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

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

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam