Chapter 13 : Failures and Successes
Two more years passed fairly uneventfully at Prince Edward school, until it came to my O level year. It was July 1963 and I was 15.
I suppose because I was in the M stream – and what with the clubs taking up so much prep time – I didn’t consider myself particularly bright and I fell behind with my school work. I knew that when I came to sit my O levels, I would have to work quite hard.
As the exams drew closer, I got up each morning at 4am, and I swotted like mad. Little by little, a quiet confidence began to set in. I knew that Grade 1 was the highest grade you could achieve in a subject, and 9 was the lowest grade, a complete failure. And I started to think, ‘At least I’ll get a 4 for Geography, and a 5 for Biology, and maybe even a 1 for History, and possibly a 2 for Maths.’ Yes, I was quietly confident about them.
The exam period lasted for about four weeks. (Being two years older than me, John was sitting his A levels at the same time.) Once the exams were over, Mum and Dad took us all away on holiday, and we came back home just before the results were due out.
I’d been back for about a day when I heard a noisy gang of guys careering in a car up the driveway towards my parents’ house.
‘Miles, Miles!’ they whooped, ‘the results have come out. And guess what?’
‘What?’ I asked in excited anticipation.
‘You’ve failed every single subject! You’re the only guy in the whole school who’s failed every single subject!’
‘But that’s ridiculous,’ I retorted. ‘That’s just ridiculous.’
And I climbed onto my scooter and set off towards the school, with the noisy gang driving their car behind me as we wormed our way through town. There was a crowd of about 200 kids waiting outside Prince Edward, and when I arrived, I was like Moses parting the Red Sea. As I walked towards the school entrance, the assembled crowd made an avenue for me to pass through and they all began to applaud.
‘This is a joke,’ I thought, ‘this is a complete bloody joke. Aha! I know what this is about: I’ve got a Distinction in every subject! And I’m the only boy in the school to get a Distinction in every subject! That’s what this is all about!’
I reached the notice board and I studied the list. ‘Anderson’ was always near the top of any register, so I didn’t have to scan very far.
‘Anderson, M. R.’
My eyes flitted along the line.
My heart skipped a beat.
There – in black print in front of my very eyes – was a row of 7s, 8s and 9s. Not one single 1. Not even the 5 for Biology. There was nothing to be seen but failures.
‘I do not believe this,’ I thought. ‘I cannot possibly believe this has happened. This must be some sort of sick joke on the part of the examining board.’ Because I wasn’t a thick kid. I’d done masses of revision. I’d woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning, every day for the six weeks leading up to the exams, and I’d worked from 4am till half-past seven or eight. And I’d read over and over and over again all the notes that I’d made about oxbow lakes and the stages of a river meandering. I knew about every single part of the body, the sphincter muscles and the duodenum and the small intestine and the large intestine and what they did, and I knew about amylase and ptyalin and rennin and all those bits in the mouth and the components of digestion and the various things that actually happen in your digestion. I’d learnt it all! And I’d sat in the exams and I’d written down everything I knew. I’d even gone through the exam papers afterwards with my friend John Akhurst. (He was a bright kid, who, it turned out, got four 1s and three 3s, and went on to do A levels. He even went to university.) And after each exam, I’d gone through my answers with him, and he’d said, ‘What did you say about that?’ and I’d told him what I’d written. And he’d said, ‘Yes, me too.’ I’d even okay-ed my answers with all my other mates – just to be sure that whatever I’d written was absolutely right.
The only exam I’d been unsure about was History, which was the one subject I really liked. But I’d gone and learnt the wrong things. In the exam, we had to answer five questions, but I’d only learnt four of the topics that appeared on the paper. So I’d written my four answers. Then I looked at the other questions and one of them said, ‘Why did Japan bomb Pearl Harbour in 1941?’ And I thought, ‘Oh to hell with it, I’ll write a piece on that.’ And I made up some nonsensical story about Admiral Yamamoto, who had woken up one morning with the great desire to wipe America off the face of the earth because he didn’t like them very much because they were rather uppity people. And so he and his trusty lieutenant Commander Yichigalala had had their breakfast…’ and I just made the whole thing up. I wrote this little novel which went on for about two and half pages about the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It featured Lieutenant Commander Samson Smith who’d been filling out an invoice that day, and he’d looked up and seen the Japanese Zero coming down towards him with a whine and opening its bomb hatch. And the bomb fell down onto the SS Whatever-it-was and blew up its magazine, and there were people screaming and Mary Whatever-her-name-was (who’d been having an affair with the commander)… And on and on it went, this little novel all about the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and it had absolutely bugger all to do with history itself. That was the only thing I’d been unsure about in all of the exams and I knew I might’ve got marked badly on that. But as for the rest – fine. Maths – fine! Chemistry – fine! English Lit – fine! Everything – fine!
But of course, it wasn’t fine. I ended up with absolute zeros for everything. My parents and I were in utter shock. It had been around exam time that I’d had the car accident with Charlotte the Harlot. So maybe my brain was too wrecked to work properly. Nowadays that would’ve counted as ‘mitigating circumstances’. Your goldfish dying counts as mitigating circumstances these days, let alone a life-threatening car crash.
The worst thing was that I was the only guy in the whole school to fail every single subject. Even Clackworthy who was completely useless at everything – dyspraxic, dyslexic, dysfunctional, dys-everything – at least he’d passed Geography. He knew where rye and oats and barley were grown in Middle Europe. But I didn’t. Even the gormless fucks who had sideburns down to the end of their jaws and spoke in Neanderthal monosyllables had passed Art. They would walk past me in the corridor and go, ‘Urggghh, Anderson…ooorrrh…Anderson, you failed every single subject…whooorgh….’ It was a nightmare. A complete and utter humiliation.
The following September, after many persuasive approaches by my father to the Headmaster, Mr Owen, I managed to get back into school to re-sit my O level year. But by that time, I’d sort of given up. I did actually find myself promoted to the second team for rugby, but that was little comfort as a lot of my friends were now in the first team, the Rugby Tigers. And that was all I truly cared about.
It seemed as though there was little I was good at.
Except for diving…
Diving was one of the few things for which I was really celebrated, and at Prince Edward, I used to dive with Alan Kluckow, the older brother of Clive the boxer. (Alan became a consummate artist and he now runs a wonderful art gallery in Sunningdale, England.) The main reason I excelled at diving was because I couldn’t bear cold water. (I still can’t to this day.) So I decided that diving was a good thing, because all you had to do was dive into the swimming pool, swim three strokes and then you could get straight out of the bloody freezing water.
I’d started diving many years earlier in 1957 when I was 10 and we were living with our mum in Singapore at Selarang Barracks. Daph used to take us as kids to the Changi swimming pool, where there were some very high diving boards. And it was here that I’d started diving, because I’d watched other people dive and I’d thought, ‘Oh, I can do that’. To me, it was the closest thing I could get to being a trapeze artist. So I used to do Forward in A position (which was a swallow dive), in B position (which was a pike) and in C position (which was a tuck, where I’d tuck my hands around my shins). I liked the swallow dive, because it looked nice and it felt nice when you were doing it. I also liked the pike, because it was good fun. I didn’t particularly like somersaults because they made you feel disorientated. But it was all rather curious when, in 1958, I found myself being entered into the Singapore School Diving Championships, even though I didn’t really know if I could dive properly or not.
On the day of the championships, my mother and I pitched up at a place called the Selita Swimming Pool, where there was this huge diving board – a ten-metre board – at the top of several flights of concrete steps. There were lots of other boards as well, but I was particularly struck by this ten-metre board.
As the contest unfurled, I watched all the other kids do somersaults and pikes and backward dives off the three-metre board, all the while thinking, ‘Crikey, I can’t do any of those.’
I turned to Daph and said, ‘Mum, I’ve no idea what I’m going to do.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘there’s a big board up there. Why don’t you go and do a dive off that?’ And she pointed to the ten-metre board. None of the other competitors was using it – in fact it was all roped off. Nonetheless, when it was my turn to register for the competition, I walked up to the adjudicator sitting behind a table and when she said: ‘And what dive are you going to do?’, I replied: ‘I’m going to do a Forward Dive in B position – off the ten-metre board.’ And I looked at this bloody high platform way up in the air.
The adjudicator looked aghast. She turned to the woman sitting next to her and said, ‘Are they allowed to dive off the ten-metre board?’ And the other woman replied, ‘Well, yes, I think they are.’ And the first woman said, ‘Oh’, and she ticked my name on the list.
I went back to Daph and said, ‘There you are. That’s what I’m going to do.’ (I’d never dived off a ten-metre board in my whole life. The highest I’d been off was a three-metre spring board, but I’d never been off a ten-metre board.)
All the other competitors were presenting various dives, and after each dive the three judges called out the scores: ‘6 – 6½ – 6½.’ Or ‘5 – 4½ – 4½.’ Then I heard them announce my contribution to the contest: ‘Miles Anderson. Forward Dive in B position. Ten-metre board.’ And I began the climb up the several flights of concrete steps all the way to the top of the ten-metre board. There was a deathly hush from the crowd, as the climb took me forever to get up to this huge great ten-metre board. Up a ladder, across a little platform…up another ladder, across another little platform…up a third ladder, across a third little platform….
When at last I got to the top of the board, I could see the whole of Singapore reaching out in front of me as I stood ten metres up in the air. I wanted to wave to my mother – ‘Hi Daph! I’m up here!’ – but I couldn’t even figure out where she was sitting in the crowd. This was way, way above anything else that anyone else had done in the whole contest. It was about 33 feet in the air, which was bloody high for a diving board. Apparently, it’s the highest diving board in any swimming pool anywhere in the world. They don’t go any higher than a ten-metre board. And at the top it was just a platform. There wasn’t even a diving board. That’s what amazed me: I got up there and there was just cement!
I walked to the edge of the cement platform and curled my little toes around the end of this thing. I looked very smart. I gazed out over Singapore. I looked down at the water. Then I dived my dive.
I came up to the surface and I climbed out of the pool.
There was a moment’s hush, and then I heard the judges: ‘8½ – 8 ½ – 8 ½.’
The dive was classified as a 3.5 degree of difficulty, due to the fact that it was such a high board. And with that dive, I won the championship! I got the little cup! I was so surprised! All these other little children, who’d spent hours and hours and weeks and weeks training how to do Inward Dives and Reverse 2½ somersaults with a Reverse Twist, and lots of other dives with lots of complicated twists and turns, had lost to this little bugger who had done a Forward dive in Pike position from the ten-metre board. And all because his mother had dared him, right at the last minute!
So now I was a diving champion.
When our family returned to Rhodesia in 1957 and I’d gone first to Routledge junior school and then to Prince Edward, they’d all said, ‘Ah, it’s the Singapore Diving Champion’, and I’d immediately been drafted into diving. But all I could ever really manage was one somersault and a lot of pike dives, because that’s all I’d ever done. And I didn’t feel the need to do any more than that, because all I was concerned about was ‘in – three strokes – and out again’. To avoid swimming in the bloody cold water! Because I absolutely hated the stuff!
Which I suppose might account for why the water in which I found myself was often decidedly hot.
As indeed it proved to be for even the senior members of my family…