Meeting controversial actor Laurence Fox demonstrates the importance of talking to those we disagree with, insists BONNIE GREER.
I did not know Laurence Fox when he tweeted me recently and asked me to meet him for coffee. Like most people who might recognise his name, I knew him as an actor. I have done lectures at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which he attended, and his old teacher there is a close friend of mine. As an actor, Lozza is never boring and often very good. He comes from a distinguished theatrical family, and so, you might say, acting is in his blood.
I’ve never seen him do comedy – which is always the test – but I think he would make a very good Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He would bring a kind of wretched vulnerability to the part. Anyway, I would cast him.
I call him “Lozza”, by the way, because I asked him what I should call him and he said that name.
We met at the restaurant of the British Museum earlier this week. It’s my kind of second home. It was good there and we were left to ourselves to have coffee and talk. As I suspected, Lozza is a human being like any other. After all, human nature is his business.
He was courteous, questing, open. Of course, you always have to be careful with actors. Especially the good ones. They are always auditioning. But he shared a lot and what he shared was real and deep. His suggestion that we meet up, and our conversation when we did, was a gesture of reaching out and openness.
But the ‘Laurence Fox Moment’ which had prompted our meeting is not. It is the opposite. This is the ‘moment’ that started with his appearance on the BBC’s Question Time earlier this month. His controversial, to some, comments on the show, in subsequent interviews and on Twitter, fitted into the mosaic that is becoming Brexit Britain – a place of scores being settled and revenge sought. An insular place.
His appearance on the show’s panel has made him a man of the moment – admired by many, and detested by others. It led, indirectly, to our coffee meeting.
He got in touch after I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback show, where his Question Time appearance had been discussed. A point that I had made about racism as power interested him.
When we met, I pointed out to him that he fell into the QT trap – the heat-of-the-moment thing. That can be superb and affirming – as it was for me in October, when I talked about Ireland and Brexit, and how the country “owed the UK nothing”; but QT can be really bad as, in my opinion, it has been for him this month.
Since his appearance, he has found his opinion being widely sought and discussed. Some comments on various subjects have provoked opposition and anger. He is not afraid to own this. This is his prerogative. It’s a free country.
But the ‘Laurence Fox Moment’ is not just about him. It is about an opening up of a chasm that I am not sure this mid-size nation will be able to close. It is a place that is angry, bitter and full of revenge – on both sides.
When I recently tweeted a genuine question about Grimsby – where 69.9% voted Leave – and its possible post-Brexit plight (the fishing industry there has previously raised concerns about the impacts it could suffer), the amount of hatred for the place from Remainers was stunning. Grimsby and its citizens would have to “suck it up”, this was a “mess of their own making”, a consequence of their own “ignorance”… How will we, as a nation, survive this?
Meanwhile, Bolton Council has announced that on the night that Britain leaves the EU its town hall will be lit up in red white and blue, while a bell will chime to mark the moment of departure. In 2016, 58.3% of people in the town voted to leave, but 41.7% voted Remain. What will they feel? What will they do? Do the good people who run Bolton care? If not, why not?
As the ‘Laurence Fox Moment’ shows, Brexit Britain also allows those who see the country as too brown, too black and with too many other languages, a safe haven. The ‘Laurence Fox Moment’ is not about the man himself, but about the seething just below the surface.
In America, the republic is enduring the ‘Donald Trump Moment’. It will be a blip in the history of this great country. But until it passes, those who want to see the end of a multicultural country in a nation of immigrants hold sway.
In 2009, while part of a Question Time panel that also featured the then ascending leader of the BNP Nick Griffin (experiencing his own ‘moment’), I pointed out that after the Last Glacial Maximum – the period of the Ice Age when ice sheets were at their greatest extent – only oats survived here. Oats are the only thing, that we know of so far, that are native to Britain – ‘native to Britain’ meaning ‘always having been here’.
Griffin thanked me after the broadcast for understanding him, and I did. I understood that, with his party’s one-time ‘indigenous Brit’ theory, it had tapped into something angry, something seething.
In recent weeks, it has been very interesting to watch the number of men – and this latest ‘moment’, like others before it, is driven by men, which is fascinating in itself – emerge to state their grievances. And of course, the Rotherham sex scandal has been cited; a catastrophe in which the victims seem to be minor players. I seldom hear concern for their vulnerability; what kind of homes they must have come from; what their very lives must have been like. Who and what let these girls and young women down.
Much of the rage is not about what may have helped put them in the hands of sexual predators, but is about the criminals who harmed them, men who deserve the full extent of the law down on them if found guilty. The rage implies that there is something inherent in men of Asian descent in regard to vulnerable white women. This rage becomes less about them as individual monsters and more about their ethnicity in general. This is textbook racism and for racists, the Laurence Fox Moment becomes a flag of convenience under which their tired old ship sails.
These should be careful times. But we do not have a careful prime minister in Boris Johnson, a faux buffoon who does not seem to understand that one of his jobs is to reach out to his opponents. To make our facing up to this new day easier, more palatable. Like his mentor, Trump, Johnson plays to his base. But the UK is too small for that kind of play, too densely packed.
Meanwhile there is Laurence Fox himself, walking into the whirlwind, picking his way through as he goes. A courageous guy and I wish him well. As I have said in print and on air, I support his right to say what he feels – outside of the usual caveats of not causing endangerment, etc – just as I supported Nick Griffin’s right to be on air and say what he believed over a decade ago.
Maybe we should all start walking into the void of our prejudices; our stances. Maybe we might discover something. Do something else. Maybe, like Fox himself has shown me, it is possible to walk right out of the Laurence Fox Moment and to reach out.
If we cannot speak; if we cannot hear what we do not like; if we cannot see beyond ourselves and our little stories and points of view, we are doomed. Keep walking and searching. Moving ahead. Talking to those you disagree with. Listening. Taking it back to yourself. Forming your stance. Making mistakes. Being human.