Growing up I learnt about the far-off land of Britain from me Mum, who grew up here. When she was in kindergarten, she drew a picture of a sunny green landscape with a bright blue sky. Furious, the teacher dragged mum outside, pointed at the sky and declared: “That’s not what the sky looks like. It is not blue! It’s grey!”
This was probably not a good life lesson for a four-year old, but once I moved here I had to agree with it as an assessment of the English atmosphere (Later the teacher was fired, not because of her dedication to crushing the souls of small children (This was a Catholic school) but because she also turned out to be a kleptomaniac).
But then, a few weeks ago, summer hesitantly poked onto the scene! The clouds drew open, the golden orb of the Sun was revealed in all his glory and temperatures rocketed up into the low twenties. Then, like a five year old at a dance recital, it realised how utterly uncharacteristic this was, froze, and fled back behind the curtains. Only days later was it coaxed back onto stage to do its bit – and even now it panics and disappears every so often.
The English are well-used to this erratic display and they are determined to engage in all their traditional summer practices regardless of whether the Sun actually puts in an appearance. These practices are manyfold, including inexplicable and unnamed bank holidays, icecream outdoors, unlightable coal-powered barbeques, hanging around in gardens wearing suits and talking about how very droll it all is, drinking alcoholic lemonade with fruit salad in it…
And punting! At the beginning of this term, the New College punt fleet was relaunched by the New College Admiral with less ceremony than you’d expect of Oxford. These punts combine the hydrodynamics of a shipping crate with the comfort of a shipping crate with cushions in it. But if you want hydrodynamism, you should have got up at 5am to go rowing. If you want comfort, why did you get out of bed at all? We’ve moved into the second person, which settles it – You’re going punting:
I arranged the seat for you and everything!
Here’s how you do it:
1. Gather your punt gear. You will need a punt, a punting pole, a punting oar, punting cushions, and a punting hat. Try not to hit anyone in the head with the punting pole as this is generally considered a faux pas or a felony.
2. Enter your punt without entering the river.
3. You will notice that your punt is full of water. There are buckets for bailing it out, but no one knows where they are. Decide that there is not that much water.
4. Your punt has two ends. A gangway allowing entry at one end and a platform purpose-built for steering at the other end. You will not use this platform because that’s what the horrible, awful people from the Other Place do and your entire life is controlled by petty rivalries and pseudo-antique traditions. Also you think you might slip off and fall in. Steer from the gangway.
5. Put the correct end of the pole in the water, push off the riverbed and let the pole drift up behind you as the punt moves forward, in a manner sort of not entirely unlike this:
6. Avoid obstacles, using the punt pole as a rudder. Confusingly, this means that you need to point the pole to the right in order to turn left and to the left in order to turn right, or possibly vice versa. Possible obstacles include the river bank, fallen trees, and other punts.
7. Waterfowl will usually get out of your way, but be especially careful not to damage the swans because they are royal property. No such concern should be extended to the geese because they are inconsiderately loud in the early hours of the morning.
8. Bridges cannot be avoided and are often built as if punting were a new activity in Oxford. You must duck. Don’t poke your head up until you’re well clear of the bridge and for the love of Wykeham don’t leave the pole pointing upright.
9. That’s it, really. This is why punting is so popular – even if you are complete rubbish at it (and most people are), you’ll still manage to zigzag slowly down the river, comfortably warm(ish) and fairly dry(ish), but completely relaxed. There are few things you can out-run in a punt, but stress, it seems, is one.