Jonathan Fryer

Archive for March, 2007

A Tale of Two Halls

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th March, 2007

logo.gifThe Clothworkers’ Hall off Mincing Lane is one of the newest livery halls in the City of London, only opening for business in 1958, but it’s the sixth estabishment on that site run by the Clothworkers’ Company since the 15th Century. Such a venerable tradition made appropriate surroundings for the annual meeting of Friends of the Elderly (FOTE) at midday today, at which the focus was on ‘The Fourth Age’ — in other words, people over 85, which is the fastest growing group in our increasingly inverted population pyramid. I was a member of the advisory council for the Friends’ centenary events in 2005, and in the past have done some consultancy work for Age Concern. But even I was startled by some of statistics revealed at the meeting and the crisis of care that is looming, especially regarding dementia. There was a moving keynote address by the widow of the Radio 3 presenter Malcolm John Pointer, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1991, but died only earlier this year, in her loving care. FOTE will be highlighting the well-being of the Fourth Age and the need for support for people at different stages of dementia in its work programme.

My day ended in a very different Hall: East Ham Town Hall (or Newham Town Hall, as it’s generally known these days), an imposing edifice on the Barking Road. Along with Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, and Keith Rayner, LibDem Deputy Leader of Waltham Forest Council, I was attending a seminar on Kashmir, organised by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which campaigns for an independent Kashmir — or failing that, whatever the people of Kashmir decide they want for their future. The Kashmir issue has been festering for 60 years, with appalling casualties amongst the civilian population, as well as military fatalities when India and Pakistan have gone to war over the territory. The matter shot to prominence in LibDem politics in the run-up to the LibDems’ Spring Conference, thanks to a draft report for the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs’ Committee, authored by (Baroness) Emma Nicholson, MEP. This came under a great deal of fire for being seen by Pakistanis and many Kashmiris as too pro-Indian, but has subsequently been heavily revised (thanks partly to imput from Asian LibDems in London, including the Mayor of Waltham Forest, Farooq Qureshi), and it is much better for it. It was passed by the Foreign Affairs Committee a few days ago and is slated to come up for discussion at a plenary session of the European Parliament in May. But that certainly won’t be the end of the affair — nor should it be.

Links: www.fote.org.uk and www.independentjklf.org  

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The Marx Brothers: Karl and Groucho

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 28th March, 2007

the-liberal-issue-10.jpgThe former Soviet Union has been occupying my thoughts for most of today, with all its bitter-sweet legacies. I went into Bush House (BBC World Service) at midday to record a From Our Own Correspondent piece that I’d written in Moldova, then early this evening attended a reception at Soho’s Groucho Club, for the celebratory launch of the 10th issue of The Liberal bi-monthly magazine, in which I have a despatch from Yerevan (Armenia). The former Soviet Union is certainly the flavour of the month — or in the case of The Liberal, the next two months, as the whole of issue 10 is devoted to ‘The Russian Restoration’. Before Karl Marx gets too excited from beyond the grave, however, this does not mean Communism is about to make a dramatic comeback (which it nonetheless did in Moldova in 2001). In the ideological stakes, it is Groucho, rather than his namesake, who is more in fashion these days, on both sides of the former Iron Curtain.

Fashionable indeed was the turnout at the launch party, but also eclectic. Veteran poet Dannie Abse looked slightly bemused, while Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was going round wondering out loud why she tends to pick fights with people (all in the cause of liberalism, of course). A string quartet battled womanfully on, managing at times to make heard Bach, Schubert and Vivaldi above the babble of bright young Liberal things and the bubble of champagne.

I must confess that when Ben Ramm first told me (at a garden party in Camden) about his ambition of resuscitating the magazine that had been associated with Byron and Shelley (and effectively sank with the latter), I was sceptical that it could be viable. I hadn’t counted on his energy and determination. He may sometimes have rubbed the Liberal Democrat hierarchy up the wrong way (not least by publicly calling for Charles Kennedy to be given the boot), but he really has created a fascinating pot-pourroi of poetry, politics and culture – and seduced many very well-known names to write for it, by no means all liberals. These have included Germaine Greer, Christopher Hitchens, Ariel Dorfman and Wole Soyinka, to cite but four. There are always a few surprises in the contributors’ lists. On this occasion these include chess master Gary Kasparov and Mugabe-baiter Peter Tatchell.

Human rights inevitably run as a sub-text through much of the issue, not just because of Russia’s gulag past but also because of current gross misdemeanours, notably in Chechnya. So it’s appropriate that the featured charity in this particular issue of The Liberal is Human Rights Watch — not as ubiquitous in the British Press as Amnesty International, but the admirable producer of countless well-researched and often chilling reports on human rights violations around the globe, which make it a formidable lobbying organisation and media resource.

Links: www.theliberal.co.uk and www.hrw.org

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Let’s hear Moore of Michael!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th March, 2007

It can’t have been easy to take over from Ming Campbell as Foreign Affairs spokesman of the Liberal Democrats. And it must be a pain having the same name as one of the world’s most famous alternative documentary film-makers. But Michael Moore is making a good fist of his new role, as well as being a towering presence among our MPs (he’s several inches taller than any of the others). Last night, he gave a wide-ranging talk to Camden LibDems at one of their regular dinner debates in Hampstead and revealed that he was just back from his first ever trip to the Middle East, on which he was accompanied by Lynne Featherstone (now our International Development spokesperson). He was understandbly hesitant when asked by one member present whether he was optimistic about the future of Israel/Palestine. But fascinatingly he bumped into Paddy Ashdown while on the Middle East trip; Paddy is making a film there for Channel 4. Having got the Bosnians to pull their socks up, as Viceroy in Sarajevo, surely Lord Ashdown can knock some heads together in Jerusalem? If only…

This reminds me of my oddest unexpected encounter with a LibDem — or Liberal, to be more accurate,  as we are talking about 20-odd years ago. I had got a visa to visit still-Communist Albania, which was then very much off the beaten track. I had to fly to Titograd in what is now Montenegro, take a bus to the frontier and then walk through a cow dip of disinfectant into the world’s first athetist state. And who should be waiting on the other side, as my guide/companion for the next few days but Gerry Mulholland, formerly an activist with Westminster Liberals. As they say, it’s a small world.

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High and Low Society

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 25th March, 2007

Delivering leaflets this morning in the spring sunshine, for the forthcoming Westminster LBC council by-election in Abbey Road ward, I understood why certain parts of St John’s Wood are considered by estate agents to be the bees’ knees in the London property market. Devotees of House and Garden will have a field-day, if they are allocated a delivery round like the one I had. It’s a whole world away from where I cut my political campaigning teeth: in the tower blocks of Birmingham Ladywood, in the 1969 parliamentary by-election — which we won, against all odds. It only shows LibDems can win anywhere, if they work hard enough (or are lucky!). As we have never won anything in Westminster since the London boroughs were created in the mid-1960s, all the more reason to take a good crack at this one. The candidate, Mark Blackburn, is a businessman who lives in the ward. And yes, Beatles’ fans, it is that Abbey Road!

Pondering the lifestyles of the rich has been counter-balanced in my mind today by the plight of the poor and marginalised — specifically refugees and asylum-seekers, as I have been reviewing a new book for Liberal Democrat News called From Outisde In: Refugees and British Society, edited by Nushin Arbabzadah (Arcadia Books, £11.99). It’s fascinating anthology of reportage, memoirs, fiction and poetry by refugees of all ages,  and many nations, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown — who wrote an introduction to the book and as a Ugandan Asian is a refugee herself — made a passionate speech at the book’s launch, sponsored by the British Council, on the top floor of Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, the other evening. As she said (here I paraphrase), the British are a funny lot: so welcoming on the one hand, and so hostile on the other. And for the refugees themselves, no matter how well they integrate into the host society, they never lose their sense of loss.

Links: www.westminsterlibdems.org.uk and www.arcadiabooks.co.uk

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There’s more to Kew than gardens

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th March, 2007

Each LibDem local party has its USP when it comes to social functions. At the Richmond Park dinner and question time in St Luke’s parish community centre in Kew last night it was the Kew Wind Quintet, who serenaded the 70-odd guests with Mozart et al, while the smoked salmon canapés circulated. The hot topic of conversation was the Conservatives’ recent selection of multi-millionaire ecologist Zac Goldsmith as their PPC for the constituency, in the hope of unseating our hard-working Susan Kramer, MP. Personally, I think the young Mr Goldsmith is going to discover before too long that the Tories aren’t quite as green as he thinks, nor Richmond Park quite so winnable, so I look forward to watching the disillusionment set in.

Richmond Council Leader Serge Lourie played the role of David Dimbleby in an excellent Question Time after dinner, presiding over a panel that included (Baroness) Sally Hamwee and local City financier Paul Marshall. Predictable topics included the reform of the House of Lords (with a majority of the panel favouring retaining at least an element of appointed membership, despite the unanimous vote by LibDem MPs for a 100% elected second chamber) and the abandoned LibDem policy of a 50% tax rate for top earners. But the question that really tested people’s consciences (and Liberalism!) related to the attempt by certain religious bodies to exempt their adoption agencies from sexual orientation legislation. This is an issue I feel very strongly about, as someone who was adopted, through a private adoption agency, at a time when controls were limited and being a married couple with no kids and a nice house was considered sufficient qualification to adopt. The couple concerned are long since dead, but I am not being ungracious in declaring that from the point of view of all concerned, it was a disaster. I would far rather have been adopted by a couple of lesbians or gay men, who loved me and whom I could love. But some religious spokespeople on the other side of the debate don”t seem to realise that from the child’s point of view, the issue at stake is the quality of love, not their parents’ sexual orientation. 

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On the lecture circuit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th March, 2007

jf-lecturing.jpg

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Europe: The Next 50 Years

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd March, 2007

The 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome has hardly set Britain alight (though the Independent had an impressively constructive front page story yesterday, listing 50 reasons to celebrate the EU’s existence). Nonetheless, well over 100 Euro-enthusiasts, including myself, spent the day at Chatham House (the Royal Institute for International Affairs), listening to a broad range of positive speakers from Geoff Hoon (Minister for Europe, and far more committed to the cause than most of his Cabinet colleagues), Kenneth Clarke, Charles Kennedy and the keynote speaker, Peter Mandelson. I suspect the last-mentioned was jet-lagged or something, as his delivery was excruciating. As the man behind me remarked, it sounded like a homily at a funeral. Ken Clarke, in contrast, gave a barnstorming performance, proving what we have long known: that the Tories , in their stupid Euro-phobia, threw away the man who might have won them the last election. Sparkling, too, was the German Ambassador, Wolfgang Ischinger, who gave a delightful, witty eulogy to the British press, only part of it tongue-in-cheek. It was good to see a good smattering of LibDems in the audience and at the splendid reception Ambassador Ischinger later co-hosted with his Italian counterpart at the German residence.

I had to leave the reception before the serious nosh appeared, as I was speaking as a member of a panel at a meeting at Armenian House, Kensington, organised by the Armenian young professionals group. Standing room only. It was a very emotive meeting at times (and indeed, I got quite lump-in-the-throat-iish, when talking about my assassinated friend and fellow writer, Hrant Dink, whose obituary I wrote for the Guardian in January). A fascinating discussion, about issues relating to the Armenian diaspora, especially within the European Union, access to EU institutions and Turkey’s European aspirations.

What had been a rather uplifting, if tiring day, ended on a sour note, when I was mugged just 50 yards from my door on the way home. Fortunately, when I shouted blue murder, the blighter ran away, without any goodies, though he broke my glasses and ruined my suit (but fortunately did not stab me with the knife he held to my throat). Ah, the joys of modern urban living… 

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Into the Lion’s Den

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd March, 2007

Wednesday 21 March 2007

One of the pleasures about being a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, as well as a putative politician, is that I have an excuse to go anywhere and everywhere, and mix with people both high and low — even Conservatives. So I was delighted to accept an invitation to attend a dinner this evening at the Coningsby Club (in a function room at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall), where the speaker was the ‘quiet man’, Iain Duncan Smith. The Coningsby was founded in 1921, to keep Oxford and Cambridge university graduates involved in politics and is one of the liveliest forums for discussion among Conservatives. Having been mightily unimpressed by IDS when he came to address a lunchtime briefing of the Association of European Journalists four years ago, when he was Tory party leader, I sat down this evening with some trepidation. But his fall from office seems to have had a cathartic effect (just as it did with Edward Heath, I found). He’s now heavily involved with the Centre for Social Justice, looking at issues of social exclusion, drug and alcohol addiction, family breakdown etc, and will be proposing various related measures to Cameron and Co in June or July. In our adversarial system of politics in the UK, we tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything another party says, immediately trying to demolish it, though in both local government and in the Scottish parliament, LibDem politicians are beginning to understand that there is  lot to be gained in studying objectively what the others are saying, and when appropriate cooperating where there is common ground. That’s how things are done in most continental countries, of course, and it is doubtless how things will evolve here once we move to proportional representation.

In the meantime, however, we can be civil opponents to both the Conservatives and Labour (not to mention the Greens!) in electoral contests. And I suspect that the next time I run into IDS, it will not be over a meal, but hitting the streets in the current Chingford Green by-election campaign in Waltham Forest, where former LibDem group leader Graham Woolnough has been coaxed out of retirement to take on the Tories in what they like to think of as the truest blue of true blue territory, but certainly can’t take for granted.

Link: www.chingfordandwglibdems.blogspot.com

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Liberal Diplomacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st March, 2007

Tuesday 20 March 2007

At the annual Liberal International British Group’s Diplomats’ Reception in the National Liberal Club this evening there was a heady mix of London’s diplomatic corps (from the doyen, Kuwaiti Ambassador Khaled Al-Duwaisan, down) and LibDem Internationalists. Lords Garden (LIBG President), Newby, Roper and Steel — all visibly chuffed at having just given the ghastly Blair government another slap in the face, by voting down the latest proposals to restrict people’s right to trial by jury — worked the room alongside MPs Alan Beith, Malcolm Bruce, Paul Keetch, Charles Kennedy, Michael Moore and Richard Younger-Ross (apologies to any present missed off this list). No wonder some of the more junior diplomats present grinned like children let loose in a sweet-shop. The Commonwealth was well represented at the gathering, not least the West Indies, though there was also representation from some countries not normally associated with the words ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’, including Belarus, Cuba, Libya and Sudan. One could see some serious lobbying going on along with the networking.

By the time I got to Leytonstone afterwards, for the hustings to choose a PPC for the Leyton and Wanstead constituency (for which I had previously voted by post), the meeting itself was over, though the hall was abuzz. Over 120 members had participated, in a contest between three Muslim men (of Bengali, Indian and Pakistani background respectively) and a young white woman local councillor. As it was not possible to declare the result on the spot, the suspense continues. All a far cry from when I was the parliamentary candidate for Leyton, when we were lucky to get 20 people together in one room.

Links: www.liberal-international.org and www.leyton-wansteadlibdems.org.uk

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th March, 2007

orheiul-vechi.jpgSunday 18 March 2007

Breakfast at the LeogranD Hotel in Chisinau is a soothing experience, thanks to a young lady harpist, who gently plays folk melodies while one eats. So much more pleasant than the awful muzack from which it is increasingly difficult to escape, anywhere in the world. I happily munch crisp cucumbers and green and red peppers that really taste like cucumbers and peppers, together with bright red tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes, unlike the bland produce that we subsist on in the so-called advanced countries.

This morning we drove out to the provincial town of Orhei for a meeting with party activists from the Moldovan Social Liberal Party, who are gearing themselves up for the local and mayoral election campaigns in about 10 weeks time. They operate in conditions unimaginable to British LibDems. Anyone who shows his or her head above the parapet by putting themselves forward as an opposition candidate can be certain of systematic intimidation from the police, the secret services and Communist Party thugs. At the national level, all the opposition party leaders are currently facing legal charges of one sort or another, almost all of them totally fabricated. When Social Liberals and others do get elected, they often find that the central government starves them of funds.

After the meeting, we did a bit of cultural sight-seeing, visiting the extraordinary monastery that is carved into the barren hillside at Orheiul Vechi. It’s an amazingly desolate place, windswept and forlorn, though deep inside the cliff there is a little church that still functions for the local community. A service was in progress when we went, mainly old ladies in headscarves and children who scampered about, while the priest incanted in front of the icon-bedecked altar and candles flickered everywhere. As usual at orthodox services — which can last for hours — people happily wandered in and out, chatted softly and stared at Clare and I — two visitors from Outer Space.

link: http://orhei.dnt.md (text is in Romanian, but there are evocative pics)

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