When Richard Beeston was suffering from the later stages of cancer, his wife Natasha took a deep breath and said: 'We need to talk about your funeral.'
'The hell with that,' came the reply. 'Let's talk about my memorial service.'
And so was sown the seed that brought journalists back to a Fleet Street shorn of newspapers yesterday to pay tribute to one of the greatest foreign correspondents of the age.
Hundreds of friends, colleagues and admirers squeezed into St Bride's to sing, laugh and quietly weep in memory of the former Times foreign editor who died in May, three months after his 50th birthday.
Here in the first row of the chairs brought into the heart of the church to supplement the pews sat the Beest's heirs at the Times, Deborah Haynes and Catherine Philp. Around the edges were scattered the royalty of war reportage: Anthony Loyd, Jeremy Bowen, Jon Snow, Don McCullin, Janine di Giovanni and Sam Kiley - who gave the first reading, the Beatitudes.
There, a couple of seats from di Giovanni, was Boris Johnson, a near-contemporary of Beest whose brief youthful spell on the Times foreign desk was rather less glorious. James Harding, the displaced editor who is now head of BBC news, perched at the back until someone kindly agreed to swap seats. Senior executives, junior reporters, peers, PAs, distinguished foreign correspondents and diplomats were mixed together, grateful just to take part in the service. Having somewhere to sit was a bonus.
They had come from Belgravia, Brighton, Brussels and beyond. Devika Bhat, who flourished as a foreign news editor under Beest's tutelage, came from Washington. Annie Barrowclough, charged with establishing an Australian bureau under Beest's watch only to be chopped down in this summer's Times cull, flew from Sydney. 'I had to come,' she said. 'I needed to be here. That man was everything. He did so much for me. He changed my life.'
But this wasn't a day about journalism. It was a day to show the family and friends sitting near the altar how much Rick was not simply respected, but loved. The television producer Simon Cellan-Jones, who related the 'We need to talk about the funeral' anecdote, said that Rick had been his best friend for 37 years. His address was warm, charming, funny, irreverent - just like his subject.
There were tales of late-night poker, vodka martinis and an appalling taste in music. One can only wonder quite what the ambassadors of Iraq and Israel made of the story about the Beest dad-dancing naked in the rain with friends - and being caught photographically in all his glory when everyone else managed to achieve some Calendar Girls level of modesty.
The second address from Ben Macintyre of The Times described the passion for journalism - a real passion, not the ersatz 'I'm passionate about lipstick/children/equality' - and the derring-do of a war correspondent whose choice of destination for a romantic weekend of R&R with his wife was Kabul.
Fortunately, Natasha was understanding - and game. On return from honeymoon, the Beestons had decamped to the Middle East for Rick's new posting in Jerusalem. He suggested they spend a weekend in Gaza.
'First their car was hijacked by two Palestinian gunmen, then they found themselves involved in a full-scale gun battle. Finally, Natasha was left hiding behind a wall with some Palestinian children who periodically emerged to lob back teargas canisters, while Rick went reporting.'An adventurer certainly, but Macintyre also spoke of the generous mentor always willing to share his knowledge and experience with the next generation.
And that generation reciprocated with a special supplement expressing their thanks for the opportunities Beest had given them. They told of little acts of kindness, words of advice, challenging commissions. But the where-are-they-now full-page photographs said much more about how he had nurtured his proteges. Ruth Maclean in an armoured car in Darfur, Tim Albone in flak jacket in Afghanistan, Emily Ford on the Great Wall of China, Tom Whipple at base camp on Everest, Hugh Tomlinson in Beirut, Alice Fordham in Libya, Hannah Strange in Mexico City.
The supplements were handed out as the church emptied after a service that had been pitch perfect in every respect - the readings, the music, the addresses; the downing of imaginary vodka shots, the smashing of imaginary glasses, the suggestion of armed intervention in France.
The congregation had arrived in sorrow but left in joy: the joy that comes from singing 'Glory, glory, hallelujah' at the top of your voice while a tear sneaks out of the corner of your eye hoping that no one will notice; the joy that comes from having known - and been known by - such a remarkable man.
If Beest did have a hand in it, then once again he got it just right.
And so we said goodbye to a gentleman who was not only charismatic and quietly heroic, but also suave and Hollywood handsome. There has to be a film. With luck, Ben Macintyre will be involved in the screenplay.
Well, Natasha, is it to be Leonardo di Caprio? Jude Law? Did he give any hint at all as to who should play the leading role?
PostscriptsWhen Rick's work was first published in The Times it was under the byline Nicholas Beeston, to avoid confusion with his renowned father, also Richard (but known as Dicky).
After leaving the field Dicky Beeston also worked for a while on the Times foreign desk as a casual late-night news editor. When he retired his son reverted to the byline Richard Beeston.
[Another titbit while on the subject of bylines: when Boris was on the paper, his work would be tagged 'By Alexander Johnson'.]
The nickname Beest probably emanated from his logon name on the old Atex system in Wapping. The former production supremo Tony Norbury could be creative in ascribing user names. Most were straightforward surnames, but there were occasional 'specials'. Alan Hamilton, for instance, was Nelson. Stewart Tendler, the crime reporter, was Cathy (his wife's name). David Hopkinson was, of course, Hoppy. Rick was Beest.
It is humbling to realise how privileged I was to watch for a quarter of a century as that eager young man with wavy blond locks, bouncy walk and constant smile evolved into a master of foreign affairs. The transition from student to sage was so natural that it was imperceptible. He always seemed exactly the same to me.
The Times has now put a video of the hour-long service up on its website, along with Roger Boyes's report, Fleet Street friends raise final glass to Richard Beeston.
It may even be outside the paywall.
What others have to sayPens with much finer nibs than mine have writtenmore elegantly on the Beest; voices of much sweeter timbre have spoken more eloquently. Here is some of what has been said:
The Times obituary
Ben Macintyre Times tribute: A man with journalism in his veins
The Telegraph obituary
Kim Sengupta, Independent obituary
Oliver Kamm: Objectivity doesn't mean balance. It means telling the truth about what you discover
Tributes via The Times Storify
David Hearst and Mary Dejevsky: Valdai Club
The Italian Insider: Beest's private army
Adel Darwish: Inside British Politics
Con Coughlin: Beirut, 1985: When Rick went to sunbathe at the Hotel George V hotel on the Corniche, he had to place his sun-lounger close to the hotel wall to make sure he was not interrupted by stray shrapnel fragments.
Sue Foll Blipfoto picture of the day: RIP Richard Beeston
Bernard Emie, French ambassador: Britain has lost an astounding journalist, and France a friend.
Ruth Elkins: What a great service it was for the most gentle of men, Richard Beeston. We miss you very much.
Kaya Burgess: A touching and uplifting memorial service today for Richard Beeston, our much-missed and legendary Foreign Editor. His words of advice were always so valuable and, were it not for him sending me on Hostile Environment Training, I would never have met Kat. Here's to the Beest.
Devika Bhat: So very fitting to celebrate the life of Richard Beeston, my amazing boss and dear friend, at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street. A brilliant journalist, and true gent, greatly missed.
Charlie Gere: Beautiful memorial service for Rick at St Brides, off Fleet Street. Courageously and brilliantly organised by Natasha Fairweather. Among the highlights, speeches by Simon Cellan Jones, and Ben Macintyre, and the singing by the choir, which was wonderful.
How full Richard Beeston of @thetimes lived his life, how stunningly short. St Brides was the right place to celebrate it today
— Roger Boyes (@rogerboyes) September 20, 2013
Said farewell to much admired @timesforeigned Richard Beeston at St Brides memorial service. Church packed with famous, infamous journalists
— Bayan Sami Rahman (@BayanRahman) September 20, 2013
Beautiful memorial service for Richard Beeston, an immensely inspiring editor, storyteller and generally wonderful human being.
— Emily Ford (@emilyford1) September 20, 2013
Wonderful that an annual bursary,for young journalists to work with foreign correspondents, has been created in memory of Richard Beeston.
— John Schofield Trust (@JSchofieldTrust) September 20, 2013
Moving and uplifting memorial service at St Brides for Times foreign ed Richard #Beeston. RIP Beest
— anne penketh (@annepenketh) September 20, 2013
Never heard singing at St Bride's like that at Richard Beeston's memorial
— Bronwen Maddox (@bronwenmaddox) September 20, 2013
Moving memorial for Richard Beeston. If your heart did not break at the Miserere there was something wrong with you http://t.co/seii9ZEEL9
— Nick Cohen (@NickCohen4) September 20, 2013
Utterly lovely memorial for Richard Beeston this morning. Beautiful music and tributes, and a church full of people proud to have known him.
— Kat Brown (@katbrown82) September 20, 2013
Glorious and emotional memorial today for Richard Beeston, my colleague. A brilliant journalist, inspiration for so many, and a lovely guy
— David Byers (@davidbyers26) September 20, 2013
— Ben Preston (@RTBenPreston) September 20, 2013
Inspiring and moving memorial service for Times foreign editor Richard Beeston. Incredible journalist and very kind person.
— Rhoda Buchanan (@RhodaBuchanan) September 20, 2013
wonderful man. So sad to miss but stuck at work. Fleet Street friends raise final glass to Times man Richard Beeston http://t.co/DEmJKxyQaJ
— charlotte eagar (@charlotteeagar1) September 21, 2013
Three Fridays in row commemorating lost friends/mentors. Today @timesworld Richard Beeston. Without whom I wouldn't have made 3yrs in Yemen
— Iona Craig إيونـا (@ionacraig) September 20, 2013
@timesforeigned late Richard Beeston was among first reporters to witness effects of chemical weapons in Halabja Kurdistan @JusticeGenocide
— Bayan Sami Rahman (@BayanRahman) September 20, 2013
Beautiful moving service for Richard Beeston. Took his trade very seriously, but not himself, said one eulogy. Lesson for all journalists?
— John Kampfner (@johnkampfner) September 20, 2013
Memorial service today for lionhearted former boss Richard Beeston. So sad to get no more emails ending "tx Beest"
— Judith Evans (@JudithREvans) September 20, 2013
Remembering Richard Beeston, a truly great man.
— Laura Westcott (@Laura_Westcott) September 20, 2013
Memorial service today for Richard Beeston - Foreign Editor of The Times and a very fine human being much loved by his colleagues.
— Katherine O'Donnell (@kathy__odonnell) September 20, 2013
Earlier Twitter tributes
Kurdistan salutes late journalist Richard Beeston, among the first to report the Halabja massacre
— Anthony Halley (@anthonyhalley) May 31, 2013
Reflecting on Richard Beeston funeral. Funny and sad in equal measure. Feel lucky to have worked alongside him over the years
— Mark Sellman (@markysellers) May 25, 2013
Times executive editor Roger Alton dedicates daily newspaper of the year prize to late foreign ed Richard Beeston
— Press Gazette (@pressgazette) May 23, 2013
RIP @TheTimes Foreign Editor Richard Beeston, who gave me a fantastic break last year to report for the paper from Libya. Extraordinary man.
— George Grant (@GeorgePBGrant) May 22, 2013
Richard Beeston was old-school foreign correspondent: gutsy, good, and thrilled with the chase.
— Doug Struck (@dougstruck) May 21, 2013
Saddened by death x Richard Beeston of The Times. Brave, warm &lucid, last yr in Syria he ignored hisillness & reported as violence surged.
— Jon Lee Anderson (@jonleeanderson) May 20, 2013
Very sad about Richard Beeston @thetimes Babysat his kids as a student in Moscow; then he was a fantastic editor when I went to Chechnya...
— Alice Lagnado (@AliceLagnado) May 20, 2013
Rest in peace, Richard; you were a great journalist and good friend.
— Ahmad Fawzi (@ahfawzi) May 20, 2013
Richard Beeston was a delightful man and a superb journalist. He will be remembered as one of the great foreign editors. RIP.
— Matthew d'Ancona (@MatthewdAncona) May 20, 2013
So sad Richard Beeston has died. A wonderful journalist, who inherited a love of his craft from an equally talented and likeable father.
— Christopher Meyer (@SirSocks) May 20, 2013
Richard Beeston was fearless as a reporter & a fighter against cancer. Very sad loss to foreign reporting. Sincere condolences to his family
— David Miliband (@DMiliband) May 20, 2013
Desperately sad to hear that Richard Beeston has died. Great journalist and awe inspiring good humour in the face of illness
— Bronwen Maddox (@bronwenmaddox) May 20, 2013
My soul cries at Fleet Street great loss: Times Foreign Editor Richard Beeston lost his battle with cancer. RIP fine hack of the old school
— Adel Darwish (@AdelDarwish) May 20, 2013
Deeply saddened by the death of Richard Beeston. He was a wonderful man, a great journalist and colleague.
— Sarah Vine (@SarahVine) May 19, 2013
Very very sad to learn that Richard Beeston of the Times has died after a long heroic struggle with cancer:A Great journalist and lovely man
— Jon Snow (@jonsnowC4) May 19, 2013
Death of Richard Beeston sad loss for The Times. Great journalist and wonderful man.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) May 19, 2013
Desperately sorry to learn that Richard Beeston has died from cancer. A legendary foreign editor at The Times and a great human being. RIP
— Tony Halpin (@tonyhalpin) May 19, 2013
Richard Beeston was a beloved friend, a wonderful father, a devoted husband. We will miss him desperately.
— Bunny (@bunnygolightly) May 19, 2013
As a reporter, Richard Beeston was both wise and humane: his passing is a great loss to the world of journalism http://t.co/tmvjZrt0Sx
— michael howard (@michaelagha) May 19, 2013
So sorry to hear of Richard Beeston's death. A great reporter, an excellent foreign editor and a beautiful man. Adieu Rick.
— Wendy Holden (@wendholden) May 19, 2013
Very sad to hear of the death of Richard Beeston, he was a wonderful journalist & a brilliant editor
— Frontline Club (@frontlineclub) May 19, 2013
Our deeply revered and loved foreign editor at The Times, Richard Beeston, died today. I will miss him terribly.
— Tom Coghlan (@TomCoghlan) May 19, 2013
Richard Beeston @timesforeigned was the best of us. Effortlessly gifted, a generous friend in tough places. Sad day
— Allan Little (@alittl) May 19, 2013
So sorry and sad that Richard Beeston has died. Great foreign correspondent, friend and colleague. A v decent man with a wonderful family.
— Matt Frei (@mattfrei) May 19, 2013
Richard Beeston was a great journalist, colleague and friend. He will be so dearly missed by all.
— Martin Barrow (@MartinBarrow) May 19, 2013
A brilliant light went out in our newsroom today. Richard Beeston:
— Deborah Haynes (@haynesdeborah) May 19, 2013
The master at workFinally, the Beest himself conveys so much in eight paragraphs that we can only read in wonder:
The Times, January 18, 2010
It has taken nearly 22 years for Ali Hassan al-Majid to be judged by Iraqis for perpetrating one of the worst massacres in modern history.
Even peeering out from the smudged window of an Iranian helicopter, it was clear that a terrible crime had been committed against the inhabitants of Halabja as part of a campaign by Saddam Hussein and his commanders to teach Iraqi Kurds the cost of siding with the enemy - at that time Iran.
On the ground the scale of the slaughter became clear. Entire families had been killed by the poison chemicals. Some died together huddled in makeshift shelters that offered no protection against the gas. One family was killed in their garden along with their pets.
Another succumbed as they tried to escape by car. We found the vehicle crashed into a wall with the driver and all occupants dead and the keys in the ignition. The most poignant memory of that day was a father in traditional Kurdish dress lying dead at the entrance to his home, cradling a baby.
Those who survived were arguably worse off. Hudreds had been hit by mustard gas that burnt their eyes and lungs but did not kill them. Victims of this slow and painful poison are still dying of their injuries to this day.
Even by Saddam's ruthless standards the massacre broke new boundaries. Yet what was more shocking was the cynical response of the West. The US attempted to blame this crime on Iran. Britain carried on business as usual with the regime in Baghdad. Saddam was shielded from any meaningful punishment. He went on to invade Kuwait two years later and ordered the massacre of thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims in 1991.
The failure of the West to respond adequately to this outrage made it difficult for George Bush and Tony Blair to make a moral case for overthrowing Saddam in 2003.
But as the Iraq war comes under new scrutiny and more voices argue that Saddam should have been left in place, it is worth sparing a thought for those thousands of innocent Kurdish men, women and children who died in the deadliest chemical weapons attack on civilians in history.