Archives for September 2010

Sir Vidia of World Service

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:02 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Do you believe that historical data gives a full picture of past life?

I feel always doubtful about the representativeness of so called historic relics. Think about the unforeseen future for a moment: an archaeologist finds a scrap of The Sun newspaper (most probably the third page) rather than the Economist magazine and all his understanding of our time is based on that discovery.

This is my initial disclaimer before I start my entry on another legend of Bush House who used to work for the BBC World Service - Sir VS Naipaul.

Our Written Archives have several volumes of documents describing his long relationship with the Corporation.

As you may know, Vidia Naipaul was born in Trinidad, to an Indian family. After taking a degree at Oxford he decided not to go back to Trinidad.

My story starts with 22 year old Vidia's letter to BBC bosses dated 14 May,1954, written from University College, Oxford.

He describes his desperate situation and asks for a job.

In that very letter he says that he wants to go to India, but can't be employed there, because he is seen as British. Yet in Britain he can't find a job, because he is not English. He mentions places like Turkey and Indonesia as the alternatives.

The Head of the Colonial Service, Mr Grenfell Williams, replied: "I do not know any vacancy in the BBC at the moment for which you might apply". But added: "It is, of course, always possible for you to contribute occasional broadcasts to Calling the West Indies."

Indeed Vidia Naipaul started to contribute regularly to a series of programmes called Caribbean Voices, contributing short stories such as Old Man, Epicurean Service, A Family Reunion, and My Aunt Gold Teeth. He also worked on the programme Reading For Your Delight with talks on Thackeray, Gogol, Borrow and others. He also doesn't shy away from the series called Overseas Schools Certificate, and prepares programmes on geography and English for schools entitled: Livingstone the Geographer and Henry V.

He works hard. The only problem he has, according to the archived correspondence, is the wages.

'Overworked and underpaid'

Naipaul could describe his life at the BBC as overworked and underpaid, according to a number of letters in the archives dated 5 March 1958, 29 June 1960, and 19 August 1965. In one of the episodes the sides are disputing over 13 guineas for a script and three guineas for reading it. The author says that he can't accept the offer and asks that the fee is doubled. The Corporation fights its own corner. An official from the Copyright department writes: "I'm afraid that we cannot improve on the reader's fee simply because a programme is being recorded for the Transcription Service".

At one point in December, 1961, the Corporation set up market research into what was paid elsewhere in the publishing industry. Mr RE Keen wrote: "I have made some enquires about fees, and am advised that on The Observer, while there are no standard rates, an ordinary contributor may expect to get two guineas per 100 words, and a known contributor, of the standing of Cyril Ray, three guineas per 100 words.
On The New Statesman I understand the rate is one guinea per 100 words, increasing with quantity, so that 2,000 word article is paid about 25 guineas.<...> I recently tried to enter discussions with VS Naipaul to look for a subject for a Tuesday talk by him; and he refused even to discuss the matter unless a minimum of 40 guineas for a 15-minute talk could be agreed upon. This he said was the least he would expect to be paid if he wrote for print".

Turn of the hour-glass

By that time VS Naipaul had already established himself as a leading Caribbean writer.

In 1958 he won John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. In 1960 the Somerset Maugham Award. In 1964 the Hawthornden Prize. In 1968 the WH Smith Literary Award. One of the leading literary agencies - Curtis Brown Ltd - was representing him and was now fighting for his rights. "80 guineas for 60 min... he considers this offer as an insult" they state in one of the letters.

In another letter from the 24 December, 1971 (the letters are quoted by kind permission of Curtis Brown Agency) they are even more ironic: "Whilst realising that African service does not have a large budget, a fee of five pounds for a 14'14 interview with VS Naipaul seems strangely inadequate". (The matter was resolved later with an offer to 10 pounds!)

Naipaul wasn't just fighting for an extra guinea or so. The Guyanese writer Jan Carew remembered:

"Some West Indians used to work at the back of the kitchen at the BBC cafeteria. He called them 'the blackroom boys'. He had an underlying sense of compassion for the less well-off West Indians in London."

Obviously he must have helped them in the way he helped many others, when he became much better off.

But the punch-line to my story comes in the form of the Curtis Brown's last letter to the BBC on the 18 September, 1972, which states on behalf of VS Naipaul: "He is most grateful to you for thinking of him, but feels that he has written all that he can write in this particular vein, and therefore he have nothing further to add in a broadcast".

You can read this ancedote in the spirit of David and Goliath or even of Pygmalion and Galatea, but here's my final disclaimer. I don't know how representative these documents from the archives are of the full picture of VS Naipaul's relationship with the BBC, and I'm sure that relationship was much more complicated than it has appeared here.

For instance there is a the story about VS Naipaul being late for a studio recording once and there was subsequently a fierce exchange of correspondence with words used such as "haphazard" or "colonial insolence" used by one side and another.

Sometimes I think how would I appear if one of my distant descendants decided to try and uncover what my social life looked like, for example, and all he or she can find in numerous British archives is my correspondence either fighting the parking fines or disputing the overcharge for the allowed overdraft facility.

So while I'm far, far from trying to create an image of a mean Corporation, exploiting a talent, I would rather interpret the lasting image as an "ever cost-effective" approach.

As for the talent - why not to read this story as the Darwinian "survival of the fittest", which eventually made Sir VS Naipaul achieve a Nobel Prize for "having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works".

Narrative spaces

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Maryam Maruf | 17:56 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

If you have noticed our common story begins in the apartment of our main character, then it develops at the seashore and continues at the salty lake. You might have wondered, why at the lake, but there's a deliberate choice in that unusual space or location.

Two months ago we launched series of programmes on The Strand called 'Read my country'
and I have spoken there about the spaces which are preferred by Uzbek writers. Many Uzbek stories indeed happen in the bazaars, now increasingly in the mosques, and I find it quite telling.

Let's take the case of this country, England. Compare for instance Thackeray's Vanity Fair with The Forsythe Saga by Galsworthy. If the majority of scenes in the first one happen in parlours of drawing rooms and lounges, I still remember the scents of the June garden, where bees were buzzing between the blossoming flowers when one of the elderly Soames died in his armchair.

Those favourite narrative spaces or locations tend to change over certain period of time. When I say narrative I don't confine it just to the literature. Take for example popular TV soap-operas - apart from other traditional spaces (a pub for the Eastenders) one can easily see that hospitals have become one of the main scenes (Holby City, Casualty and even some sitcoms). Is it to do with what some political parties describe as a 'sick' or 'broken society'? I don't know, but the fact that the hospitals play a much more prominent role in the collective psyche, and therefore narration, is quite obvious.

Journalism is also not free from certain locations. In the past few days I have looked at several days news bulletins and the majority of the stories have been reported from governmental buildings, rarer from the war theatres, even rarer from the scientific laboratories and so on.

The best journalism tries to break those conventional confined spaces and explore human conditions in different areas. My colleague Rustam Qobil has produced this great piece of journalism about the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan
and the freshness of the narrative is due not only to the story itself, but also to the new locations where we have been taken: the Afghan 'Bazm' or a festivity, barley field, streets and bazaars of Northern Afghan cities.

We are still writing our common story and I hope you'll pay good attention to that small but very important part of our narration - the spaces or locations.

Another suggestion is just to write up one scene, which you feel is closest to you, or where you feel at home or in your own natural space.

Prompted by BBC Proms

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 06:04 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

What does classical music mean to you?

I recently lost a friend. His name was Vsevolod Timokhin and he lived in Moscow. He was an old man, who lived all his life on his own and had a great passion - music.

During the Soviet era he worked for the classical music department of State Radio and could go to any classical music concert - be it in the Bolshoi Theatre or the Kremlin Palace. But the more remarkable thing about him than those live concerts (for which he sometimes got us tickets) he used to have a unique collection of records, which were the only contents of his flat - LPs from the floor to the ceiling.

Seva - which is what we used to call him - had a special word for listening to music: proslushka - a kind of profound listening, much like a diver plunges into water, or a Sufi descends into a meditation - he used to immerse himself into a day (or two, or three) of listening to a certain piece of music or a particular theme in his collection.

He knew everything about classical music. Once when the soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf had a series of concerts in Indonesia, Seva (who didn't read or speak any Indonesian, just some German) found Indonesian-French and French-German dictionaries and translated all the reviews of those concerts.

On another occasion, I gave him a collection of Uzbek traditional classical songs and he asked me for the words. Once again he translated them with a help of an Uzbek-Russian dictionary. But more amazingly - though being a newcomer to this traditional musical style - he easily ranged all the singers exactly according to my own opinion: 'Mamurjan Uzakov is the greatest!' No one else would have been able to do that.

Whenever I'm in the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms season, or listening to the Proms be on BBC World ServiceI can't resist the feeling that while my ears are listening to the music, my heart and my memory are listening out for Seva.

He used to compare this Toccata of Bach to a temple, where everything is directed to a small dormer window, the only window to the open sky... Or the piece from Wagner's Lohengrin that was missing from his collection and I brought the LP back for him from my first trip abroad... Or the exemplary performance according to Seva of an aria in the 1950 version of La Scala by Maria Callas...

Seva never went abroad though his love of music was bigger than the world.

Sometimes I wonder if - wherever he is - he is sitting in his proslushka and listening to our earthly, but at the same time so heavenly Proms... And I think, there must be many people around the world for whom the BBC Proms means the same as for Seva...

So, tell me what does classical music mean to you?

somewhere in a far distant land there lived a knock at the door beyond the grey torn words beyond the last islands beyond the soul clean as windows which are not knocked on beyond the country of big parting where only silence is kept on an immemorial day in an immemorial dream a knock on the door lives which doesn't go visiting
This poem was translated by Richard McKane

The final push

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:36 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

Dear co-writers, to continue with the writing of our short story... I do agree with saram15 comment: 'The story seems to be gaining substance'. Like water in a funnel it was whirling slowly and surely in the beginning and now speeds up towards the resolution. So these are the scenes, which you have to write up and send it to me.

Scene 1

Dimitar/Boris comes back home to Burgas, he is in his room, unemployed, dispirited with a bleak future. His mother died while waiting for her prodigal son. He is now on his own in an empty flat. Burning tower of gas - a legacy of a new pipeline, reminds him something of a fire somewhere far away in his past. Distracting him is BBC World Service on the radio. "E kabo dara ju e kule lo" - "To be welcomed back from work is much better than staying at home and welcoming others back from work."

Scene 2

After a sleepless night Dimitar goes for an aimless walk along the seashore, but far away, where no annoying tourists, no irritating compatriots. A gas fire is left far behind him. "What time is it?" (as person stares at clock display on an expensive mobile phone) - asks he himself.

Scene 3

Lugo is an industrial salty lake in the suburbs of Burgas, where some old people cure their rheumatisms and arthritis. Dimitar goes there for a nostalgic drive and while lying in the water makes a random acquaintance with Alfred Cooper. Alfred is preoccupied with his own thoughts and finds divine meaning every time he hears someone saying, "What time is it?" He is a priest and knows the importance of time.

After he learns that Dimitar has come back from the West, he tells him the story of how he has come to be here (There was a fire in his church. His daughter was caught in it as she searched for a doll she promised she'd return to a child from a needy family, and falling debris severely damaged her legs.) He has a feeling of endless guilt, because he allowed foreigners to stay in the church and believes that either them or the doll caused the fire. In Burgas he works predominantly with the disillusioned and down-and-outs.

While they are coming back to the town by the seashore Father Alfred tells the story of how he grabbed a sci fi novel from the desk instead of the Bible, and gives the glimpses of that book. (Here's a sci-fi bit, which nicely plays with the rest of the story).

Though this story reminds Dimitar something from his life in the West, when they were rough-sleeping with Mexicans, Nigerians and Costa-Ricans in a church, ultimately he says: "I don't want to know about bloody meditation, Father Alfred. I just want a job and a girlfriend."

Scene 4

Dimitar wants to drag himself out to an assortment of employment agencies, and in answer to wanted ads, he spends his days on buses and on foot going from shop to warehouse, from factory to building site in search of work. But finally he goes to internet-café in the shop-street to make an online search for a job, but in fact he is searching for someone to spend the evening with. The presence of kids nearby means that he can't look up escort girls, so he looks for chat in online forums and finds someone under the name of Alice Cooper (!), who is campaigning against the Russian pipeline, and for clean ecology of the Black Sea. They start an online conversation which ends up with a notion: "And anyway, I told the truth, but I'm afraid I told a lie".

Scene 5

Father Alfred comes home and mumbles something about his new acquaintance to his daughter, whom he has a feeling of seeing somewhere, whereas Alice is in online conversation and is quite irritated by the interference to her 'uncontrollable attraction'. There's tension between father and daughter. Father is not good at caring for close family members, better in the wider world. Daughter is preoccupied with thoughts of Dimitar and half dizzy with a crush on him, but insecure with her present physical condition, is disruptive and distracting among Alfred's down-and-outs. Father fearful Alice will fall in love with one of then, which he doesn't want as Alice is really a serious scientist (not just a book one like her father). Shouting match between them regarding the fire. They chew over again and again their past with that fire and the incident, when Alice was burnt and maimed trying to save that notorious doll, and saved by someone who lived that time in the church. She exclaims: "I can't be the only one left alive?"

Scene 6

Alice is afraid to meet Dimitar because of her disability, but is very lonely as she spends so much time online, and has had the opportunity to talk to him on the phone. After lots of hesitation Alice decides to invite him, who is hiding under the pen-name of 'Boris' to their house. Nervous and excitable, she is afraid that her disability will put Dimitar/Boris off. Doesn't know Boris already knows the situation. They meet. Alice is wearing a pendant of a shiny buckle around her neck. Mitko remarks on it. Alice explains: it's from a belt her mother loved. She died giving birth to Alice. Grandmother always kept it and passed it on to Alice in her late teens. Alice was wearing when she entered the burning church. It was found in the remains in the debris afterwards. "The metal buckle on my belt was rusted when I got it back".

She shined it up and cherishes it above all else as a symbol of hope that her physical appearance can be brought back to what it was before the fire, just like the buckle.

They begin to fall in love. Dialogue between them "There is sorrow in birth" referring to her mother. "Death is liberty" never entered Alice's head as a solution to her present condition but Boris often thought of it as a relief to his "toska". Here Father Alfred enters home... "E kabo dara ju e kule lo"

I'm looking forward for your write-ups of those scenes.

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