Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Emma **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th February, 2020

EmmaJane Austen’s novel Emma was a set text in my ‘A’-level English Literature course; as the author intended, doubtless, one half-loved, half-despised, the 20-ish daughter of a devoted but hypochondriac father, Mr Woodhouse, living a life of ease in early 19th century England, with little to worry or vex her. Match-making is her favourite pastime, one of the great delights of Austen’s ironic humour being that Emma is remarkably bad at it, while dismissing any idea of matrimony herself. But matrimony is a very serious business in Austen’s world and period, which means that Autumn de Wilde’s decision essentially to make fun of the whole thing in her film left me feeling uneasy. Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of the eponymous character is itself playful, flirtatious, her father (perfectly pitched by a hesitant, draught-avoiding Bill Nighy) seen by her more as somebody to smile about behind his back rather than an elderly dependent whom she would never leave without her aid. Interestingly, some of the minor characters are most memorably represented in the movie. Mia Goth is a joy as poor, silly Harriet Smith, Emma’s protégée. Tanya Reynolds is similarly impressive as the bitchy Mrs Elton, though her husband, the vicar, is rather taken over the top by Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown). Presumably this was on the director’s advice, and she must be responsible for portraying the schoolgirls as a cross between Margaret Atwood’s hand-maidens and a gaggle of geese. Several of the interior scenes (especially with the servants in the Woodhouse household) are almost slap-stick. Yet some of the external scenes are lyric tableaux. I think it is that imbalance that left me predominantly dissatisfied with the film. Much of it is beautiful and the costumes and houses (far grander than Austen’s originals) are gorgeous. But somehow it leans too much towards 21st century tastes and not enough to a real reflection of the novel’s period.

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My Talisman

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd February, 2020

My TalismanThe great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin has often been poorly served in English translation, which is probably why his star does not shine so bright in British eyes as that of the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. And yet for millions of Russians, past and present, Pushkin is the beating heart and soul of Mother Russia — brilliant, passionate, defiant and ultimately self-destructive. So it is with immense pleasure that I have read Julian Henry Lowenfeld’s book of translations of the poet’s selected verse, with a lengthy and engaging biographical introduction (Elegy Books, £22). As well as being a polyglot Mr Lowenfeld is a poet himself and the verses are thus often a poetic reworking of the original, rather than a literal translation. The rhythm and the spirit of the original is nonetheless impressively preserved and the translations can be read aloud with pleasure. There is much playfulness in the poet’s oeuvre, as well as the highs and lows of love and frustration about physical limitations placed upon him by the Tsar or the authorities. At times he is a bird in a cage that chafes in waiting to be set free, while at others he dreams of Italy and Spain — a romanticised southern Europe that he could never experience in reality. The biographical essay is especially useful for locating Pushkin’s work within a particular time and space, the poet’s emotions at the time frequently illuminated with short quotations from poems. The volume is illustrated throughout with Pushkin’s own charming doodles, which reflect his often impish sense of fun, his scorn of pomposity and his semi-detachment from the beau monde around him. Altogether this is a most attractive companion for anyone who cannot access Pushkin in the original Russian but who wants to sense his genius.

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1917 *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th February, 2020

1917Largely because of recent foreign travels I hadn’t got round to seeing Sam Mendes’s flm 1917 until this evening, but pleasure is often heightened when delayed. “Pleasure” might seem an odd word to use when talking about an epic portrayal of the hell of the First World War trenches and their devastated environs, but the movie is so masterful as to be a riveting and enjoyable experience. Right from the start one is immersed in the mud and squalour of the front line and quickly becomes desensitised to the sight of huddled, exhausted soldiers trying to rest, corpses in various stages of decomposition and black rats in large numbers. Brilliant cinematography gives the viewer the impression of following in one immense long take the lonely and dangerous journey of two young men tasked with carrying a vital message across the German lines to endangered British forces beyond. One becomes completely enveloped by their sense of urgency mixed with moments of despair as they confront an explosive series of challenges. Lance Corporal Schofield (played by George MacKay), as the one who must carry on alone when his companion is killed, has a haunting face, half-uncomprehending, half-resigned, almost shell-shocked from the horror and carnage around him, but driven to accomplish his mission. MacKay’s performance is unforgettable, but the whole film is an astonishing achievement: raw, unflinching and yet suffused with a contradictory sense of humanity and camaraderie that somehow survive the senseless buffeting of the War.

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Azerbaijan Goes to the Polls

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th February, 2020

E7EE3843-AB8B-47AD-B86E-131B745A4D4AToday voters in Azerbaijan are electing a new parliament in snap elections, brought forward from their scheduled date of November. The move was at the behest of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) and approved by President Ilham Aliyev late last year. The idea, officially, is to bring new blood into the Milli Majlis (National Assembly) in order to further an ambitious programme of economic and political reforms in the oil and gas-rich republic. Around 1,300 candidates are in the running to be MPs for a total of 125 constituencies. Almost 20 political parties are fielding candidates, though YAP has far more than any other, but in fact a large majority of candidates are standing as independents. Polling stations — many in schools, as in the UK — are open from 8am to 7pm and part of my job as an international election observer is to see how orderly and transparent the voting process there is. There are over 800 of us observers from abroad, many representing organisations such as the OSCE, the CIS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

408AC44C-B093-4D6B-8427-10A1E73BEA0AThere are foreign parliamentarians, too, including one British Tory MP and a Labour peer. I’m part of the media corps. I have to say that compared with elections in Turkey, for example, the process here in Baku is extremely well-organised and calmly efficient. There has been a good steady trickle of voters this morning, despite the bitter wind (snow has so far held off). The polling clerks and presiding officers could not have been more welcoming and helpful, and unlike elections in my home borough of Tower Hamlets in London there was no need for a noticeable police presence outside the polling stations. One marked contrast with other election situations I have monitored, including in Kazakhstan, is that there are literally thousands of local election observers, some representing parties, others NGOs and so forth, quietly sitting in a line behind tables inside the polling stations, watching what is going on. The President of the Central Electoral Commission last night gave a detailed explanation of the proceedings to the assembled local and international media. Later tonight there will be a press conference to assess how the day has gone, though results will not be available for some hours. One detail from last night’s presser which tickled me was that, in keeping with the South Caucasus’s reputation for longevity, the oldest registered voter is a woman reportedly 126 years old. What extraordinary changes she will have witnessed during the course of a life straddling three centuries!

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Back in Baku

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 8th February, 2020

6CD508CA-6105-4DE0-8CD2-DAAA28284A03It’s 10 years since I was last in Azerbaijan and it is fascinating to see how much the capital city, Baku, has changed. Lots of new buildings, of course, including a flower-like shopping centre under construction just next to the (new and magnificent) carpet museum. But both the fin-de-siecle edifices put up during the first oil boom more than a century ago and the historic old town are in much better nick than in 2010, and everywhere is fantastically clean and tidy (London take note!). The traffic is much heavier (and sometimes drives alarmingly fast!). But walking along the corniche on the banks of the Caspian Sea is a delight, especially when the weather is unseasonably warm, as it was yesterday — 18 degrees, though it is predicted to snow tomorrow. That’s unfortunate, as voters go to the polls in parliamentary elections then. I’m here as an election monitor and am keen to see how recent political reforms in Azerbaijan are panning out in practice. The Azeris are a handsome, proud and hospitable people; in the old Soviet Union it used to annoy me how rude some Russians were about them. And the country has clearly been investing a good part of its hydrocarbons wealth in improving the lives of local people, certainly in the capital, at least. It will be interesting one day to travel to the interior to see how things are in rural areas.

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Chris Patten on Hong Kong

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 3rd February, 2020

Alistair Carmichael and Chris PattenThis evening I was at Central Hall Westminster to hear Chris Patten deliver the inaugural Paddy Ashdown memorial lecture on Hong Kong, under the auspices of the human rights NGO Hong Kong Watch. As the last Governor of the colony, and a distinctly liberal Tory, Lord Patten could hardly have been bettered as a speaker. He has continued to follow events in Hong Kong closely and gave a very cogent appraisal of the current situation there, where a certain political impasse has led to a minority of protesters adopting violent techniques, which he does not endorse, though he understands why some firebrands have lost patience. He was highly critical of the Hong Kong Chief Executive. Carrie Lam, but even more so of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he said rightly does not share the sort of values that have underpinned the rules-based order that has dominated much of the international scene since the Second World War. It is important to note that dissent within the People’s Republic has been stomped on, as well as in Hong Kong, and oppression of the Uyghurs and their culture in Xinjiang is serious.

Chris Patten clearly wasn’t very happy about Huawei getting an entrée into the UK’s 5G development, either. It would have been interesting to know what the late Paddy Ashdown would have thought of that. He was passionately interested in defending the rights of Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas (BNOs), believing Britain had a duty to welcome them as immigrants if necessary. He learned Mandarin Chinese as part of his military training and we used to chat in it sometimes when we wanted to make some indiscreet remark in a crowded room. As Alistair Carmichael MP — Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons and Master of Ceremonies for this evening’s lecture — recalled, Paddy was not always the easiest person to work with, not just because of his great energy but also because when he thought he was right he ploughed on in the direction he had chosen regardless. That was my experience of Paddy as Party Leader, too, but I was very fond of him and I think he would be proud to know that this new memorial lecture series has been established in his honour on a subject dear to his heart.

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Brexit Blues

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 1st February, 2020

Brexit DaySo it has finally happened. At 2300 GMT last night Britain formally left the European Union. There will now be an 11-month transition period during which we still follow EU rules and regulations before properly striking out on our own, though I would not be surprised if that transition period were extended, despite what Boris Johnson says. I just can’t see how a functioning trade agreement with the EU can be worked out in such a short period of time. Meanwhile, like millions of other people in this country, I feel a great deal of sadness, tinged with anger. The anger is over losing my EU citizenship and associated benefits, including freedom of movement and the EHIC card. And the sadness is at Britain’s stupidity of discarding its place in the world’s biggest trading block in the pursuit of a spurious “independence”, fuelled by an unpleasant degree of nationalism and xenophobia. A crowd of Brexiteers gathered in Parliament Square to mark the Brexit hour, addressed by a grinning Nigel Farage. From various vox pops taken among them by the BBC it was clear that most of them had no clue what the EU actually is or does and how the UK has benefited from membership. For nearly half a century, successive UK governments failed to explain the reality, while a whole raft of newspapers spewed out Eurosceptic bile and lies. Boris Johnson was himself one of the culprits in that torrent of media disinformation and now he has the challenge of proving that unicorns really exist. Meanwhile I would quite understand if Scotland and Northern Ireland manoeuvre themselves towards independence/union with the Republic of Ireland. God help the rump England and Wales after that. But I suspect the UK may consider rejoining the EU before that happens. I just hope I am still around to witness that.

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The Personal History of David Copperfield ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th January, 2020

The Personal History of David CopperfieldOne would expect the director of Death of Stalin to have his own particular reading of Charles Dickens, and in that Armando Iannucci does not disappoint, in The Personal History of David Copperfield. As in the book, the central character is confronted with the good, the bad and the ugly in society, refusing to have his buoyant personality crushed. Iannucci’s rendition is singularly jolly with some slapstick moments, such as Aunt Betsy Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) knocking trespassers off their donkeys, though I did not find the film “riotously funny” as some others reviewers have. It stands proud largely because of the deft performance and multiple facial expressions of Dev Patel as the amiable young man David, but he is backed up with sterling support from Hugh Laurie as the dotty and delusional Mr Dick and an extremely creepy Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep. A high percentage of other performers are Asian or Afro-Caribbean; this really is effective, colour-blind casting. Dickens’s own characters are so memorable in their peculiarities that the actors are probably justified in exaggerating their foibles. Purists might protest that one or another isn’t how they imagined their favourite character to be. But the whole thing hangs together well and offers one of the most pleasant two-hour cinema sessions currently available.

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Little Women ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th January, 2020

Little WomenLouisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1868) is not just an American classic but one of the most memorable English-language novels of millions of people’s childhood. It certainly was of mine. And even though I have never re-read it, the portrayal of the four March sisters — each with her own distinct character — at home with their loving and lovable mother in New England while Father is away serving as a pastor ministering to soldiers in the Civil War (on the Union side) has remained vivid and alive in my mind. This was particularly true of the tomboy Jo, who aspires to be a writer and was clearly Ms Alcott’s favourite, too. Katharine Hepburn played her memorably in boisterous and gauche fashion in George Cukor’s 1933 screen adaption of the book. But in Greta Gerwig’s recently released version, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo largely internalises her frustrations with convention and her passionate creative urge and is profoundly more credible. Her performance is one of the best things about the film, which is physically beautiful and avoids the twee romanticism of many period costume dramas, even though love is one of the core themes of the story, along with sisterhood and individualism.

Louisa May Alcott’s novel is strongly auto-biographical and Greta Gerwig plays with that fact by merging the character of Jo with the author of the book, which ‘Jo’ succeeds in getting published at the end. The director creatively moves the story back and forth across time as well, though this runs the risk of leaving some viewers a little confused until they realise what is happening. Other liberties (artistic licence) include the replacement of the earnest German Professor Bhaer, whom Jo marries towards the end of the novel, with a fiendishly handsome young Frenchman. However, most of the other characters are fairly faithful to the book and Meryl Streep clearly has huge fun in her cameo role as the sisters’ rich and grumpy Aunt March.

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Sir John Curtice at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 16th January, 2020

25673522-9B64-4F9A-9BF4-2D07A7BB582EI was pleased to have a last-minute opportunity to attend a presentation last night at the National Liberal Club by academic and TV election pundit Sir John Curtice (a long-standing member of the Club) on The 2019 Election: A Tale of Hope and Disappointment. One might correctly guess from the title that the talk was particularly focussed on the Liberal Democrats’ less than optimal performance last month. Far from taking off during the campaign — which was the case in several previous general elections, thanks largely to a higher media profile — the LibDems actually lost nearly half of their opinion poll percentage as the weeks went by. Certainly some of the Remain-leaning Conservatives who lent the LibDems their vote in May’s European elections, not least in Greater London, went running back to Boris Johnson, despite Brexit, out of (unnecessary) fear of a possible Jeremy Corbyn government. Many commentators at the time also attributed the fall in LibDem support to (1) Jo Swinson’s call to Revoke Article 50, rather than pitching wholeheartedly for a second EU Referendum, and (2) her claim to be a potential PM in waiting, despite the modest number of LibDem MPs (albeit supplemented by both Labour and Conservative defections). However, Professor Curtice said polling, notably from YouGov, did not support that assumption. Instead, he highlighted three conclusions about the election result based on his research:

1) It was not clear that the decision to back revoking Article 50 without a referendum was electorally costly;

2) Jo Swinson failed to make a favourable impression on voters and thus provide a point of attraction in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn;

3) The Party failed to communicate what a “brighter future” for Britain might entail.

Other points from John Curtice’s brilliant presentation which particularly struck me were that the Liberal Democrats drew most of their support from the educated middle class, but unlike the other parties had an almost equal level of support across all age groups.

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