RALPH IZZARD was most people's beau ideal of the old-school foreign correspondent, in that he was not only brave and resourceful, but also gentlemanly, widely read, kind, a bit raffish, excellent to drink with, fun to travel with, handsome but louche, honourable but thoroughly disrespectful.
He spent his whole career with one newspaper, the Daily Mail, but he was the very opposite of a management man, giving the impression that he had never set foot in its offices in his life. His taste was for distant places of the gamier kind, and it must have pleased his always ironic humour to find himself spending his last years not in Beirut or Cairo, but in Tunbridge Wells.
He was old Fleet Street personified. Not only did everyone in the business know him, but they had also known his father, Percy Izzard, the Mail's highly respected gardening correspondent (always claimed by Ralph, with what truth I don't know, to have been the inspiration of William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop). Ralph joined the paper after the Leys School and Queens' College, Cambridge, very soon became its Berlin bureau chief, and was a star of the paper for half a century.
He was not, though, just another old pro. He was a much more subtle man than that. During the war, he had served with distinction in naval intelligence, and he had a lateral approach to the profession of news-gathering. He was a familiar figure wherever news was made, in those post-war years when a handful of Fleet Street and New York correspondents raced around the world from story to story - Egypt to Korea, Kenya to Lebanon to Algeria; but he was never one of the pack, preferring always to follow his own scents and cherish his own contacts. This instinct led him to the most famous of all his coups when, all on his own, wearing gym- shoes and without a map, he pursued John Hunt's successful Everest expedition of 1953 to its Base Camp at 18,000ft.
This entertaining and audacious enterprise resulted in an equally entertaining book, An Innocent on Everest, which was translated into nine languages. It caught everybody's imagination, but it was only one of Izzard's grand private adventures. A lover of all things natural (he was an authority on lichens) he made one expedition in search of the legendary Buru, said to haunt the forests of Assam, and another to look for the yeti, and a third, with his wife Molly, by donkey across the hills of Lebanon. He spent one part of his life in a lovely old Arab villa above the city of Beirut, and another part in a house with a courtyard and a windtower in the Manama quarter of Bahrain.
Then he became, in later years, a celebrated and most hospitable sort of guru. He knew everybody up and down the Gulf, and everyone knew him. Jonathan Raban portrayed him in his book Arabia through the Looking-Glass, Tom Stacey fictionalised him as the central character in his novel Deadline. His reputation drew innumerable visitors to his house, where he kept a talkative parrot called Charlie and was always open-handed with the whisky.
I dare say his legend will grow, rather than fade. He wrote only a handful of autobiographical books but he is the sort of man art is made from. In the end, home in England with his wife and family, he was hors de combat because of ill-health, but to newspaper people of his own generation he will always be remembered as the most endlessly original and endearing of colleagues.
It is a happy paradox that though the Daily Mail may properly claim him as one of the most distinguished of its staffers, Ralph Izzard was really your absolutely irrepressible, down-the-line, let- 'em-all-come, one-for-the-road freelance.