Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2017

Big Ben’s Bongs Bunged

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st August, 2017

Big Ben repairsAt midday today, Big Ben, the giant bell inside the UK Parliament’s Queen Elizabeth Tower, tolled the hour for the last time for the next four years, while extensive maintenance work is undertaken. It has been suggested that it could be brought back into service for very special occasions; some Brexiteer Conservative MPs not surprisingly have argued that the day of Britain’s planned exit from the European Union, at the end of March 2019, might be one such moment. Some other traditionalists have gone into spasms of simulated outrage about how even the Luftwaffe in World War II failed to silence the Big Ben. Nonetheless, the BBC will doubtless keep broadcasting (from past recordings) the bell’s rich sound, which has been precursor to news programmes for as long as I can remember. There will of course be disappointed tourists unaware of Big Ben’s indisposition, who will stand on the corner of Parliament Square, pointing their cellphone cameras at the tower, mystified when no bongs intone. But a lot of the fuss in the media and on politicians’ lips has been much ado about nothing. It’s not as if the tower had been blown up. Besides, there are more important things that should concern us all, from Donald Trump’s nuclear tango with Kim Jong-Un to Brexit itself. In fact especially Brexit. For whereas the citizens of Seoul would bear the brunt of any North Korean attack, all of us in Britain are going to suffer from Brexit, alas.

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Adventures in the Gardens of Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th August, 2017

coverKevin d’Arcy worked freelance for many of Fleet Street’s best-known titles, as well as doing stints at the Economist and Tatler and radio programmes and interviews for the BBC and CBC. So he has been, if not exactly at the heart of events in Britain and the wider world, at least in one of the inner circles. I first met him through the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), of which he was Executive Secretary of the British Section for many years, organising briefings from the great and good from UK and European politics and beyond. But it turned out that we were — and indeed, still are — neighbours, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, where he has put in sterling service as a Chair of School Governors and related activities. Freelancers never truly retire, of course, but now that he has a somewhat less hectic lifestyle, and has notched three exotic marriages on his belt, he has taken to writing books, the latest of which, Reflections in the Gardens of Democracy (Rajah Books, £11), is a pot pourri of journalistic memories and political musings, on everything from working with the late, great Alastair Burnet, to speculating why the EU Referendum was so imperfect in formulation, let alone in outcome. Many of the chapters are short and are rather like listening the the author reminiscing over a glass of wine on a sunny afternoon in Bow — and nothing wrong with that. His style is both slick and engaging. AEJ members and other journalistic colleagues will find many tidbits of gossip. But anyone with an interest in politics and the media should also find something to amuse, if only the roll-call of famous hacks and politicos, past and present.

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Pound Euro Parity?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th August, 2017

Pound Euro exchange rateIn the run-up to last year’s EU Referendum, many UKIP and Tory Brexiteers proudly wore pound signs (£) in their jackets, symbolising for them the strength of Britain standing alone. But I wonder how they are feeling now that the pound sterling has sunk so much in value? Airport currency exchanges in the UK this week have been offering just under one euro per pound and at ATMs on the Continent the exchange rate is not much better, So for UK travellers going to the Continent, things are about a quarter more expensive than they were in June 2016. People staying at home are being hit, too, as inflation caused by higher import prices is now exceeding wage rises. Of course, some exporters are benefitting from sterling’s fall, but for many of them that boon will be short-lived, as more expensive imported raw materials and components will mean that their costs will rise, and so must their prices. So the net effect of voting Leave last year has been that most people are worse off — and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet! Britain’s economy has meanwhile fallen from being the strongest-growing among OECD countries to the weakest. The Eurozone is doing better than it has for some time and the euro itself has risen against the US dollar, too. Naturally, as a Remainer I believe that the sensible thing now is for the government to admit that Brexit is going to be far worse than they imagined and therefore they will pull the plug on it, organising a referendum for permission to do that, if necessary. But I very much doubt that Theresa May, let alone her Brexit team, has the courage to do that. So the UK may indeed crash out of the EU in 2019. And I would not be surprised if some future UK government has to go knocking at the EU’s door, asking to be let back in, accepting the euro and all.

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Stefan Zweig on My Mind

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 16th August, 2017

Stefan ZweigI’ve been thinking a lot about the 1930s recently, what with the rise of xenophobia and intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic and the current supremacy of Donald Trump and the Brexiteers. Surely things must get better, one imagines, yet the lessons of between the two World Wars suggests not necessarily. What should one do if things continue to deteriorate from a liberal perspective? One solution would be to make permanent my Brazilian bolt-hole, where I have spent the past month and increasing amounts of time over the past 30 years. But would that be escapism? The same dilemma confronted the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, many of whose books I read when I lived in Belgium in the 1970s. He was first blessed with enormous success until damned and driven away by the Nazis, because of his Jewish heritage. After gaining British citizenship, he eventually moved to Brazil, where he committed suicide, together with his second wife, in 1942, on hearing news of the fall of Singapore. Some of his erstwhile friends criticised his flight to safety in South America as well as his pacifism, while others lamented the loss of a good and prolific writer and biographer, if not always a great one. I visited the Zweig’s house in Petrópolis, outside Rio de Janeiro, some years ago and thought what an idyllic place for a writer it was in many ways. But Stefan Zweig could not bear the thought that the world was doomed to be controlled by fascists and the like. Alas, he therefore missed the redemptive defeat of Hitler, Mussolini and Imperial Japan. So perhaps even if I do decide to settle in Brazil some time in the not too distant future I shouldn’t let hope die.

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A Patriotic Front against Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th August, 2017

EU and UK flags marchAs the damage to Britain’s economy from looming Brexit becomes ever clearer, it is time for Remainers to make the patriotic case for staying in the EU. The Brexiteers wrapped themselves up in the Union Flag during last year’s EU Referendum and talked about “taking back control”, peppering their arguments with distortions and lies, but there is no denying that a certain nostalgic nationalism in their arguments resonated in some parts of the country and in certain sections of the population. Since the Referendum, Remainers have been branded “traitors” and worse, simply for arguing that the electorate ought to be given the chance to have another vote, when a Brexit deal had been negotiated, to ask them if that is really what they want. If the Conservative government proceeds with its Hard Brexit plan (or, worse still, allows Britain to crash out of the EU without a deal), then the prospects are dire indeed. Already sterling has slumped to a level of almost parity with the euro, forcing up inflation and making foreign travel notably more expensive, but other consequences of a Hard Brexit will hit sectors of the British economy such as fruit farming desperately hard, as seasonal EU worker are no longer able to come to Britain. EU citizens living in Britain are already having their status undermined. Individual Brits in future face losing a whole series of rights and protections, from EU health and safety standards to visa-free travel to the Continent, the EHIC health card, access to Erasmus+ and so on. Hardline Brexiteers say any suffering — including a big knock to the economy — is worth it. But many people who voted Leave last June are not Hardline Brexiteers and are understandably dismayed that they may have been conned. So as pro-EU marches take place in London, Manchester, at the major political party conferences and other venues, let us proudly hold aloft both the EU flag and our Union flag. Let us come together from all political parties and none, in a united Patriotic Front against Brexit!

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Miliband to the Rescue?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th August, 2017

David MilibandIn an article in today’s Observer, former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, describes Brexit as an “unparalleled act of economic self-harm”, and thus becomes the latest in a long line of senior politicians from both the Labour and Conservative parties to urge a rethink, in sharp contrast to the policy of their leaderships. The dissidents (whom I am tempted to call the Voices of Reason) include former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair and several heavyweight figures in the House of Lords, as well, of course, as most of the smaller parties in Parliament. But could David Miliband be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back of Brexit? Unlike Tony Blair, he is not permanently tainted by the responsibility of promoting the Iraq War, and for many older Labour Party members, he has the status of the Dauphin over the water. He really ought to have become Labour’s leader, had not the trade unions backed his weaker brother Ed instead. How different UK politics might have been if that had been the case! But he can now play a crucial role in mobilising the anti-Brexit Labour voters (a majority of whom were Remainers in last year’s EU Referendum) and be part of a growing cross-party coalition calling for a second vote for the British people, to ask, on the basis of hard evidence of the negative effects of Brexit, whether that is really what they want. There has been a lot of talk lately about starting a new, centrist anti-Brexit party, but to my mind that is a waste of time and effort. There isn’t much time left before the window of opportunity to reverse Brexit closes, and all effort should be concentrated on making that happen.

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Poverty and Violence

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th August, 2017

Brazil shooting smallThe local newspaper in Fortaleza is full of stories of gang warfare in the less salubrious parts of the city: fatalities, injuries and fights. The fact that many criminals in Brazil have access to guns contributes to the death rate. A friend of ours had his car hijacked at gunpoint the other night and many Fortaleza residents live in gated high-rise developments with security guards at the entrance 24 hours a day. But most of the victims of violent crime are not the wealthier members of society but rather the poor and especially the young; the victims and the perpetrators often resemble each other. One thing that unites many of them is a sense of hopelessness. Unemployment and especially under-employment rates are high and even middle-class families are finding it hard to make ends meet. Many food prices in our local supermarket here are higher than in the UK, yet most people’s incomes are nowhere near European levels. Lots of young men just hang around in the hope of getting odd jobs, such as guarding parked cars for a tip. Other young people take to drugs or prostitution, which form part of the criminal underworld, though underworld is perhaps the wrong word to describe it as it is so visible.

TemerPoverty and despair undoubtedly contribute to the level of violence that is endemic in so many Brazilian cities, especially at night. But there is something else which is significant and is mentioned to me again and again by people of all social classes: a seething resentment against politicians and others at the very top of Brazilian society who cream off billions of reais through corruption. President Temer avoided being sent to trial the other day, as a vote in parliament to commit him failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority. But everyone thinks the whole political establishment is rotten, irrespective of party. The difference between the crooks at the top and the petty criminals at street-level is that the top people don’t shoot each other, but buy each other’s favours instead.

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All in the Title

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th August, 2017

titlesNewspaper editors have long realised how important headlines are as teasers to attract people to read the articles that follow, and the same is true of book titles. A title should give some indication of what the book is about, or at least intrigue, so that the person who picks up the book in a bookshop or looks at its entry online is then encouraged to read the back cover, or open the volume to read a sample page. So it is important for writers to give due consideration to what their book will be called. Sometimes titles write themselves; my first book was called The Great Wall of China because it was indeed about the Great Wall of China — something everyone has heard of, but few know much about. In contrast, my latest book, a childhood memoir, went not for the straightforward but for the intriguing: Eccles Cakes, not just because the first half covers my childhood experiences in Eccles, now a suburb of Greater Manchester, but because of the way that Eccles cakes were a comfort food for me at times of distress. Sometimes agents or publishers will suggest a change of title, or even insist on it, but writers should be prepare to fight their corner on what they want. Perhaps my favourite among all the books I have written was published in England under the title I had given it: André & Oscar: Gide, Wilde and the Gay Art of Living, which did reasonably well, but the American publisher who brought out the US edition insisted on changing the title to André & Oscar: A Literary Friendship and the book sank like a stone Stateside. Some titles can be absolutely inspirational. My all-time favourite is Gone with the Wind — at once inviting and unforgettable.

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Twit for Twat

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 10th August, 2017

Trump KimThe war of words between Washington and Pyongyang has intensified alarmingly. Each side threatens the use of nuclear weapons and neither is led by someone one could consider 100% rational. Kim Jong-Un, like his father and grandfather before him, is surrounded by sycophants; just look at how the smiling generals around the Supreme Leader hold their open notebooks ready to write down every pearl of wisdom that emerges from his mouth (knowing full well that he could order their execution should they displease him in any way). The fact that he usually sports a haircut that helps make his image laughable in Western countries does not seem to worry the citizens of North Korea. Besides, in that he has a soulmate in Donald Trump, whose orange-hued countenance and blonde comb-over are beyond ridiculous. It is all too easy to make fun of these two men, but the harsh reality is that they could wipe out the lives of millions of people at the press of a button and seemingly not care one jot about the consequences. Mr Trump even has  “Christian” spiritual advisor who claims the Bible says it is OK to annihilate Kim Jong-Un. What makes the situation even more surreal is that so much of the rhetoric is taking place on social media. Yesterday, Donald Trump made the odd claim on twiter that he has modernised the US nuclear arsenal since coming to power (a truly miraculous achievement in 200 days!) and it would not surprise me one bit if he were to announce nuclear war with North Korea through a tweet. One just hopes that someone in the Pentagon has a safety catch on the nuclear button. The Cuban missile crisis was my first experience of awareness of great international events that could shape the world, but the current stand-off between the leaders of the United States and North Korea strikes me as potentially even more dangerous, given that China retains friendly relations with Pyongyang. All too easily things could escalate through a process of tit for tat — or should one say, in view of the personalities involved, twit for twat.

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Bresistance

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th August, 2017

BresistanceOver the next couple of months there will be marches against Brexit in London and Manchester and doubtless other places, as those of us who believe passionately that Britain is better off as a member of the European Union try to stop the Conservative government making the biggest mistake since Suez. In fact, Brexit — especially the Hard Brexit that Theresa May and the UKIP-Tories favour — would be worse than Suez 1956 as it will not only diminish Britain’s standing in the world but also directly impact negatively on the lives of ordinary British people. The effects are already being felt and Brexit hasn’t happened yet; notably inflation caused by the fall of the pound sterling has sent food and other prices soaring. Predictably Nigel Farage and the cheerleaders of Brexit say they will intervene if it looks like Brexit isn’t going to happen. So be it. Let there be a proper debate about the pros and cons of EU membership, rather than the pathetic and often downright dishonest rhetoric that dominated last year’s EU Referendum. It has now become painfully clear that far from the NHS benefiting from £350million a week after Britain leaves the EU, the government’s finances are going to be much worse. Moreover, Brits probably stand to lose a range of current benefits, such as visa-free travel to the Continent, the EHIC health card that gives us free treatment in other EU member states, places for young people on the Erasmus+ scheme, cancer treatments because of our membership of Euratom and more. Let the truth about the government’s Hard Brexit be put before the British people for a vote asking them “Is this really what you want?” If so, fine, Brexit will go ahead, but if not, then it should be stopped in its tracks before it does more harm than it has already. Breixteers complain that those of us who are campaigning to stay in the EU don’t respect democracy, but on the contrary we believe the British people should have the final say. And in the meantime we will take to the streets to make our views heard, for the good of the country. Let the Bresistance begin!

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