Jonathan Fryer

Archive for September, 2012

Aleppo Ablaze

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th September, 2012

The Aleppo souq in happier times

The worsening civil war in Syria delivers ghastly images into our living rooms every day — at least for those of us who watch Al Jazeera. But today I watched one of the most heart-breaking pieces of footage so far: the burning down of much of Aleppo’s medieval souq, which is part of the UNESCO world heritage site in the old city centre. Even Aleppo’s famous citadel has been under fire. I weep internally for the residents of Aleppo (which I first visited in 1969) and other Syrian cities, whose families have been torn apart and whose homes or shops have been destroyed. Since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011 — I happened to be in Syria at the time — a country that was home to vibrant civilizations for thousands of years has been in the process of destroying itself, while Assad sits stubbornly in his palace, determined to hang on to power no matter how many lives are lost. At least 30,000 people have died so far, a majority of them civilians. Indiscriminate shelling of residential and commercial areas by government forces, as well as fighting by some of the armed groups ranged on the other side, are taking a terrible toll. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries; millions are internally displaced or destitute. When it is all over, those who are still alive will try to rebuild their shattered lives. But who will rebuild the physical heritage that has been demolished? I am not suggesting that ancient bricks and mortar or works of Art have a higher value than human life, but their wanton destruction is to my mind clearly a crime against humanity. 

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Writers Hot under the Collar

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th September, 2012

The AGM of my trade union, the Society of Authors, held at Conway Hall in Central London this evening, was unusually contentious, as various members objected to the way things have been handled recently. But those concerns were postponed to another day, when an extraordinary general meeting can be summoned. In the meantime, we got the panel (minus one person who had already left) most of us had come to hear, on The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, moderated by my fellow biographer Anne Sebba. The publisher Larry Finlay (Transworld) and literary agent Anthony Goff (David Higham Associates) shared their impressions of the literary scene today. Anna started the discussion gloomily by pointing out that one new book is published in the United States every 10 seconds every day. Small wonder that many authors struggle to get noticed, even if they are published. At the same time, megastars such as J K Rowling (though one could argue she is one of a kind) can command front page coverage in every UK newspaper just for bringing out a book that isn’t about Harry Potter, as she did today. Nonetheless, Larry Finlay argued that we writers owe a debt of gratitude to J K Rowling, for making reading hip among young people. He was also quite upbeat about the rise of Kindle and other electronic reading devices, pointing out that most people who use Kindle also read physical books. Anthony Goff, in contrast, declared that the degree of author-care on the part of publishers is the lowest he ever remembers. He also bemoaned the fact that many publishers now oblige their authors to do most of the publicity for their works themselves, on blogs and social media such as twitter. There was general agreement that the upsurge in free content is undermining authors’ rights. However, Larry Finlay stressed that in Transworld’s case, at least, they employ piracy monitors who issue take-down notices when they locate pirated material.

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Britain, the EU and the World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th September, 2012

The Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and Liberal International British Group (LIBG) joined forces last night at a fringe meeting at the LibDems’ autumn conference on the place of Britain in the European Union and Europe’s place in the world. I was the first speaker, stressing how important it is that the Party continues to publicise its commitment to internationalism and to the UK’s European future (as Nick Clegg had indeed done just minutes before in a speech to diplomats at the International Reception). I was dismayed that there was virtually no mention of international or European issues in the main agenda of the Brighton conference, though there have been several related fringe meetings. The Coalition government as such is hampered in its championing of the importance of Britain’s EU membership by David Cameron’s perceived need to appease his eurosceptic backbenchers. I fear that in the 2014 European elections the Tories will be tempted to try to out-UKIP UKIP, too, in an attempt to staunch the haemorrhaging of votes. And Labour is too split on the issue of Europe to be a reliable advocate. The City of London and business in general seems too nervous to stick its head above the parapet, although most businesses recognise the vital importance of EU membership. So it is going to be up to the Liberal Democrats to make the case. A few, very simple messages need to be honed, to be used on the doorstep, of which perhaps the most important is the fact that in an increasingly regionalised, globalised world, in which big new players such as China, India and Brazil are making their presence felt, Europe needs to be more united in order to be a powerful force. Britain on its own in the 21st Century never could be, despite what the Little Englanders think.

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The EU, Turkey and the MENA Region

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th September, 2012

The Liberal Democrat Friends of Turkey hosted an unusually sparky fringe meeting at the party’s Brighton conference today at which Andrew Duff MEP outlined a proposal which he said the European Parliament was working on to offer Turkey a form of (admittedly second class) associate membership of the European Union. The urbane Turkish Ambassador, Unal Cevikoz, slapped that suggestion down firmly, saying Turkey wanted all or nothing when it came to EU membership. But the two men — and a third panel member, the political analyst Daniel Levy — found more ground for agreement when it came to arguing for closer EU-Turkish cooperation in assisting the progress of the Arab Spring. Turkey has upped the ante in its foreign policy with regard to the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, partly because the EU and the West in general have not really done as much as they could to facilitate democratic change and economic cooperation in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. One of the questioners in the audience at today’s fringe meeting rightly highlighted the hypocrisy and double standards that have characterised much of the West’s dealings with the Arabian Gulf states, Israel and Iran. And there was a meeting of minds among the panel members when it came to encouraging a more mature European approach to Iran, rather than seeing it simply through the prism of the country’s nuclear programme. Of course it was not possible in the short space of one hour to formulate much of a coherent strategy for the improvement of the relations between the EU, Turkey and the MENA region but the gathering gave everyone plenty of food for thought.

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Brighton Rock and a Hard Place

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st September, 2012

Britain’s Liberal Democrats start gathering for their autumn conference in Brighton tomorrow in what could prove to be a far livelier — in both the good and bad senses of that word — gathering than the somewhat pedestrian official agenda suggests. It is hardly good news to go into a conference with the latest opinion poll putting the LibDems on 8%, level-pegging with UKIP, though that is nearly twice what the party achieved in the London Mayoral and GLA elections in May. Of course, much of the media pack will be asking just one question: will the party dump Nick Clegg as leader, as it did Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell? I can answer that one immediately, to save them the trouble asking: no. I say that not because I think Nick has ‘saved’ himself with his tuition fees apology video (considerably jollier in its sung version. by the way) but rather because this is absolutely not the moment for a leadership challenge. Nick can be proud of the fact that he took the party into government and there have been some (not many) important LibDem wins. What is absolutely not in doubt is that the Conservatives on their own would have been far worse, though that is not a particularly easy message to sell on the doorstep. Being in coalition is not easy, however, as both partners have been discovering. And certainly there is going to be a lot of pressure from activists at Brighton for the LibDems to differentiate ourselves from the Tories. But here the party is caught between a rock and hard place. It can’t undermine the coalition too much by criticising Cameron and other Conservative Ministers harshly, and yet it can’t seem to be propping the Conservatives up (a phraseology now being pushed by the Labour opposition). Well, I will opt for the rock in Brighton, appropriately, by which I mean we have to be proud of what we have achieved but also we must push for a mid-term review which gives more clarity to our different principles and priorities. This is a working partnership, not a political marriage (though right at the beginning, in the Rose Garden at No 10, it did seem a bit like the latter). Perhaps the most urgent task is for LibDems to explain to the British electorate what coalition government is all about and to show how and why we will be fgihting on different issues from those of our current partners in 2015, and even more so in the European elections in 2014.

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Gavin Esler’s Lessons from the Top

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th September, 2012

The writer and broadcaster Gavin Esler — perhaps best known as one of BBC Newsnight’s presenters — has met a great many leaders but not many great leaders, as he told a literary lunch at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall today. His musing was linked to his latest book, Lessons from the Top (Profile Books, £12.99), which looks at how successful leaders tell stories to get ahead — and stay there. His thesis is that the best political leaders (as well as top entrepreneurs) are strong story-tellers, with the basic elements of  ‘who am I, who are we, and where am I going to take us?’ Margaret Thatcher had a brilliantly pithy line which had a whole back-story to itself: ‘I am a grocer’s daughter from Grantham’, for example. But Gavin lamented the fact that over the past 25 to 30 years, basically since the end of the Cold War, the name of the game has changed, as we have become a confessional culture. The public has been taught to expect personal details about even the loftiest figures, and scandals are daily laid bare — what one might call the globalisation of gossip. Of course, journalists, and through them the public, don’t always get the right first impressions. When Gavin went to interview Angelina Jolie, for example, he expected to meet an airhead, whereas actually she proved to be a highly intelligent woman who has adapted well to her role as a UN goodwill ambassador. Some politicians, alas, tell false stories; Tony Blair didn’t earn the sobriquet ‘Bliar’ for nothing. But the message of today’s talk was clear: if you want to succeed in life, tell a good story, and keep it simple.

Link: www.profilebooks.com

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Remembering Sabra and Shatila

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th September, 2012

This month Palestinians are commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which many hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians — many of them women and children — were slaughtered in those two refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, who were granted entry by the Israeli army (IDF) that was then occupying southern Lebanon and West Beirut. The photograph shown was taken on 19 September 1982 when the Press were allowed in to record the aftermath. The number of casualities is very imprecise, anywhere between 800 and 3,500, but the ruthlessness of the operation is not in doubt, nor the complicity of the Israeli military. The massacre was supposedly in retaliation for the assassination of the recently elected Maronite President of Lebanon, Bachir Gemayel; Palestinians were blamed by the Phalange, though it is now believed more likely that his killing was the work of Lebanese pro-Syrian militants. One of the independent witnesses to the carnage inside Sabra was a nurse, Ellen Siegel, who had gone to Lebanon on a humanitarian mission shortly after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Last Saturday. in an open letter to IDF soldiers published in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, she wrote: ‘For almost 48 hours, from September 16th to 18th, I attempted to save the lives of those who were brought to the hospital. Many has severe wounds from being shot at close range. I cared for hundreds of terrified refugees seeking the safety of the hospital. I tried to comprehend the throat-slitting gesture the women made. I watched from the top floor of the hospital as flares were shot in the air. The flares illuminated areas of the camp; the sound of automatic weapons fire followed each illumination.’ For those who are too young to remember these terrible events and the images they generated in the world’s Press, there is a helpful fact sheet provided on the Institute for Middle East Understanding:   http://imeu.net/news/article0023017.shtml

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Spain (NOW!) 2012

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th September, 2012

‘Some might say that the current international climate is not conducive to creativity,’ says Teresa Lizaranzu Perinat, Director General for Cultural Policy, Industries and the Book at Spain’s Secretariat of State for Culture, who was in London today for the launch of Spain (NOW!), the fourth annual season of contemporary arts and culture from Spain. ‘On the contrary, we firmly believe in the need to continue our support of culture as an important means towards better mutual understanding and collaboration between Spain and the UK, highlighting the more diverse and cutting edge aspects of our culture.’ The season will run from September through December and boasts the most ambitious programme so far. The events, as well as the venues in which they will take place, are deliberately eclectic, ranging from dance to music to drawing to gastronomy. Not all the people performing are Spanish nationals though all pf them work in Spain. Particularly noteworthy, according to Spain NOW!’s founder-director, Antonio Molina-Vazquez, are ‘the harrowing En Tierra de Silencio, a contemporary dance piece by Camille Hanson Company, the stupendous Avatara Ayuso in a unique collaboration with visual artist Antonio R. Montesinos and DJ bRUNA, and the comprehensive exhibition of contmporary Spanish drawing Nulla Dies Sine Linea.’ I wrote an introductory article about the season (Antonio Molina eschews the word ‘festival’) for the EU Commission’s London office cultural website: http://www.europe.org.uk/2012/09/11/spain-now/#.UFB0n5vTINI.facebook and you can full details of the programme on the website http://www.spain-now.org.uk

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How Green Are the LibDems in Government?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th September, 2012

The Coalition government in Britain pledged to be the greenest government ever, though the poor economic climate has encouraged those Conservative MPs and Ministers who were half-hearted about the importance of environmental issues to question the wisdom of that strategy now. Chris Huhne, as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change made a real impact, on which his successor Ed Davey has continued to build. However, environmental pressure groups fear that the LibDems are losing the green argument within the Coalition, as was discussed at an event hosted by Hackney LibDems this afternoon, with contributions from Richard George of Greenpeace and Chris Huhne’s former aide, Joel Kenrick (now working for the World Wildlife Fund). Richard George highlighted the issue of sustainable transport, on which the LibDems had an excellent manifesto in the 2010 election and indeed still have an excellent Minister in place in the person of Norman Baker. Yet LibDem opposition to various road schemes has been overruled and of course within the Consverative Party there is a renewed debate about the desirability of a third runway at Heathrow Airport — something specifically ruled out in the Coalition Agreement. Joel Kenrick countered that there have been tangible green benefits from the LibDems being in government, such as the Green Investment Bank, which he described as a huge achievement. Joel seemed to believe George Osborne is the main villain of the piece so far as the government goes, whereas Richard argued that the right-wing Press — including the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph — have been banging the drum for campaigns such as climate change denial. But that surely means the LibDems must trumpet louder the real achievements that have been made, through social media, Focuses and other methods, as well as via the few newspapers such as the Guardian and Independent which are sympathetic to green issues.

Related Link: http://greenlibdems.org.uk

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Anna Karenina

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th September, 2012

The suspension of disbelief is an essential element of the relationship between an audience and any play or film. But some productions require more suspension than others. Joe Wright’s new take on Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina — with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard — straddles this complex late 19th century Russian fictional world by employing a variety of genres: part theatre, part cinema, part mime and part dance. The film obliges the viewer to surrender to its own rules, or else leave. Of course one is bowled over by the sumptuousness of the décor and the costumes, as well as by the beauty of the actors; Keira Knightley is a very different Anna from Greta Garbo, but one can understand the jealousy she could arouse, the passion and the dismay. Jude Law, as her wronged husband, is dignified and grave. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Count Vronsky) has had his hair dyed an angelic gold. It is all very stylised, maybe too much so at times. But there are images that linger in the mind, troublingly, as they do (far more profoundly) after reading the novel itself.

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