Albania on the blink 

12 July 2018

From The Guardian for Wednesday 11 January 1967

ONCE again the strains of the Albanian national anthem rang across the deep reaches of Studio S.10 last night. It was just on 5.30 p.m. It has to be that time because the Albanian power supply tends to go on the blink just after 6 p.m. and broadcasters who want to get their message across only have the erratic period between their listeners’ arrival home and the quiet expiry of the glorious people’s voltage as they all switch on their lights and radios.

These are the sort of operational facts of life you learn to live with after 26 years of broadcasting the voice of London to the million of your compatriots still locked in one of the tightest dictatorships in Europe. The service, which will die quietly, though far from unmourned, on January 20, is now run from Bush House in the Strand by four Albanian exiles and one Englishman. It started in the early days of the Second World War as a five-minute bulletin, grew to 15 minutes and, since 1949, has provided 30 minutes of early evening news, comment, and entertainment every day.

Studio S.10 at Bush House: picture by Eric Wadsworth

The men who run it prefer to remain anonymous. The senior, poet, author, and journalist before the war, has been with the programme since it started. His colleagues have put in long service — 20 years, 15 years, 12 years. Unique is a word to avoid, perhaps, but their qualifications are certainly exceptional. The number of Albanian nationals who speak good English, have journalistic ability, and objective commentaries in a situation where their personal feelings are obviously engaged may be counted on the fingers—all four of them.

Their impact on their fellow countrymen is not easily gauged but the oblique ripostes made in the official press and on Tirana Radio give some indication that they are not talking to themselves. Tirana Radio, incidentally, is an invaluable ally not only for its reactions but for the unfailingly abysmal quality of its domestic service. The youngest of the London production team doubles up on Sunday evenings as disc jockey and lets young Albanians break away from thoughts of Chairman Mao and Secretary Hoxha and deviate to the neo-colonialist outbursts of Lennon and McCartney.

The impact of Bush House even extends to the development of the language. Albanian is one of the more obscure offshoots of the Indo-European group: there is nothing else like it on the Continent. As life and science roll on, the team finds itself confronted with English bulletins bristling with cybernetics, transistors, linear accelerators, and heaven knows what else. The poet considers, the engineer advises, the university teacher concurs and what goes crackling over the short-wave that night is a considered Albanian-isation of the jargon. And sure enough, what comes back from Tirana Radio or the local newspapers is the unsung adoption of the word by the officials who have seen it in the special monitoring reports that are prepared for their eyes alone.

After January 20 they will have to do their own adaptations, for the voices from London will be stilled. The team have still not decided how they will bid their unknown audience farewell. Maybe they will never decide. How do you tell people that you are blowing out the candle after 26 years and leaving them in the dark? In personal terms their redundancy looms less, if only because other broadcasting organisations have been swarming around since the announcement of the closure last week bidding for their extremely scarce talent.

With yet another inquiry into overseas broadcasting announced on Monday it seems a characteristic Whitehall decision to disband this team two days before. What if Sir Harold Beeley’s inquiry decides when it reports in May that Albania is a crucial factor in the Chinese puzzle and that broadcasts should resume? By that stage the team will have disappeared into the maw of Voice of America or some other station. Is it not worth keeping together at least until the Beeley Report comes out?

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