This is a snippet about that remarkable institution, the Bush House Club, the subterranean bar which was a focus of life in the BBC World Service back in the day when we were based in The Strand. But first, the context ...
I am working on an oral history of the British New Left and for that I recently spoke on Zoom to Salima Hashmi, one of Pakistan's best regarded artists and academics and a prominent progressive public intellectual. She spent much of the 1960s in the UK - first studying at an art college in Bath and later teaching while her husband was enrolled at the LSE. Her mother, Alys Faiz, was an English leftist; her father, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was a widely revered Urdu poet and a progressive journalist.
During my conversation with Salima, she mentioned that during the Sixties she briefly worked at Bush House and that her father loved the Bush Club. With her permission, I'm posting here an extract from what she told me.
'[Faiz's] favourite haunt [when in London] was the BBC Club. So he’d be found at the BBC Club in the evenings, inevitably –
'Was that Bush House?
'Yes, that was Bush House. I used to do a programme there for – the Urdu programme for children, which was called Shaheen Club. I used to do that weekly – or perhaps it was fortnightly. I think weekly. And I started the Shaheen Club. They decided that I should have a shaheen, a falcon, on my hand. BBC took me off to this farm somewhere in Dorset, someone who used to rear falcons, and I had this photograph taken of a falcon sitting on my hand. Also for a while, I did a disco music programme also – pop music, also in Urdu, which the BBC thought was a good idea so I did that for a bit.
'But certainly Bush House was very much the haunt of a large number of leftists or fellow travellers who would congregate there every evening, many of them after they finished their programmes and they used to move downstairs. So - you met all kinds of people, not just Pakistanis but people from all over the world really from the various programmes who used to come there, and quite a few Indians who knew my father and used to have long discussions there.'
Bush House is back in business. The architectural monolith-cum-mausoleum on Aldwych - built in the early 1930s as a (failed) world trade centre - was my workplace for the best part of three decades. When the BBC evacuated a few years back, King's College, very cleverly, took a fifty-year lease on the building. It's still work in progress, but the students are settling in to some corners of the edifice and - armed with a KCL pass - I snuck back in a couple of days back to see what's occurring.
Intriguingly, King's - or at least its Arts and Humanities faculties - seems to be building a brand round the legend: 'World Service' - the global wing of the BBC which was for decades ensconced in Bush House. And there are nice tributes, and photos by Bogdan our former colleague, in what was the Bush House arcade harking back to the BBC's occupancy of this iconic, if annoying, building.
On that arcade, at just the spot I used to queue up at Bush and Fields (or was it Bush Inn Fields) for my lunchtime sarnie, there's now a student cafe. So of course, I just had to have a sandwich in the same psychic spot that I sandwiched in lives past. Bear with me ...
And - what comes around, goes around - the spot on the arcade which was once the BBC shop is now ... a shop.
Last week, I left the BBC after 35 years. The farewell was a wonderful evening - just as any hack's departure should be: crowded, boisterous, affectionate, mischievous and just a little dissolute. Pippa Gwilliam's great photos will give you a flavour of the event.
Steve Titherington, that's him above on the right, likened me to "the last Emperor of Rome" - I don't know whether that's because I've allowed the Vandals in, or lived a life of legendary debauch ... or perhaps that I am the last in a venerated (well, some of them) line of Editors of World Service News.
Steve, I am told, made a determined attempt to get the original bust of a Roman head found when Bush House was being built to join us at the farewell - apparently, the Deputy Head of Antiquities at the BBC said "eheu!", or something of that ilk. So you don't believe there was a Roman bust uncovered where Bush House now stands? Well, here it is ...
A few friends and comrades (some of them even younger than our friend above) joined in by video - great to hear from India, which has loomed so large in my life and career, as well as from correspondents and sparring partners who claimed they were on assignment somewhere or other:
And I've posted below the video - complete with kind words, wildly inaccurate anecdotes, and a visit to 'The Dungeon' at Westminster ...
It seemed to go down well ...
The gift was brilliantly chosen - a first edition of James Greenwood's 1874 The Wilds of London, an account of the seamier side of my adopted home city, a city which I still walk, explore and relish.
If you want to know what I said at the farewell - and remarkably, some people do - here's the scripted part ... do keep scrolling down, more photos below and at the end the hallmark of any World Service News farewell - Yes, Nigel's poem.
There’s a custom of these farewell speeches by grizzled veterans that they launch into anecdotes of times so remote that everyone is immediately convinced they should have been pensioned off decades ago.
I vowed to myself that I would not fall into that trap. But then, I thought, well what’s wrong with a bit of nostalgia.
I joined the BBC as a trainee talks writer on a three month contract in the autumn of 1980. Apart from a highly educative six weeks working on a lawn mowing gang of the Pudsey parks department – you have no idea how educative - the BBC is the only employer I have had.
Within this one organization, I have done a huge variety of tasks – reported from Stonehenge on the summer solstice; messed up the financial news on Radio 4; made a TV detective drama which got more eyeballs than Sherlock; made it to the Maldives for work – twice; introduced Bollywood’s Shilpa Shetty to reality TV … though I’m not sure which side of the ledger that stands.
The BBC has shaped and defined my life, it has shown me the world, it has given me skills, it has introduced me to my wife, it has moulded the interests that I will pursue in the years ahead. So the first thing is to say to the BBC, and that is to you collectively: thank you.
When I joined, Margaret Thatcher was new in Downing Street; the Soviets hadn’t invaded Afghanistan; the BBC had a Maltese service; and a trolley – sorry, the trolley - visited the Bush Newsroom twice a day … I’ve been working off the sausage rolls ever since.
I learnt my journalism in the Bush House Newsroom in the 1980s. When I first ventured there, subs bashed out brief filler stories on manual typewriters, duty editors corrected with lashings of pencil lead. It sounds as if it was from another century. It was another century. Curling plumes of cigarette smoke, compulsory bar breaks, and some habits and attitudes which are perhaps best left unexcavated.
Many of the more experienced journalists had worked on daily and regional papers, quite a few had spent time in Rhodesia or East Africa or Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur – there was a healthy suspicion of young ones with degrees who had never chased a story. There was also a warm, generous and inclusive sense of purpose and professional pride, great journalists and colleagues to whom I will always be grateful.
And of course those high octane moments from the early part of your career stay with you: being the sub on the LatAm desk on the night it became clear that Argentina was invading the Falklands; the drama and rumour as Poland’s Solidarity trade union was outlawed; above all, the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila camps – and hearing a BBC correspondent come up on the line from Beirut, I can’t remember who, and saying that he was with six or so other hardbitten foreign correspondents, and they had all listened to the last World Service bulletin, and had without bidding burst into applause. A telling of the story in which I had no role whatsoever – but I can recall the swell of pride. I feel it still.
I was lucky – I got my dream BBC job when barely 30. I spent four years as a lobby correspondent at Westminster – the regicide, what other word can be used, of Margaret Thatcher was the most intoxicating story; watching from the Commons press gallery as Geoffrey Howe made his resignation speech quite the most electrifying moment. I got to interview Margaret Thatcher once – of all the political figures I interviewed, she was the only one that made me feel small. Twenty-five years later I did the half hour obit programme on her for the World Service – I know what you’re thinking, I couldn’t possibly comment.
I also had the biggest run in I’ve ever had with a public figure – Geldof apart. I profiled Denis Skinner for ‘People and Politics’. He didn’t listen but my thank you note made the mistake of mentioning the other Parliamentary voices I had talked to about him – including a right-of-centre northern Labour backbencher. Denis rang - and berated me for fully twenty minutes. ‘Mr Whitehead, it was the leader’s office that told you to talk to him, wasn’t it. Come on now – they’ll have said to you talk to him, he’ll shaft Skinner. What’s your politics Mr Whitehead – come on, what’s your politics. I know you BBC types, you’ll tell me you haven’t got any politics. I know what that means: you’re SD bloody P’. … which certainly wasn’t my self image.
And then after the 1992 election – when John Smith’s accession to the Labour leadership convinced me, wrongly, that nothing was changing – I headed to India. My first trip there was making a doc about Calcutta’s Communists. It started badly. My luggage went to Saudi Arabia; the car didn’t show at Calcutta airport; the journey in, this was the blazing humid heat of mid-June, convinced me that no sense could be made of this chaotic, malodorous city; the hotel room wasn’t booked – so they put me in the only spare room in the old wing, the size of a ballroom, faded fifties decor, with a 20 watt lamp, just as well as it helped to conceal the substantial micro-fauna in the bathroom.
A couple of hours later, our then Calcutta stringer turned up to take credit for all the arrangements, bringing in tow, an aspiring young Bengali actress – his niece, he said - intended as my Calcutta chaperone, for whose benefit I immediately invented a pining wife and bawling baby back in London.
On that trip, I called in at Delhi and filed from a studio in the bureau there that entirely met the Duke of Edinburgh Indian gold standard for wiring. A producer in the bureau showed me the ropes – in gratitude, I gave her a dog-eared novel and indeed signed it. When a few months later I headed out as correspondent, she declared she had no recollection of the guy who couldn’t make the studio work: ‘There’s two or three of those London types passing through every week’, she moaned, ‘they all look the same.’
I went out to India single, I came back married (yes, to that producer) and with two kids. Anu is the best thing that ever happened to me, by far. I had the immense privilege of her as a guide to her country and its culture. A country which I have found intellectually captivating. Let me put it more plainly, a country which I love. India has been kind to me.
My relationship with Kashmir, whose history I have explored obsessively, is much more complex. Infused by conflict and suffering which I witnessed at close hand. Also by memory of a book bomb attack on the BBC office in Srinagar. It was intended to kill the BBC reporter at that time, Yusuf Jameel; he was badly injured; his colleague a photographer and camera operator Mushtaq Ali with whom I’d worked was killed. The bomb was delivered by a woman wearing a burqa. Culpability has never been absolutely clear – I’ll continue to keep my own counsel.
For the past five years, I’ve been head of news at the World Service. One of the perks of the job used to be having a PA. I came across the other day the stand-out email of my BBC years. From an agency worker who was coming to be my stand-in PA for a couple of weeks. I’d be told that she was also an actress and might need time off for auditions. On her first day, she didn’t show. At all. I sent her an email – where are you? ‘So sorry’ she replied that evening. ‘The audition lasted much longer than expected. My mobile and all my stuff was at the other end of Pinewood. Couldn’t even send a message. I was being tried out for a part as Penelope Cruz’s body double.’
That certainly stimulated my interest in meeting my new PA the following morning. No, she didn’t get the part. But yes, to my undiscerning eye I could see the potential. You just don’t know what they are looking for, do you.
I knew when I got the editor’s job it would be tough – with big public spending cuts in prospect, along with the move from Bush House. Leaving Bush was a wrench, but also the best thing that ever happened to the World Service. If we weren’t in here, part of this splendid if maddening building, that would be the tragedy.
And the cuts? Fairly bloody, and there were aspects of the whole business which left me feeling bruised. I am very grateful to the editors that I’ve worked with – fine editors … we kept together when we could so easily have fallen apart. We have emerged out of that process with our purpose and our audience intact. With a fine record of innovation and awards; making a good start to a digital transition. We are the BBC’s biggest radio network in terms of listeners – by far. Just 5% of those listeners are here in the UK, but that still gives us a reach here on a par with Radio 3. This coming year we have more new investment than we have savings – we’re growing again.
So it’s a good time to go. This departure from the BBC has not been forced on me. It’s something I’ve been thinking and talking about for a year or two. I feel sad that I am the last in the line of editors of World Service News, in the Gormenghast which is the BBC it’s like an ancient Earldom that’s falling extinct - but the future of our programmes and our network is as secure as anything in this organisation can be.
And of course there is the personal connection. Throughout my BBC career I have been lucky with my bosses; fortunate in my friendships. I’ve seen Kiev with Olexiy, Calcutta with both Bishaka and Nazes, Cape Town with Shen, Lahore with Mazhar, Lucknow just recently with Ram Dutt – those allegiances will outlast a job.
I’ve worked with some really talented colleagues. There is no greater pleasure than getting someone in a role or position where they just vroom – on air, and off. I’ve been lucky – that’s happened quite a lot in recent years.
Above all I’ve been blessed by your friendship. Thank you.
And a 'bonus' for getting this far - here's me c1988 in the old correspondents' unit at Bush House:
Bush revisited ...
Back to Bush House on Friday afternoon, for a tour round the building where I spent the greater part of my working life. The BBC moved out two-and-a-half years ago. And the developers, making the building ready for prestige office suites, have done a spectacular job.
The exterior and indeed much of the interior - the marble walls and floors, the staircases, most of the doors and windows, even the antiquated internal post system - is listed. It can't be touched. The work has been respectful of the original design. And with all the interior office divides, the narrow corridors and rickety walls, swept away, Bush looks a lot more splendid now than when the BBC was there.
I thought it would be sad to see the place so changed - in fact it was uplifting. I hope the new tenants, whoever they should be, enjoy this wonderful building and location.
And by the way, yes the developers did uncover a decent size swimming pool - with some water in it still, we were told - where it was reputed to be, under the cavernous drama studio in the basement of south-east wing.
And we had the rare privilege of getting out onto the eighth floor terrace - where the old Outlook office used to be - with its majestic views of central London. Just see!
Badge Makers to the King
I spent yesterday evening at the Notting Hill headquarters of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain - and came away with this marvellous gift (thanks Vlod!), the association's badge still mounted in card, as supplied from the makers. And the makers were the very illustrious J.R. Gaunt & Son, medallists and badge makers to H.M. the King - which means that the badge must be more than sixty years old.
J.R. Gaunt seems to have specialised in making military badges and buttons - and is still in business, no longer off Regent Street, but in Birmingham.
The occasion yesterday was a public viewing of the work of a distinguished Ukrainian artist, Dmytro Dobrovolsky. And particularly, a display of his 'Cycling to Bush House' - a wonderful icon of what is now is starting to feel a distant era in the BBC's history. The BBC handed back the keys to Bush House on the last day of last month. Over!
The end of the World Today
A lot's been happening at the World Service - above all the move from Bush House. There's another big moment in the coming week: the last broadcasts of the World Today. On July 23rd, it's replaced by a new programme, Newsday.
When the World Today went 'global' in January 1999, I was one of the presenters of the South Asia strand. This publicity photo dates from that time - my colleagues are (l to r) Lyse Doucet (now of Newshour and World News), George Arney and Ritula Shah (now the World Tonight, Radio 4).
I spent three years presenting the World Today, and then had a spell as its editor. A good programme!
That was the news from Bush House
This was the scene in the old World Service Newsroom at Bush House today an hour after the last bulletin had been broadcast.
A room that I have never seen empty before was just that. Sad, of course. But it was a great final bulletin - and a fitting send off.
Holywell Street revisited
I don't want to sound obsessive about this - though it's probably a bit late in the day to say this given my previous form - but I have just come upon conclusive evidence that the BBC occupants of soon-to-be-vacated Bush House are heirs to the scurrilous pamphleteers and print makers of nineteenth century Holywell Street.
My colleague Paul Coletti has posted his own tribute to Bush House, exploring the story behind a plaque in memory of Andrew Young ('first valuer to the London County Council') which rests on our outer walls. He has borrowed from Peter Berthoud's excellent Discovering London site a plan overlaying the current street map of the Aldwych area on the Victorian one. Here it is:
It's a bewitching map - and you can see Holywell Street to the north of the Strand as it runs east of St Mary-le-Strand (there's a close-up below). And yes, my old, now deserted office, lay exactly on the line of that ancient, disreputable, rather wondrous street.
Much of the fire of Holywell Street's original pamphleteers was about holding those in authority to account - that too was the purpose of the radical print makers with their bawdy lampoons of the Regent and his courtiers - and isn't that, in a sense, what the more recent BBC occupiers of this space have been doing so well over the past 71 years?
Jonathon Green has written a wonderful account of Holywell Street in its least reputable phase on his website The Dabbler - complete with a range of marvellous images. I've lifted the photograph below from there - Holywell Street being brought down in 1902. All things must pass!
One of the more touching aspects of Bush House is seeing the tourists who get their photos taken at the entrance. It means something to them - and that means something to those who work there.
So on my way in yesterday - my last day based at Bush House - I did the tourist trick, and got a passer by (well, Linda on a ciggie break) to take my snapshot. The woman in the picture? Some tourist I guess.
It was also the last day for 'Bush and Fields', the deli and cafe in the arcade - everyone wanted to go there one last time. They even ran out of bread! There was a warm feeling, lots of smiles - which is what Bush and Fields has been so expert at down the decades. And I did something I've never done before - popped in to the arcade's pen shop which I have walked past thousands of times. They are moving to somewhere along Fleet Street, which since most of their customers are solicitors and the like clustered around the law courts, sounds like a good move.
The BBC boss Mark Thompson popped in during the day - to record a piece which will go out in the last World Service news bulletin from Bush House next month. We took him in to one of our least modern studios, S35 - a reminder to us all why we want to move to a shiny, glossy broadcast centre. And here he is trying to be patient as the producer says: "Can we just run through that again ..."
Homage to Holywell Street
Within a week, I am being 'migrated' from Bush House - my workplace for most of the past thirty years - to the splendid new extension to Broadcasting House at Portland Place. My hinterland switches from Covent Garden to the equally enticing Fitzrovia and Marylebone. But among all the haunts I will miss when I move, one that has given me much innocent pleasure is the vestigial presence of Holywell Street.
My office on the third floor of Bush House, on the north side of the Strand, lies exactly where Holywell Street once stood. I'll explain why that's important. But first - where was Holywell Street?
Take a glance at this enlarged section of Edward Weller's 1868 Map of London. Holywell Street lies just to the north of the Strand, between the churches of St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes.
It was an Elizabethan Street demolished about 1900 to make this part of the Strand altogether grander. I reckon my office is somewhere very close - if three floors up - to the H of 'Holywell'.
And what was Holywell Street? A narrow, jumbled thoroughfare which - for much of its nineteenth century incarnation - was utterly disreputable. I owe my knowledge of this 'street of shame' (a precursor to Private Eye's similarly named street just yards away) to two wonderfully researched books - Lynda Nead's Victorian Babylon (Yale UP, 2000), from which I have taken the following painting with the spire of St Mary-le-Stand looming over the street scene, and Iain McCalman's effervescent Radical Underworld (Cambridge UP, 1988).
The place became the haunt, in the early years of the nineteenth century, of radical and ultra-radical pamphleteers and print makers. The radical tradition persisted, but over time some of these enterprises turned to smut and pornography. If you wanted stuff that would shock - politically, erotically - Holywell Street was the place to go. 'For Victorian London,' Lynda Nead writes, 'Holywell Street and obscenity were synonymous'.
'The obscenities of Holywell Street' (Nead says) 'grew out of a radical past. In the first decades of the nineteenth century the street was occupied by radical pressmen: freethinkers, who published tracts on politics, religion and sexuality and who, in the decades following the Revolution in France, were spied on by police informers and prosecuted for sedition, blasphemy and obscenity. This was the home of the literature of radicailsm and of a type of bawdy publishing dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy and immorality of the ruling classes. Holywell Street bore the traces of this political radicalism through the nineteenth century, as its activities shifted from freethinking to pornography.'
It's the radical and freethinking aspect of Holywell Street which engages me. I love political pamphlets of all hues, the more ephemeral the better. Among my haphazard collection are dispiritingly few from Holywell Street. But there is this very nice pamphlet from about 1872, by the then notorious republican George Odger who lived nearby in St Giles, from a Holywell Street address.
Of course, the media work I have been engaged in over the past three decades has little in common with old Holywell Street. But there is a thread of sorts. I am pleased to be in the same space that these rebellious, uncouth pamphleteers once occupied. And in my remaining days in Bush House, I will pay homage to the spirit of Holywell Street.
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