Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Reflections on Oscar Romero’s Centenary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th September, 2017

Oscar Romero 1Yesterday I attended a commemorative evensong at Westminster Abbey marking the centenary of the birth of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 while serving Mass in a hospital chapel. A relic of part of his blood stained robes was displayed on the Abbey’s High Altar. It was a particularly moving occasion for me, having covered the civil war in El Salvador briefly for the BBC at a time when death squads were still targetting anti-government activists, sometimes leaving corpses by the side of the road. I interviewed some of the mothers of the disappeared in the city, as well as coming face-to-face with tanks outside San Salvador’s cathedral.

El Salvador civil warWestminster Abbey yesterday was packed with an ecumenical crowd, including an impressive phalanx of Roman Catholic cardinals in their robes and red zucchetti. I was seated in the Quire right next to the Abbey Choir, whose magnificent rendering of music both ancient and modern helped stir the emotions of all present. Particularly moving was a specially commissioned anthem by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, using the words of Archbishop Romero’s appeal to soldiers in El Salvador’s dirty war: “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army. Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are all the same people. Before any order to kill a man may give, God’s law must prevail — ‘Thou shalt not kill’.” A recording of part of Oscar Romero’s homily on the eve of his assassination was also played, his voice and his words ringing through the vast Abbey like a bell of sanity in a mad world. No wonder the Church is in the process of making him a Saint. Even I, as a Quaker, can understand that. The sermon yesterday was given by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury — a tribute to Romero, of course, but also a call for everyone to follow his example and to be resolutely on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Not everyone has the courage and determination to stand up against tyranny and injustice, but all of us have the capacity to try.

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Mrs May’s Florentine Tragedy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd September, 2017

Theresa May Florence speechYesterday, in Florence, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, set out — partially — how and why Britain intends to leave the European Union. She said she chose that location because Florence had played  a central role in the Renaissance, “a period of history that inspired centuries of creativity and critical thought across our continent and which in many ways defined what it meant to be European. A period of history whose example shaped the modern world. A period of history that teaches us that when we come together in a spirit of ambition and innovation, we have it within ourselves to do great things.” Britain’s current 27 EU partners, not to mention many millions of Brits, may be left wondering why, if coming together to do things is so important, the UK government is now taking Britain away.

BrexitThe answer, according to the Prime Minister and other Brexiteers, is that this is “the will of the people”. On 23 June, 2016, in a Referendum marred by lies and hyperbole (the latter on both sides of the debate), UK voters chose by a margin of a little under 52 to 48 to “Leave” rather than “Remain”. The referendum was only advisory, in keeping with Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, but the Government had said it would implement the people’s decision. In March this year, Mrs May invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting the clock ticking on a two year exit process. But as soon became clear, two years is not nearly long enough to entangle more than 40 years of legislative and regulatory integration. Hence Mrs May’s suggestion in her Florence speech that there should be a transition period of about two years, following the theoretical departure at the end of March 2019, during which the relationship with the EU, in trading terms at least, would be more or less the same. This sort of argument has been rightly derided as having one’s cake and eating it. Besides, it is probably over-optimistic to believe that everything will be sorted out even by March 2021.

EU and UK flags marchMeanwhile, the adverse effects of Brexit are already being felt. The pound sterling fell against the euro and the dollar, prompting a rise in inflation. Yesterday, following Mrs May’s speech, Moody’s downgraded the UK’s credit rating. Thousands of EU citizens who have been working in the UK have already left, driven out by the uncertainty of their situation and the overt hostility from some more extreme Brexiteers. The NHS is in crisis because of the shortage of nurses and in London, many restaurants have closed off sections because they cannot get enough waiting staff as EU workers leave. Fruit will literally rot in the fields of some British farms this autumn, for the same reason. Over the next year or so it is highly likely that things will get worse, which is why the British electorate should be given the opportunity of a fresh vote on the deal that the British government’s Brexit team negotiated, with an option to remain in the EU if they don;t like it.

Whether the EU27 would be prepared to let us remain, after causing such disruption since June last year, is another matter. Doubtless British Cabinet Ministers rallied round the Prime Minister yesterday, to congratulate her on her speech, but I fear history will judge that she was actually raising the curtain on what will turn into a Florentine tragedy.

Below is a link to Theresa May’s speech as reported on the Independent’s website. 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-florence-speech-in-full-read-brexit-plan-eu-talks-single-market-divorce-bill-a7961596.html

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Strong and Cable?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st September, 2017

Vince Cable speechLiberal Democrats left sunny Bournemouth this week buoyed by the camaraderie and intellectual stimulation of autumn conference. It was make or break time for new Leader, Sir Vince Cable, who gave us all a rousing send-off with a speech full of meaty political content and a smattering of good jokes. Vince is a serious player; it was he, after all, who warned everyone where finance and the economy were going in the run up to the 2008 recession. And he has had ministerial experience in the Coalition government, notably as Business Secretary. So when he talks about the effects of Brexit, for example, people listen. But the big question is: can having an authoritative leader translate into votes for the party? The LibDems have been stuck around seven per cent in the opinion polls for some time and although the number of LibDem MPs went up from eight to 12 in June, the party’s national vote share actually fell back slightly. When it comes to local elections the picture is a bit more rosy; as Vince himself acknowledges, the rebuilding of LibDem fortunes will, as ever, come from the bottom up. Nonetheless, a lot of the hopes for a Liberal renaissance rest on his shoulders. It was good to hear him at Bournemouth being the champion of Exit from Brexit — a message likely to grow in appeal as the negative consequences of a looming Brexit become ever clearer — but he is no one-trick pony. His speech had plenty of sound messages on a range of issues from funding the NHS to replacing tuition fees with a graduate tax. Given the totally shambolic performance of Theresa May and her UKIPTories recently, the soft Conservative vote must be wobbling, and it hard to see the increasingly left-leaning Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn scooping that up.

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LibDems Vote to Recognise Palestine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th September, 2017

IMG_2811At their autumn conference in Bournemouth yesterday, Liberal Democrats voted overwhelmingly to urge the British government to recognise the State of Palestine. The vote came at the end of a thoughtful and well-informed debate on a motion to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, drafted with input from both Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (LDFP, which I chair) and Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI). Balfour expressed support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, providing the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish inhabitants were not compromised. Clearly the second half of that commitment has not been fully implemented, not least in the occupied territories. In my speech, I argued that calling for the recognition of the State of Palestine was timely for three reasons, namely the Balfour centenary, the 50th anniversary of the Occupation (the longest such situation in modern history) and the fact that it is one minute to midnight for finding a way forward to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Personally, I believe it is up to the people of the region to decide ultimately whether a two-state or a one-state solution is ideal, but in the meantime, recognising Palestine would give Palestinians a degree of equality in a singularly unequal relationship. Moreover, to acknowledge Palestine as a state (as more than 130 members of the United Nations have already done) would help restore some of the dignity that was taken away from Palestinians by the Occupation, along with their land and much of their water. The Conservative government has been backsliding on the issue of Palestine, recently downgrading the status of the Palestinian Ambassador, and it must be pressed hard to change its position.

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Brexit and Higher Education

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th September, 2017

IMG_2787This morning, the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference in Bournemouth debated the effects of Brexit on public services in Britain. The impact on NHS staffing as well as the hospitality industry has received quite a lot of media attention, but in my speech I focussed on the situation regarding higher education. For the HE sector, Brexit is a lose-lose situation. UK students may in future excluded from Erasmus plus, restricting their opportunities as well as limiting the positive contribution they may later give as HE lecturers or researchers. The impact on EU and overseas student applications to UK universities and colleges is already being felt, because of the image of Britain as an unwelcoming environment following last year’s EU Referendum, and Brexit hasn’t happened yet. Financially, that is very bad news for those universities that rely on fees from foreign students. Similarly, EU research funding may be cut off. One of the worst effects of the prospects of Brexit, though, is the way that EU academic staff and support staff, of whom there are a great number, including at SOAS, where I teach, feel their status is insecure. Many have already left. So all round, Brexit is a looming disaster. It was however encouraging that this morning’s motion was adopted nem con, and the Party is revved up to campaign for an Exit from Brexit.

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Central American Independence Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th September, 2017

IMG_2772Last night I nipped back to London from the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth to attend the Central Independence Day celebration at the Churchill Hotel. It’s a unique event in the diplomatic calendar, as five countries mark their freedom on the same day: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In a nice gesture of solidarity, the much younger state of Belize (former British Honduras) was represented as well, and the Commonwealth Secretary General, Patricia Scotland, attended. As Her Majesty’s Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Alistair Harrison, commented in a short speech, it was all a great example of growing regional cooperation (the unspoken parenthesis being “in contrast to the UK and Brexit”). As an unreconstructed foodie, I could not but notice that the catering was stunning, including quite the best cured salmon (with sour cream, capers, chopped onion and lemon) I have ever had. Each of the Central American embassies had also brought along the finest examples of their national rums — for me, as a rum-baba of long standing, the Guatemalan was the pick of the crop. Representatives of the Mes Amigo, the London month of celebration of things Ibero-American, were out in force, so it was altogether a fiesta to remember.

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London’s March for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th September, 2017

March for Europe 9 September 2017Yesterday, tens of thousands of us marched through central London, from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square, chanting the slogan “Exit Brexit!”. I don’t think the turnout was quite as big as last March, but the atmosphere was just as festive, under the warm, late summer sun, and there was a sea of flags — especially the EU flag, but also the Union flag and those of the UK’s four nations, as well as several EU member states and even some English counties. Before we all set off, Vince Cable, new Leader of the Liberal Democrats, gave a speech by the statue of the Duke of Wellington — a symbolic location, given the Iron Duke’s battles against the French, in an era when European states fought each other. “The Liberal Democrats continue to demand that the public should have a choice when the final outcome and the facts are clear,” Vince said. “Do we want to rush ahead off the cliff, or do we want an exit from Brexit? That choice, that option, has got to remain.”

BresistanceAt Parliament Square there was a rally, with more speeches by politicians and personalities, though sadly this being a weekend, there were no other MPs around at the Houses of Parliament to witness what was going on. At least some of the TV channels and mainstream media were there, though coverage was slight. I know from my own experience of BBC editorial meetings over the years that demonstrations are not considered to be “news” unless they are humongous, like the million people who turned out to try to dissuade Tony Blair from going to war in Iraq in 2003. Charles Kennedy led a huge phalanx of Liberal Democrats on that occasion and it was good yesterday to see a large contingent of LibDems on the March for Europe as well. One thing did concern me, however. Last March many drivers coming down the other side of the road honked their horns and people on the top of tourist buses cheered, whereas there was very little reaction from the public yesterday. Are they now resigned to going over the cliff edge of Brexit, or just too bewildered about what is happening under the Conservative government’s chaotic handling of the matter? Either way, this left me feeling uneasy. So it was cheering in the evening to watch on TV part of the Last Night of the Proms concert from Albert Hall, which was a sea of EU flags as well as British ones. An enterprising team of Remainers had handed out thousands to people going in and they were received with enthusiasm.

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God’s Own Country

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th September, 2017

God's Own CountryWhen a young, inarticulate Yorkshire hill-farmer’s son, Johnny, gets particularly stressed out, as more responsibility falls on his shoulders after his father’s debilitating stroke, he drowns his sorrow in drink and quick, emotionless sexual release with blond youths. But then along comes a handsome, dark-haired Romanian temporary farmhand — initially humiliated and insulted as a gypsy — and Johnny’s whole world is turned upside down. Shot against the panoramic background of the Yorkshire Moors, much of it by hand-held camera, Francis Lee’s first full-length feature film (which he wrote as well as directed) draws on his own background growing up on a farm in the area, lingers lovingly over mucking out cowsheds and birthing lambs, and spares no blushes in the escalation of the two young protagonists’ growing physical intimacy. But this is a film in which some of the most eloquent moments are when nothing is said — just a look, or a gesture. And gradually the blinkers are removed from Johnny’s eyes, as well as the chip from his shoulder, and he even begins to realise that his father and gran are not quite as demanding and insensitive as he thought. There are stellar performances by both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu, as his liberating angel, and the final scene brings the whole movie to a triumphant resolution. A truly beautiful film.

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Can One Learn Journalism?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th September, 2017

journalism 2Earlier this week I was invited to speak to a group of young people who aspire to be journalists, or otherwise to write in other ways. Actually, it was more of a Q&A session, and as I told them, my career has hardly been typical. Whereas most aspirant journos would leap at the chance of a job for a mainstream media organisation, I shied away of being anyone’s employee, leaving Reuters news agency after only one year and heading off down the freelance road. In fact, that’s where I started, as my very first published articles were for the Manchester Evening News and the Geographical Magazine, written in Vietnam during the war, between school and university. I went into Reuters as a graduate trainee and I did learn shorthand during my time there, as well as how to write a story in pyramid style, so essentially it makes sense no matter how far down you cut it. But otherwise I wasn’t taught how to write; I learned on the job. The same was true with writing my books. So I am always a little sceptical when I hear of media studies courses at university, though some, for example at London’s City University, have a good reputation. Can one really learn journalism, I wonder? Or is it more a question of having some sort of innate wish and talent to find out things and then to put them into words? My advice to the young people I spoke to this week was to identify what they are really passionate about and then to start writing. They are unlikely to be able to just ring a newspaper editor and get articles commissioned straight away, which is what happened with me at age 18, but then I chose a “hot topic”. But young people today have the great advantage that there are so many more platforms available now than when I first began, and both blogging and vlogging (which anyone with a modicum of tech-savviness can get into) are just two ways of getting one’s material out there. Whether that can lead to some paid employment or commissions is another matter. And of course it is important that people don’t always give away content for free, even if occasionally that can be good as a “taster”. But as I advised one young man, many years ago, who asked me if he ought to become a writer: if something inside you drives you to express yourself through writing, do it. If that drive’s not there. don’t.

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Writers’ Houses

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd September, 2017

Lamb HouseYesterday I was at the Mermaid Inn in Rye in Sussex to address the annual gathering of The Friends of Tilling, one of two societies that celebrate the work of E.F. Benson and in particular the Mapp and Lucia novels. It was a gorgeous late summer’s day — the perfect weather to visit nearby Lamb House after my talk. A National Trust property that is only open to visitors a few afternoons a week (and is otherwise lived in by lucky tenants), Lamb House was Fred Benson’s home for many years and appears as Mallards in his Tilling (Rye) novels. So it is a regular place of pilgrimage for Benson fans. Yet it is much more redolent of the legacy of an earlier inhabitant, Henry James. The house is early 18th century, but many of the artefacts date from James’s time there and I could really feel his presence, especially in the garden, strangely. Sitting out there in a quiet spot, all  alone, in the late afternoon sun, I totally understood why someone could write in Lamb House. Benson and James were not the only literary inhabitants who found inspiration living there; Rumer Godden was another.

Hemingway house CubaAs I know myself, the place in which one writes can be all important. Some people can compose in cafés or modern-day coffee shops, whereas for me it has to be a particular house or room where I can focus totally on what I’m writing. And I do believe that some sort of special atmosphere is created in a place where a writer has been at work over a long period. Sensing Henry James at Lamb House was not the first inkling of that kind; I felt it strongly at Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba. That was in much less pristine condition than beautifully maintained Lamb House, though I understood it has been spruced up since my visit. It remains chock-a-bloc with Papa Hemingway’s books and other possessions. At the time I went, one was not allowed inside, but could look in through open windows, which gave the whole experience a slightly surreal quality. The rainwater in the swimming pool was green with algae and there were weeds around, but so to was the ghost of the writer and the aura of his creative energy.

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