Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Happy 150th Birthday, Robbie Ross!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th May, 2019

Edwin Thomas, Gyles Brandreth, JF“A real friend,” declared the American gossip columnist Walter Winchell, “is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” That statement perfectly encapsulates Robert Baldwin Ross, erstwhile lover and devoted friend and literary executor to Oscar Wilde as well as mentor to several younger writers, including the First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Last night, in the gorgeous ballroom of the Savile Club in Mayfair, members of the club and of the Oscar Wilde Society gathered to celebrate Robbie Ross’s 150th birthday, which falls today. The club Chairman, Robert Harding, spoke of Robbie’s short tenure at the Savile (at that time based on Piccadilly), as well as of Oscar Wilde’s failed attempt to join. The actor Edwin Thomas, who played Robbie in Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince, read the speech that Robbie had himself given at a huge dinner at the Ritz Hotel in 1908, when Wilde’s creditors had all been paid off (largely thanks to German interest in his work). The chef at the Savile recreated deliciously much of the menu of that event over a hundred years ago. I gave the after-dinner speech highlighting Robbie and the value of friendship. Gyles Brandreth was the Master of Ceremonies.

Robbie Ross cover 1Ross was born in Tours, France, on 25 May, 1869, but moved to London with his widowed mother and siblings while still a child. He was precocious and cheeky and remarkably confident in his own sexuality; at age 17 while a house guest he seduced Oscar Wilde. Later he was friends with Oscar’s passion, Lord Alfred Douglas, until they had a terrible falling-out. “Bosie” Douglas then persecuted Robbie for years, the stress undermining Robbie’s already weak constitution. For several years he had rooms in an extraordinary establishment run by Nellie Burton at 40 Half Moon Street, Shepherd’s Market — a haven for bachelor men of letters. It was there (and at the Reform Club) that Robbie entertained Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others. I wrote about all this in my biography, Robbie Ross, which is still available in paperback and as an ebook:    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Robbie-Ross-Oscar-Wildes-true-ebook/dp/B00J2SR9DM/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=Jonathan+Fryer&qid=1558766955&s=digital-text&sr=1-4

 

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The Putney and Wandsworth Euro-Hustings

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th May, 2019

Wandsworth hustingsThough this month’s European elections were organised in great haste in the UK (and through gritted teeth by the Conservative government), an admirable number of public hustings has been taking place round London, including one last night at St. Anne’s Church in Wandsworth, in which I took part. It was set up by the Putney and Wandsworth Societies and attracted about 100 members of the public, which was encouraging given the short notice. In fact there is far more interest in this set of European elections than ever before (and I can say that having stood in all but one of them!), to an extent becoming a sort of new referendum on whether Brits want to stay in the EU of not. Recent opinion polls confirm what I have been finding on the doorstep, namely that the electorate is polarising towards either Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party or to the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats (and to a lesser extent the Greens).

There was no Brexit candidate at last night’s hustings, bizarrely, though they were invited; maybe they knew they would get a frosty reception in such a pro-Remain part of the capital. However, UKIP was represented by Freddy Vachha, one of the more politely eccentric members of his party; he caused the biggest laugh of the evening by describing the Conservatives as neo-Marxist! The Conservatives had Scott Pattenden from Bromley, who had to counter some quite pointed questioning about Theresa May, David Cameron and the Brexit mess. The Greens were represented by Gulnar Hasnain, who adopted the line that the Greens are the largest pro-EU UK party in the outgoing European Parliament (true for 2014-2019, though that is unlikely to be the case after 23 May). ChangeUK’s candidate was Hasseeb Ur-Rehman, who essentially read a quite detailed policy paper in his allotted four minutes. Labour, naughtily sent not a Euro-candidate but the PPC for Putney, Fleur Anderson, which earned a rebuke from a Labour Party member in the audience. Fleur maintained that Labour is a Remain Party because the two leading MEP candidates are, but the audience wasn’t going to let that pass without adverse comment about Jeremy Corbyn and Lexit. I had a fairly easy ride as a LibDem, though inevitably came under fire from the small number of UKIP or Brexit Party supporters in the church, demanding to know why I was neither Liberal nor a Democrat by calling for a People’s Vote when there had already been a referendum in 2016. It was clear from the majority voices in the room, however, that a People’s Vote was a popular option for this audience, with a heavy preponderance of Remain.

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How Not to Go to War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th May, 2019

How Not to Go to WarWith tensions rising in various parts of the world and forceful leaders in power in China, Russia and the US, we are right to be concerned about things boiling over into global conflict (and on more local levels, not least in the Middle East, such conflicts are ongoing). Moreover, with global warming and desertification taking a hold over large areas of our precarious planet, the possibility of water wars and other disputes over resources rises as we head to what otherwise risks becoming auto-destruction. But is war inevitable? Vijay Mehta, veteran peace campaigner and author, argues in his latest book, How Not to Go to War (Catapult, £9.99), that it is not. He makes the valid point — proved by historical evidence — that making war is part of the male psyche (Margaret Thatcher being the exception that proves the rule), so by addressing issues of postmodern masculinity one might be able to challenge conflict as a default option. But new technologies also mean that we really should be terrified at the prospects of any Third World War. The annihilation that would be brought about nuclear weapons in a war has long been known, but nuclear deterrence (MAD — mutually assured destruction) may not necessarily guarantee a no-use situation forever. Safer to get rid of the lot of them, as well as more “moral”. Mehta does of course take moral positions, but the strength of this book is in the practical details, for example how establishing Departments of Peace and Peace Centres worldwide could reduce tensions and pomote understanding. There are extensive appendices describing various countries’ experience in setting these up — they are not theoretical pie in the sky — such as Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Nepal. But the section that struck me most covers the development of miniature drones programmed by AI to target individuals or types of people discriminately. The image of swarms of these insect-like devices coming in through the window is absolutely chilling. No, let’s try and make Peace work instead!

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The UK Local Elections Verdict

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th May, 2019

F5FF8AE5-5C6A-4797-B8A2-8AE9528248B4Now that the dust has settled on this week’s local elections In England — the biggest set of such elections since 2015, though not including London and various other cities and counties — the spin doctors of both the Conservative and Labour parties are in overdrive, bizarrely both pitching the same message that the massive gains by the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and substantial wins for the equally anti-Brexit Greens are somehow a sign that the public just wants the government to “get on” with Brexit — an aim shared by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, despite the fact that Labour has registered a net loss of nearly 100 seats at a time when the worst government in living memory is staggering from one crisis and embarrassment to the next. Some noble Conservative and Labour MPs have bravely defied their masters and declared that this is tosh — some in far more rigorous terms than that. Others have parroted the official line.

30B377CD-DEBD-4E9C-856D-7A48E234FC92Nonetheless, as I tweeted earlier, this is an Orwellian misrepresentation of facts more reminiscent of the former Soviet Union than of a mature parliamentary democracy.  Such is the sorry state of political discourse in Britain since the 2016 EU Referendum. In that Referendum, tainted by some very dodgy campaigning and funding, Leave beat Remain by about 52:48. But the latest opinion poll out suggests that were such a referendum to be held today, Remain would get 61%. In the meantime the country is bitterly divided and Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party will ensure that the political temperature is kept at boiling point. However, European elections loom on 23 May, and although Mr Farage will probably mop up previous UKIP voters and numerous right-wing Tories, both the Conservatives and Labour are likely to lose seats to pro-Remain parties. Will Mrs May and Mr Corbyn listen then? We must make them listen!

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11th London Diplomat of the Year Awards

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th April, 2019

3D20EDF9-8D9B-4C61-AA2A-CFC139A2AFB6The London diplomatic corps was out in force this evening at the Carlton Towers Hotel in Belgravia for the 11th annual Diplomat of the Year Awards, organised by Diplomat magazine. The publication has actually been going for more than 70 years, and I have written for it on occasions in the past, but the awards ceremony has taken it to new levels. The awards, based on voting by diplomats themselves, are an occasion to celebrate the achievements of colleagues. And rather as in international football tournaments, supporters from each region come out in force to cheer the winners. Appropriately this year the new partnership with the charity Football Diplomacy was highlighted. This helps give opportunities for divided or opposing communities to come together through sport to help engender mutual understanding and peace. The main awards tonight, given on a regional basis, were won by the Ambassadors of Afghanistan, Cuba, Finland, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, the UAE and Uruguay. Honourable mention, as always, deservedly, for the doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, Khaled Al-Duwaisan, Ambassador of Kuwait, who has been in post for an astonishing 26 years.

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Iran, Islam and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd April, 2019

Iran-Islam-and-Democracy--653x1024Contemporary Iran is much maligned and little understood in the West, especially in Washington, where the Trump administration (like several of its predeccessors) views Iran as the devil incarnate. Of course, the Islamic Republic returns the compliment by frequently calling the United States the Great Satan. Each country has good reason to object to some aspects of the society and government found in the other. Yet international relations would be much smoother, and the world safer, if both made a greater effort to work out what makes the other tick. Hence the great value of Ali M. Ansari’s monumental Iran, Islam and Democracy (Gingko, £30/$44.95). Through his close examination of the leadership records of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani in particular, the author presents a penetrating view of the complexities and tensions within Iranian politics, far different from the two-dimensional picture proffered by Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very name “Islamic Republic” illustrates a contradiction at the heart of the system in Iran. Republics — particularly those influenced by French or indeed American revolutionary thought — are inherently bottom-up societies in the sense that ultimate authority derives from the people. But religious societies in contrast are usually top-down. For much of Iran’s history a patrimonial shah or king was in charge, with a firm hand on the driving wheel, and even after the last shah was overthrown in 1979, a new top-down type of authority was imposed, by the Ayatollah Khomeini and since his death, Ayatollah Khamenei. This new authority has the added status of being in principle God-given and it is significant that the spritual Leader of Iran takes precedence over the elected President, even when the latter has clearly been the Leader’s intellectual superior (not something one could say about Ahmadinejad).

There is an ongoing dialectic between conservatives and reformists within Iranian society and one of the most stimulating parts of this significant book is an extended examination of the record of and expectations regarding the comparatively “liberal” Mohammad Khatami (previously published as a separate volume, now supplemented with addiitional and more recent texts). Just as conservatives in the country’s religious hierarchy sometimes exaggerate the “threat” of reformist politicians and intellectuals — periodicaly leading to the closure of allegedly offensive newspapers and magazines — so the West has often put undue faith in the ability of reformists and in particular the Green Movement to affect rapid change. Things move slowly in Iran, where the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 still rankles. But even revolutions evolve with time. And it seems clear that if the outside world wants Iran to become more “normal” in its internal and external behaviour, then engagement rather than confonrtation is likely to produce better results.

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Doubles Vies****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th April, 2019

440AF66A-7874-437A-949D-6DFFA0D8994EMarriages often go through a mid-life crisis, but in truly Gallic fashion, in Olivier Assayas’s wry drama Doubles Vies, so do spouses’ relationships with their respective lovers too. The setting — apart from a lyrical interlude in the Midi — is the literary scene in Paris, a world in which a book editor (Guillaume Canet) is trying to come to terms with the effect on his industry in a new environment of ebooks, blogs and social media. He turns down the latest manuscript from one of his closest author friends (a very crumpled Vincent Macaigne), unaware that his own wife has been having an affair with him. One feels that one day this will come back to haunt him, as the writer’s novels are blatantly autobiographical, landing him in hot water with some critics. As might be clear by now, this is a very literary film, in which words are as significant as the images and dramatic plot twists barely impinge on the main characters’ inner turmoil. Handsome Canet is paired with beautiful Juliette Binoche, while Macaigne’s other half is a somewhat kooky but political Nora Hamzawi. Some audiences may find the film dialogue-heavy and a little forced in its contemplation of technological change, but having lived in such a literary environment in both Paris and Brussels, I find it rings painfully true.

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Facepalm Sunday

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th April, 2019

E310484E-4010-467E-A40B-E1A3E3527BFBI’ve never been into the whole Easter thing, but having lived in Belgium for eight years and subsequently spent a lot of time in Brazil — both countries deeply steeped in Catholicism, despite a significant Protestant and alternative presence — I could hardly ignore the pomp, ceremony and religious fervour of Holy Week, beginning today with Palm Sunday. Of course, to get the real, majestic experience one needs to be in Spain or Italy, but anyway, you get my gist.

This year, however, it is not Palm Sunday that is impressing on my conscience but Facepalm Sunday, as British politics descends into previously unplumbed depths, at least in modern memory, leaving me aghast at the incompetence and divisiveness of it all.  MPs have gone off on their Easter hols, though the most conscientious of them will of course use the time away from Westminster to work hard in their constituencies. Much good may it do them, poor things, as their reputation has sunk below that of my fellow journalists. Please pray for us all.

1D4B2A3B-2C5E-4EE3-BADB-0625A4DB8CFFBut what is striking, and shocking, is that the Brexit process has turned into a total dog’s breakfast, leaving many people on whichever side of the Remain:Leave divide they may be, frustrated and angry. Total nincompoops have become TV stars, freely spouting their lies (not least on the BBC), while Brexiteer figures such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have risen from the political dead. The European elections, now almost inevitably to be held on 23 May, will take place in an unprecedented climate of political chaos, with opinion polls suggesting that the Conservatives are rapidly disappearing down the plug hole. I shall not weep. Theresa May battles on, yet on the global stage she, and Britain, have become figures of ridicule and, worse, pity.

I have argued before that Britain should take the European elections seriously, to indicate that we have not lost our collective marbles and that in principle we would like a People’s Vote to settle once and for all our European destiny. May we use Palm Sunday to reflect on what lies before us — and to remind ourselves that Holy Week  doesn’t end well — until the promise of a new beginning.

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Donald Tusk’s Private Dream

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th April, 2019

247B33FF-BC8A-429B-8D9C-0C7AEBC81444One of the most intriguing aspects of recent weeks in the long-running Brexit saga has been how French President Emmanuel Macron has played “bad cop” to EU Council President Donald Tusk’s “nice cop” in the EU’s dealings with the UK. In a sense, the date of 31 October agreed as the new extension for Article50 was a compromise between the two of them. Macron was willing to make Theresa May stick to the 31 June deadline she asked for, whereas Tusk suggested a year or even slightly more, with the sensible proviso that it should be a “flextension” — in other words, the UK could leave earlier if Mrs May got her Withdrawal Agreement “deal” through Parliament on a fourth attempt, or indeed could decide to revoke Article50 (as Britain is entitled to do unilaterally) and cancel Brexit altogether.

815C2F7A-3BFD-46F2-A7A8-BFC237504913Following the latest rather sad, even slightly humiliating, extraordinary Council meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, when the UK Prime Minister had to plead for an extension, Donald Tusk told Polish journalists that all options should be available, and that his “private dream” was for Britain to stay in the EU. It is a noble stance, given how much time, energy and financial resources have so far been squandered on this absurd Brexit project. Indeed, Mr Tusk is an honourable man, who cut his political teeth as a young activist at the time when the Gdańsk workers were striking against Poland’s Communist government, setting in motion a movement that would bring down Communism in central and Eastern Europe by the end of the 1980s and even in the Soviet Union shortly afterwards. So Donald Tusk is no stranger to working hard to make dreams come true. May he be successful this time, too!

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Theresa of Maidenhead, English Martyr

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th April, 2019

1526DD0A-1DD1-4899-BF4F-4A29FF60EBBCTheresa May did not exactly have a brilliant record as Home Secretary, but when David Cameron fell on his sword after losing his foolish EU Referendum — retreating to a custom-made writing shed to concoct his memoirs — Mrs May brushed rivals aside with the ease of someone running through a field of wheat. She became the Mistress of 10 Downing Street, but then carelessly threw away her Parliamentary majority in an unnecessary general election. Undeterred, having been a lukewarm Remainer during the Referendum, in a sort of low-key, Anglican kind of way, she then became a True Believer in Brexit. The European Research Group (ERG) and the Northern Ireland DUP (who gratefully trousered a £1billion bung) we’re delighted. And when anyone impertinently asked, “But what is Brexit?” she majestically declared, “Brexit means Brexit!”

1524FC32-110A-4343-A172-DC9B7F381AC8However, events since then have shown that things aren’t as simple as that. Parliament has rejected a No Deal exit, but has not given much of a steer on anything else. The end of March cliff-edge was avoided, and now the 12 April has been overridden too. Late last night, the EU27 leaders offered a new extension to 31 October. As that is Halloween, someone (probably Emmanuel Macron) has a macabre sense of humour. Waiting outside the conference room, in sackcloth and ashes, Theresa May was told she could like it or lump it, so of course she accepted it. She now returns to London knowing that the ERG have their knives out and both main parties are recoiling at the idea of fighting unexpected European elections on 23 May. On her knees in repentance Theresa may be, but that may not save her from being burnt at the political stake. Watch this space.

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