When I was a small boy I often used to go to the cinema in Monton near Eccles, which had a sixpenny Saturday afternoon matinée. And it was there that for the one and only time in my life I sat through a film twice: 101 Dalmatians. I don’t suppose there are many cinemas left in the country where one could just stay put to see a film a second time, but had I been a child today and were it possible, I would have stayed on for a second showing of Paddington, Paul King’s affectionate take on the Paddington Bear stories, which I saw at my local Genesis Cinema in Stepney Green this evening. I have never read the books, and I know the author was a little taken aback by some of the liberties the film takes with his characters, but the overall result is a triumph. It could all have been mawkishly saccharine — particularly in the run-up to Christmas — but from the black and white prologue onward, giving a very camp and tongue-in-cheek impression of the Explorer Mongomery Clyde engaging with the bears in Deepest Peru, the film is a riot of fun action, sharp characterisation and a mixture of gags aimed at an adult audience as well as at kids. There’s even a referential bow to 101 Dalmatians, in that the malignant taxidermist Millicent (played by Nicole Kidman in a blonde wig) is a mirror image of Cruella de Ville. Half the members of the Garrick Club, from Hugh Bonneville (as Mr Brown) to Michael Gambon (the voice of Uncle Pastuzo), seem to have been involved in the film’s making. Indeed, Paddington revels in its Britishness, at times nostalgic, but never reactionary or UKIPpy. Rather, like the calypso that ends the film, it is a celebration of multicultural London, a city that might seem cold and wet at first but which usually in the end opens its heart to someone whoever they are and wherever they come from.
Archive for November, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th November, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th November, 2014
When one thinks of UNESCO World Heritage sites I suppose ancient wonders such as the Pyramids at Giza or Stonehenge come to mind, so for many people it will come as a surprise to know that Germany boasts no fewer than 39 of them, ranging from the old city of Bamberg to the broads of the Wadden Sea. Some locations, such as Trier, are home to an astonishing variety of architectural periods of styles from the Roman era onward, while others, such as the palaces and other grand buildings round Potsdam form more of a unity. The German travel board, Germany Travel, offers a good brief introduction to each of the UNESCO gems on its website, as well as suggesting itineraries off the beaten track. But people in London can get an excellent preview over the next couple of weeks at an exhibition of beautiful photographs of Germany’s UNESCO world heritage sites by Hans-Joachim Aubert, at Europe House, the European Commission and European Parliament offices in Smith Square, Westminster. This exhibition has been travelling the world and could hardly be a better showcase of what the EU’s most populous nation has to offer and is itself a fine example of location photography at its very best.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th November, 2014
I was pleased last night to return from the ALDE Congress in Lisbon in time to attend the launch of Gerald MacLean’s new book, Abdullah Gul and the Making of the New Turkey*, at the Turkish Embassy. A particular draw was the subject himself, who was in London on what he said was his first foreign trip since ending his term as Turkey’s President. Gerald said in his own remarks that the volume is not hagiography, though there was a degree of cooperation with Mr Gul, his wife, friends and family. I shall reserve judgement until I am able to read it. Also present last night was Jack Straw, who said that he and his wife had forged a close friendship with the Guls while he was Foreign Secretary. Mr Straw lamented the fact that Turkey had effectively been kept out of EU membership by the strong opposition from states such as Austria, though many of us who follow Turkish affairs closely feel that in fact Ankara has recently been drifting further away from rather than nearer that objective. Mr Gul himself was in nostalgic mood, recalling his own university studies in Britain (at Exeter University). As he has been Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President of Turkey I guess the next stage would be some international role. He could of course write his memoirs, but he might feel Gerald MacLean has stolen his thunder on that.
* OneWorld, £35
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd November, 2014
The congress of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) this week brought 600 delegates to Lisbon to discuss Reclaiming Liberalism. Though it was the first such gathering since May’s European elections, not too much time was spent looking backwards but rather forwards, as to how we can hone our message on the basis of our liberal principles in a context of growing illiberalism and nationalism. Liberals in some countries — notably Britain and Germany — fared really badly in May, whereas in other areas — such as the Benelux and the Baltic — there was a strong advance. It was good to welcome several new parties into the liberal family. Fringe events are getting much more numerous and valuable than used to be the case, and I especially valued the session on the EU digital single market. An election was held for two new vice-presidents on the Bureau, the victorious candidates being Angelika Mlinar from Austria and Hans van Baalen from the Netherlands. As usual, the Brits had the largest delegation, but as the number of delegate places reflects the vote a party gets in national general elections, we have to brace ourselves for a reduction after next May. Meanwhile, I was pleased to learn that I have ben re-elected by the Liberal Democrats to serve on the ALDE governing Council for the next two years, as well as on the party’s International Relations Committee. I also got elected to the LibDems’ Federal Executive (the first time I’ve stood) and know that we will have quite a tough period to face as a party in the run-up to May and beyond.
[photo: Hans van Baalen and Angelika Mlinar]
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th November, 2014
I have lost count of the number of times I have visited Petra, not just Jordan’s most impressive archaeological site but one of the true wonders of the ancient world. I’ve seen it under snow in winter and in the scorching sun of summer, but November is about the most perfect month to visit. I’ve seen the place crowded (soon after Jordan opened the Aqaba border crossing with Israel) and I’ve seen it deserted (after 9/11, when tourists fled the Middle East and stopped flying). Yesterday, the numbers of visitors were moderate; Jordan, like other countries in the region, has seen its tourist industry hit by the shock waves of the so-called Arab Spring. But the real joy for me was seeing the newly uncovered parts of the site, which give an even better picture of what the city was like than before. And much more remains under the sands. The evening before going into the site I gave a lecture in Wadi Musa on the Rise and Fall of the Nabataeans. I think they would have been amazed and pleased how two millennia after Petra’s heyday people from all over the world come to marvel at their legacy.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th November, 2014
Long before Oman struck oil, providing the wherewithal for the modernisation of the country and its infrastructure after Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, this South Eastern corner of Arabia acquired a significant part of its wealth from the trade in frankincense, the aromatic resin of a long-living tree found notably in the Dhofar region. In biblical times and well into the Middle Ages, frankincense was very costly, making it worth the while of traders to transport it by camels across the desert to Jeddah in what is now Saudi Arabia, for shipment to Egypt and beyond, or overland via Petra and on into the Middle East and Europe. Just as oil was dubbed “black gold”, so frankincense was referred to as “white gold” — the most prized type being a milky white, though other less expensive varieties are a murkier brown or grey. The value dropped hugely in modern times, as other forms of air purifier and perfumes were commercialised, but it is still produced in significant quantities in Oman and sells well in e markets here, not least in Salalah, where I am writing this blog piece. Earlier today I visited the UNESCO world heritage site in a wadi where there are hundreds of trees, many of them centuries old. Outside the fenced-in area of government production, the trees have been shorn of lower foliage by camels, but one only needs to make a small nick in the bark for a tiny emission of sticky white resin to emerge, already full of scent. In normal harvesting, which happens between May and September, the trees are left for three weeks for them to bleed sufficiently to provide the requisite amount. Frankincense was one of the wondrous products presented to the baby Jesus by the Three Kings, according to the New Testament, and it is somehow reassuring to think that this white gold will continue to be garnered in Oman long after the black gold runs out.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th November, 2014
Oman is probably the most low-key of the Gulf states, certainly when compared with the UAE’s Dubai or Qatar. But it is the one with the greatest sense if history; for centuries, Omani merchants were key players across the Indian Ocean and down the East coast of Africa and its navy was a force to be reckoned with. For the first two decades of my life, it was largely a closed country, as the old Sultan was mistrustful of modernity and the West — understandably if one reads how the Omanis were mistreated by the Portuguese and then outmanoeuvred by the British. All that changed in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos took power, and he started to use the country’s oil-wealth to build up its infrastructure, as well as to raise the living standards of his people. Moreover, while some of the other Gulf States have trumpeted with great fanfares their activities in international diplomacy, Oman has done so quietly. It was one of the first Arab states to accept that someone who had been to Israel should not therefore be a prohibited visitor. And today there are efforts underway to further the Western dialogue with giant neighbour Iran, with the US and the EU represented at the highest diplomatic level at talks in Oman’s capital, Muscat (which I left this morning to fly to Salalah). Sultan Qaboos himself is unfortunately detained by medical treatment in Germany, so unable to greet the participants, as I am sure he would have wished. He will also miss National Day celebrations here on 18 November. But when he went on the radio on Wednesday to say he is doing OK, cars full of flag-waving young men took to the streets of Muscat in celebration. Oman may not pass the Westminster-model democracy test, but on so many levels it is an undoubted success, including in its quiet diplomacy. And many Omanis say they like things the way they are — so long as Sultan Qaboos is in charge.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd November, 2014
Through the eyes of the Western media what appears to be a black-and-white situation has developed in the Middle East: the wicked self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) versus the rest, including the international coalition of which Britain is part. But of course the reality is nowhere near as clear-cut as that, and some of ISIS’s enemies should not be our friends — Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, for example. So it was helpful, as well as moving, to be at the BBC Radio Theatre in London yesterday afternoon for a screening of three documentaries from Syria, the first and longest of which was The Shebabs of Yarmouk, directed by Axel Salvatori-Sinz, focussing on a group of young creative artists/writers/directors living in the crowded Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus — their hopes and fears and their ambivalent attitude to the possibility of leaving Syria. The film ends just as the so-called Arab Spring hits Syria in early 2011. The handsome and talented central, figure, Hassan Hassan, has finally accepted to do his military service, but as we learn from a very short but poignant postscript filmed separately by Axel Salvatori-Sinz in Paris, Hassan was subsequently detained and died under torture in one of Assad’s hell-hole prisons. Dissent is simply not tolerated by the regime. And yet thousands of predominantly young Syrians, with no affiliation to ISIS or indeed any of the other radical groups to be found fighting the country, continue to make their dissenting voices heard, through clips uploaded onto YouTube, and through social media postings, as well as brave demonstrations, singly or in groups. Many others have perished or been forced into exile, or at best internally displaced. For those of outside who follow the Syrian story at a distance through the mainstream media, it is important to acknowledge those different voices and diverse points of view. This is not a black-and-white situation, and we demean the people of Syria by assuming it is.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Arab Spring, Axel Salvatori-Sinz, Bashar Al-Assad, Damascus, Hassan Hassan, ISIS, Islamic State, Palestine, Syria, The Shebabs of Yarmouk, Yarmouk | Leave a Comment »