This weekend, I witnessed two notable events, both involving English schoolboys.
Over 400,000 protestors, including university students, marched through London in a demonstration against George Osborne’s budget announcement. I watched from Piccadilly Circus as a dense train of protestors filed through the streets for more than 2 hours. Although security was heightened and shopkeepers seemed on edge, the march was mostly peaceful…. until a group broke free from the route and took over London’s busy shopping centre. On my way to the tube station, I encountered members of the Black Bloc who ripped through Mayfair. When I walked by the HSBC on Regent St, someone had painted anarchy symbols over the bank windows.
From the protest, I journeyed away from central London to the second event – one of the oldest of its kind – the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race.
Not wanting to compete with the media along the River Thames, I watched the race unfold in a pub on the riverbank. Crowds of spectators huddled in front of the TV screens to cheer for their respective teams. Fans were identified by the colors they wore – dark blue for Oxford, light blue for Cambridge. The pub fell quiet in nervous anticipation as the boats made their final turn on the river. I never knew a boat race could be so captivating.
By the time the Oxford crew crossed the finish line with 17 minutes 32 seconds, 12 seconds ahead of Cambridge, the crowd broke out in moans and cheers.
Back in central London, protestors roared in the streets as the march had turned into riot in what some newspapers called “The Battle of Trafalgar Square”.
The juxtaposition of these events in one day left me with a lot to think about on the tube back home, which was longer than usual since many stations were shut down due to the protest. Although there were other people, besides university students, that took part in the protest & riot, and there were female racers competing in the race, I couldn’t help but think about the day’s events in the context of the English schoolboy tradition, for no other reason besides the fact I’m currently taking a literature course on, well, the English schoolboy tradition.
Since traditionally, only boys were allowed to attend school, sport in English schools served as a symbol of physicality, courage, and masculinity. These schools aimed to produce men who were ready to shoulder the burdens of the Empire; therefore, sport became intertwined in the pupil’s development from boy into man, ultimately playing a large part in the student’s identity and the identity of Britain. In fact, the Oxford Cambridge boat race is one of the oldest British school sporting events still alive today.
On the other hand, the protest was the British people’s response to the issues of today. It’s the public rebelling against the traditional system; it’s the rise of the working class, breaking out of their historical bounds.
There were English schoolboys involved in both events that day. Some of them were preserving traditions at an institution, others fighting against rigid institutional rules. I write this post with no political innuendo, but to say that on that day, it felt like I was standing at a distinct point on a timeline – a point that both questioned the institutional framework and Britain’s tight grip on history. If I looked forward, in front of me, there were schoolboys adamant on changing the present to create a better future. It’s no argument that schools and its students must adapt with changes in politics, technology, and society. But if I turned to look behind me, I could still see generations of schoolboys passing down a long line of history and exalted tradition.
From there, I saw the English schoolboy tradition waver.