It is with great sadness we note the death of Jonathan Fryer, long-time AEJ UK member, journalist, broadcaster, author and active Liberal Democrat. Jonathan died peacefully at an east London hospice on April 16 after being diagnosed with a terminal condition less than a month earlier.
AEJ UK Chairman William Horsley writes:
As Jonathan lay in bed in the hospice in London’s East End where he would end his days, he announced simply on social media: “Brain tumour. Incurable. Dying soon here at St. Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney, Goodbye, everyone, and thank you. Jonathan.”
I first met Jonathan 50 years ago in Oxford, where we were both undergraduates doing Oriental Studies. We became friends, though not especially close. He struck me from the first encounter as an extraordinary individual, because he was then almost painfully shy but also unusually intelligent. He was also, as I discovered later, extremely driven. Driven by ambition, yes, but also by a rare determination to embrace and even be possessed by the beliefs and causes that he made his own.
He was fanatical about learning complex and difficult things — including, as a student, both Chinese and Japanese. He was an ardent, heart-and-soul Liberal, and much later he came close to achieving his life’s ambition of being elected as a member of the European Parliament for the Liberal (later the Liberal Democratic) Party. His other passion – obsession might be a more accurate word for it – was the “European project”. He died knowing that, despite his endeavours, Britain had, as he saw it, betrayed itself by voting in 2016 to leave the European Union; and then, after several agonising years, actually “doing” Brexit. But there was much more to his special zeal. It stemmed from the trauma of his childhood, in the years before I met him in the Oriental Institute in Oxford.
Jonathan plunged into a professional journalistic career. He had given himself a head start by going on his own initiative to Vietnam during his pre-university “gap year” and getting his first bylines in various publications as a “special correspondent” reporting on the Vietnam war. Our paths hardly crossed for the next 30 years. I spent much of the 1970s and ‘80s reporting for the BBC from Japan, China and the rest of East Asia, while Jonathan was started out based in Brussels — at first with Reuters and then as a freelance journalist roving far and wide, including to the Middle East and Africa. During the 1990s, while I worked for the BBC from Bonn, Brussels and all over Europe, Jonathan was living in London, writing, broadcasting and teaching, while keeping up his ceaseless explorations of the Arab world and beyond.
In the new millennium I met Jonathan regularly as BBC colleague in London, and at AEJ professional lunch meetings here with many influential public figures. Jonathan was in high demand from international media. His expertise included large areas of the globe: East Asia, the Middle East and Latin America as well as Europe. And Jonathan the chameleon showed his talent for taking on new identities when for ten years he was Honorary Consul for the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in the UK. He wrote in his blog: “As a writer and broadcaster on the Middle East and North Africa I find diplomatic gatherings invaluable for picking up information and making contacts”
It was not until 2020 that I read Jonathan’s poignant autobiographical book about his early years. It was a revelation. He wrote with devastating honestly about how he was routinely abused by his adoptive father in the north of England. For such an intelligent and sensitive teenager, the experience was traumatic and life-changing. He wrote that after those years of abuse in a petty bourgeois home in the town of Eccles, near Manchester, his “only dream was to get away as far as possible.” It may also have been a powerful motivation for him to choose the exotic and self-reliant life of a foreign correspondent.
Jonathan showed courage and integrity by writing and speaking publicly about those years of his life. The book, Eccles Cakes: An Odd Tale of Survival, was published in 2016. Reading it helped me to understand part of what drove Jonathan to such intense commitments to causes, including the European ideal and human rights in Turkey; and his insatiable desire to know, understand and make connections with people in every part of the globe.
Although I do not count myself as a close friend, I tried to express my admiration for him and his life’s achievements in a message that I sent him in the hospice. It said: “I read your Eccles boy book a few months ago… It helps me understand the strength of your convictions and sense of destiny about liberal values, and your hatred of ignorance, selfishness and cruelty in all its forms.”