Brian Moynahan will be best remembered for his history books

Brian Moynahan will be best remembered for his history books.  Despite reporting carnage not only from Vietnam and Laos, but also Beirut, Israel and Northern Ireland, Brian Moynahan, The Sunday Times correspondent, always said that the most shocking episode of his career was the day in 1977 that he spent with Jean-Claude Duvalier, “Baby Doc”, the president for life of Haiti. That day Duvalier, aged 26 and always fearful of assassination, led a motorcade of vehicles at speeds of up to 100 mph along the island’s dusty roads, “little more than riverbeds”, scattering orange-coloured banknotes to the poverty-stricken population. This was an ancient tradition, Moynahan was assured, but the president’s yellow truck, driven by Duvalier, struck and killed a young boy. Not a single car from the motorcade stopped. “Have a drink. Forget about it,” Moynahan was advised.

He was an integral part of the legendary team that formed the backbone of The Sunday Times in the 1970s. And although Moynahan enjoyed a drink, and mixed with bourbon-boozing foreign correspondents, his own style was more wry than rye. His work was characterised by astringent prose, fastidious research and ironic observation.

He joined the newspaper in 1968, from Town magazine, and reported from more than 50 countries, sometimes in the company of the photographer, Don (later Sir Don) McCullin, and sometimes with Lord Snowdon. In the latter case, this meant that, more often than not, they were bumped from the back of the plane to the front. (He never tired of pointing out that he had flown on 74 airlines.) He was shot at twice, once in the Caribbean and again in the Middle East. In between wars, he eloquently exposed the traffic in fake antiquities from Thailand (and the peculiar inability of collectors to detect them), Roman coins from Padua, and gleefully identified the bar in Paris where pickpockets exchanged the takings they didn’t want with their “colleagues”.

Never the most athletic of men, Moynahan was, ironically, celebrated among colleagues for two sporting exploits. In one, he scored a goal for the Sunday Times football team direct from a corner. In the other, timely now, he telephoned the Soviet Embassy in London to confirm that their team would be playing The Sunday Times the next weekend as arranged. This followed a spate of Cold War diplomatic incidents and expulsions and the embassy spokesperson regretted that the game could not go ahead “as we have only the goalkeeper left’’.

He also enjoyed the distinction of being, as he claimed, the highest-paid journalist in Fleet Street. This was irony too, of course. The real highest-paid journalist was a colleague on The Sunday Times, who published an article in The New Yorker and was paid at the astronomical rate of a dollar a word. Moynahan affected to sniff at this. By then he had become his paper’s authority on the burgeoning field of international terrorism and was asked to discuss it on LBC radio. A fellow guest was a garrulous airline pilot who had survived a hijacking and the radio host seemed more interested in him. He finally turned to Moynahan with barely a minute remaining, asked a long-winded question, which left Moynahan time for just a breathless one-word answer: “No.” Nonetheless, he banked a £20 fee.

Brian Patrick James Moynahan was born in 1941 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, the son of Elizabeth May, a Yorkshire mill-owner’s daughter, and Dr Edmund Moynahan, a dermatologist who discovered the medical significance of zinc. He was educated at Sherborne School, where classmates included Nigel Dempster, the future gossip columnist, and Richard (later Sir Richard) Eyre, the theatre director. From Sherborne he went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as a Foundation Scholar, taking a double-first in history.

At Corpus he had rooms opposite Sonny Mehta, the future publishing tsar (Knopf Doubleday), who later commissioned two books from Moynahan. From Cambridge, he became a leader writer on The Yorkshire Post and then hurried down to London to work on Town magazine (proprietor: Michael Heseltine). He became editor where, among his achievements, he put Marbella on the map, socially speaking.

Town combined serious journalism with swaggering lifestyle articles and Moynahan conceived a plan to infiltrate the louche watering holes of Europe’s aristocracy — the South of France, the Italian Riviera and somewhere “we barely knew”, according to Bryan Wharton, one of the other photographers Moynahan worked with.

Moynahan at a family party in 1996
Moynahan at a family party in 1996

The teams sent to the other locations failed to deliver and so that entire issue of Town was devoted to what Moynahan headlined “The Last Ditch of the Rich”. Syndicated to 75 countries, and published in 800 magazines and newspapers, the article earned him an invitation to Fleet Street and the undying loathing of Marbella residents for “outing” their hideaway.

He completed his newspaper career as European editor of The Sunday Times, based in Paris where, with his double-first in friendship, visiting correspondents could be sure of a warm welcome at his flat on the Avenue Victor Hugo.

Apart from his family, his chief passions were sailing, the travel industry and history. His interest in the travel business began when he married Priscilla Stiles, a beautician with Elizabeth Arden, and they flew to Malaysia to discover their honeymoon hotel was a concrete mixer and a hole in the ground. This was when Mehta commissioned Airport International and Fool’s Paradise, the first the earliest account of the workings of “Thiefrow” and the second a guide to the rip-offs standard in casinos and cruise liners, and the “zones of sexual tolerance” in Mexico.

Yet it is for his history books that Moynahan will be best remembered. Two were about Christianity — The Faith, a 2,000-year narrative, and a volume on William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English. There were also three books on Russia: The Claws of the Bear, a History of the Soviet Armed Forces; The Russian Century: A History of the Last 100 Years; and, most recently, Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, a moving account of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony set against the 900-day siege in the Second World War.

Moynahan is survived by his wife, a son, William, who is a managing partner with a headhunting company, and a daughter, Katie, who is on leave (she has five children) from Martin Sorrell’s WPP Moscow office.

While not much of a drinker, Moynahan was a dedicated smoker and oesophageal cancer was diagnosed. He recovered well from surgery and last year attended a reunion of the Frontline Club of former war correspondents: Charles Glass, Jon Swain, Philip Jacobson, James Fox, McCullin and Patrick Cockburn. He then developed a lung infection. He died a few hours after his 77th birthday and would have been the first to point out that this was a coincidence, not an irony.

Brian Moynahan, foreign correspondent, was born on March 30, 1941. He died of a chronic lung infection on April 1, 2018, aged 77

Courtesy of The Times.