Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

LibDems Vote to Recognise Palestine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th September, 2017

IMG_2811At their autumn conference in Bournemouth yesterday, Liberal Democrats voted overwhelmingly to urge the British government to recognise the State of Palestine. The vote came at the end of a thoughtful and well-informed debate on a motion to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, drafted with input from both Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (LDFP, which I chair) and Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI). Balfour expressed support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, providing the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish inhabitants were not compromised. Clearly the second half of that commitment has not been fully implemented, not least in the occupied territories. In my speech, I argued that calling for the recognition of the State of Palestine was timely for three reasons, namely the Balfour centenary, the 50th anniversary of the Occupation (the longest such situation in modern history) and the fact that it is one minute to midnight for finding a way forward to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Personally, I believe it is up to the people of the region to decide ultimately whether a two-state or a one-state solution is ideal, but in the meantime, recognising Palestine would give Palestinians a degree of equality in a singularly unequal relationship. Moreover, to acknowledge Palestine as a state (as more than 130 members of the United Nations have already done) would help restore some of the dignity that was taken away from Palestinians by the Occupation, along with their land and much of their water. The Conservative government has been backsliding on the issue of Palestine, recently downgrading the status of the Palestinian Ambassador, and it must be pressed hard to change its position.

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Brexit and Higher Education

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th September, 2017

IMG_2787This morning, the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference in Bournemouth debated the effects of Brexit on public services in Britain. The impact on NHS staffing as well as the hospitality industry has received quite a lot of media attention, but in my speech I focussed on the situation regarding higher education. For the HE sector, Brexit is a lose-lose situation. UK students may in future excluded from Erasmus plus, restricting their opportunities as well as limiting the positive contribution they may later give as HE lecturers or researchers. The impact on EU and overseas student applications to UK universities and colleges is already being felt, because of the image of Britain as an unwelcoming environment following last year’s EU Referendum, and Brexit hasn’t happened yet. Financially, that is very bad news for those universities that rely on fees from foreign students. Similarly, EU research funding may be cut off. One of the worst effects of the prospects of Brexit, though, is the way that EU academic staff and support staff, of whom there are a great number, including at SOAS, where I teach, feel their status is insecure. Many have already left. So all round, Brexit is a looming disaster. It was however encouraging that this morning’s motion was adopted nem con, and the Party is revved up to campaign for an Exit from Brexit.

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Central American Independence Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th September, 2017

IMG_2772Last night I nipped back to London from the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth to attend the Central Independence Day celebration at the Churchill Hotel. It’s a unique event in the diplomatic calendar, as five countries mark their freedom on the same day: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In a nice gesture of solidarity, the much younger state of Belize (former British Honduras) was represented as well, and the Commonwealth Secretary General, Patricia Scotland, attended. As Her Majesty’s Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Alistair Harrison, commented in a short speech, it was all a great example of growing regional cooperation (the unspoken parenthesis being “in contrast to the UK and Brexit”). As an unreconstructed foodie, I could not but notice that the catering was stunning, including quite the best cured salmon (with sour cream, capers, chopped onion and lemon) I have ever had. Each of the Central American embassies had also brought along the finest examples of their national rums — for me, as a rum-baba of long standing, the Guatemalan was the pick of the crop. Representatives of the Mes Amigo, the London month of celebration of things Ibero-American, were out in force, so it was altogether a fiesta to remember.

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London’s March for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th September, 2017

March for Europe 9 September 2017Yesterday, tens of thousands of us marched through central London, from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square, chanting the slogan “Exit Brexit!”. I don’t think the turnout was quite as big as last March, but the atmosphere was just as festive, under the warm, late summer sun, and there was a sea of flags — especially the EU flag, but also the Union flag and those of the UK’s four nations, as well as several EU member states and even some English counties. Before we all set off, Vince Cable, new Leader of the Liberal Democrats, gave a speech by the statue of the Duke of Wellington — a symbolic location, given the Iron Duke’s battles against the French, in an era when European states fought each other. “The Liberal Democrats continue to demand that the public should have a choice when the final outcome and the facts are clear,” Vince said. “Do we want to rush ahead off the cliff, or do we want an exit from Brexit? That choice, that option, has got to remain.”

BresistanceAt Parliament Square there was a rally, with more speeches by politicians and personalities, though sadly this being a weekend, there were no other MPs around at the Houses of Parliament to witness what was going on. At least some of the TV channels and mainstream media were there, though coverage was slight. I know from my own experience of BBC editorial meetings over the years that demonstrations are not considered to be “news” unless they are humongous, like the million people who turned out to try to dissuade Tony Blair from going to war in Iraq in 2003. Charles Kennedy led a huge phalanx of Liberal Democrats on that occasion and it was good yesterday to see a large contingent of LibDems on the March for Europe as well. One thing did concern me, however. Last March many drivers coming down the other side of the road honked their horns and people on the top of tourist buses cheered, whereas there was very little reaction from the public yesterday. Are they now resigned to going over the cliff edge of Brexit, or just too bewildered about what is happening under the Conservative government’s chaotic handling of the matter? Either way, this left me feeling uneasy. So it was cheering in the evening to watch on TV part of the Last Night of the Proms concert from Albert Hall, which was a sea of EU flags as well as British ones. An enterprising team of Remainers had handed out thousands to people going in and they were received with enthusiasm.

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God’s Own Country

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th September, 2017

God's Own CountryWhen a young, inarticulate Yorkshire hill-farmer’s son, Johnny, gets particularly stressed out, as more responsibility falls on his shoulders after his father’s debilitating stroke, he drowns his sorrow in drink and quick, emotionless sexual release with blond youths. But then along comes a handsome, dark-haired Romanian temporary farmhand — initially humiliated and insulted as a gypsy — and Johnny’s whole world is turned upside down. Shot against the panoramic background of the Yorkshire Moors, much of it by hand-held camera, Francis Lee’s first full-length feature film (which he wrote as well as directed) draws on his own background growing up on a farm in the area, lingers lovingly over mucking out cowsheds and birthing lambs, and spares no blushes in the escalation of the two young protagonists’ growing physical intimacy. But this is a film in which some of the most eloquent moments are when nothing is said — just a look, or a gesture. And gradually the blinkers are removed from Johnny’s eyes, as well as the chip from his shoulder, and he even begins to realise that his father and gran are not quite as demanding and insensitive as he thought. There are stellar performances by both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu, as his liberating angel, and the final scene brings the whole movie to a triumphant resolution. A truly beautiful film.

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Can One Learn Journalism?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th September, 2017

journalism 2Earlier this week I was invited to speak to a group of young people who aspire to be journalists, or otherwise to write in other ways. Actually, it was more of a Q&A session, and as I told them, my career has hardly been typical. Whereas most aspirant journos would leap at the chance of a job for a mainstream media organisation, I shied away of being anyone’s employee, leaving Reuters news agency after only one year and heading off down the freelance road. In fact, that’s where I started, as my very first published articles were for the Manchester Evening News and the Geographical Magazine, written in Vietnam during the war, between school and university. I went into Reuters as a graduate trainee and I did learn shorthand during my time there, as well as how to write a story in pyramid style, so essentially it makes sense no matter how far down you cut it. But otherwise I wasn’t taught how to write; I learned on the job. The same was true with writing my books. So I am always a little sceptical when I hear of media studies courses at university, though some, for example at London’s City University, have a good reputation. Can one really learn journalism, I wonder? Or is it more a question of having some sort of innate wish and talent to find out things and then to put them into words? My advice to the young people I spoke to this week was to identify what they are really passionate about and then to start writing. They are unlikely to be able to just ring a newspaper editor and get articles commissioned straight away, which is what happened with me at age 18, but then I chose a “hot topic”. But young people today have the great advantage that there are so many more platforms available now than when I first began, and both blogging and vlogging (which anyone with a modicum of tech-savviness can get into) are just two ways of getting one’s material out there. Whether that can lead to some paid employment or commissions is another matter. And of course it is important that people don’t always give away content for free, even if occasionally that can be good as a “taster”. But as I advised one young man, many years ago, who asked me if he ought to become a writer: if something inside you drives you to express yourself through writing, do it. If that drive’s not there. don’t.

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Writers’ Houses

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd September, 2017

Lamb HouseYesterday I was at the Mermaid Inn in Rye in Sussex to address the annual gathering of The Friends of Tilling, one of two societies that celebrate the work of E.F. Benson and in particular the Mapp and Lucia novels. It was a gorgeous late summer’s day — the perfect weather to visit nearby Lamb House after my talk. A National Trust property that is only open to visitors a few afternoons a week (and is otherwise lived in by lucky tenants), Lamb House was Fred Benson’s home for many years and appears as Mallards in his Tilling (Rye) novels. So it is a regular place of pilgrimage for Benson fans. Yet it is much more redolent of the legacy of an earlier inhabitant, Henry James. The house is early 18th century, but many of the artefacts date from James’s time there and I could really feel his presence, especially in the garden, strangely. Sitting out there in a quiet spot, all  alone, in the late afternoon sun, I totally understood why someone could write in Lamb House. Benson and James were not the only literary inhabitants who found inspiration living there; Rumer Godden was another.

Hemingway house CubaAs I know myself, the place in which one writes can be all important. Some people can compose in cafés or modern-day coffee shops, whereas for me it has to be a particular house or room where I can focus totally on what I’m writing. And I do believe that some sort of special atmosphere is created in a place where a writer has been at work over a long period. Sensing Henry James at Lamb House was not the first inkling of that kind; I felt it strongly at Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba. That was in much less pristine condition than beautifully maintained Lamb House, though I understood it has been spruced up since my visit. It remains chock-a-bloc with Papa Hemingway’s books and other possessions. At the time I went, one was not allowed inside, but could look in through open windows, which gave the whole experience a slightly surreal quality. The rainwater in the swimming pool was green with algae and there were weeds around, but so to was the ghost of the writer and the aura of his creative energy.

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A Toe in the Edinburgh Fringe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th August, 2017

From Today Everything ChangesYesterday I was up in Edinburgh for the first time during the city’s annual Arts festival, thanks to the 40th anniversary celebration of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), on whose Board I sit, at an evening reception at the National Museum of Scotland. The weather was fine, which meant I was able to spend much of the day wandering along the Royal Mile and nearby streets, drinking in the atmosphere of the street performances of the Edinburgh Fringe. In the afternoon, lured by a flyer,  I went to see one play, Ian Tucker-Bell’s From Today Everything Changes, at the unusually smart fringe venue of a meeting room on the first floor of the Hilton Hotel on North Bridge. It’s a one act, three-hander, in which Tucker-Bell plays one of the parts along with Nick Blessley and Bizz Portlock. The central character is a sexagenarian man, Alan, who comes to realise after the death of his wife that he is actually gay and who then embarks on a quest through Gaydar to gain some experience. After some false starts he links up with Chris, a man 20 years his junior, and they fumble towards a relationship. The play is not just about a previously married man coming to terms with homosexual feelings and the challenges of inter-generational love, but also tackles human insecurity and loss. It is to the credit of the two main actors that they evoke empathy from the audience almost from the word go. There is an effective mixture of monologue by Alan, interspersed with scenes of the two men’s meetings and interventions by Alan’s daughter, Alice. In the space of 50 minutes a very human story, involving characters who are in many ways just ordinary people, is acted out movingly, with a sweet and sour flavour of humour blended with tension. Altogether highly recommended. There is only one more performance in Edinburgh, tomorrow (Saturday) at 4.05pm, but the Kent-based company, the Oast Theatre, will be putting it on in other parts of the country.

Link: https://www.oasttheatre.com

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Big Ben’s Bongs Bunged

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st August, 2017

Big Ben repairsAt midday today, Big Ben, the giant bell inside the UK Parliament’s Queen Elizabeth Tower, tolled the hour for the last time for the next four years, while extensive maintenance work is undertaken. It has been suggested that it could be brought back into service for very special occasions; some Brexiteer Conservative MPs not surprisingly have argued that the day of Britain’s planned exit from the European Union, at the end of March 2019, might be one such moment. Some other traditionalists have gone into spasms of simulated outrage about how even the Luftwaffe in World War II failed to silence the Big Ben. Nonetheless, the BBC will doubtless keep broadcasting (from past recordings) the bell’s rich sound, which has been precursor to news programmes for as long as I can remember. There will of course be disappointed tourists unaware of Big Ben’s indisposition, who will stand on the corner of Parliament Square, pointing their cellphone cameras at the tower, mystified when no bongs intone. But a lot of the fuss in the media and on politicians’ lips has been much ado about nothing. It’s not as if the tower had been blown up. Besides, there are more important things that should concern us all, from Donald Trump’s nuclear tango with Kim Jong-Un to Brexit itself. In fact especially Brexit. For whereas the citizens of Seoul would bear the brunt of any North Korean attack, all of us in Britain are going to suffer from Brexit, alas.

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Adventures in the Gardens of Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th August, 2017

coverKevin d’Arcy worked freelance for many of Fleet Street’s best-known titles, as well as doing stints at the Economist and Tatler and radio programmes and interviews for the BBC and CBC. So he has been, if not exactly at the heart of events in Britain and the wider world, at least in one of the inner circles. I first met him through the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), of which he was Executive Secretary of the British Section for many years, organising briefings from the great and good from UK and European politics and beyond. But it turned out that we were — and indeed, still are — neighbours, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, where he has put in sterling service as a Chair of School Governors and related activities. Freelancers never truly retire, of course, but now that he has a somewhat less hectic lifestyle, and has notched three exotic marriages on his belt, he has taken to writing books, the latest of which, Reflections in the Gardens of Democracy (Rajah Books, £11), is a pot pourri of journalistic memories and political musings, on everything from working with the late, great Alastair Burnet, to speculating why the EU Referendum was so imperfect in formulation, let alone in outcome. Many of the chapters are short and are rather like listening the the author reminiscing over a glass of wine on a sunny afternoon in Bow — and nothing wrong with that. His style is both slick and engaging. AEJ members and other journalistic colleagues will find many tidbits of gossip. But anyone with an interest in politics and the media should also find something to amuse, if only the roll-call of famous hacks and politicos, past and present.

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