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Lawrence of Asia

As the veteran Far East correspondent turns 100, Annemarie Evans looks back on a life less ordinary

 

What's my earliest recollection? Perhaps when I was about five years old, in 1917, standing on a railway bridge in the London suburb of Wimbledon and asking my mother: 'What are all those soldiers doing down there on the platform?' And she saying they're probably on their way to the front. And me wondering, in my ignorance, what kind of place this 'front' must be. Anyway, she was probably wrong. When the regiments left for the slaughter of the Somme and Passchendaele they left from Waterloo in the small hours, to cut down on the tearful leave taking."

So recounted the former veteran BBC Far East correspondent in My Century: Anthony Lawrence in 1999, when aged 87, for what would become a double CD compilation.

Today, Lawrence, who remained in Asia - in Hong Kong - celebrates his 100th birthday and tomorrow, a host of friends, BBC people and others who worked with him will attend a party at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) in Ice House Street to mark his centenary.

One hundred years ago, in Wimbledon, "I burst in on an astonished world", quips Lawrence, out for a regular lunch at the FCC. "I had two older brothers, Edward or Ted and Arthur. Arthur was the one intelligent member of the family. He really was intelligent." Arthur died young in a train crash. "I had a younger brother, Stephen, and sister, Mildred."

A fellow journalist remembers Lawrence speaking in a bar in Australia while covering the visit of the British Queen Mother in 1958. In a light coloured suit, he reportedly sounded more Oxford than Oxford, offering everyone in the bar a drink in the clipped tones of the BBC. Lawrence's radio voice is easy to listen to. He was a newsman with the flair of the raconteur as he told a story - often of ordinary people - to explain the intricacies of an Asian political situation for an international audience. But he's not all that posh.

"The school I went to was in a very rough neighbourhood and sometimes a few boys would even turn up barefoot and the headmaster would issue an appeal for shoes that could be repaired," recounts Lawrence in My Century.

"My father's secretarial job in London can't have earned him very much. He had a brother, Uncle Arthur, jokingly called 'The Wicked Uncle'. He had been a very well-known journalist at the Daily Mail, but now lived in a bedsit. His wife had left him. He had the crumpled look of a man who had not lived wisely but well. When he came to visit … I loved to listen all about lead stories and rows in the newsroom … Already I'd long made up my mind to be a journalist.

"I earned a pound a week on the Wimbledon Advertiser at the age of 18. I still remember with affection Mr Hurst, the subeditor, with celluloid cuffs, ticking me off for not giving a balanced report about a court case; and enjoying the sight of one's story in print, no bylines in those days; and doing an 80-hour week and thinking nothing of it."

The family thought his choice of career "was awful", he says now. "They already had this great failure in the family, my wicked uncle. Until I started working for the BBC; they thought that was OK - safe, you see."

The second world war would interrupt Lawrence's journalistic ambitions. As conflict approached, he decided to learn German, and engaged a Jewish-German couple to teach him.

"I wasn't very good at the beginning. She asked how could I make 15 mistakes in a 10-word sentence?"

Lawrence married and during the war became a captain in the anti-aircraft artillery and was stationed in France. He describes how he and his wife, Sylvia, became skilled at ensuring they had the same four days of leave. She fell pregnant and having been unnerved by a bomb that had exploded in their street, moved into the comparative safety of a shelter for expectant mothers. The tragic irony was that that, too, would be bombed.

"And then the telegram arrived," recounts Lawrence, "that I had lost them both."

At the end of the war, Lawrence was based in Hamburg, Germany, with the occupying forces. As part of the British Forces' Information Control Unit, he was tasked with setting up a local newspaper to help get the media back up and running. That newspaper was Die Zeit, which is now the most widely read weekly newspaper in Germany. Meanwhile, he fell in love with his German secretary, Irmgard.

"The French and Belgians were not happy about this at all," says Lawrence. "They asked why I couldn't find someone in one of the other countries. The simple truth is I fell in love with her." Asked if they spoke German or English to one another initially, Lawrence replies: "Oh, I think we found a way to communicate."

He returned with his new wife to England and had a son, Alex. Lawrence would join the BBC as a subeditor but in 1956 was sent to Singapore. Alex, then eight, agreed to the move on one condition - that his parents buy him a pet monkey, which they did.

In Foreign Correspondent, a book about his three years in Singapore, published in 1972, Lawrence describes the communist insurgency in then Malaya, the rise of a young politician called Lee Kuan Yew and the ousting of the British.

"Parked cars were set on fire. The steel blinds of shops came clattering down. Doors were bolted and barred. An all-day curfew was announced by radio and loudspeakers. Nobody could leave their houses. And all the streets of this big city were emptied like magic of all human beings, except for the odd mobile police patrol or military squads.

"The stray dogs had the best time of all, prancing, wrestling and copulating around in the broad roadways, with no one to kick them away."

He describes lurking in the Singapore press gallery on a spring morning in 1959, watching the decay of British colonial power.

"During the debate, Lee [Kuan Yew] had said that the struggle in Singapore was a struggle for democracy; that the People's Action Party was the only strongly organised democratic movement in Singapore, and the British knew it. There was no other choice. But, he added, after the elections what they did not want was an aftermath, a bloodbath.

"When the elections were won, months later, there was no bloodbath. Not much democracy, either."

Lawrence has an old black and white photo of himself taking notes at a press conference with a young Lee.

"He was a difficult man," says Lawrence. "Oh … you're not going to print that, are you? He's still about; you'll get me into trouble."

In Foreign Correspondent, Lawrence talks of the difficulties of radio links, or simply telling the script down a telephone. He is also frank about when he missed stories and his dilemma in how to report on Southeast Asia in a way that made sense to listeners elsewhere and finding stories that would appeal to London.

He immersed himself in all things Chinese and was a prolific reader of books on Chinese culture and history. He began to learn Putonghua. His was not just an interest in China under Mao Zedong, but in the Chinese diaspora across Asia.

As he transferred to Hong Kong, which, in 1958, would become his permanent base, he faced a dilemma: he would need to observe China from the outside. It would be more than a decade before the mainland authorities let him in. Meanwhile, arguably the biggest - certainly the longest - story of Lawrence's career had been going on in Vietnam and surrounding countries since 1954. He would visit Vietnam many times, broadcasting news bulletins and regular slots on radio programme From Our Own Correspondent.

"Tony was a great believer in using ordinary scenes to explain much more significant events," says BBC correspondent David Willey, who, as a young reporter from London, joined Lawrence in Asia in 1965. "He had a down-to-earth simple approach to convey events. If I felt a stranger [in Southeast Asia], think how strange it sounded to people back home.

"We alternated between countries. There were so many to cover. I think he was a master of radio, he said you have to use your words very carefully. He used the word 'puzzlement' or 'puzzling' and would pause before it, and the listener would think that it must really be a complex situation if the foreign correspondent finds it puzzling.

"We stayed at the Continental Palace in Saigon, a rambling old place where Graham Greene lived when he wrote The Quiet American."

Australian Tony Munday also remembers the Continental Palace. He first worked with Lawrence during the Hong Kong riots of 1967.

"During the riots I filmed for Visnews. In the afternoon he would do the voice recording. The BBC would get a copy of the film and would cut Tony's voice to fit the film," says Munday. "Then I started to work with Tony in Vietnam. We would always stay at the Continental Palace in Ho Chi Minh. Sometimes you could hear the [American] B-52 bombers dropping bombs or the Gatling guns on the DC-3s."

One memorable From Our Own Correspondent piece Lawrence broadcast in 1970 described the chancy business of patrolling and took the perspective of a "grunt" - a conscripted American soldier. It detailed the screams of an injured soldier and painted a picture of those returning home only to discover that no one wanted to listen to what was going on in the warzone.

Many journalists died in this war, including British photojournalist Larry Burrows. A plaque dedicated to Burrows hangs in the foyer at the FCC.

"We were on the tri-border [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia]," says Munday, of the incident in 1971. It was known as Operation Lam Son 719, a massive invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese forces.

"They got a very bloody reception. They came back hanging on the skids of the helicopter. Larry Burrows died that day. We [Munday and Lawrence] were waiting for that helicopter to come back for our turn [to fly to the front]."

Munday would also travel with Lawrence to witness the horrors of East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in 1971, as Hindus and Muslims walked hundreds of miles to leave one another's territory.

"We were in Calcutta," says Munday. "And we saw how people were dying like proverbial flies [along the route] from cholera. We filmed in a huge tent. Cholera is very easy to treat if you put saline solution in [patients'] veins. All these people were dying and relatives were burying them where they were dying. I filmed with my telephoto lens the vultures and dogs fighting over these corpses and the BBC put this up with a warning."

After retiring from the BBC, in 1973, Lawrence worked with Rediffusion Television on the Hong Kong current affairs programme The Lawrence Report. He also shared a programme on Commercial Radio with broadcaster Aileen Bridgewater.

So did Lawrence himself turn into a journalist wicked uncle?

"He really is an insightful person," says his nephew, Andrew Lawrence, 62, who lives in Britain and worked as an engineer with the BBC. "He is without vanity and genuinely interested in people and how the world functions."

"Tony was good enough to share a few memories with us when we celebrated 50 years of From Our Own Correspondent a few years back," says the show's editor, Tony Grant. "Over the years he's been a frequent and valuable contributor to this well-loved BBC programme. His insight, beautiful writing and wit were much admired. But we knew very little about the show's genesis in 1955 and Tony told us how it had come into being.

"Back in those days, he revealed, the BBC foreign correspondent didn't get out much, didn't have much to do … So From Our Own Correspondent was created to give them a bit more to do; somewhere to opine about developments overseas."

The BBC's Humphrey Hawksley remembers being an inexperienced journalist in 1979 at the South China Morning Post looking for guidance.

"[Lawrence] has that charming inquisitiveness that makes you open up to him. That's a great skill to have as a journalist."

In June, Lawrence was awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star, perhaps more in recognition of his years of service with the Hong Kong International Social Service, post retirement, than for his time with the BBC. The ISS helps people who arrive in Hong Kong without valid papers by providing accommodation and teaching them basic Cantonese and English. For his 90th birthday, the ISS honoured Lawrence by naming a refuge in Yuen Long after him. Lawrence's centenary follows that of Hong Kong-based former Daily Telegraph correspondent Clare Hollingworth, who turned 100 in October last year and who is noted as the first to report the outbreak of the second world war.

Lawrence has survived both his second wife and son, who became a doctor.

On September 9, 1972, Lawrence was Roy Plomley's castaway on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs - where the "castaway" chooses their top eight records, a book and a luxury item they would like to have with them were they to find themselves shipwrecked. Lawrence's favourite piece of music was Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No4 in G Major, with a Chopin piece coming in second.

At No8 was Charles Coborn's The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, otherwise known as I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.

His luxury item was two armchairs. That's two armchairs, note.

There are worse ways to be shipwrecked. The ambience of Bach with waves breaking in the background - and if the soundman could just mix in some cicadas, to show we're somewhere in Asia, and the clinking of glasses of chilled white wine, it would be the perfect backdrop against which to settle into one of those comfortable armchairs and listen to the reminiscences, political puzzlement and dulcet diphthongs of Anthony Lawrence, foreign correspondent.

 

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