Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November, 2011

The Colonel

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th November, 2011

For a country that has been run by a puritanical Islamic government for the past 32 years, Iran has an astonishingly rich cultural output in many media, from cinema to poetry. Cemsorship means that some of the more sensitive literary production cannot be published in Tehran, which is why some Iranian writers have chosen to publish or even live abroad. Their work deserves much greater international recognition, so it is to be applauded that International PEN — the organisation that campaigns for imprisoned and persecuted writers — has formally recommended a new English translation of a novel by one of Iran’s most celebrated and controversial writers, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: The Colonel (Haus Publishing, £9.99). The story oscillates between fact and fiction, reality and illusion, past and present, first and third person narrative, all set against a nightmare backdrop of oppression and powerlessness, to the constant gloomy accompaniment of rain. The main protagaonist or anti-hero is the eponymous colonel, a man destroyed by his failure to live up to his own high standards (epitomised by his alter ego The Colonel, a historical figure, whose picture dominates his living room); the colonel has killed his wife for besmirching the family’s honour with her drunken philandering, and he is unable to save his various children from terrible fates because of their differing political choices. The descriptions of political persecution and torture — both under the Shah’s regime and since the Revolution — are graphic and chilling. A reader unfamiliar with Persian history and literature would be likely to miss many of the references and allusions in the text, were it not for the helpful and unobtrusive footnotes by translator Tom Patterdale, the foreword and a glossary of names. Though the context is specific, many of the novel’s messages are universal — Man’s inhumanity to Man in the pursuit of political or religious purity, the helplessnss of the individual within a totalitarian system, and the powerful emotions within a family riven by ideology or personal betrayal, to mention but a few. The overall effect is numbing yet inspirational, depressing but also enraging the reader. This is not a book that could leave one indifferent.


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ELDR Congress Palermo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th November, 2011

There has been a distinctively festive air at the ELDR Congress in Palermo, Sicily, over the past few days, not because the eurozone’s crisis has markedly eased — it hasn’t — but because the Italians are feeling a sense of huge relief at getting rid of Silvio Berlusconi. Our hosts have been Italia dei Valori, who have been working hard to put some integrity back into Italian politics; one can only wish them well, and trust that former EU Commissioner Mario Monti, the newly appointed Italian Prime Minister, can help steer Italy out of its economic whirlpool. The EU budget was the principal theme of the Congress, though I was personally much more motivated by the parralel debates and workshop on the so-called Arab Sprin and how Europe should engage with it; boosting trade with the region was the answer provided by EU Commissioner Karel de Gucht, but I would argue that building a greater sense of solidarity between the peoples of Europe and North Africa and the Middle East is equally important. De Gucht also led the tributes to Annemie Nuyts, the Flemish Liberal who has been President of ELDR for the past six years. Her valedictory speech was rather downbeat, noting that whereas five years ago the ELDR encompassed 10 Prime Ministers, now there are only two (Estonia and the Netherlands). However, her compatriot Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister and now leader of the ALDE (Liberal) Group in the European Parliament, gave a barnstorming performance that raised all our spirits and there was a fittnig finale to the formal part of the proceedings with a speech by incoming ELDR President, Sir Graham Watson, South West England MEP and former ALDE leader,who set out his vision of where ELDR should be heading — very much onwards and upwards.


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Serenading South West London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd November, 2011

Liberal Democrats from Richmond, Kingston and Hounslow — plus a number of supportive interlopers from other parts of London, such as myself and the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Pack — took over the Park Hotel in Teddington last night, for a highly successful fundraising event for the South West London GLA constituency campaign, which embraces the three aforementioned boroughs. The event was compered by Munira Wilson, who will be flying the LibDem flag in the constituency next May, and who is well known in the area, not least for having fought the Feltham and Heston parliamentary seat in Hounslow at the 2010 General Election. The first of two guest speakers was party president Tim Farron, who welcomed the fact that the party’s poll ratings had recently gone up from ‘flipping awful to mildly depressing’. As I’ve noted in previous posts, part of his current role is encouraging party activists to hang on in there during difficult times and to keep reminding people of the plus points of Liberal Democrat participation in the Coalition government. That was naturally a line echoed by the other speaker, Ed Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton, who seems genuinely enamoured of the various junior ministerial projects he is currently involved with, such as greater paternity rights (and therefore more gender equality) for couples with a young baby, and saving the Post Office network. Three GLA List candidates were present — Caroline Pidgeon, Stephen Knight and Shas Sheehan — and the event raised several thousand pounds for the campaign fund — a consderable proportion of which came from the auction. It’s amazing how many LibDem members in South West London seem to have holiday homes in France or Spain, and even more amazingly, are prepared to auction off weeks in their properties for the cause!

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Team London at the Kingston Double

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st November, 2011

London LibDems’ Team London was out in force at the weekend, canvassing and delivering in the double by-election (caused by the resignation of two Tory councillors) in the Coombe Vale ward in Kingston. We were blessed with fantastic weather — though that did also mean that quite a lot of the voters were out! — and the ward is a fascinating mix of rather grand residences and much more modest abodes. Kingston-upon-Thames has been LibDem controlled for some time, the results in May 2010 (number of councillors) being LibDem 27 Conservative 21 Others 0. The lead LibDem candidate in Coombe Vale in 2010 was only 79 votes behind the third Tory, so this is a by-election with everything to play for. We have excellent candidates in Kamala Kugan and Rupert Nichol. It was good to be out campaigning on Saturday with London MEP Sarah Ludford, GLA list candidate Shas Sheehan and others and the ward can be sure of many more distinguished door-knockers between now and polling day on 15 December.


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41 Years of Oman’s “Renaissance”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th November, 2011

Omani Embassies all round the world have been celebrating Oman’s National Day today, in London’s case with a sumptuous reception at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge. Gulf Arab hospitality is invariably generous. There were no speeches and no-one acknowledged (at least in my hearing) the obvious landmark that has just been passed: with the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman has become the Arab world’s longest serving ruler. Not that one should draw parallels between the two men; far from it. Having gently ousted his father in 1970, young Sultan Qaboos set about bringing his country into the modern world, with such daring innovations as paved roads and electric light. When I first started going there, there were still communities on the Musandam peninsula (itself then still a no-go area for many foreigners) which were only accessible by sea. But in contrast to some of the flashier emirates of the UAE, Oman under Sultan Qaboos’s guidance has maintained many of its traditions and its heritage. Muscat is by far the most charming cpaital in the Gulf. The country had enough oil to lift its people out of poverty, but not so much that it spoilt them. Indeed, the oil has been running out for some time and so diversification of the economy and the Omanisation of the labour force have been top priorities. The government refers to the 41 years of Sultan Qaboos’s rule as the “Renaissance”, and objectively it has been, given the deliberately old-fashoined ways that his father imposed on his subjects. But inevitably in 2011, with the new Arab Awakening, there have been questions raised in Oman too. There were some disturbances yjrtr earlier this year, but little was reported about them and the Sultan has endeavoured to defuse dissent by acceeding to a degree — though only a degree — of democratisation and assistance to unemployed youth. But loved as he genuinely is by much of Oman’s population, Sultan Qaboos is still a million miles from being a constitutional monarch. Moreover, no-one has any idea who will succeed him. His marriage was shortlived and did not bear fruit, and he has so far resisted the temptation to point the finger of succession at anyone.

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Remembering Peter Burton

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 17th November, 2011

The writer, editor and publisher Peter Burton, who died suddenly of a heart attack. aged 66, on 7 November, made an enormous contribution to the promotion and then mainstreaming of LGBT literature in the UK. He was also an extremely kind friend, a generous host at his ramshackle little house in Brighton and a mentor for many young writers trying to find their own voice and forge a literary career. I first met him about 40 years ago, while I was still a student, but it was only after I moved back to England in 1981, after seven years in Brussels, that I began to see him regularly, often in the company of our mutual friend Francis King (at whose Memorial Service on 2 November I last saw Peter, looking hale and hearty, although he only had five more days to live). When Liberal Democrat conferences took place in Brighton, I always enjoyed taking one extended lunchtime off to go to Peter’s for a boozy, wholesome lunch, at which there would usually be one or two of his latest protégés present. The house itself was extraordinary, seemingly held up by the enormous mountains of books, which covered not only all the walls, but every flat surface (other than the kitchen table) and most of the stairs, so that navigating oneself around them was quite a challenge. Peter simply adored books, which was perhaps remarkable for someone who had grown up in a working-class home in East London. Friends (including me) were worried that the house would literally fall down, as it had had no maintenance for decades and there were holes where there shouldn’t have been; mercifully, it was patched up successfully before disaster occured, I think with the help of the Council. Following a mugging, Peter rarely came up to London; at least that was his excuse, but I think he was essentially the sort of bird who feels uncomfortable away from its nest. This afternoon I will go down to Brighton for his funeral and for the subsequent wake. He may be physically present at the former, but spiritually it will be the latter that he relishes.

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AEJ Congress 2011 Bucharest

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th November, 2011

The location inevitably influences the content and atmosphere of any international professional or political gathering and such was certainly true over this long weekend at the 2011 Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) in Bucharest. The affiliated local organisation is the Romanian Association of Independent Journalists (who hosted us delightfully) and the significance of that word ‘independent’ is obvious a mere 22 yeas since the downfall of the Ceaucescu Communist dictatorship. Just how awful that was — not least in human rights terms — was brought home to us participants in the final working session yesterday, when we were shown a film about the memorial established in the former political prison where pre-Communist political leaders, bishops, priests and other ‘undesirables’ were kept in inhumane conditions, tortured and in many cases assassinated, their bodies being disposed of in unmarked graves in the middle of the night. The Securitate, Communist Romania’s equivalent of the Stasi and KGB, monitored and harassed and intimidated journalists, writers and artists, becoming particularly paranoid about anti-regime sentiments in that regime’s final year of 1989. But the new Romania has its challennges for journalists, too — not so much pressure from the government (though that can occur, as elsewhere) but in particular from various oligarchs who own huge slices of the TV market, which is especially important in a country where most people still get their news from evening TV bulletins. We were reminded that a similar situation exists in Ukraine, from which we heard some thought-provoking testimony, as well as from Moldova, Belarus (probably the worst) and Turkey (where 66 journalists are currently in prison, and many others are the subject of legal proceedings). In Britain and so much of the EU people take a free Press for granted, but we don’t know how lucky we are. And of course, Britain doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record itself, given the recent phone hacking scandals, the (now threatened) influence of Rupert Murdoch & Co and the corrosive legacy of Downing Street spin, crafted so devilishly under Tony Blair’s watch. A Congress such as this weekend’s Bucharest event underlines how important it is to have such an interchange of experiences and analyses, not just as an act of solidarity (important though that is) but also to show how responsible journalism can contribute positively to the European project and Europe-wide high standards of human rights and freedom of expression, which was after all the main reason for the AEJ’s foundation.


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Teodor Baconschi and Media Responsibility

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th November, 2011

The Romanian Foreign Minister, Teodor Baconschi, gave the keynote address at this morning’s Bucharest AEJ Congress session on ‘Freedom and Responsibility in the Mass Media’, though his remarks were so brief that they served more as a starting point for discussion. He said that after the fall of Communism in Romania there was a great concentration on trivia in the media, and he urged journalists to avoid creating pessimism or panic. ‘More freedom entails more accountability,’ he declared,which raised some eyebrows in the conference hall. It is not just that some journals and journalists are close to particular politicians or parties; more significant is the influence of certain big businessmen and vested interests. There is a lot of corruption in the Press, we were told, ‘because of the dark side of business.’ In some cases, journalists are not seen as free spirits but as mercenaires. Interestingly, the Minister revealed that he no longer watches television, not just because he is so busy but because he feels he will not get good access to news and commentary there. In that, of course, he resembles some of the younger generation who have abandoned ‘old media’ for the Internet and social networks — both very powerful, but also to be treated with even greater caution, I would argue. And both are often without the necessary level of responsibility or critical engagement.

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A Day at the Car Factory

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th November, 2011

In the bad old Communist days, a visit to a showpiece factory was de rigeur part of any Western journalist’s visit to Eastern Europe, so I was amused that the highlight of the first day of the AEJ’s Congress in Bucharest today was a trip to the Dacia car production plant, about two hours’ drive out of the capital. This entailed a 6.30am start but of course the visit was not quite what it would have been in the old days. The French firm Renault took over Dacia in 1999 and has since totally streamlined its output. Last year, almost 350,000 vehicules were produced at the industrial site I visited, 90% of which last year went for export, the cheapest, perfectly acceptable four-door little car selling for around 4,000 euros, or ten times the average monthly wage in this country. Dacia pays its own workers about twice that norm and interestingly around 30% of its workers are female. Visitors are driven round the huge complex in a little toy train of the sort that ferries holiday-makers round British seaside resorts, but this jaunt was followed by a slap-up buffet lunch on-site (no alcohol, of course). Dacia is Romania’s main export earner and is determined to maintain that distinction. It’s true, I saw an awful lot of them when I was in Algiers two weeks ago!

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An Evening with Julian Fellowes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th November, 2011

Since its foundation 18 years ago, the Friends of Heath Library has organised 150 literary events in the 1930s single storey building that houses the library, right next door to glorious Keats’ House in Hampstead. The very first speaker was the novelist Margaret Drabble, whereas this evening, after the Friends’ AGM, its 150th visitor was the writer, actor, producer and Conservative life peer, Julian Fellowes. Invited to talk ‘for a few minutes’ about himself, he gave a wonderfully discursive and joyfully prolonged presentation of his life and works, nicely balancing the grandeur of success with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. Although he has won most of his plaudits (including an Oscar) for his writing for cinema and television, he is clearly still a thespian at heart: marvellous timing and cadence and lots of good jokes. He is of course currently flavour of the month (maybe even of the year), having built on the great success of the film Gosford Park with the even more successful TV series, Downton Abbey, for which he chose Highclere as the setting. He had some lovely tales of working with Robert Altman on the former and with Maggie Smith in the latter. He is also a great supporter of public libraries, including on his own home patch in Dorset. The Heath Library is one that the philistine Labour Council in Camden is closing, but the Friends — together with the City of London Corporation, who own the freehold on the property — hope to be able to put a package together which will mean that a privately-run library (employing both professional staff and volunteers) will keep the library functioning; but the City, in particular, will foster literary and other artistic events, including maybe creatng a small, secure exhibition space, in which they could, for example, have on display rare letters from John Keats, which are too vakuable to show at the less easily protected Keat’s House.


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