When one thinks of UNESCO World Heritage sites I suppose ancient wonders such as the Pyramids at Giza or Stonehenge come to mind, so for many people it will come as a surprise to know that Germany boasts no fewer than 39 of them, ranging from the old city of Bamberg to the broads of the Wadden Sea. Some locations, such as Trier, are home to an astonishing variety of architectural periods of styles from the Roman era onward, while others, such as the palaces and other grand buildings round Potsdam form more of a unity. The German travel board, Germany Travel, offers a good brief introduction to each of the UNESCO gems on its website, as well as suggesting itineraries off the beaten track. But people in London can get an excellent preview over the next couple of weeks at an exhibition of beautiful photographs of Germany’s UNESCO world heritage sites by Hans-Joachim Aubert, at Europe House, the European Commission and European Parliament offices in Smith Square, Westminster. This exhibition has been travelling the world and could hardly be a better showcase of what the EU’s most populous nation has to offer and is itself a fine example of location photography at its very best.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th November, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th November, 2014
I was pleased last night to return from the ALDE Congress in Lisbon in time to attend the launch of Gerald MacLean’s new book, Abdullah Gul and the Making of the New Turkey*, at the Turkish Embassy. A particular draw was the subject himself, who was in London on what he said was his first foreign trip since ending his term as Turkey’s President. Gerald said in his own remarks that the volume is not hagiography, though there was a degree of cooperation with Mr Gul, his wife, friends and family. I shall reserve judgement until I am able to read it. Also present last night was Jack Straw, who said that he and his wife had forged a close friendship with the Guls while he was Foreign Secretary. Mr Straw lamented the fact that Turkey had effectively been kept out of EU membership by the strong opposition from states such as Austria, though many of us who follow Turkish affairs closely feel that in fact Ankara has recently been drifting further away from rather than nearer that objective. Mr Gul himself was in nostalgic mood, recalling his own university studies in Britain (at Exeter University). As he has been Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President of Turkey I guess the next stage would be some international role. He could of course write his memoirs, but he might feel Gerald MacLean has stolen his thunder on that.
* OneWorld, £35
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd November, 2014
The congress of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) this week brought 600 delegates to Lisbon to discuss Reclaiming Liberalism. Though it was the first such gathering since May’s European elections, not too much time was spent looking backwards but rather forwards, as to how we can hone our message on the basis of our liberal principles in a context of growing illiberalism and nationalism. Liberals in some countries — notably Britain and Germany — fared really badly in May, whereas in other areas — such as the Benelux and the Baltic — there was a strong advance. It was good to welcome several new parties into the liberal family. Fringe events are getting much more numerous and valuable than used to be the case, and I especially valued the session on the EU digital single market. An election was held for two new vice-presidents on the Bureau, the victorious candidates being Angelika Mlinar from Austria and Hans van Baalen from the Netherlands. As usual, the Brits had the largest delegation, but as the number of delegate places reflects the vote a party gets in national general elections, we have to brace ourselves for a reduction after next May. Meanwhile, I was pleased to learn that I have ben re-elected by the Liberal Democrats to serve on the ALDE governing Council for the next two years, as well as on the party’s International Relations Committee. I also got elected to the LibDems’ Federal Executive (the first time I’ve stood) and know that we will have quite a tough period to face as a party in the run-up to May and beyond.
[photo: Hans van Baalen and Angelika Mlinar]
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th November, 2014
I have lost count of the number of times I have visited Petra, not just Jordan’s most impressive archaeological site but one of the true wonders of the ancient world. I’ve seen it under snow in winter and in the scorching sun of summer, but November is about the most perfect month to visit. I’ve seen the place crowded (soon after Jordan opened the Aqaba border crossing with Israel) and I’ve seen it deserted (after 9/11, when tourists fled the Middle East and stopped flying). Yesterday, the numbers of visitors were moderate; Jordan, like other countries in the region, has seen its tourist industry hit by the shock waves of the so-called Arab Spring. But the real joy for me was seeing the newly uncovered parts of the site, which give an even better picture of what the city was like than before. And much more remains under the sands. The evening before going into the site I gave a lecture in Wadi Musa on the Rise and Fall of the Nabataeans. I think they would have been amazed and pleased how two millennia after Petra’s heyday people from all over the world come to marvel at their legacy.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th November, 2014
Long before Oman struck oil, providing the wherewithal for the modernisation of the country and its infrastructure after Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, this South Eastern corner of Arabia acquired a significant part of its wealth from the trade in frankincense, the aromatic resin of a long-living tree found notably in the Dhofar region. In biblical times and well into the Middle Ages, frankincense was very costly, making it worth the while of traders to transport it by camels across the desert to Jeddah in what is now Saudi Arabia, for shipment to Egypt and beyond, or overland via Petra and on into the Middle East and Europe. Just as oil was dubbed “black gold”, so frankincense was referred to as “white gold” — the most prized type being a milky white, though other less expensive varieties are a murkier brown or grey. The value dropped hugely in modern times, as other forms of air purifier and perfumes were commercialised, but it is still produced in significant quantities in Oman and sells well in e markets here, not least in Salalah, where I am writing this blog piece. Earlier today I visited the UNESCO world heritage site in a wadi where there are hundreds of trees, many of them centuries old. Outside the fenced-in area of government production, the trees have been shorn of lower foliage by camels, but one only needs to make a small nick in the bark for a tiny emission of sticky white resin to emerge, already full of scent. In normal harvesting, which happens between May and September, the trees are left for three weeks for them to bleed sufficiently to provide the requisite amount. Frankincense was one of the wondrous products presented to the baby Jesus by the Three Kings, according to the New Testament, and it is somehow reassuring to think that this white gold will continue to be garnered in Oman long after the black gold runs out.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th November, 2014
Oman is probably the most low-key of the Gulf states, certainly when compared with the UAE’s Dubai or Qatar. But it is the one with the greatest sense if history; for centuries, Omani merchants were key players across the Indian Ocean and down the East coast of Africa and its navy was a force to be reckoned with. For the first two decades of my life, it was largely a closed country, as the old Sultan was mistrustful of modernity and the West — understandably if one reads how the Omanis were mistreated by the Portuguese and then outmanoeuvred by the British. All that changed in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos took power, and he started to use the country’s oil-wealth to build up its infrastructure, as well as to raise the living standards of his people. Moreover, while some of the other Gulf States have trumpeted with great fanfares their activities in international diplomacy, Oman has done so quietly. It was one of the first Arab states to accept that someone who had been to Israel should not therefore be a prohibited visitor. And today there are efforts underway to further the Western dialogue with giant neighbour Iran, with the US and the EU represented at the highest diplomatic level at talks in Oman’s capital, Muscat (which I left this morning to fly to Salalah). Sultan Qaboos himself is unfortunately detained by medical treatment in Germany, so unable to greet the participants, as I am sure he would have wished. He will also miss National Day celebrations here on 18 November. But when he went on the radio on Wednesday to say he is doing OK, cars full of flag-waving young men took to the streets of Muscat in celebration. Oman may not pass the Westminster-model democracy test, but on so many levels it is an undoubted success, including in its quiet diplomacy. And many Omanis say they like things the way they are — so long as Sultan Qaboos is in charge.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd November, 2014
Through the eyes of the Western media what appears to be a black-and-white situation has developed in the Middle East: the wicked self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) versus the rest, including the international coalition of which Britain is part. But of course the reality is nowhere near as clear-cut as that, and some of ISIS’s enemies should not be our friends — Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, for example. So it was helpful, as well as moving, to be at the BBC Radio Theatre in London yesterday afternoon for a screening of three documentaries from Syria, the first and longest of which was The Shebabs of Yarmouk, directed by Axel Salvatori-Sinz, focussing on a group of young creative artists/writers/directors living in the crowded Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus — their hopes and fears and their ambivalent attitude to the possibility of leaving Syria. The film ends just as the so-called Arab Spring hits Syria in early 2011. The handsome and talented central, figure, Hassan Hassan, has finally accepted to do his military service, but as we learn from a very short but poignant postscript filmed separately by Axel Salvatori-Sinz in Paris, Hassan was subsequently detained and died under torture in one of Assad’s hell-hole prisons. Dissent is simply not tolerated by the regime. And yet thousands of predominantly young Syrians, with no affiliation to ISIS or indeed any of the other radical groups to be found fighting the country, continue to make their dissenting voices heard, through clips uploaded onto YouTube, and through social media postings, as well as brave demonstrations, singly or in groups. Many others have perished or been forced into exile, or at best internally displaced. For those of outside who follow the Syrian story at a distance through the mainstream media, it is important to acknowledge those different voices and diverse points of view. This is not a black-and-white situation, and we demean the people of Syria by assuming it is.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Arab Spring, Axel Salvatori-Sinz, Bashar Al-Assad, Damascus, Hassan Hassan, ISIS, Islamic State, Palestine, Syria, The Shebabs of Yarmouk, Yarmouk | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th October, 2014
Stavanger, a city of no more than 125,000 souls, is the oil capital of Norway and thus one of the most affluent places in Europe, the gleaming modern office blocks that belie its millennial heritage sharing its striking geographical location with wooden houses and spacious villas with gardens that predate the oil boom. But like all such communities, Stavanger has a section that is distinctly on the wrong side of the tracks, the flotsam and jetsam of the underworld: petty criminals, drug dealers,prostitutes and losers. These are the people that so fascinate the novelist and Norwegian TV personality, Tore Renberg, as well as the film director Erik Skoldbjaerg (whose film based on the NOKAS robbery in Stavanger in April 2004 was shot on location in the city) and the Stavanger-born actor, Stian Kristiansen, who starred in the film Mongoland before moving on to become a film director himself. But it is the latest novel by Tore Renberg, See You Tomorrow (Arcadia Books, £14.99), that Stavanger is likely to be fixed in the wider public’s imagination. More black comedy than Nordic noir, but essentially sui generis, this 500-page blockbuster flies like a helicopter for a period of three days sweeping down over the homes and other places of action of a dysfunctional group of people with interlocking lives, all of whom who have dark secrets or what psychiatrists would call personality disorders. The cameos range from the horrific to the hilarious, often a shocking combination of both. Renberg has an extraordinary eye for detail, not just for what the eye can see but also for what the characters think, even if they don’t always articulate their thoughts, otherwise often expressed with the only points of reference they can summon up: heavy metal music, horror movies and the odd snatch of literature half-remembered from school. The author brilliantly enters the minds of both his ungainly adult characters and the turbulent teenagers, so that the words, thoughts and actions erupt with the colour and glare and unpredictability of a volcano. Renberg’s is an astounding literary voice and I have not been so excited about a novel for years. The translator, Seán Kinsella, also deserves much credit for a brilliant piece of work. Read it. You won’t regret it.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th October, 2014
The next two years are likely to be a challenging time for the Liberal Democrats, both in the run-up to next May’s general election — when the Party is in danger of losing half its seats, on current poll ratings — and in reconnecting with an electorate that is disenchanted with Westminster politics and in a mood to blame the Liberal Democrats for some of the Conservatives’ harsher policies. We need to develop and communicate a fresh, radical Liberal narrative, as well as championing the real achievements that we have made as part of the Coalition government: raising the tax threshold, bringing in the pupil premium, highlighting mental illness as a health and social care priority, and so on. It’s essential that we have a Federal Executive that is up to the challenges of maintaining morale among members and Party staff, as well as efficiency in delivery, building on the recent welcome increase in membership and asserting the Liberal Democrats’ importance as a vibrant force in local, regional, national and European politics. We also need to boost our human and financial resources, to help level the political playing field. That should help us rebuild our councillor base, develop winnable parliamentary seats for the future and be ready and prepared to reverse our diminished force in the European Parliament in the elections of 2019.
I have served the Party in many ways over the years, as a candidate at local, regional, national and European levels (including being a London borough councillor for a while). I was on the Federal Policy Committee for several years and chaired two of its working parties, and I am currently a member of the International Relations Committee and the delegation to the ALDE Council (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe). I was Chair of London Liberal Democrats 2010-2012. I now feel tat the best way I continue that service would be as a member of the Federal Executive, helping steer the Party through troubled waters. I thus invite those who are able to vote in the Party’s internal elections to give me a high preference on the ballot.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st October, 2014
Tim Farron is coming to the end of his four-year term as President of the Liberal Democrats, but he’s still juggling being the campaigning MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale with the demands of the rubber chicken circuit. This evening he was in Mortlake, to open the new constituency offices of Richmond Park LibDems, at 65a Sheen Road. Being Richmond, there were not only distinctly upmarket canapés with the rather good wine, but even a display of original artwork and Liberal memorabilia on the walls. In fact, the front room facing the street will act as a small gallery for local artists to show and sell their work, outside of election times. In his speech, with his usual humour Tim offered good cheer to the local party and the tireless PPC Robin Meltzer by pointing to the example of David Penhaligon, who won the previously safe Conservative seat of Truro in October 1974 at a time when the Liberal Party elsewhere was slipping back. Even more remarkably, Penhaligon vastly increased his majority in 1979, when the party was suffering from the fallout of the Jeremy Thorpe affair and Mrs Thatcher swept to power. Sometimes this phenomenon of bucking the trend is somewhat trivialised in the LibDem campaign slogan of “where you work, you win”, which isn’t always true, as many councillors defending their seats over the past four years have sadly discovered. But it is possible sometimes to pull off a remarkable victory with an inspirational candidate and a truly dedicated team behind him or her. Tim himself, of course, has made his own seat about as solid a LibDem fiefdom as it’s possible to be in England, so one hopes that in the run-up to next May’s difficult general election he will be able to get about around the country still, motivating people. Meanwhile, whichever woman wins the contest to succeed him as President on 1 January is going to have a hard act to follow.