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.”
Please see here for Jonathan’s obituary in The Telegraph
and here in The Guardian
Here for his Wikipedia entry
And here for his own blog
Martyn Bond, former European civil servant, academic, journalist and deputy chairman of the London Press Club writes:
Not surprisingly, Jonathan has been on my mind since I learned of his being in a care home a little over a week or two ago. I was surprised and distressed by that news, and am more shocked now by news of his death. He was a good friend.
I have known Jonathan for nearly fifty years, since 1974 when we were both newly posted to Brussels. I was there as a spokesman for the Council and he as a journalist for Reuters. He was very good at his job, and it suited him well. He wanted the truth, and by that I do not mean bare facts. He wanted the rounded truth, that was not content with superficial facades and could see through ploys to divert critical attention. He wanted to know the reasons behind an action, a policy, a plan, a person. He wanted to know more, and that was one of his driving characteristics. He wanted to gain a perspective on the big picture and to understand the personal stories behind events. It made his reporting more complete and reflected a more than usually complete understanding of the human condition.
We also worked together for a few years outside our professional relationship in helping to establish the Quaker Council for European Affairs, an NGO that was part watchdog and part think-tank, trying to bring a Quaker awareness to bear on what was going on in Brussels. In that he was inspirational. All those involved were indebted to his care and thoughtfulness, his consistent and sympathetic understanding of the bigger picture, the search for what Quakers call ‘that of God in every man’. He had that quality and could recognise it in others, however hard they might try to obscure it. It bought him a wide circle of acquaintances, many of whom became friends, and many of those have lasted the course.
I came across him too as an author, in particular a travel writer and a biographer. Several of his books are on my shelves and still give delight – even if now tinged with a sadness nothing will remove. Also in Liberal Democrat circles, where he played an important role in promoting liberal values internationally, in particular in Europe. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. We are all reduced by his passing.
David Worsfold, AEJ UK Treasurer, writes:
Jonathan lived many lives and he excelled at all of them: politician, author, journalist, Quaker, friend.
Above all he was a great friend. He touched so many people’s lives with his kindness and simple humanity. He always sought the good in everyone, anger being an emotion that only rarely broke through before quickly evaporating.
This does not mean he was not tough. He had to be given his early life vividly recounted in the self-published autobiography Eccles Cakes: An Odd Tale of Survival.
Courage. That is the word that kept recurring in my mind as I read this powerful insight into Jonathan’s troubled childhood. Courage in writing it. Courage in dealing with the abuse he suffered. Courage in throwing himself into the chaos and danger of a war zone on his own resources at the age of 19.
It is a shocking story but often also a heart-warming one as it shows how he triumphed over everything that was thrown at him. He never hid the grim reality of his life at home but skilfully managed to avoid excessive self-pity by restricting it to the occasional flashback insight into his feelings at the time.
What a shame we shall now never read the second volume of his autobiography. Jonathan started writing this but set it aside last year as he secured a commission for another book. He was a prolific author, bringing a wide variety of subjects to life, and always full of helpful advice for other authors. His fifteen or so books covered a diverse range, from Oscar Wilde, Soho in the Fifties and Sixties to international affairs, reflecting Jonathan’s many deep interests and passions.
It was as a politician that I knew him best.
He had been a Young Liberal since 1964 when he heard Jo Grimond at his inspirational best at school – and was chairman of the Liberal Club when he was at Oxford University – but it was when he returned to London from Brussels in the early 1980s that our paths rapidly converged.
He threw himself in London Liberal politics, standing for Parliament in Chelsea in 1983 and in the once Liberal-held seat of Orpington in 1987 where he also served as councillor on the London Borough of Bromley.
For four years I was his campaign manager and agent in Leyton which he fought in 1992. He gave it everything, as he always did. His brilliance with languages meant he mastered Urdu within months of being adopted to fight Leyton with its large Asian population. When I expressed my amazement, he told me that after the first five languages learning a new one was easy, a very rare moment of boastfulness.
He fought two more General Elections in 2010 and 2017.
While I believe he would have made a very fine MP, his real passion was Europe and he dearly wanted to be an MEP. I did once tell him that Westminster would benefit from his insights into foreign affairs and the media more than the EU where he would be preaching to the converted: he was not convinced. He fought every European Parliament election from the first one in 1979, coming within 0.6% of winning a seat in 2004 and being fourth on the party’s London list in 2019 when the Liberal Democrats won three seats in the capital. Brexit was a cruel personal blow to this cherished ambition.
He was a consummate internationalist, as well as Liberal to his core. He held various positions in European and international organisations and was a trusted adviser on foreign affairs to several Liberal Democrat leaders, especially Paddy Ashdown.
He rarely, if ever, flaunted his many friendships with the great and the good of Liberal and Liberal Democrat politics, the media or literary circles. It was easy to be taken by surprise by the extent of friendships, as I was on more than one occasion.
He never allowed his own difficult childhood to reflect on his enjoyment of the family life of others. He was always happy to be invited to family occasions and see young children running around his house at his Christmas parties.
We should not overlook his religious faith as that also sat deep within his character. He was active within the Religious Society of Friends (The Quakers), he was one of the small group that in 1979 set up the Quaker House in Brussels. His contributions to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day were always accessible and enlightening.
The final, smiling picture of Jonathan taken on Easter Sunday, less than two weeks before he died, with his friend Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett drinking a Campari Negroni in the garden of the hospice in Hackney, shows a man at peace with himself. May he Rest in Peace and, as he believed, Rise in Glory.
From AEJ International colleagues and friends:
On behalf of the Irish section please accept my deepest condolences on the death of Jonathan Fryer. He was always a welcome visitor to these parts and any meeting ensured good conversation and lots of storytelling… thinking today of his friends and family.
Eileen Dunne, former AEJ President; now Secretary of AEJ Ireland
AEJ Greece send condolences for our colleague’s death… We knew about his health problems because he published it on his facebook page. AEJ lost a remarkable personality, much-respected journalist and writer, passionate Liberal. We hope he will rest in peace.
Saia Tsaousidou, AEJ President
The news of the passing away of Jonathan at such short notice came in as a shock when reading your mail earlier today. His spirit and wit still echoed in Brussels many years after he left. But I think he might have agreed with an epitaph taken from Abraham Lincoln: In the end it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years. Please accept our condolences on behalf of AEJ Belgium,
Lieven Taillie For the AEJ Belgian section
As you probably remember, I had the honour to meet Jonathan several times (in the past…). Have never forgotten his amiable, wise approach of subjects, always with a good sense of humour readable on his face. A great guy has passed away!
Peter Kramer, former AEJ Secretary-General
Dear colleagues and friends: I recall friendly talks with him during our congresses and conferences. He was a profiled journalist and active member of AEJ. I was deeply moved by his final Good-bye on Facebook. May he rest in peace!
Otmar Lahodynsky, former AEJ President
La section italienne est proche des collègues anglais à la mémoire de Jonathan, journaliste et politique que nous avons apprécié dans de nombreux congrès pour sesqualités professionnelles, humaines et relationnelles.
Cherés salutations, Carmelo Occhino, For the AEJ Italian Section
Please accept my condolences on the death of Jonathan Fryer. He shall rest in peace.
Doğan Tılıç, For the AEJ in Turkey
Terribly sad news, thank you all for sharing and condolences to his nearest and dearest of course. Echo Lieven in that he was well remembered in Brussels and still is – Alia Papageorgiou
From Spain, deepest condolences … – Javier Fernandez Arribas
I also express my deep condolences to you all in Britain. – Luigi Cobisi, AEJ Italy
Sad message, R.I.P. Jonathan 😢 – Tibor Macak, AEJ Slovakia
Our deep condolences for our friend – Kyriakos Pierides, AEJ Cyprus
Poor, determined, never -give-up Jonathan, felled by this stupid, awful illness. But it cheers me that his last days were softened by Campari Negroni, that most European and nostalgic of solaces, and when the time comes I will follow that example and the gentleness of his farewell to his friends. – Edward Gamper Steen, AEJ Secretary-General
Please accept my condolences at this sad time. I met Jonathan a few times and enjoyed his company very much. – Simone Rapple, AEJ Ireland