Panta rhei, “All things flow.”
So said Heracleitus, the Weeping Philosopher. “You will never step twice into the same river.” There is no permanence.
One thing that has changed is the punting on the River Cam. When I was a student, we used to spend long idle afternoons, punting from Cambridge up perhaps as far as the village of Grantchester, resting by or on the grassy banks to drink burgundy and philosophize.
That would now cost several hundred pounds. The firm that owns the punts has realized that, with the swelling of tourism, money can be made to flow faster. It has touts who hand out glossy leaflets. Forty pounds for ninety minutes, so you’d better share the boat with five other people. This is the “self-hire punt,” which is mentioned as an afterthought to what you’re now really expected to go for, which is a “Chauffeured Punt Tour” at sixteen pounds a head. And so punting is now mainly on the shorter stretch of river past the ancient colleges, and the river is filled mainly with East Asian parties, being poled along by professionals who lecture them about the passing sights.
A minor grumble: I noticed that, though I opted for a metal pole because lighter than a wooden one, the professionals had metal poles that were obviously lighter still.
Not that that was the reason why my punting wasn’t as assured as it was back when I and three other students owned a punt.
Navigating through an overhanging willow didn’t matter (I was probably avoiding someone stuck sideways across the river); what does surprise me is that I hadn’t taken my shoes and shirt off or even rolled up my sleeves. This is more like the way I used to look.
It’s actually my son Roland a few years ago.
Punt, the word for this kind of flat-bottomed square-ended boat, descends, like pontoon, from Latin pons, “bridge.” As with almost all words, there are several other meanings, some of them obsolete. You can call a person who poles a punt a “punter,” but punter in the sense of a customer or client, earlier a card-player who plays against the bank, goes back, uncertainly, to winning points. Of course there is no connection with the Land of Punt (known to the ancient Egyptians, and maybe somewhere near the present informal nation of Puntland in Somalia). Nor does anyone know the origin of the verb that means to drop a ball so as to let your foot whack it aloft, usually when someone is charging down on you to take it from you. Perhaps it was merely the sound. Punt. And by metaphorical extension there is the delightful advice I’ve been given once or twice, in America, when I was in some sticky situation. “What the hell d’you think I should do?” “Punt.”
Which brings us back to river punting. It’s feasible only because the river is fairly shallow, and with a hard bed. If you feel your pole stuck in some mud, give it a twist before continuing to pull on it. And if it’s still stuck, punt – that is, let go.