Lawrence of Asia
This year the BBC World Service celebrates its 80th anniversary: cause enough for celebration. But tonight, half a world away, the great and the good will come together to mark an even more extraordinary milestone.
In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Anthony Lawrence was the BBC's man in the Far East. First in Singapore, then Hong Kong, Lawrence was one of the BBC's "greatest generation" of foreign correspondents - a foreign legion that included legendary names such as Charles Wheeler, Erik de Mauny and John Osman. They built the BBC's reputation around the world, on crackly telephone lines and film flown back from distant shores*.
This weekend, "Lawrence of Asia" celebrated his 100th birthday, half a century after reporting on the communist insurgency in then Malaya, 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."
As the sun set on the British empire, Lawrence reported on the Vietnam War. One memorable despatch for From Our Own Correspondent in May 1972 suggests nothing much has changed. Reporting from the frontline with US troops in Vietnam, Lawrence could have been describing Afghanistan today:
"It's such a chancy business, this patrolling. You can go for months and meet nothing, and then three times in one week you meet some awful ambush or firefight. The man next to you goes down yelling with a leg blown off; the platoon commander is bleeding to death against a tree. It's over in 15 minutes, but it's a nightmare; and it may come again tomorrow night."
Much has changed in the four decades since Lawrence left the BBC - everything, and yet nothing. Lawrence's young "apprentice" in the heady days of the 60s was a young David Willey, still filing for the BBC from Rome, and this year himself celebrating his 80th birthday. Lawrence taught him to use the ordinary to explain the significant, the stories of real people - storytelling techniques at the core of contemporary BBC journalism today.
Lawrence moved to Hong Kong in 1958, and was forced to observe China from the outside for more than a decade before the mainland authorities let him in. He set about learning Chinese, and stayed in Hong Kong post-retirement. Having witnessed the suffering across south-east Asia, he founded a charity that helps refugees who flee to Hong Kong.
Tonight, at its famed Foreign Correspondents' Club, Hong Kong celebrates one of its finest adopted sons - and the BBC salutes one of its greatest generation. As the BBC marks 80 years of reporting the world, it is those like Lawrence who made it possible. Every day, we who follow seek to match the gold standard set by Lawrence and his contemporaries. One hundred not out! Happy birthday Tony.
Jon Williams is the BBC world news editor
*An earlier version mistakenly stated Lawrence was the last of his generation. But John Osman is still going strong at 80. Apologies.