Jonathan Fryer

Archive for December, 2010

Traversing the Chaco

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 31st December, 2010

On Wednesday evening, I got the bus from Filadelfia in northern Paraguay to Mariscal Estigarribia, the last inhabited place in the Chaco on the Paraguayan side of the border with Bolivia. It was pitch-dark by the time I was dropped off on a long, straight road and was advised by a passing soldier to carry on walking for another 500 metres. There I went into a customs post, at first seemingly deserted until I was greeted by an extremely affectionate (tame) wild boar or similar creature, which rushed up to me, licked my hand and then lay down on my feet and proceded to go to sleep. Its coat was too brstly to be able to stroke. One or two customs men — with pistols in thigh holsters — soon showed up, along with a couple of dogs, and for the next six hours, I waited for the connecting bus into Bolivia, all the while fighting off mosquitos and sleep as I tried to read a book. The bus duly arrived, late, at 5am, at which point all of its passengers were told to get off and go to the nearby Immigration Control to get passports stamped and ID cards verified, while the customs men gave the bus a thorough going over, inside and out — presumably looking for drugs. Eventually we were off and for the next 15 hours we clattered along, for the first few hours along a pot-holed, unsurfaced road, through the Bolivian entry point and on until we emerged from the so-called green desert of the Chaco — green because there are trees and grass, but very little water and what there is is too salty to support agriculture. Meanwhile, the Paraguayan bus driver, who had been on duty all the way from Asunción, bought himself a bag of coca leaves from the first Bolivian service station, while I settled for a cold beer. We eventually arrived at Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s largest city and economic stronghold, at 8pm last night, exactly 24 hours after I had started out. Alas, Bolivian bus drivers have all gone out on strike, in protest at fuel price hikes, so whether I’ll get to see any more of the country is another matter.

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The Mennonites of Filadelfia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th December, 2010

The Mennonites, like the Quakers to which I belong, have often suffered for their beliefs, especially their pacifism. As a result, many fled their homes in Russia, Ukraine, Germany and elsewhere and found sanctuary in the Americas. In Paraguay, where I’ve been spending the past week or so, they established a number of small ‘colonies’ in the inhospitable Chaco region, notably in the state of Boqueron. The first Mennonite settlers who came around 1930 to Filadelfia, where I am now, had to travel for weeks in horse-drawn waggons to get here as there was no road or railway at the time. In fact, the road which now runs right through the Chaco to Bolivia was only built in the 1950s, when Mennonite youths from America were allowed to do civilian service in Paraguay (aided by Paraguayan soldiers!) instead of being drafted into the Korean War. In the interim, many of the early settlers had died of typhoid fever and living conditions were extremely harsh. But aided by their belief in the twin virtues of Prayer and Work, they established viable communities. Filadelfia is the administrative centre of this particular colony, and is characterised by its grid layout of roads (only two of which are paved) and the folksy but rather austere businesses reflecting Mennonite traditions, even cooking.

(photo Nick Winter)

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Michael Palin’s 1980s Diaries

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th December, 2010

Long bus journeys and hours of torrential rain have made me grateful for the company of Michael Palin’s “Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988″ (Phoenix, 2010). The clown of Kentish Town is actually an accomplished writer as well as actor — not surprisingly, given the number of film and televsion scripts he has produced. Originally best known for his part in the Monty Python phenomenon, he went on  to launch a highly successful solo career as traveller-cum-presenter on various long TV journeys, out of which lucrative books also emerged. This volume of Palin’s Diaries — which he has been keping meticulously for many years — cover the period immediately prior to his departure as a modern Phileas Fogg on a voyage round ther world in 80 days (an opportunity Alan Whicker apparently turned down). There is a lot of Hollywood and London gossip but also  real insight into certain well-known people, including John Cleese (predictable) and former Beatle George Harrison (less so). A thorough index means one can go back to savour special favourites. But the passage that really made me howl recounts a June 1987 English PEN dinner when Palin sat down at the wrong table and found himself next to the formidable lesbian novelist Sybille Bedford. She had no idea who he was, he notes with a certain degree of pique, but he clearly had no idea who she was either. To compound matters, he then helped himself to her very good bottle of French red wine (she always brought her own, even when wine was included in a meal), provoking outrage amongst her coterie. Having known Sybille quite well, as well as some of the fierce women she had as companions, I can just picture this gloriously comic scene.

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In Paraguay with Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd December, 2010

Last night I travelled from Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil) to Asunción (Paraguay) in the front roadside seat on the top deck of a  double-decker coach. Hardly had we left the graceless Ciudad del Este (one giant shopping emporiumn) than we ran into the brightest and most extensive electric storm I have ever encountered. Sheet lightning lit up the sky and surrounding flat countryside for a full four hours, but the deluge of rain did not deter the driver, who sped regardless along the by now virtually empty road. But what made the journey truly memorable, surreal even, was that shortly after we hit the storm, the video screen right by my seat starting playing Robert Schwentke’s film “Red”, in which a bald Bruce Willis plays a retired secret agent who reassembles an amazing group of former colleagues (played by actors including Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and nonogenarian Ernest Borgnine) in an action-packed thriller in which both the director and the cast seem to have their tongues firmly in their cheeks. The story is preposterous, but Helen Mirren struts gracefully in ever-more sumptuous clothes (even when she is killing people) and Bruce Willis gets the girl in the end, even though he has no hair. To the accompaniment of constant lightning outside, watching it was quite an experience.

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The Fear of Silence

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th December, 2010

One of the most striking things about Brazil for an outsider is the people’s love of noise. Only the poshest restaurants are places where one can have a gentle conversation. Everywhere else, people shout, laugh, fool around and compete with the ever present television. Just about every medium-range eatery or snack-bar has several televisions hanging from the wall, playing football matches or soap operas, the latter watched intermitently but with great intensity briefly by the customers. Even the long-distance buses have videos, as if the countryside or towns through which one passes are insufficient entertainment. Then there is the music, of course, blaring from cars, people’s portable sound systems and juke-boxes. Though this cacophony and joie de vivre are elements of Brazil’s particular charm, I can’t help but notice how superficial it all is. Few people read a newspaper, let alone a book (though it’s true both are expensive luxuries for the bulk of the population). From an early age, people seem to go around in noisy groups, either of family or friends. It’s almost as if they have a fear of silence, of extended periods of quiet reflection. Even a fear of being alone.

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Brazil’s Credit Card Economy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th December, 2010

Brazil has for some years been the dark horse among the BRICs — the four largest emerging economies. The huge problems of income inequalities and crime have often been cited as reasons why Latin America’s biggest economy would get stuck in the mud. But under the past eight years of rule by President Lula, who steps down at the end of the year, the pessimists have been largely silenced. Of course, the discovery of huge offshore oil reserves has helped. But just as in China, in Brazil millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and the infrastrture is improving. Much remains to be done, that is for sure. But the overall mood is optimistic. Yet there is one feature which many casual observers have missed and which is potentially a cause for concern: the degree to which Brazilians live on credit card debt.It must be the country with the worst addiction to credit cards,which can be used almost everywhere, even for the tiniest purchases.Moreover, in Brazil there is the option to spread one’s credit card payments over several months when purchasing goods and services. I was astounded at the bus station in São Paulo this morning to be asked whether I wanted my bus ticket to Foz do Iguaçu spread out over several months on my visa card! One just hopes that all these Brazilians saddling themselves with credit card debt to fuel the consumer economy won’t go under. Meanwhile, hyper-inflation and devaluation are distant memories. The Brazilian real has strengthened against most major currencies, including the poor pound.

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Theodore Dalrymple at the Gladstone Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th December, 2010

The famously dyspeptic and self-proclaimed reactionary author and columnist Theodore Dalrymple (aka Dr Anthony Daniels) entertained a full house in the Gladstone Club in the Lady Violet Room of the National Liberal Club last night, when he drew comparisons between Britain and France. He divides his time between the two, and clearly feels the latter has the better quality of life, even if bizarrely it has the highest number of McDonald’s in Europe. Britain has gone down the pan, he said (only more elegantly), stagnant in a bog of vulgarity and aggression. He rages at the brutality on the faces of people in the Birmingham or London street, and at their obesity. France, on the other hand, retains a degree of cultural awareness, he believes, as well as family stability — though interestingly one French member of the audience predicted that it will have gone the same way as Britain in 15 years time. Dalrymple used to be a prison doctor, spending his time analysing the criminal mind, before retiring to write full-time, being a prolific contributor to the Spectator and other, generally right-wing, journals. But unlike most conservative commentators, he has a talent for being very funny. He hasn’t had a television for 40 years, which has doubtless helped him to develop his persona as a crusty old buffer in some dusty old gentleman’s club, railing against the follies of the modern world.

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Liu Xiaobo and the Empty Chair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th December, 2010

There was a moving ceremony in Oslo today as the Nobel Peace Prize was delivered to an empty chair — symbolising the imprisoned Chinese writer and human rights activist (and President of independent Chinese PEN) Liu Xiaobo. This is not the first time that a Nobel laureate has not been able to collect the prize in person, though in the past a spouse or close relative — in Aung San Suu Kyi’s case in 1991, it was her 18-year-old son — has stood in for the winner. But as Liu Xiaobo’s wife Liu Xia (and a number of their friends) are under house arrest, that was not possible in this case. China reacted furiously to Mr Liu’s selection — even referring to the Nobel Committee as an ‘evil cult’ — and warned Norway of dire consequences. But it is the People’s Republic that has shot itself in the foot, not only by giving the award huge worldwide publicity because of its tirades but also making it look foolish and vindictive by not allowing at least Mr Liu’s wife to go to Oslo to collect the citation. China is a signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it has yet to fulfil many of its obligations on this front. Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents like him have bravely pointed this out, despite persecution. Hence his imprisonment. But his message is now heard louder than ever before.

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Chinese Liberal Democrats

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th December, 2010

Last night I attended the AGM of Chinese Liberal Democrats in Camden Town Hall, hosted by Hampstead Councillor Linda Chung. The group has been active in fund-raising, as well as organising excellent events at LibDem Conferences, but it is also increasingly addressing political issues of relevance to Britain’s Chinese community. That community is itself quite diverse, including not only people whose origins are from different regions of mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as Overseas Chinese, but different professional and student categories too. Nikki Lee, from London Citizens, was the guest speaker at the AGM; I have been involved with her group in the ‘Strangers into Citizens’ campaign, urging the regularisation of many people working in the catering industry in particular. She especially highlighted issues relating to gambling — including consequent domestic violence — and concerns over the burgeoning numbers of betting shops, particularly in the London borough of Westminister, around Chinatown. I also suggested at the meeting that perhaps we ought to look into the effects of European legislation regarding alternative and complementary medicines, some of whose Chinese practitioners are undoubtedly worthwhile even if others might be bogus. At the meeting, Merlene Toh Emerson was re-elected as Chair.

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London’s New Europe House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 7th December, 2010

I managed to squeeze 20 minutes in at the official opening of the new London offices of the European Commission and European Parliament at 32 Smith Square last night, before having to rush off to chair the Executive of London Liberal Democrats at Cowley Street just a short walk away. Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the Commission, had originally been billed to appear, but in fact was detained by business in Brussels, presumably helping save various EU members from bankruptcy, including his native Portugal. However, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, did attend, despite being urged to stay away by Conservative bloggers such as Jonathan Isaby. Mr Hague — who brought a portrait of Winston Churchill to grace the room in the refurbished building that will be named after the war-time Prime Minister, who spoke up for European union before deciding to distance Britain from the nascent institutions that would eventually become the EU. The fact that William Hague was there is a tribute to the way that the Liberal Democrat partners in the Coalition government in London  have softened the Tories Euro-scepticism. Nonetheless, Mr Hague did have a stern message of belt-tightening for the Eurocrats and MEPs present: ‘Just as this Government is bringing excessive spending under control here in Britain  — control that has required some very difficult decisions — so we look to all EU institutions to join us in effective and rigorous control of spending.’ The irony was not lost on those present that 32 Smith Square used to be the Conservative Party headquarters and is perhaps most famous as being the backdrop for Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory celebrations. As one mischievous wag commented, ‘Lady Thatcher would turn in her grave, were she dead.’

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