Jonathan Fryer

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Remembering Donald Sinden

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th September, 2014

Donald Sinden was one of those rare actors who excelled in both comedy and tragedy, and offstage he was a brilliant performer as well. He liked to assume the role of a scatty old man — while retaining his rich, fruity intonation — while in fact he kept his marbles more or less up to the end, succumbing to cancer at age 90. We first met when both of us were made honorary Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, which both produces scholarly articles on the Irish playwright and organises very special social events. But whereas I have only written about Wilde, Donald had a more intriguing connection, having as a young man befriended Oscar ‘s nemesis, “Bosie” Douglas. But I usually saw Donald at the Garrick Club, where he was the doyen of the actor members. Indeed, most unusually a room was named after him there while he was still alive. He enjoyed giving guided tours of some of the great pictures there, mixing real erudition with an impish sense of humour, which caught out many an unwary visitor. His impersonations of preposterous characters were a joy.

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Good for Britain, Good for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st September, 2014

My LibDem colleague and friend Giles Goodall’s take on the top EU appointments I blogged about at the weekend:

The EU’s new faces: good for Britain, good for Europe
 
Giles Goodall is a member of the European Movement’s National Council and has been a Liberal Democrat MEP candidate for South East England
 
Giles GoodallIn the well-worn tradition of filling the EU’s top jobs, last week’s summit stands out as something of a mini-revolution. In a delicate and complex (s)election process – whereby 28 leaders must agree on a candidate whilst simultaneously satisfying multiple requirements ranging from political to geographical – merit is not always the primary criterion. This time though, it was different. In choosing Poland’s Donald Tusk as president of the European Council and Italy’s Federica Mogherini as the EU’s next foreign affairs chief, the system may just have worked. As a ticket, the new appointments successfully tick all the right boxes: centre right/centre-left, male/female, and east/west. Yet they are so much more than that too. 
 
Tusk’s election marks the first time a central or eastern European takes one of the EU’s top jobs (though his compatriot Jerzy Buzek already successfully led the European Parliament). Mogherini is a bold (and young) new face for the EU, bringing strong communication skills to a role that has suffered from low visibility since it was created in 2009. The significance of Tusk’s appointment in particular is hard to overstate. It marks the coming of age both of Poland as a major player in Europe – after a decade as an EU member – and of an EU that has successfully reunited east and west. 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, foreign minister Radek Sikorski – himself a candidate for the foreign affairs role – heralded ‘a great day for Poland.’ 
 
But it isn’t just a good result for Poland – Tusk’s election also marks a notable diplomatic success for Britain. It crowns the achievement of EU enlargement, a policy devised, promoted and implemented by the UK. Learning perhaps from his ill-advised campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President, David Cameron realised the strategic interests at stake and publicly backed Tusk’s candidacy. He was right to do so. Tusk moved quickly to say he “cannot imagine an EU without the UK” and that many of the reforms put forward by Britain are “reasonable”. More importantly, the Polish prime minister is one of Europe’s star leaders, overseeing a hugely successful Polish economy and growing presence on the world stage in recent years. He is well connected with Germany and has strong credentials for standing up to Vladimir Putin in the Ukrainian crisis. 
 
He is also a convinced – and convincing – European. Launching Poland’s stint at the EU presidency in 2011, he departed from the usual downbeat, crisis-dominated script: “the European Union is great. It is the best place on Earth to be born and to live your life.” Bringing perspective to anti-Europeans, he said: “We were truly occupied by the Soviets. That’s why for us EU integration is not a threat to the sovereignty of the member states.” He has called the free movement of people “a great value” whose benefits some in ‘old Europe’ take for granted. Even on his weakest point – his supposedly limited language skills – Tusk successfully quipped (in fluent English) that he will “polish his English.” Finally, he promised to bring some much-needed central and eastern European energy to the EU. It will successfully complement Juncker’s experience and Mogherini’s communication skills. That’s good news for Britain, and good news for Europe.
 
This piece first appeared in the European Movement UK’s Euroblog
 
 

 

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A Stronger EU Leadership?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th August, 2014

Donald TuskFederica MogheriniI only met Herman Van Rompuy once, finding him courteous and professorial, which is maybe not surprising given his low-key personality and taste for composing haiku, but I always felt it unfair the way the British Press ridiculed the former Belgian Prime Minister once he became President of the European Council; even Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight couldn’t resist the red-tops sobriquet for him, “Rumpy Pumpy”. Anyway, his now nominated successor, Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, is an entirely different creature and should give added weight to the EU Council role. Even David Cameron approves of Mr Tusk (though I shan’t hold that against him). Moreover, it is a good move to have a Pole in this position, as Poland is something of a modern EU success story, as well as being firm on the EU and NATO’s need to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s outrageous Russian expansionism. The other big change to emerge from Brussels today is the replacement for Cathy Ashton, the (British) High Representative for Foreign Affairs (in effect, a putative EU Foreign Minister). Baroness Ashton also came in for some stick in the British media, not least because she was an unelected politician, having previously been Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords, as well as not having much of a foreign policy background. In fact, she performed better than I was expecting — for example, succeeding in visiting the ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in prison — but again I believe her successor will shine more brightly. This is Federica Mogherini, currently Italy’s Foreign Minister. It’s true she has only been in the job for six months, but at least she has political legitimacy. And it must help in her preparation for her new post that Italy currently holds the six-monthly rotating presidency of the Union. So these two new appointments are, I believe, largely to be welcomed, and may, possibly, stem some of the criticism targeted daily at the EU by the British media, which was far from happy at the accession of Jean-Claude Juncker to the presidency of the European Commission, where he might indeed find it difficult to make as much of an impression as the outgoing José Manuel Barroso. . 

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UKIP Gets Its “First” MP

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th August, 2014

Douglas CarswellHaving debated against the eloquent Euro-sceptic Conservative MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, during May’s European election campaign, I am not particularly surprised by his defection to UKIP. In a sense it is odd he didn’t do it before — indeed, during that campaign — but maybe UKIP’s strong showing in May persuaded him that it is now a risk worth taking. Honorably he is causing a by-election, though precedent suggests that might be a double-edged strategy. When Bruce Douglas-Mann, Labour MP for Mitcham & Morden, switched to the newly-formed SDP and caused a by-election in 1982, the seat was seized by the Conservatives. However, Mr Carswell may feel that his personal vote will bring over many Conservative supporters. His 12,000 majority over Labour in 2010 was pretty healthy and Clacton is the sort of Essex coastal constituency where UKIP is currently popular. Interestingly, UKIP didn’t field a candidate in 2010 (though a BNP candidate almost saved his deposit). The Conservatives are bound to throw everything they’ve got at this by-election; if they were really brave, they’d field Boris Johnson. But if they fail to hold the seat and Douglas Carswell becomes UKIP’s first elected MP it doesn’t mean he’ll hang on in May next year. Anyway, he has certainly put a bit of vim into the pre-Party Conference season’s politics. And may the best man (or woman) win!

(NB: Bob Spink MP defected from the Conservatives to UKIP in 2008, but was later reclassified as an Independent, as there was no UKIP whip in the Commons. He lost his seat in the 2010 general election, standing as an Independent with UKIP support)

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Egypt: The Elusive Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th August, 2014

Wafik MoustafaWafik Moustafa bookDuring the first few weeks of 2011 I was glued to Al Jazeera’s English-language TV channel as the revolution in Egypt unfurled and President Hosni Mubarak eventually stood down from power. But this proved to be a hollow victory for the predominantly liberal and often secular young demonstrators who had been so visible in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Elections led to Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood becoming the new president, but the new government’s swift moves to islamise the state led to renewed mass protests and Morsi’s ousting in a coup. Now Egypt is led by Field Marshal Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who many critics see as a sort of Mubarak Mark II. In fact, the repression against dissent is even worse now than it was in Mubarak’s final years. But all this was predictable, of so argues the British-Egyptian doctor Wafik Moustafa, in his thought-provoking book Egypt: The Elusive Arab Spring (Gilgmesh, £24.95). Dr Moustafa is unique in having stood for both the Egyptian presidency (against Mubarak) and as a prospective UK MP (for Bootle) — both lost causes, as Mubarak made sure for 30 years that the veneer of democracy eventually applied to quieten criticism from Washington would not threaten him through the ballot box, and Dr Moustafa is a Conservative who had little chance of ousting Labour in Britain’s industrial north west. His book is a very personal take on events, both during the three years of the so-called Arab Spring and in his recounting of Egypt’s modern history, from a liberal, cosmopolitan perspective. He obviously thinks Egypt is the poorer for losing former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei from frontline politics (not a view particularly widely shared among ordinary Egyptians) and he is (probably justifiably) harsh on the record of the late Colonel Nasser, whose standing in the Egyptian street nonetheless seems to be rising again, with a little help from El Sisi. The author ranges wider than the Egypt of the title, looking at events across the whole Arab world, as well as specific issues such as the media. The order of chapters is at times a little strange — an account of the Egyptian monarchy coming towards the end of the book, for example — but the late alterations and additions made necessary by political developments in 2013 are reasonably well integrated into the whole, and all in all this is a stimulating read, which will be particularly appreciated by those who are not already Middle East experts and want an accessible and literate overview of Egypt’s situation and the multitude of challenges facing the country’s future.

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The Bridge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th August, 2014

The BridgeI have only seen the second series of the TV crime drama The Bridge, but it made me an instant convert to Nordic Noir. The dynamic between the two mismatched detectives, one Danish, one Swedish, is quite special, as is the observation of their dysfunctional private lives. For those who haven’t seen the programme, its plots span the narrow divide separating Copenhagen from Malmo, and the Oresunds Bridge that provides both a rail and road link between the two cities also provides the title of the series, as well as being one of its most striking stars. The bridge didn’t exist the last time I was in Copenhagen for more than just a stopover, so of course I had to make a pilgrimage over it — by tran, in my case, which was remarkably simple, as even on a Sunday there seemed to be trains every ten minutes or so, and the journey takes just over half an hour. I found Malmo this morning packing up from the Malmo Festival, which ended on Friday, but that meant that there were no great crowds. In fact, the city was virtually empty and I easily found a table in the sun at the Gustav Adolf restaurant for lunch. The bridge has really boosted Malmo, which used to belong to Denmark, but then became something of a backwater when absorbed into Sweden. There are some lovely buildings and squares, and a beautiful cemetery garden right in the centre of town. Well worth a day trip from Copenhagen (and, no, I didn’t see any criminal activity of any sort, least of all a kidnapping or murder).

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Christiania

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd August, 2014

ChristianiaWhen a community of hippies and eco-warriors settled in Copenhagen’s garden suburb of Christiania over 40 years ago they were hailed as Europe’s equivalent to San Fracsisco’s peaceniks. But whereas many American drop-outs returned to the conventional fold after a couple of years or so, becoming stockbrokers on Wall Street and the like, the alternative lifestylers of Christiania largely stayed, and the community thrives, despite the attempts over the years of some of Denmark’s more conservative governments to close the place down — or at least curb the open sale and consumption of marijuana (technically illegal) — as well as the potentially more dangerous threat from developers keen to get their hands on what is potentially hugely valuable real estate, not far from the city centre. On the advice of an Arab dancer friend who lives in Copenhagen, I spent the morning in Christiania and was charmed. It’s true that some of the larger old industrial buildings on the site are pretty run down, and not all the murals and graffiti sprayed around is good Art by any means. But to my surprise, I found some charming outdoor cafés, the hashish tents were festooned with white lace and flowers (and, no, I didn’t buy any), and if one wanders just a bit deeper into Christiana you come across lanes bordered with gardens and lovely old wooden houses, painted dark green (presumably previously the summer cottages of Copenhagen’s bourgeoisie?) and the atmosphere is so tranquil that one can forget modern life exists. There are no cars inside Christiana, of course, only bicycles of various types and the inhabitants go about their business discreetly ignoring visitors from outside, as they would like to be discreetly ignored. There are signs in the main thoroughfares warning NO PHOTOS! and this is indeed a place not be snapped but to be savoured. Long may it last.

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“Islamic State”: Pure Evil

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2014

IS FoleyI have not watched the video of American journalist James Foley being beheaded by a militant from the so-called Islamic State, IS (previously known as ISIS). I don’t need to, in order to share the revulsion and anger felt by most people in Britain, especially as the masked “executioner” in the video would appear to be British, from his accent. Foley was a war correspondent, not a soldier, who had been held in captivity for the past two years before his gruesome death. His only “crime”, in the eyes of his captors, was his nationality, but nothing can possibly excuse his death and the manner of it. It comes hard on the heels of horrific stories of mass executions by IS of Yazidis and other civilians in Iraq and the terrorising of populations. I am not a Muslim, but I have studied enough about the religion over the years to know that this barbarity is as remote from the true teaching of Islam as was the Spanish Inquisition from that of Christianity. There is nothing noble or heroic in the action of IS militants, nor the cause they espouse. The Islamic State is pure evil, and must be condemned as such, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That means not only action on the ground in Syria and Iraq — which is already seeing some unusual alliances forming against IS — but especially in the mosques and madrasas, and through social media, where the poisonous message of IS must be challenged and exposed for what it truly is.   

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The Beauty of Silence

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th August, 2014

silenceBrazil has long been one of my favourite countries in the world, but nowhere is perfect. The one thing about life here that I find really difficult is the absence of silence. Every cafe, restaurant and bar has either the television or radio blaring, and often both. And there is music everywhere — all very atmospheric during Carnival, but exhausting in its pervasiveness. I used to have a spot by the beach here in Fortaleza where I went to read, think and write, but since I last visited they have installed a radio and loudspeaker system there as well. Moreover, because of the climate — all year round, here on the Equator — people live out in the open and call out to each other. It’s rare to see anybody reading a book or even a newspaper, and that’s not only because they are so expensive compared with people’s earnings. However, all is not lost. There is a place where I go every morning while here, at the end of the wooden pier appropriately called the Ponte dos Ingleses, where I can sit in the breeze with nothing but the sound of the sea. Silence is golden, as the hackneyed saying goes. For in silence one can have deep thoughts. And also surrender to the form of inaction the Chinese Taoists favoured: a sort of not-thinking.

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Fighting Corruption

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th August, 2014

corruptionIn Brazil, where I’ve been for the past fortnight, much of the discussion in the run-up to state and presidential elections has been about corruption, which is so prevalent here, as in much of Latin America and elsewhere in the world, that it undermines the public’s confidence in democracy. The poor majority already feel marginalised from society, and the pervasiveness of corruption — whether on a massive scale by senior politicians lining their own pockets or the every day minor graft that poisons everyday transactions — is sapping the popular will. When I first started coming to Brazil, over 30 years ago, making radio programmes for the BBC, the country was a military dictatorship, with an appalling human rights record. People hoped that the peaceful transition to democracy would usher in a new age of safety and justice, but that promise has only partly been fulfilled. The rich and powerful elite still enjoy “rights” from which the poor are excluded, despite the left wing presidencies of Lula and Dilma, and until corruption is purged from the system millions of people will feel their voice does not matter and probably will not vote.

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