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In Praise of Punting

A rather odd thing happened to me at the weekend on the river Cherwell in Oxford. I rediscovered a love of punting. Not, in the greater context of things, anything earth shattering or even remotely important, but it made me smile then and it still does.
To be fair, I am not sure that “rediscover” is the correct term. In fact, I do not recall liking to punt at university at all. I do recall that languishing in the bottom of the punt with a beer letting someone else do all the hard work was enjoyable enough. As far as my own attempts to wield the pole however all I seem to remember was being constantly stuck on the bank after yet another failed attempt to direct the boat down the middle of the river. The only achievement, punting wise, that I recall was the simple lack of falling in (a good thing to avoid on the Cherwell, whose waters are less crystal clear and more past its sell by date pea soup).
It did not bode well to start with, as my usual combination of clumsiness and timidity meant that getting into the punt was a struggle in the first place. I took up where I had left off, and firmly positioned myself as far from the business end of the boat as possible. There I intended to stay – casually and magnamously waiving offers to take my turn – ‘no, no, its fine, I’m rubbish anyway and you look as though you are enjoying yourself so much’ – being the intended mantra. And it worked on the way out. (Incidentally, for those who have not had the pleasure, this being in Oxford you are standing in the sloping prow – actually in the boat – to punt rather than balanced precariously on top as they down in the place in the Fens).
After a stop for a fine spread of cold meats, cheese and other fine fare, washed down by some very nice champagne (I have good friends), it was time to begin the journey back. Maybe it was the champagne in the end. Possibly a posh version of the beer and pool playing correlation, where a few beverages improve the ability of bad players just a little before you cross the inebriation threshold into even worse than stone cold sober. Or maybe, since punting is hardly the activity you expect the majority of people to put high on the list of activities they do regularly, the similar exclusiveness of really good champagne makes it some kind of magic juice allowing even the most commonplace of folks (i.e. me) to suddenly be a dab hand at the task. It could have been the outfit I suppose – white linen, blazer and hat, the padded Lycra cycling shorts of the punting gentleman.
Whatever the reason – suddenly I had the pole in my hands and to my shock, seemed to be able to do a fair impression of using it effectively. Not just moving the boat, but actually controlling that movement (again, for the uninitiated, punting involves getting propulsion from pushing the pole against the river bed and then using the pole as a rudder to stop you crashing into trees/riverbanks/other punts/hippos.).
I was failing to make a mess of it and positively enjoying myself. This was most odd. I could see suddenly that punting was actually more relaxing when you’re in control. A bit damp, yes, with the shower of pea soup every pull and thrust, but you control the pace and the direction. Unlike other means of self propulsion it is also something you do and do not get yourself worked up into a sweat. If you do, you are trying too hard. Don’t try and punt to a deadline, it defeats the object of the exercise. Concentrate on the task, punt yourself off too get that impetus and make slow, unhurried adjustments to avoid the collisions and get you to your destination.
All this had me thinking then in the direction of a couple of conclusions. One is what else do I remember being rubbish at that maybe I should have another go at because miraculously after twenty years of absolutely no practice at all I have suddenly improved dramatically. The other was whether this is because I’m now grown up enough (I’ll avoid the work old, if you don’t mind) that I now understand patience and the need to be calm and still sometimes in life rather than constantly rushing through every part of my life.
In all seriousness, I wish I could punt to work. I think I would be happier if I could, and while it may rain and it may be slow, it would probably still be faster than my M25 commute.

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