Laurie Penny: Can't we tell a prank from a terrorist plot?

Pointing and laughing at power is traditional in Britain, but lately is less acceptable

Share
Related Topics

The thing about the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race is that either Oxford or Cambridge always wins. Our annual celebration of the physical and moral prowess of young, sweaty, future members of the British elite has changed very little during the past 158 years: there is still no music, no spangly costumes, and nothing to see for 95 per cent of the time. Instead, you stand around on a riverbank in the cold, drinking warm lager and watching groups of people in college scarves try very hard to pretend they're not all on the same team. After about three hours, two lozenges full of panting humans whizz past, and the big screen tells you which of the blue teams has won. Oxford's team colour is dark blue, while Cambridge's is light blue, and this should tell outsiders most of what they need to know about social class in Britain.

So the disruption of this year's race by an anarchist swimmer will at least be remembered as the only interesting thing to have happened in decades of the second-dullest sporting spectacle to come out of a nation that also invented snooker. Trenton Oldfield planned his action with care. Before he plopped into the Thames in his wetsuit of justice, he released a solemn 2,000 word communiqué about the nature of elitism that reads like it was scripted by Monty Python. "My swim into the pathway of the two boats," he writes, "is a result of key guerrilla tactics; local knowledge, ambush, surprise, mobility and speed, detailed information and decisiveness."

What makes the whole affair even sillier is the number of people taking it seriously. This was hardly an epic act of class war – a few disparate activists may have claimed it as such, but they are the sort of people who cannot make a sandwich without writing a communiqué. Nor was it a dastardly terrorist plot. It was a prank. Yes, some spectators were disappointed and some competitors angry. And a rower collapsed from exhaustion – hardly an unusual occurrence in professional rowing. Ultimately though, nobody died, and the race ended as it always does: the blue team won.

Pointing and laughing at power has traditionally been one of the few sports at which Britain excels, but lately the practice has become less acceptable. During the Royal Wedding, people were arrested for dressing as zombies and attempting to put up a papier mâché guillotine in Soho Square, far away from the crowds. In 1977, the Sex Pistols played from a riverboat to poke fun at the Queen's Silver Jubilee, but if anyone attempts anything similar this year, they can expect deference to be enforced by large men with sticks. There is no room for shenanigans in paranoid, po-faced austerity Britain. During the Olympics, 13,500 troops will be on hand to prevent tomfoolery of any sort. A state which forbids anyone to make fun of it is a state out of control – and that, if I ever heard one, is a case for high jinks.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: the paraphernalia of a practised burglar – screwdrivers, gloves, children

Guy Keleny
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?