Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2015

Ahmet Altan on Politics and Writing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 31st August, 2015

Philippe Sands and Ahmet AlkanEndgameFresh from the Edinburgh Festival, the Turkish novelist and erstwhile columnist for the liberal newspaper Taraf, Ahmet Altan, was in London last night, being interviewed by the international lawyer and academic Philippe Sands. The event was hosted by English PEN, on whose Writers in Prison Committee I sat for many years, at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, right in the centre of Dalston’s recent regeneration. Like most Turkish writers, journalists and publishers who have produced anything complimentary about the Kurds, for example, Ahmet Altan has fallen foul of the law on occasion; freedom of expression is repeatedly under attack in Turkey and the country often has more writers and journalists in prison than any other. But as the novelist said last night, every writer in Turkey is expected to be an expert on everything, including politics, and their opinion is constantly sought. His own political journey has been interesting, as he initially supported Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party as they successfully ensured that the military stayed in their barracks — having previously intervened with coups d’état — but as Mr Erdogan’s self-aggrandisement has increased, with the clear aim of wanting to be an all-powerful president, so he has lost the support of Ahmet Altan and many others. The novelist is, however, confident that Mr Erdogan will be denied his desired absolute majority in the rerun of this year’s general election scheduled for 1 November.

The reason Ahmet Altan has until now been so little known in the UK is that none of his ten novels had been translated into English, but that has now been rectified with the publication this week of Endgame by Canongate (£12.99). Described as a detective story that has been stood on its head (as one knows the killer at the beginning but not the victim) it was lauded by Philippe Sands. Moreover, there were clearly many fans of Ahmet Altan in the audience last night; the Arcola was founded by a Turk and is in the heart of Turkish-Kurdish London. One young woman was persistently curious as to how the novelist writes about women so well. Ahmet Altan pointed out that a novelist has to get into the skin of every character, has to become them. And he quoted the example of Gustave Flaubert who, when asked about his début novel Madame Bovary “Who is Mme Bovary?”, replied “I am!”

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Theresa May Is So Wrong on EU Free Movement

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th August, 2015

Theresa May 1The British Home Secretary, Theresa May, set out in an article in today’s Sunday Times changes she would like to see made to the principle of freedom of movement within the European Union. This is one of the central planks of the European single market, which was largely put in place by the Conservative peer and European Commissioner Lord Cockfield and endorsed by Margaret Thatcher. Lord Cockfield, at least, must be spinning in his grave at Ms May’s outrageous demand that freedom of movement should be restricted to people who already have jobs, unlike the situation now, in which EU citizens can seek work in other EU member states, settle or retire there, study or simply make their lives more interesting by experiencing different European cultures, rather than spending their entire existence (apart from holidays) in an increasingly insular Tory Britain. One can only assume Ms May has set out her stall against free movement as part of a bid to outflank Boris Johnson in the next Conservative Party leadership contest, but if that is true then it is shamelessly self-centered and against the true interests of Britain.

EU free movementOne of the reasons that the UK has emerged more strongly from the post-2008 recession was because of the talented EU migrants who came here to work or set up businesses. The revolting Daily Express and at times the Daily Mail would have us believe that all EU migrants are benefit scroungers, which is a gross misrepresentation of the reality. The CBI, farmers and other groups of UK employers acknowledge the contribution EU migrants have made and I trust they will stand up and be counted against Ms May’s mean call. If David Cameron were to heed it and try to push for such a radical change to free movement with our EU partners it is certain that they would reject it, as the whole European project would start to unravel if it went through. Of course, that is what a disturbingly large number of Conservative MPs actually want to happen, not to mention UKIP. But the issue, if handled as badly as Ms May has done, could make it more likely that Britain would leave the EU, even though a “Brexit” would have serious consequences for our national economy. However, there is a more optimistic scenario following this new development which is that all those people who have benefited from the freedom of movement — the 2million+ Brits on the continent and the other EU citizens resident here — as well as young people who fancy studying or working abroad and older people who want to have the option to retire somewhere warmer will all gang up together to shout down this attempt to undermine their rights. And, one hopes, vote out this awful Tory government at the next election.

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Egypt Sullies Its Own Name

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th August, 2015

Al Jazeera threeEarlier today, a court in Egypt sentenced three journalists from Al Jazeera TV to three years in prison on the trumped-up charges of aiding a terrorist organisation (the Muslim Brotherhood) and producing false news in order to defame the name of the country. But it is this verdict which has sullied Egypt’s reputation. It is an egregious assault on the freedom of the press and blatantly political, underlining just how far President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has dragged Egypt back to a pre-2011 Revolution era of military-backed dictatorship and suppression of dissent. One of the three people sentenced today, the Australian Peter Greste (a former colleague of mine at the BBC), was fortunately safely out of the country, having been released after a vigorous international campaign after a first, prolonged trial collapsed. But the verdict could seriously now compromise his work as a foreign correspondent, as any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt could receive a summons to send him to Cairo.

Abdel Fatah el-SisiHowever the real tragedy is the fate of his two AJ colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who had been out on bail but must now return to prison — for the “crime” of simply doing their job. It is a terrible blow to them and their families and should trigger strong renewed international protests, not just from NGOs but also from Western governments, including Britain’s. David Cameron astonishingly invited President Sisi to come on an official visit to London later this year, with the announcement about that being made the day after ousted president Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to death by another court. That invitation should now be withdrawn. By staying silent, Britain would instead be condoning what are clear assaults on human rights, including freedom of expression, which would mean that not only is Egypt’s reputation tarnished but Britain’s too.

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Online Voting Is Probably the Future

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th August, 2015

online votingThis morning I voted for the Liberal Democrats’ London Assembly list candidates electronically, a process that took less than five minutes in toto. That’s partly because I know all but one of the candidates personally and had given the matter some consideration once I knew who was on the shortlist. But the main reason it was so speedy was because the online voting system, which one accessed via a link sent in an email (which was security coded) was totally straightforward, easy to understand and to operate. Although I used to rather enjoy filling in the different coloured ballot papers for internal party elections it was a much more cumbersome process and costly for the party. If next month’s Bournemouth conference approves the recommendation that the LibDems should move to One Man One Vote (OMOV) for all relevant committees, rather than using a much smaller electorate made up of conference reps chosen by their local parties,  as well as for candidate selections. then online voting is going to have to be a must. Otherwise the postage alone would be astronomical. Some provision would need to be made for the minority of members who do not have access to a computer or who are Internet-averse, but I suspect even some current diehards will change their minds when they discover just how quick and simple it is.

government identity verificationSimilarly, the possibility of online voting in mainstream elections, for councils, MPs, etc, should be examined more thoroughly with a view to making this an option; after all, there already is an option for postal voting, rather than having physically to go to the polling station on election day. Some other EU countries — most notably Estonia, which promotes itself as an e-demoracy — have made big advances in this field and our own government has devised ways of verifying people’s online identity, even though we Brits do not have identity cards as such. So basically I do believe that online voting will become the predominant model here in the future.

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Is Brazil Going to Make It!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th August, 2015

imageThere’s a popular saying here in Brazil that Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be. A few years ago I gave a lecture at the Federal University of Ceara arguing that “Brazilianism” — this collective sardonic attitude to the country’s potential — had to be overcome if it was going to make the grade. Since then, Brazil has hosted the World Cup and is preparing for the Olympic Games, both symbolic indications that the country has joined the top rank of countries. Moreover, in an economic forecast circulating on twitter yesterday, Brazil’s economy is set to overtake Britain’s by 2030. Well, so it should, when you consider how big the country is, geographically and in population, as well as how rich it is in resources (including oil). Yet all is not rosy in Brazil’s garden. Corruption is still rampant at every level, which is acting as a serious brake on advancement and the gap between rich and poor continues to be huge. Indeed, the situation of the poorest has got worse, thanks to rising prices and few new employment opportunities.

imageOf course, Brazilians are famous for enjoying life, even if they have little materially, but their patience is running out. Regular demonstrations against President Dilma Rousseff have been taking place around the country, but so too have counter-demonstrations by the left-wing parties that support her. At least there seems no possibility these days of a military coup. When I first came to Brazil, over 30 years ago, the military dictatorship that had taken over in 1964 was still in power and although its excesses were not usually quite as appalling as those of its counterparts in Argentina and Chile nonetheless its human rights record was very poor. These days people are more worried by the high level of violent crime than by what the military might get up to. Despite the problems, however, I believe that Brazil is getting over Brazilianism and even it is developing at a pace that seems pathetic when compared with China or India this particular BRIC is somewhere to watch and to engage with economically and diplomatically, far more so than my home country, Britain, is doing at the moment.

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Adoption: Great, When It Works

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th August, 2015

imageAccording to a news item in Family Law News today, an adoption has been revoked after a child applied successfully to return to their biological mother. Things have certainly come on a long way since I was adopted, when even a request for information about my mother (whom my adoptive parents had actually met) was rejected angrily with accusations of being ungrateful. It was not even possible to trace one’s origins oneself until many years later, when David Owen introduced the right for adopted children to obtain their original birth certificate. Although I was by then fully adult, it was nonetheless hugely emotional to discover my original identity as Graeme Leslie Morton, rather than Jonathan Harold Fryer. The journey since then in being united with two half-sisters and discovering more about my background has been exciting but also unsettling. It has certainly reinforced my belief that adoptive parents should always be ready to help the adopted child be comfortable with their origins as well as with their adoptive family. In the old days, too often the process of adoption was all about giving couples who were not able to produce their own children, for whatever reason, the opportunity to acquire one (or more). And in most cases they thereby also won brownie points for taking in a child who would otherwise be stigmatised by illegitimacy, which was a serious issue half a century ago. In other words, the process of adoption was seen by the powers that be as parent-focused, rather than child-focused, as it is today.

imageThere are far stricter conditions these days about who can adopt, which can be frustrating for childless couples but which probably means that fewer unsuitable adoptions take place, which must benefit the children. The news about the possibility of adoption revocation is another welcome advance in the rights of the child, though of course this would only affect a tiny number of cases. Adoption as an institution is great, when it works, and I know many people who grew up in a truly happy adoptive family. But it does not always work, and I know from my own experience how painful it can sometimes be as an adopted child to feel trapped.

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Let Palmyra Inspire Us

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th August, 2015

imageimageYesterday news came through from Syria’s Department of Antiquities that ISIS forces had blown up the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the jewels in the crown of Palmyra, the most spectacular of all Syrian pre-Islamic sites. Ever since Islamic State occupied the site and its neighbouring town there had been fears that these iconoclasts would destroy the ruins. Then only a few days ago, ISIS beheaded the octogenarian chief curator of Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad, in yet another example of their barbarity. The one positive outcome of that despicable act was that it united Syrians — who have been engaged in a bloody civil war for the past four years — in condemnation. An estimated 300,000 Syrians have perished in the conflict so far, but this one death highlighted the grotesque extremes to which the violence has reached when civilization itself is being consigned to oblivion. There is still the danger that ISIS will destroy more historic ruins and artefacts in Palmyra but we should not let such actions lead us to despair but rather to reinforce our determination to protect and preserve our heritage, as well as the lives and well-being of people today, and to show the young zealots who have been blinded by the false testimony of a perversion of Islam the true values of humanity and civilization. Let Palmyra be the symbol of that struggle and an image that inspires hope, not despair.

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A New Era in UK-Iran Relations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd August, 2015

UK Iran 1The British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is in Tehran today, reopening the Embassy that has been closed for four years following its invasion by demonstrators. Given the recent progress in international negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions this was an inevitable and welcome step. Though Brtain’s engagement in Iran has not always been positive there are strong reasons for the UK — and indeed the European Union — to have closer working relations with this important Middle Eastern power. Commercial opportunities are obvious, but trade should not be the only focus for attention. If there is going to be a regional settlement of Syria’s ongoing civil war then Iran is going to have to be involved. Similarly, wider regional insecurity as well as the fight against ISIS, require closer contacts with Tehran. In particular, it would be helpful to reduce the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a central cause of the recent events in Yemen.

UK Iran Britain can also usefully use its influence to try to calm Israeli rhetoric against Iran and vice versa; yesterday, in an interview, the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that Israel had considered attacking Iran four times over the past decade. Iranian propaganda against what it refers to as the “Zionist entity” is often poisonous, but Israel would find itself in a less ignominious position if it withdrew from occupied Palestine. There is, however, one other major issue that could be an impediment in the way of much closer British-Iranian relations and that is human rights. The Islamic Republic has a poor record in a number of areas, including the treatment of its Ba’hai minority, Kurds, political dissidents, LGBT population and others. And although the UK Foreign Office recently downgraded its emphasis on a worldwide campaign against the death penalty it should not let this issue drop off the agenda in discussions with Iran.

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I Once Met … Dr Spock

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd August, 2015

Dr SpockFor millions of parents on both sides of the Atlantic Dr Benjamin Spock’s handbook, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, was a kind of Bible. Indeed, for half a century it reportedly sold more copies round the world than any other book except for the actual Bible. Its central message to mothers was deeply reassuring: ‘You know more than you think you do!’ In contrast to previous child care ‘experts’, who argued that children should be taught to eat at scheduled times and be trained through ‘tough love’, Dr Spock encouraged parents to pick up their crying infants and hug them and give them what they wanted.

But parenting had nothing to do with my encounter with Dr Spock, one early summer’s evening in Trinity Term 1970, at the Oxford Union. The hottest political issue of the day was the Vietnam War and Dr Spock was one of its most articulate opponents. Two years earlier, he had been one of four prominent critics of the conflict to be singled out for prosecution by the US Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters. So he was greeted as a hero by the predominantly left-wing Oxford University students of the time that balmy evening when he came to speak at the Union.

Dr Spco bookHe looked the antithesis of a radical, so clearly East Coast Ivy League, in his Brooks Brothers suit and elegant shirt with detachable collar. Though almost 67 years old, he was super fit, a testimony to his time as an Olympic sportsman (at the Paris Olympics in 1924 his men’s rowing eight won a gold medal for the United States). As the Union President Stephen Milligan – who was also Chairman of the Oxford University Conservative Association – looked on with furrowed brow, Dr Spock had us undergraduates cheering to the rafters as he blasted US imperialism and decried the suffering of the Vietnamese people.

His speech resonated deeply with me, as the previous year, before going up to Oxford, I had been a cub reporter in Vietnam, freelancing for the Manchester Evening News and the Geographical Magazine, so I had seen the napalming of civilians and the defoliation of that verdant land with my own eyes. I thus had no hesitation in bounding up to Dr Spock like an eager puppy at the end of the meeting to let him know. Instantly we were in deep conversation; he had the skill some politicians have of making one feel singularly important while they are talking to you.

Stephen Milligan, who had been hovering on the side in his white tie and evening dress, then astonished me by asking Dr Spock – by this time joined by his wife, Jane Cheney Spock – if he would forgive him if he disappeared to revise for his Finals. I piped up that I would happily look after the Spocks, enabling Stephen to rush off relieved. Though not expected to get a first by his PPE tutor at Magdalen, he was intensely ambitious. It was such a shame that his later political career, after successfully getting elected as the Conservative MP for Eastleigh, was prematurely cut short when an auto-erotic adventure misfired and he was found dead dressed only in stockings and suspenders, with an electric flex round his neck, a piece of orange in his mouth and a black bin-liner over his head.

Back to the Spocks. There was no question of my taking them to my rooms at St Edmund Hall, as there was no water in my building (mercifully demolished soon after) and in a fit of nostalgia for eastern living on the floor I had removed the legs from all the furniture. But fortunately a friend who was with me, the post-graduate social anthropology student Kaori O’Connor, suggested we all go to her comfortable ground floor room in a house in North Oxford. I suspect Kaori’s exotic beauty – a heady mix of Hawaiian Japanese, Irish and Native American – was a major reason Dr Spock agreed.

Vietnam WarAt Kaori’s lodgings we talked long into the night about Vietnam and about the eating and social habits of the Pacific islanders who were our hostess’s academic speciality. Mrs Spock, who had previously been overshadowed by her husband, now came into her own and I was fascinated to learn that she was herself a prominent civil liberties advocate and academic researcher. In fact, she had done much of the research for and writing of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, though her husband got all the credit. So I was not especially surprised when I read some years later that they had divorced.

By then Dr Spock’s reputation had taken a hammering. A popular conservative American preacher by the name of Norman Vincent Peale, who was a supporter of the US attempt to thwart the so-called domino effect of Communism spreading through South East Asia, blamed the anti-War movement, hippydom and youth’s desire for instant gratification on the laxity engendered in the generation that had been babies raised along the guidelines set down by Dr Spock. Vice-President Spiro Agnew added his ten cents worth by declaring that Dr Spock was personally responsible for the permissive society.

In 1994, at the age of 91, in a new book called Rebuilding American Family Values, Dr Spock was still trying to refute his critics, maintaining that he had always advised parents to give their children firm, clear leadership and to ask for cooperation and politeness in return. Conservatives hated him for his political activism, not for his child psychology, he argued. However, I fear he did no favour to his reputation when he recommended shortly before his death in 1998, in a new edition of his original book, that children should be fed a purely vegan diet from the age of two. I wonder if I would have had such a positive impression of him if I had been fed on lentils since infancy.

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Why Are the British So Bad at Languages?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st August, 2015

EU labguages sokA map of the average number of languages spoken by the inhabitants of 27 EU member states (data for Croatia was not included) depressingly confirms how largely monolingual we Brits are.At 1.6 languages each we are right near the bottom, along with the Republic of Ireland and Portugal. Only Hungary (whose own national tongue is frankly fiendish) scores worse. Given that our foreign-born population usually speaks at least two languages (many of my Asian and African friends in London know three or four) the rate for native-born Anglo Saxons must be far worse. Various lame excuses have been offered in the past, the worst being that the British are somehow congenitally “bad at languages”; Preposterous. Others say that it is because English is both Europe’s and the world’s lingua franca, so it is not necessary for us to learn others. How pathetically short-sighted. No wonder that there are never enough British applicants for jobs at the European Commission and other EU institutions, for example. No, the clear reason for our nation’s monolingualism is sheer laziness mixed with apathy, reinforced by government policy that does not stress foreign language learning. “Why bother?” is a depressingly common attitude among the people of Albion. Yet more of us are travelling abroad than ever before and indeed hundreds of thousands of Brits are choosing to work or live in other countries. Learning another language fluently opens the door not only to more meaningful contact with new people and ideas elsewhere but also to a whole range of culture and leisure activities. Which is why, when I visit school sixth forms, as I do several times a year, my loudest words of advice are: “Learn AT LEAST one other language FLUENTLY!” As Britain struggles to survive as one of the world’s leading economies while new giants continue to rise globally, we are going to need people who have that ability.

leading economnciu

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