Archives for February 2012

Celebration and Farewell to Bush House

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 19:58 UK time, Sunday, 26 February 2012

Next week BBC World Service celebrates 80 years of international broadcasting with a special day of programmes on the 29 February live from the heart of Bush House - the World Service headquarters.

The 80th anniversary website, which tells the story of Bush House and the World Service has been set up - there you can see historic pictures and listen to clips from programmes from the archive.

My colleague Anna McGovern who researched the 80th anniversary website, found a number of amazing documents and one of them caught my eye: a debate in the House of Commons about accommodation in Bush House during the WWII.

Notes taken there state: "Even the present accommodation, as the Minister has admitted, is grossly inadequate for these services. There is still a room, not large, in which 40 people have to try to work and I was told that one man who went there to telephone came out gasping for breath. There are far too many people for the cubic space available and there is no present hope of any change, expansion, or relief."

But before that, during the war time BBC Overseas Services were placed in even worse place - in a disused skating rink in Maida Vale. The notes continue:

"They were there five months, under almost continuous bombing. In the last Debate the Minister revealed that at that place they were not safe from bombing attack. As he has revealed that fact, I will tell the Committee some more in the hope that I can make it impossible that the place shall ever be used again. There was no building in London which gave less protection. Bombs fell all round. We knew that the services were a major target for Field-Marshal Goering. Two direct hits by big bombs, or one land mine, would have killed scores, if not hundreds, of these people, and would have wiped out our foreign services for months. The same lack of proper accommodation led to other even more serious results. It is very bad for the health of the staff. One key man has just resigned because he could not stand the strain. The conditions adversely affect output. I do not believe anybody doing that kind of work in such conditions could give more than 50 per cent of what he ought to do."

The full transcript of that hearing could be found here.

The 80th anniversary celebrations coincide with the first group of language services moving out of Bush House and back to Broadcasting House.

By this summer Bush House will be empty and the history of the World Service in this particular building of the West End will come to a close.

So the celebration of 80 years of international broadcasting is intertwined with the farewell to Bush House.

One of the programmes to be broadcasted on the 29 February has commissioned me to write a poem about Bush. Here's a preview:

From my childhood spent in a clay hut of a mountainous Uzbek village to my life in a Soviet Moscow in a shanty two-piece flat,
I used to dream of a grand house with a marble staircase.
That dream was quite regular:
Without any intention I dreamt again and again of that house with marble columns and stairs, leading upwards.
I read Freud, I read Jung, I read other interpreters trying to understand what does that dream mean?
A gypsy fortune-teller told me in Sverdlovsk: 'You'll have a grand house in your future, the house with marble columns and stairs leading upwards'.
My life is nearly ending, but living in an ex-council town-house I often think what about was that empty promise, that dream which never came true?

But dreams aside all of a sudden I realised that over the last 18 years almost a third of my life I lived in that house with marble columns and stairs in between leading upwards.
I haven't noticed it until we've been asked to leave it.
Bush House - the Noah's Arc of nations,
tThe runway where voices take off and fly over the Earth, the kingdom where echoes of dead are kept alive, the thinking brain, the watchful eye, the sharp tongue and the caring heart of meridians, Bush House - an English pub, an Uzbek chay-khana, a Spanish tavern, an African hut, a Russian kabak, where views and opinions fly around vibrating the globe, Bush House - a cold mirror in front of that old, beautiful and furious world...

A Bush House of my unnoticed but fulfilled dream...

Meditation on Mona Lisa

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 09:10 UK time, Saturday, 18 February 2012

This entry is sent from Paris from my break.

My son who is now 17 is of the age when all of a sudden he has started to re-appreciate trips with his parents and is unexpectedly enjoying every bit of Paris.

We went to Louvre to do a pilgrimage to Leonardo's Mona Lisa.

I spent my usual 20-30 minutes gazing not just at Giocondo, but looking at those who, like myself, were staring at her.

When I finished my ritual my son said that didn't find the famous Mona Lisa as beautiful as people say.

I told him a well-known joke, that after being admired and loved by so many people over the centuries she has got a privilege to choose by whom to be admired.

My quick response didn't satisfy my son.

Then I appealled to him intellectually and started a long lecture the outlines of which are here.

I started with a concept of 'sfumato' adopted by Leonardo.

Though it's to do with the specifics of light and colour, I took the gist of that concept and told him that it ascends to the Aristotle's idea of measure, ie everything is perfect not at the extremes, but is perfect when balanced in the right measure.

For instance as Aristotle says, bravery is good but the positive extreme of it is recklessness, whereas the negative extreme is cowardice...

So then I passed onto Mona Lisa and said: "Yes, she is not ravishingly beautiful, but neither is she frighteningly ugly."

Look at her hair, it is neither curly, nor straight, neither too long nor too short. Their colour is neither too dark, nor too light.

The same with every feature of her face: her sight both invites and pushes away. Her eyes are vulnerably warm and at the same time calculatingly cold.

The famous smile is both encouraging and reproaching...

Look at her bosom, you wouldn't say that it's depicted explicitly, but you wouldn't either say that it's fully covered. There's a hint there too.

Her hands in front of her sometimes seem to me tender, sometimes gross.

All painting is about a perfect balance and ambiguity.

Compare it with Leonardo's other portrait of Saint-Batiste. It's the same smile, the same technique, but the saint is unequivocally pointing out towards the heaven, whereas Mona Lisa is as earthly as divine.

There's a verse by the great Persian poet Hafez, who says:
"That man is worthwhile who knows the hints, there are many clever people, but where is a sharer of secrets?"

At this point, my son agreed. Maybe just to stop my rambling...

The games you play make you who you are

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 13:23 UK time, Friday, 10 February 2012

The non-Olympic games project has made me think of games and sport as the expressions of different mentalities.

It's not for the first time this thought has preoccupied my mind.

Talking for instance about cricket in the series Summer of Englishness I tried to correlate that game with English identity.

I have been to Kazakhstan recently and recorded one of their national games 'Asyk', which you can see here

The first part of the game - throwing the joint-bones as a dice - is based purely on a chance.

It reminds me the way nomadic people like Kazakhs have lived their lives traditionally, and are dependant on different random pastures on the steppe, a hazardous place to live.

But the second part of the game is closely connected to skill, you have to hit a row of joints rather precisely, like all nomadic hunters do with their arrows.

When you have you chance you shouldn't miss it. The philosophy of this game echoes the philosophy of a nomadic life.

And the very subject of the game - Asyk or the joint-bone - is a by-product of an eaten sheep or a cow.

For the same token it's no wonder that the English people have invented football.
First of all it's a team game. The aim of the game to get the ball into a net.

It's easy to imagine a nation of fishers, going to sea in teams to get their common catch.
There is another purely English sense of paradox in this game, it's played with feet rather than with hands, whereas all fishing is done by hands.

I understand how simplified is this parallel, but there's something in it to mull about.

Games travel the world and some nations adapt to them even better than the founders.

When you watch skilful Brazilian footballers, they are as light and fluid kayaks to heavy English fishing boats.

English football kept its orthodoxy with every member of the team allocated a special role: if you are Beckham you meant to cross and kick the free-kicks, if you are Crouch - fight in the air, if you are Heskey - miss the opportunities.

Others preferred mobility as the basis of their success.
What I'm saying is that the national character is reflected in the games too.

There are some games which were a part of a national tradition of different countries and now are becoming a matter of a controversy.

Spanish corrida or bull-fighting is one of them.

Though the beauty of toreadors' and matadors' art has been noted over the centuries by poets and composers, writers and artists, dancers and ordinary folk, nowadays animal rights activists fight the cruelty of that game.

This game, however cruel it is, could not be playout out without the skill, bravery and art of a man.

In a dog-fight or a cock-fight - games spread out through Central Asia there is no man involved as an actor, just as a spectator of pure cruelty.

A dog fight

Tough games reflect the tough life of the participants.

Another Central Asian and Afghan game is called Bozkashi or Ulak.

Horsemen fight for a goat corpse, which they should get from the crowd and drop at a finish line.

Once again it's easy to imagine the reality behind the creation of that game, where bravery is mixed up with some sort of greed, the art of horse-riding and the ruthless attitude towards rivals.

Men on horses take part in Bozkashi

So I guess what I'm saying is: show me the game you play and I tell you who you are.

Please, send me your wonderful games.

My Dickens

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 17:04 UK time, Thursday, 2 February 2012

If there is a single writer to whom I've done an injustice - it's Charles Dickens.

I must tell you why.

While I was serving in the Soviet Army in my youth, I noticed that I hadn't read many of the 'greats' in world literature and decided to deal with it.

You may know the army logic, if you do anything, you do it in A to Z manner.

So I went to the regiment's library and started from the 'A' shelf.

Luckily it wasn't too long. Aksakov, Aragon, some Appolinaire, and I was done.

'B' took me some time to struggle.

Just one Balzac was represented in a dozen volumes, then there were Barbusse, Bitov, Bradbury and even some Bogomolov - all in several volumes.

It took me a couple of months of reading - mostly sorry to say - in the toilet cabin of our platoon during the night time, while other comrades were sleeping.

'C' was also populous, so when in five to six months I had reached the 'D' shelf with a noticeable 30 volumes of Dickens, 20 volumes of Dostoevsky, 12 volumes of Dreiser and likes - I understood that I was running out of time and would never reach the mid-shelves of the library - let alone Zweig or Zoshenko.

At the same time the Komsomol'skaya Pravd or 'Truth of Comsomols' newspaper started to publish educational articles about the technique of a 'diagonal reading' or 'fast-reading', stating that people like Lenin or J F Kennedy were able to read books like War and Peace overnight.

That was what the doctor prescribed and I started to master this technique while reading volume after volume of poor Charles Dickens.

So, I read all 30 volumes of him in a matter of two to three months.

But what had happened to the content - it turned into an enormous melee of one Dickens, a kind of a mega-novel, where Oliver Twist is a brother of Little Dorith and they leave in turn in the Bleak House or the Old Shop of Curiosities, to be grown up as David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby and become a member of a Pickwick Club.

All stories and characters, all plots and locations, all coined phrases and word-plays of Dickens, safely and surely were put inside of me, but in no particular order.

I represent a sort of a Dickensian circumlocution office where all kind of documents enter, but none comes out...

I must admit that coming to England in 1994 to work I had a feeling of deja vu as if I had already lived in this country.

It was subliminal Dickens, sitting inside of me as a hidden guide, teasingly preparing me to any situation.

When people used to break their English and loudly repeat something, I knew that they were trying to be nice to me.

When some of my friends ate quickly and spoke slowly, I was well equipped to recognise a certain philosophical mind in them.

In the local garage I met a local Mr Scrooge, one of my neighbours was an Artful Dodger...

Over the last two years I have decided to put my Dickens' house in some order.

I've started to watch costume dramas made by Dickens' novels.

I watched nearly all of them.

But strange enough, any of them, be it Great Expectations, Christmas Carol, Little Dorrit or David Copperfield - left me with a feeling of something not complete.

After each of the films I wanted to watch the next, trying to understand both Dickens and his literature.

And finally I understood why.

He is still alive inside of me as the only megabook which consists of 30 volumes or rather chapters and what I used to consider as injustice is in fact grace which I carry inside of me all my life from its 'A' to the very 'Z'.

PS I've just been at the BBC World Service World Book Club devoted to Dickens' bi-centenary and particularly to his 'Great Expectations'.

Experts and listeners from India and Kenya, Britain and Canada, from all over the world were discussing the genius of Dickens.

It coincided with the 10 anniversary of the World Book Club.

My congratulations to the team which produce such a wonderful programme, to its presenter Harriet Gilbert and in the spirit of that programme a question to my readers:

Why do you think Dickens used a mysterious birth from unknown parents for several characters as a plot device?


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