Lenny Henry: “Work is a structure, but it can also be your undoing”
Julia Llewellyn Smith
Leaving my job at Channel 4 News in 2021 was hard. For 32 years, the adrenaline of presenting a nightly news show was like a drug. Yes, I was born in 1947 and, maybe, at 75, doing a five-days-a-week newscast wouldn’t be the best idea. But was I ready to go? Not really.
Surprisingly, though, it’s been quite a blessing, allowing me time to be more creative, reflective and available to my family. So far, I’ve yet to translate the time in to all the things I’d like to do. As a boy, I was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral but I’ve yet to join that adult choir. I’m a keen amateur painter too, but I haven’t embarked on any major canvases. It takes time to adjust when retiring from any job, I suspect.
Not that I consider myself retired. The pace is different, but I’m still actively a journalist – with a book and three documentaries in the can, including How to Live to 100, about parts of the world where people live to an extraordinarily old age.
Hopefully, I’ve learnt something here about, for example, minimising stress and maximising family life. With luck, I plan to stay well, live long and carry on working to the grave.
With luck, I plan to stay well, live long and carry on working to the grave
I have, though, mostly hung up the collection of flamboyant ties that were my trademark when presenting the news. They dangle from the rack – all 150 of them – pleading to be used, although I know no one mad enough to want to wear them. My trademark socks, though, are still in active use. Today, I’m wearing a pair of bright pink ones. Happy the sock, happy the man.
I haven’t given up my trusty cycle either and while living in London’s Primrose Hill, I never would. I’m a huge advocate of cycling, for making it more accessible and safer for all – and I am president of the charity Cycling UK. Throughout my career, my bike was the perfect and quickest way to get to any job ahead of the pack and it remains my favourite way to get from A to B in central London.
I own a lovely, titanium-framed, hybrid bike that was custom-built for me by Condor, a specialist bike maker on London’s Gray’s Inn Road, close to the Channel 4 News studio. I religiously protect it with two D-locks, and so far the wheels have never been stolen – it would be a disaster if they were. Touch wood, I’ve never had a bike accident either.
There’s hardly a day when I don’t cycle, but this morning the rain was torrential and my wife [the epidemiologist Dr Precious Lunga] put her foot down when I planned to ride to a barber’s appointment. To avoid a row, I grabbed a taxi. Mostly, she’s pretty relaxed about it. I was a cyclist when we met and she accepts I always will be.
Although I was with my first partner, human rights lawyer Madeleine Colvin, for 35 years and we had two daughters [Leila, 40, and Freya, 37], we never felt the need to marry. We were part of a generation who deemed it unnecessary and we were perfectly happy with that.
These days, although society is still relaxed about the question, the value of marriage has very much returned and I’m not sorry about that. Of course, it remains a personal choice, but Precious and I decided that we did very much want to marry. We wanted to make a statement to each other and to the outside world and I’m so pleased we did.
Marriage to me now feels like an anchor in an uncertain world where there are so many choices on offer. I find the stability that it brings so attractive and I love being married to Precious.
There are three very small people in my life – two grandsons, aged one and three, and a son, Tafara, who is two-going-on-five. He’s got his mum’s brain and my extrovert nature. I love how you can already have great conversations with him. Having him was not easy but we persisted because, at 48, my wife is a good deal younger than me and she very much wanted and deserved a baby. When he was born, life felt complete.
I’m completely at ease with late fatherhood. I don’t feel I’ll drop him; I don’t feel exhausted. I haven’t found age relevant to my relationship with my son or grandsons.
Is being a grandad different to being a dad? Not really. In the end, it’s all love, isn’t it?
I’m much more relaxed and present as a parent than my own father.
He was the Bishop of Whitby – 6ft 7in tall and even taller in his full regalia. I’m 6ft 4in now, but was only 4ft 6in as a child of eight or nine, when it really mattered. I found him pretty scary and remote at that time and my being sent to public school didn’t bring us any closer. These days the idea of taking a child out of the family to educate them strikes me as bonkers.
How wonderful it might have been to sit down to do homework with my father. Never once was I able to say: “Dad, two and two. Are they really four?” His only involvement in my education was to loudly agree with the damning reports from my teachers because, unlike Precious, who is Cambridge-educated and the boffin in our relationship, I wasn’t bright at school. There are many kinds of intelligence. Mine was the raw, animal kind. I was good at picking up signals and understanding people. I made a career from it.
I’m sure my drive to succeed came from wanting to prove the naysayers – especially my parents – wrong. And wrong they certainly were.
There was a lot of unnatural shame attached to everything when I was growing up. My mother, a brilliant pianist – who I was closer to because of our mutual love of music – suffered from alopecia totalis. She was bald and wore a wig, and yet my two brothers and I were not allowed to know this. We discovered it when I was about ten. My father overturned the car and her wig fell off. Can you imagine not knowing something so fundamental about your own mother? She saw it as disgrace, but why? It was hardly her fault.
Same thing with sex – my parents never talked about it. One might once have said: “I’ve got a book I can lend you…” I never borrowed it!
My flamboyant ties dangle from the rack – all 150 of them – pleading to be used
I’ve felt deeply connected to Africa since doing Voluntary Service Overseas in Uganda, aged 18. There I was on the banks of the Nile teaching kids who longed for education. Often, I was only a couple of pages ahead in the textbook, but I managed to be convincing. I can still sing the entire Ugandan national anthem too, as I proved at a recent reunion of Ugandan Asians at Buckingham Palace hosted by King Charles. I’ve got to know him a bit through our mutual involvement in various projects. I have a lot of respect for him.
Uganda was the most incredible, formative year of my life, along with the time I spent working for Lord Longford’s organisation to help the homeless, London’s New Horizon Youth Centre – a charity of which I’m still a patron. Had I gone straight from public school into my career, I’d have been a different journalist and a different man. It shaped everything about me: my politics, morals and way of looking at humanity.
I’ve returned to Africa often and though I’ve interviewed popes and PMs, the one I remember most is with Nelson Mandela. Who aside, perhaps, from Jesus Christ, achieved so much and against so many odds? He was the most communicative, understanding, and warm person. He was extraordinary.
Precious is originally Zimbabwean and I believe we are becoming more accepting of interracial marriage and race in general. I look at football, where brilliant, black players are loved by the crowd regardless of their ethnicity. I never thought football would be a grandstand for racial equality but we have the England team taking the knee. These are brave and beautiful moments in the fight against racism.
I wrote my autobiography in 2004, but at 75, I’ve moved on emotionally and politically – otherwise, where have I been for the last 20 years? Hopefully, my new book, The State of Us, offers a more mature reflection of my life and the world.
It can seem we’re in the bleakest times – war raging in Ukraine, a pandemic we’re still recovering from. Yet, I still feel so hopeful. Ukraine hasn’t bowed to Putin, and despite the dark days of Covid, we survived it rather well. My book is written in praise of the indomitable human spirit and hopefully readers will come away believing no matter how big the problems, these too will pass and that we’re extraordinarily well equipped to live the good life we owe ourselves.
I’m an incurable optimist who finds pessimism the curse of humanity. But we have to be optimistic, to believe in each other and to trust that with love and hope we’ll come through and life can only get better. I certainly believe it.
As told to Daphne Lockyer.
The State of Us: The Good News and the Bad News About Our Society by Jon Snow (Bantam Press, £20) is out now.
Written by Jon Snow