Five-minute memoir: Gerald Seymour recalls the one that got away


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The Independent Culture

I did the whip-round, handed over the money, it was counted, and the deal was done with a handshake. And the clock started ticking. One of those rare moments when you may learn the truth about yourself…

I was an ITN reporter and hardly on a hardship assignment. The location was Lake Geneva, and a beach bistro beside the walls of the villa where the International Olympic Committee had their headquarters.

It was the lead-up to the Munich Games, 1972, and the top honchos of the IOC were debating how to keep out South Africa and Rhodesia and so lift the threat of a black Africa boycott. The media caravan was made of Brits, Americans and assorted European hacks and photographers. We settled in for the long haul as the deliberations were due to start on a Friday afternoon and were open-ended till Sunday lunchtime.

The view was perfect in pleasant early summer weather and the bistro beckoned.

On the bar counter were two glass tanks. In a large square one with incandescent bubbling water were a clutch of edible-sized live trout. The other was long and narrow and was almost entirely filled by a leviathan-sized pike. The beast had no more than an inch in front of its snout and another inch behind its tail. It stared straight ahead, motionless.

Its needle-sharp teeth were just visible. It had the shape of a torpedo, and the one visible eye caught the light and had a flash of malevolence. This was a serious predator, and its body was camouflaged to the colours of reeds and sand better for the ambush of prey.

The day ended. We dispersed to our hotels, and were back the next morning where it would have offered better excitement if we'd been able to watch some paint drying… but, the major conversation point was that the pike had turned round. The snout was now where the tail had been. How it had managed was the subject of debate. Also, it was estimated that it had enough flesh on it to feed the corps of snappers and hacks. The day passed, and the issues of South Africa and Ian Smith's fiefdom were not settled.

On to Sunday. Miracle of miracles. Again, the pike had twisted its back, done its contortion and faced the other way inside its watery prison cell.

I watched him… well, I'm not expert on sexing pike, but he had the look – magnificent – of a hunter-gatherer. I saw him as a free spirit from Charlemagne's hordes, or Genghis Khan's. Time was marching. Soon the news conference would be called and the octogenarian Avery Brundage would announce a sleight of hand, getting the Olympic movement off the hook and leaving South African and Rhodesian competitors at home.

Time for a meal? Perhaps, and perhaps not. I did the whip-round, and the clock hands kicked off. I raised sterling pounds, American dollars, German marks, and francs and lira, and propositioned the patron. He counted the money, did his exchange-rate calculations, shrugged in Gallic style, called two of his kitchen boys, and told them what was to be done.

They stood on the counter, towels and dish cloths ready, then plunged their hands into the water and grabbed him. The tumult was frantic. The big boy fought. If he'd been lucky, he might damn near have taken off a hand. They lifted him out and his struggling ceased. They looked again at the boss, another shrug of incomprehension. I think the pike no longer struggled because it knew it faced death and had determined on dignity.

He would have a surprise… He was carried away from the kitchen, and down to the beach. Flip-flops were kicked off and the guys carried him into knee-high water. He was put in, and the towels and cloths eased off his scales.

For a few moments he was still, as if wondering what further outrage would be inflicted; then the tail flapped. Slowly he edged away from us. We watched as he headed for deeper water. If I'd expected thanks, a shake of the head acknowledging me, I would be disappointed. Nothing. How would he have judged me, his saviour?

"Bloody softie," would have been his answer. "Sentimental idiot." He was gone. Likely he headed for the nearest reed bank where, with those awful teeth, he'd gobble some hapless roach or bream. It was five minutes from shaking the patron's hand to losing sight of him.

We did the press conference… I headed for the airport. I was on top of the world. I thought the day was brilliant, had a daft grin and was utterly at peace with myself, and felt that life ran with me. It had been a pretty good five minutes, I reckoned – and an all right news story.

'The Outsiders' by Gerald Seymour is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton (£14.99)