Louis Heren, East Ender, foreign correspondent and veteran executive at the Times of London

The voice is clipped and correct… an old fashioned military voice perhaps, received

pronunciation but with a hint of cockney, the ‘through’ becoming ‘frew’, his ‘Ls’ beoming ‘Ws’.

Over decades as a foreign correspondent Louis Heren’s rough Shadwell vowels may have

become smoothed off, but he never forgot.

‘The old East End should have been a wretched place but it wasn’t. People had to live close

together. Because they had to live close together they had to behave themselves. It was a

civilised place.’

Heren was being interviewed by the BBC for an early Seventies programme in which East

Enders who’d made good (ie got out) were taken back to the east London of their youth —

Lionel Bart was another colourful interviewee. There was nostalgia and sentiment for sure,

but it was hardly misty eyed. Over decades as a foreign correspondent on The Times, Heren

had earned a reputation for speaking truth to power and he was angry about what had

happened to his childhood playground.

By the time Louis went back in the Seventies, the East End as he knew it had all but been

destroyed. He had no doubt who the culprits were. ‘The war smashed those communities.

We all lived alongside one another: Irish, Jews, cockneys who’d been here hundreds of

years. We might not have liked each other very much at times but by god we got on. You

had to. How can you get along with each other sitting up in the sky in a flat. The planners

think they have a great idea…’

Heren was born in Shadwell in 1919. His dad worked on the Times as a printer but died

when Louis, the youngest of three, was just four years old. He was a typical East End

‘mongrel’, he joked, ‘half Irish, half Jewish and half Basque. His mum, to make ends meet,

ran a coffee shop for dockers at the gates of the docks, ‘a good pull up for car men’ as he

would later call it. Ironically mum had been born in a pub much used by Times journalists

after the paper (without Heren) moved to Wapping in the Eighties.

Shadwell was a slum and the options might have been crime, a ship or the docks, but Louis

got into the local grammar school and an English teacher introduced him to good literature

and gifted him a lifetime taste for reading. Aged 14, he got a job as a messenger at the

Times in its old Blackfriars building. He would be there for the duration.

He was a boy who loved to learn and volunteered for whatever writing and layout chores that

came up, and by 1937 he was on his first reporting job, covering the street parties in the

East End to celebrate George VI’s Coronation. As veteran journalist (and friend) Godfrey

Hodgson pointed out years later ‘most of the reporters in the Times newsroom then would

probably not have been able to find Shadwell without a compass’.

In 1939 he volunteered for the Royal Artillery, serving with distinction in France, Iceland and

Greenland before being made an officer and sent to India. He was demobbed in 1946,

having reached the rank of major and returned to The Times as a foreign correspondent.

Heren might have been the model of the hard-bitten, clear-eyed British foreign

correspondent. He first made his mark covering Indian independence in 1947 and created a

furore back in Britain with his graphic eyewitness accounts of massacres in the Punjab. He

went on to Israel, Beirut, Jordan, Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Singapore, India, Germany and

Washington, DC. And he was the first to report to the world the discovery of the Dead Sea

Scrolls. While India correspondent, he heard rumours of a plot to assassinate Gandhi, so he

joined his weaving workshop in order to get a scoop (he failed as the killing happened

elsewhere).

And Heren reported from Vietnam in the early days of American intervention in the 1950s. Many

journalists point to him as the likely inspiration for the Thomas Fowler character in that

excoriating critique of Americans and their foreign policy in Asia, The Quiet American

(Graham Greene was a guest of Heren and his wife Patricia on their Singapore houseboat

while he was researching the book). And Peter Mackay of the Daily Mail even wrote of the

physical resemblance between the older Heren and Michael Caine, who played Fowler in the

2002 film of the book.

In 1961 he became Washington correspondent of The Times. He loved America but was

deeply sceptical of John F Kennedy’s Camelot myth. He offended JFK’s court by writing an

article, tongue in cheek, comparing Washington, with its affluent white suburbs separated

from predominantly black downtown by Rock Creek Park, to a town in British India with its

cantonments and its native city. He got on better with Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon

Johnson, covering the civil rights movement in the South and writing books about US

politics.

He was a foreign correspondent of the old school, like Tom Fowler rarely returning to base,

but nowhere held the romance of the old East End. It had been like living in a village, Heren

says, ‘only much more interesting’. Everyone worked on the river, the ‘London river’ as the

kids called it (nobody called it the Thames). The river dominated their lives. Most of his pals’

dads (and his father’s friends) worked on the river. A strong memory was children crying

because dad was away on a tramp steamer for weeks and months. Heren loved the mix of

languages and cultures and he loved the romance of those dirty British coasters sounding

their horns as they sailed off with their cargoes of ‘Tyne coal, road-rails, pig-lead and

firewood.’

And where ever he travelled, he had no fear of speaking the truth. Colleagues remembered

him as a fearsome (though kind) figure. As for politicians — he famously advised that the

reporter should always ensure that ‘When a politician tells you something in confidence,

always ask yourself “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”.’

Back in London in the Seventies he settled back into The Times, but the old days were

dying. He weathered the decades brutal strikes and feeble management and had high hopes

for Rupert Murdoch’s takeover. But passed over for editor in favour of Harold Evans and

then Charles Douglas-Home, he retired in 1981, opting for Hampstead and the life of a

writer.

By the time Heren was interviewed about his book by the BBC in the early Seventies,

the old East End had gone, but it had made him. It might have been tough but it had created

tough kids like Heren, with a headful of happy memories and a burning ambition to do

something other with their lives. ‘I remember sitting in a science lesson at school and a

teacher was talking about the survival of the fittest and he said “By god you kids must be

tough to survive here!”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Heren

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/louis-heren-obituaries-1570094.html

Growing Up Poor In London by Louis Heren, published by Phoenix

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Louis Heren, East Ender, foreign correspondent and veteran executive at the Times of London

  1. Roy Beiley says:

    What a great commentary on the Old London docklands. I didn’t live in that particular area but worked in Royal Group of Docks throughout the sixties and was witness to the great oratory of the Dockers Leaders, especially Jack Dash. The community around Custom House was still mostly intact although the grotesque tower blocks around Canning Town like the ill fated Ronan Point were in existence by then. But while the Docks were operational the community spirit was kept alive. As I travelled south from Plaistow each day on a bus heading for The Connaught, it always took my breath away as the spectacle of the huge blue star on the funnels of Blue Star Line ships berthed at Northside Royal Victoria Dock suddenly came into view. This was something indescribably beautiful in what was otherwise a very drab place.By contrast, Custom House today is an upmarket venue. Characterless and soulless. I hate it so much that it makes me want to scream at what has replaced such a wonderful place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *