Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for March, 2016

RIP Zaha Hadid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st March, 2016

Zaha HadidZaha Hadid building 1I was appalled today to hear of the death from a heart attack of the architect Zaha Hadid, who has been responsible for some of the most remarkable and mellifluous buildings of our age. An exact contemporary of mine, she was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and like many talented young Arabs went to study at the American University in Beirut — mathematics in her case. But it was when she moved to London to study at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture that her creativity really took root. Though in some ways influenced by the modernism of Le Corbusier, she developed her own flamboyant and visionary style, deeply feminine in many aspects yet anything but ‘gentle’. A woman with a dramatic sense of personal presence as well as of attire, she succeeded despite being both a woman and an Arab — both of which were to a certain extent handicaps at the start of her career — to become one of the most significant architects of our times. She founded her own practice in Britain, became a naturalised British citizen and was recognised with a Damehood by the Queen for her services to architecture, as well as winning numerous prizes. Not all of her completed designs have actually been built, so perhaps the greatest tribute to her would be to ensure that some more are. As it is, there are specactular buildings to enjoy in several parts of the old. She was a genuinely global figure and loved to travel, but while in Miami, Florida, being treated for bronchitis, died of a heart attach today. RIP.

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Brazil: Check Mate for Dilma?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th March, 2016

Dilma RousseffMichel TemerToday in Brazil the largest party in the country’s ruling Coalition, the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Mvcement Party), pulled out, declaring that the game is up for President Dilma Rousseff. Ms Rousseff is in danger of being impeached over allegations that she manipulated government accounts to hide a yawning deficit. The Brazilian economy has been contracting each year these last few years, following an earlier spurt of growth during which Dilma’s predecessor, ‘Lula’ de Silva, proudly declared that the country had grown out of its traditional syndrome of being ‘the country of the future — and which always will be!’ Opponents of Dilma’s Workers Party (PT) have accused Lula of pulling the strings since Dilma succeeded him, and that impression was hardly lessened when the other day she attempted to make him her Chief of Staff. Opponents derided this as an attempt to put him beyond the reach of Justice, and the matter will now be examined by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, millions of Brazilians have been taking to the streets in demonstrations and counter-demonstrations for and against Dilma’s impeachment. Whichever way it goes, one thing is sure: the PMDB’s withdrawal is a cruel blow for the chances of Dilma’s survival. But whether it amounts to ‘check mate’, as the PMDB is crowing tonight, remains to be seen. One clear reason the PMDB might wish so is because if Dilma is ousted, the PMDB leader Michel Temer, currently Brazil’s Vice-President, would succeed her as Head of State.

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Brazil Rejects Israel’s Dayan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th March, 2016

Dani DayanIn the face of Brazil’s firm refusal to accept former settler leader Dani Dayan as Israel’s new Ambassador to Brasilia; Israel has today admitted defeat and named him as its next Consul General in New York instead. The government of Dilma Rousseff has been one of the strongest supporters the international recognition of Palestinian statehood and considered the nomination of Mr Dayan; who was born in Argentina; emigrating to Israel as a teenager; as unacceptable b,ecause of his strong support for illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank. This situation led to a seven-month stand-off between Tel Aviv and Brasilia, but the Brazilians dug in their heels and now the Israelis have conceded defeat. It is very unusual for a country to refuse the credentials of a designated ambassador, but the Brazilians are to be congratgulated for refusing to compromise on a core matter of principle. The United States, alas, has no such qualms, but Mr Dayan’s arrival in New York is likely to spark at least some protests, not least from US Jewish groups who oppose Israel’s 49-year-old occupation of Palestine and Tel Aviv’s efforts to delegitimise the nascent Palestinian state.

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Remembering Gary Pulsifer

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th March, 2016

Gary PulsiferThe American publisher, Gary Pulsifer, who died yesterday from cancer chose to spend most of his professional life in England, where he became a much-loved feature of London’s literary scene. Quite small and slight, he was a bundle of energy, with a waspish tongue that relished mocking the pretentious without being viscious. I met him through the novelist Francis King, at whose dinner parties Gary would keep up a running commentary on authors of the day, including special favourites such as Shere Hite, as well as giving devastating impersonations of figures such as his earstwhile employer, Peter Owen. Gary thrived on gossip, whether it was the latest goings-on within the tightly-knit expat community in Tangiers or the tempestuous domestic life of Britain’s royal family. He really came into his own when he founded Arcadia, which became one of the UK’s most interesting independent publishers, though one that often lived from hand to mouth. Finance was not Gary’s strong suit. However, he did have an eye for interesting new ventures, spotting the potential of Norwegian and other Nordic fiction long before this became mainstream. His personal life had its ups and downs, which is largely why he ended up living at the Retreat at Park Langley, where members of the book trade on limited incomes could roost. He seemed unperturbed by being surrounded by fellow residents who were considerably older than himself, and he relished the chance to garden in the Retreat’s grounds. Eventually Arcadia went into receivership, and not very long after it was bought out and relaunched he was dismissed. The official reason for this was financial savings, but Gary commented stoically that he could see it coming as there was not room for more than one big fish in such a small pond. While ending his days in a hospice, typically he left instructions that there should be no funeral, but I do hope there will in time be a giant wake, at which his legions of friends will drink late into a summer’s afternoon, while Gary emits his characteristic shriek of mock horror and delight from the beyond.

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Russia and the Arts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th March, 2016

Russia and the ArtsIvan MorosovOne hundred and sixty years ago, the National Portrait Gallery in London was founded, to house pictures of celebrated Britons. By a quirky coincidence that very same year, a similar but private institution was established in Moscow by the millionaire philanthropist, Pavel Tretyakov, who personally bought or commissioned portraits of notable Russians. His collection survived the Boshevik Revolution, becoming the State Tretyakov Gallery, one of the jewels of Moscow’s cultural crown. In a splendid example of cultural exchange (all the more remarkable because of the curent poor political relations between Britain and Russia these days), the two galleries have each arranged exhibitions of some of the other’s finest pieces. The NPG show (which runs until 26 June) offers a sumptuous selection of portraits from Russia’s golden age from the late 19th century up to he outbreak of the First World War. The names of many of the sitters will be familiar to all: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Thcaikovsky et al, but seeing them as vivid personalities captured on canvas is a rare treat. One can also chart some of the evolution of style and technique in Russian art from the portraits, from Realism through to Impressionism. In brief, this is an exhibitiion that should not be missed. A once in a lifetime opportunity for Londoners. There is also a beautiful companion book, Russia and the Arts, by Rosalind Blakesley.

{Illustration: Ivan Morosov by Valentin Serov}

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Shout-out for Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd March, 2016

Brussels attackThe latest terrorist attacks in Brussels made me sick to the bottom of my soul. Targeting modes of transport — Zaventem airport and the city’s metro system — is the worst kind of random killing as well as an attempt to scare people away not just from the Belgian capital but from travelling altogether. Freedom of movement is one of the most precious things we citizens of the European Union have gained from the EU, and violent fanatics must not be allowed to undermine that. Having lived in Brussels for seven years, initially working for Reuters, subsequently as a freelancer, I have a particular affection for the place. The Belgians themselves have a particular attitude to life, perhaps influenced by being occupied twice in the 20th century, which I appreciated: low-key, quirky and stubborn, which may not sound the most attractive of national characteristics but which proved brilliant for survival. Of course, the Brussels attacks were not just aimed at Belgium; the symbolism of Brussels as the capital of Europe and HQ of NATO obviously made it a tempting target. This has happened twice now. Twice too often. While we wish the security forces well in their attempts to apprehend the culprits and dismantle terrorist cells, let us also shout out for Brussels and for all who live and work there. Courage! Nous sommes tous Bruxelles!

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Obama in Cuba

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st March, 2016

Obama CubaBarack Obama’s visit to Cuba will probably go down in history as a seminal moment, such as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. I was in Taipei then, taking a year abroad from my Chinese course at Oxford, and I was struck how terrified my host family was. They feared that the United States would then give the green light to Beijing to take over the island, but of course that never happened. But Nixon’s visit did open the door for China to re-enter the global community where, 44 years later, it is firmly in second place in world rankings. The potential rewards for Cuba following President Obama’s visit are unlikely to be so spectacular, but it should put an end to the shameful history of economic sanctions against Cuba by America, which Washington tried to force other countries to abide by too. There will also presumably be an influx of American tourists to the island, which will bring in much needed dollars but may not otherwise be totally beneficial. For all its shortcomings and illiberalism, the Cuban form of socialism did help create a society that had several very positive elements, including good education, plentiful qualified doctors and a remarkably low crime rate. It would be a shame if  the genuine solidarity among Cuban people were to be pushed aside in a headlong rush for modernisation and Americanisation. I went to Cuba seven times in the 1990s, culminating in my making a BBC radio documentary pegged to the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. It is a beautiful country that ought to have been quite prosperous had the Castros not stifled free enterprise. Of course, the American embargo made things worse and enabled the government in Havana to promote a siege mentality. Those days are now over and I can only hope that it won’t just be a well-connected few who will benefit from the inevitable changes, as happened in Russia and other parts of the CIS.

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The Regime

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th March, 2016

imageIn the Middle Eastern state of Badia, some high school students spray anti-government slogans on walls in the city of Adar. The regime, notorious for the brutality of its control and its favouritism towards the Ray people from whom its president hails, cracks down hard. Far from bringing the incident to an end, the regime’s reaction prompts yet more protests as marchers peacefully call for true democracy and freedom, only to be slaughtered or arrested and ‘disappeared ‘ or tortured. In despair, some youngsters instead turn to the armed Brotherhood, which takes on the regime by its own terms, taking the country into civil war. If this all sounds like what has happened in Syria since March 2011, it is because it is. George Nassif’s novel The Regime (Amazon kindle £6.61, paperback £9.99) is clearly inspired by the attempt by the Assad family and associates, including mafioso elements, to hang onto power in Syria, come what may. The author maintains a mask of fiction, even calling the United Nations the World Order Organistion and the United States, Hovan. As a fiction writer, though, he has the advantage of foreseeing the outcome of the civil war — and it is not the peaceful pro-democracy campaigners who win, though these are the ones the author supports, as is made clear by his use of first person narrative in the case of the protagonist who argues for Gandhian tactics against the regime. The style of the novel is often cliche-ridden and some of the dialogue is clunky, but the topicality and narrative thrust of the story means that it achieves what novels should do, namely to keep one reading to discover what happens next.

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Turkey: No End to the Killing?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th March, 2016

Istanbul bombingToday there was another terrorist bomb attack in Istabul, not for the first time in the busy central shopping street of Istiklal Caddesi, which is one of the places I always go when I visit the city, just like I always go to the Grand’Place in Brussels when I am there. The fatalities among today’s victims include at least two Israeli Arabs and a citizen of Iran. Absolutely people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, that in no way excuses the atrocity; I condem the bombing outright, as I did following the incident in Turkey’s capital, Ankara the other day. My tweet of sympathy for the family and rriends of the victims of the Ankara outrage prompted one anonymous Twitter troll to accuse me of not caring what is happening to the Kurds in some parts of south-eastern Turkey. On the contrary, I have expressed my outrage at Turkish government assaults in Kurds, just as I have condemned the excesses of Kurdish militant groups. A peaceful, negotiated settlement between the AKP government and Kurds is vital for the whole region. Name-calling won’t help. Some of what the Turkish security forces in certain towns in south-east Turkey have been doing is unforgivable and may even amount to war crimes. But so, too, are the excesses of various fringe group more or less linked to the separatist PKK guerrillas. It’s maybe not for me, as a foreigner, to pontificate about where I think Turkey should go, but what is abundantly clear at present is that it is going to hell on a handcart. Violence begets violence, whether this is on the part of the Turkish security forces or AKP policians or of the PKK and its sister organisation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before he became the Putin of the Bodphorus, deserved credit for moving forward negotiations with the nation’s Kurds. Despite the bloody challenges, he needs to re-embrace negotiation and to make sure that the still-imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan is a free man to be able to take part in those talks, in all integrity.


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Equal Ever After

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th March, 2016

imageOne of the greatest achievements of the 2010-2015 Coalition government in the UK was the legalisation of same-sex marriage, thus underlining the fact that despite the country’s periodic embrace of conservatism, Britain today is an essentially liberal country. A large part of the credit for the safe passage of the Bill that enabled equal marriage (as many of its supporters prefer to call it) must go to Lynne Featherstone, former Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and a junior Minister at the Home Office under Theresa May for the first period of the Coalition. Lynne pushed it as her pet project, but of course with the full support of Prime Minister David Cameron and the LibDem leader, Nick Clegg. A rainbow coalition of NGOs and MPs of different parties rallied to the cause, while ranged against them were predominantly Tory politicians who wished to defend ‘traditional marriage’ between a man and a woman, as well as major religious communities (though not, I am pleased to say, the Quakers, Unitarians or Liberal and Reform Jews. The story of how the Bill became law makes gripping reading, in the book about it, Equal Ever After (Biteback, £14.99) that Lynne has taken the opportunity of writing following her defeat, along with most of the other LibDem MPs in last May’s general election. It’s a very personal story, passionately recounted, but also drawing on the speeches of parliamentarians on both sides of the argument, in both the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, plus extracts from anonymised correspondence (some of it vituperative) that Lynne received over the issue. For many people who did not follow the cause of equal marriage closely, perhaps the two biggest shocks will be the fact that for a long time the Labour-leaning Stonewall LGBT+ Rights group actually opposed equal marriage, and Mr Cameron refused to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, threatening to scupper the whole deal unless this part of the package was dropped. As someone who is forthright in her views, Lynne pulls no punches in her criticism where she feels criticism is due. Fortunately, she is now in the House of Lords, so as long as that anachronistic institution exists, she can use it as a platform to promote causes still dear to her heart, including LGBT rights in Africa and elsewhere, and curbing violence against women.

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