Jonathan Fryer

Archive for August, 2007

Place as Character

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th August, 2007

alaa-al-aswany.jpgLast night I attended an event at Daunt’s bookshop in Marylebone High Street, at which the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany was interviewed by the General Secretary of English PEN, Jonathan Heawood. It was a sell-out affair, reflecting the huge popularity of Al Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, a film of which has been made and is showing at the ICA in London tonight. It was the top-selling novel in Arabic in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, only being displaced this year by Al Aswany’s latest book, Chicago, and it has been translated into 19 languages.

The Yacoubian Building has a fictitious cast of characters, but the building itself exists; it was where Al Aswany’s father had his office, and indeed where he himself ran his dental practice for a while. For as well as writing fiction, he remains a practising dentist, having studied his craft in Chicago. Hence the location of the new book, which is a tale of Egyptian expatriates in America. As he explained, he belongs to the school of fiction in which the place is the main character, rather as in Charles Dickens or Honoré de Balzac. ‘Every place has a human history,’ he said. ‘One can see the social history through the place.’

Al Aswany also writes an often hard-hitting monthly column which dissects some of the shortcomings of Egypt today. And he was one of the founders of a recent liberal political movement in Egypt called Kifaya. He holds a regular salon in Cairo which I hope to attend when I go there briefly on an assignment next month.

  

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The Challenge for Turkey’s New President

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th August, 2007

abdullah-gul.jpgTurkey’s Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, has been elected President of the Republic by a comfortable majority, in a third round of voting in the country’s parliament. In recent months, there have been massive street demonstrations against his candidature for the post, because of his Islamic roots, and the fact that his wife always wears a headscarf — not a burka or a niqab, mind you, but merely a headscarf — in public. That might seem pretty inoffensive to most Britons, but for some Turks it is a red rag to a bull, as they see it as a challenge to the secular nature of the state, established by the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Mr Gul has pledged that he has absolutely no intention of doing anything to undermine the secular nature of the country, and the record of the AKP government led by his colleague, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has in the main been consistent with that principle. Moreover, the government won a resounding victory in recent parliamentary elections, increasing its number of MPs significantly. Yet the army, which sees itself custodian of secular ‘Kemalism’ has been making ominous noises off-stage about ‘dark forces’ trying to turn Turkey into an Islamic state.

Four times in recent history the army has intervened to overthrow a civilian government in Turkey. This must not happen again, if Turkey is to move slowly but surely towards EU membership, as the Erdogan government wants. Turkey still has a long way to go until it meets all the so-called Copenhagen criteria for EU accession, but the British government should continue with the position it has held so far, of encouraging Ankara to make further reforms with the prize of a warm welcome into the European family when the time comes.

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Islington Bank Holiday

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th August, 2007

duchess-of-kent.jpgOn Bank Holiday Monday, normal people take their kids to Alton Towers, watch a match, go to the beach or just flop around at home. But LibDem activists deliver! In fact, Islington LibDems held an action day today that pulled in such a good group of people that we polished off the whole of Holloway Ward in the morning and those who had both the time and the energy to continue in the afternoon went out surveying.

In between there was a very pleasant sit-down lunch at the Duchess of Kent gastropub on the corner of Liverpool Road and Ellington Street. One of the reasons Islington does get the helpers out is that there is usually a social element — a drink or a meal — involved at some local hostelry at some stage in the proceedings. And of course, it helps having the impetus in Islington South and Finsbury constituency of wanting to make sure Bridget Fox gets in next time. She missed it by a whisker in 2005 — and I know just how painful that is!

Link: www.bridgetfox.org.uk

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Letterboxes I Love

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th August, 2007

I was out this sunny afternoon taking a break from my desk, delivering health surveys in the Stonebridge ward by-election in Brent. The patch I was covering was made up of neat streets of terraced houses of the sort I love: tiny front gardens, no steps and letterboxes that are at a sensible height from the ground and wide enough to take a C5 envelope. No vicious springs, or draught-excluders with brushes that trap your hand. On the whole round, I only encountered two dogs, who flung themselves at the door when they heard me arrive. But I can cope with that. It’s the ones that lurk sneakily, silently, behind the front door and then nip when they see something come through the letterbox that I hate.

Actually, I really enjoy delivering in such circumstances. You get to see how others live, chat to a few people, and I manage to mix a bit of healthy exercise with ‘time out’ from the computer, so I can compose things in my head.

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Labour’s Language Lunacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th August, 2007

For the third year running, the numbers of British schoolchildren taking French and German at GCSE has fallen — 8% in the case of French, and 10% in the case of German. John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says employers must bear a substantial responsibility for this. ‘Unless they send out a  much stronger message to young people that languages are important in the job market, GCSE numbers will continue to be low and British industry will continue to struggle in the global market.’

This is, of course, true. But the Labour government deserves to shoulder more of the blame. It was the government’s crass decision in 2004 to make foreign languages optional for pupils after the age of 14 that has caused the stampede away from languages towards ‘easier’ GCSE subjects. The net result is that we are producing growing numbers of monoglots who are seriously disadvantaged in an increasingly competitive jobs market, not only internationally but on the domestic front too. At a time when internal migration within the EU is accelerating — in keeping with the principle of freedom of movement — young Britons are going to lose out to French, German and other EU nationals who speak not only fluent English, but also their own mother tongue — and in many cases, another language as well. It is the government’s duty to explain this to schools, students and parents, but as with everything relating to the EU, our Labour rulers seem to prefer to keep the public in the dark.

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In Memoriam Siobhan Dowd

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd August, 2007

siobhan-dowd.jpgI was up at the crack of dawn this morning, in order to write an obituary of the writer and human rights activist Siobhan Dowd (who died on Tuesday, aged only 47) for the Guardian. Even when one has known someone for years, there’s always lots of research to do, and people to phone and email, before sitting down to craft a piece within a set number of words. Then one has to think hard what to highlight and decide the pitch at which the article should be tuned. In Siobhan’s case, this was virtually self-determined, as she had such a strong and motivated personality, with clearly defined goals and activities.

I knew her through English PEN, which campaigns for the humane treatment and preferably release of writers and journalists incarcerated for their work. Siobhan edited the first PEN anthology of writings by such prisoners, as well as carrying out meticulous case-work relating to individuals. Later, she developed her own, strong fictional voice, becoming a writer of distinction for children and young adults. The tragedy was that not much more than a year after her first book came out, she was dying of cancer, and at least two of the works that she is likely to be remembered for will be posthumous. When so many people remain wilfully ignorant of some of the terrible things that are done around the world — and I do not exonerate Britain completely in that respect — it is important that there are brave voices such as Siobhan’s speaking out.

Link: www.siobhandowd.co.uk  

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Rail, Not Air!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd August, 2007

eurostar.jpgRyanair has been barred by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) from claiming its flights from London to Brussels are cheaper and quicker than Eurostar — and a jolly good thing too! The ASA said the claim was misleading, because it ignored the time taken traveling from the city centres to the somewhat far-flung airports serving the two capitals — Stansted and Charleroi — as well as the cost involved. With typical disdain, Ryanair has declared that these details were ‘irrelevant’ and that ‘only the very rich or the very slow waste their time on Eurostar’.

Eurostar, which will be even quicker once the new high-speed rail-link is finished and St. Pancras Station opened, has revolutioned my Cross-Channel travelling, whether to Brussels or Paris. I wouldn’t dream of flying instead, and indeed on one occasion recently point blank refused to do so when an assignment involved my going to Brussels. It’s not just the hassle and horror of airports when they are busy. I object to short-haul flights, when more eco-friendly rail alternatives are available. And there would be no need for airport expansion at Heathrow and Stansted if people switched from air to rail for short haul travel to the Continent. Moreover, as an incentive for better environmental practice, we need to bite the bullet and make it cheaper to go by train and more expensive to fly.

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Tim Garden’s Service of Thanksgiving

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st August, 2007

tim-garden.jpgNearly 500 people turned up for the Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Tim Garden (Air Marshal Professor The Lord Garden, KCB, MA, MPhil, FRAeS, FRUSI, FCGI) at Hampstead Parish Church this afternoon. Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Menzies Campbell and Tom McNally, Leader of the LibDems in the House of Lords, led a phalanx of MPs and peers and there were representatives of the various different compartments of Tim’s diverse but well-integrated life: military, academic, political and media punditry. Unlike his widow Sue, Tim was not a churchgoer, and his cremation had been held privately earlier in the day. Thus the service was not a funeral but an act of fond remembrance for a man of extraordinary dignity and integrity, who was also great fun.

Sue and the Gardens’ two daughters, Antonia and Alex, gave loving and sometimes amusing tributes, while the Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth — familiar to listeners to ‘Thought for the Day’ as Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford — gave more spiritual reflections on mortality, supplemented by the local vicar, Stephen Tucker. At Sue’s request, Camden LibDems present wore pale yellow roses, and despite the grey skies, the white wine served in the churchyard afterwards would certainly have met with Tim’s approval. A more formal Memorial Service will be held at St. Clement Danes — the Central Church of the Royal Air Force — at a later date.

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The Last Tuesday Society

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th August, 2007

selina-hastings.jpgIn London, life is moving East, my friends. First it was the artists who decamped to Hoxton and Shoreditch. And now the literary crew has followed. Last night I attended a Hendrick’s salon (generously sponsored by the eponymous gin-makers) at Bistrotheque in Bethnal Green, one of the ‘happening’ new venues in the capital. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, these evenings are much more than just cocktails and high tea (with strawberry scones and fairy cakes); there is serious content. I attended a number of these events in their previous incarnations at the Café Royal in Regent Street, and 43 South Molton Street, Mayfair, before the Society’s Chancellor, Viktor Wynd (himself a Hackney resident) gently drew the activity eastwards with his magnetic force.

The Last Tuesday Society was founded by Henry James in the 1870s at Harvard (the contemporary progenitor of Facebook, inter alia). As that master author (but less successful dramatist) declared, ‘an achievement in art or in letters grows more interesting when we begin to percive its connections; and indeed it may be said that the study of connections is the recognised function of intelligent crticism.’ Well, in those pre-sound-bite days, even genuises tended to be prolix…

The Society has put on several memorable events, with speakers such as Lord Gawain Douglas on his ancestor ‘Bosie’, Hugo Vickers on Cecil Beaton, and Philip Hoare on the Pemberton Billing Trial and the Cult of the Clitoris. And last night’s extravanganza was no exception, featuring a tour de force by Selina Hastings, biographer of both Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, appropriately speaking on the friendship between the two — both humorous and poignant. The place was packed, with a predominantly young crowd (some very picturesquely attired). Which only goes to show that those who say that we have turned into a country of philistines (especially the young) are talking tommy-rot. Never have literary festivals in Britain been so numerous or so popular. Or organisations such as The Last Tuesday Society in such demand.

Link: www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org 

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Sunday Lunch

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th August, 2007

I was at the Orpington Liberal Club earlier today, for one of their periodic roast lunches. They are always popular events, and the conversation is both lively and long. This is how it should be. All too often in Britain, eating is seen as an animal necessity — a sandwich snatched at one’s office desk, or a late-night kebab or take-away Chinese — rather than a proper sit-down meal in which the inter-action with family, friends or colleagues is as important as the food. One of the things I loved about living in Brussels in the 1970s was the civilised lunches, which often actually helped work, as well as leaving one a happier human being.

By coincidence, on the train down to Orpington, I read a piece by Amelia Hill in the Observer,  noting how the tradition of the Sunday roast — or its vegetarian equivalent– with the family gathered round the table, is dying out in Britain, which I think is a pity. Whether it is a meal at home or in a restaurant, and with real family or, as in my case today, one’s political family or friends, it is a tradition that has a useful function in socialising children and bonding adults — as many of our counterparts on the Continent still realise.

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