When 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.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd August, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2014
I 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.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th August, 2014
Brazil 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.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th August, 2014
In 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.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th August, 2014
The tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting. This is maybe not surprising, given the artificial boundaries imposed on the region by the British and French following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. In fact, it’s quite surprising that carve-up envisaged by the Sykes-Picot Agreement has lasted as long as it has. The Islamic State, as ISIS has rebranded itself, sees its putative caliphate rubbing out borders like chalk lines on a blackboard. Iraq as a whole is falling apart, to an extent as a result of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s immoral war, but also because of the sectarianism and incompetence of the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The one bright spot on the horizon is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has brought remarkable prosperity and stability to North-East Iraq, as well as providing a safe haven for refugees from other parts of the region. But in recent days, Kurdistan (KRG) has been under threat from ISIS and has called for weapons from the West, to help defend itself. Kurdistan deserves to be protected, and indeed to move swiftly to full independence, if that is what it wants. It had long been assumed that Turkey would oppose an independent Kurdistan, because of its own restless Kurdish minority, but that is no longer the case. So we may well see an independent Kurdistan take its seat at the United Nations in the not too distant future. And other changes to the map of the Middle East will surely follow.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th August, 2014
For years I have resisted calls to boycott Israel — not least in the field of academic exchanges — on the grounds that constructive engagement had a better chance of delivering an equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as fitting in better with my Quaker beliefs against violence and confrontation. However, the time has come to accept that engagement has not worked. The Israeli government has continued to allow the expansion of illegal settlements on land stolen from the Palestinians. Some Fascist Israeli occupies, who prefer to describe themselves by the euphemism “settlers”, continue to torment their Palestinian neighbours, uproot their olive trees and are complicit in the establishment of what can only be described as an apartheid state. And then there is the latest pitiless onslaught on Gaza, in which nearly 2000 Palestinians have been killed, including several hundred children. I deplore and condemn the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas and other militant groups. But what the IDF has been doing over the past month is not just disproportionate as a response, it is criminal. I look forward to the day when Bibi Netanyahu and his colleagues are arraigned before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Israel has repeatedly violated both the Geneva and Hague Conventions in international law, but now it deserves to face charges of war crimes. Moreover, remember Israel is a democracy, not a dictatorship, which is why the Israeli public who voted for Netanyahu, Lieberman and worse need to face the music too. Boycott Israel now, on all fronts, as happened successfully with racist apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Do not go on holiday to Israel, sunning on the beaches of Tel Aviv or Eilat, while ignoring the injustices being carried out against Palestinians out of your sight. Do not buy Israeli produce of any kind, not just from the illegal settlements. Make the message loud and clear: you can no longer act with impunity, Israel, and until you make a just settlement with the Palestinians, withdraw from the West Bank and lift the siege on Gaza, you shall be an international outcast, a pariah state, and deservedly so.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th August, 2014
The black American playwright, cultural commentator and journalist Bonnie Greer grew up in Chicago’s poor south side at a time when one’s skin colour defined one’s identity — and for many people, one’s role in life. But it clear from her 400-page memoir of the first 30 years of her life, A Parallel Life (Arcadia Books, £14.99) that her search for herself was at least as much about what sort of person she herself was as about ethnicity. The eldest of seven children of obviously loving, yet quite strict, Catholic parents, she found herself torn between their expectations and her deep desire to rebel. And to write — an occupation she took up aged nine, though it was years before she found her true voice and medium. The book finishes with her move to New York, in a car driven by two friends getting high on cocaine. And by this time she had realised that she preferred the company of gays ( especially drag queens) to straight men, though essentially heterosexual herself. Parts of her memoir pick up on the political and cultural moods of the time, from Chicago’s Mayor Daley to the assassinations of both Kennedys, with plenty of musical and film referencing as well. The reader is given the tip-off that she will later find an anchorage in Paris and then London, though the brief pages on an early visit to Amsterdam and the UK are telescoped so much that they at times are confused and confusing. Indeed, what is so striking about Bonnie Greer’s time in the confessional — which is how the book appears — is how the style changes rapidly, from fluent, well-rounded paragraphs to staccato single sentences, or even just a few words. It has all just poured out, or so it seems, which of course gives it it’s vitality. By the end it is clear that the author is indeed no angel, but a force to be reckoned with. And one understands exactly why, as well as how, she managed to keep her back turned on the BNP’s Nick Griffin in the celebrated episode of Question Time when he was a guest as an elected MEP.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th July, 2014
My old friend, the publisher and editor Peter Day, left very precise instructions for his funeral, which took place at lunchtime today at the Charterhouse in the City (where he spent the last 14 years of his life). There was to be absolutely NO EULOGY, and he guaranteed laughter throughout the chapel by wry comments left in his undated set of instructions about who might or might not be around to see him off. The place was packed, which was a tribute to the vast, and not always inter-locking, range of friends that he had. Very few from English or International PEN, I was sad to note, but plenty from the worlds of publishing and literacy agencies, including a gaggle from Allison & Busby, for whom he edited the first paperback edition of my André & Oscar. His great friend Julian Wilson — much talked of, but never met, so far as I and many others of the old PEN circle were concerned — was there with his extended family. And so too were others who have contributed to the ongoing tribute website http://www.peterdaymemorial.com (to which I added a short piece the other day, transferred from this blog). The service was admirably short, but ending with a particularly poignant organ recital of Bach’s Fantasia in C Minor (BWV562), as Peter’s mortal remains were carried off to Golders Green crematorium. There was a suitably generous reception afterwards — Peter would never have wanted his friends to go hungry, or much less thirsty — enabling all of us to catch up on old friends and make new ones, while paying nodding respect to Old Father Time.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th July, 2014
Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat was a huge success in many countries and languages, as well as being the basis for an Oscar-nominated film of the same name, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. So the south-western French village of Lansquenet and its cast of characters, from the crusty priest, Francis Reynaud, to the vivacious founder of the chocolate shop and part-time white witch, Vianne Rocher, are familiar to millions of people round the world. In this sequel, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, Joanne Harris fast-forwards eight years, bringing Vianne and her two daughters back to Lansquenet from Paris, where they had settled, following a summons by letter from an old lady, Armande, now deceased, who wrote that the village needs Vianne’s help. But for whom? It will be a while before either Vianne or the reader realises, while in the meantime it becomes clear that the community’s calm has been disturbed, by a declared war — but a war between whom? The reader’s initial assumption is that it must be between the traditional Catholic French on one side of the river and the Moroccans who have moved in over the other side of the bridge. But nothing in Joanne Harris’s imaginative world is ever that simple, and layer after layer of complexity is uncovered like the dismemberment of a mille feuilles. Moreover, the idyllic surface impression of the village is only a veil behind which lurk conflicting emotions and a whole series of human sins, real or intended: hate, envy, jealousy, rape, murder, suicide and more. August heat shimmers but also gives rise to contrary winds by which individuals and families get buffeted. In contrast to the Lenten period of Chocolat (which is why the priest was scandalised by the opening of Vianne’s chocolate shop, with its sensuous temptations) in the new novel the period in which the action takes place is Ramadan. As ever, food plays an important role in the narrative, from the iftar dinners of the Muslim community to the peaches that Vianne gathers fom a tree in Armande’s garden and distributes to key characters in the plot. A review can only skate over the surface of the plot of a novel as rich in twists and turns as this. But settle down for as many hours or days it takes you to absorb 450 pages and be prepared for surprises, both black and white, and immense pleasure.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th July, 2014
The wealth generated by the UK’s creative industries is on the up; according to the government’s Department for Cuoluture, Media and Sport they are now worth £71.4 billion a year. Yet writers are seeing their incomes falling, to the extent that far fewer are able to make a living from their output. For some that has meant living at below the poverty line, or depending on a partner or other family members for support. For others, the only survival mechanism has been to have some other job as well as writing. According to figures released this summer by the Authors’ Liensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), in 2005 40% of authors earned their income solely from writing, but by 2013 this had dropped to only 11.5%. “If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full’time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK,” the ALCS warns in a pamhlet launched recently at the House of Commons. Research carried out for ALCS by Queen Mary University, London, discovered that the typical income of writers has dropped by 29% in real terms since 2005, that median income now being about £11,000 per annum. It’s worth remembering that according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation single people in the UK need to earn at least £16,850 before tax to achieve a Minimum Income Standard. The one bright spot in an otherwise depressing picture is that digital use earnings are rising, but one of the reasons I stood (successfully) for the ALCS Board in January was because the digitalisation of content has given rise to new challenges to ensuring that authors do get some appropriate payment for their work. As the ALCS pamphlet says, “For writers to continue making their irreplaceable contribution to the UK economy, they need to receive fair remunertion for their work. This means ensuring clear, fair contracts with equitable terms and a copyright regime that supports creators and their ability to earn a living from their creations.”