My Lon­don

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Oggy Boytchev

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

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