Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November, 2007

Tim Garden’s Thanksgiving Service

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th November, 2007

tim-garden.jpgHundreds of politicians, service personnel and friends of the late (Lord) Tim Garden thronged St Clement Danes church in the Strand in London this afternoon, for a thanksgiving service for his life. The choir of St Clement Danes provided sublime music, including ‘Lift Up Your Heads’ from Handel’s Messiah and the ‘Gloria’ from Schubert’s Mass in G. There were three memorable tributes from the pulpit: Tim’s widow Sue (now a peer in her own right, as Baroness Garden of Frognal); Andrew Brookes, an air force chum and life-long friend; and Lord (John) Roper, who knew Tim both through Chatham House and when Tim was himself ennobled. Both Garden daughters read, Antonia a moving poem by S Hall Young, and Alexandra Romans 12, vv9-18, 21.

‘After the service, we will walk to King’s College, for a reception in the Great Hall,’ Tim had told John Roper, as he made the preparations during his terminal cancer. And indeed we did, sad at a great man’s passing, but joyful that he brought so much intelligence, commitment and joie de vivre to all our lives.

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The Poet and the Politician

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th November, 2007

ian-gibson-mp.jpgwendy-cope.jpgThe Annual General Meeting of the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) is not normally a contentious or exciting gathering, however pleasant it might be, but this evening’s event at the Law Society in London’s Chancery Lane was something of a departure. It had been decided that both the Society of Authors and the Writers Guild, who were in at the ALCS’s modest beginning 30 years ago, would lose their corporate membership status and their places on the governing board, all of the directors henceforth being subject to direct election by the 60,000 membership. But the Writers Guild did not relinquish its special place without a certain overt sadness. However, the ALCS has moved on since 1977, with an income of over £22 million this year. Like many writers, I depend on its good services to collect royalties due from photocopies, overseas editions etc. Now it faces the burgeoning challenges of the digital age — a nightmare for anyone trying to keep track of copyright compliance.

That was the theme of one of the evening’s guest addresses, a witty but also quite piquant perfomance by the popular poet Wendy Cope, who is forever coming across examples of her verse on the web (sometimes not even attributed). All very flattering, some people might think, until one realises that this is (a) illegal, and (b) deprives the author of any related revenue. The other address was from Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, formerly an academic scientist, and now kingpin of the new All Party Writers Group that was established in the Houses of Parliament just a week ago, to bring together MPs and peers not only of a literary bent but also committed to promoting the interests of writers.


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Lobbying Parliament on Palestine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 28th November, 2007

palestine.jpgSeveral members of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (LDFP) went to the House of Common this afternoon to see Acting Leader Vince Cable, as part of a mass lobby of parliament on Palestine. (Lord) David Steel would have joined us, but was instead whisked off to be interviewed by Sky TV. However, several of Vince’s Twickenham constituents joined in the meeting, after which some of us were also able to talk to the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, Michael Moore.

Ever since I first went to Israel/Palestine with David Steel over 20 years ago, I have followed events in the Middle East closely and share the despair of the Palestinians who see themselves no nearer a viable, independent Palestinian state now than they were then. In fact, given the increasing fragmentation of the West Bank as a direct result of illegal Israeli setlements and the roads that link them, the Wall, and the de facto seperation of Gaza from the West Bank with Hamas’s takeover of the former, a just settlement seems further away than ever. Whatever warm words come out of Annapolis, it is clear that the road ahead is long and stony.

As John McHugo, Chairman of LDFP, said in the meeting with Vince, too often both sides in the conflict have concentrated on their rights and the other’s obligations; the only way forward is for both to recognise both. The Quartet’s peace initiatives have so far achieved little, but they need to be reinvigorated — perhaps by the expansion to a ‘quintet’, with the inclusion of the Arab League, as recommended at the LibDems autumn conference. In the meantime, the world is not giving sufficient attention to the gravity and urgency of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Britain, the EU and all other interested players need to address this issue immediately.


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The Doha Debates

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th November, 2007

qatar-foundation.jpgHaving heard both the LibDem leadership candidates frequently over the past few months, singly and together, I opted out of the London Hustings at Friends House tonight, and instead repaired to the glorious upstairs function room of One Great George Street for a reception to celebrate the Doha Debates, self-described as ‘Qatar’s unique forum for free speech in the Arab world’. While much of the British media was hovering around in the cold outside the Oxford Union last night, inside the Cambridge Union a more civilised debate was taking place, chaired by my former BBC colleague Tim Sebastian, on ‘This House Believes Britain’s Role in the Middle East Is in Terminal Decline’. Speaking for the motion had been the former Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and the Muslim LibDem peer, Kishwer Falkner (née Khan), while those opposing were former (Conservative) British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and the Al Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham. I shan’t spoil things by telling you which side won; those of you who can watch BBC World can see the whole thing on two separate occasions each this Saturday and Sunday.

The Doha debates are normally held at the headquarters of the Qatar Foundation in Doha, and explore burning issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds. It may surprise those who think of the Arabian Gulf as a desert for freedom of expression to learn that these debates were established to promote freedom of spech and democratic decision-making through debating (along singularly British lines, I have to say). Half of the audience in the debates in Doha is made up of high school and university students from a wide range of Middle Eastern and neighbouring countries who are studying in Qatar. Qatar is also the headquarters of Al Jazeera Arabic language TV, of course — a real thorn in both Washington and Riyadh’s sides. It was good to see some representatives of Al Jazeera’s English-language services at the reception tonight.


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A Night with the Sohemians

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th November, 2007

d-j-taylor-bright-young-people.jpgLast evening, I left off writing about Bohemian London in the post-War years for a while, to join the Sohemians (sic) at their gathering in the first floor room at the Wheatsheaf Pub in Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia, to hear D.J. Taylor talk about his new book ‘Bright Young People’ (Chatto & Windus, £20) — all about the dissipated jeunesse dorée of the 1920s who were parodied so memorably by Evelyn Waugh in ‘Vile Bodies’. David Taylor particularly highlighted the lives of two brilliant figures who never quite achieved anything significant, the Honourable Elizabeth Ponsoby (daughter of a prominent former Liberal MP, who had become Labour leader in the House of Lords) and the dilletante Brian Howard, who was always on the verge of writing the most marvellous book, but never quite managed to get round to it. When Stephen Fry made a film a few years ago about this group, he rightly imbued more than a note of tragedy. And in the case of one of their number, Brenda Dean Paul, who became addicted to morphine, the tragedy was complete. This is a world I came into contact with while writing my biography of Ronald Firbank — which looks as though it will at last see the light of day at the beginning of 2008 — and although the people had changed by the time Dylan Thomas and other characters of my ‘Soho in the Fifties and Sixties’ came along, much of the geography of Sohemia was the same. And at least some of it I find myself revisiting while working on my current project, the life of Feliks Topolski. It’s extraordinary how such a small part of this big city that has become my home should repeatedly draw people in, like moths to a flame. And indeed, as D. J. Taylor made clear tonight, some of them did indeed get burned, though others danced unharmed in its amber glow.


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What a Wasted Opportunity

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th November, 2007

When I saw that yesterday’s Observer had a three-page cover story on the European Parliament in its review section, I thought, ‘Great! It’s about time one of the mainstream media explained to the public what the European Parliament does.’ But after reading only the first few paragraphs of Tim Adams’ piece, it became clear to me that this was a hatchet job. The writer gives the impression of having done no serious homework before he went to Strasbourg, and the fact that the one British MEP whose interview he used was the Euro-sceptic Tory Daniel Hannan — considered beyond the pale even by some of his Conservative MEP colleagues — speaks volumes. He also reports on a speech by a UKIP member. So much for political balance. Some of Tim Adams’ ‘facts’ are plain wrong: for example,  a majority of MEPs are NOT ‘unloved politicians who have scraped through national ballots with 20 per cent turnouts’, as he puts it. The whole tone of that phrase, as well as its inaccuracy, sums up the character of the piece. What a wasted opportunity! Moreover, whatever did the Editor of the Observer or its review section have in mind when it commissioned or sanctioned such a biased feature? One might have expected it from the Mail on Sunday, or even the Sunday Times, which make no secret of their Europhobia. But from the Observer? I, for one, will be writing to the paper in protest, and hope others do likewise.

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On the Floor with Béjart

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 25th November, 2007

maurice-bejart.jpgWe human beings like to think that we order our lives, but so much that happens is a matter of chance. This thought came to me powerfully as I read the obituaries of the French choreographer Maurice Béjart, who has died, aged 80. Although often derided for his exoticsm and experimentalism by British dance critics, he had almost God-like status in Brussels during the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, when his company was based at the Théatre de la Monnaie. Almost by accident, I got caught up in the Béjart world for a while. I was writing regularly for an English-language weekly magazine in Belgium — still going strong — called the Bulletin, which sent me to accompany the Ballet when it went to Venice. There I met the set designer and painter Thierry Bosquet, who became a sort of honorary uncle in my life, and through him I got to know many of the dancers, the technicians and all the rest of the Béjart crew, as well as Béjart himself. I guess it is typical of ballet companies that they are a world unto themselves, almost cut off from normal existence. That was certainly the case for the Ballet Béjart. And for that little, self-contained world, he was the sun, the source of energy and inspiration. Once I was asked to do a long interview with him (for The Bulletin), which took place in a rehearsal room with a wooden floor. To my surprise, before we started, he asked me to lie down on my back on the floor, as he did himself, and to feel the vibrations of the place. Even at the time, this struck me as a very Sixties’ thing to do, but the odd thing was that I did feel extraordinary vibrations, and still to this day, I can’t be sure whether these came from distant trams, or from him.

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Peggie Preston: A Life for Peace

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th November, 2007

peggie-preston.jpgI was sad to learn of the death earlier this week of Peggie Preston, veteran peace campaigner, at the age of 84. We first met in the Quaker Meeting in Saigon in the summer of 1969, when I was a teenage reporter covering the Vietnam War, and she was staying out at Phu Mi, working with various Buddhist anti-government activists as well as with children in need of care. She was one of those people who follow the world’s crises round, as indeed some journalists do, but in her case she was always activating for peace, treating the physically or emotionally wounded, and helping to publicise injustice. Before Vietnam, she had been in South Africa, working in the huge black Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, where she had to deal with some of the injured from the Sharpeville massacre. More recently, she was in Iraq during the last years of Saddam Hussein. She resigned from her longstanding membership of the Labour Party when Tony Blair joined George Bush in invading that country. Though she suffered a lot of pain in her legs and found getting around increasingly difficult in her old age, she could still be stirred from her little council flat in Wild Street, Covent Garden, to promote causes she believed in, including speaking in defence of Brian Haw, whose ongoing demonstration in Parliament Square has been such a pain to the government, and Palestine.

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Free to Speak

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd November, 2007

This evening I returned to Broadcasting House for the first time for several years. It was there that I used to do ‘Thought for th Day’ (live) on the ‘Today’ programme for a dozen years, before that moved out to White City. I even started off the evening in the Council Room where I attended so many ‘Thought for the Day’ Christmas parties in th past — but this time, it was for a drinks reception before the recording of the Reith Global Debate, launching the 75th anniversary celebrations of the BBC World Service, for which I have done so much work over the past quarter of a century (indeed, I was in Bush House this morning, recording a ‘From Our Own Correspondent’).

The participants in the debate were three previous Reith lecturers: the philosopher Baroness (Onora) O’Neill, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and — on a particularly capricious line from New York — the economist Jeffrey Sachs. A lot of the debate was about whether there need to be some curbs on the freedom of expression. Wole Soyinka, interestingly, gave a strong secularist argument for restraining religious zealots, while Jeffrey Sachs launched a full-frontal attack on the mainstream US media’s supine suport for the Iraq War. Baroness O’Neill, as one might expect, philosophised about the whole concept of trust. From an invited audience that ranged from Jeremy Corbyn, MP, to the ‘Independent’ columnist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, there were some pretty trenchant questions. The whole debate can be heard on the World Service on Sunday 9 December.


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Hattersley Praises Liberals’ “Impeccable” European Credentials

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd November, 2007

roy-hattersley.jpgAt a lunchtime seminar in the National Liberal Club, organised by the Local Government Group for Europe (LGE), Lord (Roy) Hattersley, former deputy leader of the Labour Party, ‘Guardian’ columnist, social historian and novelist , today issued a clarion call for pro-Europeans to go out and make the case for Europe. He praised what he called the Liberals’ impeccable record on Europe, and urged the Prime Minister to resist pressure for a referendum. ‘Referenda are the last refuge of governments in distress,’ he declared, adding that when Ming Campbell departed he was sad the LibDem policy of a referendum on staying in the EU did not go with him.

Charles Kennedy was the other main speaker at the event, clearly now on a Euro-roll. He said that in 1975, the Highlands and Islands had voted against EU membership, but that now they would vote in favour, as everywhere there is evidence (duly signed) of projects funded by the EU. He berated Gordon Brown for using the rhetoric of the Euro-sceptics to justify positive things about Europe. A change of tone is needed.

Roy Hattersley stood down as President of the LGE at the AGM immediately preceeding the seminar, ending a six-year stint. He wants time to work on his next book: appropriately enough, given the surroundings, a biography of David Lloyd-George.


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