Toby Forward

It came as quite a shock when I lost Rahila Khan. I’d known her for two years and we were very close. I told my agent that Rahila wanted to write a letter to the Guardian about a witless piece that they had done about her, but the agent was firm. ‘No. No more Rahila Khan. She’s finished.’ I was upset. We’d done a lot together in just two years.

Rahila Khan and I wrote our first story for BBC Radio at the end of August 1985. We didn’t put my name on it. It was rejected, as not quite suitable, but with an encouraging letter saying that she wrote well and should try sending it to the women’s magazines. We were more pleased than disappointed, so we set to work to write another – after all, the producer had asked her to send something else and had said that they wanted things ‘with a genuine “ethnic” background’ because they didn’t get many. I managed to separate the responses. The failure was Rahila Khan’s; the praise was mine, secretly.

Rahila and I knew that getting published was difficult, getting read on the BBC was hard, so we were encouraged and sent them another that turned out to be our first success. ‘Pictures’ was broadcast, repeated, received many letters of admiration and even a large article in the Times Educational Supplement which said: ‘The story, exquisitely-written, almost persuaded me that literature still has some relevance to life. I would like it to be used in all initial-training courses.’ Directors of multi-cultural teaching centres wrote in asking where they could buy it.

We had found a gap in the market and we set about filling it. All the stories from then on were accepted. The producer said she’d love to see Rahila ‘if she was ever in London’; she was unfailingly kind in her criticism of the stories and patient with revisions. She took a lot of time with us. It was like getting a free writing-course. I was very pleased for Rahila and didn’t mind that my name wasn’t on anything. I liked it better that way.

After a while we tried some stories that weren’t about Asian teenagers, but the producer didn’t like them and sent them back saying they weren’t as good as the others. She didn’t even suggest revision, which was odd. We didn’t know whether there wasn’t room for ‘English’ stories, or if they really weren’t much good, or if the producer just expected Asian themes from an Asian and English themes from a white person.

To test it out, I wrote a story with Tom Dale. It was a country-house murder with a twist at the end. Very English. We sent it to the head of Morning Story to get a fresh opinion, but it landed on the same producer’s desk. To our surprise, she liked it, and it was broadcast. By now, it was getting quite difficult for me, writing some stories with Rahila and some with Tom Dale. We did them on different typewriters and with a different lay-out. When Tom Dale made a mistake – like not keeping a copy of a script that needed revision – the producer told him off quite sharply, not at all the way she wrote to Rahila Khan; and he was never invited to London to meet her. Rahila felt a bit guilty about this and sometimes Tom sulked and wouldn’t write any more stories, but he had to in the end if something English grew in his mind that Rahila couldn’t use.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in