cambridge punts
cambridge punts

Messing about on the river

I was staying at a hostel in Chiapas, Mexico when I got talking to an English guy about ways to make money working around the world. I told him my stories of selling fake Rolex watches in Tokyo and teaching English in South Korea. He in turn told me about all the various jobs and scams that had kept him alive around the world.

‘But the best of all was punting in Cambridge,’ he told me, ‘You take tourists up and down the river and make filthy tips.’

For those unschooled in ancient English traditions, punting refers to a kind of long, narrow boat that you propel up and down the river with a five metre long wooden pole – you let the pole fall, it hits the bottom and then you lean back, letting your weight move you along.

‘Does it still exist?’ I asked doubtfully. Hadn’t that kind of thing gone out of fashion along with bowler hats and little woolly hats to keep the boiled eggs warm?

‘For sure, it does,’ he assured me. ‘You just tell them a load of stories and jokes about all the colleges and bridges up and down the river and live the good life. You’ll make loads of money, work in the beautiful outdoors and all the American girls will go crazy for the straw hat you wear.’

It was a good story between old travellers and I left it at that, not imagining my travels would take me anyway near England if I could help it. 18 months and 7 countries later though I wound up in Rio de Janeiro in poor health and almost broke. I needed to get some medical attention, I was really tired of being in a foreign country all the time and I had to make some cash fast.

Whilst I was mulling over my options in an internet café, the image of punting down the river in Cambridge suddenly came back to me. A quick Google search showed up three companies and I emailed each of them in search of a job. A reply came the next day from Cambridge Chauffeur Punts offering me work as soon as I could get there. Apparently my Spanish and Portuguese would come in handy working with the tourists.

A Punter’s Life For Me

Two weeks later I arrived by train in Cambridge and it began to rain. The sky was a slit-wrist grey and the station was awash with vulgar English accents. Pale, blotchy skin, nervous demeanours and miserable expressions everywhere, I remembered why I’d been out of England for nine years.

Once in the town centre the streets narrowed with old brick buildings on either side that seemed as rigid and inflexible as the people. Cars manoeuvred their way through the historic streets but didn’t detract from the age and tradition that hung in the air like a grudge. I emerged from the gloom and out onto a bridge where punters sheltered pathetically under umbrellas, just in case some tourists should miraculously turn up.

I’d spoken to the boss, Matt by phone but I guess he was happy to see I didn’t have dreadlocks or any facial tattoos saying fuck you across my forehead. He took me out on the river on a punt and my training began. After a quick demonstration I was left to fumble around with a pole the length of a tree in my hand and crash the boat up and down the river.

The river was bordered by ancient college buildings and bridges of stone, wood or iron marked the beginning of each new college grounds. I had my work cut our just making the damn thing go along though and the fear of failure stood between my eyes and the beauty that surrounded me. What if I couldn’t learn to punt? What if I ended up maiming my passengers with the pole? What if the dreary expressions of the English drove me to end it all the murky waters of the River Cam?

Fortunately, punting is a piece of piss once you’ve spent a couple of hours embarrassing yourself by bouncing up and down the sides of the river. The main thing is to drop the pole by the side of the boat, lean back and if it gets stuck in the mud, to let go before the boat leaves you behind holding onto the pole for dear life. From there the only way is down.

Mostly the icy water turned by fingers numb and dripped down the right hand side of my trousers. Punter’s Patch. Then, despite all efforts to the contrary, I couldn’t escape the clutches of the river banks and the overhanging branches of the willow trees. The latter drooped up and down the river like trees that had lost the will to live and their falling leaves turned to silt at the bottom of the river to trap my poles. From time to time I’d get the swing of things but then totally lose my confidence when I saw punter giving a tour approach; as I span hopelessly in circles in the middle of the river they’d evade me smartly with a disdainful grin on their faces. A few days later, however, I would also have perfected the look of the long suffering professional condemned to work amongst hopeless duffers.

Varsity Theater, Palo Alto

Once I’d learned to go straight and could punt up and down the famous Backs of the colleges, the next step was to learn the spiel. I studied some photocopied notes with all the dates and facts of Cambridge University and the colleges and memorised the old handed down jokes.

As a tour guide I was expected to know my stuff and I soon realised that, even if I had only just read about the history of the town on a rumpled old script, the important thing was than I believed what I was saying. So for the first few weeks I earnestly told my passengers that the University Library contained 65 million books – it was only after I was checking my notes that I realised that I’d missed the decimal point and that there were actually only 6.5 million.

What a feeling of power! On my 3 foot square platform at the back of the boat I held the stage and as long as I said things in the right tone of voice I was bound to be believed. Even when some know-it-all dared to contradict me on a date of some college I quickly turned to the rhetoric of a politician:

‘Yes, well I don’t think it’s the age of the building that really counts here but rather the cultural impact upon the town…’

I also learnt fast that many of the tourists, in particular the Americans, wanted answers at all costs. They had paid their money and didn’t want to hear the guide utter the words ‘I don’t know’ in response to their trivial questions. So when some neurotic schoolteacher from Illinois insisted on knowing just what species of bird we had just seen shit on the bank, it became second nature to answer:

‘I say, that looks like the muttle-thrushed moor warbler to me…’

It was quickly apparent that the job was a cross between being a taxi driver and a stand up comedian. I’d have up to twelve tourists captive audience in the boat and at last I’d found my exhibitionist heaven; surrounded by freezing, dirty river water, there was nowhere for my passengers to go, no matter how bad my jokes got. I told the same old stories over and over around 25 trips a week, to over 200 people. In fact it got so tedious telling the same old script that I began to wholly invent new stories just to keep myself amused:

‘Do you see the willow tree there? Well, not many people know this but you can get the active ingredient for aspirin from this tree. So last week I had a bunch of drunk football hooligans on the boat and they were going wild, swearing at other passengers and throwing beer cans at the swans. You get the picture. So on the way back I asked them if any of them had a hangover that day – of course they did and so I convinced them that the best hangover cure would be to chew weeping willow leaves up and down the river.

‘It was only later that day I found out that aspirin comes from the bark of the tree. The leaves are poisonous.’

The rest of the job consisted on prowling the bridge with a plastic board with photos of the river on it, persuading tourists that they couldn’t possibly come to Cambridge without going punting.

‘It’s history, for heaven’s sake, this town was built around the river – and if you go now I can make you a good price. Ladies, come on, we’re talking 45 minutes of pure pleasure – and then we’ll go on the boat!’

We got paid per trip that we did and so on sunny days when everyone wanted to go punting, life was good. Heaving half a ton of mahogany and half a ton of fleshy tourists up and down the river, we used muscles we never knew we had – but we got paid well and there were few places on earth more scenic to work. On the rainy days, however, everyone just scowled at us for even suggesting the idea and we’d hang around freezing out asses to make fuck all. Then we’d mutinously grumble about the minimum wage and begin to hate the boss who was probably home drinking tea and running a hot bath.

Anyone who works in sales has to get used to rejection but the first season if was particularly bad as 2004 was the year of the punt wars. The various punting companies had sent their touts into the streets to hassle tourists from one end of Cambridge to the other. The locals got asked 25 times a day on their way to the supermarket if they fancied going punting and by the time the tourists reached us on the bridge they were ready to kill. There was even one incidence of a tout following a woman until the changing rooms of Marks and Spencer: ‘Now about that punt tour, madam….’

The main culprits were the touts belonging to Scudamores, the corporate punting company that ran their operation rather as a McDonald’s franchise might. They made their employees punch in and punch out, monitored them from video cameras in the office and made them wear ridiculous tartan waistcoats. They even gave them pamphlets that lectured them upon the evils of coming to work with a hangover and about which kind of sunglasses would be permitted ( the mirrored variety will not be tolerated and none shall be worn during the tour). The last part made their punters laugh:

‘We have to wear our shades on the tours or else the passengers would see how stoned we are!’

Love On a Boat

One of the bonuses of this job was the easy social life of hanging out with the other punters after work. You got to know each other up and down the river and it was natural to hang out together beside the river with a few beers in the long summer evenings. There were a few students but most of us were drifting itinerants, here for the summer to make some quick bucks and try to get laid with the cute backpackers.

Actually, that part was quite torturous as we took thousands of hot girls on the boats but mostly they only came to Cambridge for a day trip and returned to London the same afternoon. And when there was someone desirable in the boat it was a struggle to chat her up in between giving the mandatory commentary.

Brown bear and carrot

Still, the elegance and poise of the punter had it’s effect on some and one student from Singapore developed a crush on me as she watched me pass up and down the river from her college window each day. Eventually we went punting together at night and as she seemed so young and innocent I imagined it would be a long, arduous seduction. I almost fell into the river when she stepped onto the punt and said:

‘Mmmm, it’s going to be hard to make love on a boat this small.’

Where there’s a will there’s a way of course and I was never slow to use the punter charm on the rare occasions that an opportunity presented itself Towards the end of the season I noticed an attractive women curled up on the side of the river bank in front of Trinity College. I complimented her on her hair and by her blush it was clear that it was worth continuing the conversation the next time I passed.

‘And here on the left we have the Christopher Wren Library… so can I invite you to go punting later? When? Okay, I’ll tell you next time I pass… Where was I? Yes, the Wren Library, home to works by Shakespeare, Newton and of course the first editions of Winnie the Pooh.’

Each time I passed her the conversation progressed a little and the passengers couldn’t help giggling to hear me chat her up in front of an audience. Finally, she lost patience and walked up to the boat and handed me her phone number. Later on we went night punting and I had a new story to tell about the Wren Library.

But other times the job could be utterly draining. There were days when you had to do five or six trips up and down the river without a pause and all you wanted to do was sit down, eat your packed lunch and pretend there were no other human beings in the world. On Saturday afternoons in July almost every punt on the river went out and the majority were people hiring their own boat for the first time with no idea what they were doing. An idyllic English past time turned into the demolition rally with every idiot imaginable spinning in circles and crashing into my boat as I reached the punch line of my stories. I could just about forgive them a certain amount of ineptitude but when they started waving the pole around in the air like ninjas I’d really lose it.

‘Are you fucking insane? Lift that pole at head height again and I promise you you’re going in the river.’

It would usually be around 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, I’d fight my way back through the chaotic river like a soldier returning from the wars and find ten drunk English women waiting for me. The hen party.

Wilma and Betty seem to be settling in

‘Ooh, is this our punter? He’s got a very long stick, hasn’t he girls?’

If the English are known for the calm and reticence, you’ve only to give them a couple of glasses of champagne for them to turn into leering buffoons. The men are bad enough but when a bunch of women get together to get drunk on a boat, it’s about as bad as things can get.

‘Get your shirt off, Mr Punter!’

Every week you’d see punters going down the river bare-chested or in their boxer shorts to entertain their hen parties, hoping for a big tip. I quickly worked out that there was no point in letting them run the show – if they took the piss I splashed them with my pole and then made up later by pulling a harmonica out of my pocket and singing:

I’ve got the biggest pole on the river, babe you must understand,

If you want to hold my pole you’d better use both hands,

Oh let’s go punting, baby, I’ll spin you round and round.

I’ll punt you up river, oh yes, I’ll punt you down,

Well my boat is floating under the willow tree,

Is he crying for you or is he weeping for me?

Oh, my boat is floating under the willow tree,

I’m stuck in the mud, only your love can set me free!

Racists Make More Money

It brought in good tips anyhow and really, that was the name of the game. If you were funny or charming you could increase your earnings by about 15% with tips from the wealthier customers. You quickly learnt what kinds of people and which nationalities were likely to tip and you adjusted your performance accordingly. The Chinese, Koreans and Dutch tipped once every blue moon and there was no point even trying. We’d just push these trips up and down the river and murmured the odd name of a college in between daydreams of boats full of Italian schoolgirls.

The English could be very generous if you made them laugh though sometimes they were too nervous to give offence by even offering a tip – so we’d have to work the theme into our commentaries somehow to give them the idea. Best of all, we rubbed our hands together when we saw the Americans coming. Although they always asked a million and one questions, they tipped almost automatically unless some smart-aleck friend or guidebook had warned them that tipping wasn’t commonplace in England.

If it sounds like I’m generalising it’s because I am. Anyone who says you can’t generalise never worked in tourism. After a few months of working with people from all over the world, prejudice is what keeps you in business. Granted, you’re only right about 80% of the time and you’re always surprised but basically it’s your guide; the Indians will wait an hour or more until they get a price that suits them, the Americans pay full price without blinking and the Chinese will drive you insane no matter what price you offer.

I should stress that the tourists from Tai Wan and Hong Kong were usually very friendly but the mainland Chinese were as difficult as could be imagined. You’d see them coming in dowdy clothing of black and brown, the women with a scowl on their faces and the men chain smoking cigarettes – how they smoked! They inhaled the fumes deep and hard as though they were intentionally poisoning themselves. Then they tossed the butt on the pavement, followed by their empty drinks can and crisp packet.

‘It’s expensive! My friend went for half the price last week. You try to cheat me!’

Obnoxious, paranoid and aggressive, the mainland Chinese were such a headache that on bad days we’d just send them to annoy the punters working for Scudamores. We could understand why they were so disturbed – few countries suffered the 20th century worse than China with it’s police state and genocides – but it didn’t help out mood any on days with shitty weather and no business. If they ever pissed me off too much I’d throw it back at them by asking:

‘And what do you think of Chairman Mao?’ They’d huddle together and then reply:

‘Ah, we think he is a great man.’

‘Yes, he saved China!’

‘I see. And what about the millions he had murdered in the 60’s and the other tens of millions he let die of starvation?’

‘Ah, anyone can make a mistake.’

The Punting Life

There were worse ways to make a living than punting in Cambridge for the season. There were times when the tourists drove me insane, my back left me in agony from pushing their asses up and down the river and my mouth just refused to pronounce any more the same old stories and jokes. Try making a one liner sound funny 500 times a year.

But then suddenly the light would change on the river and you’d see all the colleges and trees as though for the first time. The rose gardens that burned alongside the river banks in the spring the lone days of June and July, punting until late in the evening and the falling leaves and red vine facades of September. At it’s best there were few more beautiful places in the world to live and work than in Cambridge.

The swans nested in the same place each year and by May the eggs hatched to release 7 furry signets. Presuming they survived the threat of the Canadian geese and the Albanian poachers, the signets grew up though the season to the point that you forgot when they used to be cute and help you get tips. The ducks multiplied too and you had the grim pleasure of explaining to the tourists why there were dead female ducks in the water – the males rape them and many drown in the process, a weird variant of natural selection that ensures the females are always much larger than the drakes.

But the most startling of the natural developments on the river was always the end of term parties held by the Cambridge students. The end of exams is always celebrated with Suicide Sunday, a day when students used to do themselves in if they fared poorly. The students started drinking at 6am and by the middle of the afternoon they were swimming in the river, boarding boats and generally being a complete pain in the neck.

I was taking an American couple on a romantic trip down the river and the students kept yelling ‘Give us some of your wine then!’ Finally, the American girl got to pissed off that she filled up an empty wine bottle with river water and passed it to the next passing boat full of students.

‘Oh, thanks love!’ they cried and we watched in disbelief as one of them lifted the bottle to his lips, drank deeply and then passed it on without realising what he’d just swallowed. They rounded the corner before we could see if anyone else fell for the joke and we laughed to the point of tears all the way back.

I made some decent money punting but the honeymoon was over by the end of September when the cold weather started. The international students were all departing and my elegant punter card was fading fast. The English hooligans and tarts continued to stumble erratically through the town every Saturday night and made me want to change my nationality. The junky beggars were getting more aggressive and I was sick of hearing people apologise when I bumped into them in the street.

England was a much better place than I remembered but it still wasn’t a place for me to live more than a few months a year while the punting was good.