I read your feature by Jayne Nelson with considerable interest. The photograph of ‘what are thought to be, members of the University College Boat Club for whom he coxed 1961’ was in fact taken in the Radcliffe quad at Univ in June 1962 and I am sitting on the bench. I have a copy of the other photograph taken two minutes earlier or later which is better of me but less flamboyant of Hawking. We were the only two undergraduate freshmen whose Christian name was Stephen of the 90 who came up to Univ in the Michaelmas of 1959. Seeing a photograph of myself on the front cover of his autobiography My Brief History published two years ago in Waterstones window, I purchased a copy. You have quoted the following paragraph: ‘I felt rather lonely during my first year and part of the second. I my third year, in order to make friends, I joined the Boat Club as a coxswain. My coxing career was fairly disastrous, though.’
Oh dear! As I wrote to Hawking on reading this paragraph it is absolute tosh! It is about as accurate as ‘the earth is flat and the sun goes round it!’, at least as far as timing of his joining the Univ Boat Club is concerned. I cannot comment with authority on his happiness except to say that we were good friends for the whole of three years, enjoyed all sorts of experiences on the river as I describe below and played many evenings of bridge over a bottle of port with the junior dean, Tony Firth, and sometimes with his friends Francis Hope and Jeremy Lever who were fellows of All Souls, but always for very small stakes!
The fact is that Hawking and I joined the Univ Boat Club in the first week of our first term in October 1959 and I rowed and he coxed the college’s entry in the Christ Church Regatta for Novice Eights in November when he was still 17.
The crew is pictured on page 33 of his My Brief History with the trophy we won held by the stroke (because he had rhythm) Bayan Northcott, later music critic of the Sunday Telegraph, and I can of course name all the rest. His editor could not have tried very hard to corroborate the text and the date of the illustration.
He goes on to claim that in his first bumping race (the Christ Church Regatta is rowed side-by-side) his bung got caught in the rudder lines, which I recall occurred in the Torpids in 1960. But by the Summer Eights he coxed us (the Univ Second VIII) to four bumps and we won our oars! I have the blade to prove it. I have many rowing photographs of Stephen in the years before he claims to having joined the Boat Club and it would be sad indeed if history regarded the wholly inaccurate statement quoted in your Trinity Term issue (p. 33) as having any veracity. I may add that Stephen has acknowledged to me through his office that my recollection is in accordance with the facts and his is entirely untrue!