Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

A Noble Intention (Publieke Werken, 2015) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th October, 2020

Victoria Hotel, Amsterdam

Opposite Amsterdam’s main railway station is a large hotel called the Victoria, built in late 19th Century Parisian style, awkwardly out of keeping with more traditional Dutch houses around. I must have passed it a hundred times over the years but had only half-noticed the bizarre indentation in its facade in which two old-style Dutch buildings nestle. Once one is fully aware of them it is obvious that the hotel was actually built round them because two house owners refused to sell to developers. That is where Joram Lürsen’s fictionalised Publieke Werken (retitled as A Noble Intention in English; available on Netflix in Dutch with subtitles) takes off. Modernisation is beginning to impact the Netherlands but a violin-maker who lives and works in one of the old houses is reluctant to sell, demanding far more money than the developers are prepared to pay. His stand is justified not only because he does not want to leave the house but also because if he gets the inflated price he is demanding then he can finance an extraordinary scheme cooked up with a chemist cousin in a small country town to enable a community of impoverished peat-cutters to emigrate to America, escaping not just their sub-human living conditions but also, in the case of a Jewish family, religious persecution.

The key figures in the movie are the two cousins — Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Vedder, the violin-maker, who ages and disintegrates before one’s eyes during the film, and Jacob Derwig as the good-hearted chemist, Anijs — plus the father of the Jewish peat household Bennemin (Juda Goslinga). The quality of the acting helps one’s suspension of disbelief in accepting the objectively more unlikely elements of the plot. And there is an effective contrast between the noble intentions of some of the characters with the ignoble prejudices and outright criminality of some others. Even the three main characters have blatant flaws, which enhances their credibility. And from the opening scene of a rape there is plenty of brutal reality to counter-balance the idealistic good intentions.

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How Zoom Changed My Life

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd October, 2020

Many of us are chomping at the bit because of limitations imposed on us because of coronavirus restrictions. Here in London we had a national lockdown during the months of Spring and from this week we are now in a Tier 2 half-way-house stage, as infections continue to rise. I doubt whether our collective mental health could survive another lengthy total shutdown, let alone the economy. But let us be thankful that technology has made home isolation more bearable. Even when we can’t meet people face-to-face we can chat via Skype or Facetime. Many meetings and events have gone virtual using platforms such as Zoom. Though there is certainly a risk of getting Zoomed out by video-conferencing if one has too many sessions in a day, the technology has delivered clear benefits. I find in meetings there is less time-wasting and it’s good to be able to see everyone’s face (if the number of participants doesn’t exceed the slots available on one screen). Screen-sharing is a more effective way of using illustrations and data than trying to focus on a powerpoint presentation the other end of a room. It doesn’t matter where participants are located, as long as they have access to a computer or even a smartphone. And webinars have made it possible to have expert panels drawn internationally. I find that the best Zoom events last just one hour, but that may just be my personal preference. Much longer and one’s attention starts to wander. Of course I miss the camaraderie of in-person get-togethers. They will return one day. But in the meantime let us acknowledge that our COVID-constrained lives could have been so much worse in the previously less-connected world.

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Rebecca ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st October, 2020

Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James

I tend to avoid remakes like the coronavirus, especially when an original film still occupies a special place in my heart. I don’t know how many times I have watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning black and white version of Rebecca but I can still see flashbacks from it if I close my eyes. So I was a little nervous about seeing Ben Wheatley’s new version of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic tale. Comparisons are odious, so I will try to avoid them (mainly) and judge the film on its merits. On the plus side, it is very beautiful. The stately pile that stands in for Manderley (Dorset’s Cranborne Manor) is unremittingly grand (perhaps too much so) but Kristin Scott Thomas is impressively creepy as the fiendish housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who adored the late Mrs Rebecca de Winter with an unhealthy passion. Ann Dowd gives a very jolly performance as the ghastly American social lion-chaser, Mrs Van Hoppen, to whom the young woman who is the narrator in the book is working as a companion in Monte Carlo when Manderley’s owner “Maxim” materialises. A whirlwind love affair ensues and the young woman (unnamed in the book) becomes the second Mrs de Winter.

Lily James and Armie Hammer

Her life will take on sinister dimensions after their return to England as Rebecca’s posthumous presence is everywhere and the new chatelaine feels powerless and alone. Lily James (blonde in this part) is pretty and quite persuasive in the role. But Armie Hammer is a decade too young and too hunky to be a convincing Maxim. I suppose for 2020 audiences Ben Wheatley felt that there had to be a bit of nudity and intimacy between the newly-weds, but for me that lessened the suspense. To his credit, though, Wheatley keeps more faithfully to du Maurier’s plot when it comes to the truth about what actually happened to Rebecca. Hitchcock, unusually, felt that wartime audiences might have baulked at the true nature of Maxim’s character. In Wheatley’s version, as in the book, one is left with a bitter taste in one’s mouth at the end, rather than just the smell of the burning mansion. Nonetheless, though I quite enjoyed this new Rebecca I doubt whether I will ever watch it again. Whereas Hitchcock’s film I shall return to again and again, just as the narrator of the story cannot banish Manderley from her dreams.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th October, 2020

One might think that everything written by and about the great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde had already been published, but one would be wrong. While researching his magisterial biography, Oscar, published two years ago, author Matthew Sturgis came across a number of hidden gems buried in libraries and obscure volumes of memoir. These he has now published as Oscar Wilde’s Wildeana (riverrun, £14.95). Some of the stones are paste to be frank, but others glitter with the brilliance of real jewels. Oscar is perhaps best remembered for his epigrams, several of which were worked into his four masterly comedies, so of course one hunts first for these. “Boys — like postage stamps you must lick them first if you want them to be of use,” from his Oxford notebooks made me laugh out loud. Later in his all too short life he was more subtly naughty, and knew how to titillate the very aristocracy who flocked to his dramas. “I don’t know any Duchesses who could be described as the thin end of the wedge,” was a line considered but rejected by Wilde for The Importance of Being Earnest.

Like his mother, Francesca, Lady Wilde, he savoured the idea of sin as lifting one above the boredom of everyday life. As one might expect from the author of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, however, Wilde nudged this concept up a notch: “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to explain the superior attractiveness of others.” In speculative gossip with friends (including the Fleet Street hack, William Mackay), Oscar mused, “If I were not a poet, and could not be an artist, I should wish to be a murderer.” Fame and notoriety are after all two sides of the same coin, and Wilde paid with and for both. He was indeed sometimes vain and he loved showing off, but he was also fundamentally kind and large of spirit. He also could pay genuine court to great intellects (as well as great beauties). As the poet Stuart Merrill recalled in an unpublished memoir, “I have seen him as meek as a little child before Walter Pater at a dinner given by a friend at the Garrick Club.. With a playful deference he called him ‘Sir Walter’ and he proudly recognized him as his master.” Yes, even the most “complete” library belonging to fans of Oscar Wilde will find room to delight in this welcome little volume.

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Secret Service

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th October, 2020

Good investigative journalists and secret service agents have a lot in common. We follow leads, check and double check information and are careful not to compromise our sources. Yet for most of the 20th Century, Britain’s domestic secret service, MI5, was almost as hostile towards the media as it was to foreign agents. We hacks weren’t even meant to know where it was based — though any journalist worth his salt knew very well — and people working there were just said to be run-of-the-mill civil servants. Fortunately that situation has changed dramatically in recent decades, not least thanks to MI5’s Director General between 2007 and 2013, Jonathan Evans, who understood how far the demands of national security had altered in an age of open information. That was the subject of a lecture Lord Evans (as he now is) gave under the auspices of the Westminster Abbey Institute in 2016 and the text has recently been published as a short book, Secret Service (Haus Curiosities, £7.99), with a substantial introductory essay by the Institute’s founder-director, the philosopher Claire Foster-Gilbert.

Jonathan Evans

While Jonathan Evans was with MI5, the agency devised an ethical framework, to “direct our moral compass”, as he puts it. Moral philosophers were consulted and three fundamental concepts were identified as underpinning operations: legality, proportionality and accountability. One aspect of the last-mentioned is of course transparency — very much a concern of our times, and in complete contradiction to the opaqueness of the secret services of yore. GCHQ in Cheltenham has, like MI5, opened up considerably (though not completely) about what it actually does. MI6 understandably less so. All have had to adapt to changing circumstances. Even since Lord Evans’s 2016 lecture there have been significant developments (which are covered as a postscript in the book), including the rise of right-wing extremism, Islamist terror incidents in London and Manchester and Russian attacks on their nationals on British soil. Since the book went to print there have been further new developments, not least the Conservative government’s wish to give the secret service a freer hand to use extreme measures such as torture and assassination if deemed necessary. Politicians as well as agents would be well advised to read this book to sort out their own moral compass before heading too readily down that road.

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Les Gardiennes (The Guardians; 2017) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th October, 2020

Much of the worst fighting of the First World War took place in northern France, as armies moved slowly back and forth across absurdly short distances, the fields churned up and slashed with trenches, as the daily toll of bodies rose. But well away from the Front, life in rural France carried on much as it had for centuries, except that women had stepped in to do the work previously carried out by men, on top of their usual farmyard duties. That is the context for Xavier Beauvois’ poetic film Les Gardiennes (available via BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks). Most of the action takes place on a farm now under the charge of a grey-haired matriarch, Hortense (Natalie Baye), her ineffectual husband being too old and weak to do much other than producing home-made eau de vie to serve occasional visitors. Their two sons are away at the War — apart from short leaves — and their son-in-law is a prisoner-of-war in Germany. But Hortense manages things with the aid of her daughter Solange (Laura Smet) and a vivacious and capable orphan jill-of-all-trades Francine (Iris Bry). Unfortunately Francine falls in love with one of the sons, Georges (Cyril Descours) when he is home on a visit and Hortense — who has plans to marry Georges off to a younger girl of more suitable heritage — sends Francine packing. She persuades Georges (who has consummated the relationship) that Francine is a slut. Fortunately there are kinder souls in the community who come to her aid, and her travails — including being pregnant with Georges’ child — make her a stronger and ever more independent person.

This intense drama is set against a pastoral backdrop of lyrical beauty somehow enhanced by the greys, ochres and pastel blues of both the buildings and the characters’ clothes. We see the farm in its different seasons with their accompanying activities from ploughing and sowing to harvesting, much of this without any distracting conversation so one is drawn into the scenes. There are some remarkable, slow panning shots that are painterly in their execution, often showing the women deep in thought. Premonitions of modernisation come in the form of a basic combined harvester and a tractor that the family is able to buy, but tradition is instilled in Hortense, including her attitudes to social class, even if this will destroy happiness, including her own. But by the end of the film it is clear that change is coming.

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The Mole *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 12th October, 2020

The Kim Dynasty

North Korea is a famously closed country — and an anachronism. A Communist family dynasty that viciously punishes those who dare to challenge the leadership’s brilliance. An impoverished nation that nonetheless has produced nuclear weapons and has a showpiece national capital, Pyongyang. Before COVID arrived, the country was starting to open up a little under the third generation ruler, Kim Jong-Un. There were even plans for developing beach resorts to lure foreign tourists with hard currency. But up to now visitors have tended to be either intrepid travellers wanting an experience truly off the beaten track or else members of various Friendship Associations who do apparently believe that North Korea regimented intolerance is the best answer to wicked capitalism. The members of such associations tend also to belong to various tiny Communist or far-left groups, loners in their own home communities but sometimes spotted handing out leaflets at minor demonstrations.

Jim Latrache-Qvortrup

It is among such people that Mads Brügger’s gripping two-part documentary The Mole: Inside North Korea (available via BBC iPlayer) is largely set. Brügger previously directed the 2009 comic documentary The Red Chapel, in which he and two ethnic Korean Danish comedians went to North Korea allegedly as part of a cultural exchange but in fact to send it up rotten (think Borat, but with class). The North Koreans were not at all happy with the result and declared Mads Brügger persona non grata. But he was not going to take rejection lying down. Instead he warmly welcomed an unexpected opportunity that arose in the form of an extraordinary plan to plant a mole inside the Danish Korean Friendship Association. Over the next decade he and an exuberant ex-French Foreign Legionnaire (Jim Latrache-Qvortrup, playing the role of a globe-trotting multi-millionaire investor) conspired to con the North Koreans into setting up an illicit arms and drugs production factory underground on an island in the middle of Lake Victoria in Uganda. On the face of it, the mole was as bland and boring as most Friendship Association members: Ulrich Larson, an unemployed chef who had been obliged to take early retirement through ill health and whose face is the height of blandness.

Alejandro Cao de Benós and Ulrich Larson

Like a well-trained spy, Larson sat through interminable boring Friendship Association events and managed to work his way up to becoming the main Friendship Association person in Scandinavia. He was thus able to get close to Alejandro Cao de Benós, the Spanish self-styled Gatekeeper to North Korea, whose face will be familiar to anyone who, like me, watches every documentary film about North Korea available. Cao de Benós is the ultimate fixer, a man so well-connected in Pyongyang that all doors are open at his bidding. Unknowingly, he facilitates the giant scam which sees the North Koreans going along with Latrache-Qvortrup’s extraordinary scheme, with the aid of venally corrupt officials and businessmen in Uganda and Jordan. North Korea’s underhand methods and Cao de Benós are thus totally exposed, while Ulrich Larson has to confess to his understandably miffed wife what on earth he has been up to for the past ten years. Keith Follett or John Le Carré would probably baulk at incorporating in their novels some of the twists and turns in this story, seeing them as too incredible. But as Matts Brügger has grittily exposed, truth really can be stranger than fiction.

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The Forty-Year-Old Version ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th October, 2020

Radha Blank

For optimists, life begins at 40, whereas for pessimists it’s then downhill all the way. African American playwright Radha Blank — or at least her alter ego in the new Netflix movie The Forty-Year-Old Version — finds herself perched on the edge of the precipice in New York as the fateful birthday looms, getting the rent money together by teaching theatre to a motley after-hours group of high school kids, while looking wistfully back a decade to the time when she was highlighted as one of the 30 thirty-year-olds to watch. Her closest friend, a gay Korean American, Archie (Peter Y Kim), alternates between chivying her on and raging at her inability to believe in herself. She does have a new play that she’s been working on, about the gentrification of Harlem, but when that is co-opted by the city’s white theatrical establishment she feels she has betrayed herself. Comfort comes in an unexpected dalliance with a skinny dreadlocked rap music producer D (Oswin Benjamin), 14 years her junior. As Radha is quite large — her size emphasized by some of the clothes she wears — they make a comic couple. Based roughly on her own experience, now seen through the lens of herself as actress and director, Radha confronts many of the contemporary challenges of age, race and creativity in an expletive-laden emotional journey against the grey backdrops of a city shot almost entirely in black and white. There are some very funny scenes in the film — I particularly enjoyed her aggressive exchanges with the homeless black man (Jacob Ming-Trent) who lives across the street — though much of the satire is uncomfortable, as it was doubtless meant to be. Everyone to an extent is ridiculous, but then that’s life.

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Has COVID Done Your Head In?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th October, 2020

10 October

When I was a child, mental illness was seen as a matter of shame. The most severely afflicted were incarcerated in “lunatic asylums” (or loony bins, as far too many people called them, reassuring themselves that they would never end up there). My adoptive mother’s sister was institutionalised but the subject was taboo. Then she started acting strangely herself. But no doctor was ever consulted as her husband tried to hide her worsening condition and watched her calm herself with ever larger doses of Amontillado sherry. By the time she had to go into a home, after being found wandering in the road in her pyjamas in the middle of the night, her condition was rebranded as the onset of dementia. At least these days people are encouraged to talk about mental health rationally and to admit that they may have had mental health issues themselves — or acknowledge that that could happen. That’s why tomorrow’s Mental Health Day theme of “Mental Health for All” is important, because this is a matter for everyone, not just those extreme cases previously referred to as “insane”.

This year the issue is particularly relevant because of the toll that the coronavirus has been having on so many people’s sense of well-being. It is not just the threat of being seriously ill — or dying, in the worst case. COVID-19 has devastated many peoples lives, through the loss of jobs, reduced working hours, the cancellation of holidays or other travel, the absence of normal weddings and funerals giving us a chance to celebrate or mourn, and perhaps most seriously social isolation. I got through the Spring months of lockdown with daily walks in the woods behind the house. But the thought of maybe having to go back into lockdown, as COVID cases spiral, fills me with dread. No wonder students confined to their halls of residence in several university towns have been putting window bills up saying “Help!”. Of course as a disease, the coronavirus does pose a health emergency, which will only be truly allayed when a vaccine is available. But the mental health effects of COVID are far more widespread than the physical effects and could do serious lasting damage. Mental Health Day is deliberately held on 10 October in the hope that we can feel 10 out of 10 mentally and help others who aren’t. My own score varies day by day despite various mechanisms to try to boost my morale. I suspect few people could say they have felt 10 out of 10 in recent months. But they should not be afraid to admit it. And we should also keep an eye out for signs of depression and other problems in those around us. For if there is anything worse than being in isolation because of COVID it’s being alone with mental illness.

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How Trump Fights Truth

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th October, 2020


Ever since Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017 he has kept the world agog by his singular attitude to the presidency. He determined to communicate with the electorate — and especially his fan base — directly, through the medium of Twitter. We journalists and commentators have been obliged to follow his tweets in order to know what is going on. Or at least, what is going on in his head. Because that is not always the same thing as reality. Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about the Trump presidency is how he has turned truth on its head, so no-one knows what to believe. Often genuine facts and sources are denounced by the Commander-in-Chief as Fake News, while much of the propaganda he pumps out has little or no basis in fact. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, would be amused, George Orwell angry and Joseph Goebbels proud. Trump has not just taken control of the narrative. He makes it up as he goes along.

“Don’t let it dominate you.”

But do the extraordinary events of the past few days mean that he has perhaps overstepped the mark in stretching the credulity of all but his most steadfast supporters? Having down-played COVID-19 (despite more than 200,000 Americans so far dying from it) he then contracted the disease himself. There is a fog of uncertainty about exactly when he first started showing symptoms — and therefore when he was potentially infecting those around him. But his dose was reportedly serious enough for him to need a little bit of extra oxygen on a couple of occasions before he was moved to the military hospital in Bethesda. There he was given some pretty high-level medication. Yet he said he was feeling fine and continuing to work (though the pictures of him signing obviously blank pieces of paper somewhat challenged that claim). Then he astounded everyone by going out in a car to wave to supporters holding a vigil outside the hospital, seemingly oblivious to the risk he was posing to his security officers in the vehicle. And to trump it all (pun intended), last night he discharged himself, was flown by helicopter to the White House, where he mounted the steps to a balcony on which he removed his face-mask to pose for photographs before moving inside the building, still unmasked. The number of White House staffers and regular visitors already suffering from coronavirus is striking, but we can expect that number to rise. No wonder TV anchors on all but his fan channels have been scratching their heads and wondering what on earth the man is up to. No-one can predict what will happen over the next few days, in which Donald Trump could either develop more serious symptoms or of course recover completely. But what this whole COVID-19 episode confirms for many people is that Trump is morally unfit to lead. Yet will those people be sufficient to ensure next month that the Trump presidency is a one-term aberration?

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