Louis Heren : OBITUARIES

Godfrey Hodgson
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:00

Louis Heren was one of the great reporters of his generation. Brought up in poverty in the East End of London after his father, a machine-minder on the Times, died when he was four, Heren covered many of the great events from the 1940s to 1960s, f rom the independence of India in 1947 to the assassination of President Kennedy, with the creation of the State of Israel, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a few hundred other stories on the way.

In a career worthy of a Samuel Smiles or Horatio Alger story of the virtuous apprentice, Heren rose from messenger boy at the Times to Deputy Editor. It was his bitterest disappointment that he never made it to Editor, being passed over by Rupert Murdoch, first in favour of Harold Evans, and then of Charles Douglas-Home. Heren left the paper in 1981, at a comparatively young age, and spent the last14 years of his life writing books and freelance articles. n Louis Heren was tough. As a boy he got stuck into fights against the Mosleyites in east London and once found himself in the local police station, by no means the last time he was in trouble in a good cause in his life. He rose from the ranks to a commission in the Second World War and served in theBurma, China and India theatre as a tank commander. He was war correspondent in three wars: in Kashmir in 1947, in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the Korean war in 1950. n As a reporter he often crossed with the authorities, not over his political opinions - he was an instinctive egalitarian with no discernible party preferences - but because of his determination in search of a story. He had a famous run-in with Field-Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, the British commander against the Communist emergency in Malaya in the early 1950s, and he received the dubious honour of a furious phone call from President Kennedy one morning at home in Washington because of his coverage of Kennedy's diatribe against the steel industry. (``My father told me all businessmen were sons of bitches . . .'')

Like many tough men, however, he was gentle until aroused. When his son was afflicted with polio, in his Washington years, he bought a house with a swimming pool, at some personal sacrifice, and swam with the boy every morning until he was largely recovered. He was a loyal friend, an excellent companion, a devoted husband and generous colleague. But there was something unmistakably formidable about him that always put me in mind of a badger. The eyes were narrowed, the mouth could set into a narrow line, and there was a solid set to his stance: a man, to mix cliches, to go tiger-shooting with, but not a man to be trifled with.

He wrote an excellent autobiography of which the first volume was called Growing Up Poor in London. He once told me that he was half Irish, half Jewish and half Basque. After his father died his mother ran a coffee-shop for dockers near the gates of the docks. Ironically his mother was born in a pub now much used by Times journalists after the paper, without Heren, moved to Docklands.

Louis was brought up in Shadwell and attended the local grammar school, where an English teacher introduced him to good literature and gave him a lifelong taste for reading. Aged 14 he got a job as a messenger boy in the publicity department of the Timesin its old building in Blackfriars. He was the sort of boy who wanted to learn, and he volunteered for such writing and layout chores as came along. By 1937 he had his first reporting assignment for the paper, covering the street parties in the East Endto celebrate George VI's Coronation. (Most of the reporters in the Times newsroom then would probably not have been able to find Shadwell without a compass.)

In 1939 Heren first volunteered for the Royal Artillery and served in France, Iceland and Greenland before he was commissioned and sent to India. In 1946 he went back to the Times as a reporter, for a string of assignments that would have made even a less ambitious reporter's mouth water with envy.

In 1947 he covered Indian independence, Partition and the savage riots that followed in the Punjab. In 1948 he was in Palestine for the birth of Israel, the first Arab-Israeli war and the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. In 1950, the paper's correspondent Ian Morrison was killed in the Korean war, and Heren was sent out to replace him; he became South-Asia correspondent, based in Singapore, but covering the Malayan emergency and the travails of collapsing imperialism in the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and French Indochina.

After a second spell in India from 1953 to 1955, he came back to Europe as Bonn correspondent before moving to Washington in 1960 in time to report on the Kennedy campaign for the presidency. He stayed for 10 years. "Lou" Heren, as his American colleagues called him, loved the United States, but he was not appreciated by the lofty tribe of commentators, intellectuals and socialites who gathered round the Court of Camelot, and the dislike was reciprocal. He gave great offence by writing, tongue in cheek,an article which compared 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.

Heren loved to get out around the United States, however, and he covered the civil rights revolution in the South with courage and understanding. He got along better with the Johnson regime, however, and wrote two books about American politics, The New American Commonwealth (1968), with its telling comparison of the Kennedy presidency to a medieval court, and No Hail, No Farewell (1970), about the Johnson administration. Heren had a sharp reporter's eye, but he was not a particularly acute analyst, and his two American books, while full of good perceptions, do not have the quality, as literature, of his two volumes of memoirs, Growing up Poor in London (1970) and Growing Up on The Times (1978).

After his return from Washington in 1970 he enjoyed a surprisingly effective relationship with the patrician (but not snobbish)William Rees-Mogg, first as Foreign Editor and one of two Deputy Editors, then as Home Editor and finally as sole Deputy Editor. But the old Times was drawing to an end in industrial disruption, feeble management and finally in 1979 with the damaging lock-out ordered by Marmaduke Hussey.

Heren hoped for much from Murdoch, and wrote a detailed paper about how his beloved Times might be resuscitated. But his Times was over, and in 1981 he left. In his later years he was a familiar and well-liked figure, entertaining his friends at his house in the Vale of Health in Hampstead or at a favourite Greek restaurant in Camden Town and reminiscing, with his sharp sense of humour, in the upstairs bar at the Garrick Club.

n Louis Philip Heren, journalist: born London 6 February 1919; married 1948 Patricia O'Regan (died 1975; one son, three daughters); died London 26 January 1995.

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