I first stepped into Bush House on a dreary November day in 2001. It was a trepid walk. I was perhaps too aware that I was entering a world once inhabited by the great George Orwell, the Nobel laureates Naipaul and Walcott whose delectable feuds came alive on a recent Radio 4 programme on ‘Writers from the World Service’, and arguably the greatest novelist of the Urdu language, Qurratulain Hyder.
I had come to London on a producer’s job with the much-revered BBC Urdu Service. As a teenager growing up in Kashmir, I had listened to their broadcasts religiously – more for political and existential reasons than a love for radio. Distrustful of the propagandist coverage in both the Indian and Pakistani media, we would huddle around a large transistor complete with a spiky antenna and carry-belt, to find out what really happened around us. The transistor belonged to my late uncle Mirza Nisar Ali who introduced me to the World Service’s broadcasts. The BBC’s impeccable and brave correspondent in Kashmir at the time, Yusuf Jameel, had become what many BBC World Service journalists inevitably become in far corners of the world, a household name. As a student in Delhi, I briefly met Jameel in the same uncle’s flat and was immediately struck by his flair and charisma.
As an all-purpose cub reporter/editor in Delhi, I once embarked on making what I thought would be epic recordings of some of India’s most admired writers, and soon I found myself sitting at the feet of Khuswant Singh, Amrita Pritam and Quratulain Hyder, whose magnum opus, Aag Ka Darya (The River of Fire), I had read as a young boy, often carrying the weighty hardback around in my hands. Annie Aapa, as she was fondly known, corrected my mispronunciation of the title of her other fine novel, Aakhir-e-Shab Ke Humsafar (Travellers Unto the Night), but soon warmed up and offered me a cola and a recording, in her voice, of a passage from her big novel.
Annie, like Orwell, had briefly broadcast for the World Service; the latter, more specifically, for what was then known as the Eastern Service of the BBC, and it was one of its modern incarnations, the Urdu Service (the other being the equally revered Hindi Service) for which I was recruited in 2001.
Very soon, after completing joining-in formalities that also included the very welcome receipt of a winter allowance by the most charming recruitment manager in the British Isles, I found myself in the stern environs of the BBC’s training department, cutting audio tape with a razor. This was a first for me. I had never seen tape before – my last job in Delhi was for a dot com boom era multimedia company that had invested in incomprehensibly swanky software and PCs that looked like super comps – and the razors were as sharp as that of a surgeon’s. I put on a brave face and said yes, of course, I can make a three-minute news bulletin in this old-fashioned vinyl world, but my first ‘as-live’ training broadcast was an unmitigated disaster. The tape actually ran out mid-sentence towards the end.
In no time, however, after being successfully inducted into the ranks of working BBC producers (at least that’s how I interpreted the Certificate from BBC Training), I found myself working night shifts. One fraught night in the winter of 2001, a senior colleague known for his command over the Urdu language and rapid-fire broadcasts started blowing kisses in my direction after I’d asked him if a sentence I’d written bore correct syntax. I somehow made it through the night, occasionally looking at the rotund form reclined in a chair a few feet away. For weeks, I worried that the night shift at the BBC also meant guarding your chastity from flirtatious old men. But I did not leave. Bush House had begun to work its mysterious ‘rabbit-warren’ magic on me.
A few weeks into my vexatious relationship with tape reels, I decided my skills were more suited to behind the scenes editorial work. And thanks to my wise editors, that is exactly what I came to do as the BBC started rolling out its web offer. I joined the online team, helping to set up one of the BBC’s earliest, and eventually biggest, language websites. This was back in the day when some of us still confused the word broadband with a plumbing metaphor. I ended up staying for ten years, which, I have come to believe, is a lot more than a decade in the Internet world, and left last November after seven years as an editor.
I did not miss my department or the World Service – until recently when the date of the ‘demise’ of Bush House began to draw closer. An email announcing the auction of wares from Bush House took me to a link displaying photographs of the ‘merchandise’ on sale: Microphones, recorders, chairs, mixing desks, pianos, flat screen TVs even, a virtual reliquary of the entrails of an institution home to thousands of journalists, legendary broadcasters, tormented poets, angst-ridden novelists, dissidents from all over the world, especially the so-called Soviet bloc, and reluctant broadcasters such as myself. While I did sit in front of the iconic BBC microphone from time to time, mostly explaining such conundrums as how an email form works, or sometimes talking about the latest episode in the India-Pakistan ‘love affair’, or a subject that I will perhaps talk about all my life, Kashmir, I never became a properly famous broadcaster, but thanks to BBC’s digital expansion I had an adventurous, rewarding ten-year career, heading a successful online operation that, among other things, excelled at a central BBC ethic: public service journalism.
It was in Bush House, not long after I joined, that one of the greatest ‘family reunion’ plots was ever hatched. In 2004, producers, tech specialists and editors came up with unparalleled innovation to unite divided families living across the Line of Control that separates Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, via satellite phone and Web link. Some of these families had not seen each other in twenty years. It was a life-affirming moment. Broadcasting from Bush House, the service provided a lifeline to millions during the devastating earthquake of 2005 in Pakistan, continuing its ‘special earthquake broadcasts’ for more than a year after ratings-driven commercial media had left. In 2006, a bunch of driven journalists from Bush House and the Urdu Service bureau in Islamabad produced a simulcast programme highlighting the case of disappeared people in Pakistan. Subsequently, the media in Pakistan took up the issue, and eventually the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of the cases too. This and more became possible, I like to believe, because of this truly cosmopolitan institution that brought together diversely talented people. Some extraordinary studio managers who captured the very soul of radio, wizards at Future Media who wrote thousands of lines of code to create little pieces of magic, and journalists who gave up more than a night’s sleep for a good story – all had one thing in common, a deeply felt understanding of the raison d’être of the BBC’s World Service.
I also wrote my first novel during my ‘Bush years’ – not a single chapter while on shift, I insist – and at last started doing what I had wanted to do for the longest time: write fiction. The BBC’s worthy strictures on impartiality and accuracy perhaps helped – you simply cannot comment, or have an opinion, in your journalism.
I made friends, of many nationalities, lived with my marvellous friend from the Greek Service, Lena, for three years in the kebab-festooned alleys of Wood Green in North London, and who I sorely missed the other day as I remembered her staunch defence of the World Service and her disappointment when her service was shut down. All this brings me to a vital matter: The ethos of the BBC World Service. When I joined in 2001, the BBC broadcast to over 150 million listeners in 42 languages, including English. On a busy Friday night in the BBC Club located, again, in the basement, you could literally rub shoulders with colleagues and friends from fifteen to twenty countries. Whoever called the World Service a ‘mini UN’, I’m certain, talked from experience. This was vastly different, I would find later, from the rest of what a former DG, Greg Dyke, once called a ‘hideously white’ BBC. The number of language services is now 26, many having been axed over the last few years, and the remaining ones face an uncertain future too. Why the primary stakeholders, namely the Foreign Office of the British Government which will soon stop funding the World Service, and the BBC’s own top management, would see what is arguably the greatest institution in the history of broadcasting cut down, diminished, continues to confound me. If you go to a village in Uttar Pradesh and ask a BBC listener if they have heard of a man called Jeremy Paxman, they will most definitely stare blankly at you. For them the BBC is the Hindi Service.
During two campaign tours of India and Pakistan to meet audiences, I came across people who were embodiments of the love listeners, and now increasingly readers, continue to have for the World Service. In Hyderabad, India, in 2007, an old man who visited the BBC event in Iqbal Park—named after the Urdu poet Allama Iqbal who had once lived in a house overlooking it—asked me to convey his respects to the famous Urdu broadcaster Raza Ali Abidi. As he left, he also noted that in a flagship broadcast in the 1970s, Abidi had, according to him, made a minute error while reading an Urdu couplet. He had written to ‘Bush’ even then . . .
In Karachi a few years earlier, a senior broadcaster who had accompanied the young team to boost up its glam-quotient was mobbed at our stall in an IT exhibition where we’d been sent to promote the website. They were ecstatic to finally put a face to the famous voice.
As the illustrious and heartbroken residents of Bush House move to their new swish quarters at Broadcasting House in London’s shopping district, they may find it difficult to locate the World Service in the ‘One BBC’. But I believe, since public service broadcasting and fair journalism remain at the core of the World Service ethos, it will live on – as long as the suits are not contemplating further stabs at it.
Oh, I even got married at the Bush House, well, sort of. I met my wife while working at the Urdu Service; her desk was about ten feet from mine, separated by a pillar, not a metaphorical one, and I often found myself leaning across. Friends from the Urdu and Hindi Services arranged to have one of the wedding celebrations in London, and it was perhaps convenient, to have it in the Seventh Floor Conference Room. It will remain, I’m now nearly certain, the BBC’s only in-house Mehndi. We even made it to the cover of Ariel, BBC’s widely-circulated newsletter. My father has hung a blown-up and framed version of it at home in Srinagar.
I never went to retrieve the sundry articles, including some unopened letters from the management, from my locker No 001. I perhaps did not want to end up buying back my pristine BBC diaries from the auction.
Photograph © chrismetcalfTV