Remembering friends and the golden days
In the 19070s and 1980s, the radio was king. Fortunately for the BBC and me as their correspondent, the government’s control didn’t allow All India Radio to exploit its potential. So, Indians would turn to the BBC to get independent news. Rajiv Gandhi turned to the BBC to confirm his mother had died
Over the last six months, I have been made increasingly aware of how old I have become by the number of my contemporaries who have died. All were my friends too. Their departures brought back memories of what, for me, were golden days, the 1970s and 80s.
Those days, the radio was king. Cheap transistor radios were available across India, and the government’s stupidity ensured that television was no rival. Fortunately for the BBC and me as their correspondent, the government’s control didn’t allow All India Radio to exploit its potential. So, Indians would turn to the BBC to get independent news. Rajiv Gandhi turned to the BBC to confirm his mother had died.
One of my friends who died recently was Adam Clapham. He was a television documentary producer for many years, becoming the senior executive producer in his department and responsible for many documentaries on India. He then founded the independent company Griffin Films. After Adam retired, he wrote a book called Beware Falling Coconuts, in which he described the difficulties the BBC got into in India because of its influence, and quoted villagers saying, “We listen to the BBC because it gives true news and it gives it first”.
Adam made documentaries about India. He loved the country so much that after his retirement, he lived for most of the year in a house he built near Mangaluru and only returned to England to escape the monsoon. Unfortunately, that was where he died a few weeks ago.
Only last week, I attended virtually the funeral of Johnathan Stedall, another distinguished filmmaker who was trained by the BBC and then went on to work for independent companies too. I first worked with him as a researcher in the 1960s in a film about Gandhi. I then went on to write and present documentaries with him. As a railway enthusiast, I was particularly pleased with From Karachi to the Khyber. It was one of the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys, which we could never have made without the close collaboration of Pakistan Railways.
My third BBC documentary producer and friend who died recently was Denis Moriarty. He loved India, visited it regularly, and featured many locations in a series about the rise of the West. Denis became my friend when I worked with him in the appointments department, my first BBC job. He was a devout Anglo-Catholic or High Churchman, so six priests participated in his funeral to provide the ceremonial touch he loved so much.
Adam, Johnathan and Denis represented the highest standards in journalism, as did my friend Ian Jack, who died last month. He was known for his writing skills, becoming editor of the prestigious literary magazine Granta. His death was widely covered in the Indian press because of his many Indian admirers and friends.
These deaths of friends have made me aware that the greatest sorrow of growing very old is losing the friends who go before you. Two more Indians are also now among them. The remarkable Ela Bhat, who helped me write my book No Full Stops in India, and a man we in the BBC Delhi office always knew as Bali Sahib. He was a customs clearing agent who, in my time, no matter the weather or what hour of the day or night, would ride to the airport on his scooter to clear perhaps just one radio cassette to be air-freighted to London — an essential service provided by a man we loved.
Our friends all loved the BBC as it was then. It’s different now. Is it better? Does it matter to India as much as it used to?
The views expressed are personal