Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2007

Einstein on the Beach

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th April, 2007

einstein-on-the-beach.jpgNueva Alianza hosted a sit-down dinner on the beach at Cancun last night, under an almost full moon, the sound of the waves shrouded by Mayan drums and pipes, as the margaritas circulated. I can´t quite see this happening in England, were Bournemouth or Eastbourne ever to host a Liberal Democrat Executive. The spirit of Albert Einstein was evoked by one of the participants, reminding us how the great man had fled totalitarianism in Germany, then McCarthyism in America. Mexico has a good record of offering asylum or a quiet haven to such people — even if sometimes one is not beyond the reach of one´s enemies, as Trotsky discovered!

At my table at the dinner were a young couple from Yabloko, the Russian Liberal party which is probably closer to the LibDems than any other grouping in Russia. They were naturally smarting about their party´s being barred from standing in recent elections in St Petersburg and elsewhere, on an essentially trumped-up technicality. When we moan about the shortcomings of the British electoral system, we should nonetheless be grateful we don´t have to face the appalling obstacles some of our colleagues in other countries encounter daily.

Thinking of Einstein on the beach reminded me of the opera of that name, by Philip Glass, directed by Robert Wilson, which I saw in Brussels in 1976; it premiered in a number of European cities that year, before transfering to New York. It was an absolutely mesmeric experience, which left an indelible impression in my mind, as hypnotic as any Mayan incantation, and just as disturbing.


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The View from Cancun

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th April, 2007

cancun.jpgAn up-market golfing resort in the tourist strip at Cancun is not the sort of place I would normally head for, but it’s the locale chosen by the newest member party of the Liberal International (admitted today!), Mexico’s Nueva Alianza, for the 178th Executive Committee Meeeting of LI and a conference on Migration — a particularly hot topic in this part of the world. This morning’s Executive, presided over with great skill by (Lord) John Alderdice, former Speaker of the Northern Ireland parliament, was unusual in that it featured a live video-conference link with the political opposition in Cuba: leading figures of the Cuban Liberal Party and the Cuban Social Democrat Party, as well as representatives of Civil Society, who had gathered together in a villa the Miramar district of Havana. The most moving contribution was from the wife of a political prisoner who is serving 20 years merely for championing democracy — a timely reminder that for all the real achievements of the Cuban Revolution (not least in health and education), Fidel Castro runs a totalitarian state, and is not the cuddly bunny London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone would have us believe.

We’re having two full days of discussions on the Migration issue, and with MPs and Ministers from a number of deeply affected countries present, including Senegal and Haiti, we are assured of passionate debate. Already a sound liberal principle has been underlined: freedom of movement is a core human value, and migrants should not be seen as criminals. The issue has to be handled responsibly and compassionately in an ever more interdependent world.

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A Political Hot Potato

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th April, 2007

us-flag.jpgAs a change from the now commonplace (though often delightful) Pizza and Politics, Hackney LibDems hosted a ‘Political Hot Potato’ this evening, at which I led a lively discussion on the topic “America: Friend or Foe?”. For a long time now, the British have had a love-hate relationship with the United States, which is not surprising, considering the history. (Incidentally, I’d love to be a fly on the wall of the bedroom of the Queen as she tours the Land of the Free.) Oscar Wilde famously said that the British and the Americans are two people divided by a common language, but it is true that we are completely different in character and in our attitudes. Think championing the right to gun ownership, saluting the flag, and believing that your country knows better than anyone else in the world, and you’ll see what I mean. The thing is, we can criticise the US from experience. We’ve been there, done that, worn the imperialist T-shirt — a century or so ago. We were too big for our boots and subsequently got some nasty shocks, but I believe we are a better nation for it. So we can see what the USA has coming. And I have no doubt (as several people at the Hot Potato themselves averred) that America is starting on an inevitable slide down in global terms, economically and politically. One just hopes that George W Bush doesn’t decide to bomb Iran as his (and his country’s) swansong.

One problem is that talk of this kind quickly leads to one’s being branded ‘anti-American’ — and that is not a stance that I espouse. What we have to recognise, nonetheless, is that there is no special relationship between the US and Britain (in fact, the Americans never believed there was; they don’t have permanent allies, they have interests). However, Tony Blair’s slavish following of Washington’s lead (re Iraq, last summer’s battering of Lebanon, etc) has done colossal damage to Britain’s standing in the world, by no means only among Arabs. We need to redefine our relationship with America, not as a foe, certainly, but as a critical friend. We need to fortify our links with the other members of the European Union, strengthening the EU in the process, making it a powerful force for good on the international stage. New Labour isn’t going to do that, even with wee Gordie at the helm. Nor will the Cameroons, despite young David’s recent statements about redefining the trans-Atlantic Alliance. Only the Liberal Democrats can stand up honestly and give this country the correctly-oriented and openly stated moral and multilatalist foreign policy that this country needs. Over to you, Messrs Campbell and Moore.


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Two Baronesses and the Pope

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th April, 2007

ros-scott.gifthe-mall-galleries.jpgpope-benedict.jpgThe art of portraiture is alive and well, as witnessed by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Annual Exhibition at the Mall Galleries, whose vernissage I attended this evening. I was particularly wanting to get to know the work of a relatively new acquaintance, Jane Bond (whose sensitive oil of Mrs Victoria Power I loved), and it was a pleasant surprise to discover that we have a mutual longstanding friend in the LibDem peer, Celia Thomas, who was also present, and clearly relishing her transition from running the LibDem Whips office in the Lords to being among the ermine clad herself, concentrating especially on welfare reform. Amongst the many memorable canvasses on show was Felicity Gill’s portrait of Boris Johnson, MP, looking wonderfully haywire, and a study of the newish Pontiff, Benedict XVI, by my fellow Garrick Club member Michael Noakes — reportedly the only painter for whom the Pope has sat. The exhibition runs until May 13.

I had to leave early to get to one of Kensington and Chelsea LibDems’ renowned ‘Food for Thought’ events, where another LibDem Baroness and friend, Ros Scott, underscored the importance of local government and community, on which the current government has a dismal record. Britain is the most centralised country in the European Union, apart from Malta. And by promoting the idea of more executive Mayors and powerful Lead Councillors, New Labour is undermining the foundations of local representation and accountability even more. However, one positive note that Ros sounded was the reminder that, bizarre and anachronistic as it is, the House of Lords — in which no single party has a majority — has often acted as a fierce scrutineer of goverment policies over the past decade, moderatng some of the worst excesses or prompting a rethink. It is to be hoped that whatever form Lords Reform takes, it does not emasculate the institution.


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Marchmont Street Moments

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th April, 2007

jo-shaw.jpggays-the-word-bookshop.gifkeith-moffitt.jpgJust a couple of minutes’ amble from my teaching at SOAS, on the corner of Russell Square, I was able to join the inaugural Pizza and Politics of the Holborn Branch of Holborn and St Pancras Liberal Democrats, at which Camden Council Leader Keith Moffitt and constituency PPC Jo Shaw were the star speakers (and I tossed in my twopenny worth on the Middle East), in the Marchmont Community Centre in Marchmont Street. One of the most civilised things about such LibDem gatherings is the way that discussion can glide seemingly effortlessly, and intelligently, from Neighbourhood Watch to Iraq. Having pledged to peg Council Tax since taking taking control of the Council last May, the LibDem-led coalition administration has had to take some tough decisions, but it has lived up to its manifesto commitments. It will be interesting to see if the electorate endorses that in the Haverstock Ward by-election on July 12 (as they did in Kentish Town, a few months ago).

Just two doors down from the Marchmont Community Centre (which particularly caters for Bengali, Chinese and Somali groups in the area), is the remarkable Gay’s The Word Bookshop, which without idle boasting calls itself the ‘little bookshop with big ideas’. Manager Jim MacSweeney and his team have made it a haven not just for an LGBT clientele, but also for a whole gamut of academic and general readers, with its intelligent and comprehensive range of titles, fiction and non-fiction, travel and the Arts. The bookshop has come under commercial pressure recently and is soliciting both sponsors and customers. But I have to issue a warning: no matter how hard I brace myself, I can’t go in there without emerging with at least two new tomes under my arm.

Links: and

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What Use Is the Poet Laureate?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd April, 2007

andrew-motion.jpgOn the occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday, the Society of Authors (the writers’ union, with literary added value) held a party in the Great Hall of King’s College London this evening — nice wine, execrable ‘savoury snacks’. Many writers spend their days huddled over word processors in tiny rooms, so it is good to give them an excuse to get out. The guest of honour was the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, who spoke admirably briefly, before reading two Shakespearian sonnets. In this day and age, one might with justification ask: just what is the Poet Laureate for? The post has existed for centuries; probably the first example of the title being used referred to Geoffrey Chaucer (14th Century). Amongst his successors, some more glorious than others, one thinks of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (the very embodiment of the Victorian age), and Sir John Betjamen (the nation’s teddy-bear). No wonder young Mr Motion has been finding it hard to define his role, though he does it elegantly and with modesty. However, my nerves were set on edge by the hostess of the evening, who had had the excellent idea of organising this event, but who declared that in future years it had probably better be on other dates, as it wouldn’t be right to celebrate the birthday of a white male each time. Political correctness gone mad. Are we so blind to our heritage that we no longer recognise Shakespeare’s unique quality, irrespective or ethnicity or gender? If anyone needed reminding, Andrew Motion did so movingly by reciting Sonnet Number 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments. Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove:/O No! it is an ever-fixed mark,/That looks on tempests, and is never shaken/It is the star to every wandering bark,/Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken./Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Will in his bending sickle’s compass come;/Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom./If this be error, and upon me prov’d,/I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

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There’ll be a Welcome in the Valleys

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd April, 2007

abse-book-title-page.jpgaeronwy-thomas.jpgSandwiched between political activities in Westminster and Camden, I was glad to get to Leo Abse’s 90th birthday lunch at his quintessentially English house on the riverfront at Strand on the Green, Chiswick. Leo is otherwise quintissentially Welsh, a pugnacious, pint-sized individualist who probably did more than any other single British Member of Parliament to usher in a more tolerant society during the latter half of the 20th Century, with his campaigns for decriminalising homosexuality and facilitiating divorce, to name but two. Since leaving Westminster, he has channeled his fire into books, with a prescient psycho-biography of Tony Blair, and a demolition job on Margaret Thatcher. His latest book, which I recently reviewed for the Camden New Journal, is a similarly startling examination of Daniel Defoe. The house and garden at the birthday party were crammed with well-wishers, as Leo’s successor as MP in the valleys (now called Torfaen), Paul Murphy, and the political journalist and biographer, Anthony Howard, paid tribute in speeches to this remarkable nonagenarian.

My own contact with South Wales was mostly while I was writing a biography of Dylan Thomas in the early 1990s (still the most borrowed of all my books from public libraries), about which Dylan’s daughter, Aeronwy, was kind at the time. So I was particularly sad to miss her star turn as guest of honour at the St David’s Day dinner at the National Liberal Club last month. However, I’ve been able to catch up with her latest reminiscences of life with the wayward bard through her booklet A Daughter Remembers Dylan (Merton Press, 2006), which contains a particularly enjoyable essay of returning to Laugharne and the Thomas boathouse, while trying to fend off fawning American fans, sightseers and  local hangers-on.

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It’s All Greek to Me

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st April, 2007

greek-salad.jpgHarold Margolis — who prints a lot of Liberal Democrat literature for London and beyond — turned his beautiful Georgian house and garden in Southgate into a Saturday night taverna, to host Enfield LibDems at a well-attended Greek evening, as a fund-raising social, complete with taped bouzouki music. The taramasalata, moussaka, Greek salad and baklava were washed down with wine and ouzo served from the summer-house. The ethnic choice was highly appropriate, given that Enfield is home to one of the biggest Greek and Greek Cypriot communities in the diaspora. But a number of local parties in London have discovered that theming an evening with one of our partner EU member states proves popular, often attracting armchair party members, spouses or friends — and sometimes representatives of the themed communities themselves — who might not normally attend a political speaker’s event or a run-of-the-mill social. And now that there are 27 EU member states, one is spoilt for choice. I look forward to the first local party that manages to stage a Latvian evening. Is anyone up to the challenge?

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Two Gardens in Chipping Barnet

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th April, 2007

tim-garden.jpgThough Liberal Democrats are famed for having their eyes firmly focussed on pavements, I am often impressed how many local parties display an intelligent interest in Foreign Affairs. And certainly the Party’s Foreign Affairs Team in Parliament (made up of MPs and Lords, as well as knowledgeable ‘lay people’) is as good as any that the others can field. Media-wise, as viewers of Newsnight and SkyNews will be aware, often the star in the Liberal firmament is (Lord) Tim Garden, retired Air Marshal and former Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). He was the guest of honour at a meeting and cheese-and-wine party in Barnet this evening (Friday), accompanied by his wife Sue, who nobly flew the LibDem flag in the neighbouring constituency of Finchley and Golders Green at the last General Election.

Within the 15 minutes allotted, Tim gave a tour d’horizon of the main issues featuring on the Foreign Affairs’ Team agenda at the moment — with Iraq, not surprisingly, still predominant. Though the Party has held the moral high ground on Iraq for at least four years, it has been tricky working out a plausible day-to-day policy. Merely saying ‘Told you so!’ clearly won’t do, though it must be tempting. He was maybe more favourable about Britain’s role in Afghanistan than I would have been — or at least, more optimistic about the long-term outcome. I’d prefer to think that he is right, but will reserve judgement till I get the chance to see for myself. I haven’t been to Kabul since the summer of 1969, when I travelled up the Khyber Pass from Pakistan as part of an overland journey from the Vietnam War to start undergraduate studies at Oxford University. I remember wandering through a roadside bazaar in the Afghan capital, and buying a hardback volume of Lenin in Russian, which I lugged all the way back to England. What crazy things we do when young!

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Undaunted, We View the World and Its Woes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th April, 2007

daunt-bookshop.jpgLast night, I went to the launch of Giles MacDonogh’s new book, After the Reich (John Murray), at Daunt’s, the wonderful travel bookshop in Marylebone High Street, with its atmospheric, galleried Edwardian interior and endless shelves of tantalizing tomes that make you want to leave immediately for Turkmenistan, or to start learning Finnish. I have only two really big ambitions in life: to get into the European Parliament (having covered it as a journalist in the 1970s) and to visit every member state of the United Nations. Regarding the latter aim, I have clocked up 158 of the 192 countries so far, and Daunt’s fuels my passion to get to the rest before I pop my clogs.

Giles has effectively carved out a niche for himself as a chronicler of Germany and its history, but whereas some of his earlier books are full of joy and splendour (he is a passionate Prussophile), his latest work is a much more sombre tale, detaling some of the hunger, other privations and suffering in the aftermath of the Second World War. Moreover, he was in fairly combative mood last night, urging people to buy books not online but in bookshops, even if they are more expensive there — not just because this keeps lovely bookshops functioning, but also because authors get a decent royalty on full-price books (typically 10%), whereas on discounted books, they get far less. Only one of Giles’s books ever earned out his initial advance as a result — which oddly enough, is exactly the same situation as mine.

Whereas I lecture and continue journalism as my main ways of keeping my head above water while I write books and politically activate, Giles is a notable wine correspondent (very useful for inveigling Pol Roger champagne to sponsor his book launch!) and also a painter. So the party — for which Giles had himself made focaccia — was a lively mix of the Arts, literature and politics — the latter including the Liberal Democrat peer, Lucius Falkland. I’m not sure how many books the assembled guests had written between them, but enough to fill a couple of shelves anyway! I often think book launches serve a useful purpose of boosting each other’s morale, to give each other the courage to carry on, undaunted.  

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