Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 16th October, 2017

Oscar Wilde 2Today is the 163rd birthday of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and as usual on this anniversary occasion the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth brought together an extraordinary band of people to celebrate, this time in the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair, which was frequented by Oscar and his wife Constance at least as late as 1893. Gyles is London’s networker sans pareil; the late socialite, writer and editor Fleur Cowles must be spinning in her grave with envy. Half of the British theatrical royalty were there, including Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Simon Callow and Ronnie Hardwood, as well as a whole cricket team of members of the House of Lords, the odd duchess, marchioness and — as Gyles put it cheekily in his witty homily — a bit of rough trade, of which Oscar would have approved. Oscar’s sole grandson, Merlin Holland, loyally put in an appearance. But this evening’s event was special for another reason, this being the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of sexual relations between consenting adult men — the “crime” that had sent Oscar to prison. How fitting, therefore, that one of the speeches of the night should have been from the head of the capital’s police, the Commissioner of the Metropolis, Cressida Dick, who was there with her wife. How things have changed.


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People First

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th October, 2017

IMG_0020It’s hard to imagine these days, but when I first came to live in Brussels, in 1974, the Grand-Place was a gigantic car park, except on market days when stalls replaced the vehicles. That unsatisfactory situation ended years ago, but only a very limited area of the city centre was declared off-limits to cars. Returning to Brussels this week after an absence of a year or so, I’m delighted to discover that a whole big section of the centre has now been pedestrianised, including a long stretch of the Boulevard Anspach. The place has basically been given back to the people (plus bicycles), as it would have been centuries ago. This is, of course, healthier, both because people are encouraged to walk more and because the air quality has been improved by a reduction in vehicle fumes. I can imagine there must have been some resistance from a few businesses in the area, but from the crowds strolling in the warmth of a prolonged Indian summer, it would seem that there has not been a significant decrease in footfall. So, when will the same thing be done in London? Pedestrianisation schemes there have been very modest in comparison; Leicester Square and Carnaby Street come to mind. Oxford Street has been crying out for the treatment for decades. So, Mayor Sadiq Khan, over to you! Come to Brussels and see what has been done here and reflect on whether People First could work as a strategy in central London, too.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th October, 2017

Goodbye_Christopher_RobinWinnie-the-Pooh played no part in my childhood, unlike that of most British children of my vintage. I only became truly aware of E H Shepard’s wonderful illustrations when I was at university (well, it was Oxford, albeit 20-odd years after the publication of Brideshead Revisited). I still have not read any of the four Pooh volumes penned by A A Milne, though I think of him often when I enjoy the fruit of his generous legacy to the Garrick Club. However, I was aware that A A Milne’s son — the Christopher Robin of the book — found his unwanted fame burdensome and that he was bullied as a result at school. So I was genuinely curious to see how Simon Curtis would handle the story. It is a complex challenge, because the film has to try to balance the brutal effect of the First World War on the author (sensitively portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson) with the fairy-tale quality of the rural idyll to which he and his somewhat disgruntled upper class wife moved with little Christopher Robin, and where the Pooh stories and adventures materialised, as well as the boy’s growing disenchantment with his situation.

Will TilstonGiven that the film has to cater for the millions of Pooh fans in America (most of whom will know the bear of little brain through the Disney animation), there is an occasionally OTT chocolate box representation of England in the 1920s, but much of the Sussex countryside is indeed beautiful and all those who relish seeing period cars and furniture in pristine condition will be happy. The father-son relationship is touchingly presented, in all its ups and downs, as is Christopher Robin’s dependence on his nanny (played by Kelly Macdonald, more convincingly than Margot Robbie as the self-centred mother). But it is the young newcomer Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher Robin, who steals the show. His is an extraordinarily competent performance, tantrums and all, and I can hear the “aahs” of a myriad cinema-goers as they watch his first entry on screen. So, this is a bit of a curate’s egg of an experience, but when it is good it is very good. And probably now I shall go away and read the Winnie-the-Pooh books at long last.

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The Balfour Declaration, 100 Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th October, 2017

Israel PalestineThis year is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which was contained in a letter from the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour,  to a leading member of the country’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, and in which the British Government, headed by David Lloyd George, said that it viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, providing the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish population there were not compromised. That condition — which has yet to be fully respected — was added at a late stage in the drafting of the declaration partly at the insistence of the one Jewish member of Lloyd George’s Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, who had serious hesitations about the whole Zionist enterprise. To mark the Balfour centenary, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion at last month’s Bournemouth Conference calling for HM Government to recognise the State of Palestine, as a positive contribution towards a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the beginning of December, in Amsterdam, I shall be moving a similar motion at the Congress of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Several EU member states, including Belgium and Sweden, have in fact already done so.

Avi ShlaimBut motions at political conferences are by no means the only activities taking place in this centenary year. Today, at the British Library, Middle East Monitor put on a conference with a glittering array of academic and other speakers, analysing the origins, composition and consequences of the Balfour Declaration. For me, the two highlights of the day were the keynote address by Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, and a film made by Independent Jewish Voices (which will be posted on YouTube from this coming Monday). Dr Shlaim has made himself unpopular among some of his co-religionists by denouncing the reality of the current Israeli occupation of the West Bank as an apartheid state, but growing numbers of Jews, especially the young, are determined to make their voices heard, maintaining that some of the things being done by the Israeli government and Defense Force, should not be considered to be “in their name”. The current British government, alas, is dominated by those Conservatives who are self-declared Friends of Israel, which means that Mrs May and many of her Cabinet colleagues will probably “celebrate” the actual anniversary on 2 November, whereas many of the rest of us will be deploring the fact that the partial implementation of the Balfour Declaration has left the Palestinians dispossessed and increasingly bereft of hope.

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Finland: Identity and Independence

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 4th October, 2017

100 Wishes from FinlandFinland is celebrating the centenary of its independence this year, so the exhibition that opens today at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in Smith Square, Westminster — “100 Wishes from Finland” — is timely. It is also very appealing, not least for anyone who has ever been a philatelist at any stage in their lives (probably true of virtually every boy and many girls of my generation). The idea is simple but works beautifully: about 100 blow-ups of colourful Finnish postage stamps are displayed on boards with short, relevant quotes. The stamps are arranged thematically, covering everything from Finnish interior design to sport and  cartoons for children. There is even a stamp showing men in a sauna (though apparently not with a crate of cold beer, which is my usual experience of saunas in Helsinki). There are reputedly more than 2,500 different Finnish postage stamps, meaning anyone tempted to revisit their childhood stamp-collecting will find lots to choose from. More seriously, the stamps reflect the pride Finns have in their identity, for which national independence is of course a crucial component — something now being tested in various parts of the world, from Catalonia to Kurdistan. The 100 Wishes from Finland exhibition runs until 27 September and is open 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.

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Dulat Issabekov at 75

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd October, 2017

Dulat IssabekovThe Kazakh writer and playwright Dulat Issabekov is in London at the moment, as several of his works are being performed in the city to coincide with his 75th birthday. Celebrated in Kazakhstan, and well-known in much of the rest of the former Soviet Union, Issabekov is the author of numerous novellas and short stories, though it is probably his plays that have had the greatest resonance. Last night, at a dinner at the House of Lords, organised by Rahima Abduvalieva of the Aitmatov Academy and chaired by Lord (Ian) Wrigglesworth, guests were not only able to meet the playwright but also to hear brief extracts from his work. His themes are universal, dealing with subjects such as love and memory, even if their settings are Central Asian. Kazakhstan — a country I have had the pleasure to visit three times — is physically huge and ethnically diverse, despite its comparatively small population, and Issabekov’s work reflects some of his country’s cultural diversity. Tonight, at the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street in London, his play The Actress will be performed by the Korean Theatre of Drama & Music from Almaty (in Korean, with English surtitles), then tomorrow through to Friday, at the same venue, one can see his Song of the Swans, performed in English by London’s own Pajarito Theatre.

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Why Brexit Should Be Stopped

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st October, 2017

BrexitMany thousands of people are expected to demonstrate today in Manchester on the StopBrexit! March. I am sad not to be able to be with them, as I am preparing for the new academic year at SOAS that begins tomorrow. However, I am braced for a storm of abuse from Brexiteers, who will doubtless claim that I and other pro-Europeans don’t respect democracy, as last year’s European Referendum delivered an approximately 52:48 vote in favour of leaving the European Union. On the contrary, I do respect democracy, which is why I support wholeheartedly the Liberal Democrat position that when the Conservative government has agreed the terms of an exit deal with our current 27 EU partners this should be put before the British electorate asking them whether this is really what they want. By then the consequences of Brexit will be much clearer than they are now, let alone in the theoretical situation of June 2016.

Keep Calm and Stop BrexitAs it is, the signs are not encouraging. The pound has slumped in value and foreign investment in the UK is falling. Having been one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7 a year ago Britain is now one of the slowest. EU workers have already started leaving the country because of the uncertainty about their future status, causing staffing problems in different sectors of the economy, not least the NHS, farming and the hospitality industry. That situation is bound to get more acute. Banks and companies have started moving some of their operations out of London to Dublin, Paris and Frankfurt, thus diminishing the prime position of the City, which contributes so much to the UK economy.

The situation regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — currently effectively invisible — is intractable, as any restoration of border controls would risk reigniting civil strife. The imposition of customs regulations for goods from the EU at Dover and other UK ports would clog the ports up within days. Currently, the Government is arguing that there needs to be a transition period of perhaps two years after Britain in principle leaves the EU at the end of March 2019, but that will only delay the inevitable cliff-edge. And in the meantime, Britain’s international image and influence are being rapidly diminished. We are a far stronger player on the global stage as a member of the EU than we can ever be outside. Finally, let us remember what the then UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage, said just before the Referendum, namely that a 52:48 result would be “unfinished business”. He was anticipating a 52:48 vote to Remain, of course. But on this one occasion, at least, he was right. The outcome of the Referendum is unfinished business and it is only right and proper that the British electorate should be given the opportunity to decide, probably in 2019, whether they are really happy to see their country sliding downhill as a result of leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc.

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Tom of Finland

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th September, 2017

Tom of Finland film posterI have never been a fan of the drawings of Tom of Finland, skillfully executed but to my mind grotesque caricatures of gay sex role models, from leather bikers to sadistic cops, all with bubble butts and humongous genitalia. However, they were phenomenally popular; when I was in California in the mid-1970s, researching my biography of Christopher Isherwood, they seemed to be everywhere. Until yesterday, however, I had virtually no idea about the man behind these homoerotic works, but after watching Dome Karukoski’s biopic of the artist Touku Laaksonen, Tom of Finland, at the ICA, I feel wiser and more positively inclined. A decorated officer in the Second World War, mainly fighting the Russians, Laaksonen found it difficult to adjust to civilian life as a gay man in a particularly homophobic environment. That environment only improved gradually and it is no exaggeration to say that Tom of Finland helped the cause of “gay liberation”, which really started in America, where he briefly rode the crest of a wave of success before the whole scene was clouded by the arrival of HIV/AIDS. One might imagine that this subject matter would make for grim, even sordid, viewing, but in fact Karukoski’s film is beautifully and sensitively constructed and features a stellar central performance by Pekka Strang in the title role. Laaksonen was clearly a very thoughtful as well as talented man who dared to express himself in a way that would inevitably at first provoke outrage and censorship, but which later became an important part of the counter-culture of the second half of the 20th century.

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Victoria & Abdul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th September, 2017

Victoria & AbdulThe extraordinary story of the maternal affection that the widowed Queen Victoria felt for a young Indian servant, Abdul Karim, brought over to England in 1887, is a worthy subject for Stephen Frears’ new film, Victoria & Abdul, which is now out on general release. The real Abdul — dubbed the Munshi or teacher, because he taught the monarch Hindustani (actually Urdu) at her request — was nowhere near as handsome as actor Ali Fazal, who plays him in the film, and as the years went by he became chubby and arrogant. But Victoria was certainly besotted with him, as she had been earlier with her devoted Scottish attendant, John Brown. On his mother’s death, King Edward VII ordered the burning of the correspondence between Victoria and Abdul, but there is enough material extant in diaries and other letters to reconstruct the skeleton of the story. As is portrayed in the film, the Royal Household was indeed scandalised by the Munshi’s increasingly high-profile presence at Court, for social and racial reasons. Of course, the film inevitably takes some historical liberties (there is no mention of Abdul’s trips home to India during Victoria’s lifetime, for example), but some of the things that might appear the most preposterous, such as Abdul’s kneeling down to kiss Victoria’s feet, are absolutely true. The settings, from the painted hall at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to Osborne on the Isle of White, are stunning and the filming itself is a thing of great beauty. Judi Dench is magnificent as Victoria, her moods shifting from impatience to joy and then despair. At times there is a risk of caricature among the members of the Royal Household and doubtless some people will find that there is an uneasy balance between comedy and tragedy in the story as portrayed. But so there is in life, too.

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Reflections on Oscar Romero’s Centenary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th September, 2017

Oscar Romero 1Yesterday I attended a commemorative evensong at Westminster Abbey marking the centenary of the birth of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 while serving Mass in a hospital chapel. A relic of part of his blood stained robes was displayed on the Abbey’s High Altar. It was a particularly moving occasion for me, having covered the civil war in El Salvador briefly for the BBC at a time when death squads were still targetting anti-government activists, sometimes leaving corpses by the side of the road. I interviewed some of the mothers of the disappeared in the city, as well as coming face-to-face with tanks outside San Salvador’s cathedral.

El Salvador civil warWestminster Abbey yesterday was packed with an ecumenical crowd, including an impressive phalanx of Roman Catholic cardinals in their robes and red zucchetti. I was seated in the Quire right next to the Abbey Choir, whose magnificent rendering of music both ancient and modern helped stir the emotions of all present. Particularly moving was a specially commissioned anthem by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, using the words of Archbishop Romero’s appeal to soldiers in El Salvador’s dirty war: “I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army. Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are all the same people. Before any order to kill a man may give, God’s law must prevail — ‘Thou shalt not kill’.” A recording of part of Oscar Romero’s homily on the eve of his assassination was also played, his voice and his words ringing through the vast Abbey like a bell of sanity in a mad world. No wonder the Church is in the process of making him a Saint. Even I, as a Quaker, can understand that. The sermon yesterday was given by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury — a tribute to Romero, of course, but also a call for everyone to follow his example and to be resolutely on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Not everyone has the courage and determination to stand up against tyranny and injustice, but all of us have the capacity to try.

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