My BBC career started, as it continued, with a mishap or two. “The train,” I puffed charging into my interview at World Service Radio, at least 45 minutes late, “got stuck in a tunnel, it might have been a bomb.” A roomful of BBC managers raised their collective eyebrows in disbelief. If there had been a bomb, they certainly would have heard.
Having been as well informed about news at Oxford as a lost Japanese soldier who thought the Second World War was still going in 1963, I had decided to sort out this vacuum in my knowledge with typical OCD flair. I was reading two newspapers a day, making notes about the bulletins of radio and TV news, knew every capital and President in the world, in short was a veritable encyclopaedia of what was going on. I sailed through the interview, although my ship was rather late, and was ecstatic to be told that I had got a place as a Radio Journalist Trust Trainee. This was a scheme designed to get ethnic minorities into the BBC.
The BBC had clearly dug down deep into the underprivileged masses to find its new recruits: four out of six were Oxbridge graduates from expensive private schools. It was obviously fine to be an ethnic minority, as long as you weren’t common as well. I started off my training at Broadcasting House in September 1992 and had moved into my first flat, a three bedroom flat in Central London for sixty eight thousand pounds. God we were lucky then. I was benefitting from the housing crash of the late 80s early 90s with its interest rates high enough to get banged up by the police and tidal wave of repossessions. With a gift from my mother, who’d abandoned me to go back to Jamaica, and my thirty thousand pound mortgage I could easily cover this. I was 22, had a mortgage and my own flat. But I was still a fucking virgin, of course.
I was the only trainee who hadn’t done a postgraduate in journalism studies and the differences soon became clear. I wouldn’t have hit a deadline if it slapped me in the face. I immediately took a shine to the only other smoker in the group, a half Asian man called Krishna who’d been to Cambridge and Westminster. I decided this was a match made in heaven, though tiringly he did have a girlfriend as well, who he was always complaining about. She doesn’t understand me, he would say. I didn’t realise that that was what men always say before they play away. So love lorn was I at my inability to tie down the relationship with Krishna that in all the pictures of the RJT trainees I look like I’m going to jump under a train. When I finally got him in bed, he said, “you’re not a virgin are you?” “N…No…I stuttered and proceeded to give him my first ever blow job. He loved me, he said. Then he didn’t. He was leaving his girlfriend. Then he wasn’t. It was a roller coaster of emotion I could scarcely hang on to. When he didn’t come to my birthday party I was bereft. When he told me he wasn’t leaving his girlfriend, my suicidal depression deepened and I ended up with a carving knife at my throat. Just as I was about to do something, I’m not quite sure what, my beloved best friend phoned from Spain. The moment was broken and I’ve never been that close to suicide again.
When I arrived at the newsroom at World Service Radio, in the Art Deco splendour of Bush House, the problem the BBC was trying to counter became painfully obvious to me. I stared into a roomful of faces as white as a party of polar bears. There was clearly a confusion, in the minds of many there between the words “white” and “write.” As well as a belief, despite numerous literary masters to contradict, that people whose first language was not English could not be trusted to write.
“Oddbog Babak is coming for an attachment from the String-vestian service,” muttered the editor of the European desk.
“Oh dear,” frowned the Chief Sub, “well we’ll put him on something simple like copy tasting.”
A funereal air presided over the European desk when I arrived. I learnt, later that morning, that this was because their reporter in Lithuania had died of starvation with a BBC freelance contract in his hand. The payment had been delayed between the Assignments unit, News Process hub, accounts department, Four Men and their Dogs department and the actual payments desk. By the time it had reached its final destination at the Onward Movements desk, the poor reporter had expired.
Not that frugality was a watchword at the BBC – I noticed that several taxi drivers had set up tents on the pavement, meters running, as they’d been waiting outside for so long. And the staff would abandon profuse amounts of food, leading all the mice in central London to head there for a snack. I believe, while I was at Bush House, the mice outnumbered the staff 50:1.
I then moved down to the main current affairs programme, Newshour, where the egalitarian nature of the BBC was clear to see. Out of a department of 30 only two had not been to Oxbridge and they kept very quiet. Several of the managers had been at Oxford with Benazir Bhutto, they all had a story or two. And everyone had written authoritative books on at least one country by the age of 25.
It was at Newshour that I decided I would finally give in to temptation and start to experiment with girls. Part of the reason I’d been so obsessed with Krishna, was because I thought I was gay. I wanted to be normal and normal in 1993 didn’t equate to snogging girls. For a year after I left Oxford I had not fancied men at all. This was one of the main reasons I had clinical depression and wanted to kill myself. The psychiatrist at St Mary’s hospital didn’t help at all, eyeing me up in my cycling shorts and saying, I “couldn’t possibly” be a lesbian. But that’s what I thought I was, I told therapist after therapist. I could even sleep in the same bed as Alex, who I’d thought I was in love with at Oxford, and feel not the tiniest tingling at all. I decided to stop equivocating and put a bi-sexual advert looking for a girlfriend in Time Out. I referred to myself as an “exotic babe” and got stack loads of replies. I started leaving my shifts at Bush house to go on secret dates with sexy women instead. Indeed, horror of horrors, I bumped into someone I was working with at Newshour at a lesbian club, which led to many awkward moments over the photocopier. I went crashing around clubs in Soho with groups of lesbians, and did meet a TV producer I wanted to date. But I realised, when I was clubbing, that I would often be eyeing up the only man in the room. I did like women, but I realised I wasn’t gay. I’d just gone off men.
My father had told me I was ugly and too short and my head was too big. When I got into Oxford at the age of sixteen, he said “that’s all very well but why don’t you just grow.” He then carted me round to doctors who might make me grow. This precipitated a crisis where I became obsessed with having an operation to extend my legs, suitable only for dwarfs, that could have resulted in my legs being amputated. My father was prepared for me to go ahead, perhaps he wasn’t fully aware of the risks, but thank god I didn’t do it. He didn’t help my self-esteem by sitting around with his girlfriend taking the piss out of Jamaicans and saying that black people were “different” as they “had a different pelvis shape.” My father had a curious history. He’d married my black Jamaican mother in 1967, in defiance of his rich father who was a friend of Lord Lucan and supporter of apartheid South Africa. My grandfather, naturally, boycotted the wedding and didn’t speak to his son for five years afterwards. When I asked my father if he had married my mother to piss off his father, he was totally silent and went pale as a tub of Dulux Ultra White. My grandfather wasn’t the only member of my family who thought that black people were as equal as a wombat taking on a wildebeest in a war over turf. At my father’s hunting, shooting and racing family in Gloucestershire, I had to sit around as a child listening to black people being the butt of the joke. I consequently didn’t like hunting and tried to abscond and join the antis when I was dragged to the Boxing Day Meet at the age of eight. My (noisy) impersonation of the Fantastic Mr Fox went down like a lead balloon.
It wasn’t just my father who thought I was ugly. All the Sloane men in Chelsea I was hanging out with when I was a teenager, and all the boys on our inter-railing trips preferred my blonde best friend. Even Alex had rejected me. I felt totally scorned by men and had turned to women instead. Though of course being me, only attracted to men who were unavailable or gay, and too scared to embrace being a lesbian, I was still a fucking virgin at 23.
But I soon learnt the advantages of being a young woman with a posh, sexy, voice. I could not only reel in the women on Time out with my profile recording but persuade men to do interviews as well. When I rang important men in hotel rooms late at night, they would fall over themselves to speak to the BBC telling me they “loved my voice.” If only I’d recognised my potential, I’d have set up a telephone sex line on the side. I realised I had a weapon in the interview wars, that there was a particular tone of voice, that would persuade most men to do an interview. But production was not for me. I wanted to be a reporter and that meant I had to go abroad.
Bi-lingual in Spanish and English, I decided I would go to Latin America and Spain. I set off for Cuba in 1993.
Next week: losing my virginity to Jesus, narrowly avoiding being possessed by a pig at a Voodoo ceremony in Cuba, and how lettuces failed to save the Cuban economy.