Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Simple-minded Murderer (1982) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 10th March, 2021

In rural Sweden between the Wars a skinny simpleton, Sven (Stellan Skarsgard), faces daily abuse and humiliation because of his “idiot” condition until he is befriended by a kindly family whose daughter (Maria Johansson) cannot walk. She sees the kindness locked inside the tortured soul. Sven’s main tormentor is the arrogant bully of a factory manager, who derives pleasure from making his own wife cry and loves to remind people of their lower place in the pecking order. From the film’s title and the opening sequence in which Sven is seen driving into the woods in the manager’s posh car one knows that things must turn out badly — but what will drive Sven over the edge finally? Skarsgard’s fine performance certainly keeps one gripped to the tale and the use of a recording of Verdi’s Requiem helps build the mood so one even accepts the winged angels that enter Sven’s troubled mind and therefore the narrative. As a portrait, too, of a society that has barely entered the 20th century Hans Alfredson’s movie is a remarkable look back to another age, deeply tragic in many ways but also beautiful.

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Coal and Climate Change Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th March, 2021

John Kerry, in his new guise as the Biden administration’s climate czar, was in London yesterday at the start of a European tour to whip up support for the COP26 conference over which Alok Sharma will preside in Glasgow later this year. Just 20 nations are responsible for 80% of the globe’s CO2 emissions, which is why so much of the responsibility is on their shoulders. Mr Kerry was complimentary about Boris Johnson’s rhetoric on the issue but scathing about coal. “The marketplace has made the decision that coal is not the future,” he declared, adding: coal is “the dirtiest fuel in the world.” Yet Britain is due to open its first coal mine in several years in Cumbria, which rather highlights its hypocrisy on the issue. Local politicians have said this will be a big boost for employment but there should not be a competition between jobs and the survival of the planet. Unless the government stops the development — which it is entitled to do — it will inevitably be criticised at COP26. Do as I say, not do as I do. And this at a time when the United States has made a major reversal from the Trump years and is pressuring China to live up to its commitments. So will King Coal win out the day, or will the government show it is serious about climate change as the biggest challenge facing us this century?

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Men on International Women’s Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th March, 2021

Today is International Women’s Day, so surely men should shut up. Absolutely not! To spare the event being tokenistic, putting women in the spotlight just for today, while men dominate the public sphere for the other 364 days in the year, men should stand up and be heard on International Women’s Day as vocal champions of true gender equality. Can men ever be feminists? You bet they can, if they recognise that women’s place is everywhere, alongside men. Of course there are cultural differences around the world, but the cause of women’s rights has advanced a great deal in recent years. It is true that much remains to be done. Only in a very few countries do women make up more than a limited number of parliamentarians. But the world of politics is by no means everything. The work place and the domestic space are equally important in ensuring that women have a fair deal. And men have a crucial role to play in this, if necessary modifying their behaviour from the patriarchal “norm”. The two sexes can learn a lot from each other, but not when they are hidebound by ideas from the past. I’m not saying that there are no differences between men and women; obviously there are. But many of these are related to constructed gender rather than biological characteristics. More important, we need to acknowledge and celebrate real difference where it does exist — and accept that by having the full contribution of both men and women in at all levels society will mean a healthier future for us all. So, happy International Women’s Day, everyone — including the men!

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The New European Movement Chair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th March, 2021

There was a strong line-up to be elected the new Chair of the European Movement, Britain’s main pro-European campaigning body. True, they were all white males of a certain age but between them Dominic Grieve, Andrew Adonis and Peter Kellner had a wealth of different experience. Brexit may have happened, alas, but it is more important than ever that Britain has a positive relationship with our European neighbours, not just on trade — especially as.the Johnson government and its cheerleaders in the media are determined to blame the EU for all that is wrong. I watched the campaign videos that the three candidates prepared and confess that I changed my mind as a result. I had thought that having a well-coonected former Tory MP was what the EM needed now (though his predecessor Stephen Dorrell had been that too, despite defecting to the Liberal Democrats). Peter Kellner has widespread experience, too, not least as the former Head of YouGov. But Andrew Adonis has kept up the fight for Britain to be European, not just in the House of Lords and at public meetings up and down the country but also in his columns until recently in The New European and nowadays for Prospect. More important, he is determined to involve younger people in the campaign for a more European Britain — and he has an unequivocal commitment to making this a step by step march towards rejoining the EU. Britain should be at the heart of Europe though it may take some years before the public and the two major political parties accept that that is where we should be,

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The NHS 1% Insult

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th March, 2021

We’re a year on from the first COVID death in Britain though that figure has now topped 124,000. The case rate (and death numbers) are mercifully falling in most places and the roll-out of the vaccine in the UK has been truly impressive when compared with the situation in most European countries. However, many people in the under-funded and under-staffed NHS are on their knees with exhaustion. At various times over the past year we have been urged to clap for these selfless workers and both Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have been out there taking the lead. Yet just what this Conservative government thinks of NHS workers has been shown by the derisory recommendation of a 1% pay rise. This is a real slap in the face. No wonder so many nurses are disappointed and angry and the unions are threatening strike action. Of course this is not the final outcome; a pay review body will make the ultimate decision. But the government has made its recommendation clear. Perhaps the vaccine bounce that has been noticeable in recent opinion polls will be reversed as a result. Certainly the public is on the side of the nurses and doctors. It is not enough to call them heroes. They need to be remunerated properly. So the pay review body should up the government’s measly recommendation. And Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock should be truly ashamed.

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Naughty Boy Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th March, 2021

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made a successful career out of being the cheeky chappie who breaks the rules. As a journalist in Brussels he made up “funny” stories about the European Union; this cost him his job on at least one occasion but in the meantime a reputation had been made. Famously he drafted Telegraph articles on both sides of the Brexit argument, but eventually for personal political reasons decided to hitch his horses to Vote Leave.The result of the European Referendum was close enough that this may have made all the difference. In the campaign he was happy to endorse statements that had little connection with reality — for example, that the NHS would benefit from an extra £350 million a week if we stopped contributing to the EU and that 70 million Turks were getting ready to move to Britain when Turkey joined the EU — as a tsunami of falsehoods about the EU swept over Britain taking the country out of the Union after more than 40 years membership. Johnson has kept up the rhetoric of anti-EU sentiment since becoming Prime Minister and he knows, like former US President Donald Trump, that his supporters are happy to believe him. Sadly, this includes a sizable proportion of the British media. And he has ensured that the Government is dominated by Brexiteer yes-men and women. But by threatening the integrity of the Withdrawal Agreement Britain under the Conservatives has shown itself to be a corrupt and untrustworthy partner. Twice now the UK has stated that it is ready to violate international law, most recently by unilaterally extending the light touch control on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for another six months, until October. The EU is understandably furious; how can one deal with a country that breaks its word? No wonder the European Parliament has postponed its consideration of the Brexit agreement in protest. No matter what emphasis Boris Johnson and his Ministers place on a joint Anglo-Irish bid to host the World Cup in 2030 rarely have the relations between Dublin and London been so bad. The Republic of Ireland is furious with Britain for undermining the so-called Northern Irish Protocol which has even led to unionist paramilitary groups challenging the basis of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, though mercifully so far without the threat of a return to violent unrest. Johnson and his pals are no doubt jubilant that Naughty Boy Britain is making its presence felt on the world stage and they will get applause from the usual suspects in the Press. But at a time when we should be forging the closest possible new relationship with our EU27 partners despite Brexit this is a strategy of fools which bodes ill for the coming months and years.

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Short Stories from Azerbaijan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th February, 2021

Though V S Pritchett is widely acknowledged to be the doyen of short story writing, as a literary genre in Britain it is particularly favoured by women. It is something of a surprise, therefore, that only two stories included in this extensive collection of short stories from Azerbaijan (published in the UK by Hertfordshire Press) are from female hands. This tells us quite a lot about a society in which women writers have failed to make much impact. In fact, none of the writers is young, either; all are aged 50 or more. Indeed, most of the works chosen are by men firmly in and of the 20th century, at a time when Azerbaijan was still part of the Soviet Union. Politics, accordingly, does not rear its head.

Only three of the tales is set it the capital, Baku, so this is very much about the village. Where men (usually) are men, when they have not had too much vodka, where the women often get knocked about — yet they yearn for love from their mates. The best of all, in my view, is Elchin’s “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”, about a prize cock who loses all his bravado after a single defeat in a cockfight, though I also smiled at Anar’s “A Georgian Surname”. In her brief introduction, Elizabeth White, the British Council representative in Azerbaijan, says that this anthology lets us know about the people of that country and those who lived there. She is right.

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Educating Rita (1983) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd February, 2021

Julie Walters and Michael Caine

Michael Caine takes top billing in this comic drama by Lewis Gilbert, with screenplay by Willy Russell based on his stage play of the same name, and available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? But the real joy of this film is the performance put in by Julie Walters as the eponymous Rita (actually Susan). Her transformation from streetwise Brummie hairdresser to sophisticated participant in a summer school in English literature, is appealingly Pygmalionesque, despite the worst efforts of her dipsomaniac Open University tutor, Dr Bryant (Michael Caine). The stately background of Trinity College, Dublin, has a nicely ironic twist, but his behaviour is outrageous even for there. At first in awe of him soon she sees through his weaknesses but her altruism is such that one realises that she is a thoroughly decent young woman. In his drunken haze, Dr Bryant oscillates between his midlife crisis (exacerbated by failed relationships) and his fascination with the new creature that has entered his world. Maureen Lipman has an enjoyable cameo role as an OTT arty landlady, passionate about Mahler. But it is really Julie Walters who makes this a film to remember and cherish. When he heads of Australia, banished for bad behaviour, one has little confidence he will turn his life around. But she has, triumphantly.

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German Jerusalem

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th February, 2021

Rehavia was a garden suburb of West Jerusalem to which many German Jews migrated from 1933 onwards and immediately after the Second World War. Many of them were writers, academics, thinkers — intellectuals in a word. Not all were Zionists but many were, seeing the construction of a new country as going hand-in-hand with a new life, new chances.Some tried to recreate the freedom and vigour they had experienced in pre-Hitler Berlin, but it didn’t help that in the long, hot nights of summer that their deracination felt so strong. Being German and Jewish was not easy, particularly when more ignorant neighbours called you Nazis. One might expect that Thomas Sparr’s book would talk about the places in Rehavia — and indeed there is a nice pen portrait of a café where regulars could top up on coffee and cake — but he is much more interested in the people, not only the incomers but also the host community, including the novelist who adopted the name Amos Oz. This indeed a very literary work, quoting at length from not just the manuscripts of Germans in Jerusalem but also letters and diaries, which reveal as much about the angst often involved as much as the sense of escape. For many the contradictions of being both German and Jewish was very real, touching on their affection or otherwise for the German language, the attraction of English and the difficulties associated with modern Hebrew. One can laugh out loud at the effusive telegram sent during the War to Joseph Stalin by poet and playwright Else Lasker-Schüler while fully understanding where she was coming from, and one gets insights into arguments for or against Martin Buber. But inevitably one comes away from this book rather saddened, at the loss of a period and an extraordinary colony now gone forever.

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News of the World ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th February, 2021

The year is 1870; the Civil War is over, but its scars remain. Some of the white settlers in Texas are still bitter about the abolition of slavery and consider Native Americans to be vermin. Across that uncompromising territory Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) — who has lost his business to conflict and his wife to cholera — travels, providing light entertainment by myopically reading extracts from newspapers gathered along the way to scattered communities whose residents pay him a dime a time. But then he comes across a young, blonde German girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who had been kidnapped by “Indians” when an infant and speaks only Kiowa. He takes it upon himself to return her home –though her parents are also dead — encountering more unsavoury characters along the way. All too easily this film by Paul Greengrass (based on the novel by Paulette Jiles) could have been sentimental or, worse still, it could have fallen into the pattern of so many past Western movies. But thanks to Tom Hanks’s sensitive and credible performance — he is on screen almost the entire two hours — one is caught up in the story. The magnificent landscape of rural Texas and New Mexico undoubtedly helps, as does the realistic portrayal of the flotsam and jetsam making a living there. It’s an extraordinary tale, beautifully told, in which the lead character learn as much about himself as does the audience.

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