Jonathan Fryer

Archive for July, 2013

Living with the Enemy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 28th July, 2013

Living with the EnemyGerman Occupation Channel IslandsWhen I was a boy the Headmaster of my little primary school was always talking about the War. To him it was so fresh, though his patriotic fervour was by then targeted mainly against the Communists — and especially “Red China” — than against the Germans. I do remember him proudly stating that Britain stood alone from 1940, and was never occupied, unlike most of the Continent. Of course, as I was soon to discover on a childhood visit to Jersey, one part of King George Vi’s realm, the Channel Islands, had been occupied and memories were very much alive. But is only through reading Roy McLaughlin’s Living with the Enemy (Channel Island Publishing, 2010) that the reality of almost five years of that Occupation has sunk in. It began in a fairly civilised way, though civilian casualties from a German bombing raid just before the German air force landed could probably have been avoided had London not decided to hide the fact from Berlin that the Islands had been demilitarised, i.e. all the few armed forces withdrawn. Some civilians had seized the opportunity of evacuation, too, though most stayed. On Guernsey the population would undoubtedly have had an easier time of it had London not sent in locally-born spies who were rumbled. There was some very low-level resistance in the Islands, such as hiding radios after they had been banned by the German authorities, but in general the two sides suffered each other without too much hostility. The Dame of Sark famously had the Germans in for tea and got them to sign her visitors book. Things deteriorated when a labour camp for slave workers, mainly from Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union, was set up and conditions were brutal. A concentration camp on Alderney, almost the whole of whose native population had decamped, was even worse. The final months of the Occupation were the worst, as food and fuel supplies had run down and the bitter winter of 1944-45 took its toll. The local population did receive food parcels from the International Red Cross — which an enlightened German administrator made sure did get to the locals rather than German troops, some of whom were by then subsisting on limpets, rabbits and cats. Roy McLaughlin’s book is in three distinct parts, the first mainly based on testimony from the Islanders, the second giving the background, and the third based on testimony of Germans who were there (27,000 were shipped to England as POWs at the end of the War). For many readers, including me, the most fascinating sections of the books are the black-and-white photo plates, many of them German propaganda pics of life in the only occupied bit of “England”. Riveting stuff, well told, as one would expect from an old BBC and Fleet Street hand.

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Time to Scrutinise UKIP

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th July, 2013

UKIP comes under some uncomfortable scrutiny from:

Rebecca Taylor (Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament) and Petros Fassoulas (Chairman of the European Movement UK), who write:

Rebecaa TaylorUKIP MEPs are infamous for being not just Britain’s laziest members of the European Parliament, but among the laziest in Europe, as figures from VoteWatch and EP Committee minutes have shown (and the Mirror graphically exposed recently). UKIP MEPs’ excuse for their lack of graft is that their job is to get the UK out of the EU and they don’t need to bother with anything else, like actually representing their constituents’ interests in Brussels. Of course if they were politicians of principle, they could refuse to take their seats after elected. But then they would forfeit their MEP salary and allowances, which they don’t seem keen to do. In fact UKIP are on record as boasting about how much money their MEPs claim, for not doing their jobs properly. This not being enough, two UKIP MEPs were jailed for expense fraud and benefit fraud and last year two further UKIP MEPs were forced to repay nearly £40k to the European Parliament after being found to have used allowances improperly. In addition, UKIP MEPs are far less transparent than MEPs from other UK parties, who publish their expenses on their websites and regularly update them (Rebecca Taylor’s can be found here).

Mr Farage was caught out by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, when he was asked why he and his deputy Mr Nuttall had not published their expenses for 2 years despite promising to do so. Mr Farage was unable to produce a convincing response, saying instead that he was “very busy” and that he had “lost some receipts”. But what does Nigel Farage does while he is in Brussels, paid by British tax payers? Does he stand up for British interests? Does he work on legislation that will improve the life of his constituents? No, of course not, he spends his time avoiding committee meetings and failing to vote even on issues that are important for the UK. European Liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt famously accused Nigel Farage of being the EU’s biggest waste of money. He has a point. Mr Farage has failed to attend 48% of Plenary votes, has never drafted a report and he is joint bottom when it comes to Parliamentary questions asked. As the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is important for the fishing industry in the South East of England, the region Mr Farage represents, he has tried to make it look like he was doing something by “campaigning”, which seemed to be limited to sending out angry press releases. However, he has never bothered to take part in Fisheries Committee meetings and when mammoth cross-party efforts by centre-right, Socialist, Liberal and Green MEPs ensured an historic reform of the CFP, which will end overfishing and safeguard the future of the fishing industry in Europe, Mr Farage was nowhere to be found. He did not even bother to show up to the fisheries committee final vote (which was very close) and he disappeared halfway through the plenary vote. In fact, according to Committee minutes, he attended just one of 42 Fisheries Committee meetings between February 2010 and January 2013, when he resigned from all Committees. Which is consistent with UKIP’s record; UKIP MEPs have attended just 30% of Committee meetings.

European Parliament BrusselsWhich is a real shame and huge waste. The real graft in Brussels is done in committee, so by skipping committee meetings UKIP miss the chance to exert any influence and help shape laws that affect their constituents. They claim that there is no point as they would be outvoted every time, which is patently ridiculous when key votes can (and often do) go one way or another with only a vote to spare. Committee work requires an MEP to understand the proposal in question, meet with businesses, NGOs, pressure groups, ordinary citizens, trade unions, national government representatives etc. to hear their positions, develop amendments that will not only be workable, but will also get sufficient support from their political group as well as other MEPs, and keep track of the hundreds, sometimes thousands of other amendments. Doing all this properly is hard work and very time consuming, so no wonder UKIP MEPs prefer to prance round the UK making speeches to their followers and sending out angry press releases instead. Much easier! UKIP’s deputy leader Paul Nuttall MEP is a point in case. He is a Member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, but in nearly three years had attended only twice. According to figures by VoteWatch he is 736th (out of 753 MEPs) when it comes to Plenary sessions attended. He is joint bottom both for reports and opinions drafted (actually he hasn’t drafted a single one!). This is again “out of principle”; he thinks his time would be better used elsewhere. Or he does until he realises he might get some bad publicity as happened recently. The Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee recently debated and voted on the EU tobacco directive, which included the regulation of e-cigarettes. Like-minded MEPs from several parties worked to table sensible amendments on e-cigarettes and it all came to head in the Committee vote. Knowing that the key amendment on e-cigarettes required all the votes it could get and that Mr Nuttall never attends committee, e-cigarettes users (some of whom were Mr Nuttall’s constituents) were encouraged to contact his office. Some were ignored, some received the same generic e-mail response they had received several months previously, and at least one was told Mr Nuttall would not attend the tobacco directive vote. They were dismayed and began complaining about him on Twitter. Then all of a sudden Mr Nuttall changed his mind and showed up at the Committee meeting (his 3rd visit in 3 years!), although he didn’t bother to vote on many amendments.

This experience was a great opportunity for many voters to realise that while UKIP shout loudly, they do very little else. Many of them expressed surprise; UKIP like to portray themselves as standing up for “ordinary British people”; what they actually do is ignore the very people they claim to represent. Needless to say, Mr Nuttall’s constituents were left unimpressed, but at least they were able to compare the efforts to shape EU laws made by hard working LibDem MEPs (among others) with the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” work done by UKIP MEPs. Mr Nuttall’s attitude shows that UKIP MEPs are indeed lazy, exactly because they think they can get away with it. They claim to be avoiding the hard graft of parliamentary committee work out of principle, but those principles are soon chucked by the wayside if they suspect they will get any bad publicity. Put under a little scrutiny, especially by UK voters who are vocal, active on social media and in regular contact with broadcast media, and suddenly UKIP MEPs decide that attending EP Committees is not such a waste of time after all.

Time for a lot more scrutiny of UKIP!

(This article first appeared on the European Movement UK’s euroblog)

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The Basque Country

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th July, 2013

The Basque CountryGuggenheim Museum BilbaoThe Basque Country is a land of mountains and valleys — and the sea. The early 16th century Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano accompanied the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan on his historic sail westwards in search of the East Indies, and unlike Magellan, he survived. The Basques are among the oldest, if not the very oldest, peoples of Europe and their language is unlike any other. Of course it was suppressed under General Franco and for decades Basque separatists — mainly in Spain, but with a few allies in the smaller Basque lands of France — have agitated for independence, sometimes violently. It was while Franco was in decline, in 1975, that the Irish writer and specialist on Spain, Paddy Woodworth, first set foot in Euskal Herria — the land of the Basques. But he became fascinated and over the next 30 years and more penetrated the Basque lands and mentality more than most foreign observers. One result is his book The Basque Country (Signal, 2007), which is far more than just a guidebook or even a cultural history. It is a song of one man’s love for a tiny corner of Europe that has been often misunderstood. Paddy is a canny and opinionated (in the best sense of the world) companion, who relishes the Basque love of food and drink (wine and cider), the echoes of pre-Christian rituals and beliefs and the magic realism of some of its literature and folklore. He bemoans the noisiness of post-modern life in village bars, while at the same time — in a major, central chapter — celebrating aspects of the post-modern transformation of Bilbao (the “Guggenheim Effect”). While decrying the carnage of ETA’s terror campaign, as well as the torture and killings of Basque activists by various Spanish regimes, he remains neutral in his position regarding Basque separatism, at the same time drawing some interesting comparisons with Northern Ireland. Above all, he invites the reader to celebrate an land and its people before they irrevocably change, just as the whales that used to swim off the coast have disappeared and many species of fish have been driven to the verge of extinction.

Link: http://www.paddywoodworth.com & http://www.signalbooks.co.uk

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Crystal Clear on Language and Literature

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd July, 2013

David CrystalWhen I was a boy there were two types of English: British and American. In England there was an attempt to wipe out regional accents and dialects (as a Lancashire lad, I was given elocution lessons, to speak all BBC. Shudder). And in Wales, where I spent a lot of weekends and holidays, there was an attempt to wipe out Welsh too. How times have changed! Over the past four decades or so a whole family of Englishes has developed round the world, from Jamaican to Singlish, and many more in between, and even the BBC these days celebrates regional and ethnic diversity. This subject was inevitably touched on by Professor David Crystal, when he gave the opening lecture to a week of studies for translators and people involved in the publishing industry at Birkbeck College today. I draw heavily on his English as a Global Language (Cambridge University Press, 2003) in the relevant module of my own Humanities course at SOAS, and I have enjoyed watching videos of some of his lectures. So it was a great pleasure to see him perform in the flesh — and perform he does, seated on a high metal backed chair, rather like the 1960s/1970s Irish comedian Dave Allan, sparkling in his fluency, playful and witty. His lecture was entitled “Language -blank- Literature” and he used well-chosen extracts from the works of William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard to illustrate how writers can bend and break the rules of English (having first grounded themselves fully in the language). He naturally also paid homage to James Joyce. I asked him in the Q&A afterwards how he could reconcile precision with intelligibility, citing the jargon of Brussels Euro-speak — an English laden with foreign borrowings and obscure terminology that is alienating to most ordinary Brits. And I say that as someone who is deeply pro-European. Prof Crystal replied that what was needed is something like the Plain English campaign that has resulted positively in the UK in making HMRC and others phrase forms and letters in ways that make sense to any man or woman in the street, more user-friendly. At the reception after the lecture — kindly sponsored by Europe House — he (and therefore subsequently I) was informed that there is such a group or movement already in existence, called “Clarity”. I shall investigate!

Link: http://www.davidcrystal.com

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Royal Baby Yawn

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st July, 2013

royal babyDuhess of CambridgeNewspaper billboards in London proclaim “Royal Baby Frenzy!”, but apart from the bevvy of now rather tired journalists camped outside the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge is waiting to give birth to her overdue infant, who really cares? Not a single person has mentioned the subject to me, and I turn over related stories in the Press with a yawn. Of course I wish Kate an easy and successful delivery and hope the royal pair are happy with the outcome, boy or girl. I enjoyed watching their wedding on TV, as Britain does such spectacles so well and the two lead actors were perfect in their roles. But the birth of a baby? Not the same. OK, in principle he or she will one day far in the future become Britain’s monarch, not that I or the vast majority of Britain’s population alive today will be around to see it. Will we indeed still have a monarchy in the late 21st century? And if so, will it be more than a bit of window-dressing, drawing in the tourists? I am a very weak monarchist, only on the Hilaire Belloc principle: always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse — which in this case would be an elected president. I sometimes have the nightmare that someone like Tony Blair could become president, which would be a further nail in the coffin of Britain’s parliamentary democracy and cabinet government. So maybe a constitutional monarch with no real powers is better. Besides, like most Brits I think Queen Elizabeth has done a grand job and continues doing so. Will Charles live up to that standard, if he ever takes over? Let me not prejudge. But remember that in theory there will be King Charles III and then King William V before the imminent baby takes the throne. I view that prospect with mild curiosity. But frenzy? No way!

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A Concise History of the Arabs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th July, 2013

A Concise History of the ArabsJohn McHugoHistory was one of my favourite subjects at school and although it ended with “The Causes of the First World War” it gave us boys insights into the story of Europe (including Russia), Imperial China and the Boxer Rebellion, and of course the British Raj in India. But as a I recall no mention was ever made of the Arabs. It was if they were of no importance, or at least peripheral. So it was much later that I discovered the extraordinary contribution the Arab world made to civilization, from Algebra to music therapy. While Europe was in the Dark Ages, Baghdad was a centre of learning that not only preserved much of what the Romans and Ancient Greeks had produced but added to it. And Moorish Andalus and its great cities of Cordoba and Granada were legendary in their degree of artistry, philosophy and tolerance, centuries before the European Enlightenment. So there is every good reason why adults as well as children in the West should learn about the Arabs, though I suspect the motivation these days might be more linked to a desire to understand the social and political turmoil taking place in so much of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the rise of militant Islamism. There have been a few, good single volume histories of the Arabs in English, notably by Albert Hourani and my old friend Peter Mansfield. But both died long before the recent Arab awakening or indeed the rise of petrol and gas states such as Qatar. So the publication of John McHugo’s A Concise History of the Arabs (Saqi, £20) is timely. John and I were at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute together (though I was reading Chinese and Japanese while he did Arabic) and our paths have repeatedly crossed, more recently through the Liberal Democrats, and in particular the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (which he chairs). His book has the merit of being both erudite and accessible; his command of the subject is self-evident but he tells a story rather than giving a lecture. Inevitably a sizable proportion of the book relates to Islam; not all Arabs are Muslims, but most are, and the spread of both the Arab people and the Arabic language was intimately linked to Islam and the Qur’an. John is strong in his analysis of the European colonial period, especially in the Levant, its legacy and the later rise of various types of Arab nationalism. Many of the names of Arab political figures of the second half of the 20th century will be familiar to the general reader, as so many of them were around for such a long time. And that, of course, is a major reason why a new, angry, literate and often unemployed younger generation, from Tunisia to Yemen, decided enough was enough. 

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Why the City Needs EU Membership

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th July, 2013

Excellent piece on why London’s financial centre needs to be part of the European common market, by my friend Mark Field, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster. I wish more of his Tory colleagues thought the same way!

The City is one of Britain’s most valuable assets and central to its success is its ability to be part of the EU’s common market. The coalition government’s EU policy must be based on those two fundamental principles.

Mark FieldHistorically there have tended to be two potential models for a successful financial centre. The first, an onshore version, is based around the notion of a hub city servicing a sizeable domestic market – think New York and the US market. The alternative approach, offshore, depends upon attracting business primarily via competitive tax rates, regulatory arbitrage and other distinct selling points such as a respected system of law, privacy and a skilled workforce – the most obvious example here being the Swiss niche in secret bank accounts. Until 2008’s financial crisis, the City of London had pragmatically been enjoying elements of both models and benefited handsomely. Prominent first as the epicentre of the British Empire, servicing the UK’s great global trading market, since the 1980s the City had taken on the role of offshore-onshore financial centre to the European continent – more recently still as a member of the European Union outside the Eurozone. As a pan-European capital market, the City flourished and alongside that role was able to take advantage of a light-touch regulatory approach advocated by Britain and applied across the EU that attracted huge volumes of foreign money. But the arrival of the financial crisis fundamentally changed the rules of this game. Almost overnight since 2008 the EU has demanded greater oversight of its financial infrastructure. Awkward questions have been raised about the ability of London and UK financial services regulators to prevent the system silting up; whether it is sustainable (or desirable) for Euro-denominated risk to be cleared offshore in the British capital. In turn, the City has expressed firm concerns about the way the new and numerous EU laws can fundamentally damage its global competitiveness.

The invoking of a British ‘veto’ at the December 2011 EU summit was billed as an aggressive demonstration of the UK’s intention to retain its offshore/onshore model, protecting the City as its vital interest. To much of the EU it was perceived as an unrealistic and petulant attempt to maintain an unsustainable status quo. The UK’s demands for safeguards would have given the UK an effective veto over European financial regulation, a request that was never going to be acceded to. In reality, that veto was less about the future of the City and more a political gesture to a domestic audience aimed at keeping Eurosceptic wolves from the door. The backdrop to that summit, it is important to recall, was the unexpectedly large ‘rebellion’ in support of an EU referendum. It was perhaps naïve ever to suppose that this would close off debate on the issue. Instead the Prime Minister’s superficially popular move delighted the media and hardened Eurosceptics’ resolve to extract further concessions. Since then, of course, matters have moved on apace. The EU, under the leadership of European Internal Market Commissioner, Michel Barnier, has set up a single bank supervisor and is moving ahead with putting in place the foundations of a banking union. Meanwhile the coalition government saw further rebellion on the UK’s relationship with the Union, that time over its budget, and the Prime Minister has crafted a clear path towards renegotiating the UK’s relationship with the EU, returning powers and holding a referendum.

City of LondonThe uncomfortable truth facing the Prime Minister is that there is no third way in the UK’s relationship with Europe. His understandable instinct is to play for time, trying to address Eurosceptic passions with aggressive talk about repatriating powers from and renegotiating our relationship with the EU, while smoothing relations with European partners behind closed doors. To some extent, this is a challenge faced by all European leaders, whose electorates are increasingly restless at the influence of the EU institutions. This approach is, however, no substitute for a clear view about how Britain’s economic interests are best served, particularly when it comes to the direction in which the City – the nation’s only substantial, globally competitive industry – should evolve. Our European partners are entangled in a crisis of continental scale and have lost interest in being lectured to accede to the UK’s demands.

If the Prime Minister sees our future in the EU, with the City remaining closely integrated into the vast domestic European market, a more collaborative approach with our European partners is required. This path will involve facing down Eurosceptic sentiment in the UK. He must put forward a powerful case for why now is not the time for British belligerence. Time will need to be spent extracting the best deal for the City through careful diplomacy and the building of alliances. Talk of fundamental renegotiation is illusory. Many of my Conservative colleagues, whose idea of renegotiation would take the UK’s relationship with the EU back to a pre-Maastricht arrangement may not like it, but for the EU and the City the choice ahead is increasingly binary. This arises out of a dearth of strategic thinking in how we see the City operating in future and the relationship Britain should enjoy with the European Union in the years ahead. The long term success of the City is better served from within the EU, forming the laws that affect it and helping shape the EU’s future. Because a successful City and an engaged UK are good for the EU as a whole.

This article first appeared on the European Movement’s euroblog. Link: http://www.euromove.org.uk 

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Matthew Oakeshott Keeps the Faith

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th July, 2013

Matthew OakeshottSince standing down as Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman in the House of Lords in 2011 after describing the Coalition Government’s Project Merlin as “pitiful”, Matthew Oakeshott has made full use of his political freedom. Journalists and broadcasters often turn to him for a meaty quote and he has starred on BBC1’s Question Time. Having worked closely with the late Roy Jenkins he is a keen European and he had early working experience in Kenya. Despite being an investment manager he is often identified as being on the left, or at least Social Democratic, wing of the Party. He also does his fair share of the rubber chicken circuit, though certainly that would be an unjust description of the splendid Dulwich and West Norwood LibDems’ garden party this afternoon, all of whose funds raised were dedicated to the Evelina Children’s Hospital Appeal. In his short speech, as guest of honour, Matthew urged activists present to Keep the Faith in next year’s combined European and London borough elections. Being in coalition with the Conservatives was never going to be easy, but it was the right thing to do and there have been several major Liberal Democrat wins — for example the raised tax threshold — which would never have happened if a purely Conservative government were in office. Matthew lives in Lambeth and there is of course close cooperation between LibDems in Southwark and Lambeth (which together form a GLA constituency). Moreover, it was clear from conversation with councillors present this afternoon that the current Labour administrations in both boroughs deserve criticism. Mainstream political parties in general have been haemorrhaging  members over the past few years, but with just 10 months to go till polling day it is vital LibDems get out on the doorstep and sell what we have been doing and what we have to offer.

Link: http://southwark-libdems.org.uk

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Fanny, Stella and Mr Gladstone

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th July, 2013

William GladstoneFanny & StellaThough the Oscar Wilde trials are often seen as the archetypal Victorian scandal, there was an earlier cause for outrage, even more titillating to the general public: the 1870 trial of the transvestite and occasional prostitute Ernest Boulton and various of his associates, on the then extremely serious charge of sodomy. For years “Stella” — as Ernest called himself — and his bosom pal, “Fanny” (Frederick Park), cruised London’s theatres and strutted their stuff around town, turning heads and, in the case of the decidedly prettier Stella, winning hearts right across the social spectrum. Indeed, Stella at one time entered a sham marriage with Lord Arthur Clinton, MP, godson of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Not surprisingly, Fanny, Stella and many of those involved with them ended up having problems with the law, but it was interesting that when the net closed round them (save for Lord Arthur, who had conveniently died of scarlet fever — or so it was claimed) their actual trial showed British justice at its best, in that defence counsel (much aided by Boulton’s adoring mother, who was Stella’s biggest fan) demolished the prosecution’s case and the jury of 12 good men and true took less than an hour to declare all the defendants not guilty. Perhaps that is one reason why Oscar Wilde assumed wrongly 25 years later that he would get off too. If as a teenager in Ireland he didn’t hear of the crossdressers’ case he would almost certainly have heard of Stella or even seen her perform — still in drag — on the stage in London, where she acted in coy entertainments with one of her brothers for many years, after a short period of exile in America. Interestingly, these shows were far better received up North than they were in the South. The extraordinary tale of Boulton, Park and their cohorts is amusingly, even shockingly, recounted in Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna (Faber & Faber, £16.99). As with his earlier provocative book on the “secret life” of Oscar Wilde, McKenna is not afraid of over-egging the pudding for dramatic effect or of speculating, but the core of the book is founded on serious research. Obviously, he cannot have known exactly what was going through Stella’s mind in her outrageous guises and adventures, but he takes the reader along as a willing accomplice, not sparing us even the most lurid medical details at times. I would love to know what Gladstone himself actually thought about Stella and her ilk; he must have come across some of the female impersonators who loitered in the West End along with the ladies of the night, who he liked to invite back to his home in Carlton House Terrace for a wholesome talk. There is no record that he ever invited Stella back, but it is a deliciously transgressive thought.

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Tales from the Tower of Babel

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th July, 2013

Marlene Dietrich performs in her famous role as LolaGeoff BrownAlmost 75 years ago, when talkies were taking the cinema world by storm but dubbing techniques had not yet been finessed, there was a period in which film companies made several versions of the same movie, shot with dialogue in different languages, sometimes using the same actors (with varying degrees of linguistic ability) but often employing completely different casts. The Ufa studio outside Berlin, with its distinctive four wings, became a veritable multi-lingual film factory in the early 1930s; German, English and French versions of the same scene in the same sets would be shot before everyone moved round to the next wing and carried on with the next. It was a cumbersome process, but better than trying to make do with the title cards that had been feasible in the days of silent movies. This evening, at Europe House in Westminster, the British film historian Geoff Brown gave a fascinating illustrated talk on that brief period of multi-lingual film-making, including some hilarious shots of Laurel and Hardy hamming it up in Spanish and a revealing comparison of the German and English versions of Marlene Dietrich singing in the seedy Blue Angel nightclub. As became clear, there were sometimes cultural differences that had to be catered for, the Anglo-Saxon world in general being far more prudish than the continental Europeans. And when completely different actors were used in effect two quite different films emerged. I particularly savoured a clip of the German version of Anna Christie (1930), in which Greta Garbo vamps it up with my old friend Salka Viertel in a cameo role as a drunken older woman; the two actresses later became bosom pals in Santa Monica. Geoff Brown’s enthusiasm for the period and the multi-lingual film phenomenon was infectious and his particular style of lecturing, during which his slender frame seemed at times to wish to clamber up the metal latticed lectern, inimitable. It was perhaps tempting fate to hold an event called Tales from the Tower of Babel in the London headquarters of the European Commission, as there are now (with last week’s entry of Croatia) no fewer than 24 official languages in the EU. But as the EU’s Culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou has pointed out, it is the richness of the linguistic diversity of Europe and the growing mutli-lingualism of its citizenry that is one of the greatest joys of the European Union.

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