As the Metropolitan Police had been warning for months that there would almost certainly be a terrorist attack in a London, following those in Paris and Brussels, the Westminster outrage should not have been a shock, but of course it was. Nothing can truly prepare one for the random carnage caused by pure hate. For everyone directly or indirectly affected by the assault its repercussions are bound to be traumatic, and even though the death toll was mercifully lower than in incidents in France, Belgium and Germany, every life lost or person seriously injured is one too many. There were three aspects to the Westminster attack that seemed destined to inflict the maximum psychological damage. Firstly, the random nature of running into pedestrians (including young tourists) on Westminster Bridge, the symbolic heart of London as a visitor destination. Secondly, the fatal stabbing of a policeman, someone serving in the line of duty to protect the public. And thirdly the targeting of Parliament itself, the centre point of British democracy. Whoever planned the outrage (on the first anniversary of the Brussels attacks) has clearly thought it through. But that should not make us panic, or indeed make us cowed. For years Londoners got on with their lives when the IRA bombing campaign was happening; every waste bin was suspect and many were sealed as a defensive measure. The best response to the latest threat is to keep calm and carry on, while championing the values that underpin our society. That means eschewing ethnic or religious profiling in our daily lives; the idiot who posted “Kill All Muslims!” as a reaction on his Facebook page has been promptly un-friended. On Saturday, a big March for Europe is planned for people who believe Britain is better off inside the European Union. I think the Westminster attack makes it all the more important for that message of solidarity among Europeans (of whatever ethnicity) to be heard loud and clear.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th March, 2017
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th March, 2017
The photos of German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Donald Trump at the White House are priceless, her quizzical frown communicating more than any words, “What a chump!” And what a contrast with Theresa May, who rushed off to Washington in unseemly haste, ending up in an embarrassing hand-holding with the President. Not that that has done the British Prime Minister much good, as Mr Trump has since made clear that after Brexit the United States will be putting greater emphasis on Ireland as the anglophone doorway into the European Union. But the contrast between Frau Merkel and Mr Trump is at least as stark, as she can really claim to be the face of Western leadership, whereas he is a clown, so unaware of diplomatic procedures that he placed his designer daughter Ivanka next to Angela Merkel at the official bilateral talks. I am not of the same political family as Frau Merkel but as a true European I am glad she is where she is, offering a beacon of good sense in a world that otherwise seems to have gone mad.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th March, 2017
Literature does not enjoy the same status in Britain as it does just over the Channel in France, for example. Maybe that partly explains why politicians are far more eager to talk about football in public than about books. Yet a new survey published by the Royal Society for Literature (RSL) this week suggests that three quarters of the British public does read literature (they were allowed to define for themselves what is meant by “literature”) and a significant proportion would like to be able to read more. More women than men consume literature, as apparently do white British rather than ethnic minorities; the fact that more highly educated Brits read more than those with minimal qualifications is hardly surprising. The most common reason given for not reading more is lack of time, though some people said they wished books were cheaper — a problematic response for the RSL as writers need to be able to make a decent living if literature is going to continue to be produced. In reality, according to an earlier survey carried out for the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) writers’ annual incomes have fallen in recent years, to an average of just £11,000. The general public is more aware that a few authors such as J.K.Rowling earn millions, which is the exception rather than the rule. Interestingly, Harry Potter’s creator figured third behind Shakespeare and Dickens in the list of authors cited by respondents to the RSL survey as being “literature”. Otherwise that list of writers was encouraging eclectic, including a sizable proportion of foreign writers. But for me the single most encouraging thing about the RSL survey’s findings was that far from reducing people’s interest in reading literature, using the Internet seems to stimulate it.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th February, 2017
This year sees not only the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which led eventually to the creation of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland, bu also the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of territories captured during the Six Day War. The Israeli government and its friends round the world will doubtless wish to celebrate Balfour, but as I said at a meeting in the House of Commons earlier this week, Palestinians and their friends should seize the moment offered by the double anniversary to publicise the ongoing injustices of their situation and to call specifically for the recognition of the state of Palestine before the two state solution to the Middle East conflict is officially dead and buried, because of continuing illegal settlement activity. The House of Commons event, chaired by Conservative MP Philip Hollobone, was organised by the Palestine Return Centre, which argues that Britain should apologise for the Balfour Declaration because it led to Palestinian dispossession. Personally I think a stronger tack is to stress how the second part of the Declaration — about not harming the interests of the Arab residents of Palestine — has never been implemented and that injustice needs to be rectified. The Palestinian Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Manuel Hassassian, gave a typically impassioned speech, stressing that he believes the two state solution is indeed dead, however much the Palestinian Authority may cling to it, and it is vital if the situation moves de facto to a one-state solution that is not run along apartheid lines. He also castigated successive British governments for failing to act even-handedly in the region. I argued that there need to be a concerted effort by the myriad groups in the UK which are concerned about the Palestinian issue should come together to formulate a clear strategy of what needs to be achieved, with the Embassy and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign assisting with coordination. The bad news is that the Occupation and settlement expansion continue, as does the effective siege of Gaza. But by seizing he moment of the anniversaries, lobbying the media and parliamentarians, the attention and then engagement of the wider British public can be stimulated — with us putting particular pressure on the EU’s potential role as an agent for change, not least during the two years in which Britain will still be a member.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th February, 2017
When the 2008 financial crisis hit the Canarian town of Arinaga many people were finding it hard to make ends meet and the restaurants were largely deserted. But then someone had a brilliant idea: to persuade most of the restaurants to offer one tapas and a small glass of beer or wine for €2 every Thursday evening. People were thus able to go out once a week on a tapas trail, typically to five establishments, so getting enough varied food and drink, all for €10 each. The trend caught on, which meant that the place was buzzing again, at least on Thursdays. And it continues to this day. As Arinaga is modest in size most residents know each other and therefore the weekly event is a brilliant way of socialising, as groups form and move from place to place. Last night, sticking to red wine throughout, I had Russian salad, a shrimp cone in lobster bisque, a fish slice, spiced beef in pastry and a desert. An inspiring model for other communities to follow!
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th February, 2017
For those of us who monitor developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, one of the most fascinating aspects of recent years has been the failure of what one might call mainstream Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood to fully capitalise on the so-called Arab Spring. True, in Egypt the Brotherhood triumphed in the post-Mubarak elections and Mohamed Morsi became President, but both he and the Brotherhood proved unfit for the task, leading to his overthrow (a military coup, but with widespread public support). In Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab awakening, An Nahda did get to have a share of power, but again had largely to withdraw after showing itself not up to the task. And in Libya, the Brotherhood never proved strong enough to be a main contender after Gaddafi’s fall from power. How and why this was the case is the subject of Alison Pargeter’s latest book, Return to the Shadows (Saqi, £16.99), which uses interview material as well as documentary research, meticulously referenced but put over in a style that will appeal to both academics and general readers alike. The author is particularly strong on the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, sober but incisive in her analysis and criticism, deftly recounting a story that has certain characteristics of a Greek tragedy. The sections on Libya and Tunisia are shorter and less powerful, but nonetheless fascinating. Overall, a significant achievement.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th February, 2017
This week has been particularly depressing for those of us Brits who are true Europeans, with the House of Commons giving its backing to the triggering of Article50, which the Prime Minister has said will happen before the end of March. To rub salt in our wounds, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has sent warning letters to those of his MPs who voted against, underlining that he has become a cheerleader for Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. It was therefore something of a relief to hear Nick Clegg speak to a packed gathering of Liberal Democrats in Business at the National Liberal Club, outlying the LibDem strategy for dealing with Brexit as it unfolds over the next couple of years. The party still believes Britain would be better off staying within the EU, but the sad reality is that the unholy alliance that has gathered behind Mrs May will do everything in their power to make Brexit happen, even though new forecasts predict it will hit the UK economy hard for years to come. So Nick’s main mission now is to campaign to keep Britain in the single market, which would at least cushion the blow, as well giving a lifeline to U.K. Companies whose main market is on the Continent. At the same time, Nick and other LibDems are campaigning for a reassurance to Non-British EU citizens living in Britain that their future is secure, as should be that of Brits living on the Continent or in Eire. It is utterly shameful that the Conservative government continues to see EU migrants as bargaining chips in the forthcoming negotiations with our 27 EU partners. But then the inhumanity of Mrs May and her UKIP-leaning Tory government no longer surprises in its inhumanity, having just shut the door on child refugees. This all leaves me feeling very bleak, and increasingly alienated from my home country. But it is important that Nick Clegg and the LibDem Brexit team behind him are not giving up in despair but instead are campaigning hard to try to prevent the government throwing the baby out with the bath water in its lurch towards a hard Brexit.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th February, 2017
Last summer, my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes: An Odd Tale of Survival, was published and a number of people have asked me why I waited so long to write it. After all, I had produced 14 volumes of biography, history and other non-fiction since 1975, so why wait until I was in my mid-sixties? The simple answer is that I just wasn’t ready, emotionally, but of course, as Oscar Wilde famously said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. The fact is that I could not have written the book until two important things happened (not that I realised that in advance). First was that, following a recurrence a few years ago of the panic attacks and blackouts that I had experienced as a child, along with depression and total lethargy, I was referred to a psychologist who rightly diagnosed the problem as being that I had not processed the period of sexual abuse I had suffered between the ages of about seven and 12. I had shut memories of this away in the deepest recesses of my mind, hidden behind a wall of metaphorical cotton wool, but now they had escaped and were starting to bite me. As a result of the daignosis, I underwent six months of counselling, culminating in several sessions of recovered-memory therapy. No drugs or hypnosis were used, but I was transported back to my childhood self and relived in graphic detail, technicolour and with smells and sounds, the episodes in which my adoptive father had sexually interfered with me, leaving me feeling confused, unhappy and eventually guilty. I then, through therapy, as an adult revisited my childhood self, and tried to come to terms with what had happened. As part of the therapy, I had to write short passages after the sessions, including a letter to my abuser and his wife.
However, I knew I would only get any meaningful level of closure if I extended these scraps of writing into a full-length book. The therapy sessions had retrieved all sorts of memories in graphic detail, and I still had copies of the diaries that I wrote from the age of 18 onwards. It took me 18 months of quite intense and often emotionally stressful work to produce a manuscript I was happy with. Yet I doubt if that would have been possible without the second, unexpected, factor, which was being reunited with my birth family, or at least two sisters and a variety of nieces and nephews. This happened two years ago following a letter out of the blue from my older birth sister after the younger one had tracked me down through a Google search. This reunification was the subject of a sensitively-produced documentary in the BBC series, Family Finders. Now they had become part of my life after a separation of more than half a century I had found some missing pieces of the jigsaw that completed the picture for Eccles Cakes. That memoir only goes up to shortly past my 19th birthday, but in it my unseen birth mother is a real presence, as she was in my mind as a child. The incidents recounted in the book where she watched over me, without my knowledge, are based on fact, as is, naturally,m everything else. So now it is out there, and I am indeed now able to achieve a form of closure.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th February, 2017
Europe currently faces three serious threats: Islamic terrorism, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. At least that was the view of Belgian MEP (and the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator), Guy Verhofstadt, when he gave the Isaiah Berlin lecture for Liberal International at Chatham House in London earlier this week. He warned that the European Union now has fewer friends in the United States than ever, with Mr Trump himself openly trying to break it up, just as Mr Putin is trying to undermine it. But Guy acknowledged that Europe itself is in a crisis — a “polycrisis”, as he called it — “a crisis of migration, of internal security, of geopolitical weakness in our neighbourhood.” This is unsustainable in the modern world, he argued, urging that the EU must reform. However, his words were not all doom and gloom, as he declared that Brexit “is a golden opportunity … to get our act together inside the European Union. What is really needed is not new ideas; the ideas already exist… we have the building blocks… we need the capacities… to do what is necessary.”
Guy is a former Prime Minister of Belgium who leads the ALDE group within the European Parliament. His latest book is entitled Europe’s Last Chance, which I shall review when a copy is available. For many of us in Britain, of course, the great tragedy is that the UK has willfully stepped aside from confronting the challenges facing the EU, at a time when we should be leading, not leaving. Prime Minister Theresa May blithely says that Britain will be great on the global stage, but even if she can hold the country together (which is far from certain), Britain on its own is far weaker than being part of the EU — and Donald Trump for one is well aware of that.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th January, 2017
Normally it would be a matter of celebration that a British Prime Minister should be the first foreign leader to visit a newly-installed US President, but the pictures of Theresa May hand-in-hand with Donald Trump evoked nothing but shame. This is a man who has said the most disgustingly offensive comments about women, declared that Muslims will be banned from entering the United States (though that may prove to be unconstitutional) and demanded that Mexico should pay for a multi-billion dollar wall that he wants to build along the USA’s southern border. But Mrs May kept smiling while she was with the President and said she looks forward to a new era in which the US and Britain will lead the world. Apart from the fact that her image of a globally powerful UK on a par with the United States is nothing short of delusional, she will soon discover just how “friendly” the Trump administration is when the hoped-for bilateral trade deal is negotiated. The reason the British Prime Minister went rushing to Washington once she heard the dog whistle is of course because Mrs May wishes to recalibrate Britain’s foreign and trading relations in preparation for a hard Brexit, exiting the European Union and the single market. By doing so — if that folly goes ahead — she will turn her back on our 27 EU partners, with whom we share not only laws but values, and instead put together a patchwork of ne best friends, many of whom share some disagreeable traits, from using the death penalty, having relaxed gun laws, and abusing human rights. To add insult to injury, the Prime Minster has announced that Mr Trump will make a state visit to Britain this summer, which would mean his staying with the Queen. If that outrageously offensive proposition does go ahead, I trust the monarch will find herself diplomatically indisposed.