Christmas at Harrods

Rixon Stewart – December 24, 2003

I saw it from a distance but it took me back twenty-five years and half a world away; and I saw it in the last place I would have expected.
In my twenties and at the height of the war in the former rebel colony of Rhodesia I enlisted with the army there. I didn’t join for political reasons; my family are mixed race and the mainstream media was and still continues to portray the conflict in racial terms.
Even though my family are mixed race however, I got into an exclusively white unit because I look ‘white’ and by that stage of the war the Rhodesian Army wasn’t too fussy if you weren’t 100% pure-bred white. They needed the manpower and despite how the corporate media may now portray it, race was not a primary factor in the war.
Indeed, toward the end a couple of Native Americans even joined our Battalion. Like me they hadn’t joined because of race, it simply wasn’t an issue. Rather they had joined up to prove themselves in battle. For them, and for many others from different backgrounds, it was a warrior thing.    
So I was an unlikely candidate for the Rhodesian Army and moreover I hadn’t even been born there. Coming from England via South Africa, I had taken a train through Botswana to what is now Harare and joined up because the Rhodesian Army offered something that I wanted: action and adventure. And I found both in abundance and a whole lot more besides.
I ended up in Special Forces in a unit that, along with Rhodesia’s own Special Air Service, did the bulk of the actual fighting in that bloody war. When we weren’t parachuting into flaming combat zones or launching helicopter borne assaults on Mugabe’s terrorist camps we were involved in reconnaissance. Often long range we canoed or walked into neighbouring and hostile territories; in small teams we would go in for weeks at a time and it was there that I learned something that I will never forget.
Our four man teams, operating in enemy territory, had to rely on their bush skills to stay alive and that involved: no talking because even in the thickest undergrowth your voices may be heard: no washing because soaps and deodorants can be smelt, even at a distance downwind.
A salesman for body care products might have you believe otherwise but the fact is that the body’s natural odours are indistinguishable against the backdrop of other smells in the wilds.
Above all though it meant opening your senses to the world around you, so that you were aware of the enemy before he was aware of you. And that meant: listening to the wind, smelling the air and looking at the ground and undergrowth all around for tell tale tracks. Following your four man ‘stick’ commander and at a given hand signal squatting down and just listening; or getting up an hour before dawn and being woken not by a harsh voice but a gentle shake of the shoulder. And then once awake sitting cross-legged and cradling your weapon, listening to the silence and watching the stars fade in the sunrise over an unspoilt African wilderness.
It was at such times, with my senses open and my mind still but aware, that I experienced things as never before: the bark of baboons in the valleys below as I squatted on a ridge in what is now central Zimbabwe: the close smell and sound of a mother elephant and her young one night near Lake Kariba. It was at such times that I also understood why the early Christian mystics had retired to the wilderness in order to contemplate the wonder of God’s creation.
In recognition I occasionally saw a look of peace in the faces of my fellow soldiers. It was probably an expression that I wore myself but I saw it on the faces of my comrades: calm, alert, ready for action and maybe even death but at complete peace with the world. I don’t know about my comrades but at such moments I was in awe at the wonder of creation.
It was long ago and far away and I thought that I’d never see that look again but yesterday I saw it.
I’d been in London and having attended to a few things had a couple of hours left before my return journey home. So on impulse I decided to while away some time looking around Harrods, London’s famous upmarket department store. I hadn’t been there for decades but as a little boy I’d loved the toy department, particularly the toy soldiers on display. Even then I’d wanted to be a soldier.
However I found the atmosphere in Knightsbridge, the home of Harrods and one of the world’s top shopping districts, quite bewildering. The gaudy Christmas displays with the emphasis on buying, selling and consumerism seemed completely at odds with the original meaning behind Christmas.
Nothing says it better than Xmas; Christ has literally been taken out of Christmas and replaced by an X in a celebration of materialism and greed.
So I eventually retired to Harrods famous Food Hall and sat cradling a fruit juice at one of the vendors there and it was there that I saw some figures from my past. The shoppers themselves were oblivious to them, seemingly bedazzled by Harrods magnificent displays of cheeses, salads, wines and chocolates. But some inner instinct prompted me to look up and amongst the cornucopia of foods and crowds of faces I saw that look again. It was calm but intent and scanning ahead for danger. Then a few moments later there was another and moments later still another. All three were wearing suits and looked very fit, as if they could handle trouble. Exactly the sort of guys I’d served along with 25 years ago. They looked like, and maybe they even were former British paratroopers and marines, the sort of guy whom Harrods are said to make a special point of employing in their security department.
As they approached I noted that the lead man was wearing an earphone and in radio communication with someone, and then I saw why. Some 15 to 20 feet back followed Harrods owner Mohammed Al Fayed, looking dapper and well pleased with the bustling crowds of shoppers. Accompanying him were another 4 or 5 security men, uniformed but like the lead men fit looking and alert. And then following a few feet further behind came another figure wearing a suit, an earpiece and the look of a prize-fighting pitbull.
They may have been in one of the world’s most exclusive stores but they looked as if they were on an operational combat patrol.
But then Mr Al Fayed probably feel he needs them. Ever since the deaths of his son Dodi and Princess Diana in Paris over 4 years ago he has campaigned for a public inquiry; and as the evidence has mounted – and largely been ignored by the mainstream media – that the two did not die in a simple “accident” so Mr Al Fayed’s calls have grown louder. In the process he’s put a few noses out joint and made a few enemies in the British establishment; so while it might be too obvious now for him to have an “accident” like Diana and Dodi, it helps explain the tight security around Harrods and Mr Al Fayed himself.
In answer to Al Fayed’s accusations, the Duke of Edinburgh has withdrawn the royal seal of approval for Harrods, while Al Fayed has in turn banned the Duke from his Knightsbridge store.
That doesn’t seem to have affected business at Harrods though. As I left the shoppers were still thronging in the doors manned by more polite but fit and vigilant looking security men. And as I walked away I reflected that the swank Knightsbridge stores were more like temples to Mammon: their dazzling Christmas displays were not celebrating the birth of Christ but his antithesis, the gods of avarice and materialism.
No doubt the security men at Harrods would differ; but then they hadn’t seen the stars fade in the sunrise over a pristine African wilderness all those years ago. And although Harrods jewellery department may boast countless expensive gems… they fade beside the priceless living jewels of God’s creation.