I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Oxford University is one of the world’s great seats of learning. It gave us the outstanding intellects of Stephen Hawking, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and Boris Johnson (Okay, so they slipped up once in a while).
It was also the birthplace of the Dangerous Sports Club (DSC), an organization that specialized in pulling off completely daft and semi-illegal stunts. It was the start of extreme sports, and decades before the Jackass franchise commercialized such antics.
The guiding principles of the club were that its exploits had to be silly, risky, and an affront to bureaucracies. Running—or in the case of the DSC, skateboarding—with the bulls in Pamplona was irresistible.
The Invention of Bungee Jumping
David Kirke, an English and philosophy student, is a founding member of the club and came to national prominence in 1979. On April Fools’ Day of that year, he and fellow DSC members gathered on the platform of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England. They were dressed in top hats and tails and cheered as Kirke made the world’s first bungee jump off the bridge. A lot of champagne was also in evidence.
The authorities took a dim view of the event, fearing that others would try to emulate the Oxford students with disastrous outcomes. The miscreants were arrested by amicable police officers. One of the jumpers told The Independent that while in the cells “police brought us leftover wine and said, ‘Well done boys, you really brightened our day.’ ”
The presence of the top hats and tails during the caper gives a clue to characteristics of the DSC membership; they were mostly products of the country’s upper class families and the best public (i.e. private) schools.
Doing Stupid Stuff on Ski Hills
St. Moritz in Switzerland is described as a luxury ski resort and it proved to be an powerful magnet for the Dangerous Sports Club. The challenge was to outdo club members in finding more loopy and life-threatening ways of getting down the slopes.
The event was held for three years and came to an end when resort operators refused to allow Lord Alexander Rufus-Isaacs to pilot a London double-decker bus mounted on skis down the hill.
Prior to that disappointment, one team used a grand piano as their means of travel. Others opted for a gigantic, red, inflated elephant, a dining table set for an intimate dinner for two, and a four-poster bed.
Hugo Spowers was one of the revellers who descended on the unsuspecting citizens of St. Moritz. His stunt was to be the coxswain of a rowing-eight boat, complete with oarsmen, mounted on skis. He wrote in The Guardian that “It didn’t get far before it turned over, but I righted it, jumped back in and made it to the bottom of the slope, travelling backwards.”
Before the club got going, David Kirke and a friend went to St. Mortiz to try the famed Cresta Run. The natural ice chute has taken the lives of some riders but Kirke found it not particularly dangerous.
Looking for something more exhilarating, Kirke met up with a man called Chris Baker who was experimenting with hang gliders. Kirke was smitten. He persuaded Baker to let him have a go; the take off was fine but the landing was somewhat awkward. The two men retired to a bar to tend to Kirke’s bruises and discuss the setting up of the Dangerous Sports Club.
Hang gliding would become an integral part of the group’s repertoire, with flights being launched off Mount Olympus and Mount Kilimanjaro.
The Party on Rockall
About 180 miles (300 km) off the west coast of Scotland stands a lonely granite islet called Rockall. In the summer of 1978, the DSC decided to hold a champagne party on the 70-foot high peak.
About 10 members of the club set off in a small boat and, this being the summer, headed into a Force 9 gale. After a while, the boat sprang a leak and one of the few people not prostrated by sea sickness plugged the hole with a champagne cork.
After five days, the storm-tossed merrymakers arrived at Rockall. They clambered to the top of the rock and had a party with champagne and scrambled eggs. They removed a plaque that Britain had placed on the islet claiming possession and replaced it with a stolen sign designating the area as a toilet for the disabled.
People may think we are mad. We think they are insane to endure such humdrum lives.”
The Trebuchet Disaster
While the adrenaline-rush projects produced bone fractures and concussions aplenty, members of the DSC had managed to avoid fatalities.
The original group started to fall apart over squabbles concerning bouncing cheques, and David Kirke’s prickly and increasingly autocratic behaviour. Marriage and the need to get a job reduced the enthusiasm among others to take part in actions that had hospital bed written all over them as a likely outcome.
A spin-off group calling itself the Oxford Stunt Factory (OSF) assumed the anarchic mantle of the DSC. In November 2002, they set up a trebuchet in a field in Western England; the medieval siege engine had been developed to hurl diseased, dead cattle or flaming missiles over city walls in order to hasten surrender.
The OSF decided to re-purpose the technology to throw willing participants into a catch net 100 feet away. Several brave and/or inebriated people had a go and survived; then it was Konstadin Yankov’s turn. He missed the catch net and the 19-year-old biochemistry student was destined to neither graduate nor reach his 20th birthday.
Organizers Richard Wicks and David Aitkenhead were charged with manslaughter. At trial, the judge instructed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.
Since then, the Stunt Factory seems to have morphed into a carnival attraction offering customers bungee jumps for a crane.
The days of amusing and creative mayhem appear to be over.
- Driving the London bus to St. Moritz for a loony caper had echoes of an earlier bit of nonsense. In 1964, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters went on a long road trip in a school bus painted in psychedelic motifs. Just like the Oxford extreme sports types, they thumbed their noses at mainstream society. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe chronicled the LSD-fuelled escapades of the group.
- Graham Chapman, who went on to fame as a member of the Monty Python Flying Circus troupe, was an active member of the Dangerous Sports Club.
- “The Dangerous Sports Club.” Alister Morgan, The Independent, February 21, 1998.
- “ ‘We Had a Riotous Time’: Hugo Spowers with Nigella Lawson at an Oxford University Party.” Hannah Booth, The Guardian, September 23, 2016.
- “The Dangerous Sports Club Sails to Rockall to Hold a Cocktail Party (1978).” Kickasstrips.com, June 19, 2014.
- “Extreme Oxford Sports.” Brett Martin, Vanity Fair, February 2004.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor