In the early 1980s, this room at 53 Bedford Square was the office from which I ran the computer magazine Acorn User. At one time, this part of Bloomsbury would have been crawling with publishers, but by 1982 most had gone, though my employers, the US group Addison-Wesley, and the Publishers Association, were still there. Both upped sticks within a couple of years. Though the Architectural Association has hung on at No 36.
So it was incredible to see this Grade 1 listed building turned back into what it once was – a house. But when I look at the room so much has changed – the marble fireplace has gone and it looks as even even the coving around the ceiling has changed.
The coving used to depict the skulls of cattle and was picked out in a Wedgewood blue. The skulls were a rebus, referring to the fact that the Adams-brothers-style property developers had to battle to develop the land against farmers who used to fatten their cattle there before driving them on to market at Smithfields. Because of the loss of the pasture, they then had to graze them out by Marble Arch and bring them along Oxford Street (you can imagine the carriage-jams) At least that’s what I remember being told.
We had to be very circumspect in what we did in the main rooms – we couldn’t change the chandeliers, or the colours on the walls. And filing cabinets had to be kept to the edges of the rooms (they might have been too heavy for the floor beams in the middle). The floors were carpeted. The cellars, which stretched out under the road in front of the office, inspired the Acorn User Dungeon puzzles of two writers – MUD pioneer and Henry Root publisher Simon Dally and educational computing expert Joe Telford. They also led to the nickname ‘Mad Alex’ for Alex van Someren, one of the technical editors (he was some kind of belligerent gnome who skulked in the dungeon ‘with a glint in his earring’).
This room was the scene of one of the embarrassing failures of my career. The head honcho of Addison Wesley, Warren Stone, had come over from the US and my MD, Stanley Malcolm (a former IBM salesman who still shaved twice a day), had arranged for me to demonstrate the early email system I used. This was 1982, pre-internet, and the system was Dialcom and my address was ACN014 (Dialcom was later bought by BT to become Telecom Gold and the basis for The Times Network for Schools). I came in early to put the room – and the computer system – back together, because it had been used for a party the night before. Just as I finished, in they came. So, I booted up the BBC Micro and loaded the software from the 100K, single-sided 5.25in floppy disc. Then, I picked up the phone an dialled the Dialcom computer. I heard the computer screech and plugged the handset into the red, metal-clad, 300baud acoustic coupler. But the computer did not respond. No error messages. It just sat there, the white cursor blinking away on the black screen. Waiting. ‘Must be a bad line,’ I murmured. So I tried again. No response. And again. Still nothing. So Warren and Malcolm smiled and left.
I probably went out for an early lunch, to cursing the BT Buzby bird that was the company’s ad mascot then, and everything to do with email and computers. When I came back, I unplugged the acoustic coupler, put the DIN plug back in the other way up – and it worked fine! Never mind.
I did manage to work the telex machine a couple of times though.
However, today’s beautiful room has not always been so grand, as this 1969 photograph shows. The Georgian developers would be turning in their graves. No marble fireplace in the Swinging Sixties, a false ceiling and no chandeliers either. It looks very cheap and functional postwar, the sort of institutional, ministry-furnished room frequented by the 1960s spooks of a Len Deighton book such as the Ipcress File.
The main part of the house was not that big, but there are three floors, an attic and basement, and the mews behind has been developed and linked to the main house. Asking price today for the 6 bathrooms, 8 bedrooms 4 receptions and 10,732 sq ft is just shy of £12 million. Oh, and there’s a gym and a lift too. But no telex machine any more and Addison Wesley is now just an imprint of Pearson (like most things in the book publishing world). Acorn User was bought up by the BBC and sold on, finally closing in 2005. Alex escaped from the dungeon a long time ago and is now a managing partner at Amadeus Capital (but does still have that glint in his earring).