Oggy Boytchev is a British author, journalist and independent producer. Born behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria he made a dramatic escape to Britain in 1986. In a BBC career spanning a quarter of a century he has covered the majority of international conflicts since the late eighties. He worked as a producer to the BBC World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, and accompanied him on dangerous assignments around the world. He is the author of ‘Simpson & I’ and ‘The Unbeliever’. This is the thirtieth article in our regular “My London” series.
My first encounter with London was the detention centre at Heathrow Airport in January 1986. I had defected from behind the Iron Curtain and spent a week there while my credentials were being checked. People were very polite to me and every day I got to choose food from a different airline. By the time I was released I had acquainted myself with great examples of cuisine from around the world, such a departure from the food shortages in communist Bulgaria during my childhood.
When it was time for me to leave Heathrow, one of my interrogators helpfully bought a ticket for me for the underground, told me to change from the Piccadilly Line to the District Line at Barons Court, the best transfer she said, because I only had to cross the platform with my suitcase instead of going up and down the escalators elsewhere, and I found myself in Victoria on a balmy January evening only dressed in my pinstriped suit and fifty pounds in my pocket. These were all my savings from Bulgaria.
The accommodation I was offered was a former Polish war veterans’ hostel at the back of Victoria station. I shared a room with two other asylum seekers from the Communist bloc – a Hungarian and a Pole. The hostel was a terraced house off Ecclestone Square – I didn’t realise at the time that this would be probably the poshest postcode I would ever have in London
for the next thirty years. I often went to the public library in Buckingham Palace Road and regularly took a stroll in Eaton Square, admiring the big white stucco houses. A few months later when I got my first job, I moved to a room in West Ham, on the District Line. I finally had my own room with a single bed and a writing desk on the ground floor of a 1930s block of flats. The windows had iron bars to prevent burglaries, which my very few friends at the time suggested was not a good sign, but I didn’t have many possessions so I didn’t mind. The job was selling paint and artist’s materials in a shop in Highgate. Initially, I took the trusted District Line to Embankment where I changed to the Northern Line, the High Barnet/Mill Hill East branch to Highgate. Work started at 8 o’clock every morning, so I had to get up pretty early. As I grew more confident, I started to experiment with my tube journeys: Metropolitan Line from West Ham to Moorgate or King’s Cross and then on to the Northern Line. By Christmas of 1986 I was already an expert on the London Underground map.
As luck would have it, the job in Highgate gave me a window to the art world in London. Lucien Freud came occasionally to the shop to buy his special canvasses – they had to be extra strong and expertly stretched to withstand the heavy layers of paint he applied on them. He was a bit taciturn and I found him awkward and unsocial. Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff on the other hand liked a good chat while choosing their paint. There I became friends with the Russian artist in exile, Oleg Kudryashev, and a Japanese painter living in Muswell Hill, Yuji Oki. However, the shop had another claim to fame – the prolific art forger, Tom Keating, bought his paint there to produce his accomplished forgeries. Although that was before my time, the elderly owners of the shop inevitably steered any conversations with the punters towards Keating, his ideas of forgeries as a political act of defiance to an unfair art world in which many artists died in poverty, and inevitably the conversations ended up with assertions of the quality of the paint Keating bought here.
I left East London and stayed with friends in Belsize Park and Westminster for a while before I bought my first flat in Upton Park – that was all I could afford in 1989 on a BBC salary as an assistant producer, my first proper
job. Upton Park, of course, was on the District Line. Queen’s Market in Green Street, just to the right of Upton Park tube station, was a cornucopia of world foods. This was when I first started to experiment with cooking exotic dishes myself. The kitchen of my small one-bedroom flat close to the tube station became my laboratory. I often tested my newly found recipes on unsuspecting visitors.
As my career at the BBC progressed – by 1994 I was already a foreign duty editor at Radio 4 – I was able to move out of East London again, this time to Highgate. Estate agents often tell you that you should buy in areas that you know well. Well, I am a good example of that.
My Highgate flat was on the first floor of a red-brick Victorian semidetached house in Jackson’s Lane, not far from the art shop where I worked after my arrival in London. There was a church nearby, on the Archway Road, which was converted into a theatre and a community centre. I saw some experimental theatre productions there, including a performance by one of my favourite writers, Will Self.
A few years later, I was on the move again, this time to Maida Vale. Julian, who eventually became my civil partner, had a flat there and I moved in with him for a few months. Maida Vale was different from anywhere else I had lived before. The grand white villas along the canal in Little Venice, the house boats, the little café on the bridge over the Regents Canal, the enormous mansion blocks along Elgin Avenue, Warwick Avenue tube station, later immortalised in a pop song, all so close and yet so remote from central London, were like a secret gem, which only revealed itself to the illuminati. Being part of this secret made me feel like a proper Londoner. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore Maida Vale in depth because two things happened at that time and they were connected. One, the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and two – I started travelling around the world as a BBC foreign affairs producer. In the following ten years I spent more time abroad than at home covering world events precipitated by 9/11.
My work for the BBC took me to the most dangerous and hostile places