Guy Rais was a name that resounded in Fleet Street for most of his 35-year career as a Daily Telegraph reporter covering events from war and man-made or natural disasters to the doings and undoing of notorious criminals. At the grand old age of 95, he has died.
Rare among journalists, of his generation or any other, in that he seemed to be liked by almost everyone he encountered, Guy (pictured above with former Telegraph colleague Wendy Holden) leaves a long trail of anecdotes bearing witness to his inimitable, eccentric ways.
More than one judge in the assizes and, later, crown courts of England and Wales, caught his heavy stage whispers from the press bench complaining about the quality of evidence – “the man’s clearly lying” – or simply his own ability to hear what was being said.
“What did the silly old weaselbag say?" he’d ask colleagues, not necessarily those seated closest. At least once, a judge would overhear him – this was not difficult – and invite Guy to sit beside him on the bench in the interests of accuracy.
His theatrically bombastic demeanour served him well abroad as well as when covering UK stories. During the Algerian war of independence, a French military commander close to General de Gaulle was sufficiently impressed to grant him an exclusive interview that was reprinted on the front page of Le Monde. Less impressed, aggrieved French journalists retaliated by using his bowler hat, an accessory identifying him as a neutral non-combatant, as a pissoir.
As a younger Telegraph reporter, and before that when at the Press Association, I often worked with Guy. He was, as I have previously described him, a “one-off marvel of Fleet Street's finest days", and a procession of former colleagues have contributed their own memories at my own Salut! website.
Guy was undoubtedly, in his own way, a rogue – though of the sort even Hacked Off might have regarded as lovable. He used his natural charm to encourage those who might otherwise say nothing to tell him quite a lot, and I cannot find the slightest reason to fault him for that.
People who met him invariably spoke highly of the experience. A reader of his Telegraph obituary recalled: "I was once interviewed by this charming man and his photographer over an enjoyable and very liquid lunch. Reading his piece in the Telegraph next day it was clear that he remembered much more of the event than I!"
Indeed, Guy was impossible to dislike, even by the countless reporters who, covering the same story, would be badgered about what they saw as its main points. “What's your intro?” he’d ask. It was not so much a display of insecurity as a calculated device to reassure himself he had not missed a trick. And he asked so nicely that hardly anyone complained.
The gentlemanly manners and mischievous sense of humour were equally engaging. One judge, told by counsel of some mid-trial indiscretion by a Sunday newspaper, could barely disguise his fury, spluttering: "The press ought to be boiled in oil … though I naturally exclude my friend Mr Rais from this comment."
Stewart Payne, who joined The Daily Telegraph after Guy’s retirement, remembers an occasion both reported, for different newspapers, on a trial at Maidstone Crown Court.
“I no longer remember the case but cannot forget Guy's antics,” he says. “The morning had been fairly typical; the usual huffing and puffing from Guy as he took notes, about two words per page.
“At lunch we adjourned to a hotel bar where, as usual, we were all quizzed by Guy about our intros. He then disappeared and reappeared with pages of Press Association copy, presumably telexed or faxed to the hotel by the London office. He then disappeared again.
”He arrived back in the Press bench just as the case was resuming, plonking a large plastic bag at his feet. The evidence was dull and Guy soon announced that the judge should move things along a bit.
“He then emptied the plastic bag on to the press bench to reveal his purchase – a car battery charger. ‘It's very good, you know,’ he said as he disentangled various cables. The judge, who had already been supremely patient with Guy, was having no more. ‘Mr Rais’, he boomed. "If you wish to demonstrate the merits of a battery charger can you please wait until the court has retired for the day?’ ‘Certainly your honour", said Guy who then muttered ‘silly old weaselbag’. What a joy.”
Such stories will perplex the journalists working in today’s wholly different and much greyer media world. Guy was not even similar to his own contemporaries, but got away with how he was because he was also an unfailingly efficient operator. And whether he was covering the Cold War or red-hot conflict, coups d'état in Africa or the Great Train Robbery, or just those endless trials, he was a man the office could rely upon to file what was needed when it was needed. He was, in effect, the Telegraph’s chief reporter even before the paper began to use the title.
The funny, slightly bonkers side to Guy made his company a pleasure, at work and afterwards.
A niece remembers finding herself as an air hostess on a overnight stop in Tel Aviv when Guy was there as a reporter. Arranging to meet her uncle, she was taken aback by the “most peculiar shirt” he was wearing. “Sorry,” he said. “But I have run out. This is my pyjama jacket.”
Long into retirement, he would pop into the Telegraph’s offices, befriend young journalists, reacquaint himself with older ones and lure as many as possible to a wine bar where he would gladly plonk champagne on the table. While at the office, he might also wander into the office of the obituaries editor to update the story of his life the Telegraph would one day use. That splendid obituary, like these jottings, could hope to capture only a hint of a memorable colleague and friend.
Guy’s passing, on 1 July , leaves the inescapable feeling that journalism will not only never see his like again, but probably could not accommodate him it did.