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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".

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