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John Bierman Dies: Formidable Reporter, Historian Covered World's Trouble Spots

Historians in the News




John Bierman, who has died aged 76, was one of the last of a generation of buccaneering reporters and writers who pursued successful careers across the media. Newspaper reporter, editor, radio correspondent, television "fireman", documentary maker and, finally, acclaimed historian, Bierman excelled at each, in a working life that reached back to the days of plate cameras and reporters in trilbies.

He was fast, fluent, accurate and - beneath a forbidding carapace - a widely read and civilised man. A friend recalls him in a hotel room in some colonial outpost where a big story had broken, stripped to his underpants and fuelling himself with beer as he fired off copy in perfectly rounded sentences to papers and radio stations across the globe. An imposing presence with a craggy, lived-in face - more John Wayne than Gregory Peck - he did his national service as a Royal Marine commando and parachutist. The "wings" on his broad chest caught the eyes of the girls.

His big stories as a BBC TV reporter included a 13-minute, mainly ad-libbed, report from Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 (which won a Cannes TV Festival award), the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. His final incarnation as a historian was pursued in the Mediterranean calm of a Cypriot farmhouse - he liked to describe himself as a "palm-tree man". The military historian Sir John Keegan wrote of Alamein: War Without Hate (2002), which Bierman co-authored with fellow journalist Colin Smith: "Few historians write as fluently as they do; few journalists achieve their standards of accuracy and inclusiveness."

Bierman was born within the sound of Bow Bells in London. His father, an antiques dealer, beat a hasty exit, and his mother, who ran a dress shop, paid attention to her son only when in funds. Largely raised by his grandparents, and evacuated from London during the second world war, he had, therefore, a peripatetic childhood that ideally prepared him for life as a globetrotting reporter. His love of the English language was acquired young. Despite attending 16 schools, he had a sound basic education, and could recite long passages of poetry.

He revelled in the bohemian London of his youth - the story goes that Dylan Thomas was once sick over his new suede shoes - and he knew the music hall songs of the era. At the time of his death, he was engaged on a memoir of this period with the working title Guttersnipes.

Bierman learned his craft the old-fashioned way, in the provinces. In 1954, he took off for Canada, where he worked on several papers and married. Back in England, he became a Fleet Street sub-editor on the Mirror and the Express, rising rapidly to the Express backbench, where senior subeditors called the shots. The hours were long, and the after-hours spent in the then newspaper fashion of drinking till the morning buses rolled.
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Bierman himself was of Ukrainian/ Jewish stock, but totally secular. Despite having lived and worked in Israel, he did not darken the door of a synagogue until he attended a friend's wedding late in life. He is survived by Hilary and Jona- than, and by two daughters and a son from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

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