On a bright, sunny, late June morning earlier this week, we caught up with Russell Grant, in lockdown in the beautiful mountains of Snowdonia, where he is overlooking the stunning village of Portmeirion, where he took time out to chat to us about his views on Middlesex and on equality and respect for LGBTQ+ people.
Born and raised in Hillingdon, Middlesex, in February 1951, Russell Grant is arguably, if not almost undeniably, Middlesex’s most committed and ardent supporter. He moved to Harefield in his formative years, where he schooled, was active in the cubs and scouts and was head choir boy at St John’s Church. He discovered his love of sport at Harefield Cricket Club and Harefield United Football Club and fondly recalls how proudly the three seaxes and crown of the old Middlesex county flag were displayed on his school exercise books, on his scout badges and on huge county boundary signs as you entered the county of his birth. A Brentford FC fan and a Middlesex Cricket life member, not only was he born in the county, but he has since gone to great lengths to defend those roots, championing passionately to raise awareness of the existence of the county, following the Parliamentary decision to disband Middlesex County Council in 1965. As he states:
“It was Margaret Thatcher who informed me that the Government’s decision to abolish the County Council did not mean the abolishment of the County, which she rightly proclaimed has proudly existed for well over a thousand years. She took me to task when I spoke to her about it, when I was invited to Downing Street by the then Tory party Chairman Basil Feldman for a lunch, and ever since I’ve campaigned for the existence of the county to be known. We got a letter from her office to pronounce and confirm that, which was wonderful – I still have it somewhere today. The county still exists - quite why people don’t understand this is still a mystery to me?”
To further underpin Russell’s passion for Middlesex, in COVID-19 lockdown, he explains that he has been fervently working on the Facebook page he set up to celebrate the county of Middlesex’s heritage : “A big passion of mine is the history of Middlesex. I have been working closely with historian and researcher Professor Steve Fenn from Potters Bar, and we’ve been putting up lots of great content on the Middlesex heritage page and it’s been going really well. Only this morning, a post went up on the heritage’s Facebook page from Middlesex County in New Jersey, and even they get the fact that the county of Middlesex in England still exists, as they pointed out, it was the council that was abolished not the county. It’s incredible that they get it in New Jersey, yet people on our own doorstep, who should know better, just don’t seem to! I’ve also been commissioned to write a book on Staines – where I lived for over twenty-five years -, so have been putting lots of research into this, and hope that the book will come out next year, so that’s something exciting I’ve also been working on in lockdown.”
Born to a Father who was a talented set designer at Pinewood Studios and a Mother who also worked as a contracts secretary at Pinewood, having worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and was herself a semi-professional actor, a life in the entertainment industry followed for Russell, and whilst openly gay himself, he never had to go through the challenges of coming out: “It was something that never really came up.” He explains. “I was very lucky as I had to make no official announcement as such. Perhaps coming from a theatrical family and always being around theatrical people helped, but it never really came up and was never a fuss. I could just be myself, which was wonderful. I’m pretty sure my Dad was in denial, in some way, but I went straight into show business and it was never a fuss. I went to Drama school in Ruislip and was fortunate that my whole life has been in the industry and working in theatrical circles has probably helped me just be me. I think if had I worked in other professions which were more alpha male dominated it would have been a lot more difficult, as people don’t always understand.”
“I wrote a piece yesterday on Alan Turing, the brilliant genius mathematician who saved Britain in many ways in World War Two with his incredible decoding work at Bletchley Park. He was gay, was prosecuted, and it took years and years before he was given a pardon, which was a disgrace, and it made me really appreciate quite how lucky I was with not being judged. Even my dear old Dad, who I sadly lost last August, didn’t necessarily condone it, which was a generational thing, but he was definitely supportive of me. Remember in the 1950’s and 60’s it was still illegal to be gay, and I guess it would have been about 1967 when I first acknowledged to myself I was ‘different’ but to me it was natural – I mean, you don’t ask to be born gay or straight do you? I had no choice in the matter: as Lady Gaga so aptly put it ‘I was born that way’. Thankfully I had good people around me to support me, It was harder for people to accept back then, and I think the attitude of society today has definitely changed and millennials are generally more tolerant, accepting and open, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Asking Russell why he feels that society’s attitude towards gay and lesbian people has improved, Russell is quick to praise Stonewall, the charity set up in 1989 to champion equality for LGBTQ+ people: “The people at Stonewall have done a huge amount of wonderful work to help the situation. I’m a Patron of the Middlesex County Football League, and we’ve had Stonewall Football Club in the league for a number of years now. They do a huge amount to raise awareness and always support the rainbow laces campaign, and that, along with all the other work that is being done is definitely helping. What surprises me is how few people like and engage with the activity you’re putting up on this subject on the club’s social media channels, which is a real shame. I think its commendable that you are doing this, as what is the alternative – do nothing? And then you’re basically guilty of falling prey to their bigotry! I’ve done several things in the past for gay charities to try and help out on the awareness front, although it worries me that if people are turning to social media for help, in today’s age, when it’s both a force for good and evil, there’s a chance that vulnerable people will be targeted as prey by the bad people out there, risking falling victim of entrapment and grooming instead of finding the answers they really need. This is why charities like Stonewall, who have qualified people who have lived through similar life experiences, can really help and are so vital in providing support to anyone looking for advice on their sexuality.”
Russell feels that the support of those around him, especially family and friends, has been hugely important in helping to provide the support he has needed: “Whilst I rarely saw my parents as a young man, as I as always on tour from the age of eighteen, I got a lot closer to my Dad when I was in Strictly Come Dancing, as Dad was living in Uxbridge and I stayed with him when I was on the show for six months. We got a lot closer then and it was special for me when he told me that he was extremely proud of me for all that I had achieved in my life. Of course, my bestest best friend on Strictly, who is just the most wonderful and tolerant man, is Robbie Savage. He is so thoughtful, accepting and approving – the absolute epitome of everything a sportsman should be. His mum, Val, asked me to be Robbie’s God Father when his Dad passed away during the series and he is a very special friend of mine.”
On the subject of sportspeople, Russell is baffled with the enigma of why so few sportspeople have come out. He racks his brains to think of one male professional cricketer who is openly gay and struggles to think of any, before remembering Stephen Davies, who is now of course at Somerset. The fact that it was a struggle to remember just one player perhaps says it all: “If we could establish why there were so few sportspeople who come out, we would have found the panacea! It’s just so hard to fathom why, and we’d love to have the answer. For me, it’s a lot to do with people’s upbringing. If you don’t have someone that can teach you that it’s perfectly ok and nothing wrong with being gay then how are you going to be accepting of it when you grow up. There’s a genuine fear that coming out will somehow marginalise you, the fear of what will the neighbours think, and if you’re afraid to be proud of who you are, and you’ve been brought up in an environment of prejudice and intolerance, where people have tried to mould you into something you’re not, then inevitably you’re going to struggle with mental problems and neurosis later in life, living in fear of being your true self. The weight that many sportspeople must be carrying around with them, having not come out, must be so difficult. Having the weight of the world on their shoulders without having anyone to turn to. Before I moved to Snowdonia, one of the very first clubs I became a Patron of was Graces Cricket Club, who I’m now back in contact with after a number of years. As a club I know they’re still doing a huge amount to support LGBTQ+ people in sport.”
One of Russell’s early astrological clients was Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay professional footballer, who tragically took his own life in 1998: “Justin, would have had enormous cultural difficulties in coming out, with his West African heritage, and what he did, in coming out, was just the bravest thing ever. Not only has he had the bravery to do it for himself, but he has done it for everyone, and has become a real role model to so many people. The real tragedy comes however in that there are so few others that have followed suit. My old mate Alfie, Gareth Thomas, came out, which was just amazing, and what he has achieved has been incredible, although it’s staggering that it’s just ones, and not even twos who are having the courage to do it. It’s worrying they have to carry the weight of shame or guilt on their shoulders. When there really is nothing to be ashamed or guilty of: usually the problem lies with the people who are threatened by it – perhaps a case of ‘too close for comfort’ as they have their own emotional or sexual probs to deal with. The ‘what will the neighbours say’ syndrome. Who cares! As Shakespeare put it “To thine own self be true”.
Asked whether Russell feels he has ever been victim of homophobia in his life or his career, he is thankful that he can’t recall a single case where his sexuality has been held against him: “I am so lucky that to my knowledge this has never been an issue for me, which could largely be due to the profession I am in. I can’t recall any incident when I’ve come away thinking that I didn’t get a role because of my sexuality. It’s shocking that today people are still victimised for how they look, or what colour they are, or what their sexuality is. It’s as if people have already made their minds up before they’ve even met you. I do worry about people who are in male dominated professions who are worried that they can’t declare that they’re gay for fear of how they’ll be viewed, People feel that they need to fit in and conform to what they think people want them to be, which is just terrible. I know gay men in sport who have taken along their beards (fake female partners) with them to club dinners, just so that they are looking like they’re fitting in.”
Russell’s advice for anyone struggling to come to terms with their feelings is that they should turn to the professionals for help, rather than struggle through the difficulties themselves: “Go and seek help. It can all be done in confidence. There are many groups now that can offer help, guidance and support. Stonewall are so good at offering the right advice in difficult times. What’s important is that the people in their organisations will have had the same experiences as you and you can turn to them, knowing that they’re talking with knowledge and first-hand experience. There is nothing worse than feeling alone and not thinking that anyone can help, which is where these organisations are so beneficial. A major concern I have is that people will try and seek help in the wrong direction. I feel that the large social media companies have a much bigger role to play in protecting the people that use their platforms and safeguarding vulnerable people. There are plenty of places for people to get the help they need and my advice would be to speak to groups and organisations, preferably ones with a blue tick of verification, where you can get good support, advice and guidance. There are many mental health charities nowadays that are happy there to support people going through the torment of sexual confusion. The right kind of advice is there for everyone – whether you’re suffering from cultural pressures, religious pressures or any form of pressures – just make sure you find a group or organisation that can offer you a safe environment and can offer you the help you need. There is no need to feel lost or lonely. I can’t stress enough how important it is, to be able to live with yourself and just be true to yourself, and there are wise and good people out there who can discreetly counsel, guide and adviseto help you do precisely that.”
Middlesex Cricket would like to say a huge thankyou to Russell Grant for taking the time to speak with us so freely and openly and for sharing his experiences of life with us.