[THIS WEEK] Trenton Oldfield was today sentenced to six months in jail. The urbanist, writer and provocateur, is being sent down for interrupting the men’s heavyweight Oxford-Cambridge boat race.
Oldfield, an Aussie and skilled swimmer, donned a wetsuit to swim into the path of the boats as part of a ‘protest against elitism’. Rather him than me. He narrowly missed a battered face or worse, the race was stopped for 25 minutes, then restarted. Cambridge won. Oldfield, picked up by a safety launch, was arrested. The BBC, which was broadcasting the event didn’t receive a single complaint. Nor did the met police.
At the time, Oldfield marked his protest with a somewhat rambling post online describing his dip as a protest against elitism. It was a regrettable departure from some of his writing, publications and events as part of This Is Not a Gateway and Mrydle Court Press which though provocative, which tend to be incisive and insightful.
As a rowing fan and a Cambridge graduate, I was initially baffled by the protest. To me the scandal of elitism is not in the excellence which Cambridge and Oxford aspire to, but the way in which primary and secondary education in this country is becoming polarised to such a degree that there is a danger that this quality of tertiary education could soon be ruled out for all but the rich.
Rowing attracts toffs, that’s for sure. Many of these are people who put in huge amount of time, effort and dedication to the sport. Just like those people who dedicate themsleves to the sport who aren’t born with a sliver spoon. Like my former rowing coach, a son of a farmer and former Borstal teacher, who through charisma, talent and hard graft created an extremely successful rowing club at a comprehensive school.
It’s also the sport of choice for many ‘normal’ people and is enjoyed just as much on the Tyne, Tees, Wear and Tweed as it is in its gilded home counties heartlands of Thames-side Windsor, Henley, and Marlow.
As for Oxbridge, yes the two institutions ooze establishment privilege. But they also provide rigorous tuition in small groups, a demanding workload, and well provisioned teaching and pastoral staff. It’s a shame that the actions of successive governments have made them less accessible to talented people of all backgrounds, and in further squeezes, have made it more likely that those who have committed to paying to go there will shun professions like teaching and research in favour of lucrative careers in consulting and finance.
I’m familiar with the demands of rowing, having spent my teenage year’s training 6-8 times a week for my school’s club and competing to a decent standard at junior level. My sister rowed for Great Britain at junior level and in two successive Varsity boat races, as did a schoolfriend who rowed in the men’s Varsity lightweight race. The athletes dedicate their lives to training. I can quite envisage that Oldfield’s actions could well be a niggling annoyance to the crews involved for the rest of their lives. But it all going wrong on the day is a risk you take as a sportsperson. And they are a tiny, sectional interest compared with those who will be effected by what Oldfield was – admittedly rather incoherently – protesting.
Alarmingly, the charges initially levelled against Oldfield were ramped up from section 5 of the Public Order Act to Public Nuisance. The former has a maximum penalty of £1,000 fine, the latter’s maximum penalty is Life. Previous defendants charged under Public Nuisance include a man who made 1,000 obscene calls to women over the space of two weeks.
Oldfield cites that in the three days before his protest, the coalition government ‘(1) received royal assent for its bill to privatise the NHS, (2) introduced the Communications Data Bill to legalise surveillance of all digital communications of UK subjects, and (3) called on people to ‘shop their neighbours’ if they suspected they might protest at the 2012 Olympic Games.’
Oldfield’s final statement, issued via email, was as follows: “As inequalities increase in Britain and across much of the world, so does the criminalisation of protest; my solidarity is with everyone everywhere working towards more equitable societies.”
Oldfield’s protest was against changes to legislation which will have a significant impact on the lives of millions of British people for years to come. The same cannot be said about the proceedings of a race. The way in which Oldfield was charged and sentenced is deeply troubling for her British citizens, rowing fans or otherwise.
In the meantime, the architectural scene, so often tied up – and unavoidably so - with vested interests of the developer world, and ever in need of critical friends, will be worse off for his absence behind bars.