The Rowers of Vanity Fair/McKenna R
“In the Winning Crew” (Spy), October 31, 1906
Mr. Reginald McKenna is a man who takes himself and his politics with becoming gravity. He was educated in the first place privately, in the second at King’s College, London, and in the third at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he developed views on the science of oarsmanship, and was promoted to a seat in the Cambridge Eight of 1887. He was, moreover, in the crews that won the Grand and Stewards’ Cups at Henley. On leaving the University he was called to the Bar, but abandoned that profession on his election to Parliament.
As Honorary Secretary of the Free Trade Union it has been the peculiar pride of Mr. McKenna to keep an eye upon Mr. Chamberlain. When in 1904 Mr. Austin Chamberlain proposed a tax that might have assisted the tobacco-stripping industry, Mr. McKenna was earnest in his efforts to aid foreign labour as against British workers, and finally forced Mr. Chamberlain to yield a rebate. This notable achievement met its reward in his subsequent appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
He was, and in some manner still is, a disciple of Sir Charles Dilke. He is popular with his own side, and behind his air of aggression is earnest and sensitive. He has now an opportunity to tackle reforms in the Customs, a department where justifiable discontent exists in the subordinate ranks. It has yet to be seen whether he is equal to the task.
“The Universal Puzzle Is: Find Mr. McKenna” (Owl), April 23, 1913
Mr. M’Kenna is not famous, we regret to say. He has held some public offices. True. He has made failures therein. Also true. Too true. Always. Everywhere.
I do not wish to be personal in these notes. Yet I cannot help feeling that if Mr. M’Kenna is famous (as some say) let the rest of us be infamous.
Mr. M’Kenna is entitled to be addressed as right hon. My laundress is both right and hon. But she cannot control votes. So I think she would not figure largely as the head of the Board of Education, or as First Lord of the Admiralty, as [sic] as Secretary of the Home Office. Neither did Mr. M’Kenna. Let us pass all that, however.
Mr. M’Kenna was born, and yet the place and date escape me. He bowed the Cambridge Eight in 1887. Good work. On the strength of this it was publicly stated that Mr. M’Kenna was qualified for the Admiralty. More than this or that is needed to qualify Mr. M’Kenna.
However, Mr. M’Kenna has been kept in the public eye -- very much as a cinder might be -- irritatingly and intrusively.
Mr. M’Kenna suffers most from his friends. His enemies would soon forget him. It is a great pity that Mr. M’Kenna should have greatness thrust upon him, for he was not born great, nor has he achieved it.
Really, it is all too bad.
In outline, Reginald McKenna (1863-1943) shadows C.W. Dilke, his mentor -- Trinity Hall scholar and athlete in the Leslie Stephen mold, oarsman, barrister, Liberal M.P., Cabinet Minister, statesman. The outline differs mainly in Dilke’s bent toward literary and foreign affairs, versus McKenna’s in finance, an interest rooted in a youth of near-poverty due to his father having lost most of the family money in the “Overend Gurney” bank failure of the 1860s.
Born days after Dilke’s first appearance at Henley, McKenna went up to Trinity Hall when Steve Fairbairn was keeping Jesus College head of the Cam and C.W. Dilke was in the Foreign Office. McKenna had the good sense to learn from both in turn. Graduating in 1885 as the Senior Optime of the mathematical tripos, he stayed on to take an unofficial degree in rowing. Fairbairn tutored McKenna on the river and in his rooms which featured a slide, a rigger, and a portion of an oar to practice endless chain movements. “I was in Trinity Hall at 6 a.m. every morning with Bristowe and McKenna, teaching these turns in 1886,” Fairbairn recalled. That year McKenna rowed in the Hall eight that wrested the headship from Jesus and won the Grand. In 1887 he rowed in the Cambridge crew that pulled away from Oxford when McLean’s oar broke, and at Henley he won the Stewards’, the Hall having its annus mirabilis by taking the Grand, Ladies’, Thames, and Visitors’ as well. (Hoping for the club to repeat, which of course it did not, Dilke gave £100 to their Henley fund in April 1888 and earned a vote of thanks that carried by acclamation.) In securing the 1887 victories, the club history credits McKenna with teaching the crews to use long slides, as de Havilland would do at Eton several years later:
[McKenna] thought out the whole theory of rowing afresh for himself, being helped not a little by his knowledge of physics. Sooner than anyone at the Hall he realised that the Jesus crews were on the right lines in adopting the long 15-inch slide, and he convinced Bristowe and Propert of this; but though the Jesus crew, the only crew rowing on long slides, kept Head in ‘84 with the greatest ease, the official style at the Hall, with a succession of Etonian captains, was still the Etonian short slide with the emphasis on “beginning” and body swing, and it was not till ‘86 that the long slide won its way into general use.
During the late 1880s McKenna was a rowing guest at Dockett Eddy of Dilke, who was then in political exile following the Crawford case. McKenna failed in his first run for Parliament in 1892, when Dilke reentered for the Forest of Dean, but won in 1895 despite being a Liberal and represented North Monmouthshire thereafter to 1918. Shortly after the 1895 election Dilke went on record to say, in paraphrase, that “any man of ordinary parts who stuck to his task day after day and night after night for ten years would find himself on the Treasury Bench at the end.” McKenna took the advice and proved it right, becoming Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1905. Indeed, by 1905 McKenna could look back on a decade of close political association with Dilke to “say without qualification that he owed more to Charles Dilke than to any other six men dead or living,” in the words of McKenna’s biographer.
Exact knowledge, unremitting industry, lucid expression: these were lessons that he might indeed have learnt for himself, but it was at the house in Sloane Street that he had received his introduction to Liberal society and it was by Dilke that he had been taught -- perhaps for better, perhaps for worse -- to prefer logic and hard facts to rhetoric and emotion . . . [and] the paramount importance of businesslike administration.
McKenna became President of the Board of Education in 1907 (shortly after his first appearance in Vanity Fair) and First Lord of the Admiralty in 1908, from which position as “a staunch disciple of Dilke’s naval policy” he promoted the buildup of the British fleet, which proved prescient for the 1914-18 war. In 1911 he moved to Asquith’s Home Office where in 1913 he had to decide whether to force-feed imprisoned women suffragists or let them starve to death, a Hobson’s choice he attempted to resolve by seeking and obtaining passage of the “Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, 1913.” Generally known as the “Cat and Mouse Act,” the law gave McKenna discretion to “license out” prisoners who were close to starvation (so that any continuation of their hunger strike was on their own heads), but also to revoke parole promptly for any new offense. It pleased hardly anyody: neither the suffragists, for it did not give them the right to vote and weakened the political impact of their in-prison hunger strikes; nor did it please their opponents, who viewed early release on these grounds as an affront to law and order. McKenna’s second appearance in Vanity Fair dates to that episode, in which the magazine, by then under Allinson’s uninspired hand and destined for absorption into Hearth and Home, came down vitriolically for the suffragists.
During the war McKenna began to shift out of politics to spend the remaining third of his life in finance. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he financed Britain in the war and at home, following the rule laid out in his 1916 budget speech: “We never borrow a pound without making provision in advance by new taxation sufficient to cover both interest and a liberal sinking fund.” After the war he chaired the committee appointed to locate German capital held abroad and retrieve it for reparations. Shut out of the coalition government formed in late 1916, McKenna soon joined the Midland Bank, becoming its chairman in 1919 and holding that post until his death in 1943. “[H]is annual expositions on banking problems at the Midland Bank’s general meetings came to be regarded as one of the events of the banking year,” wrote the Times. “But he had many critics. Though in fact a kindly and genial being, his manner, as the House of Commons had noted an an earlier date, was apt to be donnish.” Lord Beaverbrook wrote that McKenna “likes to assert his view, and if you run against some projecting bump in his opinions you must merely nurse a bruise,” while an unnamed M.P. reportedly quipped that McKenna’s chosen epitaph would be: “I WAS RIGHT.”
When Steve Fairbairn of Melbourne, Australia came up to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1881, he had already formed definite views on rowing. His eldest brother had also been up to Jesus and, coming back in 1877, stroked the Melbourne Rowing Club and the first winning Inter-State crew. When asked, “Why don’t you row in the Varsity style?” he said: “Because others can’t, and you will find [the Melbourne] style is better when you get into it.” Steve Fairbairn thus came to Cambridge, “prepared to find the Varsity style not to perfection,” and indeed found as a freshman in the Blue boat “the coaching for style very bad.” In reaction, at Jesus he not only rowed in but coached the May boat (which went head of the river 1875-85), telling the man who nominally had the job: “Do you mind not speaking to the crew; your talking is upsetting their rowing.” He rowed in the Boat Race 1882, 1883, 1886, and 1887, on the last occasion with Reginald McKenna. While Fairbairn’s major mark on English rowing came after his return from Australia to Jesus in 1904, where his coaching became progressively revered, it seems fair to infer that he taught McKenna in 1886 much of what he shared a half century later with the rest of the world in Chats on Rowing (1934):
Rowing like everything else is a religion, and I fancy oarsmen at times have been in the same frame of mind as the Scotch Meenister who after playing a bad round of golf said to his partner, “I must give it up.” “What! gi’e oop the gawf?” “Na, na, gi’e oop the meenistry.” Oarsmen and coaches are very apt to coach for too much length, for showy body form, thereby breaking the rhythm, or worshipping the golden calf. The rhythmical movements of the good oarsman are not showy; they are all smooth and easy and machine-like. The better the oarsman the longer and harder he rows, but the less do his movements show. Trying to row too long breaks the rhythm and ruins the oarsman.
. . . .
[The oarsman] must go in for no showy movement. He must not try for any exaggerations. He must meet his stretcher fair and square. In fact, rowing is summed up in the saying: AS YOU MEET YOUR STRETCHER SO YOU MEET YOUR GOD. And this applies to every walk in life. If an oarsman sees that he does his best to propel the boat the next stroke, he will be doing his best to propel far more than the boat.
. . . .
Teaching to shoot the slide or to bend the back or to go for any point would be fatal, and there is a tendency to do this now, especially to shoot the slide. Coaches must stick to concentrating the oarsman on working the oar to move the boat, and so get an endless chain movement.
. . . .
Probably every oarsman, when starting, thinks the stroke is a lot of separate movements; first a direct backward movement, a stop with the weight sitting on the seat, while the oar is taken out of the water, then the hands away, and then swing forward. No doubt this was the thought of the old text-books, with their “drop the hands down, bring the oar out and then feather,” having by the way rowed the oar in, to touch the chest. All hopelessly wrong; a collection of stops, and angular movements, instead of an endless chain, rounded, spinning movement, running one stroke into the next with no check.
. . . .
The best way to coach is to have two crews, and let the second crew keep in front of the first boat. The best coach in the world is the bows of a faster boat moving behind a crew; it keeps them concentrated.
. . . .
Also the first rule in coaching is: keep your mouth shut. Have patience and get the crew keen, and improvement will come from the daily row conditioning the muscles, through the unconscious action of the Subjective Mind which has free play with the keen but silent coach. Telepathy will pass his thought to the crew.
. . . .
As I frequently say, a man is a better oarsman after ten years than after five, the reason is that these movements that I am advising take a very long time to become a stereotyped part of the oarsman’s movements, owing to his not understanding, and consequently not practising, them. Mileage makes champions, because the whole muscular system has to be conditioned. One must not think that by learning watermanship through these exercises that nothing more is needed. He will still require plenty of honest, long, hard work.
. . . .
The straight path to peace and contentment in rowing is to be got by eliminating all rush, worry, anxiety, and fear, and this is done by unscrewing the tension nut. When the machines for shearing sheep came into use in Australia there was a tension nut, and when anything went wrong the shearers would screw up the tension nut, and so I suppose put more effort into the machine, and so when anything goes wrong in a boat the oarsman stiffens himself and increases the tension, and so spoils his rowing.
. . . .
There is an old saying that one should always practise the three C’s, “Keep Quite Cool,” and if every oarsman did that always, each would be doing his best, there would be no tension, and the faces would all be quite placid, and then they would be able to keep quite calm, cool, and collected (the five K’s).
- ^ S. Fairbairn, Chats on Rowing, p. 60.
- ^ Trinity Hall Boat Club minutes (Apr. 26, 1888).
- ^ H. Bond, A History of the Trinity Hall Boat Club, p. 85.
- ^ S. McKenna, Reginald McKenna, 1863-1943, p. 12 (paraphrasing C.W. Dilke).
- ^ Ibid., p. 35.
- ^ D. Nicholls, The Lost Prime Minister: A Life of Sir Charles Dilke, pp. 282, 296.
- ^ S. McKenna, pp. 151-60.
- ^ Ibid., pp. 2, 161.