Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Midsommar *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th July, 2019

MidsommarMidsummer in Sweden is a time to escape the cities and relish the almost midnight sun, in jolly celebrations in which young maidens in ethnic dress and with crowns of flowers on their heads dance daintily as family and friends commune with nature. But what if a community of religious cultists obsessed with reading the runes and practising pagan rituals cut themselves off almost completely from the outside world and every 90 years had a particularly significant ceremony of blackest intent? That is the main scenario of Ari Aster’s new film, Midsommar, which is a brilliantly original piece, though not something for the squeamish. There’s a prologue in America where a very needy young woman (a great performance by Florence Pugh) is driving her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to distraction, though when her worst fears about her sister’s bipolar condition are realised he rallies round and offers to take her to Sweden along with a fellow young anthropologist friend (William Jackson Harper), and another, rather goofy, college mate (Will Poulter) tags along. One knows as soon as this mismatched quartet pitch up in a superficially idyllic location where little blond children (in real life mainly Hungarian, rather than Swedish, as it happens), run around and the rest of the commune members are engaged in various pastoral and mystical activities that somehow everything is going to turn sour. Indeed, gradually the true nature of the cult begins to emerge and the sinister intentions of its leaders towards the foreign visitors become clear. Clues, like a bear imprisoned in a small wooden cage, are casually laid before the viewer. The rising tension is periodically punctured by some rather good jokes and sexual play. But darker and darker the action gets, despite the bright June light; far from bringing the two lead characters together the Bizarre situation drives them further apart and there are major casualties along the way. Some reviewers have described this a horror movie, but to my mind that is far too simplistic a classification. There are some nasty moments and one empathizes with  the growing anxiety of the American visitors. But it is a far more complex work of art than a mere shocker, making one think about relationships, family and the communal discipline of cults. And the ending is positively operatic as a climax.

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Zurich Isn’t Just for Gnomes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st July, 2019

ZurichAs I hadn’t been to Zurich for at least 30 years I was pleased that the latest ALDE Party Council took place in Switzerland’s financial capital at the weekend. My hazy memory of the earlier visit was of grey skies and rather grey people — it must have been winter — whereas this time Zurich could not have looked more different. Cloudless blue sky, high summer temperatures and an attractive mix of buildings old and new, most in an immaculate state or repair. The lake and waterways are an added charm and the local people naturally were spending a lot of time outdoors, by day and at night. Hundreds of restaurants, bars and cafés have tables outside in summer or are open to the street, yet without any feeling of being crowded or noisy. Of course there are tourists, but not that many.

The city has a brilliant integrated transport system, including a notably efficient and regular tram service. Everything, including the trains, runs on an honour system; I am sure there must be ticket inspectors, though I didn’t see one. The Zurich card (one or three days) that can be bought at the airport or central station allows one unlimited travel, even on the train to and from the airport, as well as entry to a number museums and other attractions. The ALDE Council met at the SIX Convention Point, a well-equipped but totally anodyne purpose-built small conference centre that could have been anywhere and was located on an uninspiring main road. So I was glad I had booked a hotel in the much groovier district of Wiedekon; lots of ethnic restaurants and laid-back bars. Yet also remarkably free of much traffic. I was woken each morning by birdsong more typical of the countryside than a city. And what of those gnomes that are part of Zurich’s stereotype? Bankers is dark suits busy managing other people;s money. Well, they are certainly not the predominant species that you will encounter in the streets, moreover the city seems to have attracted a largely younger crowd of residents, dressed down in shorts and t-shirts and not in the least grim.

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Mark Field: Conduct Unbecoming

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st June, 2019

Mark Field Mansion HouseThe Chancellor of the Exchequer’s annual speech to the City of London at the Mansion House last night was interrupted by Climate Emergency protesters. But that demonstration was eclipsed by the extraordinary behaviour of the local MP — and Minister of State at the Foreign Office — Mark Field, who rose from his seat to grab a young woman protestor in a long red dress, slamming her against a pillar and then  frogmarching her out of the Egyptian Hall with his hand round her neck. Other guests at the black tie dinner sat rooted in their places as if they could not quite believe what was happening and when a clip of the incident was shown shortly afterwards on BBC’s Newsnight, presenter Kirsty Wark was visibly shaken. Little surprise, perhaps, that overnight there were calls for Mr Field to resign; this morning he has been suspended as a Minister, pending an inquiry.

What makes the affair all the more remarkable is that in his ministerial role, Mark Field has defended the right of demonstrators in Hong Kong and Myanmar and other places in his Asian ministerial bailiwick to protest peacefully and he has criticised the high-handed tactics of some countries’ security forces. Yet his own behaviour was shockingly aggressive against a woman who posed no physical threat to anyone. This comes at a time when violence and intimidation have become more common in the political arena in Britain. At times there have been ugly scenes outside the Houses of Parliament, when MPs have been jostled or threatened and rhetoric has got ever more extreme in the wake of the 2016 EU Referendum. Last Sunday marked the third anniversary of he assassination of Jo Cox MP, who had worked so hard to bring harmony where there was discord. It is essential that this trend towards intolerance and aggression is reversed if Britain’s democracy is to avoid being permanently tainted. And that means no conduct unbecoming by MPs as well.

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Let’s Calm Gulf Tensions

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 17th June, 2019

oil tanjerThe UK government’s Cabinet has been meeting today to discuss rising tensions in the Persian Gulf. Yesterday the Sunday Times revealed that 100 British marines have been sent to the country’s base in Bahrain to strengthen protection for shipping following recent attacks on tankers. The Trump administration has pinned the blame for these attacks firmly on Iran, which denies the charge. But the reactions in Europe have been more mixed. Britain’s Conservative government, keen to demonstrate its essential loyalty to Washington, has said that the evidence points to Iranian culpability, though this is not yet proven, and Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that a proper investigation was needed before blame is attributed — a line supported by some of the smaller Opposition parties. At the same time there has been a call from across the UK political spectrum to calm tensions before things get out of hand. Donald Trump (egged on by Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as his hawkish officials, Mike Pompeio and John Bolton) has been belligerent in his remarks about Tehran. But the Europeans have absolutely no wish to see a military conflict in the Gulf. They also hope to keep the Iran Nuclear Deal alive, despite the US withdrawal, and growing impatience on the part of Iran. The Iranians are now talking about increasing the amount of enriched uranium they produce which is also inflaming the situation. Meanwhile, oil prices have shot up as fears grow that oil supplies could be hit; it would take very little to close the narrow Straits of Hormuz, through which so much of the world’s hydrocarbons pass. The United Nations has been adding its voice to appeals for calm, but alas the UN is a weakened force on the world stage these days, thanks largely to Washington’s hostility and some of the organisation’s own shortcomings. The European Union needs to exercise its diplomatic clout, though that is itself being undermined by the British government’s pursuit of Brexit.

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No, Not Boris!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th June, 2019

Boris Johnson scowlThe first round of the Conservative Party’s leadership contest saw the welcome departure of Esther McVey, among others, but less heartening was the very strong performance by Boris Johnson, who came well out in front. That does not necessarily mean he will win in the end — there is a significant number of Tory MPs who fall into the “anyone but Boris” camp — but he is clearly now the firm favourite. Most of our European partners will be scratching their heads in disbelief, seeing this as proof that Brexit Britain’s disease is not only chronic but terminal. Boris has declared a willingness to press the self-destruct button of crashing out of the EU on 31 October without a deal, even though the economic effect of that is likely to be dire. Of course, when push comes to shove, he might decide not to go for the nuclear option. Consistency is not exactly his strongest characteristic. Bluff, bluster and self-promotion are more his house style. He is arguing that winning two terms as Mayor of London proves he can reach parts of the electorate other Conservative politicians cannot, which may be true up to a point but rather overlooks the fact that his record as Mayor was not brilliant. Remember the tens of millions wasted on the Garden Bridge that never happened, the white elephant of the cross-Thames cable car and the water cannon bought from Germany but never used before being flogged off cheap? His tenure as Foreign Secretary was equally uninspiring, with gaffes galore. There were literally celebrations in the department when he left. As Prime Minister, he would probably be as much of an international liability as Donald Trump, whom he increasingly resembles. Perhaps he even sees the Donald as a role model. But that is absolutely not what Britain need at this juncture. He is the worst of a singularly awful range of leadership contenders, the least bad being Rory Stewart. All of them are bent on pushing through Brexit, but a Boris Brexit would be likely to be the worst of the lot.

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Madam Atatürk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th June, 2019

Madam AtaturkAs father of the modern Turkish nation, Mustafa Kemal posthumously continues to enjoy a super-human status, which in fact he had already acquired during his lifetime. He was a brilliant military commander who played a pivotal role in preventing the further dismemberment of the territory by foreign forces following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and almost single-handedly he shaped his country’s destiny, as a largely secular, Westward-looking land that would be dragged through the process of modernisation. Honoured with the surname Atatürk, Father of the Turks, he obliged his countrymen to take on European-style family names and discouraged the use of Oriental dress. On that latter point he was influenced by someone little acknowledged in the outside world for the significant role she played in Turkey’s evolution, his wife Latife. They were only together for two-and-a-half years, before he dismissed her; though she was devoted to him, she both fascinated and exasperated him. She incurred the wrath of both her husband and his cronies when she tried to curb his drinking and to stop him staying up half the night. Damned by some of her contemporaries after the divorce, Latife was an exceptional force of nature at a time when women were supposed to be obedient and quiet. The daughter of a fabulously wealthy businessman from Smyrna (Izmir), she was educated partly in Europe, was fluent in several languages and intellectually robust. Despite intermittently poor health, she outlived Atatürk by nearly four decades and could doubtless have had a brilliant international career as a speaker and writer had she not been effectively silenced and for a long period forbidden to travel. İpek Çalışlar’s biography Madam Atatürk, now available in a new paperback edition from Saqi Books (£12.99), fills an important lacuna in presenting this remarkable woman in a largely favourable light. As the author laments, some valuable source material remains inaccessible because of the family’s wishes, but she drew heavily on the memoirs of people who knew Latife and her husband intimately, as well as on Western journalists’ accounts of the time. Mustafa Kemal was a notorious womaniser (my own Austro-Hungarian honorary grandmother had to flee Turkey to escape his persistent attentions) and while he largely supported female emancipation he clearly found some of Latife’s admonishments irksome. What is really fascinating about this biography, though, (in spite of sometimes veering perilously towards hagiography) is the vivid image it gives of Izmir in the 1920s and of the hick town of Ankara, which Atatürk had chosen as the infant nation’s new capital. There is a cornucopia of telling detail as well as a different perspective on Mustafa Kemal himself, much of it conveyed between the lines.

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Westminster Shows Its True Colours

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th May, 2019

Westminster aerial viewThere has been some very interesting number-crunching going on since the results of the European  elections in Britain were announced late on Sunday night. And one of the most intriguing outcomes relates to the Cities of London and Westminster (CLW), that quintessentially establishment constituency that embraces many of the great institutions of state, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the Square Mile. It’s actually the first place I lived when I came to London after university, sharing a flat in Pimlico and campaigning for the then Liberal candidate for CLW, Trevor Underwood. It has always been Conservative ever since it was created, but Westminster is also a bastion of Remainers. This was reflected starkly by the votes as tabulated by Chris Hanretty, Professor of Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has done admirable work breaking down the results in every constituency in the country, so here is his tally for CLW:

Liberal Democrats  10537

Brexit Party               4149

Labour                        3894

Conservative             3144

Green                          3126

ChangeUK                  1942

Others                        1301

As British general elections are held under first-past-the-post, that would be an easy win for the LibDems. I have to declare an interest, as I am the LibDem PPC for CLW, but as a keen European I am particularly thrilled to know that the area understands the importance of Britain’s membership of the EU. Had many (non-UK) EU citizens not been turned away from polling stations last Thursday thanks to an administrative cock-up,  I suspect the LibDem vote would have been even higher. But how gratifying that a national opinion poll published this evening by YouGuv for the Times is saying that the LibDems are now are just on top nationally (on 24%). That is an amazing turnaround and a lot of that is down to the fact that the party has a clear message on the biggest issue of the day> Stop Brexit!

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EP2019: London Votes Remain!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th May, 2019

EP2019 declarationThough Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party won most seats in this week’s European elections, just as its predecessor UKIP did in 2014, the striking difference from five years ago was the huge surge in support for the Liberal Democrats and to a lesser extent the Greens. It’s not hard to explain why (though the Government will doubtless try to spin otherwise). Both the LibDems and the Greens had an unequivocally anti-Brexit message, as indeed did the SNP, which did especially well in Scotland. In contrast, the Conservatives, who have been endeavouring unsuccessfully to push Theresa May’s Brexit deal through Parliament crashed to their worst result since the 1830s. And Labour — whose leadership continues to sit on the fence over Brexit, trying to please both Brexiteers and Remainers, therefore satisfying neither — also had a very poor result. In London, Labour fell from four MEPs to just two, though interestingly both successful candidates were forthright Remainers and Seb Dance used his short victory speech to berate the leadership for not clearly backing staying in the EU and holding a new referendum. The LibDems topped the poll in London, with 27% of the vote, reaping three MEPs, all newcomers to the field: Irina von Wiese, Dinesh Dhamija and Luisa Porritt. As Number 4 on the list I was sad not to join them, but I have been in this situation before! What is more important is that with the exception of the two Brexit Party MEPs (who came third in the popular vote in the capital), London is now represented by a rainbow coalition of Remainers who will be fighting hard to Stop Brexit — the pithy slogan that served the LibDems so well!

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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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