Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Decline of Language

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th November, 2017

ADF70ED2-F316-486C-A270-23CEF9E9D6A5We live in an Information Age, in which there has never been so much and such easy communication. Yet parallel to technological advances, the quality and precision of languaage have declined. Some people blame this on the “vocabulary” of text-speech; the demands of an SMS encourage us to abbreviate and to have recourse to stock neologisms and sets of initials, such as LOL, ROFL, WTF! But at least some of the blame lies with our educational system in England, which has been dumbing down content to the extent that many students now reach university barely able to express an argument, let alone a counter-argument, in clear, understandable terms. Grammar has gone with the wind, and much punctuation has been replaced by the ubiquitous polyfiller word “like”. The media are also culpable, or at least those organs such as the Sun and most talk radio programmes. English is one of the richest languages on earth when it comes to words, but only a fraction are employed in popular media — and then sometimes incorrectly — which means that young people growing up are exposed to an impoverished language and become correspondingly inarticulate themselves. This malaise has even infected the BBC (with the noble exception of most of the output on Radio4). The late Lord Reith defined the BBC’s mission as being to inform, educate and entertain, but these days entertainment has become the prime function, as the Corporation tries to fend off competition from independent channels. I fear Brexit will make things worse. So much of the Brexit debate on Twitter is illiterate, as well as distorting language. I am an ardent Remainer, but I want our rich and precise English language back!

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The AEJ and “Dark Power”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th November, 2017

2A98F1CF-39A9-47FE-9C77-5A3CA5DEE397Soft power has become an important concept in international relations since the end of the Second World War — namely, the way states use cultural diplomacy and other forms of non-military action to spread their influence. But recently a new phenomenon has been identified: “dark power” — the way some countries, especially Russia, use broadcasting and social media, in particular, to influence or interfere in the affairs of other states. This is something that particularly concerns the three Baltic States and other former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Georgia. The latter two have of course also experienced military interventions by Russia, but all have seen their communications and democracy come under various forms of dark power assault, from cyber-War against Estonia to Russian bots engaging in election and referendum campaigns, including the 2016 EU Referendum in Britain and the US presidential election. No wonder both NATO and the EU are concerned and have been looking at ways of countering this hostile intervention, including running facilities in the Baltic States.

Lithuania, located between Belarus and the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, is particularly concerned and the theme naturally dominated much of the Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), which has been taking place in Vilnius over the past couple of days. For many Western journalists present it was quite shocking to learn about some of the methods being used to distort the narratives of a Post-Truth world, as well of examples of harassment of journalists and broadcasters through twitter and other platforms.

54C3857F-D37D-4E0D-AD4B-3A61F398D92CBut it is not only Russians who are involved. President Trump has shown himself to be a master of the dark arts of disinformation and the dissemination of fake news. One of the strongest presentations at the AEJ Congress was from Mikko Salo of Faktabaari, Finland, who outlined the escalation of Post-Truth in the region and how this can be countered by rigorous fact-checking and counter-assertions. This is an issue of which all media professionals need to be aware, as well as students and others who are operating in a world in which language is being twisted, alternative “facts” published and negative ideologies propagated by forces hostile to the nature of open and tolerant European democratic societies.

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Talking about the NHS

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th November, 2017

NHS Channel S debateLast night I was on Channel S TV’s “Let’s Talk” live debate show, hosted by my old friend Ajmal Masroor, discussing the state of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). The NHS will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its foundation next year, but there is a widespread belief that it is showing its age, not in a complimentary way. The peg for the show was a BBC report suggesting that 280,000 more routine operations could be carried out in NHS hospitals each year if the theatres were managed more efficiently. The way that Croydon has improved its performance was cited as a template which others might follow. Of course, all sorts of factors come into play in efficiency in operatingtheatres, not just timetabling. A percentage of patients cancel, sometimes at the last moment, or even without informing the hospital. And a shortage of beds can aggravate the situation. But of course the TV debate — whose other participants were a retired GP from Newham, a solicitor specialising in clinical negligence cases and a Labour Party politician — ranged more widely over the state of the NHS. Everyone agreed that there is a funding shortfall; the Liberal Democrats, of course, included in our manifesto for June’s general election a pledge to inject a further £6bn into the NHS, paid for by raising income tax by 1p in the pound. A great idea which was theoretically popular, but did not actually encourage many voters to back LibDem candidates. In my remarks during the one-and-a-half hour programme, I highlighted the way that Brexit is hitting the NHS. In the UK we rely quite heavily on medical staff from other EU member states, but since last year’s EU Referendum, applications for nursing jobs from other EU states has fallen by 96%. To respond to that shortfall, nurses and being recruited from outside the EU, not least Asia, but the NHS has to pay £1000 each for their working visa, therefore costing the cash-strapped service many millions of pounds it can ill afford. There is also uncertainty over how tightly the UK’s research facilities will be able to stay plugged into EU-wide endeavours if we leave not only the EU but also Euratom. However, I did point out that not all is gloomy about the NHS. Technology continues to advance (though it is ever more costly) and mental health now receives much more serious attention (thanks largely to the work of Norman Lamb and other Liberal Democrat Ministers and MPs during the 2010-2015 Coalition government). Similarly, there is a greater awareness of the need to integrate the health and social care services. So, as the NHS prepares to turn 70, there is still much to praise, not least the dedication and quality of so many NHS staff, at all levels.

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Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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Europe Coalesces as Britain Falls Apart

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th November, 2017

D1AF3920-7B78-406C-A1FD-FA42B713BF62In last year’s European Referendum, UKIP and other arch-Brexiteers argued that the European Union is sinking and is bound to break up, whereas the developments of the past few months have shown that, on the contrary, the EU is pulling together while Britain, mismanaged by a Brexit-drunk Tory Party, is steering the country straight for the rocks. A year ago, the UK was one of the fastest growing countries in the OECD, whereas now it has sunk to the bottom. In contrast, even the previously afflicted nations of Southern Europe are picking up. Moreover, since Emmanuel Macron became President of France, there is a new spring in the EU’s step; “Mutti” Merkel is no longer the sole voice of EU strength. The Franco-German alliance is back with force. The great tragedy is that Britain ought to be one of a troika helping direct the EU, at a moment when China and other emerging economies are in the ascendant. Instead, craven to Little Englander nationalists and the running dogs of global capitalism, Theresa May and her unholy crew are deliberately destroying Britain in order the try to satisfy the most extreme Btexiteers. Britain can have a golden future, as a leading member of the European Union. Cast adrift, alone, it’s bones will be picked over by the carrion crows who unfortunately own the worst parts of the British media, and to whose insistent tune Mrs May dances along with Mad Hatter Boris Johnson and the rest of that unsavoury crew.

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Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Pitch

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th November, 2017

6D096216-E244-4129-8838-39695569659EThe French President, Emmanuel Macron, is here in Abu Dhabi today, for the formal inauguration of the Abu Dhabi Louvre, a $1bn+ museum that will show several hundred works on loan from its Paris “mother” institution, including a Van Gogh self-portrait and Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferroniere”. Located on Saadiyat Island and designed by Jean Nouvel, the museum aims to evoke the atmosphere of an Arab medina, as seen by a modern cinematographer; a silver-toned dome with perforated arabesque patterns “floats” above the white galleries, creating what Nouvel describes as a “rain of light”. Though there is a small section of modern art, including work by China’s Ai Weiwei, the main emphasis is on artistic treasures of the past, including religious works. Symbolically, a Yemeni Torah, a Gothic Bible and a very early Koran are placed together, open at verses that echo each other’s messages. The Abu Dhabi Louvre has been a decade in the making and is the first of three museums that will grace Saadiyat Island, the others being a Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, and Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum. Though for the next three days only playing host to local and foreign dignitaries, including King Mohammed VI of Morocco, the Abu Dhabi Louvre will open to the public from this Saturday. Abu Dhabi has always tried to distinguish itself from flashier Dubai next door, and with its trio of new museums it could not be trumpeting more loudly: Culture Is Us!

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Resurrecting Heritage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th November, 2017

50A7EEC0-E10B-4108-B0DD-F23EE99C4BB1Tourists who visit Britain often sigh that half the country seems to be a museum: a cornucopia of historic buildings, gardens and magnificent vistas. On that count, Italy is even more spectacular, let’s admit it; I will never tire of discovering fresh antiquities and stunning palazzi in Rome. But here in the Gulf, where I am once more at the moment, heritage is often harder to find. Of course, with the notable exception of majestic Oman — with its castles and forts and jewel of a capital, Muscat — the Gulf states are relatively modern, and in the case of parts of the UAE in particularly, aggressively modern, championing the new and the awe-inspiring. Yet even in Dubai there is now a realisation that both for its intrinsic value for the local population and to lure visitors, emirates and their cities need to treasure what heritage they have. Or, in some cases, resurrect it.

9778D95D-F65F-4AC0-9023-3BB6F5852BABThe most impressive example of that resurrection is the Souq Waqif in Qatar’s capital, Doha, with its pedestrianised streets, reconstructed market shops and sidewalk cafes. Critics may sneer it is more Disney than authentic, but hats off to the Qataris for a noble effort that is a pleasant place to stroll or stop off for a juice on a cooler evening. Here in Dubai, where I am now, a massive amount of regeneration work in one if the historic districts of Bur Dubai, Al Shindagha, is underway — frustratingly cordoned off at the moment — as new wind towers are erected, pathways laid and old buildings restored. At least UAE does have some vestiges that can be rescued. Others in the region are not so fortunate. Virtually all of Kuwait’s heritage was demolished in the 20th century — the Iraqi occupiers in 1990-1991 adding their own dose of destructiveness while they were there. It is fine being modern, even ultra-modern, but a country’s identity is only retained if one foot is kept firmly in the built past.

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Armistead Maupin’s Logical Family

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th November, 2017

EB429773-971F-4C02-9C12-43B25DDEC73DThough Armistead Maupin is several years my senior, and has devoted most of his life to writing, fiction rather than history and biography like me, there are quite a few parallels in our lives, as I discovered when reading his entertaining memoir Logical Family (Doubleday, £20). I realised my alienation from the household I grew up in earlier than he did, but away from our hometowns we both found friends and constructed a “logical” rather than “biological” family among whom we felt at ease. Spookily, it turns out that we were both in Vietnam during the War, twice, at the same time, he first with the US military then later as a civilian volunteer, me as a very young journalist. Less surprising was our friendship with and mutual admiration for Christopher Isherwood. Like Chris, Armistead found his adopted sexual-spiritual home in California, though in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. Moreover, like Isherwood’s autobiographical works, Maupin’s is a (sometimes no holds barred) confessional. He bathed in the promiscuous freedom of pre-AIDS gay life before settling down with a psychologically supportive younger partner, now husband. Apart from the extended passages relating to a Vietnam — which obviously had a special interest to me — the memoir is largely a coming-of-age/coming out story of an originally awkward conservative Southern boy whose almost accidental fictional vocation helped him along the road of self-discovery. The book ends with a touching final meeting with his shrunken, widowed father, who casts aside decades of homophobia in what amounts to a benediction.

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10 Years of 12 Star Culture

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 31st October, 2017

Straw decoration FinlandThis evening I was at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House (the offices of the Representation of the European Commission in Westminster, London, rather deliciously, as Europe House located in the building in Smith Square that used to be the Tory Party HQ — remember that picture of a triumphant Maggie Thatcher, waving from an upstairs window in 1979?). Anyway, tonight’s exhibition on the ground floor was of work by the Finnish artist, Pirjo Vaisanen: Straw Dimensions, building on the Finnish tradition of Christmas decorations (often in the form of mobiles) made of straw. Straw is an interesting medium for artists to work in; seemingly fragile, it is actually very strong, yet when wet can be shaped into interesting forms. I particularly loved one of her 3D compositions, which to me represented a Japanese Kabuki actor, seen from behind.

12 Star galleryThis year is doubly significant, as it is the 100th anniversary of Finland’s declaration of independence (from Russia) in December 1917, as well as the tenth anniversary of the 12 Star Gallery, which, under the expert and imaginative guidance of the Commission’s Cultural Attaché in London, Jeremy O’Sullivan, has put on an extraordinary range of exhibitions and other events over the past decade — initially at the Representation’s old offices, opposite the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, also in Westminster, and latterly at Europe House. Culture is an extremely important part of European cooperation; people who believe that the EU is all about economics and regulations are, frankly, missing the point. Over the years, I have been happy to write for the London representation, originally on Jeremy’s culture website and more recently contributing to two books marking the decade of  EC involvement in cultural activities throughout the UK, often in collaboration with the Cultural Institutes or Embassies of the EU member states concerned. I was pleased to be able to “top and tail” the latest book,  10 Years of 12 Star Culture, in the sense that I wrote both the Introduction and the final chapter (on Festivals). It is a handsome volume, in a royal blue cover, beautifully illustrated; a tribute to what has been, and what could still be, if Brits came to their senses and rejected Brexit.

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Call Me by Your Name

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th October, 2017

Call Me By Your NameIs it possible for a film to be perfect? Maybe that is an absurd question, as no man-made creation can ever be utterly perfect, but some movies do reach true greatness. That is certainly the case with Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, which is the most astounding film I have seen for years. The screenplay (by James Ivory, Walter Fasano and the director) is based on an American novel of the same title by André Aciman and is set in early 1980s Italy, largely in and around the beautiful old house and garden of a liberal and cosmopolitan university professor and his family. Each summer a graduate student comes to stay to help the host with his work, but this particular summer the incomer is a handsome, young American Jew, Oliver, (convincingly played by Armie Hammer), who is self-assured and self-reliant to the point of apparent arrogance. Initially put off by this newcomer, the skinny and shy 17-year-old son of the house, Elio (brilliantly acted by Timothée Chalomet), gradually falls under Oliver’s spell and soon the youth’s already nascent sexual spring awakening is channeled in the older man’s direction. Seemingly used to being the centre of amorous attention, and flirtatious when in the mood, Oliver gently leads him on, though all concerned know that the relationship cannot endure. The story unfolds in masterful fashion against the backdrop of glorious countryside and in an ambiance suffused the discreet charm of the intellectual haute bourgeoisie. Elio is a talented amateur pianist, so music naturally plays a very important role in the film, but even more atmospheric and at times breathtaking is the cinematography, by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Some shots are like perfectly composed still photographs, making imaginative use of angle as well as light. Probably some people will consider parts of the film of the too graphic, but Guadagnino wanted to express both desire and joie de vivre in a positive light, as well as the bonds of loving family relationships, especially between father and son, as exquisitely represented by Elio and the professor. All in all, the film is a masterpiece.

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