1943 – 2020
Once in a while, the death of a Cygnet alumnus mines a deep seam of contemporary consciousness: David Webb, an irrepressible ‘wet-bob’ of Olympian repute, who has died at the age of 77, was just such a man. In early July, his son Nicolas wrote to inform us of his father’s sad demise in the hope that someone might remember him; he was not disappointed – within hours a tsunami of memories poured forth from his fellow crewmen, some of whom had not been in contact with each other for decades.
David (Anthony) Webb joined Cygnet in 1970, his short stature and well-honed vocal cords marking him out as a coxswain from the outset. He was initially let loose on a novice lV – Gary Fettis, Jeremy Berrisford, Stuart Fraser and Richard du Parcq – subsequently steering a host of club crews to victory, culminating in Cygnet’s first post-war entry (in Thames Cup) at Henley Royal Regatta in 1972 and again in 1973.
Official club photos of the time (below) show David immaculately turned out in his coxswain’s regalia (front row, second from right), his inventive mind always thinking ahead. Gary Fettis recalls ‘I remember his sartorial elegance which carried through to everything he did. There were no built-in speaker systems in the ‘70s, so David took it upon himself to install one in our Vlll and very neat it was too with all the speakers placed inside Harrods’ plastic bags to keep them dry’.
Other Cygnet contemporaries remember an insatiable socialite who always knew where the best parties were and, more to the point, how to gain entry to them. Norman Cowling wistfully recounted how ‘he frequently tried to get us to drink what he called an Evelyn Waugh noonday reviver – a lethal mix of Guinness, gin and ginger beer – I never knew if it was his own invention’. By the time of my era in the 1980s it had become the Tideway tonic.
Then, as now, ‘club hopping’ was not uncommon. David decamped to Thames Tradesmen RC in 1973 and thence to London RC where he steered the well-known and successful pair of McLeod and Christie, which gave him his entrée to the 1976 Montreal Olympics. A second Olympic appearance with the same duo followed in Moscow in 1980. At Cygnet, it remains a source of enduring pride that the 1972-3 crews produced two world-class GB competitors: David in the Olympics and Stuart Fraser in the World Championships (1975-76).
Aside from rowing and gate-crashing all the best venues in town, David retained a lifelong interest in music and the arts. He played violin and piano to a high standard early in life, mastered the art of conducting and went on to play percussion in the National Youth Orchestra. At Oxford, he read Greats/Classics at Hertford College, albeit without much enthusiasm, before heading north to complete a degree at Hull (where he apparently made Larkin’s acquaintance).
The world of work brought new challenges, initially as a manager for the Festival Ballet/English National Ballet, followed by careers in the Civil Service and British Telecom. Retirement in East Sussex with wife Veronica held many happy hours playing the piano, watching sport, smoking his pipe and cigars and quaffing the occasional ale or two.
But perhaps the last word should go to son, Nicolas: “many thanks for passing on the message (of his passing) to his Cygnet contemporaries, it’s been enormously heart-warming to read the anecdotes and memories. Old teammates are more than welcome to post their memories in the comments below and they will be forwarded to David's family.
Paul Rawkins, November 2020
Author: Neil Pickford