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 Friday, 8th August, 2014
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.”
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th July, 2014
The publisher, editor and longtime English PEN activist Peter Day, who has died, could on occasions be extremely sharp-tongued, but at heart he was a man of immense human kindness. He particularly sprang into action whenever any of his friends was ill. When our mutual friend, the late novelist Francis King, was in deteriorating health, Peter virtually moved in to look after him. I first met Peter through English PEN, when we were both serving on that writers’ body’s executive committee, he ex officio as the editor of International PEN’s newsletter. Later, he would edit the first paperback edition of my book on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and André Gide, André & Oscar; he was a joy to work with, meticulous but also deeply supportive and it helped that several of our working sessions were conducted over lunch at his flat up in the tower of a gothic block of flats in Shepherd’s Bush. He loved to entertain, but was an eccentric host, especially at his dinner parties at the table in his kitchen. He insisted on washing up between each course, which was distinctly disconcerting, and in order to make sure that people didn’t stay too long, Peter had his lights on automatic timers so that after 10pm they used to go off, one by one. Only the most thick-skinned guest failed to get the message. In his latter years, Peter moved into Charterhouse, the residential accommodation for distressed gentlefolk. The rule there was that everyone had a set place allocated at the communal dining tables, so one’s neighbours at meal times were always the same until one died, yet to my surprise Peter adapted to this somewhat monastic lifestyle with remarkable good faith.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th July, 2014
When Lord Lothian invited International Development Minister Alan Duncan to address the Global Strategy Forum at the National Liberal Club today on the Arab Spring three years on, he can have had no inkling that Mr Duncan would be ministerially defenestrated the previous night. But in a way that was an advantage as the speaker was therefore bound by no government conventions and limitations and was able to give a wide-ranging yet penetrating overview of recent events in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). I liked his concept of “3D” British foreign policy, i.e. diplomacy, development and defence working in conjunction, and he has clearly put his experience in the oil industry to good use while in office, though he was pretty pessimistic about developments in Libya, in particular. I queried him on Egypt, as he’d said the West was maybe too quick to welcome the ousting of Hosni Mubarak; surely, I said, the West has been too quick to welcome the arrival of Field Marshal Sisi, given the appalling current record of torture and imprisonment, which has even affected journalists working for international media outlets, such as my former BBC colleague, and now Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste? Where Alan Duncan and I were much more aligned was when he spoke of the need to approach the Arab-Israeli conflict from a position of principle — in other words recognising the compound injustice (and indeed humiliation) perpetrated against the Palestinians by successive governments of Israel. It would have been good to press him further on his hints at possible consequences of the tensions between different Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, but maybe now he is more of a free agent it will be possible to winkle more out of him in such important debates.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: al-Jazeera, Alan Duncan, Arab Spring, Egypt, Field Marshal Sisi, GCC, Global Strategy Forum, Hosni Mubarak, Israel, Libya, Lord Lothian, Palestine, Peter Greste | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th July, 2014
I am one of those Liberal Democrats who firmly believes it was the right thing for the party to go into Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, despite being distinctly centre-left personally. Besides, the LibDem special conference in Birmingham overwhelmingly endorsed the move. The Rose Garden political bromance was a bit too cordial, maybe, but it was an historic occasion that truly broke the mould, unlike the formation of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, which also aspired to do so. But the LibDems have suffered as the junior partner, as our continental Liberal colleagues warned us we would. On the up-side, we now have a whole raft of LibDem MPs with ministerial experience, and there have been some real wins for LibDem policies, alongside the better publicised policy losses. And we need to shout about those wins, in Focus, on social media, on political platforms and on the doorstep. We may be tired of saying “raised tax threshold, pupil premium, triple lock pensions” and so on, but the messages have still not got through to the average voter. At the same time, with the general election only 10 months ago, differentiation now has to be central to our strategy. You can be sure that Tory MPs will be doing it from the other side of the Coalition. All our LibDem politicians need to articulate clearly and simply what the Liberal Democrats stand for, again and again and again between now and next May. Only then will there be a chance that we can regain the trust of those who are by nature LibDem supporters but who have drifted towards other parties over the past four years. We have obvious differences from the Conservatives on a whole range of issues, from the EU to international relations, the environment to civil liberties. We mustn’t allow the experience of Coalition to make us toxic in the public’s eye. We have principles and policies that we can be proud of. So let’s stand up and proclaim them, and not be put off by any squeals of protest from Tory right-wingers, who hate the Coalition anyway.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th July, 2014
When I was doing English Lit A level, many moons ago, one of my classmates had a great passion for the writings of Virginia Woolf. She was not on the curriculum, and our English Master openly mocked this boy’s predilection, preferring instead the richness of Shakespeare, the subtlety of Jane Austen and the almost masochistically intensity of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Michael Holroyd’s seminal biography of Lytton Strachey was published that very year of 1967, yet it was only when I went to university that I got round to reading that and then dived into the world of the Bloomsbury Group like a young penguin that has just learned to swim. Once installed in Brussels, working for Reuters — and therefore at last in a financial position to buy lots of books — I savoured Virginia Woolf’s novels and all the volumes of diaries and letters and the wide range of related biographies as they came out. It was the first collective love affair of my life. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that this morning I went to the Press View of the new Virginia Woolf exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. All fans, like my school-friend, his name now long forgotten, to an extent feel they possess their idol and so it was too with me and Virginia nWoolf. Even her feminism stirred me. I was reassured in advance of the exhibition to know that it was curated by my old friend and former colleague at English PEN, the art historian and biographer, Frances Spalding, who indeed gave a brilliant unscripted tour of the exhibition to the thronging hacks at this morning’s Press View. Of course, I needn’t have worried. This is the first exhibition of its kind, amazingly, focused on the central figure of Virginia Woolf, but through photographs, paintings, letters and ephemera following her sensitively through the various phases of her life and her growing struggle with depression. Having lost so many dear friends in the First World War, she was metaphorically pummeled to the ground by the Second, with the complete destruction of one of her London homes, and the horror of more human losses. Inevitably her end is seen as tragic, with her suicide by drowning in 1941, her husband Leonard no longer able to haul her up from the depths of despair. But mercifully, she had retrieved her diaries from a bomb-damaged house and these were later stored in a bank vault by Leonard. Their later publication told us so much about the author, her life and loves (of both sexes), but also so much about England in an era now gone and of her passion for London. All this and more comes out so clearly in the exhibition, which should not be missed. And highlighted on one wall is a quote that remains in my mind above all else that she wrote: “Thinking is my fighting”.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: English PEN, Frances Spalding, Leonard Woolf, London, Lyton Strachey, Michael Holroyd, National Portrait Gallery, The Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 5th July, 2014
Earlier this week I was at Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, interviewing the writer and Arabist John McHugo about his new book on Syria. The topicality of the subject was doubtless one reason that the place was packed — and both John and his publishers, Saqi Books, deserve praise for turning the book round so quickly but professionally, so that it can become part of the national debate on Syria. John and I first met over 40 years ago, in the coffee room of the Oriental Institute at Oxford, though at that time I was studying Chinese with Japanese, while John was already grounded in Arab studies. This helped him greatly in the preparation of his last book, A Concise History of the Arabs (brought out by Saqi last year), but marrying Diana Darke, the author of My House in Damascus, which I reviewed earlier this year, certainly cemented his involvement in Syria in particular. His new book, Syria: From the Great War to Civil War (Saqi, £17.99), really brings alive the trials and tribulations — as well as some periods of relative calm — of the people of Syria over the past century. I was particularly interested in John’s treatment of the French Mandate period, which gets scan coverage in most English-language texts about the 20th century Middle East. He was able to draw on Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography of Hafez al-Assad to help portray the rise to power and its exercise by that remarkable man, who had a very clear vision for the role and future of his country, and was prepared to liquidate anyone who fundamentally disagreed. When the old man died and his second son, Bashar, took over, there was a false sense of reasssurance in many Western capitals, that this partly English-educated newcomer with his medical background would usher in a glorious period of reform — not that the presidential circle and narrow base of vested interests would ever have allowed him to be too radical in challenging the system of patronage from which they benefitted so handsomely. By chance, John and I were both in Syria — he in Damascus, me in Tartus — when the waves of the so-called Arab Spring finally reached Syria in March 2011. Had the authorities handled things differently then, instead of relying on oppression, things might have developed quite differently. Inevitably, in the question and answers at the Mosaic Rooms event, John got asked about what is happening now in what to an extent has become a proxy war, with different foreign powers and even religious ideologies lining up on one side or another. But I am sure he was right when he said that sectarianism between Sunni and Shia was not such big issues for most of the period covered by his book, though now it is seen as defining the struggle that has so far cost over 150,000 lives.
[photo: Susannah Tarbush]
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd July, 2014
Seeing UKIP’s MEPs literally turning their backs when Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was played at the inaugural session of the new European Parliament yesterday really made me ashamed to be British. Such behaviour is not only childish but also deeply insulting, both to others present and to the memory of the founding fathers of the European Union whose idealism helped shape a Europe of peace rather than of war. Like a naughty boy at school, one of the new UKIP intake, Patrick Flynn, also tweeted that he had spoiled his ballot paper in the election for the President of the European Parliament, because the whole thing is a “farce”. It’s UKIP that are truly a farce, by getting themselves elected to an institution they despise (while claiming their salaries and generous allowances, of course). But whereas good farces make one laugh, there is an undercurrent of nastiness in UKIP — nationalism of the worst sort, often propounded with blatant xenophobia, as we saw in May’s European elections, backed up with dodgy statistics and outright lies. Their demonisation of Bulgarians and Romanians, in particular, and unjust charges that foreigners are stealing “our” jobs have undoubtedly worsened community relations in parts of Britain. Nigel Farage is the bandmaster in charge of these sinister clowns and usually manages to maintain his facade of hail-fellow-well-met when interviewed on TV. But it will be interesting to see how quickly the UKIP bubble in British politics deflates. And also how soon some of their MEPs fall by the wayside, as has happened each time in recent European Parliaments.