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
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
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
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
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
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!”.
Growing Up Poor In London by Louis Heren, published by Phoenix