Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for October, 2015

Gore Vidal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 25th October, 2015

imageThe American writer and egotist Gore Vidal was a force of nature who shocked and amused people on both sides of the Atlantic for much of the post-War period. I never met him, though I would have liked to. Christopher Isherwood, whose biography I was writing at the time, gave me an introduction but at that period I was so penniless that I could not finance a trip to Italy to visit Vidal in the huge villa that he occupied with his faithful companion Howard Auster on a cliff-side at Ravello, surrounded by 8,000 books. Not that he stayed put in any one place for long. Vidal was a compulsive traveller just as he was a compulsive drinker, yet still he managed to produce a huge body of work: novels, essays, film scripts and book reviews, as well as popping up on television all the time. His increasingly tart televised debates with the conservative commentator William F. Buckley in 1968 are legendary. Unlike many writers, Vidal adored the medium as it allowed him to act out his self-defined role. As he famously declared, never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television. His sexual appetite (mainly for casual encounters with young men) was as prodigious as his literary output until the last years of his life, but was catered for in the afternoon, between a disciplined morning of writing and an evening of socialising.

imageVidal was a pre-eminently social creature, especially when the people he could socialise with were from the European nobility or stars from Hollywood. To capture the spirit of such a man would be a challenge for any biographer. Fred Kaplan tried, while Vidal was still alive — and the subject hated the result. Tim Teeman produced a volume entitled In Bed with Gore Vidal which catalogues Vidal’s sexual exploits. But it is only with the recent publication of Jay Parini’s Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something inside Me Dies (Little, Brown £25) that readers are now offered a full portrait of the talented gadfly. Parini, a professor of English as well as a novelist, knew Vidal over a period of several decades and indeed intersperses short passages of memoir of their times together in various places between the book’s chapters. He is therefore aware of Vidal’s weaknesses and excesses as well as of his strengths, but is a fervent admirer of the man as well as of the work, so is prepared to be forgiving, some times over-generously so. Not all of Vidal’s work was brilliant, though much of it was. He wrote too much, too fast, and barely let any editor change his words. He could be extremely witty, but often his humour was cruel. And although he could be kind and generous when in the right mood, he could be selfish and vindictive too. He made millions from his work and his public performances and lived lavishly, but he left nothing to the people who had devotedly helped look after him in his later years (Howard Auster having pre-deceased him), instead giving the lot to Harvard University, of which he was not even an alumnus but which would henceforth honour his name.

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Refugees and Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th October, 2015

YEM panelSeveral recent opinion polls relating to Britain’s forthcoming IN/OUT EU referendum have shown a swing to the “leave” side, though still predicting that “remain” will win. One explanation mooted for the shift in opinion has been the current refugee and migrant crisis, to which the response from EU member states has been mixed, to put it mildly. Angela Merkel rolled out Germany’s welcome mat, while Hungary (shamefully, given how other European nations welcomed Hungarian refugees in 1956), slammed the door in the refugees’ face. Britain’s Conservative government refused to be part of an EU-wide response and not for the first time the EU got blamed for the chaos that was actually a failure of its member states to pull together. So will public concerns over the refugees and migrants lead to a British withdrawal from Europe? That was the question at the centre of debate last night at a well-attended meeting put on by the London branch of the Young European Movement in King’s College last night. With unfortunate timing the fire alarm went off just just as the meeting was about to get underway, as if a UKIP gremlin had put a spanner in the works, which meant that we had to evacuate into the street, but later we reconvened to hear Nick Hopkinson (Chair of London4Europe), Anjuja Prashar (a Liberal Democrat candidate in May’s general election) and Elliot Chapman-Jones (from British Influence) share their views. As a Canadian, Nick could draw some comfort from Justin Trudeau’s sweep to power in Ottawa the other day, showing that hope can overcome fear and Conservative isolationism, while Anuja, originating from East Africa, emphasized the positive contribution immigrants have made to Britain, not least to London. Elliot interestingly predicted that the “leave” side in the Brexit referendum campaign will not focus on immigration, as one might assume, as they have the anti-immigration votes already in the bag; instead, he believes, their arguments will be economic. Economic arguments, of course, involve statistics, and as we saw in the TV debates between UKIP Leader Nigel Farage and the then UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, it is hard to combat lies, damned lies and statistics in political debate. Rather, I maintain, we will need to focus on emotions, showing why we in Europe are stronger together and poorer apart, especially in the globalised world of today.

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BBC Arabic Festival 2015

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th October, 2015

imageArab cinema is remarkably little known in the United Kingdom, disgracefully given Britain’s long involvement in the Arab world and — even more importantly — given the high quality of much of the current output, both fiction and non-fiction, across North Africa and the Middle East. Arab film has come on a long way since the black-and-white Egyptian comedies that still feature on so many Arab TV channels. The so-called Arab Spring (a misnomer, if ever there was one) unsurprisingly has been the catalyst for a number of really powerful new movies both from and about various Arab lands. Last autumn, the BBC ran an Arabic film festival over a weekend, with free showings at the Radio Theatre in New Broadcasting House. The most striking, for me was some of the work out of Syria, made in the most difficult of conditions. This year, there is another BBC Arabic Festival to be held over the last weekend in October (i.e., next week), which alas I shall miss as I will be at the Liberal International Congress in Mexico City.

imageHowever, last night I got a sneak preview of two of the highlighted films of the festival, of which 15-minute edits were shown at a launch event at the House of Commons. Abo Gabi’s Blue is a heart-rending documentary about Ayham, the young piano player who performed around the streets of the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria, bringing hope and sometimes joy in the middle of suffering and the barbarism of war. Abo Gabi is himself a Syrian-Palestinian musician and singer and much of his film was captured through an intermittent skype connection, making this an intense and dramatic experience. Of an entirely different nature is Pregnant and in Chains, a documentary directed by Christine Garabedian about the fate of female migrant workers in the UAE who get illegally pregnant, in other words outside marriage. Immigration officials at Dubai’s international airport are always on the lookout for any Filipinas, Bangladeshis and other female domestic workers showing signs of pregnancy and also trying to leave the country; if caught, they are liable to imprisonment, even when their pregnancy is the result of rape, sometimes at the hands of their Emirati employer. Behind the UAE’s benevolent and modern facade is the reality of a very conservative society, in which there is a very different concept of human rights from those prevalent in the West. In their different ways, these two films give much food for thought. The Festival as a whole promises to be a feast.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th October, 2015

imageThe dramatic struggle for female enfranchisement in Britain is so much part of the country’s political history that it is amazing it has not been the subject of a major feature film until now. But Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette”, which is now out on general release, has been well worth waiting for. Wisely the storyline focuses not so much on the Pankhursts (though Maryl Streep puts in a memorable cameo performance as the indomitable Emmeline; instead, it follows the politicisation and then radicalistion of an ordinary East End laundrywoman (beautifully played by Carey Mulligan) who is inspired to join the fight by a mixture of painful circumstances and the example of others. The scenes in the Bethnal Green laundry are particularly strong and evocative and the film’s whole atmosphere is skilfully created and maintained. It is a sobering thought, not least for modern Liberals, that even Lloyd George and his Ministers were not at first prepared to give way on female suffrage, preferring to believe the poppycock about women being too emotional and irrational to be trusted with the vote. Sobering, too, to think that just a century ago women were indeed second class citizens, with few rights of their own, including over their children.

imageGreat strides have been made since then, but the film is right in its implied suggestion that had Emily Davison not thrown herself in front of the King’s horse on Derby Day 1913 progress would have been a lot longer in coming. That extraordinary self-sacrifice was a shocking crime in some people’s eyes, but it galvanised much of the nation and I am glad that Sarah Gavron ends her film with real-time footage of Emily Davison’s funeral, for which Londoners lined the streets as hundreds of women in white, wearing black sashes, marched slowly behind her flower-bedecked funeral carriage.

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Brits Abroad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th October, 2015

Brits Abroad 1Tory Eurosceptics and UKIP politicians — backed by the more scurrilous parts of Britain’s right-wing Press — love to go on about all the EU migrants who live and work in the UK, without acknowledging that an almost equal number of Brits have taken advantage of the single market’s freedom of movement to go to live on the Continent. So, given the debate that is now starting about whether Britain should remain within or leave the European Union, ahead of a referendum some time over the next couple of years, it is singularly apt of the 12 Star Gallery at Europe House in Westminster to organise an exhibition, which opened tonight, portraying Brits Abroad. In fact, all of the splendid photographs by Charlie Clift in this show are of British expats in Spain, which houses more than a million UK citizens who have opted for a life in the sun, not just retirees but some business people and others trying to make a freelance living away from ‘home’. Several types will be familiar with aficionados of the TV series Benidorm, but this is not a satirical exhibition as such. Rather it is gently tongue in cheek, bringing together, for example, a Scottish Nationalist supporting girl with a barrel-chested owner of a Caribbean-themed bar, a retired lawyer still maintaining a facade of elegance and the proprietor of a fish and chip bar that caters mainly for English people who miss UK fast food.

Brits Abroad 2Some of these expats (well, maybe we should call them migrants, as that is what the British call those other EU citizens who come to Blighty) do mix with the Spanish and learn the language and get involved in community activities, whether it is rescuing abandoned dogs or alerting people to the dangers of forest fires, but many are content to stay within a little British ghetto, speaking English and reading the Daily Mail and moaning about how bad things are back in the UK. To his credit, Charlie Clift does not try to make any overt political point; the captions to his photos are studiously neutral, merely identifying the person portrayed, their present or previous occupation and how long they have lived abroad. As a whole it is a rather marvelous picture of a Britain long since gone, hanging on to its traditions, all white of course, and — dare one say it — in some (but not all cases) a little smug. The sort of people who might vote UKIP were they back in England, one suspects, in some cases. But then perhaps those who do support UKIP ought to consider emigrating to Spain and leave Britan to those of who who treasure its post-modern multiculturalism.[the exhibition, open during office working hours, runs until 23 October]

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Stalin’s Englishman

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th October, 2015

imageAndrew Lownie’s biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) was in gestation for 30 years, but like a fine single malt it is all the better for it. Though Burgess has been dead for half a century, his flight to Moscow with the other “Missing Diplomat”, Donald Maclean, still resonates in the English collective consciousness. Too often he has been portrayed as something of a joke, a spoilt mummy’s boy who wore Old Etonian ties even in his Soviet exile, who drank and dribbled, groped and propositioned and when in his cups alternately mocked and lauded his home country. Burgess was viewed wrongly as the most frivolous of the so-called Cambridge spies, but as is clear from Andrew Lownie’s extensive interviews of both Russian and British friends, colleagues and lovers of his subject, he methodically transferred to the Soviet intelligence service thousands of classified documents, as well as providing them with in-depth analyses of British politicians and other public figures, many of whom had been his personal friends — and some of whom would remain so even after it became clear that he had abused his positions at the BBC, in the Foreign Office and the British intelligence services.

imageAlan Bennett’s rather endearing dramatisation of a real-life meeting in Moscow between Guy Burgess and the actress Coral Browne (An Englishman Abroad) offers an image of a man who was a rather pathetic figure, a fish out of water in his adopted home, but that was only partly true. At the height of his powers — when not drunk or feeling sorry for himself — he was brilliant, amusing, phenomenally well-read and a lively gossip. It was not only his overbearing mother (who used to send Fortnum & Mason hampers to him in Moscow) who adored him. So did his Russian housekeeper and several of his lovers, including Jack Hewit (whom I interviewed for my biography of Christopher Isherwood) and Tolya, the faithful young Russian companion who he first met in a foul-smelling Moscow public toilet (perhaps planted by the KGB, who knew he frequented such places?). Like many very bright people, Burgess was easily bored and I get the impression from this definitive biography that the naughtiness and excitement of treachery were as much of a motivation for his actions as his rather shaky ideological conviction. He was a Marxist, but was not particularly impressed by the Soviet reality. Yet although he spied for the Soviet Union (including during his time at the British Embassy in Washington) not because of blackmail (as was the case with the Labour MP Tom Driberg and others) but out of some kind of commitment, it was nonetheless a very half-hearted commitment at times. It is no criticism of Andrew Lownie that this reader felt at the end of his meticulous work that Burgess still remained something of an enigma; that is what Burgess would have wanted, what he succeeded in being for much of his life.

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