The moment I first heard about Trenton Oldfield’s protest against elitism I had a feeling that all was not as it seemed. Oldfield has gone to acquire infamy – there are surely very few people in Britain who remain unaware of his act of swimming into the path of the oncoming boats of Oxford and Cambridge as they did battle in the 158th annual boat race – and yet this is a man whose first name is ‘Trenton’.
‘Trenton’ is an unusual name for a class warrior.
A hesitant grasp of grammar; a faltering sense of ideology
It transpires that Oldfield was privately educated. He is an Australian, and attended the exclusive Sydney Church of England Grammar School, whose alumni include the children of former Prime Minister John Howard. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He reportedly describes himself on LinkedIn as ‘rich, open-minded, multidisciplinary, efficient, focused, intelligent, honest [and] unique’.
There would seem, then, to be as many contradictions about Oldfield’s crusade against elitism as there are linguistic infelicities in his blog. There, under the auspices of ‘elitism leads to tyranny’, Oldfield reveals a hesitant grasp of grammar and a yet more faltering understanding of ideology. His fulminations against the ‘transnational-corpo-aristocratic ruling class’ (sic) have been justly exposed as bunkum by a number of commentators; his recommendations for direct action, which include serving cold food to ‘elitists’ and taking the slowest route possible if you are a taxi driver, are palpably risible.
Ambush marketing – with the media as an accessory?
But from a communications perspective Oldfield is rather more troubling. We may deplore his action and its effect not merely on the sportsmen and women of the Oxford and Cambridge crews – whose lives have been dominated for the past year by training for the race – but also on the hundreds of thousands of spectators of the venerable contest, and yet, as a piece of ambush marketing, Oldfield’s ‘protest’ takes some beating. In today’s world, the media is an ever-willing accessory to stunts such as Oldfield’s, hence the incredible airtime it garnered – airtime which has taken extraordinary numbers of people to Oldfield’s blog, where we discover that he expressly compares himself to Emily Davison.
Davison died in 1913, four days after throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. She acted to publicise the nascent woman’s suffrage movement. Is there a genuine comparison between the selfless and just acts of the suffragettes and Trenton Oldfield?
I do not believe there is. Oldfield’s ‘manifesto’ proves to be nothing of the sort; he emerges as a flawed man with what is at best a juvenile understanding of the issues he seeks to confront.
A waste of courage and cunning
It is a shame that life’s vicissitudes took Oldfield down this path. He displayed a degree of cunning and courage in swimming into the path of the boats which, in another context, would be admirable. He also demonstrated an excellent sense of PR. He may even inadvertently have done us all a favour, in alerting the authorities to the danger of similarly misguided acts of civil disobedience during the Olympics. But ultimately it is difficult not to agree with the words of Quantum Computer Science student William Zeng, 22, who was in the losing Oxford boat:
“When I missed your head with my blade I knew only that you were a swimmer, and if you say you are a protester then, no matter what you say your cause may be, your action speaks too loudly for me to hear you.
“I know, with immediate emotion, exactly what you were protesting. You were protesting the right of seventeen young men and one woman to compete fairly and honourably, to demonstrate their hard work and desire in a proud tradition.
“You were protesting their right to devote years of their lives, their friendships, and their souls to the fair pursuit of the joys and the hardships of sport. You, who would make a mockery of their dedication and their courage, are a mockery of a man.”
Image courtesy of this Flickr user.