MI6 and the biggest cox I ever met

On this chilly Sunday morning, at the time of year when nervous yet excited youngsters head off to university, here's a story about my first week at St John's College, Cambridge some (xxxx) years ago.

Like many, I was tempted along to club and society fresher meetings more by the quantity and quality of the drink on offer than by any real interest in the topic.  So when we heard that the Lady Margaret  Boat Club (the confusingly named St John's rowing club) had multiple barrels of Abbott Ale, we were there like a shot.  Rowing?  That's what posh schools did, not comprehensives in Sunderland.  And I was pretty weedy, so no way I was going to get involved with pulling a dirty great boat along the river at the crack of dawn.  Football yes; rowing, no way.

After a couple of pints, the promotional speeches from the Boat Club committee started.  The first guy told us that it required hard work, early mornings, etc etc.  Yeah, right.  Like we were going to do that!  Another pint was called for.

Then a tall, curly haired bespectacled chap, a post-graduate student with a mellifluous Irish accent, stood up.  He must have been about 6 ft 1 and didn't look undernourished.  "I'm Keith Jeffrey, the first boat cox" he said. "Almost certainly the biggest cox in Cambridge, quite possibly the UK".

He then gave the most humorous yet inspirational speech I had ever heard (and probably ever have).  He talked about the history of the college, of the boat club, the Olympians who had gone before us, the teamwork and feeling of achievement, the joy of a cold, sharp morning on a glass-like river, the dinners and celebrations, the boat burnings after a successful Bumps,  and what we could do for Lady Margaret Boat Club.  By the time he finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the house, and every one of us had signed up for a term of water-based punishment; starting at 7am the next morning.

Keith was an amazing cox - he was far to big really, he hardly fitted into the boat and was taller than half the crew.  But he had such amazing personality, humour and motivational abilities it didn't matter.  His weight was irrelevant; the boat went faster with Keith in charge.  I also took to coxing; I had the advantage of being a more suitable size, and so my university life, my friendships and even arguably my career was changed by Keith's speech that night (I leveraged my coxing experience into milk round job interviews in a pretty big way!)  So I owe him a lot.

How on earth does this relate to MI6? ( I hear you say).  Well, I haven't seen him in the flesh for probably 20 years, but I've just watched Professor Keith Jeffrey interviewed by Andrew Marr on BBC 1 TV.  He is now an eminent historian and the author of the new official history of MI6, published this week.  He's lost the curly hair, but he is still an absolutely natural communicator.  It sounds like a fascinating book; and if the BBC have any sense, they'll give Keith his own TV programme.  Something historical I guess; but I would pay good money to hear him talk about pretty much anything.  Even rowing.

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Voices (2)

  1. Florence Gregg:

    As one who’s child-bearing hips were too wide for a coxes seat, I was one of those souls that did the hard work powering coxes of various heights, weights and motivational skills, up and down many waterways across the world! My introduction to the sport was a friend (who still is) looking for “big girls to row! – say no more!
    What I can say is that rowing is a brilliant sport within which to learn what it means to work as a team – there’s nothing like it, eight people working hard in unison, the boat lifting up out of the water and flying along – when it goes great, it’s brilliant.
    The secret of good procurement is a great team – and rowing is one of the sports that gives you the opportunity to learn to be a real team player.

  2. Peter Smith:

    Keith Jeffery in action.

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