Michael Field, who has died aged 82, worked in wartime intelligence at Bletchley Park, then as a cultural envoy in Latin America before he settled down to a long and varied career as a Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent.
Almost all of his adult life was lived abroad, in South America, South-East Asia and France. He immersed himself in the language and culture of the places to which he was posted, and made many friends among artists and musicians.
His determination to understand the regions he covered made him a sympathetic interpreter of aspirations and attitudes.
Yet Field remained to the end a particularly English figure, with his elegant tailored suits and a humane conservatism that coloured his generous outlook on life. The intellectual promise he demonstrated from his earliest years seemed to mark him out for a more conventional calling than the sometimes louche existence of the foreign correspondent in the era of telexes, typewriters and lunchtime whiskies.
But Field’s sense of adventure and appetite for the exotic determined that – after some false starts – he plumped for journalism, a course which, he wrote, he was “to pursue for 30 years with blinkered dedication”.
It was a good choice. His career took him all over the world and gave him a ringside seat at a host of major and minor events from obscure South American coups to the prelude to the Vietnam War. To each he brought his own brand of careful reporting and – when allowed – shrewd analysis, underpinned by one of the sharpest and most retentive minds of his generation of foreign correspondents. It was unfortunate that the journalistic style of the time, of bald news reports unleavened by the individual touch, meant that much of what he knew went unpublished.
Michael Field was born on 19 December, 1920. His father, Alexander, was a character actor of stage and, occasionally, screen. Young Michael attended Southend High School, and in 1939 went as an exhibitioner to Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he took a first in modern and medieval languages.
There he fell under the spell of the right-wing Spanish scholar Irwin Bullock, who sparked an enduring interest in Latin American culture. His knowledge of German propelled him towards the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley after he was passed as unfit for active service, due to partial blindness in his left eye, the result of an accident during a visit to Germany. The panel which selected him to work analysing and translating radio intercepts included Kim Philby, whom he remembered as the quintessence of the reserved, patriotic Englishman. Though an enthusiastic and sometimes indiscreet raconteur, Field remained reticent about his time at Bletchley.
Unsure of what to do after the war, he took a lecturing post with the British Council in Venezuela. On a trip back to England in 1948 he stopped off in Manhattan. While sitting in an art gallery cafÅ½ he noticed a striking girl, and abandoning his usual reserve, began chatting her up. Nine months later he was married to Giuliana Taberna, the actress step-daughter of a New York property magnate. He remained passionately devoted to her all his life.
Back in Venezuela, the social success of the young couple grated with some stuffier members of the British expatriate community and Field was transferred to Mexico City. There, their acquaintances included the painter Diego Rivera who, returning from Moscow after hospital treatment, enthused about the wonders of Soviet medicine. “He died shortly afterwards,” Field noted later.
After a second stint at the British Council he worked briefly as the manager of the British Chamber of Commerce promoting Anglo-Mexican trade, before being appointed as the local representative of The Times. When his friend Flora Lewis bequeathed him the Financial Times and Economist strings, he found himself by the mid-Fifties a full-time journalist. Despite his claim to be a “naive adventurer in the world of news reporting”, Field swiftly showed himself suited for the life and work. In 1956 he joined the Telegraph and was sent to cover South-East Asia, first in Saigon, then in Bangkok. The region was transmogrifying into a Cold War cockpit and, always sturdily anti-Communist, Field sometimes found himself at odds with the anti-American attitudes of some of his colleagues. The experience led to a book, Prevailing Wind, and the friendship of the Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk, to whom he was to act as an adviser.
In 1963 he transferred to Rio de Janeiro, covering the whole of Latin America before moving to Paris in 1971. The Telegraph bureau occupied two floors of a building in the rue de Castiglione, with a staff of 12, including a messenger boy. As well as following French politics, Field’s duties included overseeing the travel arrangements of the newspaper’s proprietors as they changed trains to head to the Cote d’Azur. He was also called on to continue globetrotting, covering the 1982 Falklands War from Buenos Aires.
In the staff reshuffles that followed the change of ownership in 1986, Field was retired as Paris bureau chief. Nevertheless, he retained his association with the paper as the friend and mentor of subsequent correspondents, proving a generous host at his elegant rue St Honore apartment. The death of Giuliana in 1997 hit Field hard, but he retained his joie de vivre, continuing to visit friends in Paris until a few days before his sudden death on 2 June.
© Daily Telegraph