Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Remembering David Damant

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th August, 2020

David DamantDavid Cyril Damant, who died suddenly this week, at the age of 83, was a figure straight out of a Moliere play, with the girth to match. Born in Rhyl, North Wales, on 15 March 1937, he shed all traces of Welshness, graduating from Cambridge University with a 2:1 in Logic. He did his National Service with the Royal Air Force (1955-1957) and liked to be thought of as pukka. His style was grandiose, accompanied by broad gestures, but behind the posh facade was a kindly and at times insecure figure, who towards the end of his life was certainly,living beyond his means. You would not realise that on meeting him, however, with his rich tales of working in Russia, hobnobbing with oligarchs, of extravagant meals and foreign trips. A keen European, he was a generous host, most especially to younger admirers from all corners of the former British Empire. Although he adopted the pose of an arch-reactionary, decrying Britain’s adoption of universal suffrage, among other things, in fact he was a liberal at heart, not least on social issues. His financial credentials were real. He was a Fellow of the Institute of Investment Management and Research, a member of its council 1964-1983, and Chairman 1980-1982. He went on to join the European Federation of Finance Analysts Societies, assuming its presidency in 1995. Subsequently, he operated as an Independent Accounting Professional, though one fears he never took his own advice. For a while he had a blog, though in recent years he rarely posted. Instead, he would regularly add comments to other people’s, including my own, usually as a caricature of a fuddy duddy  stick-in-the-mud. But his real personality was anything but. He was flamboyant and not afraid of being known as a member of the Gay Professional Network. He had a deep interest in music and helped organise entertainments at that den of thespians, the Garrick Club. Even when he had to flee expensive London for genteel but cheaper Bath he remained an avid member of the Garrick, the Beefsteak, the Royal Air Force Club and the City of London Club. Though he was sometimes the subject of ribald comments at some of these, he was much loved and will be missed.

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Dangerous Liaisons (1988) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th August, 2020

Dangerous LiaisonsGossip and flirting were major occupations for French aristocracy in the 18th century, but in the case of the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) — erstwhile lovers who enjoy playing the field and recounting their exploits — ennui is temporarily banished by a wicked wager about whether the Vicomte will succeed in seducing a respectable, religious married woman, the prize being that the Marquise will allow him back into her own bed if he manages it. With chilling callousness they play with other people’s lives and emotions, seemingly heartless and yet both vulnerable to the pains of love behind their chilling facades. This unsettling tale from a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, exquisitely dramatised by playwright Christopher Hampton (who also wrote the screenplay for the film), is set in the salons of some of France’s most exquisite chateaux, much of it by candlelight. Director Stephen Frears really gorges on the beauty of it all, including the main characters’ wonderful and ever-changing wardrobes, in stark contrast to the tawdriness of their morals. This makes Dangerous Liaisons (available on BBC iPlayer till the end of the month) a visual feast, with a lovely and appropriate musical soundtrack. One senses that things can only end badly, but not before the mischievous couple have created mayhem. Once one has got over the shock of hearing French aristocrats speak with American accents and cadence (particularly unnerving in the case of John Malkovich), one can surrender to the power of a wicked story, beautifully told. The action occurs just before the French Revolution, which is never mentioned — but one feels it cannot come a moment too soon.

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The Land Drenched in Tears

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 5th August, 2020

The Land Drenched in TearsHuman rights abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have been highlighted in UK media in recent weeks, but the phenomenon is hardly new. In fact, ever since the Chinese Communist Party gained power in 1949 the government in Beijing has sought to colonise this “New Frontier” with Han Chinese and to suppress Turkic culture and Islamic beliefs. The parallels with Tibet are obvious, but whereas Tibet has received a huge amount of international attention — notably since the Dalai Lama and many of his followers fled abroad in 1959 — Xinjiang remained largely ignored. I travelled there in 1994 and again in 2013, startled and dismayed by the intensification of the sinicisation process that had occurred over the intervening two decades. But until I read Söyüngül Chanisheff’s The Land Drenched in Tears (Hertfordshire Press, £24.50), I had not realised the true horror of much of the suffering of local peoples for more than half a century. Chanisheff is Tatar, and trained in medical school where she became involved in a youthful cell campaigning for an independent “East Turkestan”. This led to her imprisonment and subsequently long years of slave labour in the countryside under a surveillance regime that deprived her of her civil rights and made her an easy target for the bullies and sadists that arise in such totalitarian situations like flies around a dung heap. Her privations were soul-destroying, especially in the extreme heat of summer and extreme cold of winter, malnourished, often beaten and even more frequently paraded before baying mobs as a “class enemy”.

XinjiangWhen the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 things went from bad to worse. She witnessed so much cruelty and torture and many killings, as well as listening to heart-breaking testimony from others. This is all set down in the nearly 400 pages of her book (translated from Uyghur by Rahima Mahmut), the catalogue of misery and inhumanity so searing that I found I could only read a few passages at a time. The forced evacuation of Muslim residents from cities in the region so Han Chinese could move in; the desecration of mosques and burning of Korans; infanticide in maternity hospitals where nurses were instructed to kill at least one baby a day or face the consequences. This is grim but essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what has happened in that remote region of the world. Fortunately the book does have a personally happier ending for the author, as despite her “criminal record” she found a suitable man to marry and started a family, later seizing the opportunity to emigrate to Australia. The title of Söyüngül Chanisheff’s memoir may sound melodramatic, but actually it is an understatement.

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Michael Cashman at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 31st July, 2020

Michael Cashman at the NLCThe National Liberal Club held its first post-lockdown event in situ last night, chaired by Val Stansfield, when actor and Crossbench peer Michael Cashman came to speak about his life and his recently published memoir One of Them (which I will soon be reviewing). A small group of us sat with him socially distanced in the Dadabhai Naoroji Room while others joined the event via Zoom. Lord Cashman — who is almost my exact contemporary — grew up in Limehouse near the River Thames in a working class family and never got any O-levels. Instead, he became a child actor, notably as one of Fagin’s Boys in Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! He realised at an early age that he was gay and was introduced to the underground club scene in Soho when homosexuality was still illegal. A sense of outrage at the injustice of such discrimination, especially over the Thatcher government’s notorious Section 28 in 1988 banning local authorities from “intentionally promoting” homosexuality, fired him into political action. He was one of the founders of the campaign group Stonewall the following year. He played one of the characters in the BBC’s popular soap opera Eastenders, sending the right wing homophobe Press into overdrive by giving the show’s first ever gay kiss — actually, just a peck on the forehead. He became increasingly involved in Labour Party politics and was successfully elected as an MEP for the West Midlands (1999-2014) being a spokesman on human rights and working on the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. In 2014 he was made a life peer, but he later left Labour over Jeremy Corbyn. He is now living back in Limehouse, though that is a very different place today from what it was half a century ago. After the talk and Q&A some of us were able to eat a delicious summer salmon supper on the NLC’s magnificent terrace overlooking the Thames, savouring the balmy evening.

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The Shining (1980) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th July, 2020

The Shining 1It’s startling to realise that it is 40 years since Stanley Kubrick’s psychological horror movie The Shining (based on a novel by Stephen King and available on BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks) first came out, but unlike some of its contemporaries it has aged well. Much of the credit naturally goes to the actors: Jack Nicholson as an unsuccessful writer who goes out of his mind while working as the winter caretaker at a mountain-top hotel that is closed for the season, Shelley Duvall as his not very bright wife who has no idea how to cope with the disintegrating world around her, and Danny Lloyd as their little boy Danny who speaks to his secret friend Tony as a dimension of his extrasensory powers and uncovers some of the building’s hideous secrets as he races down its empty corridors on his little plastic tricycle. Kubrick brilliantly uses the cavernous building, with its hideous décor, to dramatic effect. Rarely has an avocado bathroom seemed so threatening. But the hotel is not just outdated; some of its violent history is still present behind the scenes, harking back as far as the 1920s and a terrible crime that risks being re-enacted.

The Shining 2 Most horror films require a high degree of suspension of disbelief, but the story-telling and its visualisation are so compelling in The Shining that one does indeed accept the rationally unlikely as tension mounts. The soundtrack is exceptional, not just the music but details such as the different noise the child’s tricycle makes when riding over carpet or over wood. Though nearly two-and-a-half hours long the film is gripping throughout, as one becomes trapped alongside the dysfunctional little family and the ghosts of the past in a nightmare world in which the shocks appear at an increased pace. Some of the moments are truly unforgettable. Those who have seen the film before may welcome the opportunity of rediscovering it. Those who have never seen it are in for a rare treat.

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Arabs in the UK

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th July, 2020

BBC Arabic documentaryAccording to the 2011 census there were almost exactly 250,000 Arabs in the UK, though I suspect that when next year’s census data are gathered that figure will rise significantly. So much has happened across the Middle East and North Africa over the past decade, causing large numbers of Arabs displaced by conflict or political persecution to seek a safe haven in Europe. London is a particular centre of the Arab community. Some, like the Moroccans in North Kensington, have been there for a long time. Many others arrived much more recently. Arabs are active in a wide range of occupations in the capital, with an especially high presence in the fields of health and hospitality. It was thus inevitable that the community would be hit by the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, the first three NHS doctors to die from the virus was from Sudan and Iraq. But what most Brits are probably totally unaware of is how many Arabs rallied round to help the wider community, with some restaurants turned into food distribution centres, others delivering meals to hospital staff, not just during Ramadan. These, as well as a bus driver and a pianist, feature in a brilliant and moving documentary for BBC Arabic TV made by Iraqi Kurd Namak Khoshnaw, which was the subject of an online discussion hosted by CAABU (the Centre for Arab British Understanding) this afternoon. It’s a story of tensions and risk assessment as well as of bravery and remarkable goodwill. It’s a world away from the flash cars of visiting Gulf Arabs racing round the streets of Knightsbridge in normal summers. But then this is no normal summer. And the hour-long documentary (in Arabic, but with English subtitles that can be turned on) serves as a remarkable testimony to these abnormal times.

Link to the programme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4q4JumHCKz8&feature=youtu.be

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Siobhan Benita Stands Aside

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th July, 2020

Siobhan Benita Trafalgar SquareMany London Liberal Democrats will have been saddened this morning to receive an email from Mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita saying that she is regretfully standing aside. The election for London Mayor should have happened this May, but was postponed along with votes for the London Assembly and other local and regional elections round the country. The elections have been rescheduled for next May, which would mean another 10 months of campaigning on top of all the time and effort Siobhan has already put in — all unpaid, of course. As I know from my own experience as a serial Euro-candidate, standing for election is a costly business and, contrary to popular opinion, candidates do not usually receive any financial help from their party. Siobhan has been extraordinarily hard-working, supporting local party activities around the capital as well as taking a stand on many issues of concern to Londoners. But it is a sad fact that the messaging of kindness and “Love London Better” just wasn’t cutting through. The regional party is rightly having a serious rethink about what sort of campaign and messages will resonate as we all still struggle with the health and economic effects of COVID-19. When a new candidate is selected, he or she will of course be working alongside a new Party Leader (the result of that contest will be known next month). That is going to be quite an exciting challenge. London is a liberal city (and indeed voted decisively for the Liberal Democrats in last year’s European elections), not least because of its multiculturalism. A dynamic Mayoral campaign with messages that inspire Londoners will be needed if the Party is to capitalise on the city’s liberalism. I believe Siobhan would have been a super Mayor for London had things worked out differently. She deserves an enormous round of applause for everything she has done.

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Images of Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th July, 2020

Baghdad Al Rasheed StreetWatching the superb and at times harrowing five-part BBC documentary series Once upon a Time in Iraq this week has aroused many memories and emotions in me, as the country has repeatedly been a feature of my life for the past half century. Iraq was the first Arab country I visited, in the late summer of 1969, on my way back overland from the Vietnam War (as recounted in my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes). I arrived on an overnight bus from Tehran, wandered through the collonades of Al Rasheed Street, smiled at the red London double decker buses and slept on the roof along with everyone else escaping the heat. By the time Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, in 1990-1991, I was working at BBC World Service radio at Bush House and for weeks did night shifts, putting together packages for the various language services based on material sent in by correspondents in the field.

Baghdad Al Rasheed HotelI was inspired by Charles Kennedy’s principled stand against the Iraq War and took part in the million person march in London against Tony Blair’s decision to go with George W Bush into War in 2003, though I was actually in Casablanca at a Liberal International event when the bombing of Baghdad started in earnest. Young Moroccans in the street were angry about it, and so was I, watching it all unfurl on CNN. I didn’t get back to the country itself until ten years later, however, when I was invited to Baghdad for an Arab League event on Palestine. It was eerie sitting in one of the main rooms of what had been Saddam Hussein’s palace under a rather kitsch ceiling painting of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Like most Western journalists I was put up in the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone, a soulless modern edifice whose vast grounds featured a frustratingly empty swimming pool.

MosulLater I had the chance to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan, too, to savour the historic splendour of the old citadel of Erbil but also to visit the chamber of horrors that was the Red House, the Mukhabarat security service’s interrogation centre and prison in Sulaymaniyah, as well as the scene of Saddam’s chemical attack on Kurdish civilians in Halabja. There is graphic footage of the brutality of the Ba’athist regime in Once upon a Time in Iraq, but in many ways what happened after the Americans overthrew him turned out to be much worse, through sectarian civil war and then the rise and fall of first Al Qaeda in Iraq and subsequently Islamic State. Some of the testimonies in the documentary series are likely to stay in my mind for the rest of my life; so much suffering and sadness, but also remarkable bravery. At times there was a jolt of recognition as shots showed places I remembered, though many, like Al Rasheed Street, were comprehensively trashed in fighting. The major ISIS stronghold Mosul, which still contained significant elements of Ottoman heritage when they took over, was literally obliterated in the fight to crush them. Yet still peace and security are elusive in Iraq, no longer what it was or what it might have been.

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The Lantern

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd July, 2020

The LanternGeorge W Bush famously hoped to export Western-style democracy to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, though many of us who had been covering the region as journalists or academics for years believed that notion to be unrealistic, even misguided. That was true after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and just as much so when the so-called Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. Egypt never was going to be another Sweden or Great Britain. And why should it? Surely each country — and perhaps region — devises its own political system people see as best suited to its needs, though of course that has often led to various forms of despotism in the hands of hereditary rulers or dictators who have seized power by force. But can one nonetheless apply concepts and principles from Western political science to countries in the MENA region? That is the intriguing premise of Ayman Aborabh’s book The Lantern: Political Philosophy and the Arab Spring (Matador, £13.99), which shines a light on the political experiences of various countries in the MENA region, not least in Egypt, through the prism of Western political concepts.

At the beginning of most chapters there is a sort of neo-Socratic dialogue between an Arab Everyman, Aam Araby, and a political activist, Harara (named after a brave dentist who went out into the streets in Cairo during the 2011 demonstrations and was blinded by action by the security forces), where some pertinent questions are debated, but I found the main body of the text much more substantial, interestingly pitting the ideas of Hobbes, Mill, Kant and many more into the MENA cauldron. It is a valuable and frankly unique exercise, demonstrating a good understanding of aspects of Western political theory but expressed in a way that is entirely accessible to the non-specialist. Ayman Aborabh is a vlogger and active on social media, in Arabic and English, so certainly worth following for anyone with an interest in the region.

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In Defence of Experts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2020

Anthony Fauci and Donald TrumpIn the run-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, declared that “we have had enough of experts”. That argument unfortunately helped carry the day as millions of voters ignored the warnings from economists about the likely negative consequences of Brexit — and will soon have to live with them. The prejudice against experts also featured in the successful campaign by Donald Trump to become the 45th President of the United States. Indeed he took this philistinism up to another level, denying truths and propagating his own “alternative facts”. That willful amateurism may still resonate with much of Trump’s base, but in the age of coronavirus it is increasingly obvious that whereas populists may feel empowered by the conviction that anything they believe in must be true nonetheless scientific fact must take precedence. We see this acted out most starkly in the way that NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has resolutely offered a scientific counter-narrative to the President’s fantastic ramblings about COVID-19. This clearly irritates expert-phobes like Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, but large swaths of the population in the Americas do seem to be preferring facts over fantasies when their own lives are at stake.

Boris Johnson and Dominic CummingsHere in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose own statements about the best way to react to the pandemic have been confusing and at times plain misguided — still enjoys the vocal support of a claque of loyalist Ministers who are regularly trotted out to defend him when he makes a gaffe, or even to promote disinformation. For example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock the other day blithely stated that the coronavirus lockdown in Britain had started on 16 March when it self-evidently began a week later, when Boris Johnson went on TV to announce it. UK opinion polls suggest some of the shine is coming off the Johnson government, but there are still significant numbers of voters who are prepared to swallow his disinformation and outright lies. Moreover, the PM’s eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is carrying out a frontal assault on the civil service because civil servants do acquire expertise and act on facts rather than ideology. In this ongoing battle, on both sides of the Atlantic, one can only hope that the experts prevail.

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