The comedian’s childhood was defined by racist abuse and his mother’s violence. As he publishes his autobiography, he talks about how it shaped him as a performer and activist

“I’m fascinated by it. It’s history.” Lenny Henry is explaining why he has decided to write an autobiography (Who Am I, Again?) about his childhood in Dudley and the beginning of his 45-year comedy career. For Henry, this isn’t just a bit of navel-gazing and the odd anecdote featuring Chris Tarrant (although there is some of that). It is about bearing witness. “I grew up in a period where, just down the road in Smethwick, a Tory politician got in with the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour’,” he says, referring to Peter Griffiths’ notorious 1964 election win for the Conservatives. “I’m living just down the road from Wolverhampton, where the Rivers of Blood speech was made. So I’m in a place where there are toxic elements that you think would be an obstacle to my progress in life. But, actually, I think those things are part of what makes us stronger.”

Henry tells me this as we sit in the corner of a lounge bar that looks out over the old BBC Television Centre in west London. The place is decked out in mid-century modern decor, with plush stools and mood lighting. If we were meeting in the evening, you would expect him to order an old fashioned, but it is not even 10am and all he wants is a bit of toast. Henry – who is half incognito in a flat cap, glasses and a polka dot scarf – seems to be on first-name terms with all the staff and politely asks one of them to turn the muzak down a bit. This is very much his domain. “All that used to be offices,” he says, gesturing toward a section of the building that has been turned into luxury flats. “You’d go in there and get your ideas ripped apart.”

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Date: 
Monday, October 21, 2019 - 1:00am
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