Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for September, 2009

Previewing the Bournemouth Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 16th September, 2009

Ruth PollingThis evening I attended Islington Liberal Democrats’ traditional pre-Conference Pizza and Politics, at which local party members get the chance to discuss what will be coming up on the agenda (at Bournemouth, from this Saturday, in this instance). Islington South PC Bridget Fox chaired the event, at which presentations were made by Ruth Polling (of the Federal Conference Committee) and Jeremy Hargreaves (the latter hotfoot from chairing a meeting of the Federal Policy Committee). How much hotter off the press can you get? Moreover, this year we had the bonus that the emergency motions had already been discussed by Conference Committe well in advance, rather than being left up until the last minute, so now we know that there will be one on Afghanistan (thank God, as there is precious little else relating to foreign affairs); the others will be balloted on. The main item for debate will be the pre-manifesto for the general election. I would have preferred some of its language to be punchier, but the contant is sound and there is an acknowledgement that no-one can know exactly what the economic situation will be in six or nine months time.

Jeremy HargeavesIslington LibDms, in contrast to many other London local parties seem to have an unending supply of generous hosts with beautiful houses (and a willingness to throw them open to a horde of enthusiastic activists gesticulating while holding glasses of wine and plates of pizza). These evenings are a good fund-raising tool and give ordinary party members the chance to have some input into the Conference itself, even if they are not going to attend it in person. Does either the Labour or Conservative Party do the same? No prizes for guessing the correct answer to that.

Link: www.libdems.org.uk/conference.html

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Lisbon’s Number 28 Tram

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th September, 2009

Lisbon tram number 28Trams have long been one of the iconic symbols of the Portuguese capital, especially the little wood-lined carriages that beetle up and down the city’s cobbled, hilly streets. Perhaps the most celebrated of all is the one I’ve been taking every day to get home to a friend’s apartment in Graça. It makes its way down from the cafés and bookshops of smart Chiado, across the flat straight of Baixa before it begins its long climb past the cathedral and along the increasingly winding streets up to Graça. At one point, the way is so narrow that one can touch the walls of the buildings on either side, if you stretch your arm out of the window. As the route takes in a couple of magnificent panoramic views, as well as passing as close as one can get to the Castle by this means of transport, the Number 28 is popular with tourists — who have suddenly become much more numerous in Lisbon in recent years. For decades, the city was Western Europe’s last remaining secret capital.

Tennessee Williams wrote a celebrated play about a streetcar named Desire, and I can well imagine a novelist could write a memorable book about the Number 28 tram and those who use it, as well as the residents of the buildings it trundles past.

[photo: Stephen Rees]

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Portugal’s Persil Politics

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th September, 2009

Jose SocratesAs the first hint of autumn arrives with cool evenings in Lisbon, some people, at least, are getting into general election mode. The country will go to the polls on 27 September, with the photogenic socialist Prime Minister, José Sócrates, campaigning hard for re-election. While I was sitting at the Brasileira café last night, I was handed one of his party’s glossy pamphlets, but my reaction was not what the party activist was expecting. The thing that struck me immediately was that every single face shown in the pamphlet was white. As Lisbon is as multi-ethnic as London (for the same reason of colonial legacy), the literature was in no way representative of the society the politicians aspire to serve. Not so long ago, one would have found the same situation with British political leaflets, of course, though I hope that these days that would be impossible, in the capital at least, apart from the BNP’s.

The irony is that Lisbon is actually launching a cultural campaign this week to celebrate the city’s diversity. How come the politicians (particularly the socialists) didn’t spot the inconsistency? But it alas symptomatic of a conscious or unconscious racism that still exists at many levels in Portuguese society. A Brazilian friend of mine here in Lisbon was horrified when a Portuguese colleague yesterday commented to him (approvingly) about Barack Obama, ‘Ah, that man is a negro with a white head!’

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1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th September, 2009

Peter Millar book coverAs the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, the bookshops are filling up with commemorative and interpretative volumes. One of the most welcome is Peter Millar’s 1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall (Arcadia Books, £11.99), which will be launched at the Frontline Club in London on 1 October. Peter followed me from Oxford into Reuters at the news agency’s old Fleet Street offices and then as the baby in the set-up in the International Press Centre in Brussels, though he lasted longer than I did. I resigned while still in Brussels when I received my first book contract  (for The Great Wall of China), whereas he went on to work for Reuters in East Berlin and then Moscow, before moving over to the Sunday Telegraph and then the Sunday Times.

We didn’t meet up in East Berlin when he was posted there, though I was going in and out of the place frequently at the time, visiting Quakers and other people involved in what became the Swords into Ploughshares movement which was the forerunner of civil unrest that would eventually see the edifice of DDR authority collapse like a house of cards. By the time 1989 came round, I was at Bush House as a sort of ‘rest of the world’ commentator for the BBC World Service and at times rather envied those who could concentrate on the disintegration of European communism. I did go to Berlin again shortly after the Wall came down, however. Rather than  bringing back a chunk of that graffiti-daubed monument, I bought a very fetching Soviet sailor´s cap for US$1 from a tipsy Russian instead.

Peter Millar’s book — whose title is a deliberate nod of homage to the late, great Spike Milligan — is full of telling anecdote and seamlessly blends autobiography with historical reportage. There are a few go0od laughs, but much of the tale is suitably serious. There was indeed euphoria on the night of 9 November 1989, as the Wall was breached — I shed a tear of joy myself, watching the scenes on TV at home in London — but there was anguish too. Peter was able to smile wrily at some details he later discovered in his Stasi files. But for many of my friends and colleagues, what they then found out about the system they had been forced to live under for so many years was in many cases even more traumatising than what they had imagined.

Link: www.arcadiabooks.co.uk

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Sir Richard Dannatt Sent to the Tower!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 7th September, 2009

Sir Richard DannattThe outspoken former Head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt — who doubtless caused Gordon Brown many sleepless nights with his caustic comments about aspects of the adequacy of provision for British soldiers in Afghanistan — has been sent to the Tower of London. All my O-level history came flooding back to me when I heard that. For many inhabitants of the Tower, it was the ultimate punishment, leading to death. But of course, Sir Richard has not been sent to the Tower as a prisoner (the last people reportedly to suffer that indignity were the Kray twins, for refusing to do military service). Instead, he has been named Constable at the Tower — the person theoretically overseeing the prisoners held there. I don’t know if the Queen was responsible for this appointment, but if so, ‘Nice one, your Maj!’

The Constable historically holds the keys of the Tower of London and to celebrate the arrival of the new incumbent, Tower Hamlets Council is encouraging borough residents to go to their local library or Idea Store (the meedja centres that have replaced many of the old libraries) and hand over unwanted keys, with a tag attached on which they have written a story or some detail of significance relating to each key; these will then form the central feature of an exhibition.  I have a whole drawer full of them; so many memories, but also so many totally forgotten places and objects, even people. Tower Hamlets lead councillor for Culture, Rofique U Ahmed, comments, ‘The keys to the Tower of London have unlocked the secrets of Britain’s most notable historic figures, so this exhibition is sure to interest everybody.’ I am not always flattering about what my local, Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets council gets up to, but this I think is a really neat idea.

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Jon Cruddas is Labour’s Greek Chorus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 6th September, 2009

Jon CruddasAccording to The Observer, Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas will give a blistering speech to the Labour pressure group Compass on Tuesday, castigating the Labour leadership for failing to capitalise on the Conservatives’ difficulties over the summer. Remember Daniel Hannan MEP’s rubbishing of the NHS? And the Tories’ leaving the biggest grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP, to start a new entity with the flotsam and jetsam of central and eastern European fringe politics? And just how many Tory MPs had their snouts in the troughs/moats/duck islands in the expenses scandal? This all gave the perfect opportunity for Gordon Brown to strike back, Cruddas argues. But did he? Oh no.

‘Presented with this golden opportunity to galvanise ourselves and unite behind a clear anti-Tory message we seem paralysed; afraid of using our Labour principles as the basis to lay bare the shallowness of Cameron’s project,’ he is reported to be going to say. ‘We seem to be meekly accepting defeat, unable to show what we believe in.’

Jon Cruddas did very well in the last Labout deputy leadership election; had I been a Labour Party member (a difficult hypothesis to sustain, I agree), I would have voted for him. He had fire and principles. But the Labour Party at the moment appears to be a lost cause. So it is now up to the Liberal Democrats to expose the shallowness of the Cameron project and the bankruptcy of New Labour.

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Rehabilitating Alan Turing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd September, 2009

Alan TuringI spent the past couple of days at Sherborne School in Dorset, briefing teachers who are going out to Qatar tomorrow to open a branch of Sherborne in Doha. As the Headmaster was showing us round the (English) school, I was delighted to hear him pay tribute to old boy Alan Turing, who was a key figure in cracking the Nazis’ enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, but later commited suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide, following his prosecution for gross indecency and his chemical castration. The man who even Time magazine once cited as among the 100 most important men in the 20th century has consequently never truly been accorded the public recognition he deserves in Britain — particularly when one considers how important he was in the development of modern computers. It is terrific that Sherborne School now portrays him as a hero to the boys, warts and all.

Meanwhile, thanks to the hard work of John Graham-Cumming, author of The Geek Atlas, an online petition to Gordon Brown (as Prime Minister) to ‘ap0logise for the persecution of Alan Turing that led to his untimely death.’ Well over 26,000 people have already signed and the petition is open for another four-and-a-half months. Oscar Wilde has long been accorded the stellar position he deserves in the British literary firmament. It would be fitting that Alan Turing achieves the same happy outcome in its scientific equivalent.

[Postscript 12 September: Gordon Brown has indeed now issued an elegant and sincere apology. Thank you, Number 10!]

Link: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/turing

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Celebrating Sweden’s EU Presidency

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 1st September, 2009

Cecilia MalmstromThe Yehudi Menuhin room at the European Parliament in Brussels was packed to the gills this evening, for a reception hosted by the Parliament Magazine (the EU equivalent of the UK’s House Magazine), to celebrate Sweden’s six-month EU presidency. That presidency actually began on 1 July, but continental Europe has effectively been asleep for the past month. At least the European Parliament is up and running again, unlike Britain’s House of Commons, which will slumber on well into October.  So many people turned up for this evening’s jamboree that the champagne soon ran out (a bit like a fringe event at the LibDem Party Conference, really), but people consoled themselves with typical Swedish delicacies including pickled herring, shrimps and IKEA meatballs. My longtime political chum, former MEP and now Sweden’s Minister for Europe, Cecilia Malmström, valiantly made a short speech, over the cacophony of interns’ chatter, flagging up some of Stockholm’s priorities before the end of the year. Obviously, economic recovery figures large, as does getting a strong united front on climate change in advance of the Copenhagen summit, but I was pleased to see that Sweden is also pushing a Baltic Sea initiative,  as well as promoting the EU candidacies of the Western Balkans and Turkey.

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