I have decided to collect and publish the book «Tales of Bush House» – as a Writer in residence of the BBC World Service to mark the closing of Bush House in 2012 as the headquarters of the World Service. For more than 70 years, the BBC World Service have been broadcasting from this building, located in the most creative area of London – in its West End. Late last year Bush House was transferred to the owners of the building – a Japanese company and the BBC World Service have moved to a new building on Portland Square. Thus, the whole era in the history of the World Service ended. That era was associated with the names such as George Orwell, VS Naipaul, Georgi Markov, and many other prominent writers and journalists, who have linked their lives with this legendary, iconic building. But as the philosopher said: ” ‘Humanity should part with its past cheerfully.’ So we have decided to publish a book of cheerful memories, funny jokes, funny tales from the life of Bush House. Some of these stories we offer to the reader.
Stuck in a Lift
The BBC World Service started broadcasting for Central Asia and the Caucasus in the summer of 1994. A lot of effort went into securing FM re-broadcasting in Azerbaijan, and a state visit to Britain by President Heidar Aliyev looked as if it might be helpful in our negotiations on the ground.
The mood at the time, as Azerbaijan and the other former Soviet republics were establishing themselves as independent states, was friendly, positive and open – despite various problems. Azerbaijan had just fought and lost a war with Armenia over the enclave of NagornyiKarabakh. The Azeris had a tendency to see Armenian foul play in any obstacle or setback.
President Aliyev was invited to Bush House where he was met by the chairman of the BBC governors, Marmaduke Hussey. I was there as the head of the Russian and Ukrainian Service.
The Chairman greeted the President in the car park and immediately impressed him. Duke Hussey was a big man. He walked with a stick, and painfully, after leaving one leg in Italy during the war. We moved towards the Centre Block lifts which the uniformed commissionaires had put specially into manual operation for the President’s ride. Hussey, Aliyev and I got into a lift with half a dozen heavily built
Azeri security men. The commissionaire shut the doors and the lift started to rise. It came to a halt between floors and there we stuck.
The commissionaire, deeply embarrassed, contacted all of the right people. House services did everything they could to rectify the situation. Hussey stayed enviably cool and treated everyone to British humour. But, as the delay went on, the security men became more agitated. Aliyev himself was becoming worried. Was it possible that they walked into an Armenian plot in Bush House? Still the lift refused to move. The security men’s hands were beginning to move to the bulges under their jackets. Eventually we were wound up to the third floor by hand – a more energetically manual operation than the commissionaires had envisaged. The doors were cranked open and we were released onto the marble landing. The bodyguards eased up and the mood began to lighten as the chairman led the President down the corridor past the black and white photos of former World Service directors. Once in the director’s office, Hussey broke the tension with an extraordinary gesture. He presented Aliyev with one of his favourite VIP gifts – a heavy BBC branded paperweight. And, as he did so, he explained that this very solid gift could be used by the President, if the need arose, to crush his enemies. Aliyev, once the head of the KGB in Azerbaijan, warmed to this politically incorrect remark. Pleasant and productive discussions ensued.
For several years BBC Azeri was broadcast by the state radio of Azerbaijan on its national network.
“Good Boy, He Will Go Far…”
After getting stuck in a lift and being presented with a paperweight (“to punish those who don’t listen,” said the then BBC chairman), Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev was interviewed in several languages (being fluent in Russian and Turkish as well as Azeri) for various BBC World Service programmes.
I have done two of those – in Azeri and in Russian – under the Azeri TV cameramen’s watchful lenses recording the President’s every step in London.
The interviews recorded, Mr Aliyev shook hands with those present in the studio. He held mine for a second and asked: “Have I seen you before, young man?” Before I could think of an answer, his English interpreter stepped forward and gave a short but frighteningly informative report about my birthplace (in Aliyev’s Azerbaijan it is very important), my education and previous employment.
Well, the interpreter didn’t know that HeydarAliyev actually met me before, in 1979, when he was ruling Soviet Azerbaijan as a Communist Party leader and I was a schoolboy entrusted with making a speech on behalf of Azerbaijan’s schoolchildren at a party conference.
When I finished the speech and walked along the presidium to get off the stage, I heard Mr Aliyev saying: “Good boy, he will go far…”