By Jacqueline Dowling
Michael Palin once did a circum-something of the Sahara. The BBC filmed it as part of a series predictably titled Sahara. He spent one episode with a group of Bedouins transporting salt across the desert. Camels carried the salt, not the Bedous who just walked and looked tremendously fetching in their brilliant blue headgear. At night they sat around a fire drinking tea, eating recently despatched goat and chatting…which was when Michael P decided to teach them a word or two of English. Raising his glass of tea he wished them, in the good traditional English manner ‘Bottoms Up’. A moment of silence followed after which he explained the meaning of the term – ‘jolly good health to you all’ – and invited his hosts to reciprocate in similar vein. Which they did: the result sounded, at first, a bit like Ahhhh Bo hot tott ums ahp. After a few more tries it modified to a more recognisable Bohhorrumsahp liberally sprinkled with Arabic glottal shocks. And they all fell into a tranquil and satisfied slumber.
What has this to do with anything you may ask? Well, nothing really except that I’ve recently watched the series again, and bitten my nails to the quick over the 2015 Oxford/Cambridge boat race which, for the first time, included women’s crews. Oxford won. Both races. And this is where Bottoms Up comes on board.
One memorable April, we hired a cabin cruiser and puttered up the Thames from Abingdon to Lechlade. A book of river details and good manners showed all the shallows, locks and hazards, so we reckoned it would be a doddle. Spring in full glory, fields of cows, buttercups and cowslips on each side and very little traffic – bit too nippy on the water so early in the year being the reason. Which was fine. It gave us time to make mutts of ourselves through the first couple of locks without an audience. Okay, so the lock steps were pretty slimy and it was hard work ratcheting the gates open on my own (someone had to steer the boat), but I didn’t fall in and we remembered to leave the locks open on the upstream sections. Good manners.
Mallards and swans accompanied us part of the way on the Oxford stretch: the ducks very vocal at all times quacking in a series of descending notes which sounded more like a jeering soccer mob than birds of fine plumage might be expected to make. An island of young birch trees, ferns and ducks’ nests hove into view. The river narrowed here, and took a bend. It seemed an ideal spot to moor and pick a bunch of cowslips for the cabin. So we did. It was only when the time came to put the engine into reverse, throttle up and get back into the stream that the trouble started. We were well and truly stuck on a bank of shale – well marked on the map. As lock-opener, deckhand, galleyslave and the rest, I was instructed to use the boat’s pole to push off from the bank. This didn’t work because the bank was soft and muddy and the pole got stuck.
Enter plan B : orders from the bridge to take off shoes and jeans, hop overboard and give us a push… which I did: leaving just a pvc jacket and jumper on top, and Marks and Spencer generous cuts (white) below. The boat had an aluminium pipe pulpit around the bow, to stop passengers falling overboard. It was easy enough to ‘hop’ over the top and give a couple of mighty heaves which released the boat. I was then left to get myself back on board, over said pulpit, in a pair of soggy knickers and a muddy, slippery jacket. Very difficult, especially as the skipper was busy elsewhere and couldn’t help. The mallards had a field day quacking and ducking under the water, nipping my toes and other things. And then, to my horror and everlasting mortification, around the bend came an Oxford Eight, practising for the upcoming boat race. Ducks went into ecstasies, the crew let out a roar – meant either as a warning to get out of their way or because of my desperate situation I’ll never know, folded as I was over a slender bar, head down tail up.
But what I did come to realise was that the good old English salutation ‘Bottoms Up’ may well have originated on a stretch of river, many years ago…