Dissident voices, literary lives: Bush House, the home of the BBC World Service, is a nest of literary activity. Sabine Durrant meets the writers following in the footsteps of Orwell and Empson

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The poisoned umbrella tip is still a talking point at Bush House. Wielded by person unknown, it injected a tiny lethal pellet into the leg of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident working at the BBC World Service, shortly after he left the building on 11 September 1978. He died four days later. One theory, among many, is that his murder may have had something to do with the fact that he was a novelist - an anti-Communist one - and that he insisted on broadcasting extracts from his novels over the air. Creative activity, rather than political, may have brought about his death.

In which case, there were, and remain, any number of people at Bush House fearful for their lives. In the mazy corridors of this central London establishment - which bears, as someone in the Russian department remarks, a striking physical resemblance to the offices of the KGB - you can hardly move for dissident writers. They flocked over from Europe during the war, joining George Orwell and William Empson, and they've been flocking over from South Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union ever since. In the offices of Bush House they find an atmosphere congenial to literary activity; in broadcasting, a means to work within their country from without. But they still have to watch for poisoned umbrellas. As one producer / writer says: 'That Markov thing could have happened to any one of us.'

Zinovy Zinik produces programmes in the Russian Service. A lugubrious man with neat clothes and a lopsided smile, he has worked at Bush House since he arrived in London from Israel - his way out of Moscow - in 1976. He was blacklisted in the Soviet Union until 1989, and has only recently been published there. All in all, though, he has written six novels - one of which, The Mushroom Picker, was recently televised by the BBC. Nursing a polystyrene cup of cappuccino in the BBC canteen, he explains how he started writing, 'with older friends sitting around in Moscow cafes a long, long time ago, writing 10s of 100s of pages of conversation - a stream of disinformation'. When he left, he smuggled his early manuscript out through the Dutch Embassy but, opening the suitcase later, he realised it was 'useless. It read like a coded diary. It didn't exist outside Moscow.'

Instead, in his first novella Notification, and then in The Russian Service and The Master and the Gamekeeper, he set about documenting his own exiled situation, 'stating how you can't get rid of your past, how you have a double existence, a multiple sclerosis of personality'. It's a subject he's now characterised as a literary genre. 'Emigration as a literary device,' he says gloomily, pushing through a door signposted 'Do Not Use This Door'. 'It immediately gives you a standpoint - a foreigner's view of England and an outsider's view of Russia.'

It's a category that certainly covers the works of many other Bush House literary figures. Take Zdena Tomin, in the Czech serivce (Stalin's Shoe, The Coast of Bohemia), or Chris Dorosz, a philosophical essayist and senior producer at the Polish service ('Poland and England: I live in both and in neither'). Or meet Shadab Vajdi and Mahmud Kianush - 'The Persians'.

There's a certain amount of tension between The Persians: Vajdi, a quietly spoken woman, is published both in England and - censored by herself - in Iran; Kianush, who writes on the Tube ('no familiar face or voice - that is privacy'), has had trouble finding a publisher. 'I can't send it to publisher after publisher,' he says, snapping a cigarette in two. 'When you are an established poet in another country, you can't do that. You send it to two and then you put it away.'

Both, however, write about Iran before and after the revolution. 'I like to remember my childhood,' says Vajdi, whose most recent collection Closed Circuit is a gentle diatribe against war and extremism, 'those days when Iran was prosperous and more happy. I'm here and there, half here and half there.' Both, too, have published work under false names for fear of execution. Kianush, who has broadcast a series of satirical poems under a pseudonym, rang twice to ensure it wouldn't be disclosed: 'Think of Salman Rushdie,' he said.

There are others at Bush House who use emigration and distance as a literary device without having experienced it directly themselves - Jasper Becker, an analyst in the Current Affairs unit (The Lost Country), Nick Rankin, senior producer in Features and Arts (Dead Man's Chest), Keith Bosley, a newscaster who translates Finnish poetry between bulletins, and Zina Rohan, senior producer in Central Talks and Features. Rohan (who studied Chinese at university) is English, though her mother was Russian, her father German, her first husband Iranian and her second Czech. Her first novel, Wishes and Complaints, was set in Czechoslovakia; her second, The Sandbeetle, just published by Hodder & Stoughton, is about the exile and life of a German Jew. 'I earwigged,' she says, 'I watched other people's stories.'

Why does Bush House harbour so many writers? For one thing, they're actively encouraged. When it came to its employees' creative outpourings, the BBC used to alternate between fear and possessiveness ('They didn't want you to rock the boat,' Jasper Becker says; 'They thought they owned you,' says Rohan). But John Tusa, managing director from 1986 to 1992, changed all that. 'I didn't feel it was our business to stop anybody,' he says, 'I just felt proud of the fact that we were employing people who were real, who encompassed another world of expression.'

For another thing, the act of writing and the job of broadcasting ideally complement one another. Both Dorosz and Zinik say that the convolutions of their native syntax have been unravelled by the Anglo- Saxon discipline of radio.

Keith Bosley thinks that translating poetry 'in green' (ie on air) adds weight to his delivery: 'it shows in the voice'. And Shadab Vajdi simply likes the hours: 'I finish my work at four in the morning; I go home and I look at this city sleeping, at all the rays of life. And I think. I think.'

Maybe, too, there's something about the building itself that attracts literary excitement, the miles of corridors and the Lego box offices, places called the 'Department of Pauses' and the canteen, where, as Zinik remarks delightedly, the lights have never been turned off. Or perhaps it's just the whirl of disembodied voices that attracts. 'As a writer and a broadcaster, you are constantly hearing voices in your head, patterns of speech,' Zinik says. 'And for both there is some kind of sadistic pleasure in cutting those voices up . . .'

(Photographs omitted)