Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2007

Soho Days, Soho Nights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st May, 2007

paul-willetts-soho.jpgI had lunch today at the French House in Dean Street, with my great friend, the former Observer journalist (and now novelist), Mark Frankland. I’d not been to eat at the French since I researched my little volume Soho In the Fifties and Sixties — the only one of my books which sold out! The establishment is all very smart now, compared with what it was when Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon and others were around.

My mind has been cast back to that period and milieu as I’ve been reading a new book about gangsters in the area — or more accurately, Fitzrovia: North Soho 999, by Paul Willetts (who wrote an earlier, acclaimed biography of Julian Maclaren-Ross, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia), pulished by Dewi Lewis. The new book takes as its starting point a violent robbery at a second-hand jewellers in Charlotte Street, in April 1947. The prose reads like fiction, but it is all fact, based largely on police records, witness statements and the like. And as such, the book works brilliantly on two levels: as a crime story, and as a portrait of a familiar place in a bygone age.

I look back with nostalgia to a time when the Metropolitan Police expected to be able to get a cop-car to the scene of any crime in Central London within three minutes of a 999 call. But in other ways, London has improved immeasurably. Apart from the fact that there was still rationing in 1947, and the city was drab beyond words (and bomb-damaged), sixty years ago, Soho was about the only place you could find continental food and alternative lifestyles, whereas now London is the most cosmopolitan and diverse place on earth — and much the richer for it.

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Let’s Not Be Fly about Tipping

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th May, 2007

bill-bryson.jpgBill Bryson, squillionaire author of cheeky but pertinent travel books, has taken on a new guise: as Sir Galahad, confronting the litter louts. In an article in tonight’s  Evening Standard, he rails against the way that London has become Trash City. And he comes out with the startling statistic that there are over a million incidents of fly-tipping in Britain each year. I wish I could say I am surprised. But the street I walk down to get home gets its ‘delivery’ almost nightly. Yesterday morning, there was a sofa and a personal gym treadmill blocking the pavement. Last week, it was a chest of drawers. And all around this heavy duty stuff, there is a sea of small-scale rubbish, much of which is dropped by carloads of youngsters who drive into the street to eat their take-aways, and then casually dump the containers and drinks cans out of the windows. Moreover, the eastbound District Line train that takes me to Mile End is a dustbin on wheels after about 10 o’clock at night, carpetted with newspapers, bottles, and half-eaten food.

Of course, Bill Bryson is not the first prominent figure to lament this state of affairs. Jeremy Paxman said much the same thing recently — and was much derided for his pains. Therein lies much of the problem. Too many people here increasingly take it for granted that the place often looks like a pigsty and don’t think it’s a serious matter. They seem to have lost all sense of civic pride and community responsibility. Yet they marvel when they travel to the continent at how comparatively clean other major European cities are, and don’t seem to make the connection between that and the need to discourage fly-tipping and littering, by both carrot and stick. Regarding the latter, Bryson is right when he declares that ‘litterers should know that there is a good chance they will be caught and given a fine that is meaningfully painful’. Not just £50 or a conditional discharge, but something in the thousands of pounds. As he is president-designate of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, we can expect more from him on such matters. And I hope he will keep mentioning the sorry aspect of our cities as well! 


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The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th May, 2007

oscar-wilde-hambling-statue.jpgoscar-wilde-julia-wood-book.gifPassers-by in Sloane Street last night might have imagined that a film-shoot was taking place, as an open carriage, drawn by a magnificent pair of horses and bearing a solitary, diminutive figure in full Victorian black mourning dress, drew up outside the Cadogan Hotel. This was in fact the cultural critic Julia Wood, arriving for the launch of her first book, The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde: A Cultural Afterlife (The Lutterworth Press, £15). The hotel was the place where Wilde was arrested in 1895, an event commemorated in a poem by John Betjamen, which is frequently intoned by members of the Oscar Wilde Society, who were out in force at last night’s event.

As Julia Wood writes in her insightful book, Wilde is a figure who has come to mean different things to different people and the squabble over who and what he represents is part of the process of trying to make sense of his legacy. This is in a constant state of evolution, but he has achieved immortality through the reproduction of his image. He is many ways a modern figure who has helped shape the nature of our post-modern world, in which he has become an eternal, universal man.

The book correctly points out that the centenary of Wilde’s death in 2000 capitalised on millennium angst and the stock-taking that goes on at these arbitrary moments in time. The author highlights a number of the activities that were organised in the run-up to the centenary, as well as during the year itself, many of which I attended. These included the unveiling of Maggi Hambling’s remarkable statue in Adelaide Stret, near Charing Cross Station, in which Oscar is half rising from a coffin, cigarette in hand, and clearly in mid-conversation. It was he, of course, who declared that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In his resurrected form, the sinner is now widely seen as a martyred saint, and one can forgive his smug smile of satisfaction.



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Religion and Politics: Tension or Tolerance?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th May, 2007

dawood-akhoon.jpg‘Disestablishmentarianism’ is not a word I casually drop into garden party conversations, but it just popped out when Hackney LibDems held a Pizza and Politics this evening, on the theme of Religion and Politics, led by Cazenove ward councillor, Dawood Akhoon. Cazenove is unusual in that Dawood — a member of the shura of the local Muslim boys’ secondary school — has two orthodox Jews as his ward colleagues. In fact, Hackney is increasingly recognised as a place where community cohesion, involving all the local religious groups, is considerably more evident than in some other places in Britain. Dawood himself is directing a very new organisation, called React, which will be working with young people locally to promote mutual respect and tolerance — the very opposite of sectarian tensions.

All too often, however, when religion does mix with politics, it divides rather than unites — which is why countries such as France and Turkey cling so strongly to secularism, with both good and bad consequences. However, post-9/11, a sizeable section of Britain’s Muslim population — not least the young — feels unfairly targetted and under suspicion, as a consequence of the activities of a small number of extremists who are by no means representative of the wider community. On the other hand, the situation has been made worse by the inflammatory teachings of a minority of foreign-trained religious leaders who have little understanding of (let alone sympathy with) Britain’s liberal society.

Not surprisingly, in a LibDem gathering, there was a consensus on the principle of ‘live and let live’, and the importance of individual freedoms. But there was far less agreement on the desirability of faith schools — something which Dawood supports, not least on the grounds of their often high level of discipline and academic success. There was nonetheless a general feeling that the time has come when it is difficult to justify the continuation of an Established Church in this country. The idea of King Charles as Head of England’s official Church in the 21st century is grotesque, though would the Heir Apparent’s self-redefinition of ‘Defender of the Faiths’ be a sufficient improvement?  

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Two Lords a-Leaping

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd May, 2007

matthew-oakeshott.jpgbill-rodgers-book.jpgThere was a refined debate on House of Lords reform at the Kensington and Chelsea LibDems’ ‘Food for Thought’ tonight, with the peers Matthew Oakeshott and Bill Rodgers respectively arguing for and against a predominantly or wholly elected second chamber. LibDem MPs are quite clear about their line: they would like to see an 80-100% elected House, with the elected members serving for a single period of 12 years — a proposition which seems sensible to me. The elections would be under an STV PR system using regional lists, probably the same areas as the current Euro-regions. If the House were reduced in size to about 450 members, as Matthew Oakeshott suggested, that would mean almost twice as many representatives for Greater London in the Upper House as we have in the European Parliament, which should guarantee fairer representation than at present. As Matthew said, the current make-up of the House — although containing many fine people — is overwhelmingly old, white and male. In fact, the average age is 68.

However, Bill Rodgers — who has often described himself as the fourth of the Gang of Four, though he went on to be Leader of the LibDems in the Lords — argued that having a second elected chamber would cause terrible rivalries with the House of Commons and provoke instability for years to come. He was totally opposed to any hereditary peers staying on, however, and would like to see an independent selection panel, rather than the current system, where effectively peerages are in the gift of the Prime Minister (albeit after consultation with the leaders of other parties). But his strongest argument was that the House of Lords has been working rather well as it is and benefits from its often highly qualified specialists in a wide range of fields. Interestingly, although a straw poll at the beginning of the meeting showed a small majority in favour of a largely or entirely elected Upper House, at the end of the debate, Bill Rodgers’ counter-proposition won by a single vote.

It is 96 years since the then Liberal government first talked of an elected House of Lords (or Senate or whatever it would be called), ‘in time’. The question is: has that time now arrived? The answer is far from clear.

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Camden One Year On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd May, 2007

ben-rawlings.jpgjanet-grauberg.jpgjill-fraser.jpgAnne Sofer — who represented St Pancras North on the old GLC, first for Labour, and then for the SDP — hosted a feedback and feed-the-troops event at her home in Primrose Hill this evening, to celebrate one year of LibDem-led control of Camden Council — perhaps the greatest shock of the 2006 London local elections, as least as far as the media were concerned. A trio of leading figures from the new administration gave presentations and answered questions: Jill Fraser (who has just finished her term as the first LibDem Mayor in the Borough’s history), Janet Grauberg (Executive Member for Resources — i.e. setting Council Tax inter alia), and Ben Rawlings (Executive Member for Community Safety).

They’re amongst the most high profile portfolios in local government and not surprisingly have attracted a lot of media attention over the past 12 months — in which the LibDems have had to make the transition from favoured opposition to the people now in control — and therefore under close scrutiny, and occasionally attack. This sort of situation often comes as something of a shock to parties which have enjoyed years of sniping at those in power, often with a supportive press, only to find themselves suddenly on the other side of the fence. Anyway, the Camden LibDems stuck to their guns, and with their Conservative junior partners honoured their manifesto commitment not to increase the local element of council tax (there was nothing they could do about Ken Livingstone’s increased London precept). Accordingly, some cuts have been made, which inevitably has raised hackles in some quarters. What the electorate thinks of all this should be clearer after the 12 July Haverstock ward by-election, caused by the resignation of a veteran Labour councillor. Jill Fraser herself was elected in a by-election in Haverstock, so the local party will be pulling out all the stops to repeat that success.

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Applying the Brake to Ken

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd May, 2007

ken-livingstone-1.jpgtom-brake.jpgThe Liberal Democrat spokesman for London, Tom Brake, MP, was the guest speaker last  night at Westminster LibDems’ Paella and Politics (they do things differently in Bayswater).  His theme was standing up to Ken Livingstone in the GLA and London Mayoral elections next year. Tom cut his political teeth as a councillor in Hackney, where squatters once abseiled into the council chamber in the town hall, and Paddy Ashdown tackled a mob of poll-tax protestors. Tom then headed for a tamer milieu: Sutton, first as a councillor once more, then as MP for Carshalton and Wallington. As the LibDems have been in power in Sutton since 1986, they must be doing something right — not least with the environment, according to pundits.

Would that the same could be said for Mayor Ken. Council tax bills in London have gone up sharply thanks largely to his inflated precept. But what do we have to show for it? Tom highlighted three areas of special concern for LibDems next year: housing, transport and crime. I shall focus on transport. As someone who relies entirely on public transport, I pay over £160 a month (yes, £40 a week), for my Oyster card, to get me round the city. It’s true that there are far more buses than there used to be — sometimes too many in Oxford Street! — but the rest of the network is, frankly, crap. Anyone who commutes to work by rail or by underground will know what I mean.

We have the most expensive and the worst metro system in Europe. Take this evening, for example. To get to La Maya restaurant in Porchester Road from the National Liberal Club should have been a quick and simple ride on the Circle Line from Embankment to Bayswater. But it took nearly an hour. I was stuck for 20 minutes on Embankment station before the tannoy announced that there were no clockwise Circle Line trains running. And that there were serious delays on the District Line, the Metropolitan and City Line, and the Piccadilly Line, necessitating a radical and roundabout change of route. The journey home was even worse. The ‘easy run’ on the Central Line from Queensway to Mile End turned into a one-and-a-half hour odyssey by tube and bus, as all underground trains (when one came, it was packed to the gills) were terminating at Liverpool Street, ‘because of a defective train at Woodford’ (excuse me?). I rant on about this, not because I am having a premature Victor Meldrew moment, but because this is the sort of thing Londoners are meant to put up with, day in day out. And pay through the nose for.

In a comment at the dinner, I suggested that what the LibDems need for 2008 is a narrative, and a clear slogan, such as ‘Giving Londoners a city they can be proud of’. That is something over the past seven years that Ken, for all his flair for personal publicity, has singularly failed to deliver.


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Paddy’s Battle for the Holy Land

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th May, 2007

jerusalem.jpgPaddy Ashdown had his first airing as a major television documentary presenter this evening, with a two-hour film on Channel 4, on the thorny subject of Jerusalem. He was an inspired choice, given his personal experience of two other divided cities: Belfast and Sarajevo, both of which have subsequently enjoyed a degree of peace, if not total reconciliation, that has so far has eluded the spiritual capital of Israel/Palestine. Moreover, he can claim a degree of objectivity, as someone who believes in the right of the state of Israel to exist, in security, as well as demanding justice for the Palestinian people. The challenge is how to find a way forward to achieve both those goals, when there are plenty of people on either side who take an all-or-nothing approach.

In the film, Paddy said that Jerusalem was the most divided city he had ever encountered: between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, and numerous varieties of Christians as well. One of the more intriguing tangents explored in the story was the Byzantine manoeuvrings within the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City, and its relations with the wider community. But the main focus was inevitably on the central Jewish-Muslim divide that has dominated the situation since the Six Day War and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, 40 years ago. The late King Hussein of Jordan (which had administered East Jerusalem until 1967) had argued that the question of sovereignty would only be solved when people accepted that only God has sovereignty over Jerusalem — and after all, the three ‘Religions of the Book’ all have the same God.

Being a politician, rather than a priest or a king, Paddy came up with a six-point plan, as a blueprint for how things might be taken forward: (1) to accept that Jerusalem is at the heart of the Middle East conflict, which means that it is the issue that should be tackled first, not last, as has tended to be the case; (2) people need to recognise that the people of Jerusalem have a shared history, and that terrible things have been done by both sides in the Arab/Israeli conflict; (3) Jerusalem cannot be owned by one faith, so holy places must be shared; (4) there needs to be a status quo agreement for all holy places — as already exists between the different Christian denominations, in the previously disputed interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — as well as a permanent forum for dialogue; (5) there should be a Charter of Rights for all residents of Jerusalem, irrespective of religion; (6) the Israeli Security Wall must come down, as part of an agreement that includes a gurantee of the ending of violent attacks against Israelis.

Can such a blueprint succeed? Given the intransigence shown by some people interviewed in the programme, the prospects might seem bleak. But such was the case in Northern Ireland, yet we now see Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams side-by-side. In the meantime, the situation in Jerusalem is being aggravated by a failure to hold proper consultations or negotiations; instead, there is a dialogue of the deaf. Moreover, as Paddy said, the discrimination against Palestinians by the Israeli authorities is not only unjust but stupid; it is counter-productive, engineering new resentments and hatred. That loathing and mistrust filters down right through the population. When I was in the West Bank for the BBC World Service a few years ago, making a radio documentary on the contrasting lives of one Palestinan Arab family and one Jewish settler family, the most troubling comments came from the youngest children of each. The little Jewish girl asked me if the Palestinian family would kill me when I went to visit them. And the little Palestinian boy, when I asked him what he thought of his Jewish neighbours, declared: ‘They are pollution!’

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Squaring up to Belarus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th May, 2007

yury-khashchavatski.jpgThe Lithuanian tourism office (next door to the London embassy, in Gloucester Place) hosted a private screening of Ploshcha (The Square) by the Belarussian dissident film-maker Yury Khashchavatski this evening, in his presence. It is an extraordinarily powerful documentary about the democratic protest movement that developed in the run-up to last year’s presidential elections, which saw President Aleksandr Lukashenko comfortably returned (to cries of ‘foul!’ from the opposition). The film brought tears of laughter from the audience with its early scenes, not least provoked by the vox pop interviews with baboushkas in a one-cow village, where there is only one, old, disabled man left, plus a couple of dozy dogs; the women ranted about lack of money, fuel and everything else, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with the ‘fucking outside world’. They were sure everything must be alright in Belarus, except in their village. But then the action moved to young people camping out in freezing conditions on October Square in Minsk, waving both national and EU flags and calling for reforms, until the heavy squads, with up-market leather gauntlets containing knuckle-dusters, moved in and carted them off to jail. By this time, not a few people at the screening were crying in empathy with the bravery and dignity of the protestors. Yury Khashchavatski says that the President allegedly smashed up two chairs in rage when he saw this film (which is not on public release inside the country, of course, though it is circulating in an estimated 200,000 samizdat DVDs and versions downloaded from the internet). At least that is a slight improvement. After the last film he made, giving an unflattering portrait of Lukashenko, he was literally beaten senseless.


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Wimbledon Goes Green

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 17th May, 2007

norman-baker.jpgMerton LibDems put on a well-attended public meeting on climate change in South Wimbledon this evening. The Party’s Environment spokesman, Chris Huhne, had been syphoned off at short notice to appear on ‘Question Time’, but his place was ably filled by his predecessor in charge of that portfolio, Norman ‘Parliamentary Questions’ Baker, MP for Lewes. Norman characteristically fizzed with enthusiasm and outrage, and pulled no punches. At one stage he referred to George W. Bush as a ‘climate criminal’, who deserves some appropriate punishment (being dropped onto an iceberg with the world’s last surviving polar bear, I mused), but he demonstrated his even-handedness by paying credit to what California and the north-western states of the US have been doing on green issues. However, Norman thundered, ‘the response of Western governments [to climate change] over the past 10 years has been pitiful.’

Bio-diversity has taken a terrible setback. ‘Conservationists tell me that we’re probably losing a species every 45 minutes,’ he said. At present, only about three to four per cent of our energy comes from renewable resources. Had Tony Blair or Gordon Brown been in the meeting hall this evening, I suspect he would have felt like a naughty schoolboy hauled before the headmaster for a dressing-down. Moreover, one could almost hear the applause from the residents across South West London when Norman declared that LibDems want to see no more aviation capacity, especially in South East England. ‘Get the train!’ was the message, in situations where that is feasible. And with that the effervescent MP hurried along to the tube, to be fresh tomorrow for the House of Commons, where he will once again take up the cudgels to try to prevent an appalling (Tory) private member’s bill, which aims to exempt parliament from Freedom of Information requirements. 

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