I got to London, established myself in a flat on the fringes of Notting Hill, enrolled at the Crystal Palace Diving Institute and quickly ran out of money. It was '91, the UK was in economic depression under Thatcher and there were no working visas for South Africans under Apartheid. I just couldn't get work anywhere, not even as a barman. One night I did my calculations and, after expenses, etc. owed 23 pounds at the end of the month. I figured that tomorrow I'm going to get a job or get on the plane home. As a qualified teacher, I was advised to approach the legendary Colonel Townend, 83 years young, headmaster of Hill House, the prep school to Eton and Harrow as he liked to say.
I spent my precious last pounds on a tube ticket and located the school in Knightsbridge, a few blocks behind Harrods. Walking into the front door I was immediately confronted by a huge Olympic flag mounted behind glass. A plaque read: "This flag, which flew above Wembley Stadium during the 1948 Olympic Games, was presented to Col. Townend in appreciation for his organising the Olympic Games." Alongside was a mounted picture of the 1936 Great Britain Olympic Team, with the colonel as captain (Athletics). I sensed I might have an ally in my plight. Mounted around the wood-panelled walls were a hundred other pictures, many featuring the colonel. Newspaper clippings - "Col captured by 5th Panzer Division", "Col escapes from POW camp", "Hitler hosts our captain" (picture of the colonel and Hitler in the Fuhrer's box at the Berlin stadium 1936), "Prince Charles enroles at Hill House" (picture attached), etc. Also many beautiful panoramics of the Alps at the school's campus in Montreux, Switzerland, to which every class travels for three weeks every year (after-school rock-climbing in summer, skiing in winter).
So taking this all in, I plotted my strategy, took a deep breath and advanced up the long wooden staircase leading to a single door bearing the brass legend "Colonel Townend". I was immediately defeated by a queue of five people at the top, all unemployed teachers holding their CVs, looking for work. Their suits and ties were a further setback considering I was in a diving tracksuit and hadn't thought to bring a CV. Prospects were starting to look bleak. I commiserated with the Kiwi teacher at the back of the queue when suddenly the door burst open knocking over the first man who fell into the second causing a domino effect down the stairs. Given that I was last, I stepped aside as the casualties tumbled past me, and with dignity intact looked up to see the mischievous colonel glaring down in fake anger at the tumbling scrum of suits.
"Are you looking for a job!" he boomed at me, the sole survivor. My heart leapt.
"Yes, Colonel," I responded sharply, and started up towards him.
"I have no jobs! Dismissed!" he thundered, disappearing into his study and slamming the door.
The tangled collection of unemployed were now unravelling themselves, retrieving their CV's from the stairs and starting to exit downwards, some hobbling and cursing openly, their tales between their legs. I hesitated, weighed up the Diving-or-Go-Home equilibrium and thought, fuck it, I'm going to walk into his office.
I bounded up the stairs and rapped on the door. Silence. Again I smote on the dark oak door. Still silence. Below the dominos had gained vertical respectability and were now glaring upwards to see the outcome of my insolent approach. Suddenly the door yanked open.
"I said no jobs!" exclaimed the Colonel into my face, and slammed the door.
I just managed to wedge my Nike foot into the door frame.
He opened the door in anger and said slowly, "How dare you..."
"Colonel," I interrupted, "I'm asking for one minute with you. Just one minute. You have nothing to lose. Just hear me out for one minute."
He protested but I insisted again "... just one minute... I have something of value to offer your school."
He held my stare then looked away.
"Of course, it's a South African..." he mumbled in resignation, then gave in. "All right young man. You have one minute." As he strode to his desk I quickly absorbed the study... wooden panelled library, green leather sofa in front of a little fire, plush carpet, stained glass windows. He pretended to shuffle some papers and without looking at me ordered, "Go ahead."
"Colonel, I have three things to tell you," I ventured boldly. "Number one, I am in London training for the Olympic Games..."
"The Crystal Palace Diving Institute..."
"Chris Snode," I shot back.
"Chris Snode..." he said slowly and his face softened. "One of our finest Olympians... You know young man, I built Crystal Palace. I made one error though - the viewing windows in the diving pool are the wrong shape."
It was a test, I knew. He studied me a moment then said, "What shape are they?"
"They're square, Colonel, but they seem to work very well to me..."
"Yes," he mused, "I should have made them round... Now, what is number two?"
"Well Colonel," I responded, "my most recent post was Instructor at the Outward Bound School in Zimbabwe where I took charge of rock-climbing..."
"Zimbabwe... that must be the Chimanimani school..." he stated, "... so you're a climber... I climbed Mount Kenya, you know... much more difficult than Kilamanjaro..." His thoughts drifted into his climbing past and he peered vacantly out through the stained glass windows into the very private Hans Place Park where Princess Fergie had an apartment, and was frequently seen on a bench with an oil baron.
"Have you climbed the Alps?" he asked abruptly.
"In August we skirted the lower reaches of the Eiger but decided we were too inexperienced to take it on."
"The North Face?" he enquired.
"Was the White Spider melting?"
"Yes, Colonel. Boulders the size of cars were tumbling down the face. It was terrifying."
"We had boulders the size of houses," he said. "Still, we should have pressed on. You know who summited first, of course."
"It was Heinrich Harrer, I believe."
"Yes," he grumbled and his face glowered in anger. "The German team. I hate the Germans you know. I started this school in 1954 and to this day have never employed a German. Never shall."
A small knock on the door interrupted his hatred. In stepped a wispy woman. "Your car is ready for lunch, Colonel," she whispered.
He turned and regarded me for a few seconds, then made a decision.
"Young man," he said, "Do you have time?"
"Ugh, yes, Colonel," I stammered, "I have time."
"Will you luncheon with me?"
"I'd be honoured," I replied.
He strode briskly out the study and bounded down the stairs two steps at a time with me in tow. Past the Olympic flag out the front door to a waiting Bentley, a chauffeur holding the door open. In we climbed and purred off into thick traffic towards Hyde Park.
"I luncheon every day at the Dorchester," he announced, "alone. A man needs time alone." I gathered from this that my inclusion was an unusual privilege. At the Dorchester he strode into the dining room and issued instructions to the maitre'd. "This young man is from Africa. He will be eating with me. Set another place at my usual table."
The lunch was long and entertaining. The colonel, I realised, was an old man who enjoyed reminiscing. He told me about the various Olympics, his war, his climbing exploits and the school of which he was very proud. At the end of each anecdote he would fall quiet and I'd prompt him with another question, and off he'd go again.
"Do you know, young man..." he said at one point, "in North Africa whenever we lost an officer I used to say 'Promote a South African'. Do you know why?"
I shook my head cluelessly.
"Because your countrymen have natural authority. As boys you grow up giving instructions to the black servants in your house."
This was all very good, I thought to myself as the stories continued, but when are you going to offer me a job?
We ordered dessert and eventually ran out of conversation. Sensing the moment I decided to play my trump card.
"Well Colonel," I said, "It's been wonderful having lunch with you but I really should run along. However I haven't told you the third important thing about me. I need to come clean about my military career." It was hyperbole I admit because I was just a conscript in the SA army like many others.
"You were in the army?" he asked.
"Rank? Regiment? Number? Rifle number?" He fired off the questions quicker than I could answer them. Then he leaned back and asked: "Did you fight in that war in German South West Africa?"
"Yes I did, Sir. Fifteen months in the bush, injured in a landmine explosion, and I received a service medal."
For the first time he really looked at me, his clear blue eyes steely with the mutual esteem that falls naturally between old soldiers.
"That's bloody good..." he grumbled softly, and wiped his mouth with a cloth serviette.
I sensed it was coming and held my breath for the moment that could secure my future in London.
"You know," he said, "I could do with a man like you in my school. Games... Would you like the position of Games Tutor at Hill House? Of course you'd have to run Climbing in Switzerland during the summer."
That left seven months in London, I quickly calculated, enough to complete my training at Crystal Palace.
"I would love that, Colonel," I responded, my heart beating. "However I must ask for permission to start late every Tuesday and Thursday. We train from five o'clock in the morning and finish at eight."
This was it; the crunch moment. If he said no I would have to refuse the offer; I couldn't interrupt my diving program.
He smiled kindly. "Of course," he agreed, "I understand the Olympic dream..." He paused for effect then said: "You start on Monday. Report to the Cathedral for Assembly at 9 o'clock and I'll introduce you to everyone. Now, about remuneration..."
I couldn't have cared. I knew it would be good.
Suddenly the Colonel's face glowered again and he leaned forward conspiratorially.
"You know, this Thatcher woman has gone too far. Mark my words young man, at the next election we'll get rid of her. We're tired of her haranguing us, and the economy is in dreadful decline. Worse, she dislikes South Africans. It's absolute nonsense. I fought the Germans with your countrymen and they were the finest men in my battalion. But there's absolutely no way I can get you a work permit. However you have asked a concession; now I must ask one. I'll have to employ you illegally and pay you under the table. A thousand pounds a month. Would that be acceptable?"
"That would be fine, Colonel."
"One more thing," he said. "We have challenging children. They are rich, spoilt and dislike exercise. I need you to take charge of Form 3A which includes Fifi Trixibelle Geldoff (daughter of Bob) and Elizabeth Jagger (... Mick). Run the whole lot around the park - show no mercy!" He smiled with mischief then added, "...and you'll have to teach a few classes of General Knowledge."
"What do I teach, Colonel?" I replied, unfamiliar with the subject. He appeared aghast at my ignorance. "Good Lord, young man, it's general knowledge.. teach them anything!"
He stood up and extended his hand.
We shook on it and I left victorious, punching the air as I walked through Hyde Park. I could continue diving in London... life was back on track!