

“Grantchester or death!” was our watchword, as we steered away from the St John’s punt moorings out into the green, viscous mass of the Cam.

The women were reduced to goo-ing at the sight of what we first took to be ducklings.

“Don’t their parents look rather like geese?” I asked.

“Canadian geese,” a Canadian suggested.

“So,” some random punter asked, “what does that make the babies?”

The answer evaporated into air like a champagne bubble from a cheap plastic cup: “Goose- kittens?”

“Goslings?” I hazarded.

“Why not goose-puppies, huh, huh?”

We were soon debating, as only international lawyers could, whether one could commit piracy on the Cam and what our pirate names should be. Somehow, all the men wound up as “Uncle Boat” – except for Captain Forceps, who explained that prosthetics had come a long way since hooks.

We weren’t exactly rushing. True, it was after two by the time we got the punts unmoored, but by three-ish we’d only just made it under all the college bridges to the landings at The Anchor – and it was already time to send a party out for more champagne before we faced the challenge of “The Rollers”.

I had presumed, idly, that where the Cam rushes down a concrete canal and pours out by Darwin college, there would be a lock.

Instead there’s a 45 degree concrete ramp set with a series of steel rollers. You get out, try and pull/run the punt up it, topple it onto a set of planks embedded in the tow path, shunt it across, and then down a smaller set of rollers on the other side.

Not as easy as it sounds. Still, amidst the mayhem no accidental dunkings.

I had to zip off on my bike (a leisurely ten minute walk away for all our time on the river) to the costume fitting, but then afterwards cycled Grantchester-wards to catch up the crew for the picnic. People were prepared to risk death, apparently, having stopped part way.

Rejoining the party, I was warned to avoid the couple shagging in the undergrowth while stowing my bike (the quaint Spring fertility rites of the British) and was soon drinking, debating, and listening to Newfoundland folk songs with guitar accompaniment.

When it came time to set off home, I volunteered to have a crack at doing some of the standing and pole-pushing, which raised the awkward question of what to do with the bike.

“Just put it in one of the punts!” came the tipsy reply. The chorus rapidly took up the suggestion and we were sailing merrily down the Cam, with a bicycle on board.

I’m not sure that the speeding kayakers knew what to make of us.

“Okay, you though going up the rollers was tough, going back can be scary. Especially if you sit in the punt. It’s white-water punting.”

“White water punting?” I countered. “As an adventure sport that sounds about as scary as extreme fine dining.”

"Well, the only risk is that you sink the punt."


"Ooh, look at the goose-kittens," someone coo-ed.

Someone did sit in the punt going down the rollers: water broke over the bows like a themed movie-park ride (“Brideshead Unlimited II”).

Punting back towards the mathematics bridge we passed a puntful of PhD friends from college.

“That’s some terribly poor punting technique there, man!” taunted the captain of the cricket team.

True, I could make it go forward, or steer, but not both. But I thought my principle achievement was not falling in.

I am going to have to spend more time this Spring messing about in punts.

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