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Obituary: Jonathan Fryer

28 May 2021

Jon Ball

The Revd Richard Kirker writes:

ONE of Jonathan Fryer’s many posts for which he was admirably suited was envoy. As the Hon. Consul for Mauritania, he presided over National Day celebrations at a cosmopolitan, jovial African diplomatic reception at the National Liberal Club. For his services to Mauritania, he was awarded the highest civil honour, the National Order of Merit.

Nothing gave Jonathan more pleasure than using his eclectic range of talents, contacts, and interests to bring diverse peoples from all continents together.

His extensive knowledge of cross-cultural counter-currents, ethnography, and the often intractable disputes dividing peoples and nations led to his being in demand for his reconciling and bridge-building skills. The British Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sought him out. He was fluent in five languages, including Mandarin and Urdu. His understated empathy for the marginalised and voiceless made him an exemplary diplomat, democrat, and defender of freedom.

He found fulfilment in many ways. There were years full of travel, lecturing at SOAS, broadcasting, authorship of 15 books on subjects from George Fox to Oscar Wilde, political ambition and service, multiple global friendships, and a long, happy relationship of four decades with his now retired Brazilian husband, Professor Ismael Pordeus, Jnr.

His integrity, courage, and consistency with his own views often subordinated to the causes and needs of those closest to him endeared him to varied communities and nationalities, irrespective of party political allegiance. A life-long and ardent Liberal from the age of 15, and then a Liberal Democrat, he was eager to have Conservative and Labour friends and colleagues, and to help to build alliances where possible. For four years, he chaired the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and was most recently Vice-Chair of Liberal International worldwide.

He was also a board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding for many years and a long-serving member of PEN’s International Writers in Prison Committee.

After a difficult, abused childhood, he left Manchester Grammar School, in 1969, aged 18, and went to war-torn Vietnam, accredited as a freelancer by the Manchester Evening News. It was on this journey that he learnt an invaluable travelling tip — how to avoid long, inquisitorial border queues: “Don’t look like a hippy, and wear a white shirt” was his answer. As a result, he was often put to the front.

He returned to England, for a degree at St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, geography, then Oriental Studies (Chinese with Japanese), spending his last year in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. He chaired the University Liberal Club.

The Church of England’s failure to denounce the Vietnam War led Jonathan, a committed Anglican, on the path to being a Quaker. In 1979, he helped, with his own money, to establish the first Quaker Meeting House in Brussels, where he was based as a reporter for seven years. This remained his spiritual home for many years, latterly broadening to embrace an affection for Buddhism.

Jonathan was an early member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, joining in 1982. He formed an affinity with many others, and not only Quakers, who, like him, felt ill-served by the more formal and homophobic manifestations of organised Christianity.

His Reuters training and desire to visit every country represented at the UN (he missed out on North Korea and Guyana only) led to his being a regular broadcaster for the BBC for more than 35 years, notably on From our Own Correspondent and Thought for the Day. He also worked for Al Jazeera for the last 15 years of his life.

He was never deflected from the almost certain prospect of electoral defeat and stood in numerous elections, being elected but once as a councillor in Bromley, Kent. As a parliamentary candidate, he stood in five seats, but he was never elected. He yearned most to become an MEP, standing in all but one of the European Parliament elections from the first in 1979, and came within 0.6 per cent of winning a seat in 2004. When the Lib Dems won three seats in London in 2019, he was fourth on the London List. Brexit was the most devastating defeat for him.

His spirit shone through adversity, even after being diagnosed with HIV in the early 2000s. This did not dampen his enthusiasms completely, but, unsurprisingly, he did become rather more taciturn and less jovial. But many would never have known the stress that it placed on him. Membership of the Savile, Garrick, and National Liberal Clubs provided a congenial social life, which he cherished.

He did have a very close relationship with the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in early adulthood, but the most profound personal satisfaction in his whole life was provided by his 40-year relationship with Ismael, formalised in a Umbanda/Yoruba religious ceremony in 2019 in Brazil. It was of immense sadness to them both that they could not be together at Jonathan’s death, although phone conversations were possible until the very last days.

Jonathan Fryer died on 16 April, aged 70.

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