So we have had to put up with Wimbledon and Euro 2012 and the Olympics and the Paralympics and the Ryder Cup and the Lord knows what other so called sporting events over the past few months, when all along there are those of us who have been waiting for the big one. I speak of course of the Vagabonds’ Regatta. By tradition, this takes place annually at roughly the same time as the Picnic For Detectives. And it really is the most splendid of all vagabonds’ regattas. It is not just me who says that. The late Eric Hobsbawm thought so too. In an interview some years ago, he is reported to have said:
I think twenty million deaths, give or take the odd million, was a price worth paying to usher in the glorious utopia of Soviet communism. But I must dash now, because I have my complimentary Hampstead intellectual’s ticket for the Vagabonds’ Regatta, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world! It really is the most splendid of all vagabonds’ regattas!
Of course, Hobsbawm was living in lala land when he claimed to be in possession of a complimentary Hampstead intellectual’s ticket. The organisers of the Vagabonds’ Regatta do not, and I repeat, do not hand out free tickets to elderly north London leftie academics living in book-lined houses who have never met an actual working class person in their lives. No, they have to get their tickets the way everybody else does, by scrabbling in a bran tub in an often violent free for all. Indeed, the acquisition of tickets can be every bit as exciting as the regatta itself. Up and down the land, farmers are paid to throw open their barns, outside which queues form at dawn. Inside each barn is a bran tub, filled with bran and straw and slurry and muck, and somewhere within the filth, one or two tickets for the Vagabonds’ Regatta. Some people pay just to watch the unseemly scramble, the punchings and kickings and gougings and stabbings of the desperate aspirant spectators. I think I would have paid to see Eric Hobsbawm get a good kicking, had I known which barn to attend, though if he did have a ticket it would not surprise me to learn that he hired a proxy prole to enter the melée on his behalf. We know that was the ruse employed by that other elderly north London leftie academic living in a book-lined house who never met an actual working class person in his life, Ralph Miliband. Happily, he was barred from the Vagabonds’ Regatta when the ticket his proxy obtained was found to be counterfeit.
If you are lucky enough to get a non-counterfeit ticket and still be in possession of all your limbs, you are certainly in for a treat! Down to the riverside you go, past the field where the Picnic For Detectives is in full swing. The spectators’ area on the riverbank is muddy and sloshy and the stink of unnameable effluence wafts through the foul air. There are the rowing boats! They are empty, of course, at this stage, just before dawn on the day of the regatta. You tuck in to your official regatta snack of compressed reconstituted meat ‘n’ gristle slices on a bed of contaminated lettuce leaves in a basket. Headphones jammed into your ears, you listen to your iFry, tuned in to Stephen Fry’s pre-regatta commentary. In recent years there have been moves to replace Fry with someone less ubiquitous, but, as so many others have learned, resistance is futile. You slurp your can of Squelcho! You leaf through the official programme, sponsored by Dignitas, casting your eye over the beautifully-executed mezzotints of the vagabonds, reading up on their form.
“Ned Grimes”, for example, “No fixed address. Toothless, brain-blasted, pronounced limp. Rags and tatters. Noxious pong. Vermin in bouffant. Never been anywhere near a boat. Utters shrill cries when confronted by stretches of water.”
Then, when night is almost done, and sunrise grows so near that we can touch the spaces, it’s time to smooth the hair and get the dimples ready, for here come the vagabonds! Driven down to the riverbank by the official Regatta Brutes, they are shoved one by one through the mud into the water, and must make it as best they can to midstream, and clamber each aboard the boat smeared with a decoction of his own particular stench. Then the hooter is sounded, and as if by magic the vagabonds grasp the oars and begin to row! It is not magic, of course, but the result of long weeks of Pavlovian conditioning. And so they row, chaotically, bumping into each other, getting their oars entangled in thickets of water weed, going round in circles eerily akin to the closing scene of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, but without the monkeys. One or two of the vagabonds might somehow manage to make it as far as the lethal high-voltage cable strung across the river upstream, and then the sparks fly!
After several hours of this fun and frolic, the hooter sounds again. This is the signal for the snipers perched in trees to riddle the rowing boats with bullet holes. Yes, it’s Sieve Time! It’s well worth shoving the earphones back into your lugholes to listen to Stephen Fry again, as he keeps a tally of which vagabonds go down courageously with their boats and which splosh in ungainly fashion back to the riverbank mud.
After that, there is a communal singsong, and the surviving vagabonds, if any, are given a penny. By tradition, this is an old penny, a 1d. rather than a 1p. coin, and thus not legal tender, so utterly worthless. But you should see their shattered faces light up with glee! It is a sight that encapsulates all that is glorious about the Vagabonds’ Regatta, more glorious even than the utopia of Soviet communism.