Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2012

Distant Longing in Port Said

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th May, 2012

Separation can be painful for lovers, but also a great aphrodisiac: witness the love letters of poets and statesmen. But it’s not only the mighty or famous who may be preserved for posterity in their heightened emotions and frustrated desire, viz the correspondence between a certain Reggie — holed up in a military hospital in Port Said at the time of the Great Depression — and his “divine girl”, a Miss Banks in Bexley, Kent. The contrast between the bustling and at the time distinctly louche entrance to the Suez Canal and the most banal of south-east London suburbs could hardly be greater. As we see from Reggie’s missives, which form the centrepiece of an intriguing little exhibition by London-based Greek artist Rania Bellou (“Between I and Me”) at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in Smith Square (until 15 June), romantic love can transcend both distance and gross venality. Port Said — a regular port of call on my cruise lecturing circuits, incidentally – was, in 1930, when Reggie was at his most effusive, notorious for its “dirty postcard” merchants, who besieged every ship headed for the Red Sea. But Reggie chose very proper views of the city in the cards he selected (some sites still recognisable, others a record of historic buildings long gone) to send to his beloved “Winkie” Banks. The postage stamps on these, and on the envelopes of letters included in the collection acquired by Rania Bellou from a London junk dealer, show a more svelte and handsome King Fuad than the ageing monarch really was at the time. One might ask how a collection of someone’s love letters and postcards (only one-sided, to boot) can form an art exhibit. Well, there are also drawings by Rania Bellou, on superimposed layers of tissue paper, which give us a glimpse of Reggie and his world (which he was shortly to leave, without being united with his beloved). And the exhibition also draws, more poetically, on the legacy of Marcel Proust, who famously remarked that the remembrance of things past is not necessarily the rememberance of things as they were. Memory is a subjective and fickle thing, and there is an unreal quality to the story of Reggie and Miss Banks, as well as a nostalgia which is only emphasized by the exoticism and lost quality of inter-War Port Said, when Egypt was officially independent but Britain and its French allies were still firmly in control of the Canal Zone.

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Toasting Mark Frankland

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th May, 2012

The loggia at the Chelsea Arts Club was heated by the beating sun and the chatter of predominantly Observer hacks, past and present, at a celebratory lunch today to remember the life. work and personality of Mark Frankland, the man who played the role of Honorary Elder Brother in my life. Sue Arnold — for long one of my favourite columnists — had arranged the venue and Robert Chesshyre compered the speeches, but it was Mark’s humanity, even beyond death, that galvanised such a good turout. Former Observer Editor Donald Trelford, who flew over from his home in Mallorca specially for the event, gave a witty but chivalrous account of Mark’s time with the paper (as well as with MI6), notably remembered for his spells in Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Neal Ascherson gave insights into Marks central and eastern European links and David Hindmarsh recounted intriguingly how a very young Mark had helped smuggle a young Pole out of his Communist homeland at the height of the Cold War. Bob Chesshyre then suggested that following the example of Quaker gatherings, other people present might feel moved to stand up and say a few words. Several did, including Martin Woollacott, formerly of the Guardian, an organ that was held in bad odour by many on the Observer for a while after the two’s merger. I said nothing, as I felt I had expressed what I wanted about my own relationship with Mark in the Guardian several weeks ago. Though he hated fuss and large gatherings, I think secretly he would have been rather pleased to know that he had been remembered, not a some vainglorious memorial service at St Brides or elsewhere, but a rather boozy, rather nice lunch of former colleagues at the Chelsea Arts Club.


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Bernard Jenkin on Afghanistan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 17th May, 2012

This afternoon I attended the second half of a Global Diplomatic Forum conference on “Two Years of the UK Coalition Government’s Engagement with the World”. Barbara Serra from Al Jazeera vigorously chaired a session on the UK’s Role in the Middle East and North Africa Politics, but it was disappointing that no-one on her panel spoke up forecefully for the rights of the Palestinians; the mantra that ‘both sides must go back to negotiations’ in the Israel/Palestine conflict was intoned by both DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson and Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Middle East, Ian Lucas, though at least the latter seemed to have a better grasp of the injustices inherent in the current situation. Far more stimulating, however, was the following session on the UK’s Approach to International Security Issues, which focussed almost exclusively on Afghanistan. The big surprise (for me) was how vigorously Bernard Jenkin, defence buff and Tory MP for Harwich and North Essex, spoke about the unwinnable situation in which British (and other NATO) forces have landed themselves in there, not least in Helmand province, where the insurgeny, he argued, was actually fuelled by the presence of Western troops. Al Qaeda is finished in Afghanistan, he said, and the insurgency is essentially one of Pashtun revolting against Kabul’s rule, some of which have been successfully wooed by the Talisban, who, he feels, will be back in power not long after the Allies leave. This was hardly official Coalition Government policy on Afghanistan, but I confess it chimes in with what I have increasingly felt — and a sizeable proportion of the British public, so opinion polls tell us.


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Time in Turkey

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th May, 2012

Turkey’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, Zaman, celebrated 25 years of publishing today at London’s City Hall with the launch of an exhibition of images of Turkey through the eyes of 25 celebrated international photographers. The contrasts between tradition and modernity as well as between west and east shout out at the viewer, as do different perpectives and presentations of Turkish men and women. The photographers each give a résumé of their approach to their craft and their choice of theme in an accompanying catalogue which can serve as a lasting legacy. It is maybe invidious to make comparisons between different styles and subjects, but I was particularly struck by Samuel Bollendorff’s sweeping Anatolian panoramas, in which small-scale women stare into infinity as if searching for something or someone lost. Steve McCurry meanhile captures the mysticism as well as the exoticism of Sufi whirling dervishes and musicians in Bursa, while Massimo Mastrorillo exposes the anonymity and ugliness of urban sprawl in his set “Nowhere” Close to Everywhere. All in all this is a collection which merits lingering long before each photograph, whether at the exhibition itself, in the basement of City Hall (and several other locations round the world), or while reading and contemplating the excellent catalogue.

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European Liberal Democrats in the Caucasus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th May, 2012

It was daring — even brave — of the Armenian National Movement to invite the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) to convene a Council meeting in Yerevan this week, only days after general elections were held in Armenia, about which they have cried foul. ELDR has never had a meeting on such a scale in the Caucasus before, but it was doubly valuable for European Liberal Democrat Council members as the Liberal International organised a side-trip fact-finding mission to Georgia beforehand. I was involved in both, as the (UK) Liberal Democrats’ representative on the Executive of Liberal International and an elected member of the ELDR Council. I was in Armenia six years ago, travelling widely around the country, so it was fascinating to see how the capital Yerevan has been rapidly modernising, though the countryside has changed little and indeed gives the feeling of still being back in the Soviet era, only friendlier. But there was also a big contrast between Georgia (a first for me) and Armenia. In Tbilisi, our Georgian hosts — the Georgia Dream coalition — gave a very critical appraisal of how they see democracy fumctioning in their homeland, whereas the government — who looked after us for half a day — put a different spin on the state of affairs. But whoever was right about whichever issues there is no denying that Georgia is a place willing itself onto an upward trajectory, much aided by the abolition of widespread earlier corruption and personal insecurity. Most Georgians are anxious to get into NATO and one day into the EU as well; the 12-Star flag of Europe is prominant everywhere alongside the Georgian red cross. We were taken to the Line of Occupation on the edge of South Ossetia to remind us of just how close and real the Russian occupational presence is. In Armenia, in contrast, there is more of a Russian flavour to the capital, but of course there is also a big influence of the Armenian expatriate community from France and the United States, some of whom are presumably financing the massive amount of reconstruction going on. In the ELDR Council and contiguous special sessions we heard a lot from NGOs and others about alleged irregularities in last Sunday’s poll. But there was also, among other things, a fascinating session on LGBT Rights in the South Caucasus, organised in conjunction with the two Dutch Liberal parties (the VVD and D66) as well as International Liberal Youth (IFLRY). Just days ago a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan was set alight by far right activists, but nonetheless there is a lot of positive conscious-raising on equality issues (even in Georgia, where over 90% of the population say they disapprove of LGBT activism). The black hole as far as the Armenians are concerned seems to be Azerbaijan, but as I know from a visit there not all that long ago, things are modernising apace in Baku, financed by oil money, even if the regime is pretty authoritarian. All in all, the Caucasus is a region with huge political and economic potential, desperate to be seen as European, while at the same time retaining its diverse specificities.

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Will İstanbul Become a Global City?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 6th May, 2012

İt was odd to go straight from the London elections to an academic conference on multiculturalism in İstanbul, organised by the İslington-based Dialogue Society, but at least London was the subject of the paper İ presented at it at Fatih University. The precise topic was ‘How successful a multicultural model is London?’ I showed how London had developed its multicultural nature empirically through immigratıon over the centuries from the Empire, as well as through refugees from central and eastern Europe and more recently migrants from the New Commonwealth and other EU member states. But London’s multiculturalism is normative as well, in the sense that successive governments — at national, regional and local level — since the 1980s have stressed the need to celebrate diversity as well as extending service provision to take into account the diverse population. That remains true despite comments by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in Germany last year, subsequently contradicted by his Liberal Democrat Deputy Nick Clegg. İn my paper, İ judged that London has become a successful example of multiculturalism, though whether it can be a model for others is maybe a different matter. To an extent London is sui generis, not least because it is now an indisputably global city, whose inhabitants can see themselves as not only living in the UK but also as being global citizens. Therein lies much of the city’s economic and financial success. But which other cities in the world might emulate that? New York, possibly, and, interestingly, İstanbul. During Ottoman times, İstanbul was the captital of a multicultural empire embracing many peoples, religions and languages. Everything changed after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of a new Turkish Republic with its capital ın Ankara and a state-driven policy (in the interest of nation-buıldıng) of One Country, One People, One Language. But despite the departure of signifıcant numbers of Turkey’s minority inhabitants — not least the Greeks — Turkey is still de facto multicultural. The question now is whether the AKP government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has the courage and the confıdence to not just acknowledge this but follow through the consequences. İstanbul meanwhile has become empirically more multicultural, with many foreigners, including Arabs — as well as a huge number of Kurds from Anatolia — setting up homes here. So maybe indeed it can aspire to being a multicultural global city, as well as Turkey’s largest urban centre. The benefits would be considerable.

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