Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

UK World-beating — at COVID-19 Deaths

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th January, 2021

Stats from The Independent

Boris Johnson and his Conservative government have been promoting the fact that over four million Brits have been given at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. That’s impressive indeed, compared with the performance that other countries, especially in the EU, have put in on vaccinations so far. But it neatly obscures the more startling fact that the UK is now registering the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita of any country in the world. World-beating, indeed, Prime Minister. The population size of the USA and Brazil, in particular, masks the fact that their COVID-19 casualties are actually lower, when one compares the figures on a per million basis. The reasons for Britain’s abject performance are clear: lockdowns were instituted too late and the messaging has been confusing. As a self-confessed libertarian, Mr Johnson prefers to suggest to people what they should do, rather than order them. But this is a case where orders needed to be firm and clear. There is nothing to be proud about the reality that tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily. Crowing about early vaccination certification and the number of jabs being given (while extending the wait for the second jab of Pfizer-BionTech from three weeks to 12. against the advice of the manufacturers) is a bit like shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Or 90,000 “horses”, and rising.

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Mango Dreams (2016) ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th January, 2021

When a Sikh-born widower doctor, Amit (Ram Gopal Bajaj), realises that he is suffering from increasing dementia he heads off in search of past memories before they disappear from his mind. Unusually, impractically, he recruits a Muslim tuk-tuk driver, Salim (Pankaj Tripathi), to accompany him on his odyssey, which will take him to his old medical school in Jaipur, the railway tracks in Amritsar and finally, he hopes, to the village where he was born. Gradually the tragic life stories of both doctor and driver are revealed, both blighted by the bloody aftermath of Partition, and ongoing hatred between Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. The initial pace of John Upchurch’s film (available on Netflix) is extremely sedate, but it is worthwhile persevering as slowly but surely one is drawn into a powerful human drama, at times lyrically told. By the end one is likely to be emotionally involved, as the terrible impact of ethnic and religious rivalry sinks in. This is one, poignant personal story but symbolic of something much larger, troubling and profound.

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The Angels’ Share (2012) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 13th January, 2021

The “angels’ share” is a popular term for the quantity of whisky that is lost to evaporation as it ages in oak barrels. But in Ken Loach’s film (available through BBCiPlayer) a portion of a rare and extremely valuable malt is syphoned off in a Highlands Distillery by wily little Robbie (Paul Brannigan) and his three mates from Glasgow, all of whom, like him, are doing community service as an alternative to prison. As often in Loach’s films, the main characters are from a rough working-class background — one might even say underclass — so their language and humour are crude, their lives forever threatened by explosive violence. But Robbie sees a way to get out of this circle of Hell, in which he can’t even get a job interview, let alone a job. His scheme is dishonest, far-fetched, and yet one finds oneself rooting for him and his motley gang. The film’s success rests largely on Paul Brannigan’s performance; there is something very vulnerable, almost childlike, about his nature, which means than one can understand why his very normal, decent girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) sticks by him — and why his Mancunian community service supervisor, Harry (John Henshaw), becomes a sort of surrogate father, determined to keep Robbie from ruining his life. One can see this film as a darkly comic caper, but as always with Ken Loach there is an underlying critique of the way disadvantaged youth is marginalised from mainstream society and the norms that most of us just take for granted.

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Better Late than Never

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th January, 2021

US President Donald Trump has been suspended permanently from Twitter. There’s a certain sense of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted, but even so I feel a sigh of relief. Trump used the platform to spew out a constant stream of lies and hateful propaganda, slandering Democrats and whipping up public anger against mainstream media. For the past two months he had been arguing that the presidential election was “stolen” and that he had really won, “by a landslide”. The trouble was, millions of people believed him, despite the lack of any evidence; in Trump’s alternative reality, truth is what you believe. He finally overstepped the mark when he effectively incited insurrection, urging supporters to march on Capitol Hill where the election result was being certified. Five people lost their lives in the ensuing melee. It would be fitting now if he were removed from office, even though he has only 12 days to go. But the Republican Party is unlikely to stomach that, Another impeachment is possible, which would prevent him ever standing for public office again. In the meantime he must be sitting fuming in the Oval Office — or heading out to the golf course again — his favourite toy snatched away from him. Social media can play a positive role in society and help give people a voice. But Donald Trump has shown its dark side, Perhaps in future social media platforms will be a little more vigilant about misuse by those who wish to sow disharmony and hatred.

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A Dark Day for Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th January, 2021

The scenes of riotous demonstrators occupying the Capitol building in Washington yesterday rightly sent shock waves round the world. And the fact that these extremist activists were incited by President Donald Trump, who continues to claim that November’s presidential election was “stolen” from him (and them), is straight out of the fascist playbook. Twitter and Facebook have temporarily suspended Trump’s accounts, in protest at the stream of lies and unfounded allegations that he has been churning out, but he is still in office for a fortnight and goodness knows what further damage he could do. The troubling thing is that millions of Americans think he is right and supported the “protest”. Abroad he has his fans, too, including a disturbing number of Ministers in the British Conservative government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson clearly models himself partly on Trump and Conservative activists have been urged to weaponise “alternative facts” in Trumpian fashion. Fortunately the US democratic base is robust enough for reason to have reasserted itself on Capitol Hill and for President-elect Joe Biden to have his victory certified — albeit in an overnight sitting. But it was worrying that the Congress buildings were so poorly protected and some guards were even taking selfies with the invaders. There can be little doubt where their sympathies lay. And although politicians around the world have deplored the direct action by Trump supporters many have been muted in what they have said about President Trump himself. Boris Johnson, remember, even declared once that Trump should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It would be nice to think that Trump has shot himself in the foot with his latest posturings and that he will no longer be taken seriously. But given the numbers of people who prefer his bluster and attacks on “leftists” to genuine democratic processes it would also be naive.

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Hope Gap ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 6th January, 2021

Behind many a facade of comfortable bourgeois existence there lies a bitter truth of estrangement or loss. In William Nicholson’s Hope Gap (now available on Netflix) it soon becomes clear that the charming if somewhat unmodernised detached house in the picturesque coastal town of Seaford is like a large cage in which a married couple approaching their 30th wedding anniversary basically avoid each other. He (Bill Nighy) is a schoolteacher nearing the end of his career, but passionate about the tragic retreat of Napoleon’s army from the frozen wastes of Russia, about which he does endless research on Wikipedia; she (Annette Bening) works half-heartedly on an anthology of poetry and finds solace in the certainties of the Catholic mass. She spars with him, hoping to elicit some lively reaction, but for him it is too late. He is preparing to jump ship. When he does this, taking nothing but a small suitcase with him, as he moves to live with the mother of one of his pupils, his wife tries to recruit their son (Josh O’Connor) as an ally, but he — having his own difficulties in establishing a meaningful relationship — refuses to chose sides. Besides, his mother is behaving increasingly irrationally, bound up in her sense of grievance and her anger at being abandoned. This film — adapted by William Nicholson from a play he wrote two decades ago — works because the three main actors brilliantly portray their various forms of isolation. The more Annette Bening rages the more Bill Nighy withdraws into himself. This all-too-credible family disintegration is set against the beautiful backdrop of Seaford’s chalk cliffs, enhanced by some magical drone footage of the sea shore. Unhappiness is maybe not the most obvious theme for a successful movie, but Hope Gap is a memorable example — and a reminder that whatever happens, life must go on.

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Dither and Delay

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th January, 2021

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that tougher restrictions are likely to be necessary as COVID-19 cases continue to rise — especially involving the recent, highly infectious new variant. Yet he has so far resisted calls from opposition politicians to bring in a national lockdown without further delay. But delaying unpalatable decisions is what Johnson does, along with dithering around instead of taking firm action. That is why Britain has seen 75,000 COVID deaths (a conservative estimate) and one of the worst records in handling the virus of anywhere in the world. The government can rightly claim credit for getting vaccines approved swiftly, but its sudden change of policy with regard to the interval between the first and second doses of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine is typically chaotic. Many older patients in particular will have been caused unnecessary worry about their delayed second jab, and GPs’ surgeries have been given the time-consuming task of rescheduling appointments at a time when they are also under pressure. The yes/no messaging about whether primary schools should or should not re-open today in England (outside London and the South-East) has caused yet more confusion and worry for both teachers and parents — the latter suddenly having to make home-schooling arrangements at short notice. Meanwhile the country is left in limbo. Will there be a new national lockdown? Will borders be closed (as former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has suggested)? It is not good enough for Boris Johnson to shrug his shoulders, chuckle and say “maybe”.

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Tea with Mussolini (1999) ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd January, 2021

Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini (available via BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks) is largely autobiographical. He was “Luca”, the illegitimate child sent to an orphanage when his mother died and then raised by an eccentric group of English old biddies who had made Florence their home. Their somewhat idyllic existence gets a jolt with the rise of fascism; although at first they welcome the order Mussolini’s followers bring to Italy it some becomes obvious how nasty they really are. The queen bee of the bitching and snobbish “Scorpioni” ladies circle is the formidable widow of a former British Ambassador (Maggie Smith), who goes off to Rome for tea with Il Duce and extracts from him the worthless promise that he will protect them from any danger. Instead, their protector when they are taken into custody turns out to be a flamboyant, beautiful, wealthy American Jewess (Cher), until dark shadows fall over her too. Luca (Zeffirelli) meanwhile has gone off to join the Resistance and returns with the Scots Guards to liberate the ladies from detention. It’s all very chocolate box — Merchant Ivory rather than Visconti — and essentially a love letter from the Director to the British (and Shakespeare in particular). Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (a character passionate about art and her pet dog) really camp up the characteristics of genteel expatriates. Joan Plowright, as the woman who is primarily responsible for raising Luca, is far more subdued and therefore to me more affecting. Lily Tomlin puts in a nice turn as a lesbian archaeologist and Cher shows that she can act just as well as she can sing. It’s all very enjoyable, with a comic script largely written by John Mortimer, but I can’t help wondering if the film would have been more effective if it had been a little more sinister. Fascist Italy is seen through rose-tinted spectacles because the focus is so firmly on the circle of dotty and sometimes poisonous old women.

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Mayor ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd January, 2021

Palestinians dream of the day when they will have an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. But in the meantime, Ramallah serves as an interim centre for the administration of the West Bank as well as a cultural hub. It was pretty threadbare when I first visited 20 or more years ago but subsequently has grown and acquired some fine buildings, including the City Hall with an attractive adjacent park and fountains. That is the setting for much of David Osit’s new fly-on-the-wall documentary Mayor (available on Curzon home cinema in the UK). The Mayor is Musa Hadid, a Christian of late middle age, who has to manage his town despite all the difficulties resulting from the Israeli occupation. Israeli settlements, perched on hill tops, surround Ramallah and extremist “settlers” derive pleasure from polluting an agricultural valley with sewage and cutting down Palestinian olive trees. There is the ever-present danger that the Israeli Defense Force will barge in — as indeed they do towards the end of this film, which documents two years of the Mayor’s tenure. The decisions he has to make in the line of duty range from the global — defending the Palestinian cause in London, Washington and Berlin — to the locally banal — such as whether to keep the lights on the town’s Christmas tree on or off at night. There are odd moments of dark comedy but the overall mood is one of sadness — of a decent man, beset with worries, trying to make the best of things while sitting on a pressure cooker that could explode at any moment as local youths seethe with frustration at the injustice and humiliation of Palestine’s situation.

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A Day of Mourning

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st December, 2020

Usually on this last day of the calendar year I am in Brazil, having a lazy day by the pool, preparing a festive supper and looking forward to the giant firework display that takes place at midnight right behind the house. But this year things are very different. Thanks to coronavirus I haven’t been able to travel to Fortaleza — where things are at least as bad as they are here — and wintry London isn’t quite the same, especially under Tier 4 lockdown. But that isn’t the main reason for my low mood. Today is the last day of the transition from our membership of the European Union, after nearly half a century of belonging. At 11pm London time my European citizenship and freedom of movement will be gone. Despite Johnson’s post-Brexit EU trade deal, things are bound to be bumpy over the next few months — and more expensive. Brexiteers are celebrating, even invoking the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, though it was under her that the European single market was developed (through Lord Cockfield). That is one of the EU’s greatest achievements, but we will no longer be part of it (though Brexiteers like Daniel Hannan promised we would). Geographically we will always remain part of Europe but in almost every other way we have cut ourselves off from the Continent– and are threatening the break-up of the United Kingdom in the aftermath. It is no consolation that according to recent opinion polls a majority of Brits now think it was wrong to leave the EU. Millions of us are feeling bereaved. I will not be raising the traditional glass of celebration this evening, but a stiff drink appropriate to a wake.

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