On October 29, 1941, Great Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited Harrow School and gave one of his most quoted speeches. It was two years into what became known as World War II and Britain had been struggling to contain the superior military might of Nazi Germany. Although he spoke at length, this is the part that is most remembered:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
These words came to mind recently, after going through a series of tests that would have overwhelmed a younger, weaker and less resolute version of myself; one that had yet to prove the power of faith and conviction over mere circumstance. I was sitting on a flight bound for Jamaica, happy to be there and grateful that I had passed a series of trials calmly and with grace. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Was this just luck or something far greater than random fortune?” Well, I had nine hours of solitude facing me – more than enough time to recall the events of the past few days and decide whether there was a lesson to be learned.
More than a week earlier, I left Calabar on a dual mission – to renew my Nigerian business visa and to support my brother in his efforts to start a new life in Jamaica. The transition to London, via Lagos, was smooth and uneventful. Once the weekend passed, I started the visa process – money transfer, online application and payment, print of all the usual documents and a visit to the agency that handles all the paperwork. At this point, the first test appeared.
This was my seventh visa, so I was used to the routine: print the form, acknowledgment slip, payment receipt and invitation letter; include two passport photos, passport and a postal order; finally, pay another ‘processing fee’ directly to the agency. However, the man behind the desk was insisting on a bank statement as well. We argued; he won. I retreated to their internal Internet facility and tried to print it out, but the technology kept failing. My ‘friend’ hovered over my shoulder. “Five minutes more and then your application will be considered tomorrow.”
For me, that was impossible. It was Wednesday and I had paid an additional £50 for 24-hour service, so that I would have my passport back in time to fly that Friday. “I’m afraid that won’t work, I must have it back tomorrow,” I insisted. We argued again, with my experience of past years pitted against his natural caution. “You realise that if I submit it without the bank statement and the visa is refused, you will lose all your money and have to start again,” he countered. This time I won because I was out of options and I decided that the risk was worth taking. With one minute to go, my application was registered. Too late to turn back now.
The next day, I was back at 4pm, as instructed, but something wasn’t quite right. Apparently, there was a ‘slight delay’ but hopefully passports would arrive from the Nigeria High Commission soon. Half an hour passed, then came an apology. Some passports were going to be delayed for another 24 hours – including mine. “I’m sorry, but I have a flight at 12.40pm tomorrow; I need my passport, visa or no visa,” I said firmly. I would not be placated. Eventually, it was explained that somehow I had submitted a receipt for a previous transaction and that I could get my passport at 4pm on Friday, long after my flight would have left.
I was not budging. They called the High Commission and explained that I had to have the passport. Eventually, I was told that ‘Dave’ in the Visa Section would see me at 10am, as long as I could present the correct receipt. Quickly, I did the math and decided that it was possible to leave Trafalgar Square by 10.30, get the Gatwick Express train by 11.00 and still drop my bags before check-in closed at 11.40am. As I walked away, I started a mental checklist that would guarantee success – online check-in, overnight packing and early arrival to beat the queue.
The next morning, everything within my power proceeded like clockwork. I woke up an hour earlier than my 7am alarm, watered the plants, dressed, shut down all the appliances, had a leisurely breakfast and still left the house with time to spare. I joined the queue at 9.15, hoping that ‘Dave’ would be early or on time. He wasn’t. 10 o’clock; 10.30; 11.00. Finally, at 11.15, I was called to sign for my passport.
I had just 25 minutes before check-in closed and a journey time of at least 45 minutes ahead of me. Impossible. And yet, I pressed on. I grabbed a taxi, almost forcefully ejecting the departing passengers with my stare. A few back streets later, I was at Victoria station, narrowly missing the 11.30 train. Not to worry; the 11.45 was almost ready to go. As I boarded, the train went dark and the announcer declared that it was out of service and heading for the depot. After a silent prayer, the lights were back on and we boarded gratefully.
At exactly 12.15pm, I ran off the train and into the airport terminal, heading straight for Virgin Atlantic. The area was totally empty – no passengers, no staff, nobody at all. At the far end, I spotted some movement and ran towards a couple of ticketing agents tallying up for the day. “Montego Bay? 12.40? It leaves in 20 minutes – we closed the flight 40 minutes ago. The best we can do is get you on the next flight tomorrow through JFK or direct on Sunday. What would you like to do?”
“I need to get on that flight,” I said, explaining what had happened that morning. “Just call the gate; the flight’s probably delayed.”
“Okay, let’s see… No, the flight’s on time, they should be pushing back shortly,” he said squinting at his screen.
“Please call the gate,” I insisted. “There’s always a way. Just try and let’s see what happens.”
His female colleague nodded, “Call the gate and let them decide.”
As he tried on the two-way radio, I slipped my Virgin Gold Card out of my wallet and ‘absent-mindedly’ tapped it on my bottom lip. “Yes, we’ve got one passenger. He’s already checked in, seat 15H…”
“Tell them he’s a gold card holder,” hissed his colleague.
The tone of the response changed immediately. “Okay, send him through with an escort; with a bit of luck he’ll make it.”
And so, we set off for gate 31, whizzing through security (well, not quite whizzing but going as fast as one can in these post-9/11 days) and getting there at exactly 12.40pm. As I rounded the last corner, with the escorting agent in my wake, I relaxed my stride; there was still a flurry of activity as the last few passengers were being processed. Despite all the obstacles and the seeming impossibility of the task, I had made it.
Mentally, I checked my pulse – I was still calm and collected, never once giving in to despair or panic. One of the techniques I used in the process was acceptance of all the possibilities, including failure, and deciding I would be fine, no matter what. These days, I have the unshakable feeling that despite trials, disappointments and setbacks, that everything will work out for the best.
So, until I can come up with a better formula for overcoming when the going gets tough, I’m sticking with Sir Winston. “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.” So far, it’s working.