Jonathan Fryer

Dubai’s Creek

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th May, 2015

imageDubai has become synonymous with extravagant shopping malls and high-rise buildings, not least the current tallest edifice in the world, the Burj Khalifa. But when I have had free time in the city I have always gravitated towards the Creek, in the old city centre, which is one of the few places that hasn’t changed much in the 30-odd years that I have been coming here. The little passenger boats that shuttle people back and forth across the waterway are still there, and only charge 1 dirham (20p) for the ride — by far the best value attraction for any visitor. The area on the Bur Dubai shoreline has been smartened up, with several of the beautiful nobility’s houses with their wind towers tastefully restored, not least Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s house, which also doubles as a museum, with several rooms of fascinating black-and-white photographs of Dubai before modernisation and the oil boom. When I first came to the city, the airport (now very much downtown) was surrounded by desert and development along the Creek petered out very quickly. Lovely wooden dhows from Iran used to moor alongside the Deira waterfront, spilling their cargoes onto the walkway, while their crews, mainly from the Arabic-speaking areas of the Abadan coast, stared in a mixture of wonder and apprehension at the comparative sophistication of Dubai. These days they are fewer and have to tie up further up the Creek, somewhat out of view. I find it extraordinary that most Western tourists and expats working in Dubai prefer the malls and now the new marina to the Creek. It’s their loss, and our gain, for those of us who join the locals and the labourers who keep the area so vibrant.

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No, Simon Hughes Doesn’t Want a Peerage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 14th May, 2015

Simon Hughes 1Simo0n Hughes thank you partyFor me the saddest, and in many ways most unexpected, result last Thursday night was Simon Hughes’s ousting from Bermondsey and Old Southwark after 32 years as the area’s member of parliament. One knew that Labour had been absolutely flooding the place with campaigners for months — including shedloads of Labour MPs who were urged to make the short trip across the Thames when they had a few spare moments — but Simon could have hardly have worked harder for his constituents throughout his long tenure. I am sure that those people in the constituency who voted Labour in the hope of keeping the Tories out will soon realise what a mistake they made. Anyway, this evening, at The Grange in Grange Road, there was an election thank you party for all who helped in Simon’s campaign, as many hundreds did from all over London and beyond. Far from being a wake, the event was quite joyful, not least because of the more than 11,000 new members who have joined the Liberal Democrats this past week, over 100 are in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, bringing useful new blood to an already strong local team, who have already declared that the fight back has started. Simon helped the upbeat mood by quashing the Labour Party rumour that he will accept a peerage. But being Simon he then made a speech that took us all down memory lane, from the very first time he stood for election as a Liberal in the area, as a GLC candidate. I was interested to note that he no longer says “thirteenthly” when he enumerates the points in his speech, and has instead learned that if one starts at three and moves down to one, you can then move back up again to another three without many people noticing. Because he is so widely loved, we all view such tactics with affection. Most of us even agreed to sing a song he had heard on SmoothFM as he was driving out of the House of Commons car park in his signature yellow taxi for the last time earlier today. And it was gratifying to hear from the man who was until last week Minister of Justice that he could not have borne to be in the department with the new incumbent Michael Gove in charge.

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Liberal Democrat Resilience

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th May, 2015

LibDems join usLast week’s general election results in Britain were a shock to almost everyone — including the opinion pollsters — but the cruellest blows were for the Liberal Democrats, who lost 48 of their 56 seats. Ministers such as Simon Hughes, Ed Davey and Vince Cable were among the casualties, as well as high flyers like Julian Huppert and Jenny Willott. In London, Labour crowed, though as their party was almost wiped out in Scotland and their leader Ed Miliband fell on his sword for failing to win the election, they had little real reason to do so.  I lost count of the number of Labour supporters tweeting how the Liberal Democrats are “finished”, “destroyed”. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Though the eight LibDem MPs are now outnumbered more than tenfold by their counterparts in the House of Lords, the party’s membership base is expanding rapidly. Over 8,000 new members have joined the LibDems so far this month, most of those following last Thursday’s election. That is a remarkable affirmation not only the party’s resilience but also of the need for a strong liberal voice now that we have a purely Conservative government which will start implementing some of the things that LibDems prevented them doing in Coalition. The LibDem bird Libby is indeed like a phoenix, rsing from the ashes of last wek’s defeat. And it is the duty of every local party to engage with the new members and to get them involved, including those who left because of the Coalition deal with the Conservatives but who are now ready to return to the fold.

To join the party go to: http://www.libdems.org.uk/join

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Europe Day in Oslo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th May, 2015

imageimageNorway is not a member of the European Union, though as a member of the EEA, they have to obey European single market laws without having any imput into their formulation. In Oslo, they call that “fax diplomacy” — these days receiving instructions from Brussels by email, if they want (as they do) to function within the European single market of 500 million consumers. Incidentally, when they observe British conservatives flirting with the possibility of a Brexit, Norwegian politicians urge: Don’t do it! Anyway, it was interesting to be in Oslo today for Europe Day (9 May), not attending a concert in St John’s, Smith Square (London) for once, but at the City Hall in Oslo, following the Council meeting of the ALDE Party (European Liberal Democrats), which includes members from beyond the EU’s current boundaries. The (female, Conservative) Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, opened the event, demonstrating a singularly Nordic inclusiveness that is sadly still lacking in the UK. I attended a lunchtime fringe which was particularly interesting, showing how it is possible to increase wheat output in the EU, while at the same time boosting bio-diversity (including bird and bee life). This evening, we were the guests for Europe Day celebrations at Oslo City Hall, an extraordinary structure whose interior is redolent of the Socialist realist/fascist aesthetic of the 1930s. But the welcome from the Venstre deputy Mayor — young, trendy, and wearing orange Nike sneakers — could hardly have been more post-modern. As he said, in his welcome remarks, Oslo as a city would happily vote to be a member of the EU, but as for Norway, well, not yet…

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Back to My Roots

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th May, 2015

Jill, JF, DeniseOver the Bank Holiday weekend I had to take some enforced leave from general election campaigning to be in Manchester to take part in filming for a TV documentary about my childhood adoption and the recent reunion with my two blood-sisters. The past few months have been an emotional roller-coaster, from the moment my sisters wrote to me out of the blue, after tracking me down 63 years after our mother gave me up for adoption. The adoption itself was not a happy one and I could not forgive my adoptive parents for steadfastly refusing to give me any information about my mother, though they had met her and (as I have learned only recently) for several years she was living with my two sisters within walking distance of the house where I grew up. It was only after David Owen helped change the law in Britain, giving adopted children the right to access their original birth certificate, that I was able to start some detective work on my origins when I returned to London after seven years working in Brussels. I thus discovered my original identity was as Graeme Leslie Morton and that I had an elder sister; the fact that there was another, younger sister born after our mother remarried came as a complete surprise to both of us last year. Anyway, the story of our reunion was picked up by the Manchester Evening News (by a strange coincidence, the first newspaper that published my freelance articles when I was a teenage reporter in the Vietnam War), there was then a three-way Radio Manchester radio interview and now a full-blown TV documentary, filmed by Ricochet Productions, scheduled to be broadcast on BBC1 this summer. There were some emotionally tense moments during filming, not least when we visited our mother’s grave yesterday afternoon — the first “contact” I had had with her since she gave me up from adoption — but in many ways I feel I have achieved a degree of closure of many things that tore me apart as a child. Moreover, whereas I had rejected Manchester comprehensively because of my unhappy childhood I can now cherish my roots and appreciate my home town again. And for anyone who is in a remotely similar position I can testify: it is never too late to find out who you really are.

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The BBC Leaders Debate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 1st May, 2015

Leaders Debate 2Television debates have now firmly established themselves as part and parcel of the British political process, even if Prime Minister David Cameron has tried to avoid a repeat of the 2010 head-to-heads with Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg, at which the Liberal Democrat leader established himself as the exciting new kid on the block. Cameron, Clegg and the new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, provided an hour-and-a-half of stimulating entertainment on BBC1 last night, in a Question Time special, even if the format was a series of half hour sessions with each in turn facing David Dimbleby and a feisty studio audience in Leeds rather than a genuine debate. Cameron went first, but as so often when he is interviewed he looked uncomfortable, even petulant at times. He avoided answering the question about exactly where a Conservative government would find an extra £12bn in welfare cuts and kept on insisting that the Tories were aiming for an overall majority on 7 May, even though not a single opinion poll in recent months has suggested that is possible. He is unlucky in that his face is so smooth that it looks somehow unhuman, though I’ve always thought the Guardian cartoonist’s caricature of him wearing a condom over his head somewhat cruel.

general election 2015Miliband was the most eagerly awaited, to see how he would fare, but I am sure I was not the only viewer astonished when he categorically ruled out any “deal” (let alone a Coalition) with the Scottish Nationalists — something the opinion polls suggest is almost inevitable if he is to get to No 10 Downing Street. He even said he would rather not be Prime Minister than have an arrangement with the SNP — a statement he may well live to regret. He echoed a phrase of David Cameron’s about secret Coalition talks in darkened rooms, similarly ignoring the fact that most of the British electorate has realised that we have moved into an era of Coalition politics in Britain, whatever the Labour and Tory leaders might wish. As he left the tiny raised stage Miliband slipped and almost fell onto a member of the audience. Metaphorically, he had indeed tumbled, and I suspect this will be the last time he is seen on a Leaders Debate.

Nick Clegg had the great advantage of coming last and even if he no longer has the novelty appeal of 2010 he is a consummate performer. An inevitable hostile question about tuition fees started off his interrogation, but he swiftly turned his response into a catalogue of the good things Liberal Democrats have done in government. He spoke eloquently about why he believes Britain must remain a member of the European Union (winning loud approval from The Economist on twitter) and came over not only as the only true internationalist of the three but also the only really human being. He was also the only who managed to make a joke that got the audience laughing, by suggesting that Cameron and Miliband ought to go and lie down in a darkened room if they thought they were capable of getting an outright majority. I may understandably be accused of bias but I do feel he “won” the debate. And it was definitely Ed Miliband who came off worst.

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Norman Foster’s Peace Pyramid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th April, 2015

imageimageOne of the most striking buildings in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, is the Peace Palace, designed by Sir Norman Foster in the form of a pyramid. It was specifically constructed, at the behest of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, to house the triennial gatherings of lsaders of world and traditional religions — the pyramid being chosen as a concept that was religiously neutral. The pyramid was completed in 2006 but the first such gathering was in fact held in 2003 and the next is due this June. In between those summits, the building is used for concerts and other conferences and boasts a variety of different spaces, from a large classic style theatre to the circular meeting room right at the top of the pyramid, whose windows feature beautiful stained glass depicting white doves. Kazakhstan itself is a secular state, with large populations of Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians, as well as Roman Catholics and other faiths, being ethnically very mixed. It also has good relations with the Jewish diaspora worldwide.

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A Night at the Opera

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th April, 2015

image imagePolling stations in Kazakhstan’s presidential election closed at 8pm last night, at which point I was installed in a full house at Astana’s Opera House for a performance of Mukan Tulebayev’s Birzhan and Sara, a sort of Central Asian Romeo and Juliet, with a cast of around 100 (including a full corps de ballet) and magnificent scenery, making full use of the theatre’s enormous and high tech stage. The music was an eclectic mix of Kazakh folk tunes and Russian romantic music, defiantly tonal and guaranteed to please the crowd, as were the sumptuous costumes and fine dancing. At the express wish of the omnipresent President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the opera house has maintained the old Soviet practice of keeping prices low, so that high culture is within everyone’s reach. My excellent stalls seat cost 2,000 tenge — the equivalent of €10. The national TV had its camera just above my head, broadcasting the opera live in keeping with the celebratory mood of Election Day. I was fascinated to see that selfies are all the rage among Kazakhs in the theatre, but I did scowl when the woman sitting next to me actually answered her mobile phone during the performance. The opera house itself is magnificent, brand new but classical in style, with a beautiful marble hall outside the main auditorium for interval drinks.

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President Nazarbayev Goes to Vote

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th April, 2015

imageThis morning I joined journalists and TV crews from around the world at Astana’s People’s Palace (a name so redolent of the former Soviet Union!) to watch voting in today’s presidential elections, for which voters of all ages were indeed streaming into the polls. In keeping with the holiday mood in Kazakhstan’s capital loud dance music was being played through loudspeakers outside and there was a large cut-out of the kind one used to see at British seaside resorts, with a hole for people to put their head through for photos. There was a brand new red carpet running up the steps from the square, along which people were proudly marching — many hand-in-hand with their small children — though I imagine it was mainly there for President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was due to come to cast his vote at 10am, but was fashionably late, being greeted with polite applause by the small queue of other voters that had built up. The voting process is identical to what happens in the UK, with officials checking off voters’ names from the electoral register before the voters go into a curtained booth to complete their ballot, which they then fold to put in a large ballot box (transparent Perspex here, unlike the black metal ones in Britain).

imageThe President turns 75 this year, but looks quite fit and not all that different from when I met him in London when he came to open independent Kazakhstan’s first embassy to the Court of St James’s, when Margaret Beckett was Labour Foreign Secretary. Mr Nazabayev has been Kazakhstan’s leader since independence and was Secretary General of the republic’s Communist Party for a short while in the Soviet twilight. He has his own party these days and one of the two candidates authorised to run against him is standing for the Communists. In stark contrast to Britain’s current general election, where no-one has a firm idea of the government that will emerge after 7 May, the result in Kazakhstan’s presidential poll is a foregone conclusion. Mr Nazarbayev usually gets over 90% of the vote and it would be astonishing if he didn’t this time as well.

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Astana, Out of the Blue

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th April, 2015

imageWhen I first came to Kazakhstan in the spring of 1994, the newly independent country was in a pretty sorry state. Travelling from Nanjing in China, by train, I’d had to shift from a comfortable Chinese train, with bizarre but usually palatable food to a Russian (i.e. ex-Soviet) alternative, on the opposite side of the platform at the border. The delay involved took hours, and I had been warned by the Chinese that the Kazakh “customs” were extortionate, thieves — so I hid everything if any value deep in my luggage and instead left a BBC-branded pen lying on the table. The ruse worked. The Kazakh officials entered my single compartment and with glee seized on the BBC pen, grinning broadly, their mouths all white and gold, and they then made sure I got another single cabin on the post-Soviet replacement train (which had a wider gauge), to the fury of a down-graded British couple nearby who had not been quite so savvy. Of course, speaking fluent Chinese (then) and rusty Russian (learnt at school) helped. As the train then shuddered across Kazakhstan westwards to Uzbekistan (with a long layover in Almaty, for refuelling) I got the opportunity to experience not only warm, generous Kazakh hospitality but also the reality of their economic desperation. Babushkas, both ethnic Russian and Kazakh, lined the railway track, insistingly trying to sell sweet Soviet “champagne” at $1 a bottle or anything else they had to hand. It was exhilarating, but also tragic. I have been back since, but returning now, 21 years later, to Kazakhstan, the difference is stunning. It’s not just that the per capita GDP has shy-rocketed over the intervening period; Kazakhstan with its oil and gas and mineral riches not unrealistically is aiming to become one if the workd’s top 30 developed nation by 2050 — an extraordinary ambition for a nation of just 17 million people, yet living in a territory bigger than Western Europe. This is a member of the nest generation of BRICS — which is why so many Western countries are investing heavily here. Astutely, the Kazakhs have lifted visa requirements for nationals of potential FDI countries such as the UK. The capital, Astana, developed out of almost nothing since 1997, is thrusting with globally significant buildings by Norman Foster and others. I shan’t say this is paradise, which no country is, least of all in Cental Asia, cann be, but goodness me, it is a place to watch!

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