Breaking up with Mr Right, hooking up with Mr Wrong, and getting down with the Mime Minister, Tony Funfair, at BBC News 24

BBC PICTURE 22 05 2015

Despite the chaos of the trip to Sudan, which of course I glossed over to the BBC, denying there were any cock ups but saying the circumstances were “challenging,” my documentaries went well. Apart from when I tried to do a feature for the World Tonight on Radio 4 and they told me I was too disorganised and sent me back to reporters’ nursery. But my profile as a reporter had improved, I was on my way to getting a stringer’s job (a reporter abroad for those not in the trade). I just hoped that it wouldn’t involve carting around lots of equipment which would end up in the wrong continent. Indeed I had the honour of being “banned from Sudan” because of the piece I did on the government using food as a weapon against the South. This was in addition to the (spiteful) ban from driving on UK roads by the DVLA after I’d failed my test 36 times. I settled into an attachment at the Aramaic Service, still pestered by Gogol the Gargoyle. He wasn’t troubled in the slightest by the fact that I had a boyfriend, who he thought I would edit out of the picture along with his wife.

But all was not well between Tarquin and me. I was getting younger and younger, and was practically a stem cell. And there was an upsurge in the bulimia, which seemed to have got worse since I stopped being clinically depressed. When Tarquin took me to expensive restaurants he would say it was a waste of money as, “the food only stays in you for 10 seconds before you sprint to the loo.” My behaviour became so outlandish that it was only because Tarquin was infatuated that he kept a straight face. We went to a very posh wedding in a stately home. I sneaked down to the kitchen at night and ate the top tier of the wedding cake, replacing it with a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. Of course it was all regurgitated down the loo. Despite an aversion to dogs, I developed an obsession with chewing dog biscuits and had to invent an imaginary job as a dog walker to convince the pet shop that I wasn’t running some kind of illegal dog cloning programme.   I also started sucking on frozen fish fingers, as a more diet conscious version of lollipops. And when I would try to throw food away, an hour later I would just fish it out of the bin, once chasing the dust cart when the bin men had taken it away. To save time and rapidly rid myself of calories, I started eating over the loo, and became so comfortable doing this, I moved the TV in there.

Crazy cravings weren’t my only concern. Unfortunately, though living with Tarquin, my unrequited feelings for Alex, my friend from Oxford, started to rear their ugly head. I suddenly decided I was “in love” with Alex again. I told Tarquin but he loved me so much he swore he would stay with me. I cut Alex off, saying we could no longer be friends, at first without explanation but then saying I was in love with him. He was still not interested in me. Despite this I started fantasising about marrying Alex, which was only marginally more sane than my fantasies about the Sudanese rebel leader, John Garang. At least I’d got over that ludicrous idea a few months after getting back from Sudan.

For the first time in my life, I voted in the general elections of May 1997, of course choosing New Labour star Tony Blair. I had absolutely no idea what was in Labour’s election manifesto, they could have said they were sorting the UK’s housing crisis by colonising the moon, but I thought Blair was an exciting new leader and wanted a change after 18 years of Tory rule. Everyone I knew, apart from my family who threatened to withdraw to a nuclear bunker if Labour got in, voted for Tony Blair and Labour were elected by a landslide. The whole country, apart from my family who thought voting Conservative was as essential as going to the loo, was sick of the Conservatives following a series of political scandals, squabbling over Europe and the events of Black Wednesday in 1992 when the pound crashed ignominiously out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Oblivious to the seismic change in the political landscape, Susanna and her boyfriend from Madrid came to stay. This caused massive contention with Tarquin, as he’d told me he didn’t want me doing drugs with Susanna on my own. He clearly didn’t quite trust me to keep my knickers on. Despite this, Susanna and I went out getting off our heads on magic mushrooms in the local garage, which we thought was a spaceship docking on Mars. When we went into a bar where everyone looked gigantically tall with elongated heads, we thought we were on a reality TV show with the inhabitants of Zog. This is why I’ve spent all that money on therapy, I thought, to un-disturb my mind so that acid actually works. But fearing the gigantic size of all the alien penises around me, my sex drive remained on earth.

On the 31st of August 1997, Tarquin and I had been out clubbing, as usual strictly observing the Ecstasy Eating Plan ie handfuls of pills and no food at all. He woke me up the next morning, very sombre, saying I should know that Princess Diana had died. Funereal music was playing on Kiss FM and all the dance music stations – most of the country was in shock and mourning. Because of Diana’s bulimia and mental health problems, I identified with her and was profoundly affected by her death, feeling the only member of the Royal Family I had any affinity with had gone. Tarquin and I, who stood on Kensington High Street watching Diana’s coffin move slowly from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey were amongst the three million mourners on the streets of London that day. It was the height of our connection and love. As I stood in the crowd next to Tarquin, I thought, this is exactly what I want with my life. Alex was boring, he didn’t do drugs anymore. With Tarquin I could be myself which, by then, meant taking drugs.

But when I was alone with Tarquin, everything changed. I was like a different person, very abusive, screaming at him when he didn’t do what I wanted and telling him I’d only fancy him if he had plastic surgery. He loved me so much he almost went ahead with this disastrous plan. Thank God he didn’t. He stopped dropping me at work, which he’d done every day, as I kept shrieking it was his fault every time a traffic light went red. One time he popped into my bedroom to tell me he loved me as he was going on a skiing trip on his own. I left 25 abusive messages on his mobile shouting that he’d woken me up. I denounced his un-glamorous Audi saloon, saying it was too tacky for me to drive around in and forced him to buy a Mercedes convertible instead. At first he was heartbroken by this behaviour but later, as he detached, he would just laugh at me. I didn’t understand what I was doing at the time. But now think, that as I felt safe with him, I was taking out my unexpressed anger towards my parents on him. And I was too naïve to realise I didn’t fancy him and felt trapped by the relationship like a hummingbird in a bird eating spider’s web.

Tarquin had told me he would “never love another girl as much as me.” But despite this, as the screaming continued, he started to pull away. When we went on holiday with his friends they all asked what was wrong as we kept pretending to forget each other’s names. We had a “break,” always a presage of doom, and it was then that I realised the perils of ecstasy. I had gone out clubbing on my own with his friends and, off my head on ecstasy, said to Tarquin’s best friend: “well if it doesn’t work out with Tarquin, what about you and me?” I then tried to snog his ear. “I could never do that to Tarquin,” he nobly said, although I later found out he fancied the pants off me.

This led to months of embarrassment for me, having to apologize and backtrack furiously. I started to wonder whether the desire to confess all your darkest secrets on ecstasy was actually a good idea. At a later date, after revealing my soul to someone I’d met at a party who announced I was a “freak,” I decided it wasn’t and that ecstasy wasn’t for me.

Eventually Tarquin said he couldn’t go out with me anymore. Although my feelings for him were confused, I was devastated. He had wanted to marry me and have kids although I had no real idea what that meant. I spent hours on the phone to him crying from the Aramaic service at work, barely able to write at all. Even Gogol the Gargoyle temporarily stopped hassling me. I felt like I’d ruined my life by pushing Tarquin away and that I would never find someone who loved me as much as him. But despite everything I was still too naïve to realise the real problem: I just didn’t fancy him.

With the break up from Tarquin my alcohol use started getting out of control. I would go out binge drinking with Susanna and have to be carried home in a wheelbarrow. I told my GP who said that binge drinking was a form of alcoholism. I thought this was a joke. There was no way I could be an alcoholic. Alcoholics, I was convinced, were very loud people in Newcastle who’d been filmed multiple times assaulting the police. I was loud, while drinking, but I had never been filmed and had no experience of Newcastle. When I woke up from a Rohypnol and alcohol induced blackout, in the middle of having sex with someone I had definitely not wanted to fuck, I just shrugged off this near rape experience as “one of those things that happen when you’re having fun.” Of course despite the fact that it was all over the papers as the date rape drug, I still didn’t stop mixing Rohypnol and alcohol.

Despite the increasing chaos of my life outside, I never let it interfere with work. I was obsessed with work, I never drank when I was going in the next day. And now Tarquin (and my free drugs) had gone I’d stopped taking cocaine. At the office things were going well, I had moved to TV centre and was learning how to produce TV news and write for TV. This was exactly what I needed if I wanted to be a reporter abroad. But I would still be running into the loo to cry over Tarquin 15 times a day. I said my bladder had shrunk, after chemotherapy. I started off at World Service Television news, covering foreign affairs. I had an interview to be the BBC’s Central America correspondent, based in Mexico. But despite being the favourite to get the job, I withdrew before the final interview, saying I couldn’t possibly go as my father had broken his toe. I think this was because, after the trips to Sudan and Argentina, I thought I was too disorganised and would fuck up the job.

As for my father, I wasn’t speaking to him after he’d said I looked like a “dundus,” a very insulting Jamaican word to describe a black albino, who Jamaicans think look like freaks. Reacting to the racism from my father and society around, I was going through a white phase with red hair extensions and green contact lenses. My step mother helpfully said I looked like Michael Jackson.

I decided I wanted a change of direction in my career and went on an attachment to BBC News 24. News 24 had just started, had very young and inexperienced staff and was going through teething pains. It was using experimental TV technology which required expert handling. Alas the staff at News 24 were only expert at muddling things up. There was an issue with live feeds going down, video clips going to black, and a persistent problem with badly spelt Astons. Astons are the captions that come up giving someone’s name or other information on TV. At News 24 it was as if Dada, Dali or Picasso had written them. Thus “The Prime Minister, Tony Blair,” came out as “The Mime Minister, Tony Funfair,”   and “the Chancellor Gordon Brown,” emerged on News 24 as “That Chancer, Gordonn Browwn.” News 24 was the only area of TV news that was using this digital technology, where we didn’t use physical tapes to run the news. The main TV bullets were still using old fashioned tapes and manually inputting Astons and would chuckle merrily at the cock ups on News 24. The BBC had watered down their criteria to recruit the staff of News 24. They were not primarily from Oxbridge, in fact some of them spelt so badly they must have bunked off their spelling tests at primary school. There was an atmosphere of chaos at News 24, but also of an exciting project that was just getting off the ground.

Desolate after the break up with Tarquin, I had taken up with a married BBC producer I’d met on a training course. Having been abandoned by my father, who’d left the family for his girlfriend and proceeded to transform totally – dropping the shagging around and worshipping her – I thought that the “other woman” was the more powerful position to be in. Without realising it, I wanted to replicate the situation with my father, without being the one who was left. But when the producer said he “wasn’t quite ready to leave his wife,” I said, “you must be joking, I don’t want to break up your family.” The adult part of me didn’t but the child was confused. Above all, it was some welcome attention and a shoulder for me to cry on. And we had sex in exotic locations – once just before lunch in the disabled loo at TV Centre during Prime Minister’s Question Time. I have to admit that was my idea. It’s always fun having sex at work, (or anywhere you shouldn’t), but I didn’t fancy him enough and still thought an orgasm was something that only happened in Jilly Cooper books. Still at least the whole affair got my drinking back under control and I was able to return from nights out on the town vertical and without my clothes on my head.

The thing that particularly appealed to me about News 24, (apart from the disabled loo), was the entertainment programme, Zero Thirty, that was on at half past midnight every night. This covered showbiz and, as my reading material had increasingly strayed from the Economist to Heat magazine, I thought this was just the ticket for me. I became a reporter and producer on the programme going to film premieres, celebrity photo exhibitions, musical festivals and concerts. When you’re standing on the red carpet at a film premiere it really doesn’t feel like a job. I had never had so much fun in my life. And I didn’t have to get into work till 3 pm. I still managed to be late. The only fly in the ointment was of course, with my disorganisation, I would sometimes fuck things up. Thus I would be due to arrive to film the start of an important showbiz event, but would turn up, after a curling tong crisis, too late to witness it. Of course the great thing with TV was that the camera man did the technical side instead of you. They were always on time and staunchly reliable. It was when it was left to me that things would go wrong, I would be so obsessed with getting the right library pictures for a piece that the piece would be ready a week after it was due on air. But generally I scraped by and I was on TV, no one was saying I was ugly now.

News 24’s entertainment reporter was strangely absent from the job, so I practically took over as their main showbiz reporter. Of course, I was working as a producer as well so didn’t sleep for six months. I met Ewan McGregor, Rachel Weisz, Michael Caine, David Bailey and Snoop Dogg. Snoop was tall and very attractive padding around like a jaguar. One of his sidekicks asked me to spend the night out in London with Snoop and the Boys. I had to say no as I had to go back to work to edit my piece. But that would have been a crazy night, fuck knows what would have happened to me.(well I can guess)

I was flying ahead with my career, out on showbiz stories every night, although the editor of the programme didn’t like me as he thought I was too posh. I could continue like this indefinitely I thought. But then something happened that would change my life and cause me to crash.

Next week: when celebrities destroy your house and cut through your bedroom door with a carving knife, saying, “I miss you.”   Sign up for updates on this blog

Reporting from a barracks in Southern Sudan in a pair of hot pants and phone sex with the head of the Sudanese rebels

Reporting from a barracks in southern sudan in a pair of hot pants (2)

November 1996

The trip to Sudan to cover the civil war, began, as it continued, with a mishap or two. I had set off from Heathrow airport with a massive quantity of equipment including a Morse code machine. I’d been kitted out with a child’s size flak jacket (in case I got shot) but, of course, being blasé about my survival, I never put it on.

I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt to catch the flight to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and became unfortunately distracted by the perfume in duty free. Missing the announcement for the flight to Khartoum (how on earth can they expect anyone to understand German just because they’re in Germany) I realised, with 5 minutes to spare, that the flight was going to leave. Sprinting through Frankfurt airport with the contents of an electronics shop was not an easy feat. Particularly as the airline staff from Lufthansa kept shouting at me. Time had never been my strong point and I thought they were being unreasonable in insisting that a 10am flight should leave at 9.53. Of course just when you’re in a hurry, a massive fuck up arrives, and before I could get on the plane, the German security officials decided my satellite phone was a bomb. “It’s not a bomb!” I said, “I work for the BBC. Look at all this equipment. If I was a terrorist, I’d keep it more low key.” After showing my staff card I was eventually allowed on the plane. But with the memory of the shouting still fresh, I swore I would never travel on an airline as punctual as Lufthansa again.

The suspicion about my equipment continued when I arrived in Sudan but, eventually, I got through and settled into my hotel. Not speaking any Arabic apart from: “English… you… speak… yes?” would be a slight problem I knew. I therefore hired a translator to make sense of the newspapers for me. I was very prolific filing for the BBC, sending reports on everything from movements in the war to who’d won first prize at the Khartoum zebra show.

Sudan was supposed to be one of the strictest Islamic states in the world, with stoning still a punishment for adultery, and I had to be covered up with long sleeves and trousers everywhere I went. But it wasn’t nearly as controlled as Saudi Arabia or Iran and you didn’t have to cover your hair. In fact there were a lot of women in government jobs in Sudan, mixing freely in the offices with men, although I’m sure they all toed the line and did all cover their hair. I was amused to see the official “toilets” in Sudanese government buildings were in fact a hole in the earth. And in common with the offices, the holes were unisex.

Everyone in the government departments in Khartoum kept asking me if I was Lebanese. I do look vaguely Arab, Mediterranean, Brazilian, Cuban generally “exotic” because of my Jamaican heritage. When I later phoned all the government departments from London, they kept saying to me, “Oh yes, you’re that Lebanese girl.” I kept trying to say I had nothing to do with Lebanon, but eventually gave up and said, “Yes I’m from Beirut.” I met the BBC’s freelance reporter in Sudan, a giant man called Joseph. He told me he had been very thin when living in the South of Sudan but had got fat in Khartoum. Thinness was a problem in Southern Sudan; there had been a famine going on there for years. But there was no shortage of food in Khartoum, quite a few people looked like they’d been kicked out of Weight Watchers. I finished doing all my interviews in Khartoum, including a feature on a failed attempt by Jack Daniels to set up a mega store there, and then had to get on with the real part of trip, covering the war in Southern Sudan.

The latest outbreak of the civil war in Sudan had been triggered by the Islamic government in Khartoum cancelling an autonomy agreement for the south and saying it was imposing sharia law on the south. In the north of Sudan the inhabitants were mainly Muslim and had a lot of Arab blood. In the south they were black Africans, practising traditional African religions or Christianity. 2.5 million people were killed in the civil war in Sudan, and four million lost their homes. It was to become Africa’s longest running civil war. I was covering a story about how the government was using food as a weapon of war against the people in the south, ie starving them out. And on the divisions between the southern rebel movements who had more splinter groups than a carpentry shop. Many of the rebel groups wanted independence for the south. But the government didn’t want to give it as most of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south. You couldn’t fly from North to South Sudan because of the war. You had to go from Khartoum to Kenya and from there to Southern Sudan. All the NGOs and media organisations had their offices in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which was a cool, pleasant, town full of foreigners. I say pleasant, apart from the minor inconvenience that the foreigners had to have armed guards on their homes.

I was on a quest to track down the elusive leader of the main rebel group in Southern Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA. The SPLA had an office in Nairobi, (well it was more of a shed), which I went to to make contact. They said I could interview their leader, John Garang, if I took a flight to the south of Sudan then crossed over the border into northern Uganda. This was suicidally dangerous, the border was heavily mined and the north of Uganda was controlled by a loopy rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, “Christian” fundamentalists, who thought that if they rubbed themselves with special ointments they couldn’t get shot. They would have got on well with my uncle I thought. Nonetheless I was so desperate to meet John Garang I agreed to go to Northern Uganda, and was about to jump on the flight. As I’d only just emerged from 13 years of clinical depression, in which I’d wanted to kill myself, I had little regard for my life and no sense of danger at all. Of course I didn’t tell the BBC of my plan, knowing they would ban the trip. Luckily the flight was cancelled, or I would probably have been killed or ended up as a sex slave to a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army with 25 kids.

Instead I took a UN plane distributing corn into Southern Sudan. Flying low overhead, I could see it was barely like a country at all. Flat and marshy without any roads, towns or electricity it looked like something out of the Stone Age. I arrived at a barracks on the border with Ethiopia that was being held by the SSIM, the South Sudan Independence Movement, a rebel group that had split off from the SPLA and was allied with the government in Khartoum. Several factions had split off from the SPLA, often along ethnic lines, but the new groups were like a virus, splitting off and multiplying again. Thus there was the SPLA, the South Sudan Liberation Movement, the SSIM, the South Sudan Layabouts’ Organisation and the South Sudan Cattle Rustlers’ Group. As a result of the infighting between these groups, more southerners died at each other’s hands than were killed by northerners during the war.

In the barracks on the Ethiopian border I was sleeping in a deluxe mud hut. I say deluxe as there were no holes in the roof. You did have to dodge the multiple snakes when you went to the loo at night. It was only after a day of being at the barracks that I realised a calamity had befallen me: I had left half of my equipment on the UN plane which had gone back to Nairobi. How could you not notice that you had left the equipment behind, you say. You try travelling with the contents of the average Curry’s and see if you don’t get confused. I’m sure this experience and the terrible loss of my tape recorder in Buenos Aires has contributed to the OCD that means I now check behind me forensically wherever I go. I phoned the UN in a panic. They said there was no way the equipment would still be in Nairobi airport, as it was a den of thieves. But this time I was lucky (or protected) and the stuff was all still there. Keen for my story about the government starving the south to come out, the UN sent a plane to ferry my missing equipment into Southern Sudan. Luckily, in those days, I wasn’t worrying about my carbon footprint.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a barracks, I was heavily outnumbered by thousands of male soldiers, with only one female aid worker for company. Despite the heavy male presence, I decided that, as it was hot, I would throw off my clothes and put on a pair of tiny shorts. It was boiling, I reasoned, bored by covering up in Khartoum, surely it was the time to dress as if I was on a beach. I’m not quite sure what kind of beach is populated by two thousand men with guns, possibly Sicily when the mafia are there on holiday.

Every morning the rebel soldiers would get up at 5am and parade around with their weapons singing acapella. They had wonderful voices, the soldiers, and could have formed a choir. That was the only thing – X Factor voices – that the rebel groups had in common. Although the barracks was stone age, the weaponry was high tech, machine guns and what looked like rocket launchers or anti-aircraft guns. Despite all the heavy weaponry, I loved it in Southern Sudan and decided that when I got married, I would go there for my honeymoon. Of course the mud huts in Sudan were not quite like the mud huts on safari in South Africa. There were no six course meals, no fine wine, in fact, no wildlife at all as it had all been eaten by the starving inhabitants.

I’m not sure what gigantic gene is present in Southern Sudan, but all the men were almost seven foot and the women over six feet. At five foot two they thought I was a child. “Why have your parents let you leave school and come here?” they kept saying to me. “Have you done your O levels yet?” I kept saying I was an adult but they just smiled and patted me on the head.

One night I set out across the bush with some SSIM soldiers, I didn’t know where we were going. I heard a tribal drumming that sounds suspiciously like human sacrifice. When we got to a tiny mud hut, with a collapsing grass roof, there were a load of children banging drums and singing tunelessly. “What are they doing?” I said. “This is the Church of the Holy Redeemer, Aloysius 25th, they’re singing Christmas Carols.” said the SSIM. I looked around the mud hut and did spot a tiny cross. And the place was in keeping with the original Christian spirit, derelict enough for the virgin birth. A minority of the southern Sudanese were Christian, though probably in a similar way as the Santeria Cubans were Christian, most had traditional animist beliefs.

After my trip to the SSIM, who were courting publicity and on their best behaviour, which was probably why I didn’t get raped, I went on to a barracks controlled by the SPLA. There it was completely different, no friendly soldiers at all. I was sleeping in a tent and accused of being a spy. It shows how little regard I had for my life that being stuck in the bush in Sudan with a paranoid rebel group did not worry me at all. I realised later that they were edgy as they were about to launch a major military offensive.

Despite my cool reception, I became obsessed with John Garang, the head of the SPLA, thinking that I could meet him and live happily ever after in a hut in South Sudan. The fact that I had never even seen his photograph, (he doesn’t, as I imagined, look at all like Will Smith), didn’t dent my enthusiasm at all. I was destined, I thought, to be a guerrilla bride. But my efforts to contact him were fruitless, I couldn’t get hold of him at all.

I headed back to Nairobi, my Afro hair turned into a massive bush. They didn’t have any hairdryers where I was staying in Southern Sudan. I was due to come back to the UK on Christmas Day and go straight in to work. After a long, hard, trip I had a piece of good news. Reuters wanted me to carry some footage back to the UK and were prepared to pay for me to have an upgrade to first class. I arrived at the first class check-in wild and dishevelled, very like my uncle after a bad day. “I think you must be in the wrong queue madam,” the officials said. I was surprised they didn’t ask if I was cleaning the plane. “No,” I said, waving my first class ticket, “I’m in the right line.” They checked the ticket and almost fell over in disbelief.

When I got back to my flat, Tarquin had decked the place out with Christmas decorations and dozens of helium balloons. He was so proud of me, he said, when he’d heard me on the radio he’d pulled over the car and cried. He took me to the Connaught for our Christmas lunch which was lovely (although I was surprised that they let me in with my hair looking like I’d survived a dangerous encounter with an electricity pylon.)

Shortly after I came home, my dream came true. John Garang phoned me at home from the Sudanese bush on his satellite phone. I couldn’t believe I was actually speaking to him. Although the conversation was strictly business, this was obviously code for saying he wanted me. It was the best phone sex I had ever had. I say that as I had, obviously, never had phone sex. And the fantasy about living happily ever after with him went into the stratosphere. We would have a giant mud hut, with an en-suite mud loo, a couple of kids, and drive around in a tank.

Of course I didn’t tell Tarquin about my feelings for John Garang. But all was not bright on the horizon for Tarquin and me. And what happened next would precipitate a rapid deterioration in my life.

Next Saturday: breaking up with Mr Right, hooking up with Mr Wrong and getting down with the Mime Minister, Tony Funfair, at BBC News 24.