Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

On Memoir

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 14th March, 2018

RSL On MemoirLast night at the British Library the Royal Society of Literature put on an evening On Memoir, moderated by Rupert Christiansen. It’s a genre that held little appeal to me when I was young — devouring 20th century novels at a rate of several a week — and in my 40s and 50s history and biography took centre stage. But perhaps in one’s 60s one becomes more reflective, more introspective, mulling over one’s life, what one did and what one might have done. And in fact my own last book, Eccles Cakes, was a childhood memoir. I found it was very therapeutic writing it, so I was interested to hear Sigrid Rausing at the RSL event say that writing her account of having a brother and sister-in-law who were drug addicts, Mayhem, was cathartic. I loved her memoir and was pleased to take part in a book group discussion of it immediately before the RSL evening. Interestingly, the group split almost exactly down the middle between those, like myself, who really empathised with the author’s experience and others who felt quite alienated by it. In the evening discussion, Sigrid Rausing was joined by Aida Edemariam (interviewed by James Naughtie in a recent BBC World book show) and Philippe Sands. Aida Edemariam’s book, The Wife’s Tale, is based on interviews with her now deceased Ethiopian grandmother, whereas Philippe Sands’ East West Street traces not only the footsteps of his grandfather in Lviv (now in Ukraine) but also, among others, the originator of the word “genocide”, Raphael Lemkin. So although each of the authors had dealt with family members, involving both memory and research, their books are very different. It was fascinating to hear how Philippe Sands was shepherded by his editor in structuring and rewriting his memoir; I thought such editors no longer existed! But one thing that struck me about all three authors was the intensity of their connection to their subject matter — more so, perhaps, than that of any novelist or biographer.


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China’s Retrogressive Move

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th March, 2018

Xi JinpingChina’s People’s Congress, meeting in Beijing today, has altered the constitution so that term limits on the presidency have been removed. That means that the current incumbent, Xi Jinping, could become President for Life, if he chooses. The term limit was brought in to avoid anyone becoming a second Mao Zedong, but that increasingly appears to be what Mr Xi aspires to. Already his political writings have been enshrined into the nation’s Communist canon, echoing the position of Mao Zedong Thought. During the Cultural Revolution that ran for about a decade from the mid-1960s until Chairman Mao’s death, Mao’s Little Red Book was every person’s compulsory accessory and its messages were thrust down everyone’s throat — quite literally, in some extreme cases. Espousing any different view was a recipe for receiving humiliation, imprisonment or even death. Chinese diplomats will doubtless say that that couldn’t happen today, but the increasing authoritarianism at the centre of power is stifling free debate. Dissidents have been arrested, or have simply disappeared. And meanwhile China is moving into pole position to become the world’s leading economy, hoovering up the natural resources of Africa and gaining a growing commercial and financial hold over the rest of the world. That includes Britain, where Chinese capital investment has been entering strategic sectors of the economy. As Brexit looms, the Conservative government in London is keen to build on links with China, but it should only do so if it keeps its eyes wide open. Of course we need to keep a close eye on Trump’s America, too, as Washington flirts with protectionism and champions America First. But one big difference is that whereas Donald Trump will be out of office in 2021 (or 2025 at the latest), Xi Jinping is likely to be in power for as long as he wants. And he doesn’t play by the West’s rules.

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MBS Comes to Town

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th March, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman billboard vansThe Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been in London today, getting right royal treatment befitting of a state visit, with lunch with the Queen, tea at 10 Downing Street and dinner with Prince Charles. There was some bemusement yesterday among Londoners as electronic billboard vans drove round the city welcoming MBS’s arrival, and today many newspapers had three half-page spreads reinforcing that message. For anyone familiar with the Gulf monarchies that is not in the least surprising, however; rulers and their crown princes are celebrated with giant pictures everywhere in their home territories, including whole sides of multi-storey buildings. Such apparent vaingloriousness is infra dig in Britain, but we should remember that we started eroding the power of absolute monarchs 800 years ago, whereas Saudi Arabia is a kingdom only 80-odd years old.

Mohammed bin Salman with Queen Elizabeth I was kept busy myself today, doing both television and radio interviews about the prince’s visit, as well as attending a session on youth’s place in Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, at the Dorchester Hotel (where else?). Several people elsewhere asked me outright: well, are you for or against this visit? As one might expect from someone with a background in Reuters and the BBC, and with one foot in academe, I answered in more nuanced terms. As Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and actually sits on the UN Human Rights Council it must expect its domestic human rights record to come under scrutiny. The detention of dissidents has increased since MBS’s sudden ascendancy to the role of neo-dauphin and the rate of executions has actually doubled these last few months. Similarly, the immense human cost of the war in Yemen — exacerbated by the blockade of the port of Hodeidah, which has caused widespread malnutrition — is a legitimate cause for concern, even anger, made more acute by the fact that British arms sales (and some advice) has been helping the Saudi war effort there. However, on the other side of the coin, MBS (with his father’s approval, presumably) has ushered in some reforms that are noteworthy, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving later this year and at least a partial crackdown on corruption, as well as the introduction of VAT as a new source of tax revenue. So he should not be condemned out of hand, but neither should he be the object of unqualified praise. As I quipped on BBC Radio London this afternoon, under MBS’s guidance Saudi Arabia has entered the 20th century, but it hasn’t yet arrived in the 21st.

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Mrs May’s Rose-tinted Vision

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd March, 2018

Theresa MayThis lunchtime the Prime Minister delivered her long-awaited vision for Brexit Britain. The speech was beautifully crafted (congratulations to whoever actually wrote it), but my analysis of the content is less complimentary. As there have been conflicting statements about Brexit even among Cabinet Ministers — along a spectrum from Chancellor Philip Hammond to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — it was good to hear what Mrs May, supposedly speaking on behalf of the Government, actually envisages as the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Some basic principles were very clear, namely that the Government respects the result of the 2016 EU Referendum and therefore Britain is leaving the European Union. Similarly, it wishes to guarantee the integrity of the United Kingdom. But other things were not so clear-cut. However, in a nutshell, what Mrs May was calling for was a bespoke deal for Britain that would be quite different from any other trade arrangement the EU has — for example with Norway or Canada — but would seek to achieve the best possible results for both sides, while defending the security and prosperity of the UK. She said Britain would like to stay inside some EU agencies, such as the European Medicines Agency, and would therefore accept a degree of European Court of Justice jurisdiction, though only on a piecemeal basis. The City of London will be dismayed that the Prime Minister accepted that banks and financial institutions based in the UK will not enjoy passporting rights to the EU because it will leave the single market; one can almost hear the stampede out of London for Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin already as a result. Equally, Britain will not be part of the customs union (or even Jeremy Corbyn’s “a customs union”), but the Government would still hope there to be frictionless trade with the EU. This really is having cake and eating it territory and is likely to be met with a giant raspberry from Brussels. Then there is the thorny issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Mrs May said the Government does not want to see the return of a hard border with border controls, asking rhetorically whether this is something Brussels would wish to impose. That is disingenuous, as clearly an external border of the EU cannot be completely open to the movement of goods, people and services so some sort of compromise solution will be necessary unless Northern Ireland has some separate customs arrangement from the rest of the UK — which is anathema to the Conservatives’ political bedfellows, the DUP. Despite the fact that the Government’s own studies showed that UK economic growth will be hit whichever Brexit route the country follows, Mrs May still sees the post-Brexit future through rose-tinted spectacles, in a world in which Britain will enjoy new freedoms and enhanced prestige while retaining what it wants from current arrangements. Cherry-picking, in a phrase. What she did not specify, however, is how her vision — which included a number of practical alternatives on trade — would benefit the country. But that’s not surprising, because it can’t.

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The Right to be Forgotten

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st March, 2018

Right to be ForgottenLast night I did a TV interview about the first British court case regarding the EU’s so-called Right to be Forgotten law, now being heard at the High Court. Actually, originally the broadcast was meant to be a debate with someone else, presumably from Google, which is contesting the claim against it, but there was a glitch with the skype link to him. Because the matter is sub judice, I don’t know the name of the plaintiff or the exact nature of the charge for which he was convicted years ago, other than it related to fraudulent accounting. The claimant is asking Google to remove links to articles about his case from their search engine, on the grounds that the 1974 UK Rehabilitation of Offenders Act means that some time after he had received the punishment for the crime the conviction then became “spent” and therefore should not hang around his head like a millstone, any time anyone does a Google search on his name. This is reminiscent of the case of a Spanish businessman years ago which led to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg bringing in the Right to be Forgotten in 2014, by which information provided through search engines that is incorrect, irrelevant or out-of-date can be removed. The Spaniard had hit financial difficulties and his property was sold off at auction, but he argued that as he tried to re-establish himself he should not be penalised by details of that situation being easily accessible. The ECJ judges were influenced by a concern that the privacy of EU citizens should be protected as much as is appropriate, which is, I imagine, why Hacked Off has got involved in the case now being discussed here in England. That is actually the first of its kind in this country, though another one is due soon. Google is arguing that it is in the public interest for the information about the plaintiff’s criminal record to be readily available. But it is interesting to note that of the approximately 2.4 million (sic) requests to Google to take down links made globally so far, 800,000 were successful. So something to watch!

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Yemen in Crisis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th February, 2018

Yemen in CrisisThe ancient Romans referred to Yemen as Arabia Felix, but there is little that is happy about the country now. Often divided in modern history, it is now in danger of total disintegration. With only very limited oil resources, it is by far the poorest country in the Middle East, and unlike the other states located in the Arabian peninsula, it has never been allowed to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — though the cohesion and usefulness of the GCC itself have been undermined with the recent stand-off with Qatar. Far more acute than the lack of oil, however, is Yemen’s depleted source of water; Sana’a risks becoming the world’s first capital city to run out of water completely. In rural areas that used to be fertile, subsistence agriculture is a dwindling lifestyle, as predominantly young men migrate to the cities in search of work. Such migration is of course a common feature of many developing countries, but it has been more acute in Yemen than in many other states. Moreover, the government of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh compounded the situation by its corrupt handling of the economy, which enriched a small elite while impoverishing the masses. Hence the size and vigour of the anti-Saleh demonstrations that erupted during the 2011 so-called Arab Spring.

Yemen conflict 2However, even at the height of the uprising, the situation in Yemen was never black and white. There was always a complex nexus of rivalries, based on tribal loyalties, regional variations and a certain degree of religious difference. All too often the current conflict in Yemen is over-simplified as a battle between the Sunni-backed internationally-recognised but largely exiled government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Shi’i-backed Huthi rebels, but as Helen Lackner’s excellent book, Yemen in Crisis (Saqi, £25), explains with admirable clarity, Yemen’s modern history is far more complex than that. And as she points out, the military intervention of a Saudi-led coalition in 2015 turned a political and humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe. The Saudi blockade of the port of Hodeidah, for example, led to widespread malnutrition — not least among infants — that has been described by the United Nations as the most serious humanitarian crisis of our time. A major outbreak of cholera last year compounded the situation. As Helen Lackner rightly argues, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman probably launched the Yemen War in the hope that a quick victory would cement his rise to power. But nearly three years on, the situation is a quagmire and it is the Yemeni people who are suffering.

Helen Lackner is the ideal guide for readers wanting to understand some of Yemen’s complexities and how it has ended up in its current dire situation. She worked in the country for 15 years — largely in the field of rural development — and has been researching it for far longer. Her love of the place and its people shines through the text, which is academically sound but totally accessible to the general reader. I travelled widely in Yemen myself in the 1980s and 1990s, which Ms Lackner now sees as the good old days. Whether it will ever be possible for such a period of relative calm to return in the near future remains to be seen, but even if so, the cost of reconstruction is going to be gargantuan, as the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure and unique cultural heritage continues apace.

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The Shape of Water ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th February, 2018

The Shape of WaterMonsters have never been my thing, whether in books or in films, so I approached Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, The Shape of Water, with a degree of scepticism. Not only does the “monster” — actually a scaly, aquatic creature with a distinctly handsome, human face — not speak, but neither does the mute (but not deaf) young Hispanic cleaner, Elisa, who falls in love with him. She works in a secret US installation that is up to its eyes in Cold War scheming against the Soviets, the Americans annoyed at being beaten by the Russians in the race into space. It’s 1962 and both misogyny and racial prejudice rule among the alpha white males of the installation, not least the man who is tormenting the poor captured creature, brought in from the Amazon where indigenous peoples had revered him as a river god. At this point the film morphs into a fairy tale, full of mystery and not a little humour, punctuated by outbursts of sudden violence. The period atmosphere is beautifully recreated, from the glorious Cadillacs in a car showroom to the tacky advertisements in magazines and on television. At times the narrative heads off into pure fantasy, allowing the director to indulge in some agreeable referencing of multiple film genres, from black-and-white dance spectaculars to John  Le Carré style spy thrillers. Sally Hawkins as Elisa is genuinely affecting and one empathises enough with her predicament to forgive some of the implausible strands of the plot, though objectively speaking, much of it is tosh. Yet somehow the film is intriguing enough to hold one’s attention. As the story progresses, one increasingly feels that good must win out in a context where so much evil is present — though the dénouement is far from predictable.

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King of the Belgians ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd February, 2018

King of the BelgiansLast night I was at Birkbeck College’s cinema in Gordon Square for the launch of a mini-season of Belgian films: Focus on Belgian Cinema. It was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, as for most of the eight years I was based in Brussels as a journalist, I had a nice little side-line reviewing films for the English-language weekly there, The Bulletin (all of which figures in my forthcoming memoir of those Brussels years). At last night’s event, there were two excellent presentations by Belgian film critics/professors, outlining what has been happening in both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking movie making over the three decades since I left. The interesting point was made that films made (in French) in Wallonia-Brussels attract much bigger audiences outside Belgium than they do at home, whereas many of the Flemish films are locally popular. Belgium being Belgium, however, many films are effectively multi-lingual, including both French and Flemish (the latter sometimes in its very particular regional dialects), as well as German, English and so on. In fact, the film that followed the two talks — King of the Belgians (2016), directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth — included Turkish, Bulgarian and a snatch of Albanian, too. The film is a comic mockumentary, theoretically commissioned by the Belgian Queen, to try to make her rather stiff husband, King Nicolas III, seem more human. The King is beautifully played by one of Belgium’s leading actors, Peter van den Begin — tall, awkward and often at a loss for words (one could well imagine him a blood relative of the late King Baudouin, though no such caricature was officially intended).

The King and his faithful retainers get stranded in Turkey by freak weather which means that planes are grounded, so the little group has to turn to more unorthodox means of transport to return home via the Balkans, when Wallonia declares independence (a nice touch, as it is Flemish nationalists who sometimes call for independence for Flanders). Most of the film is thus an often funny road movie, as disaster piles upon disaster and the King and his entourage of three (plus the putative Scottish documentary maker) try to pass incognito through sometimes risky lands. Along the journey, there are many nice asides about Belgian life and the pomp and circumstance of royal protocol, but the King himself, probably encountering normal people in a natural way for the first time in his life, gradually opens up and begins to savour the world around him — a sort of middle-aged coming of age.

The rest of the Focus on Belgian Cinema mini-season is taking place at the Ciné Lumiere at the French Institute in South Kensington over the next four days, and includes a number of Q&A’s with directors of the films being screened, including André Bonzel and his black crime comedy, Man Bites Dog. Bookings through

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Shopping as a Lifestyle

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th February, 2018

1C3D254A-2708-44A8-9596-37E596D4DF3CIt has often been noted that we live in a materialist age, where we are increasingly judged by what we own, rather than what sort of person we are. Advertising pressures us to build up our self-image by buying more; indeed, the proponents of free market capitalism would argue that by boosting consumption we grow the economy and therefore become richer as a society. Or at least that’s the theory, though the growing numbers of homeless rough sleepers on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that the post-War economic model has not been an unqualified success — and that’s before we consider how sustainable the consumer society is, given rising population and the earth’s finite resources. I’ve been prompted to these musings by being based for the past week in Dubai, which is a city that has become almost symbolic of the “more is better” approach to global living. Over the three decades I’ve been coming here the place has been totally transformed from being a rather charming medium-sized trading hub, still enjoying the revenues from its twilight years of oil production, to an in-your-face post-modern multicultural city, constantly expanding. Dubai has astutely diversified its economy much more effectively than most places in the Gulf, including building up light industry, financial services and tourism. Partly to keep the flow of tourists coming, Dubai has also branded itself a shoppers’ paradise; even outside the annual shopping festivals, people are urged to buy, buy, buy, with all kinds of discounts and special offers. Shopping malls have proliferated, with new ones often vaulting themselves as the biggest and best. You don’t even need to go to Korea for the Winter Olympics at the moment, as there are malls in Dubai where you can ski and ice-skate, no matter how high the temperature outside. At the height of summer, when the temperatures reache the high 40s centigrade, the air-conditioned malls are of course an oasis, but in fact they are busy all year round. Moreover, they are one of the few places where you can see Emirati families, who make up only about 10 per cent of the city’s population. They have certainly bought into the shopping dream, to the extent that it has almost become a lifestyle. Even if the emirate’s economy is reportedly not doing quite as well as it was and some companies have been laying off staff, the message is still loud and clear: go to the Mall and shop till you drop!

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Early Man ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th February, 2018

A8AC253F-61C3-488B-AEE1-C53CF31BE7ACI have long been a fan of Nick Park’s stop motion animated films. I can’t count the times I’ve watched the Wallace and Gromit movies — made all the more special because my late, inimitable friend Peter Sallis voiced the character of Wallace — and I laugh each time. Shaun the Sheep, longer and more ambitious, turned out to be a gem as well, but I worried that as Aardman Animations grew from its modest beginnings to its current global mega-status whether it would be able to maintain the magic. So I went to see Early Man this afternoon with a certain degree of trepidation. It’s all on a much grander scale than its predecessors, with a large cast of “human” figures (albeit Stone Age and a Bronze Age ones). The central character is a goofy but courageous youth, Dug, who takes on the  Bronze usurpers with the aid of his faithful sidekick, a determined and bright, semi-canine wild boar. Surreally, the battle between the two civilisations takes place on a football pitch, which enables Nick Park and his colleagues to spoof the beautiful game, its players and commentators, offering some amusing referencing for dads (and some mums) accompanying their children to see the film. The outcome is inevitable; in true British tradition, the underdog must come out on top. And there is even a romance in the offing for Dug with a Bronze Age girl whose secret dream is to be a soccer star. One result of Aardman’s record of achievement is that a veritable galaxy of stars provide the voices, from Eddie Redmayne as Dug, through Tim Hiddleston as the villain (deploying an outrageously cod French accent) and Miriam Margoyles as the Bronze Queen. Doubtless these big names will help ensure the film’s commercial success, especially in the United States, but it should really be the strength of the characters in Park’s films, with all their petty faults and quirks, that make the movie work. Usually they do, but I am less convinced this time. Though the toothy figures are still visually true to the Aardman brand, the plot and action veer quite a long way towards Disneyland. Early Man is still fun, nonetheless, and kids will laugh as their parents smirk at some of the double entendres and nods to football mania. But it’s not up there with Wallace, Gromit and Shaun, alas.

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