Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

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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Oman after Sultan Qaboos

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th January, 2020

Sultan Qaboos 1The death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said at the age of 79 brings to an end half a century of extraordinary one man rule that transformed the Gulf state from a conservative backwater into a modern country, which nonetheless retained much of its cultural individuality. Once the centre of a maritime empire, Oman had stagnated under Qaboos’s father, whose resistance to modernity meant that in 1970 there were only 10 kilometres of paved road in the country and the gates of the walled capital, Muscat, were locked at night. With the approval of the British, who had a military presence in Oman, Qaboos seized power in a bloodless palace coup and gradually opened the country up to the outside world, while deliberately avoiding the sort of brash modernisation taking place in nearby Dubai. Qaboos was an absolute monarch — and indeed resisted pressure from one of his uncles to cede more power to an elected assembly — but was viewed by most of the foreign diplomats in Muscat as that rarest of creatures: a benign dictator. When the so-called Arab Spring spread across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 there were some small demonstrations in Oman, though nothing like on the scale in Bahrain, for example. A couple of people were killed and others were arrested, but the Sultan largely quelled the unrest through some minor reforms and benefit packages. What was clear was that he still retained the affection, even love, of most of his people.

Muscat opera houseQaboos had been ill for several years, reportedly with colon cancer, for which he sought treatment in Germany and Belgium. Yet he did not designate someone to take interim charge, or indeed publicly announce a successor. Although he had one, brief marriage which ended in divorce, unlike most rulers in the Gulf he fathered no children, nor does he appear to have had any wish to. He thus sometimes appeared a somewhat isolated figure, though that did not prevent him stamping his own ideas on the country and determining its direction. Though Oman is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has resisted some potential areas of closer integration, such as a common currency, and in foreign affairs Qaboos avoided lining up with Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Iran. Oman was also a pioneer in the region in opening lines of contact with the state of Israel. Despite his military training (at Sandhurst), the Sultan’s bent was largely artistic; one of most remarkable legacies is Muscat’s beautiful opera house together with a full symphony orchestra.

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Jojo Rabbit ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th January, 2020

Jojo RabbitFew 10-year-old boys would choose Adolf Hitler as their imaginary friend, but in Taika Waititi’s wacky comic drama Jojo Rabbit, it’s wartime in Germany and little blond, blue-eyed Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffiths Davis) is in love with uniforms and swastikas and dreams of graduating to the Hitler Youth. However, it is clear from his behaviour at the Nazi equivalent of a boy scout camp that he doesn’t have the instinct to kill, let alone be inhumane. Meanwhile, his beautifully-dressed, superficially dreamy mother (Scarlett Johansson) apparently indulges his boyhood fantasies while in fact hiding not only her real views but also a dangerous secret in the attic. The war is already going badly, but this does not stop the authorities in their hunt for conspirators, Communists and Jews, all of whom are dragged off to prison camps or shot or even hung in the village square. In the film, the Gestapo (and the imaginary Hitler, played by Taika Waititi himself) are idiotic buffoons, yet their intent is frightening. Thus the film walks a tight-rope between black humour satire and an understanding of the horrific reality of life in the Third Reich. There are numerous hilarious moments, but also many sobering ones, including the grotesque pictorial characterisation of Jews.

Making fun of Hitler was of course brilliantly done by Mel Brooks in The Producers, which for me is one of the greatest comic movies of all time. Jojo Rabbit isn’t in the same league, but it does make one think more about the realities of Nazi Germany, even when scenes and characters are exaggerated to the point of parody. A lot of the credit for the overall success of the film rests with young Roman Griffiths Davis, who is not just endearing but also displays a wonderful range of moods and expressions, as his coming-of-age takes the form of moving from idolisation of the Fuehrer and the pomp and ceremony of Nazism to literally kicking Hitler out of the window.

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Dangerous Escalation in the Gulf

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd January, 2020

49A0EB41-E8AC-4F7A-9DF1-5A1214C2A9E4The US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, reportedly on President Trump’s direct order, is a dangerous escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf that could all to easily develop into all-out war. Donald Trump has been itching to hit out against Iran ever since he came to power and last year a direct US strike was called off at almost the last moment. Meanwhile the Americans have been ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, in which major European states including Britain were instrumental, has been seriously undermined by a US withdrawal. Not that all the blame rests on American shoulders, of course. Despite Iranian denials, a drone and missile attach on Saudi oil installations last September was almost certainly inspired by Tehran. And Iranian special forces — including General Suleimani’s Al Quds brigade — have been active in fighting in Iraq and Syria, sometimes in conjunction with regional allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But there is a real danger that tit-for-tat retaliatory acts will spiral out of control, while all affected parties claim they are the victims of aggression. Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, potentially have an important role to play in defusing the situation, though President Macron is seriously weakened by ongoing domestic unrest and Boris Johnson may be too close to Donald Trump to be seen as a mediator. Significantly, Washington did not warn London about its planned assassination strike, despite the fact that there are UK troops and civilians in Iraq and surrounding countries. All could be potential targets for reprisals if the British government comes out in support of the US action. Instead, it should listen to the wise words of caution from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair made the wrong call over Iraq in 2003 and that lesson should not be forgotten.

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Brexit Is Like a Bereavement

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st January, 2020

811E1755-3E16-49AA-83F7-84DD6BFB3051The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called on Britons to heal their divisions as we enter the New Year. This exhortation is, I suppose, a little more sensitive than those people who have been saying ad nauseam, “You lost. Get over it!” But the Archbishop’s choice of words does not seem to acknowledge the fact that for many Remainers (who in 2016 were 48% of those who voted in the Referendum), Brexit is like a bereavement. We are witnessing something we cherish — our European citizenship and countless other benefits of EU membership — not just dying but being deliberately killed. This is not something one can just “get over” by pulling oneself together. The pain — and it is a form of mental pain for millions of British citizens, as well as for the estimated three million other EU citizens in this country — will not dissipate quickly. Indeed, for a while it may get worse, as one by one our European rights and benefits are stripped away, from freedom of movement to reciprocal free health care, from high common health and safety standards to directly elected representation in the European Parliament. I for one am in mourning for what we are about to lose and those who do not care a fig about such matters, or who espouse some new-imperialist fantasy of a “Global Britain” conquering the waves, need to understand that for many true British Europeans, Brexit is as traumatic as losing a member of one’s own family.

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And Then We Danced ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th December, 2019

3549BA0F-D8AB-4471-A6C2-5A39BE1A3A5FGeorgian traditional dance, truly a form of ballet, is an expression of the nation’s soul, but it it is also a manifestation of the age-old human mating display. The girls glide gracefully, their eyes focused on the ground, in virginal modesty, while the young men stomp and strut their stuff, like peacocks on parade. Just as some families work in circuses for generations, handing down their experience and technique, so sometimes this dancing is also a family tradition, poorly paid but blessed with a certain cultural kudos, rejecting the homogenisation of our contemporary globalised world. This is the case with two brothers in Tbilisi in Levan Akin’s delicate drama, And Then We Danced. One drinks to excess and chases girls, eventually getting one of his conquests pregnant, while the other, Merab (beautifully played by newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani) is a more sensitive soul, in a gently romantic relationship with his main female dancing partner that he is no hurry to consummate. Then a handsome newcomer arrives from Batumi, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). At first Merab sees him as a rival, but quickly falls under his masculine spell and circumstances lead to a brief carnal relationship. The innate homophobia of Georgian society then swings into action. Merab’s dancing is damned as effeminate but he has by now acquired a new spirit of defiance, accepting that if he is going to be true to his real nature he will have to leave the country, while Irakli opts for “normality”. Levan Akin (of Georgian stock, but based in Sweden), handles this profoundly sad story beautifully and it is given added depth by its non-sensationalised depiction of the poverty of many people’s lives in post-Soviet Georgia; Merab and his brother wait tables in a restaurant at night to help support their mother and grandmother, yet still the electricity in the family’s little flat sometimes gets cut off. There is the camaraderie of the corps de ballet to help sustain the youngsters’ morale, until some of the male dancers hear the rumour that Merab is a fag and his position becomes untenable. And Then We Danced is thus a trailblazer in the Georgian context, but perhaps one that was only possible because its director effectively lives in exile.

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Rejoining the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th December, 2019

88CE557C-2E8C-4BAF-A831-47E346D55744The Executive Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, has kindly said that Britain will be welcome to rejoin the EU at some stage in the future. He is an unashamed Anglophile, but the sentiment is shared across a wide spectrum of continental politicians. Of course, the UK has not actually left yet, but short of an Act of God, Brexit will happen on 31 January, after which we will enter 11 months of transition (though don’t be surprised if the timetable slips a bit on that, whatever Prime Minister Boris Johnson says. You literally cannot believe a word he says, even in Ancient Greek. And he hasn’t even sat in a ditch, let alone died in it, as he promised. Nor indeed lain down in front of bulldozers preparing for the expansion of Heathrow Airport, though that is another story). To return to the issue of the UK’s rejoining the EU, pro-Europeans (not least the Liberal Democrats), need to handle things carefully. Immediately campaigning for a referendum on EU membership would be likely to backfire, being decried as “undemocratic”. Instead, we will need to make the realities of life after Brexit obvious and bide our time. Let the people say, “We realise now it was a mistake.” The call for rejoining must come from them. And I have some hope it will happen in my lifetime.

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Parasite *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd December, 2019

889B2E3E-B203-408B-9B8A-543D86629447The Kims, a poor South Korean family living in a dank and smelly basement, dream of extracting themselves from their misery. Clearly, folding cardboard pizza boxes isn’t going to make them rich. Then, through a friend, the son — who learnt English during his military service — is offered the chance to be English-language tutor to the daughter of a rich industrialist, Mr Park. When he turns up at their extensive, ultra-modern home he soon captures their affection and trust with his cute looks and gracious manner. But he quickly realises the golden opportunity to get his father, mother and sister (supposedly strangers) employed in the household, even it means using increasingly extreme measures to displace those who currently have those jobs. With each deception and strategy the lies get more difficult to sustain and the Parks’ house begins to reveal its own unexpected secrets. As things escalate in a mixture of tragedy and farce, young Mr Kim realises that the only way to avoid things going wrong is not to have any plan at all. But events have taken on a terrifying momentum of their own, meaning no-one knows how things will end.

Full of surprises, Bong Joon-ho’s increasingly black comedy is also a striking social commentary on the gap between the rich and poor, with neither knowing or understanding how the other half lives. The spoilt children of the Parks are nonetheless deprived of the love and everyday support that binds the Kims together, but the young boy’s psychological problems prove not to be as inexplicable as the mother believes. There are some exquisite sub-plots and diversions — including a beautiful parody of a North Korean TV announcer — but Bong keeps his hand firmly on the tiller as mayhem ensues. Visually, the film is unforgettable, not least in the stark contrast of the two families’ homes, but it is the acting that seals the movie’s place as one of this year’s most unforgettable cinema experiences. No matter how surreal the action becomes one believes utterly in their characterisation.

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Britain Casts Itself Adrift

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st December, 2019

03ED2EAA-8A9B-4ADE-B461-49A127C5F5BEHot on the heels of the Conservative election win last week, guaranteeing that Brexit will happen on 31 January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made clear that after leaving the EU, the UK will cease to be subject to EU rules and regulations. The government must know full well that this determination, if followed through, will mean that there can be no frictionless trade agreement with the EU27, either at the end of the projected transition period — arbitrarily set and enshrined in law by Mr Johnson’s Hard Brexiteers as 31 December 2020 — or ever. There is no way that the EU is going to compromise on its standards (from which British consumers have benefitted for nearly half a century) just to please London. So inevitably the UK economy will pivot towards the United States, the land of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef. US pharmaceutical companies are already salivating at the thought of the killing they may make by foisting higher-priced drugs on the NHS. Of course, trade with the US will not in the foreseeable future make up for the inevitable shortfall in trade with the Continent and the Republic of Ireland. But Brexiteers argue that the UK will now be “free” to look elsewhere for trading partners (ignoring the fact that it always was). These presumably would include the Big Four BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China. However, one should note that those four emerging powers do not share our values, let alone our standards, unlike the EU. I am not saying that Messrs. Bolsonaro, Putin, Modi and Xi are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but I would not fancy being stuck alone on a desert island with any one of them.

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