Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for July, 2010

Algiers’ Martyrs Monument

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 31st July, 2010

Though many younger Algerians are marked by the horrors of the 1990s, when many thousands perished in terrorist attacks and fighting between Islamic fundamentalist groups and government security forces, there is a deeper, older scar in the country: that of the long and bloody war of independence from France. Appalling atrocities were commited on both sides as the French tried to maintain their hold over what they considered to be an integral part of the the Motherland through the 1950s and into the 1960s. The most striking public monument in the capital Algiers is a memorial to the Martyrs of that independence struggle, a beautiful soaring structure (sometimes rudely likened to an open banana skin) built with help from the Canadians. People still flock to see it and the Army Museum nearby, but incongruously there is a large, ugly high-rise housing estate alongside, the roofs of the buildings festooned with hundreds of satellite dishes. It’s known as a dodgy area even during the day and it prompted my companion there today to muse on whether this was what the independence fighters had fought for. Certainly, given the huge riches the country gets from oil and gas, one cannot help but wonder why more of that bounty does not filter through to the large body of dispossessed and unemployed.

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Algiers the White City

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th July, 2010

It’s 20 years since I was last in Algiers. In the interim, Algeria’s capital was often plagued by terrorist violence and kidnappings. Mercifully, that is all over and the city itself is being restored to its former glory. Although some of the post-independence suburbs are pretty horrid, the city centre is glorious and deservedly bears the sobriquet ‘The White City’, as most of the buildings, reminiscent of southern France, are painted white and their iron balconies and wooden shutters blue. A massive programme of renovation and general smartening up is going on, enhancing such treasures as the central Post Office, whose intricately carved marble interior makes it a veritable temple of civic architecture. With Ramadan looming, the streets are full of shoppers and young people and families out enjoying the summer weather. There are magnificent promenades, some restored since disastrous floods in 2003. One day in the not too distant future, this city will be a tourist magnet, but for the present those visitors who clear the visa hurdles to get here can enjoy the place and its hassle-free atmosphere in glorious calm.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 25th July, 2010

Having a free day at the end of my week’s work in Sri Lanka, I took a local bus from Colombo down to Galle: three-and-a-half hours, 107 rupees (60 UK pence), stopping whenever anyone wanted to get on. I had an aisle seat, but can only recommend this mode of travel to anyone who enjoys (or at least doesn’t mind) having sundry people’s bottoms and legs pressing against their arms the whole journey, as every square inch of  standing room was full. It was a relief then to get to Galle, pulling up outside the cricket ground, which is already festooned with huge posters of Muttiah Muralitharan being congratulated by a beaming, chubby-faced President Mahinda Rajapaksa after his 800 Test wicket triumph earlier in the wek. So too the lofty walls of the Dutch Fort, which proved to be so strong that they withstood the tsunami of 2004, while much of the new town of Galle and suroundings were destroyed.

The old town’s survival was truly a blessing, as the settlement (known simply as Fort) within the walls is a stunning example of Dutch colonial architecture, some of it in a state of gentle tropical decay, but much wonderfully maintained, as befits a UNESCO World Heritage site. As well as churches and gracious mansions, there are masses of hotels and restaurants, from backpackers’ hangouts to ultra chic (the couple at the next table to mine on the veranda of the Galle Fort Hotel were slowly imbibing a bottle of Moet champagne). There’s hardly any traffic, apart from a few three-wheel tuk-tuks and for part of my gentle amble around town I was accompanied by a friendly goat. A truly magical place. Moreover, I got the train back to Colombo (three hours, 180 rupees or one pound ten pence), which was glorious, now following the seashore, with the waves of the Indian Ocean pounding alongside, now passing through tranquil villages of immacuately kept houses, Buddhist temples and lush vegetation.

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Peter Mandelson’s ‘The Third Man’

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd July, 2010

One of the most surprising things about Peter Mandelson’s account of the rise and fall of New Labour — and his relationships with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — is that it has appeared so soon after New Labour’s demise (The Third Man, HarperPress, 25 pounds). Obviously, most of it must have been written before the May 2010 election with an eye to publication before anyone else could get their oar in (including Tony Blair, whose messainically titled memoir, The Journey, is still a while off). Certainly, Mandelson has put the cat amongst the pigeons — some might say he is the cat himself — souring the atmosphere during the Labour leadership contest and making sure he had made his mark before the party’s autumn conference. Much of the book is based on diaries and notes taken at the time of various meetings and conversations. It now seems to be de rigueur for British politicians to prepare for their future books while still in office (and theereby feather their future nests as well).

Mandelson is no Roy Jenkins, though his book is as long as Jenkins’ Diaries. Yet some parts — not least the section on Brussels — are brief and superficial. What is rivetting, though, is the relentless detail of the hostility between Blair and Brown and the psychological flaws in Brown’s make-up. Mandelson was treated pretty badly by both Prime Ministers, yet always he went crawling back like a dog that has been kicked by its master but who craves a pat from him.

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Lynne Featherstone on Being a Minister

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th July, 2010

Lynne Featherstone, LibDem MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and now the Minister of State for Equalities and Criminal Information (sic), was the guest of honour at Sutton Liberal Democrats’ annual garden party this afternoon, in the spacious garden of perennial host Jayanta Chatterjee. In keeping with the Coalition Government’s new age of austerity, she arrived not in a chauffeur-driven limousine, but by train, like me. And from her description of life in the Home Office (up at 5.30am and only to bed at midnight, day after day) her tasks are demanding, despite the assiduousness of her civil servants. Far from being under the kitten heels of Home Secretary Theresa May, Lynne has been doing her best to stamp a LibDem tinge on her department’s policies; bilateral relations with her boss are in fact very cordial. Lynne was suitably prominent in last Saturday’s Gay Pride March — seemingly part of a new girl band, half-dancing alongside London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon, Party President Ros Scott and London’s LibDem MEP Sarah Ludford. Lynne said that the only thing that impressed her children about her new status in life was the arrival of the first lead-lined wooden red ministerial box. The civil servants will be making sure those ministerial papers keep coming.

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End Torture in Egypt Now!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th July, 2010

This evening I joined about 100 Egyptians and friends from Amnesty International and other human rights organisations for a very dignified demonstration at Marble Arch in protest against torture in Egypt. The problem has been endemic in Egypt for many years but it has particularly come to international attention recently with the savage beating and killing last month of a gentle-faced 28-year-old young man called Khaled Said in Alexandria. Police made a swoop on an internet café in that city and when he protested at their attitude, he was savagely attacked by two cops and then dragged off into custody. Some time later, his body — his face badly mashed — was dumped in a street. The police’s explanation was that he had been set on by hoodlums, but nobody believes that. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna, Mohamed El Baradei — who is trying with only mixed success to become the focus for the democratic opposition to longstanding President Hosni Mubarak — took up the case of Khaled Said at a demonstration in Alexandria recently. That was heavily policed, though not broken up. The idea of allowing peaceful demonstrations is alien to Egyptian state mentality. In fact, the country has been under a state of emergency since the assassination of Anwar El Sadat 30 years ago. And of course, as Mubarak is one of Washington’s client sons (currently aged 85, incidentally), little pressure is usually put on the Egyptian authorities from the United States. It is time that the West, including Britain, turned up the heat to show that their defence of human rights is not just empty words. Latest reports suggest that the two cops will go on trial later this month, but it is important that they are not made scapegoats, as the problem is much wider than just two heavy-handed policemen.

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Will Turkey Dare Defy Israel?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th July, 2010

The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, came out with an unusually strong statement the other day, insisting that Israel must either apologise for its bloody assault on the Turkish cruise liner which was part of the recent abortive Gaza aid flotilla, or else submit to a truly independent, international commission of inquiry. Otherwise, he said, Turkey would not remain indifferent — hinting that Ankara might break formal relations with Israel. But how serious is that threat? Both the Israeli Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have made clear there is no way Israel is going to apologise for the attack, despite the fact that eight Turks and one Turkish-American lost their lives. And it is pressing ahead with its own inquiry into the incident, having rejected calls for a UN-organised probe. However, Turkish diplomats and journalists have confirmed to me that it is highly unlikely that Turkey will take strong action — other than issue statements of condemnation — as ties between the two countries are considered too important. Moreover, the United States would be mightily displeased with its Turkish ally were it to send such a firm rebuke to Tel Aviv. However, surely it is time for a major country to stand up against Israel’s continuing defiance of International Law. And if not Turkey now, who else and when?

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Memories of Beryl Bainbridge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd July, 2010

Beryl Bainbridge was one of life’s performers, not just at literary festivals or soirées, but in her daily life. Visitors to her house in Camden were startled to be greeted by Eric the water-buffalo and to find a model of Nevlle Chamberlain seated at her table. But she was on show whenever she went out. I vividly remember her stretched out under the grand piano at Bernice Reubens’s duplex off the Finchley Road, a glass of whiskey in one hand, a ciggie in the other. ‘Fancy joining me under here?’ she asked cheekily. ‘Too many people out there!’ Always a drink, always a cigarette. It was inevitable she would die riddled with cancer the way she treated her body, though the Grim Reaper kept away until she was 75 (or maybe 76, by some accounts). It was hilarious that she was made a Dame for her services to literature, as anyone less like a dame it was hard to imagine. But Beryl was a fine writer and she did do a lot for literature, as well as being a good though sometimes exasperating friend to many of us in London literary circles. She could be stubborn but also kind, loving and yet also distant. Maybe most writers need to be. She deserves a riotous wake.

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The Arabs and the Holocaust

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st July, 2010

This evening I chaired  a book-launch, hosted by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, Arab Media Watch and Independent Jewish Voices, at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce in Mayfair. In the hotseat was my SOAS colleague Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations, but perhaps better known for his books, including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder and Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (with Noam Chomsky). His latest work is the provocatively-titled The Arabs and The Holocaust (Saqi, £25), which is a very thorough, challenging and thought-provoking study of the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives from the birth of Zionism to the present day. The book is remarkably even-handed in the way that it looks both at the Holocaust or Jewish genocide as well as the Naqba or ‘catastrophe’ of the Palestinian expulsions of 1948 and beyond objectively. That very even-handedness, as well as the author’s scrupulous use of a fascinating range of both primary and secondary sources, has won plaudits for the book from many progressive Jewish as well as Arab scholars. Indeed, Brian Krug, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights as well as of Independent Jewish Voices — gave a well-prepared and enthusiastic citique of the book as an introduction to Gilbert’s talk. I am pleased to say that the event was heavily over-subscibed and a good number of copies of the book were sold and signed.


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