30 July 2023

The spy who disliked me : 2003 : Eva Koekelbergh, The Radio Authority

 “Do you know who I am?” my workplace colleague shouted down the phone. “Do you know who I work for?”

I suspect customer service personnel at Fortnum & Mason (which promises “everyone remembers their first encounter with us”) endure similarly haughty conversations with their upper crust clientele day in day out and follow a scrupulously polite script such as:

“Yes, madam, I can read your name on the order for wedding guest name cards and I can tell from your posh accent that you are a member of the British elite who since 1707 have purchased ordinary things from our Piccadilly shop at extraordinary prices, BUT …”

Perhaps private school timetables schedule one period per week of ‘Privilege Studies’ during which pampered Torquil’s and Persephone’s confidently acquire the skill of always getting their own way in life by addressing the 95% of Brits who they consider not ‘one of us’ as inferior beings … though I fail to recall my state school reciprocally teaching ‘deference’. Whether the harangued employee at Fortnum & Mason (“committed to delivering a sense of pleasure”) on the other end of the call had heard of The Radio Authority I doubt. Our government quango was so marginal that there were probably people toiling in radio stations who had never heard of it.

My colleague was usually more softly spoken until an issue arose with ‘service’, at which point the inherited gene that had probably balled out ‘the help’ in centuries past suddenly emerged on the radar screen like the tip of an upper-class iceberg. On a previous occasion, a phone charger left permanently plugged in under the same colleague’s desk had burnt out with a bang while she was sat in our crowded, unventilated office, but without injury. No eavesdropping was necessary to overhear how forcibly the manufacturer would be complained to, sued and adequate compensation secured for her having suffered this apparent near-death experience.

Our office proved the ideal place for my colleague to spend most of the year meticulously planning her spectacular wedding in the grounds of a hired West Country mansion. Months could pass without management delegating any work to us ‘development officers’ to do. The pay and conditions in this public sector agency were undeniably rubbish, but never have I been required to do so little work for a salary. If I exited the office even ten minutes after five o’clock, it would be my duty to switch off all the lights and lock the Radio Authority front door. So much time, so little work!

Evidently, no run-of-the-mill wedding was being planned from the desk next to mine. Its scale and lavishness would easily have triumphed in a ‘Radio Industry Wedding of the Year’ awards ceremony. Like all historic royal weddings, this was not a purely personal affair. It celebrated the alliance of two established ‘houses’ that since 1973 had been at war with each other, fighting innumerable battles over every issue known to the broadcast industry’s opposing armies. The bridegroom was a board member and director of a significant British commercial radio group. The bride worked for the government regulator of the very same commercial radio industry. It was a match made in conflict-of-interest heaven.

I had already observed that, as soon as something of even minor significance occurred at The Radio Authority, the bride-to-be would unhook her mobile phone from its charger and march to the ladies’ loo where she might remain a good while. Maybe she just suffered a weak bladder exacerbated by radio industry events. Whatever, by dint of a mysteriously indirect route, such news would magically appear within the pages of the next ‘Radio Magazine’, a weekly publication brimming with insider gossip that naturally was rabidly consumed by The Radio Authority’s staff.

Normally I would have remained coldly detached from such workplace intrigue but, this time, my life was impacted by the whiff of in-house espionage. Bob Tyler, a good friend for as many decades as I have attended radio conferences, was then news editor of the Radio Magazine and had a habit of phoning The Radio Authority switchboard and asking to be put through to me for an innocent chat. Having signed some kind of Official Secrets Act on my first day of work, I told him absolutely nothing confidential. However, his calls may have sowed seeds of doubt with my boss, David Vick, who one day discovered me alone in his office after I had entered to retrieve a document I had mistakenly left on his desk minutes beforehand. As the only employee with hundreds of published articles about the radio industry to my name, the fickle finger of fate appeared to point directly at me and, without explanation, Vick started to lock his office door when he was absent. Subsequently, I was the sole employee not to be awarded a Christmas bonus and my annual review was unremittingly negative.

“My father worked as a spy for the Dutch government,” the bride-to-be would tell the rest of us in the office, as if addressing an interviewer for a place at Oxbridge. I wondered to myself whether such an occupation passed as a ‘family business’ amongst her peers. Could her employment with The Radio Authority be merely an undercover mission in a quiet backwater for an MI5 agent? Suspicions were further aroused when our boss David Vick insisted he vet and approve each of her wedding guests, the list apparently resembling a who’s-who of everyone who presently worked in the British commercial radio industry. Not that I ever saw it. 

As the Big Day approached, it became apparent that all who worked in our office had received an invitation … except me. In fact, everybody in our department had been invited … except me. Indeed, I suspect that just about everyone employed by The Radio Authority had been invited … except me. Not that Eva Koekelbergh ever told me to my face that I would not receive an invitation to her big fat Wessex wedding. My desk was only six feet away from hers so the ‘oh dear, it must have been lost in the post’ excuse would have been wholly redundant. I had endured almost a year of aural torture, forced to listen to every minor detail concerning the biggest day of her life being phoned through to dozens of contractors and then chased up relentlessly from her desk, yet now I was being treated as if I might deliver a homemade bomb as my gift-wrapped present.

Though there may be eight million eligible bachelors in the naked city, the universe of Britain’s 5% appears more akin to the gene pool within a rural Mormon village. The bridegroom just happened to be the former Radio Authority line manager of the bride, and he also just happened to be best man at her present line manager’s wedding, and both men just happened to have attended the same university. For the cherry on top of this cake of coincidence, one of the six people working in our office was the daughter of one of the bride’s teachers at her former private school. When people casually comment ‘it’s a small world’, do they realise what a truism it is for a certain stratum of society?

One week before the Big Day that had necessitated a year of planning, including its own internet domain with gooey photos of the couple and a lengthy wedding gift list, the bride casually asked me if I wanted to attend her post-wedding evening soiree, but not the main event. I was tempted by an appropriately pithy two-word response but instead feebly explained that I was already busy that weekend. The few friendly staff I knew at The Radio Authority had already asked me privately why I had not been invited and all I could do was shrug. I had no idea. Anybody who was anybody in the British radio industry seemed to have been invited. I could only surmise that I must be ‘nobody’, despite having planned and executed London’s most successful large-scale commercial radio station launch during the previous decade.

Naturally, the wedding juggernaut did not come to rest abruptly at the end of the Big Day. Afterwards there were still the communal experiences and the photos to be ooh-ed and ah-ed over by colleagues in the office … and the gossip. Who did what, who saw what and who said what occupied many of the staff for several weeks afterwards. I just sat at my desk pretending to be deaf, dumb and blind. All I learned was that everybody seemed to have had a good time. The wedding had at least not cost me a penny. No present, no card, no car hire, no petrol, no hotel, no tuxedo hire. Even if I had received an invitation, I might have proffered a public explanation that I could not afford all these costs on my meagre salary (particularly as I was commuting to London by train from Brighton), even whilst harbouring the private reason that the wedding’s scale and ostentatiousness seemed to be drawn from the pages of ‘Emma’.

A few months later, The Radio Authority closed and the majority of its staff transferred to a new regulator named Ofcom where we worked in a huge, open plan office overlooking the River Thames. I was relieved that my newly appointed desk was no longer next to the post-honeymoon bride, not because I disliked her, but because during my eighteen months at The Radio Authority she had insisted on running a powerful electric fan on her desk, whatever the season. It might have had the effect of making her feel like Kate Winslet on the bow of ‘The Titanic’ but the airstream had simultaneously played havoc with my sinuses. I had asked her repeatedly to adjust the fan’s angle but somehow it had still subjected me to painful headaches.

I had only transferred to Ofcom in the desperate hope of being offered some proper work tasks to tackle after having been required to do so little at its predecessor. It was not to be. My new boss Neil Stock gave me nothing to do. When the BBC called unexpectedly to offer me contract work in Cambodia, I accepted the challenge. During my last afternoon at Ofcom, I bade a fond farewell to the few lovely colleagues who had been so good to me. On route towards the exit, I passed Eva’s desk. I considered stopping to say farewell but then reflected on my experiences and resolved to walk on by.

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