An Irishman's Diary
WHEN he worked at the BBC World Service – then called the General Overseas Service – in the 1940s, George Orwell, using his real name Eric Blair, memorably described the organisation as a “mixture of whoreshop and lunatic asylum”. The Ministry of Truth and its canteen which are depicted in his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four are believed to be a satire on his experiences of the time he spent there.
Set up in 1932, the World Service has been based in Bush House in central London for 80 years. At its inception, the BBC director-general John Reith announced: “The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.” Nonetheless, despite drastic cuts in recent years, it has survived and those who have worked there – in many cases for a lifetime – are now saying goodbye to their historic home as they prepare to “migrate” and amalgamate with the wider BBC in Broadcasting House.
A huge rambling building on an island site between the Strand and Fleet Street, Bush House was named after the man who built it, Irving T Bush of the Bush Terminal Company, New York. At the main front entrance in the Aldwych stand two imposing male figures carved from Indiana limestone representing Anglo-American links. Between them they hold the torch of human progress, and over a Celtic altar at the centre of the portico, is the motto “To the friendship
When it was completed in 1935 at a cost of $10 million, it was declared the most expensive building in the world. Built of Portland stone, the front and back entrances as well as internal staircases are clad in Travertine marble and are listed by English Heritage. Looking down Kingsway at the floodlit building at night, it is one of London’s most impressive landmarks exuding an almost pagan effect. The building’s genius loci was the canteen – a veritable polyglot that gave a new meaning to eavesdropping. Amongst the babblative chatter of this “town hall of the world”, as it was sometimes called, it was hard to distinguish the individual languages.
During my sojourn there in 1989 – a fascinating year marked by the Central European annus mirabilis – the newsroom was mostly staffed by elderly men in cardigans padding around in slippers; it was a fun place to work. The corporation’s soft shoe allowance was still paid which meant journalists could tiptoe into radio studios to deliver late-breaking news to the presenters from far-flung corners of the globe.
To walk the corridors, wander through the newsroom, peer into some of the 54 studios, or stray into one of the wings, was to experience a linguistic tour of the world. Catch the right time and you could hear snatches of Pashto, Persian, Swahili or Hausa, as well as the distinctive strains of Lilliburlero, originally written as a skit on the Irish Catholic supporters of King James and which since 1955 has been used as a famed news signature tune.
More than 100 journalists worked shifts in the sprawling newsroom.
Many were hard-bitten hacks who had been seasoned reporters in the field with a wealth of experience but were still mildly excited at reports of a ministerial reshuffle in a little-known African republic. Aside from its reputation for accuracy, the newsroom’s proudest boast was that it was open all year.
In the late 1980s smoking was common and the air was perfumed with a mix of Havana cigars and the fog of Benson Hedges. One of the chief-subs, a Scotsman nicknamed “Jimmy two fags” had a cigarette permanently on the go. His journalistic claim was that there was no complicated story that he could not sub-edit in the time it took to smoke two fags.
In some of the language sections occasional misinterpretations in the meaning of stories produced lighter moments. The grammar of the English language, its phrasal verbs and nouns, often proved challenging for the translators. On one occasion, when Margaret Thatcher suffered a serious loss of face during a House of Commons vote, the Serbo-Croat mistranslation “suffered a severe disfigurement to her head”, caused hilarity.
The men’s singles championships at Wimbledon once became the “men’s bachelors championships”, and politicians in America, who were taking stock of a White House drama, were reported to be “raiding cattle”. It was not always easy to explain to the HUBs (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali) translators certain terms that to them seemed anomalous. For example, I was asked how a building can speak and what meaning was being conveyed when my stories started with the words: “Downing Street said . . .” or “Buckingham Palace has just issued a statement . . .” One of the more notorious tricks played on new sub-editors who joined, or like me, were on “attachment” (not as painful as it sounds) from a “mother” department, was to pretend there had been a coup in Suriname.
The senior duty editor would approach the lowly sub and hand over a news flash from an agency quoting unconfirmed reports of the coup. The sub’s job was to find out about it and establish verification from two sources.
After much hand-wringing, the raw recruit – no Google, Wikipedia or non- user-generated content then – could be seen a few minutes later slipping discreetly to the back of the newsroom to peruse the magisterial Times Atlas of the World and check on the exact location of Suriname. Most would turn, without success, to Asia, flick through to Africa, and in desperation eventually discover it on the northern tip of South America, in between French Guiana and Guyana. He, or she, would then set about the daunting task of trying to find out what was happening in the capital Paramaribo, only to be told 10 minutes later that it was a World Service joke to test their geographical knowledge.
The journalistic initiation of the new sub complete, drinks were served in the club, and a toast proposed to the friendships of the peoples of the world and to all would-be Surinamese coup planners.