Boat Race account stirs the blood over water

Ahead of this year’s Oxford v Cambridge University Boat Race, ANTON RIPPON reviews the latest book on the traditionally British sporting event, Blood Over Water, written by brothers but members of rival crews David and James Livingston

On an overcast, blustery April day in 2003, for the first time in one of the quintessentially British sporting occasion, two sets of brothers rowed in opposing boats in the University Boat Race. David Livingston and Matt Smith were in the Oxford crew. James Livingston and Ben Smith (a late replacement for the injured Wayne Pommen) rowed for Cambridge.

It was already a remarkable sporting story, ultimately made even more so by the fact that Oxford won that 2003 race (the 149th in the event’s history) by just one foot – probably the closest Boat Race of all-time, given that the 1877 dead heat was recorded as “by six feet to Oxford” and the legend, in Oxford at least, is that the judge, “Honest John” Phelps, was drunkenly asleep under a bush as the crews came home.

So, two sets of brothers, each rowing against his sibling. Now one pair, the Livingstons, have told their stories, woven together in one book, Blood Over Water, which, if there is any justice in the world of publishing, should find itself on the short list for someone’s sports book of the year come the end of 2009.

Blood Over Water isn’t just about the boats, or the race, or the slog of training loads – some of them almost beyond endurance – down on the river with dawn still some way off. It is also about a sibling rivalry so intense that, as the big day approaches, the Livingston brothers aren’t even speaking to each other.

In fact, this is no surprise. For David Livingston, by three years the younger brother, growing up in James’s shadow has always been difficult. The older boy excels at almost everything. And David is being constantly reminded of that fact.

So when it is David’s time to go to university, he shuns Cambridge – a particularly brave thing to do since there is a family tradition of going there (his parents even met there) and, instead of just being cast as James’s younger brother – James is at St Catharine’s College – he decides to make his own way, escaping his older brother’s shadow by going up to Christ Church College, Oxford.

The book begins a full year before the epic race around which it is centred, at the start of the 2002 Boat Race. David has just rowed in the victorious Isis crew, Oxford’s reserve team, and James is about to taste defeat, albeit a narrow one, when the giant Seb Mayer rows himself into unconsciousness and Oxford are left with seven men and a dead weight.

That should be it for James, his last year at Cambridge; but, desperate for one more attempt at Boat Race glory, he enrolls on a one-year management studies course, which means that he can continue as an undergraduate. David, now one of the prime candidates for Oxford’s Blue Boat, is less than pleased that his brother has chosen to remain to haunt him.

Told in alternating narratives, Blood Over Water follows the Livingstons’ last year as sporting rivals. Both men write well and the result is an intimate look, not only at a brotherly relationship tested almost to breaking point as David’s intense desire to beat James drives an impenetrable wedge between the two, but also at the bitter rivalry between the two great institutions of Oxford and Cambridge themselves.

One is used to hearing rival football supporters referring to each other as “Scum” and “Filth”. It is quite a shock to learn that Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race crews are capable of talking in similar terms.

Only after the race are David and James Livingston finally reconciled, leaving both – and the reader – to wonder just what they would be prepared to sacrifice to achieve their sporting dreams.

Blood Over Water by David & James Livingston (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

â–¡ David and James Livingston are available for interviews both about their book Blood Over Water and about the Boat Race more generally. If you would like to review Blood Over Water or speak to David or James please contact / 07968081171 contact Colin Midson at Bloomsbury ( or 0207 494 6054).

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