It's not often you might have been in the company of a spy, or even a suspected one, but a recent promo on BBC World for Dreamspaces, a series about modern architecture and contemporary design, took me back to when I was.
The promo features Marco Polo House in Battersea, where I worked for a couple of years at The Observer, and which has a stunning grey-and-white stripped exterior with sort of Egyptian styling.
It was certainly flash and stood out like dogs' balls from the surrounding brick and stone buildings. From one side it afforded fantastic views of the Battersea Power Station, the austere, somewhat unsettling four-chimneyed art deco building on the Thames that featured on the Pink Floyd album Animals. It was also across the road from the lovely Battersea Park where we'd sometimes eat lunch.
The inside sported an atrium and lots of huge green and silver metal piping, plus glass lifts, but I can tell you that it wasn't really a dreamspace to work in: pretty much like any other office really, although from where I worked we could look into the atrium of neighbouring BSkyB (now just Sky and no longer there) and see a Dalek. They're bigger than you'd think and actually kind of scary despite the fact that they couldn't possibly go up steps.
The atrium in The Observer used to drive the subeditors mad - someone must have thought it was a good idea to put the subs under a glass roof, but anyone who uses a computer will tell you otherwise. They had to shield their machines from the light and the heat (it was boiling on a sunny day) and wear sunhats.
The interior was often used as a film location - a couple of thrillers about journalists and a Red Dwarf episode - and set designers would create their idea of what a newspaper newsroom or magazine looks like which, of course, is nothing like the real thing.
I worked as a production assistant for a magazine that was published within the building - Money Observer. I got in by default really, after being sent there as a secretarial temp, and because it was really only half a job, ended up helping with the magazine. When the real production assistant left, I was the natural replacement.
New Zealanders might tell you about the class-ridden nature of working environments in the UK; it was certainly true of The Observer. Columnist Simon Hoggart, who'd written so brilliantly from America, turned out to be quite snobby. His UK columns weren't nearly as insightful and he even once dissed Bob Marley's version of "I Shot the Sheriff", clearly having no understanding of the political nature of the song.
The photographer Jane Bown turned out to be pretty hoity as well. She takes amazing portraits (and is still doing so, check this story where Luke Dodd describes going with Jane to this year's Glastonbury), and is particularly famous for a portrait of Samuel Beckett, which is one of only three frames the curmudgeonly Beckett allowed her to snap. When I sat near her one day in The Observer café she kept on talking about "getting a New Zealand girl in". To do what, I wondered. It seemed to be a thing with the well-heeled that you get a girl in to do stuff for you.
I was reminded about all this when I saw the building on TV- it was an interesting time for sure. One thing about working as a journalist, or even on the periphery as I was, is that sense of being close to history unfolding. While I was at The Observer a freelance journalist there, an Iranian called Farzad Bazoft, was arrested in Iraq in 1989 and subsequently executed after shocking footage of him, looking beaten and confused, appeared on the news.
The Iraqis said he was a spy and I must admit he didn't seem to be much of a journalist. He would often come up to Money Observer and get one of the journos there to rewrite his stories. Then again, it didn't seem like he'd be much of a spy either.
After he was hanged, on the orders of Saddam himself, some of The Observer staff went down to the Iraqi embassy for a bit of a silent protest outside. We had to be well back behind the barriers, and there was talk of the incident in 1984 where a policewoman was shot from within the Libyan embassy. Could someone poke a gun out of one of the windows, we wondered, and have a pop at us?
The most fascinating part of the protest was the day the editor Donald Trelford turned up. It was all stage-managed by Observer journalists: photographers had been informed of his presence and were swarming outside the barriers, some with small stepladders, and when Trelford appeared, Observer journalists behind him raised placards so that he was surrounded by Farzad's face - click, click, click, there was tomorrow's picture.
It's kinda nice that to know that, 13 years after Farzad's murder, he's been cleared. The man who interrogated him was tracked down by The Observer to Nasiriyah and had this to say. If you want to know more about journos on the front line, the International Federation of Journalists has a comprehensive website.