The British author and film-maker Tony Palmer has had a lifelong passion for music, though unusually he straddles both pop and classical and has made a whole series of remarkable films covering both genres. Tonight, in the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Kensington he attended a screening of his 1995 masterwork about Henry Purcell, England My England, which he says he made for a mere £90,000 — amazing when one considers the length of the movie and its brilliance. Several days shooting took place in Bulgaria — hence the link, as well as there having been a Bulgarian associate producer for the film — including shots of medieval streets meant to conjure up the packed dwellings of seventeenth century London during the plague, as well as a set of building facades on fire representing the Great Fire of London. The film has some first rate acting by Simon Callow as Charles II (and the actor-playwright in a parallel contemporary story line) and Michael Ball as Purcell. But the thing that really makes England My England truly unforgettable is the sublime level of the performances of Purcell’s works, which are seen in the context of his life and British history, including both rehearsals and performances as if in the period. The ending aptly incorporates a stunning Dido’s Lament. The script picks up on the poetry of Dryden and other librettists in a skilfully controlled screenplay by the late John Osborne. Osborne’s quirkiness comes through at times, not least in a sudden blast against the Common Market, forerunner of the European Union, which Tony Palmer warmly endorsed, but struck some audience members as misplaced. In the Q&A session after the screening he described the EU as a ‘con’. But his most vitriolic remarks — and he is, as one might say, a plain speaker — were reserved for some members of the audience who had talked inanely almost non-stop during the film, repeatedly glancing at their mobile phones to see the time, before noisily leaving two thirds of the way through, and even more so for what Palmer called the idiotic presenters, all female as it happens, who front Arts programmes on both the BBC and the independent channels these days. I had better not mention the young ladies’ names as they might justifiably consider the criticism libelous. But Tony Palmer is right, of course, about the way that television talks down to viewers as if they are thick and need to have everything explained or made ‘relevant’and he was delighted that he got a handwritten note of solidarity from the acerbic Arts critic Brian Sewell who read some of the director’s opinions in yesterday’s Times.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th June, 2013
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Brian Sewell, Bulgaria, Bulgarian Cultural Institute, Charles II, England My England, Great Fire of London, Herny Purcell, John Dryden, John Osborne, Michael Ball, Simon Callow, Tony Palmer | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th June, 2013
The European Union has been leading the way in the global fight against climate change, not least thanks to the efforts of Liberal Democrat Ministers in the UK’s Coalition government, Chris Huhne and now Ed Davey. The latter was guest speaker at Merton Liberal Democrats’ summer garden party in Wimbledon this afternoon and restated his determination that the Paris summit in 2015 must seal a meaningful new treaty, to build on achievements so far. There are some member states that are dragging their feet — notably Poland, which still relies heavily on coal for its energy needs. But the UK is part of a group of 10 EU member states — dubbed the Green Growth Group — which are on the side of the angels in the related debate. Moreover, Ed has been buoyed by the appointment of John Kerry as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State in his second term, as Kerry was ahead of Al Gore in recognising the problems of global warming. Even China is sending out some reassuring signals. The problems of air and water pollution in China are immense, as a result of the country’s rapid industrialisation and relatively lax environmental supervisory standards. But public opinion in China has become increasingly vociferous about the health consequences for children — all the more acute give China’s ongoing (though modified) one child policy. Accordingly, the Chinese Communist Party has started to take note of ecological protests, instead of just suppressing them, as it realises that its survival in government may be at stake. Back home in the UK, it is the Liberal Democrats who have been keeping the Coalition government on track on climate change issues, despite the scepticism of certain Tory right-wingers. In next year’s European elections (which in London will coincide with all-out borough council elections) the LibDems must champion this success. Furthermore, Ed argued, we should not hold back in attacking UKIP, which is not only the home of many climate change deniers but also tries through its lies and distortions to undermine European cooperation with all its beneficial aspects for our common future.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Al Gore, Barack Obama, China, Chris Huhne, climate change, Ed Davey, global warming, Green Growth Group, John Kerry, Liberal Democrats, Merton Liberal Democrats, Poland, UKIP, Wimbledon | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 15th June, 2013
Watching events in and around Istanbul’s Taksim Square over the past few days, as well as in Ankara and some other Turkish cities, has been like seeing a slow-motion car-crash without being able to do anything about it other than shout a warning. And, alas, the driver — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — has not been listening. What started out as a predominantly good-natured environmental protest against plans to redevelop Gezi Park turned into a much wider challenge to Mr Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic style in the wake of high-handed police activity. Police and army brutality is nothing new in Turkey but one of the undoubted achievements of the AK Party’s 10 years in power had been a rejection of the State’s right to trample on people’s freedoms at will — or so the outside world was given to believe. Actually, those of us who covered trials of writers and journalists, or who watched the way Kurdish activists — including some members of parliament — were treated realised that the situation was not that clear-cut. It is true that Mr Erdogan has overseen an extraordinary period of growth in the Turkish economy, the stabilisation of the currency and the recognition of Turkey’s significance as an inspiration, if not quite a model, in the MENA region. That makes it all the more tragic that he has thrown away so much of the genuine international goodwill by ordering a crackdown by the security forces on demonstrators. These he has portrayed as “looters” and worse, despite the fact that the crowds in Taksim Square, in particular, were extremely heterodox, as not just leftists and trade unionists but ordinary citizens with no fixed political affiliation felt motivated to get out on the streets and to stand up for their freedoms. The Prime Minster obviously feels he has to show himself to be a man of steel, but that does not go down so well in 2013 as it often did in the past. I suspect the current move against the people in and around Taksim Square was deliberately planned for a weekend, when most of the world’s parliaments are not sitting and the leaders of the top Western industrialised nations are deep in discussion about the global economy at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland. But I would wager that Mr Erdogan has miscalculated in this, just as he has made a seriously wrong move on the ground. The world will notice and decry what is happening — as will a significant proportion of the Turkish population.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th June, 2013
The past fortnight in Turkey has been transformative for many Turks, especially the young, as a protest against plans to redevelop Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square turned into a national uprising, with demonstrations in all but four of the nation’s cities. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears to have taken the protests as a personal affront and he has been caustic in his comments, describing the protesters as looters (“capulcu“) and worse, but those he has abused have embraced the term capulcu in the spirit of sarcasm and festival that has characterised so much of the outdoor activities, especially in Taksim Square — or at least until the police waded in with great brutality and a liberal use of teargas. The young demonstrators (75% of whom are estimated to be under 30) were tonight portrayed by the popular Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran, at a meeting in London’s House of Commons organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies, as frightened, bruised and humiliated, but the contempt with which they have been treated by Mr Erdogan and some of his supporters has only served to impel more people, of diverse backgrounds, into the streets. Ece Temelkuran said most of these people are not overtly political; in fact they are largely of a generation that was deliberately brought up de-politicised by the military governments of the past. Moreover, she asserted, those Western journalists who have tried to simplify what has been going on as a straight confrontation between secularists trying to keep alive the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Islamists backing Erdogan’s AKP have misread the situation. She also rejected the label “Turkish Spring” which some lazy commentators have tried to affix to the disturbances, as if it were all part of a pattern started off in Tunisia in December 2010. As the moderator of this evening’s event said in many ways it is more like May 1968, anarchic in its diversity and absence of leadership or indeed precise goals. For his part, Mr Erdogan this evening has called for a referendum on the fate of Gezi Park, but that is not the central issue, even if it sparked initial protests. And Ece Temelkuran was pessimistic about what may happen over the next 24 hours and beyond. “Before it gets better it’s going to get worse, 100 per cent,” she said.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Centre for Turkey Studies, Ece Temelkuran, Gezi Park, Istanbul, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Taksim Square, Tunisia, Turkish Spring | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th June, 2013
The fightback starts here. Yesterday I blogged about the benefits of the ECHR and the insane campaign by certain right-wing Tories to get Britain to remove itself from the Convention (thereby putting itself in the sole company of Belarus). But this evening I was speaking about why Europe — i.e. the EU — matters, at a pizza and politics organised by my own local Liberal Democrat party, Tower Hamlets. I reminded members that the EU (in its various incarnations), together with NATO, had preserved peace on our continent for nearly 70 years — unprecedented in modern times. The way that formerly Communist countries have been integrated into the Union — rejoining the European family — has been particularly striking. On 1 July, Croatia will be the next. I also maintained that we should champion the free movement of people within the European Single Market, which has helped Brits working on the Continent just as it has helped other EU nationals who have come here. The three areas we shall focus on over the next 11 months will be jobs, the environment and crime, and on all of these the Liberal Democrats have powerful messages to convey, stressing both the local and European dimension (there will be all-out London borough elections on 22 May 2014, alongside the European elections). Moreover, these are areas in which the LibDems have distinct policies from our current national Coalition partners, the Conservatives. The Tories characterise membership of the EU as an impediment, rather than an opportunity; the right wing’s idea that the UK could somehow go it alone and try to arrange bilateral trade deals with major economic powers like the US, China and India is pure cloud cuckoo land. At long last, Prime Minister David Cameron has said as much, but sotto voce, and almost drowned out by the shrieks of UKIP and his own Europhobic headbangers, cheered on by the tabloid Press. Every day the British Press (with noble exceptions such as the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times) spews out lies and distortions about the EU (too often politely dismissed by Euro-realists as “myths”). I was interested that the Bengali members of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats (who made up about half of tonight’s gathering) expressed worries about immigration from Eastern Europe and the notion that these newcomers are taking local people’s jobs. That is of course the narrative of UKIP, which has gained some traction, and we need to stress how (a) immigrants contribute more to the UK economy than they receive in benefits, and (b) young Brits (of whatever ethnic origin) really need to be getting appropriate qualifications to fill the jobs that are available and not turn their noses up at tasks which they feel are somehow beneath them.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th June, 2013
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated Court in Strasbourg is a favourite Aunt Sally of right-wing Conservative MPs and Britain’s tabloid Press (which these days, alas, includes the broadsheet Daily Telegraph), but unjustly so. The Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as it is more formally known, has since its drafting in 1950 and later adoption by the Council or Europe done a huge amount of useful work in promoting the Rule of Law throughout Europe (including Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey; only the dictatorship of Belarus is outside the fold), as well as providing individuals who feel their rights have been violated by their own State to seek redress. Despite the fact that the Court is a separate institution from the European Union it still gets tarred with the Brussels brush by virulent Europhobes, who seem to believe that the United Kingdom has completely abandoned its national sovereignty to foreigners — not that many of these anti-Europeans seem particularly worried about the fact that US influence is far more marked in various aspects of British public and foreign policy, not to mention our culture. Two things have been like juicy bones to these frothing xenophobic hounds. First, the Court’s ruling that it was wrong for the UK to deprive all prisoners of their rights to vote, no matter how short their sentence or trivial their offence. Theresa May could easily have got round that issue by accepting that prisoners with a sentence of less than six months should still retain their vote, but others not — a compromise that would have satisfied Strasbourg. The other even more famous ECHR “outrage”, of course, relates to the prolonged delay in the expulsion of the vile Islamist extremist Abu Qatada because there has not been up till now a credible assurance from his home country, Jordan, that evidence that might be used against him in any trial in Amman would not have been obtained by torture. Now I, like almost everyone in this country, long to see the back of Abu Qatada, who has milked the system here, including claiming benefits. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by saying, oh well, as he is so wicked it does not matter if witnesses against him have been tortured. When we accept that, then we surrender our commitment to human rights (as the last Labour government alas did, with respect to extraordinary rendition). Moreover, it is utter nonsense for Theresa May to float the idea — seized on by relish by some of her backbench MPs and the right-wing Press — that Britain could temporarily withdraw from ECHR so it can expel Abu Qatada, then reapply once he is out of the way. Anyone who knows anything about International Law and diplomacy knows that is shamelessly playing to the gallery while undermining the very foundations of our credibility as a nation. What is really lacking, I believe, is a concerted campaign in Britain to champion what the ECHR actually achieves, in which politicians, NGOs and the enlightened media should participate. It is not just the future of our involvement with the Strasbourg Court that is at stake but our values as well.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th June, 2013
In an increasingly globalised world, our individual and collective identities are inevitably complex. As I said in a speech at the Global Citizenship Forum at University College London last night, nonetheless we can live comfortably with layered identities. Though not born in London, I feel strongly that I am a Londoner and my passport tells me that I am British. But the passport also declares that I am a citizen of the European Union, which is a dimension many people living in the EU have yet to get their heads around. One can only hope that the current European Year of the Citizen will assist in the construction and realisation of European identity (not related to skin colour or “race”, but rather to culture and location), despite the efforts of UKIP et al. Most of the attendees at last night’s UCL event — which was organised by the NGO Development in Action — would aspire to be global citizens, but that can be quite difficult to achieve; I argued it’s all about mindset. Part of the problem of the discourse and practice of international development has been the assumption that poorer parts of the world and communities will have their problems solved if they become just like us in affluent societies such as Britain. Instead, we need to recognise the differences between us and respect them and provide a space for individuals and communities in developing countries to work out their own path of progress, while offering appropriate assistance. I reminded the predominantly young audience of some of the basic principles of the pedagogy of Paulo Freire, who argued that education in disadvantaged communities first of all required helping people understand the status quo so they could then challenge it and use new skills to empower themselves. I also stressed in the Q&A session afterwards with my fellow panelists Daniela Papi and Nicole Blum that there is not one single model for global governance or blueprint for what a globalised world should look like, which further complicates achieving global citizenship. China and India have very different conceptual frameworks, for example, and the days when the United Nations was shaped along European lines must surely be coming to an end.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd June, 2013
The Silk Road, linking the empires of Rome and China, conjours up an atmosphere of mystery and exoticism by its very name. Actually, there were many branches of the Silk Road — just as there were many branches of the Great Wall of China — through a range of more northerly or southerly routes, binding West to East over the centuries. In 2006, the young Oxford graduate Nick Rowan (now working in the oil industry in London) spent four-and-a-half months travelling from Venice to Xian, in the hope of recapturing some of the spirit of intrepid traders of various nationalities, who would have spent considerably longer on their journeys, even if few covered more than one or two sections of the road. Inspired by the sights and sounds of Central Asia in particular, Rowan has written a travelogue recording his journey, during which he used many types of transport from buses to taxis to a clapped-out old ferry across the Caspian Sea, and even a few side excursions on horseback. Initially moving solo, he inevitably linked up with various people en route, both Western companions and, more significantly, interested locals. On the final leg of the journey, across China, he was joined by his younger brother. The resultant book is a mixture of travel diary and historical asides, as well as insights into aspects of economic and social development gained by contacts he had through an overseas aid charity. His narrative starts a little hesitantly — it is hard to say anything very new or remarkable about as well-chronicled a place as Venice — but he really gets into his stride when he reaches Iran and he encounters not only the architectural splendours of cities such is Isfahan, but also the engaging hospitality of the Iranian people, so different from what one might imagine if one just listens to Western propaganda. Turkmenistan wins the prize as the oddest country on his epic journey, but one senses that it is really Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that win his affection. After them, China is something of an anti-climax. Reading Rowan’s book, one certainly feel one is accompanying him on the journey and can share his varying moods of excitement, frustration and boredom. He rather overuses certain adjectives (notably “stunning”), and a little tighter editing would have improved the text. But this is the account of a voyage that clearly was a type of rite of passage for the author and it is both enjoyable and informative for those who may never get closer to Kashgar or Samarkand than the comfort of their armchair.
Nick Rowan: Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey, Hertfordshire Press, £14.95