Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2012

Singalong Sound of Music at Snape

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th August, 2012

Serendipity adds spice to life and resulted in my finding myself at the Maltings at Snape in Suffolk last night, singing along with the Sound of Music. The outing was the result of a chance conversation with my old friends (Baroness) Ros Scott and her husband Mark Valladares when were standing in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia, earlier this year, watching a sound-and-lights display  by the fountains. In the middle of a medley of familiar tunes both classic and modern came a snatch from The Sound of Music, which prompted both Ros and I to declare that one thing we’d always wanted to do was to go to a singalong version. The one I’d heard of in the past was at a cinema off Leicester Square in London. But when Ros returned home, she discovered that the Maltings at Snape — usually a venue for serious music — was putting on a singalong concert version. Spooky. It was too good an opportunity to miss (especially as it gave me the chance of seeing Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’ home town of Aldeburgh first). So after an excellent meal at an adjacent gastropub we joined several hundred other people, dozens of whom were dressed as nuns, quite a number as brown paper packages tied with string and one group cleverly outfited as a herd of goats. It sounds kitsch, I know, but it was fun. Moreover, the quality of the music was really rather good, with an excellent trio providing the backing and the Aldeburgh Singers the Abbey choir. The rest of us went through a rehearsal during the first half of the programme, then in the second half we sang the thing right through. Brill! And deliciously, Britishly bonkers.

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After the Moon and Mars, How about Earth?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th August, 2012

As someone who quite often writes obituaries (for the Guardian, amongst others) I always have my eye out for death notices (these days more likely to be found on twitter than in the columns of The Times), so of course I spotted news today of the demise of Neil Armstrong, the US astronaut, at the age of 82. I send my sincere sympathy to his family and friends. But it would be hypocritical of me to say that I jumped for joy at pictures of the First Man on the Moon when Apollo 11 landed there in the summer of 1969. I was in South Vietnam at the time, as a cub reporter, not a soldier, I hasten to add. And even though some of my Vietnamese friends were gobsmacked by the footage (though others swore blind it must be a fake), I had two very negative thoughts at the time, neither of which reflected on Neil Armstrong personally. The first was: Why the hell is the United States planting a US flag on the moon instead of the UN flag; this should be a celebration for all humankind, not US power and money. And second: there are still millions of people dying round the world, not only from wars but also from hunger; how many lives could the cost of this mission have saved? Doubtless some people will say I was naive (well, I was only 19) or radicalised by the horrors I had witnessed in Vietnam (which is true). But interestingly, the same thoughts crossed my mind this summer, 43 years later, when NASA’s exploratory craft landed on Mars and gingerly moved about a few steps. Of course there were no human beings on board on this occasion, though I suspect that will only be a matter of time. The cost of the Mars mission is literally astronomical, but again the same worries nagged my brain. Could Mars exploration not be in the name of the world, rather than the United States? And are there not enough problems here on Earth — ongoing hunger, wars, environmental degredation and  manmade climate change — which perhaps ought to be a higher priority?

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Tony Nicklinson and the Right to Die

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd August, 2012

Tony Nicklinson and his lovingly supportive wife

The death of the Right to Die campaigner and Locked-in Syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson triggers mixed emotions of sadness, anger and relief. Sadness because his last few days were not peaceful ones, following the refusal by the Courts to allow him to die as he wished. The anguish on his face as he cried following that verdict, his valiant wife standing helplessly by his side, is unforgettable to me. Anger because the law in this case is an ass. I imagine the judges involved in reviewing Mr Nicklinson’s case were deeply sympathetic to his plight, but they know — and said — that the law can only be changed by Parliament. And MPs have so far resisted biting the bullet on this one, which does make me angry. Relief, of course, that now his suffering is over. But his life could have ended far more humanely. The Nicklinson case highlights a huge moral dilemma, of course. And a number of religious figures and people of faith have spoken up saying it is always wrong to take or assist the taking of human life; “care not killing” was a phrase that was bandied about. I do not condone murder, of course, nor involuntary euthanasia. And it is vital that any legislative change that would enable voluntary euthanasia in highly controlled circumstances, at the unequivocal request of the person concerned, as in Tony Nicklinson’s case, must be stringent in its provisions. The last thing we want to see is sick or elderly people being pressured into terminating their lives. But there are clear cases of people with degenerative or other incurable diseases for whom simply living is pure hell and they should be granted the possibility of release from their suffering. Hospices are wonderful for many terminally ill patients but they are not perfect for all. This is all about is compassion in my book, and I say that as both a Quaker and as a Liberal Democrat; both my religious and political principles underpin my attitude in this matter. Now one can only thank Mr Nicklinson’s widow for her loving support and express one’s deeepest sympathy to her, her husband’s family and their friends.

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Sue Garden on Constitutional Reform

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st August, 2012

The mainstream media in Britain like to poke fun at the Liberal Democrats, saying they are obsessive about constitutional reform. This is meant to be an insult, but should be regarded as a compliment; the other two main parties are happy to live with the corrupt old system we have at present in England as well as in the UK Parliament, because each of them will normally come out a winner every few years almost by Buggins’ turn. The Liberal Democrats — and Liberals before them — have indeed been dogged in trying to drag our political system into the 20th, let alone the 21st, century; for over 100 years they have been trying to reform the House of Lords. Tory backwoodsmen killed that off recently (though Labour didn’t exactly rally round strongly to say they would work hard to get it through in a tripartite agreement between LibDems, Labour and progressive Tories). And of course the AV referendum was a catastrophe. Nonetheless, it is a tribute to the LibDems’ genuine attachment to the issue that the Camden local party was able to attract an impressive turnout on a balmy summer’s evening like this evening for a discussion on constitutional reform led by their local life peer, Baroness (Sue) Garden of Frognal. Sue is now a government whip, but nonetheless recognises that the current situation with the Lords is a total anomaly. Alas, it is unlikely that any significant change in that Chamber will come for some considerable time. However, I, along with some others, stressed how the LibDems really ought to be pressing for fairer votes at the local level — something already enjoyed by the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland, notably. It is grotesque that we have such a warped first-the-post voting system that we can end up with local authorities that are one party states, like North Korea. There are two in East London where I live: Newham and Barking & Dagenham; both 100% Labour. No wonder few people in those boroughs bother to vote. This is something the Party should consider pressing as part of its next election manifesto. And unlike AV for Westminster, which was a real dogs’ dinner anyway, STV for local elections is something everyone can understand. And it would mean that everyone should get at least one local representative who is not beholden to the ruling group’s line.

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Why Assange Lost My Support

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th August, 2012

The British government, in common with most of its other European and North American counterparts, disapproved of Wikileaks, as they saw the phenomenon as undermining the way the world goes about its diplomatic business. As a journalist, I took a contrary view and thought that this enforced openness taught ordinary people a lot about how states do their business, officially and unofficially. I applauded the Guardian’s publication of Wikileaks material and the way that Editor Alan Rusbridger handled the whole affair. So for a while I was quite positive about Julian Assange, though I never saw him as a knight in shining white armour. But the allegations against him of sexual asault in Sweden concerned me, as did his resistance to extradition to help with investigations there. There is no reason to think Sweden would accede to a further extradition request, this time from the United States, relating to Wikileaks, if the matter concerned could lead to a potential death sentence under US law, though his most strident supporters claim the opposite. Anyway, I thought it was brave and rather noble of a group of wealthy or influential friends and supporters of his to put up bail for him so he could live in relative comfort as a houseguest at a country house rather than in jail while the wheels of the British law ground. But when he jumped bail and fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, thereby dumping his friends and supporters in the shit and leaving them heavily out of pocket, I lost patience with him. Now he and his claque — including Ecuador’s President — are championing him as some sort of martyr for free speech, which he is not; his application for asylum was frankly absurd and he has become a self-publicist, playing to the gallery. There is a martyr in this whole business, however, and that is Bradley Manning, the poor young soldier who leaked a lot of the Wikileaks stuff while he was serving in Iraq. He has been languishing in a US prison, for much of the time in solitary confinement, yet his plight is largely ignored. That is where our sympathies should lie and our campaigning continue — for Manning’s release or at least civilised detention conditions for him.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th August, 2012

Teddy-bears are all the rage these days. My own furry friend, Uncle Rufus (who is almost as old as me) was thrilled to be asked to pose for a photo for Liberal Youth’s Bears for Belarus campaign. Actually, he wasn’t my bear when I was a kid. I never had any cuddly toys when I was a child, a fact that so horrified a fellow student at the Oriental Institute at Oxford that he presented me with his own Uncle Rufus, clad in vyella pyjamas and a paisley dresing gown (though Rufus is al fresco in the pic). All a bit Brideshead, I know, but hey. Apologies, I digress. Teddy-bears are also big because of the movie ‘ted’ (co-written, produced and brilliantly directed by Seth MacFarlane), which I have just seen at the West India Quay Cineworld. Now this is a film that could have been unspeakably gauche. I mean, just think of the story-line. A lonely little boy is given a teddy-bear for Christmas and wishes upon a falling star that the bear could talk. Hey presto, in the morning the bear can. Now imagine the face on the studio moguls at Universal in LA when that idea was pitched to them. But fortunately they heard the story out, and it is so outrageous and over-the-top (strictly 15+) that I defy any man and probably any woman to sit through the film and not split their sides laughing. The animation is brilliant and some of the gags are the best I have heard since the grand old days of Mel Brooks. ‘ted’ is wildly politically incorrect and sends everyone up, from Flash Gordon to John Travolta and Susan Boyle. I shan’t give away the plot — yes there is one — let alone the dramatic ending. But go and see it, or Uncle Rufus won’t forgive you.


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Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th August, 2012

In February, US President Barack Obama declared the fall of his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad ‘is not going to be a matter of “if”; it’s going to be a matter of “when”.’ Six months later, Assad is still hanging on in there in Damascus, though the country is riven by civil war. So it was maybe a bit premature for David W Lesch to entitle his new book Syria:The Fall of the House of Assad (Yale University Press, £19). Yet this is not just a case of wishful thinking. Professor Lesch (who teaches History of the Middle East at Trinity University at San Antonio, Texas) is a distinguished authority on Syria and a longtime advisor on Middle East policy to the US State Department. Moreover, he was one of those who believed that when Bashar al-Assad assumed power following the death of his father Hafiz in 2000 that this could be the dawn of a new, less repressive era for Syria. Indeed, Lesch wrote an eqarlier book that portrayed Bashar as a potential saviour (The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria, 2005). Lesch interviewed Bashar on numerous occasions — though not recently — and has travelled widely round the country. But rather like a lover scorned he is now totally disillusioned with the Syrian President. ‘Many of us hoped that Assad would change the system,’ he writes in the conclusion of his new book. ‘What seems to have happened is that the system has changed him.’ Indeed, the once rather gauche opthalmist, who was plucked from his higher studies in London because his elder brother — and Hafiz’s presumed heir — Basil had been killed in a car accident, has changed dramatically. Some analysts argue that he is a prisoner of the system, unable to resist the pressure from other members of the regime, including his thuggish younger brother Maher. But that is not the whole stoy. Bashar does now seem to believe that he has a God-given role to ‘save’ Syria from the forces of insurrection, whereas in reality he is leading it to perdition. He and his cohorts denounce the opposition forces — including the somewhat disjointed Free Syrian Army — as ‘terrorists’, while it is the government that is terrorising the peopulation. Nonetheless, it remains true, as Lesch points out, that a significant proportion of the Syrian population — notably the dominant Alewite minority and the Christians — would prefer Assad to stay in power as the prospect of a salafist Sunni alternative alarms them. But a resolution to the Syrian crisis does not seem imminent. Lesch was doubtless under pressure from his publishers to get his book written fast and they have turned it round in a couple of months. But the endgame is not yet in process. The short-lived Assad dynasty may be going, probably it is going, but it certainly isn’t gone yet.


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The Olympics Closing Ceremony

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th August, 2012

I was so impressed with Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony to the London2012 Olympics that I thought I must watch the Closing Ceremony as well, though alas it did not live up to expectations. I know it was intended to be of a different nature — more of an after-party than a perfomance — and it did look as though most of the Olympians present were enjoying it. But I thought it was rather poorly constructed and there was an awful lot of aimless drivng around by vehicles of all shapes and sizes, the early ones for some inexplicable reason wrapped in newsprint. I thought having an actor impersonate Winston Churchill reading Shakespeare lines that had already featurred in the Opening Ceremony, this time from the opened top of Big Ben, was just plain silly. The best moment came with some, though not all, of the musical acts. The film of John Lennon singing ‘Imgaine’ (supplied by Yoko Ono, I believe) was genuinely moving and it was fun to have a resurrected Freddie Mercury leading a singalong. The Annie Lennox set was cool and Eric Idle was a treat in an example of British bonkers at its best; The Who were in better shape than one might have imagined. But all in all, I felt the evening was something of an anticlimax. But that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the Games as a whole. Or the anticipation of the fun and riotous colour and music that there will be at Rio 2016, of which we got just a taster at the end of last night’s show.

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Bend It Like Beckham

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th August, 2012

Bend It Like Beckham is a film I have always wanted to see but somehow missed when it was on general release. So I was delighted that the organisersof the Doha film season showing at Bayt Qatar — Qatar’s Olympic House in London — included it in their programme of sports-related movies this afternoon. It did not disappoint. As well as paying homage to the Beautiful Game (as played by young women) it is a rich mix of social satire and the questioning of gender stereotypes. The Sikh family who have the misfortune (in their eyes) to have a daughter who is gifted at football live the aspirational life of East African Asians who fled to Britain from Idi Amin’s purges and settled in the flight-path to Heathrow Airport, finding employment there. The mother is a sort of Asian Hyacinth Bucket, desperately keeping up appearances, while her hen-pecked husband tries to maintain a brave face having suffered racial humilation when he first arrived in the UK but now to his relief being increasingly accepted in contemporary multicultural London. There are some good send-ups of Indian popular culture as well as the sometimes oppressive nature of South Asian families, but the English mother of the football girl’s best friend — and then love rival — is a scream of a caricature of someone who is trying hard to be politically correct and modern but who falls back into knee-jerk conservatism when she fears her beautiful blonde daughtyer might be a lesbian. It could be said that director Gurinder Chadha over-spiced the dish by cramming in too many different story-lines and cross-cultural misunderstandings. But the film was rightly praised when it came out and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has not yet seen it.

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Road to 2012: Facing East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th August, 2012

photos by Joe Bullock and Lucas Seidenfaden

Many of us who live in London’s East End viewed the hosting of this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics with a certain trepidation. And it is true that the Central Line — the quickest way for me to get into the centre of town from my home in Mile End — is hecticly busy at the moment all through the day. The only consolation of having to stand in sweltering conditions in the train is the extraordinary array of often quite beautiful people from all over to world to look at, for every taste. Anyway, though the Games are not quite over yet I think it’s fair to say that they have been a triumph. Moreover, as someone who has little interest in sport, for me the associated Cultural Olympiad, now culminating in the London 2012 Festival, has been spectacular. I have only managed to get to a few events, but they have been varied and stimulating. This morning I went to Four Corners in the Roman Road in Bethnal Green, a centre for film and photography that is currently hosting an exhbition of photos ‘Road to 2012: Facing East’. The work on display is by students in Fine Art and Photography at the University of East London and focuses on how the Games have impacted on the area, particularly Newham. There is an interesting variety of approaches, from Joe Bullock’s take on some of the characters who usually frequent the Lee Valley to Johanna Lees’ portraits of residents of one Stratford Street — all caught looking grave, or at least ambivalent. Contributors to the exhibition come from countries as varied as Cyprus, Germany, Estonia and the United States, with a range of styles and moods which means at least one will really appeal to any viewer. The exibition at Four Corners runs until 9 September and is a London 2012 Festival Project in partnership with the National Potrait Gallery and BT.Link:

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