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
  • @PennyRed

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.