Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November, 2009

Have the Media Lost All Sense of News Values?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th November, 2009

Sun Brown letterGiven all that there is going on in the world at the moment, it is astonishing and depressing that the British media — including the BBC — have gone totally over the top on the story of Gordon Brown’s handwritten note to Jacqui Janes, the mother of one of Britain’s latest Afghanistan casualties. Let us remind ourselves that the reason this is ‘a story’ is because the Sun newspaper, that most reptilian of organs, has tried to smear Mr Brown by concentrating on his bad handwriting, spelling mistakes etc, while trying to spin that the Prime Minister has insulted the bereaved parent, though I have no doubt that he (having lost one child himself) was being sincere. The Sun, of course, recently announced that it was switching from supporting Labour to the Conservative in its editorial policy, but this whole episode is a shoddy way to underline that point. What is even more disgraceful, though, is that the BBC, in particular, should allow its agenda to be set by a highly partisan piece in the Sun, therefore itself putting Gordon Brown in the pillory. There have been repeated, extended TV news items on the story over the past day or so. Rightly, this evening, the BBC report did acknowledged that the Corporation had received an unprecendented number of emails protesting that the Prime Minister was being treated unfairly on this issue. It would have been interesting for viewers also to have been told how many emails arrived saying that the BBC seemed to have lost its sense of news values, along with most of the rest of the British media.

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Mdina, The Silent City

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 9th November, 2009

MdinaI suppose technically any town that boasts a cathedral qualifies as a city, but few can be as small or as exquisite as the hilltop former capital of Malta, Mdina. The city houses only a few hundred inhabitants, but a whole series of beautiful baroque palaces and churches (including the Cathedral of St Paul) are gathered within its Norman walls. A notice at Mdina’s entrance boasts that its origins date back to 4000 BC, which is maybe pushing ita bit, but certainly underneath what we see today are Punic remains and other classical vestiges. The Romans called the place Melita, and the Arabs Medina, whereas the Knights of St John lauded it as the Citta Notabile. Tradition has it that the Apostle Paul lodged in the city after his shipwreck off the Maltese islands.

Mdina is spotlessly clean and only a very restricted number of vehicles (including bridal cars) are allowed in. The drivers of horse-drawn vehicles are also sternly warned at the gate that ‘Horses’ hooves and wheels are to be rubber lined.’ I travelled up this afternoon from Valletta on the No 84 bus, a splendid 1950s curved contraption that could have come out of an Ealing comedy, only painted yellow and white rather than the green livery of many of post-War Brtitain’s rural transport. A day ticket that gets one round the island is a snip at 3 euros 49 cents. Malta is so small that one can see a great deal in a day, but one of the pleasures of lecturing on cruise ships is calling in at repeat ports like this and going off in one’s spare hours from lecturing and researching to discover places or buildings one has never been to before.

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Jebel Nafusa

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th November, 2009

Jebel NafusaI spent most of today up in the Jebel Nafusa or western mountains of Libya, one of the few regions of the country I have never visited before, or at least the eastern part of the region (having camped in Ghadames some years ago). Just an hour or so’s drive west from Tripoli, one enters a totally different land: Berber territory, where Arabic is no longer the default language and olive trees canter over the high plateau, watered by deliveries from tankers that disgorge their load into underground cisterns. The main purpose of my visit was to get to Tarmeisa, a superlative mountain-top settlement whose old town (or village, one should say) has been evacuated so that the inhabitants can now live in more spacious, modern homes right next door (as indeed is the case at Ghadames). Old Tarmeisa is only semi-derelict, however, as there have been attempts to preserve at least some of the houses, a bridal suite and even a tiny little farm, to give visitors an idea of what it was once like. The views from some of the windows and ledges are phenomenal, the vertiginous drops heart-stopping. And although the climate was perfect on this sunny autumn afternoon, one knows how burning hot and freezing cold the place is in the more extreme seasons.

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Leptis Magna

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th November, 2009

Leptis Magna 3By inclination, I am much more interested in modern history than in antiquity, yet each time I come to Leptis Magna, on the outskirts of Al Khoms in Libya, I am moved by the place. The setting alone, on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, gives the site a certain romance. Not only is it the largest Roman settlement in North Africa, it is also the best preserved. One can walk down paved streets, or sit in the vast communal public loo, or wander through the Hadrianic baths and really imagine what it was like when Leptis Magna was a thriving commercial and administrative centre. The fact that still today there are relatively few tourists means that is easy to go off down a side street and be completely on one’s own.

Leptis Magna 2Though the settlement’s origins date back at least to the time of Phoenician dominance in the southern Mediterranean, it really came into its own during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, after Roman immigrants had moved in. It became a model for integrated town planning, as well as a showcase for ornate craftsmanship. It is clear that the upper classes, at least, lived extremely well there, especially from the time of Hadrian. Leptis also produced the one and only Libyan-born Roman Emperor — Lucius Septimius Severus, or the ‘Grim African’ — who was a brilliant military leader who inspired such devotion in his troops that they proclaimed him Emperor. He marched on Rome where he was able to vanquish resistance and was duly installed there in AD145. Even more magnificent public works were then carried out in his home town, including a basilica and a modern port, though Setimius Severus was not able to spend much time there once he assumed the highest office. He died in Eboracum (York) in AD211 after his last campaign in Caledonia (Scotland).

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Tolmeita Past and Present

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th November, 2009

TolmeitaLibya is justly famous for its ancient ruins, though few foreign visitors ever get to see Tolmeita or Ptolemais, which is about an hour-and-a-half’s drive eastwards along the coast from Benghazi. Founded in the 4th century BC by the Greeks, the city was subsequently maintained and enlarged by the Romans. It’s an interesting reflection of those two civilizations’ contrasting priorities that the Romans turned the orchestra pit of the lovely little Greek amphitheatre into a swimming pool. In its full Hellenistic glory, Ptolemais covered an area approximately three kilometers square, though only a fraction of that has been unearthed. Eerily, one can still rub one’s foot on the top soil in places and watch mosaics emerge. The Italians did some of the early archaeological work, though these days a Polish team is in charge, but it looks as if it will be decades before the task is finished. In keeping with Libyan government policy, there has been no attempt to create (or, presumably, permit the growth of) significant tourist facilities in the area.

Tolmeita 2In the meantime, a small Arab community continues to live in and around the site and along the nearby shoreline, some of them occupying houses whose original builders obviously raided the ruins for good stones, with the result that their facades are a curious blend of rough brickwork and magnificent marble. The little shops that lined to main street of the modern village until the 1970s have, however, fallen into ruin themselfes. There is a small museum at the classical site, which contains some rather fine statuary, as well as several really beautiful mosaics rescued from the main palace and a couple of villas while they were being excavated. This afternoon, in the shade of some palm trees at the back of the museum, a young man was grooming his pure white horse in a scene that could have come straight out of A Thousand and One Nights.

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Thank You, Vaclav Klaus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 4th November, 2009

Vaclav KlausI’ve never been a great fan of the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, who has none of the breadth of intellectual and human experience and understanding of his predecessor Vaclav Havel. But all true Europeans should feel nonetheless grateful to Mr Klaus for recognising that it would be quite wrong for him as an individual to try to stop the ‘train’ of the Lisbon Treaty when even his own country’s government wants to see it brought into force. Thus by signing the Treaty he has ensured that the last remaining hurdle was removed. not only for the ratification of the Treaty by all 27 member states but also for the European Union to move forward with the reforms that are contained within the Treaty, which will make the Union more democratic and more accountable, as well as more efficient.

David Cameron 5The other great aspect of President Klaus’s decision is that David Cameron has now been given an exit strategy from the corner into which he and his Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesman William Hague had painted the Tory party, rather like schoolboys in the playground taunting the rest of the class that they would reject and overturn what everybody else wanted by holding a referendum on Lisbon and campaigning against it. If we take Mr Cameron’s recent statement on the matter at face value, then that will not happen after all. Bravo. Eurosceptics will fume and some Tory voters may switch to UKIP, but so be it. Having a more reasonable policy towards the EU makes the Conservative Party more sensible, indeed more electable, and it gives pro-Europeans in the Liberal Democrats a good opportunity to put further pressure on the Tories to make sure that if they do become the next government in the UK, or the biggest single party in parliament, then they must engage constructivey with our European partners and ensure that Britain is at the heart of the onging European project, not sniping from the sidelines.

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Alexandria’s Cavafy Museum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd November, 2009

CavafyThe celebrated Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)was born and died in Alexandria, though in between he spent time in Constantinople (Istanbul) and Liverpool (sic). He was part of that extraordinary ethnic Greek bourgeoisie which ran so much of the commerce in Egypt’s main port city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though he personally earned his living as a journalist. This morning I visited his apartment, which is now a museum: a roomy, high-ceilinged, second-floor dwelling in the city centre . There is not much furniture left in situ, apart from in the bedroom, but it is still an atmospheric place and there are plenty of period photographs and copies of books by and about Cavafy in various languages, as well as a small exhibition about his fellow Alexandrian Greek scribe, Stratis Tsirkas. Cavafy enjoyed the bohemian nature of the neighbourhood (also celebrated in Lawrence Durell’s Alexandria Quartet), writing: ‘Where could I live better? Below, the brothel caters for the flesh. And there is the Church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die.’

Some of Cavafy’s poetry was homoerotic, though in keeping with the conventions of the time, he kept his own personal life discreet. However, he did enjoy a good gossip with another one-time Alexandrian resident, the British novelist E M Forster, who met the love of his life (a young tram conductor) in this city. It’s hard to imagine quite what this place was like in the inter-war years, despite all the books and the photos, because so many of the residents of the time — Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Jews — had to leave and most of the places they frequented closed. From 1956 onwards, the city became resolutely Egyptian, and it is now best savoured by the locals as a summer holiday resort thanks to its beaches and sea breezes.

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The Egyptians’ Fear of Swine Flu

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st November, 2009

Swine flu EgyptA fourth Egyptian has died from swine flu (H1N1 virus): a tragedy for the person’s family, of course, to whom one can only extend sympathy. But it hardly adds up to an epidemic. Death tolls are far higher in parts of Asia, Europe and the Americas. So why the sense of panic and all the media hype in Cairo? School trips have been cancelled, some schools are only open three days a week, university students are missing classes (well, it provides a good excuse for them, I suppose) and in the Metro at rush hour you can see men pushing handkerchiefs to their faces to keep out the germs. The minority of Egyptian women who wear the niqab (full veil) must feel very smug. Alas, there is a tragico-comic side to the swine flu scare in Egypt, too. When the disease was first publicised, some Muslim activists went on a rampage and killed any pigs they could find, pigs being the preserve of Coptics Christians. The Copts say this is all part and parcel of the discrimination that they face on a daily basis. Whatever the truth of that, it certainly gave some Muslims the chance to rid their neighbourhoods of ‘unclean’ animals.

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