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7 September 2022

Simon Woolley Q&A: “I often say I am a disciple of Martin Luther King”

The activist on football, Ozark and being adopted.

By New Statesman

Simon Woolley was born in Leicester in 1961. He is the founder of the campaign group Operation Black Vote and a member of the House of Lords. As the principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, he is the first black male head of an Oxbridge college.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being driven from an orphanage to my home on St Matthews estate in Leicester, where I was to be fostered and adopted. In that new home I was loved and nurtured; it was there that I became the man I am today.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, Muhammad Ali, who told everybody he was the greatest boxer, and Pelé Reid, who was the greatest. Now it is my mum. I am the embodiment of her.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Racial Contract by Charles W Mills lays out a world in which people too often accept that white people are better, and black people are less than. It was revelatory to see that this is how the modern world has been organised. When you see that, you are in a better place to reorganise it.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I am a disciple of Martin Luther King. Everybody knows he had a dream but he also had a political plan. The core of that plan was to first empower African Americans and then poor white Americans, to be in a situation where they’re not asking for justice, but they can demand it. For 25 years I worked with Operation Black Vote, which empowers ethnic minority communities to do just that.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Football. I tried to say jazz but I’m just being pompous. Football is my first love, especially the 1970 World Cup final when Brazil truly epitomised the beautiful game.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Just before Roman times, when some African societies could intellectually, militarily and philosophically compete with any nation on the planet.

What TV show could you not live without?

Ozark. It’s beautifully disturbing.

What’s your theme tune?

Anything from Alexis Ffrench’s album Dreamland. It’s the most calming piano I’ve ever listened to.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

At all times, but particularly in difficult times, be you.

What’s currently bugging you?

The poisoned Conservative well. The outgoing prime minister has toxified the well. I worry that toxic space will continue with more anti-woke warriors who will divide poor white people against poor black people.

What single thing would make your life better?

More great leaders with integrity.

When were you happiest?

When my son, at the age of about two or three, would sit with his arms crossed and say, “Dad, can we have a chat?” He’s 16 now, and taller than me. He puts his arms around me, looks down and still says, “Dad, can we have a chat?”

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d be a watchmaker. I would sit at a desk looking at the intricacy of a Patek Philippe or a rare Rolex. I would slowly put it together and see how a myriad of different moving parts creates a masterpiece.

Are we all doomed?

No we’re not, because the human spirit never ceases to amaze me. In spite of raging inequality, I am always reminded that there is a rich well of human spirit that readily counters a lot of awfulness.

“Soar: My Journey From Council Estate to the House of Lords” is published by Manilla Press

[See also: Kathy Reichs Q&A: “I worry every time my grandkids go out”]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained