In the new exciting edition we chat to Hollywood A-Listers, Sporting Superstars, Action-man Bear Grylls plus the greatest team of columnists ever assembled
Are you Sorted yet?
The Boyband Farmer
At the grand age of 32, Jonathan Benjamin Gill – otherwise known as JB – is a familiar face to many. The former member of boy band JLS is now an established member of the farming community and presents CBeebies’s Down on the Farm. And now as a presenter of BBC’s Songs of Praise he is increasingly known for his faith. JB talks to Charlotte Walker about how his walk with God has inspired him to look further afield than the boundaries of his own farm…
Like many young superstars craving solace, JB bought his home, set on a 15-acre farm in semi-rural north Kent, as an easy getaway from the craziness of London life in the spotlight. Little did he know that an inherent need to be resourceful would see him begin a new chapter in his life.
“Farming was never in my plans,” says JB. “It was just something that kind of happened, but it’s a great lifestyle, having two young children and something exciting to share with them.”
JB seems to have a knack of embarking on a whole new direction just as one chapter of his life is reaching its natural conclusion. As a youngster, he suffered a sports injury which saw his dream of becoming a professional rugby player in tatters. It did, however, pave the way to him refocusing on his childhood love of music.
It was in 2008, while he was studying theology at King’s College London, that he and his bandmates from JLS appeared on The X Factor. Although they were pipped to the post by Alexandra Burke, it didn’t matter and their first two singles ‘Beat again’ and ‘Everybody in love’ shot straight to number one. Seven years later, with two BRIT awards in hand and having toured the world, JLS had completed their record deal. They decided this was the natural end to the band, rather than negotiating a new deal.
JB says: “I bought the land when I was in the group. I knew that it was going to end so I just thought, ‘How am I to make the most of this resource?’ I always believe in doing things you are suited to and you enjoy. Making your career something you enjoy doing and love doing will motivate you, and I love being on the farm. It actually happened at the right time in my life as I was soon to get married and start a family. I’m based around the farm and if I’m away now, I’m away for a short time, compared to when I was in the band. When you’re in promo mode with a band, it’s literally 24/7. You’re performing at night and then up at 3 a.m. to do breakfast TV.”
JB reflects on the up and down of achieving success at a young age: “There are difficulties in having success young, and any journey to the top of an industry involves a roller-coaster of ups and downs. There is often a great deal of money which becomes equal to power in our world. There are a lot of opportunistic people around you and a lot of pitfalls. I was fortunate that I had my family and I was able to speak to them about things, but I didn’t always do things perfectly. You see it time and time again in the entertainment business – you have this adulation, but that lifestyle ends and it’s hard to adjust. For someone like me, I was at university, and I hadn’t had another job when JLS took off. That was all I knew. But if you start younger, like One Direction did, these guys were just out of school so it’s even more difficult to come out of.”
But so often life goes full circle. Fuelled by early childhood memories of growing up in Antigua, where he remembers his dad keeping horses and cutting sugar cane with his cousins, JB threw himself into learning how to cultivate the land and farming pigs and turkeys. It was at this time that he started questioning whether the Christian faith he grew up with was, in fact, something he had chosen for himself.
He says: “When I was younger, I grew up in church and was, on the surface, a Christian, even though my life did not always exhibit that faith. I still tithed when I had the money but would not say I was actively a Christian at the time. I always believed, but it got to a point where I needed to make a choice for myself. It’s something that cannot be inherited and ultimately you have to make that choice for yourself. You’re not saved because your parents decided you’re saved. It really was when I was thinking about getting married and having a family that I thought, ‘What do I want to stand for?’ and ‘What example do I want to set my children?’”
JB visited Zimbabwe in January with the Red Cross and met farmers struggling with the effects of climate change, which hit home, particularly after experiencing the effects of the long, hot British summer of 2018 on his own farm.
“It hadn’t rained for three months and they had a very long, hard drought and were reaching a crisis point,” he says. “The warm summer last year affected our food production, but in the UK and the Western world we feel the effects of climate change far less than other nations do. They have to do so much more to mitigate against it. The farming they do in Zimbabwe is very much subsistence farming and they are very dependent on a crop, so if it fails, it really is bad news. Here we’re able to import a great deal and have a supermarket to fall back on. So if there are no strawberries, we can buy something else.”
His travels made him realise that “farming’s different in every country. We’re not living in isolation. So it’s good to think of how things are done on an international level. But in developing countries climate change is a very real issue and you have to be a bit smart. It was good to hear that the farmers were being taught about soil types and what crops can resist dry or extreme heat. They were also taught techniques required to preserve water, such as utilising dish- and clothes-washing water.”
JB enjoyed being a part of a Food and Farming event attended by 5,000 schoolchildren at the East of England Showground during the summer of 2018. As a supporter of The Leprosy Mission’s work, it was here that he met Rev Joshua Sivagnam, who works with The Leprosy Mission in Sri Lanka. Rev Joshua teaches leprosy-affected communities to farm the land effectively so that they can feed their families and ensure they are well-nourished, ultimately strengthening the body’s immune system to fight leprosy. Rev Joshua was one of the 12 international farmers to benefit from the Marshal Papworth scholarship helping people from developing countries grow their way out of poverty. Having done ten weeks at farming school in England, he and his fellow students had studied sustainable agriculture techniques, animal husbandry and business practices ahead of meeting JB at the East of England Showground.
“Being a supporter of The Leprosy Mission, it was interesting to learn about leprosy in the modern world, not just from what we read about in the Bible,” says JB. “You should help if you’re able to help and everyone has different strengths. I don’t think it’s beneficial for me to be away in the mission field long-term because of my farm and family, but because of being in JLS, I have a profile and I’ll do what I can to help so there’s definitely positive aspects. It was an honour for me to go to Zimbabwe. We don’t live in isolation and we impact on each other globally. It’s important to keep the narrative going.”
Racing Across the Channel
In his next Great British Adventure, Pete Woodward heads offshore for a taste of yacht racing with the Royal Ocean Racing Club.
Over a hundred yachts jostled for position in the churning waters of the Solent, with sharp changes of direction and mere feet of clearance between boats. The sun sparkled on the rolling waters and sea spray flung from plunging bows drifted through the cockpit. A team of ten aboard 40ft Playing Around, skippered by Ken Docherty of First Offshore Racing, we eagerly awaited the radio signal to go racing.
The Royal Ocean Racing Club, of Cowes and London, has been the leading organiser of offshore yacht races since the 1920s and organise the world-famous Fastnet race from these waters in the Solent, as well as trans-Atlantic and Caribbean races. Today, our finishing line was the harbour entrance in Le Havre, on the northern coast of France, with a 160-mile zig-zagging route across the Channel to successfully navigate to get there. The race, the Cervantes Trophy, forms a part of the summer racing series and also provides a way for teams competing in the Fastnet race later in the year to rack up the qualification miles required.
With all ears trained on the VHF radio, the starting signal buzzed through and the fleet surged over the start line towards No Man’s Fort and the open sea. Slightly mistiming the start, we were towards the back of the field with a line of tall masts and straining sails ahead of us. With limited sailing experience, my biggest asset was my body weight. Along with the others not helming or managing sails, I sat on the rail with my legs dangling over sea, scrambling over the roof of the cabin to the opposite side of the boat when we tacked. After a frantic start, we soon passed below the concrete walls of No Man’s Fort in the middle of the Solent and, with the bow trained on the next distant navigation mark, settled into a controlled rhythm.
Jane, an NHS consultant, was navigator and a watch leader and, sailing a tight line between buoys, we undercut the field and steadily made up places. Her partner, Veg, a construction manager with wiry strength and wispy beard, managed the foredeck, running lines and hauling sails. Aboard was a range of experience, from my limited day sailing trips, through those with a few more training days under their belts to others with tall ship sailing experience and veterans of the Fastnet race. French David was learning the foredeck as Veg’s protégé and as the alternate foredeck leader for the Fastnet. Nigel was our other watch leader and had many miles of racing experience with Ken. Patrick, a dentist from Bristol, had great all-round experience and, as he was earmarked as one of the more iron-stomached on the crew, soon found himself being thrown around downstairs in the galley making rounds of tea.
Despite the calendar announcing late spring, there was an icy northern wind and as we charged along the Sussex coastline with toes being dipped frequently in the Channel, my feet slowly went numb. In the pub in Gosport the evening before we had discussed kit. There were a few double takes when I mentioned that I had a battered pair of trainers in lieu of sailing boots and a few more when I emerged on deck wearing them the next morning and people realised that I wasn’t joking. I have Yorkshire blood in my veins and if a bit of discomfort can mean avoiding putting my hand in my pocket for more kit, then I’ll generally have a go. As the number of times my feet got dipped into the sea approached double figures, and I was thinking that I probably ought to tighten my shoelaces up, I started to wonder if maybe the crew were right.
We reached the last marker on the Sussex coast as the shadows started to lengthen and as we rounded the buoy, we swept the bow around to the south for the 70-mile cross Channel leg. With a strong following wind gusting 35 knots we were soon speeding along in a big sea. Several other yachts hoisted colourful spinnakers and crashed over the waves. Our crew had recently spent a night climbing the rigging to untangle a spinnaker sail wrapped around the wires and, understandably, we weren’t too keen to repeat it. We set our sails in a broad reach, catching as much wind as we could while tracking a tighter line to the next navigation marker than those speeding under spinnakers.
The cross-Channel leg marked the start of our watch system and being part of the team that was off for the next three hours, the time had come to brave a trip to the loo. For anybody without significant sailing experience, heading downstairs on a yacht at sea can be a daunting task and, with the rolling and bucking of the waves, can often induce seasickness. I sped downstairs to the loo, shut the door and tried to remain upright while being thrown around the small room. I got the job done and set about grabbing my sleeping bag and getting horizontal as fast as possible. I almost made it before a wave of nausea overtook me. Almost. With a sprint back up the stairs, I had my head over the side in seconds, with Ken shouting from the bow to get clipped on. A big wave crashed onto the stern and I quickly saw why; it would be easy to disappear over the side while concentrating on keeping your lunch off the side of the boat.
It was a routine I was able to perfect over the next few hours as once I started, it took a long time to stop. Not to be discouraged though, I had some adjustments to my kit to make before I could get some shut-eye. Worried about the plummeting temperature and the night watches, I needed to do something about my feet. Armed with two pairs of socks, two plastic bags and some duct tape, I wrapped and waterproofed my feet before stuffing them back into my now infamous trainers to create some surprisingly effective insultation and waterproofing. With that job done, I plotted a beeline back to my bunk and got horizontal as soon as I could. Strangely, the seasickness lessened while horizontal with my eyes closed and I lay listening to the tricking sound of water on the hull and the thump of the bow through the waves.
Time between watches disappears fast and it wasn’t long before we were back up on deck in the fading evening light. With the sails set, there was little to do other than point the boat in the right direction and keep a good look out for the many tankers ploughing their way through some of the busiest waters in the world. We ate hot chilli and chatted as the sun dropped below the horizon.
One of my favourite aspects of sailing racing is the complete break from land-based routine. The boat needs to be sailed 24 hours a day and so the watch system continues through the night. In the pitch-black early hours, we surged across the Channel under a ceiling of the clearest stars I have ever seen. Green and blue phosphorescence sparkled in the bow wave and yellow lights twinkled on the distant French shore.
It takes a certain level of tiredness to be able to sleep on a boat bucking the waves of open sea, especially with a chorus of snoring crew mates, as is often the case. I eventually dropped off in the early hours but was woken soon after, by frantic shouting and tacking as the other watch worked hard to avoid a large tanker in the shipping lane. Emerging on deck, the sun was breaking the horizon and after a bowl of porridge, my stomach finally began to settle. A lumpy sea and stiff breeze chopped and sloshed under a blue sky and a few of the scattered race fleet could be seen both ahead and behind, one with the crew untangling the spinnaker after problems in the gusty night. We crept within touching distance of the huge rusty red bow of a tanker moored off Le Havre and sped towards the finishing line below the cliffs of the Normandy coast. With the full crew on deck we let out a hearty celebratory cheer as we rounded the finishing buoy, 70th out of 105 starters.
With the wind forecast to die away throughout the day, and the crew keen to maximise sailing time, we passed on an invitation to catch up on sleep in the marina at Le Havre and the party planned for the Sunday night, swung the bow around the finishing line and pointed it back towards the Isle of Wight. With the race over, the crew relaxed and I soon found myself at the helm, one of the few on the boat left awake, with sea on every horizon and no other sign of human life. The boat nodded gently under a blue sky and sliced along at seven knots in the calming sea. I did my best to absorb the memories of a fantastic weekend on the water.
Offshore sailing can seem inaccessible to many without experience. It is a sport that I have been very keen to learn and that can provide very rewarding, shared experiences in a beautiful and challenging environment. I have approached it with enthusiasm and, after starting with very little experience, have found the vast majority of people in the sailing world very happy to share their knowledge and to teach me skills. There are many sailing academies that offer training weekends, with a particular focus on the Solent area, and also berths on racing yachts for races in the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) calendar. These races offer a fantastic chance to race offshore around the clock and an opportunity to learn from more experienced sailors at prices that compare well to other adventure racing. I raced with Ken Docherty of First Offshore Racing, who is based from Gosport; Ken was calm and patient with my ‘developing’ skills and I left with more confidence on the boat than when I started and an appetite for more.
Keep on Rolling
Alastair McIver speaks with Wet Wet Wet legend Graeme Duffin about his longevity and survival
in the music industry
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Sat in a sold-out theatre, dotted purple and red speaker lights ahead of us on stage, the conversational hum before the band arrives on stage, followed by an expectant hush as the house lights dim. And then it happens. Shadowy figures from our past emerge from the wings, legends before our very eyes. The hair may be a bit greyer, the denims a little more faded, but from the moment the first chord arrives, we are reminded that the music has stood the test of time.
There are only a handful of bands these days – with originals in tow – that can claim longevity. The Glasgow-based band Wet Wet Wet is one of them. From the moment they launch into their first song, the audience are on up and on their feet, rising as one to sing and dance to the band’s tried and tested back catalogue, including such hits as ‘Somewhere somehow’, ‘Julia says’, ‘Goodnight girl’, ‘Behind the smile’, and the iconic ‘Love is all around’, the soundtrack song for Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Just two hours before they took to the stage on one of the stops on their recent nationwide tour, I was able to sit down with Graeme Duffin, a fixture on lead guitar and vocals for more than three decades. Duffin joined the band back in 1984, and has his own distinctive answers to the age-old question, “How could four lads, who began life strumming their guitars and drinking coffee in a Glasgow kitchen in the 1980s, still be rocking their way around the world?”
To the casual Wets’ observer, it’s a question that overnight took on extra significance and became harder to answer the moment its charismatic front man, Marti Pellow, announced his departure in July 2017. For some bands, that departure might have marked the beginning of the end. For Duffin, though, the band’s enduring appeal is greater than just one man. There is more to survival in the music business than just personalities. Friendship and faith play their part too, as Duffin explained.
“It was immediately after the band’s gig in Edinburgh Castle, celebrating the 30th year since their first hit single, that Marti’s management announced that he had left the band. I didn’t know it was going to happen, none of us did, so it was a bit of a shock. The band had always kept going even after a bit of a hiatus in the early 2000s, but we never wound up. After Marti’s announcement, the guys were left with the option of calling it a day or continuing, trying to find a new singer.”
Pellow’s departure could have consigned the band to its place in the archives of modern rock history. But the arrival of former Liberty X singer Kevin Simm in 2018 brought new energy and life to an impressive song catalogue and meant that the band was able to regroup and continue its journey. “Our keyboard player, Neil suggested Kevin [Simm] and so they put the call in, and he was interested… and here he is,” recalls Duffin. “He’s a remarkably level-headed guy and he’s enjoying it and handling it very well with the Wets and we’re obviously delighted. Losing Marti in the way we did was disappointing, but he has wished us all well and he seems OK now. I thank God for him and I’ve told him that.”
The Pellow departure was obviously an unwelcome development for the band, but Duffin’s warm and generous words – not least towards his oft-troubled former colleague – is one of the reasons perhaps why he is a survivor in what is often perceived to be one of life’s more challenging industries. Life on the road can either make or break you. In rock and roll, it’s often the latter. But Duffin cites genuine friendship and professional respect for each of his fellow band members, as they do for him, something which has kept them on the road for so long.
Sometimes tagged as the unofficial fifth member of the band, he remains one of its stalwarts; sound, solid and seriously talented.“I have never been an official member of the band,” he says, “but I’ve always been in it. Before the band got signed, I was asked to audition as a session guitarist, and I’ve stayed on ever since. Part of the reason is that it’s a perfectly sensible and reasonable job, but I have never, and won’t ever make the mistake that I’m irreplaceable.”
Humility and modesty are deep-rooted in the Duffin ethos, a grounding earthed in his upbringing as a child, not in music, but in faith. His family weren’t musical and his parents didn’t share their son’s aspirations. “I was brought up in a loving and strict Christian environment,” Duffin says. “It was all fairly normal and ordinary. My dad was a motor mechanic who went into management and my mother was a nurse to sick children, although she was also artistic and painted as a hobby, so maybe that is where my creative side comes from. They wanted me to get a ‘normal’ job, I think, but I wanted to play the guitar. I remember I had to be quite persistent.”
It’s no wonder Duffin was drawn to the guitar. He grew up in an era of legendary guitar heroes. “I used to love listening to the likes of Steve Howe, from Yes, Jan Akkerman from a Dutch band, Focus. He’s still going and probably playing better than he’s ever played. Also Hank Marvin [the Shadows] had an influence on me. The other influence at that point was the incredible jazz guitarist, John McLaughlin who fronted the hugely successful and pioneering band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Some of my favourite John McLaughlin work was from his time when he was in a trio and playing guitar with nylon strings.”
Another genre admired by Duffin in his pre-Wet years was, perhaps surprisingly, Flamenco. “I really love Paco de Lucia, from Spain. Innovative Flamenco at its best. He is the most outrageous guitar player I’ve ever heard.” Those influencers – and a lot of hard work – are the reasons that Duffin, 30 years on, is one of the music industry’s most respected lead guitarists. As we spoke on completion of this feature, he was heading to the Olympic stadium in Munich with the Wets in support of Phil Collins, no less. The legends live on.
So after a lifetime of rocking the nation, how does it feel to be still touring? “In the and 80s and 90s,” he recalls, “there was much more touring, but the tours weren’t so long that it became a problem. They were well-spaced apart and we had good breaks. Actually, the longest stretches away from home were, by and large, studio recording sessions because in those days, the writing process happened in the studio. But with international tours, if there was any opportunity for my wife and kids to come, I took them, especially in the UK but also when we went to the USA. They all came over in ’89 when we were supporting Elton John. It was so brave of my wife, Pamela, to book flights from Prestwick to New York and travel with our two young kids, Esther and 18-month-old Jamie, especially as I recall the plane was full and Jamie didn’t have a seat!”
Family is important to Duffin and he delights in supporting his daughter, Esther, together with her husband, Tim, who a few years back formed a New Country/Americana band, Ashton Lane, which achieved a No One album in the UK Country music chart last year, after what Duffin called “a lot of hard work for a small, independent operation.” The band tours and has a large online, social media following at ashtonlaneofficial.com and her success is something of which dad, Graeme, is rightly proud, not least because he recognises how hard it is for today’s aspiring musicians to make it in their chosen profession. Huge changes have taken place in the industry, and that is why in 2009, he opened up his own studio, the Foundry, in Motherwell, a place where he can support and advise musicians entering the industry today. Having experienced both the then and the now of the music business, Duffin knows the challenges facing the today’s generation.
“It’s so difficult nowadays for up and coming musicians,” he says. “You not only have to be good musically and creatively, you also have to be your own agent and promoter, and everything else. But equally, the same technology that has contributed to the demise of the record industry has also allowed the creation of very affordable home studio environments. Even the whole streaming of music has decimated sales of hard copy. I started the Foundry because the industry isn’t really there to the same extent as it used to be. It’s much smaller, the infrastructure for selling and promoting new music has completely changed and continues to change. So the income from record sales is a fraction of what it would have been in the 80s and 90s. Very few major record companies remain and they don’t invest. Aspirational singers seem to end up having to resort to reality TV programmes. The talent is certainly there in reality shows but sadly the most entertaining are those who are terrible, and they get abused. Even good singers and musicians – regardless of how talented they are – can be forgotten about at the end of the series. People aren’t interested any more. Kevin Simm is a remarkable exception. He’s been through it twice and survived, firstly for Liberty X, who were runners-up on Pop Idol, and then winning The Voice in 2016. But he’ll tell you himself, no one returns your phone calls. They build you up and there’s all this hype, only to let you down.”
Perhaps, given that Duffin was growing up with and listening to such a varied and accomplished list of top-class guitarists, it should be no surprise that he has become one himself. And his legacy is still being built in his guitar-playing and fronting for Wet Wet Wet. Today, however, it’s not guitar heroes who he cites when asked about current influences; it’s Christian preachers.
“Two of my main influences just now would be American pastor Greg Boyd from Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, and Richard Rohr,” says Duffin. “Greg has an enquiring intellect, and it seems to me that when we are on the road, with all of its stresses and isolation, we have a responsibility to engage with the best knowledge and research that we can on any subject. The other one is a Franciscan, Richard Rohr, who runs a retreat in Alberquerque in New Mexico. There are others but my desire is to engage with God and these guys help me to do so when I am on the road. I’m also reading a book by another influential American, Bob Ekblad, who is an extraordinary teacher… he has an incredibly powerful ministry in the States, running Bible classes in the prisons. The stories he tells are just incredible. There are some fantastic people of faith in America. At home, certainly when we’re all at home as a family and extended family, we do household prayers in the morning. I tend to deviate slightly when on tour. I have my Bible on my phone.”
Such devotion and routine have kept Duffin away from the potential excesses of his industry. They have allowed him to endure and thrive and he has never once considered quitting the business he loves.
“I have always really appreciated every opportunity that’s come my way,” he says. “So many people these days seem to be trying to live in the moment, not appreciating the fact that music is a very privileged profession to be in. I would say that we should all be living in the moment and not be preoccupied with all of the stuff that goes on around us all of the time. I appreciate my industry because I tend not to think of my faith as something separate to my work. My relationship with the Creator is so fundamental to who I am that I hardly even think in terms of myself being sustained by my faith. It’s God who sustains everything I do, so things happen as they happen and evolve as they evolve, if my focus is in the right place. I think faith is only disrespected if it’s not authentic, or something that people can see through. That’s why I don’t promote myself. I just try to be a good follower of Jesus.”
Hope is Still the Most Powerful Force
It is hard to believe it has been more than eight years since the start of the Syrian crisis. Eight years of communities devastated, the economy collapsed, families traumatised, and entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble.
As the world seems to have moved on in many ways, the fact remains that for millions of Syrians, the crisis is still their daily reality. Still. More than eight years later.
For those who remain in Syria, every day is full of challenges. For the ones who have fled across borders in search of refuge, life is a struggle to survive.
For almost 25 years, David Verboom has seen the effects of conflicts and large-scale disasters first-hand. He has listened to the countless stories of refugees and survivors. David’s work in humanitarian aid has taken him to places like Sudan, the Middle East, and across Asia before leading him to his current position as CEO of the international emergency relief and recovery organisation, Medair.
Still, each new story he hears affects him deeply. “I have heard so many heart-breaking stories and have come to realise that suffering takes on many different forms. Being exposed to the hardships people face during crises is something that is difficult to get used to. Every new story I hear still touches me.”
So when David travelled to Lebanon to meet with Syrian refugee families and learn more about how Medair is supporting them, he was prepared to be moved once again.
The Syrian crisis is so complex it is difficult to imagine a resolution any time soon. As a result, lives hang in the balance. Refugees who have fled to Lebanon live with the tension of not being able to return home safely to Syria and not being able to prosper in a new life in their host country.
Most refugees residing in Lebanon have lost their livelihoods, used up their savings, and are struggling to survive. In fact, close to 70 percent of Syrian refugees have fallen below the national poverty line and become poorer with each passing year. Without a formal refugee camp system, many live in tents or substandard buildings. And with Syrian refugees accounting for around 25 percent of the Lebanese population, services accessible to refugees are stretched dangerously thin.
Rashid, a father of five and husband to Ousa, welcomed David into their temporary shelter – a shed-like structure made out of wood and tarpaulin. Rashid recounted his family’s harrowing story of surviving the violence in Syria and their treacherous journey over the Syrian mountains into Lebanon in a desperate search for safety. Now, two years later, they are living in a tented refugee settlement in a foreign country, unable to work and struggling to meet their most basic needs.
To make matters worse, one year after they arrived in Lebanon, Rashid suffered a stroke and is now partially paralysed.
“As a father myself, I was really concerned about how this father was coping,” said David. When David asked Rashid how he was doing, Rashid’s face creased with concern. “I can’t provide my children with what they need. We were happy in Syria, but now I feel depressed,’ he told David.
Rashid now relies on crutches to walk, even for short distances, and yet this isn’t the family’s first experience with physical disability. One of his three daughters, Amira, has cerebral palsy – a disorder that severely affects her movement, muscle strength, and coordination.
Living as a refugee is daunting for everyone, but living with a disability is even more challenging. People living with disabilities face more barriers to accessing basic services, appropriate assistive equipment, and traditional schooling.
Asked what she envisioned for Amira’s future, her mother wrapped her arms around her daughter, and tears started rolling down her cheeks. She said, “I hope that one day, she will be able to stand up and be able to play like any girl.”
David was deeply moved. “As I watched this mother cry for her daughter – like any mother anywhere does when their child is struggling – it hit me. I thought about my own children and how I would go to extreme lengths to protect and provide the best for them.
“Refugees like Rashid and Ousa are no different. They have the same dreams for their children. Yet, none of us can predict the future,” continued David. “So just like that, one unforeseen change of events dashed the dreams this family had for themselves forever. Ultimately, it could be any of us.”
Years of living in crisis mode severely stretches people’s resilience and capacity to cope. Fear, anxiety, and haunting memories become part of daily life. It is not uncommon for refugees to suffer with severe and untreated trauma, grief from the loss of loved ones, and a lack of basic needs, such as clean water, safe shelter, and health care. These basic services are paramount, but so is access to mental health services if refugees are to have a chance of recovering from what they’ve endured.
That’s why in addition to providing refugee families with health care and safe places to live, Medair organises peer support groups where women can come together in a safe place to share and process their stories. The dire displacement conditions, the stress that comes with day-to-day survival, the uncertainty about the future – all contribute to deteriorating mental health. Talking about their trauma helps the women begin the healing process and to learn how to help their families begin to heal too.
During David’s visit to Lebanon, one of his travel companions visited a Medair support session for women. The women were asked to make something through which they could share some of their story.
Mariam, a 40-year-old mother, created a colourful doll out of fabric and cotton. Mariam explained it symbolised a three-year-old girl named Sadir, who was found amongst the rubble. She was taken away to the hospital, but her parents didn’t survive. With no other family, this young girl is now being raised by Mariam’s relatives.
Mariam carries with her daily stress because of the previous and current hardships she is facing. She is strong, but life also comes with many challenges as she raises her children alone in Lebanon while her husband is still in Syria.
“It is clear that the crisis has left its scars. Yet, I’m hopeful that through support groups like these, families will be able to begin the recovery process and rebuild their minds and hearts,” observes David.
While emotional wounds can run deep, none of us are defined entirely by our traumatic experiences. And so it is for refugees.
“I witnessed a remarkable level of resilience among the people I met and a strong drive to overcome adversity. I remember another young mother who lost her husband to the violence in Syria. Instead of giving up, she chose to rise above her adversities. She was actually encouraging the other women with such passion to stay strong and hold on to a future that is not lost. She reminded them that there is still hope amidst their circumstances.”
It is this hope that a better future is still within reach that enables Medair’s relief workers in Lebanon to hold on to hope too and to continue working hard to meet the overwhelming level of need.
This was the case with Rashid and his family. Seeing that Amira was frequently housebound because of her disability, Medair installed handrails and tiled the area outside their shelter, levelling the tiles carefully so that Amira could move safely with less assistance.
Her mother Ousa commented, “Before Medair installed the handrails, it was hard for her to interact with other children because she couldn’t easily go outside. Now, she can walk a bit and watch the other children playing.”
That’s what it’s all about for David and his colleagues — making life just a bit easier for families who are overwhelmed and overburdened.
“At Medair, we believe that each person is made in God’s image and is therefore uniquely valuable. Our faith inspires us to give our best in all circumstances as we walk alongside families in their suffering.
“We cannot change people’s experiences and we cannot end the Syrian crisis, but by coming alongside them, we can relieve some of their burdens, support people during this difficult time, and help them to stand tall with dignity,” said David.
“If there is one thing I’ve seen consistently over the past 25 years, it is that despite their hardships, people will keep going. This resilience, strength, and bravery that we find in people, no matter the circumstance, is what inspires me time and again,” he concluded.
With no clear end in sight, the future for nearly 6 million Syrian refugees remains uncertain. But relief and hope in the midst of an uncertain future is still possible.
To learn more about the work Medair is doing in Lebanon with Syrian refugees, visit:
www.medair.org/lebanon or donate today at: https://donate.medair.org/ to bring urgent relief to families living in crisis.
Genocide, Redemption and a Shoebox Gift that Changed a Boy’s Life
As Alex Nsengimana knelt on the cool, tiled floor of Kigali prison, he faced a stark moment of truth. Could he offer forgiveness to the man who had once brutally killed members of his family?
His thoughts returned to the nightmare he had faced 19 years before. Even though he was just five years old on 6 April 1994, Alex would never forget the morning when the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. The president’s assassination sparked a wave of violence that consumed Rwanda, and shocked the rest of the world.
Alex never knew his father, and his mother died of AIDS-related illness when he was aged four. When the genocide struck, Alex’s remaining family were among the first Tutsi victims to be targeted, when Hutu militia stormed their house one afternoon. Alex, Lillian, and their brother, Fils, watched through a window in horror while their grandmother was tortured and killed.
Several days later a group of men with guns came looking for his uncle, Karara. They shot him twice, and then beat Karara with a stick until he died. Alex recalls seeing his uncle’s pleading eyes looking into the faces of his killers. ‘What they did haunted me for many, many years,’ Alex said. The remaining family were forced to flee, and spent nearly two months crossing the hills around Kigali. At one point, bullets whizzed just above Alex’s head.
After the Rwandan Patriotic Front forces drove the Hutu militia out of Kigali, they returned home, but Alex wasn’t able to enjoy the security for long. His aunt and uncle fell ill, and Alex and Fils were sent to a nearby orphanage.
‘Nights at the orphanage were ﬁlled with the cries of children – hundreds of them, all lost and alone. Children like me, who had witnessed terrible things happening to their family and friends. After the genocide, I almost began to believe that God did not exist. I wondered, “If there’s a God who cares for his people, why would he let this happen?”’
But it was here that Alex’s journey to forgive the man who killed his uncle began. It was sparked by a simple shoebox he received through Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a campaign run by the charity Samaritan’s Purse.
One day, in 1995, all of the children at Alex’s orphanage were asked to line up outside. Excitement buzzed like electricity in the air as they were each handed a colourfully wrapped shoebox. Alex recalls the moment well.
‘We ripped open the boxes to find things we could hardly dream of owning! These amazing gifts reminded us that someone cared for us. With that, a small flame of hope was ignited in my heart.’
Alex can still picture his shoebox, along with many of its contents. Small, multi-coloured sweets, a comb, and his favourite: a red and white striped stick shaped like a ‘J’ that introduced him to the unexpected flavour of peppermint.
Troubled by memories of the conflict, Alex held onto the hope that his shoebox gift had stirred, until in 1997 he was chosen to tour the United States and Canada with the African Children’s Choir. Along with his brother Fils, and other children from his orphanage, he went to Uganda to learn English before the tour began. They also learned Bible stories, and Alex read Jeremiah 29:11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’ (ESV). He began to believe God had a plan for his life too, and made the decision to follow Jesus before returning to the orphanage in Kigali.
Three years later, he found an address he remembered had been given to him by a family in Winona, Minnesota. He sent the family an email. A woman named Ellen replied, and the pair kept in touch until Ellen offered to help sponsor Alex, Fils, and two other boys to go to high school in Minnesota. In September 2003, Alex joined his new family.
His healing process came full circle later when he returned to Rwanda to deliver shoebox gifts through Operation Christmas Child at the orphanage where he used to live. Being back in his homeland, Alex realised that to be truly free he had to forgive the men who killed his family. He gained permission to enter Kigali’s largest prison and visit the man who had killed his uncle and caused such pain to him and his family. For years Alex had dreamt about this moment.
As the prisoner sat before him he said, ‘I am Alex Nsengimana. My uncle was Karara. Would you please tell me why my uncle was killed?’
The prisoner replied, ‘A group of militia came. They were looking for Karara. I went with them … we killed him and looted the house. After, we didn’t bother to bury him; we left him outside his house. We went to look for two others, who we also killed.’
Alex took a deep breath and replied: ‘I’m not here to accuse you, though you wronged me, but I’m here to do something else.’ The next words caught in his throat as he began to cry. ‘I am here because I saw how God’s power works in forgiveness. I received that power. I really want to forgive you so you have peace and you also repent of everything. I want you to know that even after all the things you did, all the people you killed and hurt, God wants you to come back to him.’
As Alex placed a hand on his back and prayed, the prisoner said, ‘I don’t know what came over us. We killed everybody. Please forgive us. When I think of what I did, I always get sick.’
Later, as Alex left the prison, he felt like a great burden had been lifted off his chest. As painful as it once was, he was left with a feeling of peace, and a resolve to spend his life sharing with others how they can receive peace and forgiveness. He hopes to return to Rwanda one day to build a church on the land where his grandmother’s house stood.
Last year 511,200 shoeboxes were generously packed people all over the UK. This year many other boys and girls need a lifeline like Alex’s.
The gift of a shoebox to a child in need does more than put a smile on their face; it can be the first step towards changing their life. Thanks to links with churches around the world, shoeboxes given through Operation Christmas Child are able to find those who need them most, even in the hardest to reach areas, such as Rwanda, and across the Middle East.
Sending a shoebox gift couldn’t be easier and it makes a great activity for ‘Dads and Lads’, or even a men’s group.
It could be your gift that changes a child like Alex’s life. Can you pack the gift that children in hard situations so desperately need? Whether you choose and send your own gifts online, (if shopping is not your thing!) or organise something a little bigger like a group packing event, you can find easy step by step guides at
Cole Moreton The Story-Teller
Cole Moreton is an award-winning journalist, who has just had his first novel, The Lightkeeper, published. He was made Interviewer of the Year in 2016, and has written about a whole range of people and events, starting in 1993 with a little boy called Amar, who had been badly burned in Iraq.
The boy was rescued by Conservative MP, Emma Nicholson, who was monitoring the treatment of the Marsh Arabs by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Much of Cole’s early work covered trouble hotspots around the world, but he actually got into journalism in the first place to prove a careers advisor that he was wrong…
“He asked me what I wanted to be. I couldn’t say a rock star, which was the truth (David Bowie was like my freaky big brother, giving permission to be individual), so I said a writer. He said: ‘So does everybody else, it’s not going to happen, what else do you want to do?’ Working-class kids like us were not writers. We worked in a bank if we were lucky. That’s what he suggested. So I took pleasure in becoming one, despite him.”
Not that journalism was the sort of writing Cole had had in mind.
“I didn’t want to be a journalist, in particular… I had a fascination with words and an inspirational teacher who encouraged that and one day the editor of the local paper came in to talk to us. I went there on work experience at the age of 15 and was given the chance to join as an apprentice the following summer.
The school I had moved on to after the inspirational teacher was terrible, really dysfunctional, and if you were clever or different in any way, you were picked on. This was the East End in the early Eighties. It was brilliant in some ways – full of energy, kids from lots of different cultures side by side as friends – but I knew I had to get out of that school, so I took the job.”
Had his life changed in other ways as well?
“After training for four years with the local paper, I had not really been anywhere other than the East End or done anything daring. I had also become a Christian. My parents were atheists; my Dad was a Labour councillor with a strong sense of social justice that partly came from his own upbringing in a Salvation Army home, but he had been damaged by hypocrisy in the church and didn’t want anything to do with it.
I knew Christians as friends and was drawn to them, but I also had gay friends who were being told they were an abomination and going to hell (as well as being beaten up in the street for being themselves) so I was pulled in different directions.
Then I went to interview Eric Delve, who was then being groomed as the British Billy Graham, and I found him a hugely attractive character: a story-teller, brilliantly funny in his performance but also passionate about the person of Jesus and warm, engaging and generous, personally. He made the difference.”
And then his horizons really widened?
“After that, with the enthusiasm of a convert and the naive gung-ho attitude of a teenager, I thought: ‘I want to test this by taking it as far as I can.’ So I joined Youth With A Mission as a full-time faith worker, unwaged, and eventually went travelling with them over the course of two years, visiting and writing about their work in Africa and Asia, particularly relief and development work in refugee camps and at crisis points.
I was not always impressed by what I saw – at that time, there was a tendency to ride roughshod over people’s cultures and too often it looked like an explicit deal was being offered: bread or medicine for your soul – but it did give me a more global perspective and enable me to realise the power of telling stories, to move people into action and save lives or make change. “
Has that drive remained?
“I’m not trying to change the world, per se, these days, because I think that’s a bit of an empty phrase. The world is constantly in flux anyway. My faith has changed a lot since those days but I do still consider it my vocation to be a story-teller, to help people tell their stories and to enable human beings to connect with each other in some way, because that is when we are moved to tears, or laughter, or empathy and feel we can and should do something about the problems others might have.”
Eventually, Cole realised he wanted to extend his education, and to move on.
“After YWAM, I came back and went to university and got a first class honours in English, because I had finally found my thing. After the degree I went to the Church Times half the week and tried to be a national journalist the rest of the week but I realised I had to step away from the safety blanket of Christian work and risk trying the nationals full time. This is purely a personal thing, but for me, I had to test the things I believed in out in what I then considered to be the real world, to see if it all hung together.
I was basically an intern at the Independent on Sunday, got poached by the Daily Express then returned to the Sindy [the nickname of the Independent on Sunday] a year later as a staff writer, rising eventually over 12 years to the title of Executive Editor. I was part of the editorial leadership team during 9/11 and the war in Iraq, which we opposed earlier and with more energy than any other paper. I’m proud of that.”
Did he enjoy it?
“There is something really exciting about being part of a team like that, working under extreme deadlines but reacting immediately to huge, world-changing stories. Writing (and editing) the first draft of history, as they say; but also helping to shape the debate. But editing made me ill, because of the stress, whereas writing came as a relief, so I changed tack and became an interviewer and feature writer again. That led to a spell as a freelance, promoting the book Is God Still An Englishman? which explored the dramatic changes in British culture, spirituality and identity, during which time I wrote for The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times.”
But change was coming.
“The book led to me being recruited as chief feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph, where I covered the Olympics. I had a ticket to everything and it was on home ground, literally the waste land where I had played on my bike as a child, so that was emotional. I also covered the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. It was a staff job, but the industry was changing and more than a hundred of us across all departments were made redundant in 2014. I actually felt this as a relief, because the job had been an honour but also a huge pressure.”
What does he make of the current newspaper scene in the UK?
“It’s going through a period of great change, like the country. But I will say this, passionately: if we don’t cherish and pay for responsible, serious reporting, we will lose it. The BBC has its faults, for example, but it is publicly accountable, and we will look back on this as a golden age if we lose it. Mainstream media has become a target for some people but there are a lot of brilliant reporters out there, pursuing stories that really matter, across the titles. You really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
As a freelance, most of Cole’s work now involves interviewing those who are well-known, for whatever reason. Has he interviewed anyone he really didn’t want to talk to?
“Tons. I interviewed a politician once whose words I found so dull and empty of meaning that I threw the tape (those were the days) in the bin afterwards and told the editor it had broken. But that was a long, long time ago and I wouldn’t do it now. What I have come to realise is that everybody – absolutely everybody – has a story to tell, if you can only put aside how you’re feeling that day and help them get it out.”
One of the stories that Cole is most known for telling – a documentary series for Radio 4 which won Audio Moment of the Year at the Arias, the industry Oscars, and Best Writing at the World’s Best Radio Awards in New York – is The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away, reviewed in Sorted in 2018. It is the story of two teenage boys and how the fact that one was an organ donor meant the other survived a sudden collapse. It is a powerful story. How did he come across it?
“I met the parents of Martin Burton and was touched by the story of how his death, an enormous tragedy for them, saved other people’s lives. Then I realised we had the chance to put his mother in a room with the boy who got Martin’s heart and enable her to reach out and touch his chest and feel that heart beating. I’m trying to make connections and this is a story that reaches out and touches so many of us.”
Another story that made a radio series is the account of David Koresh and the storming of his cult headquarters in Waco, America.
“I met Livingstone Fagan, a survivor of Waco, whose wife and children were killed in the blaze, who lives in a flat in Nottingham and is sincerely waiting for the Second Coming of David Koresh. I wanted to tell his story.”
Cole is careful, in the documentary, to be even-handed, and he talks to the survivors from the cult as well as the police and government authorities who were trying to end the standoff peaceably. The only comment he allows himself comes right at the end, when he says, despite all the arguments still raging over whose fault it was, “Nobody would have died if it had not been for David Koresh.” The whole series, which was still available on BBC Sounds when I last checked, is a powerful – and perhaps timely – look at what people can be led to do if they are first led to believe the unbelievable.
Cole has now turned to fiction – what is the new book about?
“The Light Keeper is a novel of hope, faith, grief, longing and love. A woman goes missing in the midst of the stress of trying for a baby. Her partner searches for her in the beautiful but deadly landscape around Beachy Head, where huge cliffs fall away to the sea. And there in an old former lighthouse, on the brink of a four hundred foot drop, is a mysterious man who knows only too well that sometimes love takes you to the edge.”
“I’ve been writing The Light Keeper for ten years now, beginning soon after we moved to the south coast of England. I began to explore and respond to the landscape around me – the rolling downland, the wide skies, the high cliffs – and as I did, stories began to emerge that I might tell. Some of them are drawn from or inspired by life, and there are a few elements of the book such as descriptions of the IVF process and some of the grief and longing that the characters experience, that have been very real to me.”
What other influences were there?
“I spent a week with the voluntary Beachy Head Chaplaincy Service, an amazing group of people who patrol the edge in all weathers and at all times of day looking for people to help, and who save hundreds of lives a year. They don’t do publicity, but they did allow me to write a piece about them, which I am proud to say resulted in enough money being raised to keep them going for a few years more. They were the original inspiration for the group in the book called the Guardians, although I must say the Guardians are a fictional creation and are definitely not what the Chaplains are like in real life, some of them behave very differently.”
And his reasons for writing it?
“Because stories are the way we work out who we are, what we believe in and where we stand. There are themes in The Light Keeper around faith, prayer, belonging and the nature of the divine – and how we can often encounter the sacred in the natural world – that I have been trying to work out for myself over the years. Where do I belong? What can I hold on to when my life is in chaos? Where is God in all this? What happens when you pray? Do miracles happen? And if they seem to, why are they often so mysterious and hard to live with?”
Did it give him any answers to these questions?
“This wasn’t autobiography or writing as therapy, but the experience over the last ten years has been part of a spiritual and personal journey, certainly. I have found a place to belong, a landscape I love, that gives me space to breathe, think, feel and pray. My faith is very different than it used to be: more questioning, more doubtful, more generous and inclusive and all the better for that. I am certainly more full of wonder than I was.”
As a writer, how different an experience was it to write a novel?
“Totally different. Disconcertingly, scarily different. The main thing is that in any one moment you have a thousand choices, because you can go anywhere you want. I enjoyed finding a way to engage with the place where I live, learning to see it like an artist. I enjoyed the freedom. I enjoyed the discovery that I really do still believe in a God who is with us at all times, in all situations, like a music playing behind all things, if only we can take a moment to hear.”
“Sometimes, writing is an agonising process, if it just won’t come right, but it’s still better than working! I’ll say instead that I found it an emotional challenge, when scenes emerged in the writing that touched a nerve for me or came out of nowhere, apparently, and were poignant. There’s a moment where Sarah, as a three-year-old, is taken to hospital to see her mother, who is dying but doesn’t want to say so. I have never been in that situation, but when I wrote the first draft I was gulping back tears.”
Do you feel differently about the novel to the way you have felt about your previous books?
“It feels more personal, because I am usually telling other people’s stories. This one is mine. My aim is for The Light Keeper to carry you away, wrap you up in the warm breeze of a story, lift you up and make you think and feel. I hope you enjoy it.”
By Ali Hull
‘Matrix’ Man Keeps the Faith
Having ensured his name stands the test of time in the pantheon of sci-fi greats, Laurence Fishburne discusses the parallels between his time in cinema and his faith off-screen.
With his imposing frame and booming voice, Laurence Fishburne would have suited the life of a preacher. Though he may have chosen acting as his profession – and now with a host of acclaimed performances to his name –the idea of Fishburne having a career in the Church is not as far-fetched as it seems.
“I wasn’t raised in a religious environment, but I’ve always had unshakeable faith,” the 57-year-old nods. “Always. And I’m grateful for that. God is real for me. Whatever name you want to give him is up to you. But I know that there is one. I know, because I believe.”
You can almost hear the sermon in Fishburne’s stage-honed voice.
“I believe in myself,” he declares. “I believe in God; I believe in my children; I believe in human beings. I believe in the goodness that is in human beings. I believe in many, many things that I cannot prove. I believe that there is the world of the seen and the world of the unseen.
“We’ve all had experiences. I mean, everything good that’s happened to me is proof to me of my relationship to God. I work for God, in fact. It’s total unshakeable faith. It’s comforting. Very comforting.”
Perhaps there was something about Fishburne’s hypothetically clerical manner that can be traced back to arguably his biggest success in his real-life vocation. Known mostly for starring alongside Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in the Wachowskis’ genre-defining Matrix trilogy, Fishburne’s black-clad and sunglass-wearing character Morpheus is an influential leader and teacher.
“People still like to call me Morpheus, but that’s cool!” he laughs. “It’s the kind of role that sticks to you and I’m fine with that, although I have to tell people my name is not Morpheus. It was a great chapter in my life and those films affected people and impacted audiences in a big way. I believe that The Matrix paved the way for all these big comic book films that have become so important in the last decade especially. The Matrix films changed the landscape.
“I knew it would be great, but I didn’t know if anybody would watch it. I knew we were making something amazing. But how people would respond to it was something else. It was the most original material that I had ever encountered. What was great about playing Morpheus is that he is like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi rolled up into one.”
Aside from fellow sci-fi references, Morpheus also represents a veritable smorgasbord of mythology and religious manifestations. Named after the Greek god of dreams, the character’s relationship with Reeves’ Neo – or ‘The One’ – has many similarities with the biblical story of John the Baptist. In fact, Fishburne believes that the twin ideologies of sci-fi and theology are often intertwined – with his most recognisable work playing a key part in that duality over the years.
“The Matrix franchise changed the landscape of movies,” he explains. “It brought philosophy to science fiction. For me, it’s an old story, biblical in its scope. It’s the story of the Messiah who saves the earth. But those movies took that story and added contemporary symbols in the form of technology. There was something ancestral told in a contemporary and universal way. I loved science fiction to begin with, because I am convinced that we are not by ourselves in the universe. I grew up with the Carl Sagan Cosmos series and Star Trek – I’m very curious about the world and everything that lies beyond.”
Fishburne’s interest in the more nuanced aspects of science fiction, and its relationship to his own ongoing search for guidance through his faith, could go some way to explaining most of his recent filmography. There has been standard sci-fi fare such as The Signal (2014) or Passengers (2016), and roles in several comic book adaptations, including DC’s Man of Steel in 2013 and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp last year.
Fishburne’s first major project came a lot closer to home, however, as Tyrone ‘Mr Clean’ Miller, the gangly gunboat-manning GI accompanying Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s visionary Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Though now considered a classic of the genre, Coppola’s film was originally met with mixed reviews – a disappointment for the 14-year-old Fishburne who had told the legendary director he was 16 in order to make his way onto set.
“It’s still regarded as one of his best films and one of the greatest films ever. I was pretty disappointed by the fact that the public didn’t respond to it the way a lot of us were expecting, but I think that was because the Vietnam War was such a bitter experience for Americans and not enough time had gone by for people to want to confront the reality of that.”
Still, Fishburne acknowledges the effect Apocalypse Now has had on him in terms of both his acting career and wider life off-screen.
“Out of the whole experience, what I learned is that sometimes you get disappointed in life,” he says. “You’ve got to figure it out and get over it, then move on. It’s not the disappointment that matters; it’s how you deal with it. As it is, I think of that movie as a kind of home movie. That movie is like my high-school yearbook. And I’ll never forget Martin Sheen being really generous and helpful to me one day after I had done 40 or 50 takes and I was having trouble with a scene I was doing. He saw I was struggling, and he came over and whispered in my ear: ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a really good actor?’ He gave me something I needed at that moment as a human being.”
The list of acclamations to Fishburne’s name includes a nomination for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, and a Tony and Emmy Award win for Two Trains Running and TriBeCa respectively. As he nears his milestone sixtieth birthday, Fishburne can look on the majority of his life as having been spent on the stage or screen.
“I became a professional actor at the age of ten,” he reveals. “I did my first play at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse in New York, and as soon as I was up on stage, I knew that I could do this for the rest of my life. I was completely sold on acting and the creativity and excitement that comes with it.”
Like many successful actors, Fishburne relied on the support of his mother Hattie to help him overcome hardships. A product of both America’s Deep South and the Big Apple, Fishburne’s family instilled the values of both in him from the outset.
“I was born in Georgia but then my family moved to New York when I was two and I grew up in Brooklyn,” he explains. Later, Hattie became invaluable in Fishburne’s future career, offering financial incentive for the Hollywood hopeful, and placing her young son’s acting advancement ahead of her own professional life.
“My mom encouraged me to keep auditioning for parts because she would tell me that I could earn several hundred dollars per week doing theatre or even more doing a series,” he chuckles. “My first gig turned out only to pay ten bucks a week, which was kind of a disappointment! But it didn’t matter, I was hooked on it. I loved acting.”
“There was something of the stage mother about her, I can’t deny that, but I could never have done Apocalypse Now had she not been willing to stop her life and be there with me. She was a great mother and I’m very grateful that she did that for me. She knew how important that role was and everything else that has happened to me in this business is the result of that film.”
As for his own family – consisting of son Langston and daughter Montana from his first marriage to actress Hajna Moss, and daughter Delilah with former wife and co-star Gina Torres – Fishburne is happy to emulate the kind of help his own mother showed him during his formative years. But he hasn’t yet been called upon to make good on that intention.
“I don’t know if they will become actors. I don’t know what they will become. They have their own ambitions and when they’re ready to share those ambitions with the world, they will. My children will become the people that they want to become. I would encourage them to do whatever they want to do, but nobody’s come to me yet and said, ‘Dad, I want to be in the business...’”
Incredibly for someone who was sharing a screen with Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper et al by their early teens, Fishburne entertained ideas of pursuing a profession that would have made similar use of his naturally influential persona, and been more in line with his mother’s talents as a science and mathematics teacher.
“The first thing I wanted to be was a doctor, so I was always interested in science,” he says. “So that was an early introduction to the kinds of film projects I would end up doing later in life. As an actor, I realised I could be anything. When I had an opportunity to use my scientific knowledge or curiosity in later roles, I would try to do that and explore my interest.”
Recently, Fishburne has revisited his most successful cinematic venture – at least in part – by starring opposite Keanu Reeves once again in the second and third instalments of the hugely popular John Wick series. His career on-screen may well be rooted back to Morpheus and the pair’s Matrix partnership, but it seems that the star himself is looking ever outwards at the prospect of bringing a sense of divine intervention and exploration to everyday life.
“It’s funny, but when I think of The Matrix, I’m not a tech freak at all,” he smiles. “I have a smartphone, but I don’t live with it the way most people do. I don’t use social media – I’d rather talk to people. And I still call people instead of sending text messages! But the real questions that interest me are more along the lines of: ‘What is the nature of God?’”
By Peter Wallace
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