Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for October, 2017

10 Years of 12 Star Culture

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 31st October, 2017

Straw decoration FinlandThis evening I was at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House (the offices of the Representation of the European Commission in Westminster, London, rather deliciously, as Europe House located in the building in Smith Square that used to be the Tory Party HQ — remember that picture of a triumphant Maggie Thatcher, waving from an upstairs window in 1979?). Anyway, tonight’s exhibition on the ground floor was of work by the Finnish artist, Pirjo Vaisanen: Straw Dimensions, building on the Finnish tradition of Christmas decorations (often in the form of mobiles) made of straw. Straw is an interesting medium for artists to work in; seemingly fragile, it is actually very strong, yet when wet can be shaped into interesting forms. I particularly loved one of her 3D compositions, which to me represented a Japanese Kabuki actor, seen from behind.

12 Star galleryThis year is doubly significant, as it is the 100th anniversary of Finland’s declaration of independence (from Russia) in December 1917, as well as the tenth anniversary of the 12 Star Gallery, which, under the expert and imaginative guidance of the Commission’s Cultural Attaché in London, Jeremy O’Sullivan, has put on an extraordinary range of exhibitions and other events over the past decade — initially at the Representation’s old offices, opposite the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, also in Westminster, and latterly at Europe House. Culture is an extremely important part of European cooperation; people who believe that the EU is all about economics and regulations are, frankly, missing the point. Over the years, I have been happy to write for the London representation, originally on Jeremy’s culture website and more recently contributing to two books marking the decade of  EC involvement in cultural activities throughout the UK, often in collaboration with the Cultural Institutes or Embassies of the EU member states concerned. I was pleased to be able to “top and tail” the latest book,  10 Years of 12 Star Culture, in the sense that I wrote both the Introduction and the final chapter (on Festivals). It is a handsome volume, in a royal blue cover, beautifully illustrated; a tribute to what has been, and what could still be, if Brits came to their senses and rejected Brexit.

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Call Me by Your Name *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th October, 2017

Call Me By Your NameIs it possible for a film to be perfect? Maybe that is an absurd question, as no man-made creation can ever be utterly perfect, but some movies do reach true greatness. That is certainly the case with Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, which is the most astounding film I have seen for years. The screenplay (by James Ivory, Walter Fasano and the director) is based on an American novel of the same title by André Aciman and is set in early 1980s Italy, largely in and around the beautiful old house and garden of a liberal and cosmopolitan university professor and his family. Each summer a graduate student comes to stay to help the host with his work, but this particular summer the incomer is a handsome, young American Jew, Oliver, (convincingly played by Armie Hammer), who is self-assured and self-reliant to the point of apparent arrogance. Initially put off by this newcomer, the skinny and shy 17-year-old son of the house, Elio (brilliantly acted by Timothée Chalomet), gradually falls under Oliver’s spell and soon the youth’s already nascent sexual spring awakening is channeled in the older man’s direction. Seemingly used to being the centre of amorous attention, and flirtatious when in the mood, Oliver gently leads him on, though all concerned know that the relationship cannot endure. The story unfolds in masterful fashion against the backdrop of glorious countryside and in an ambiance suffused the discreet charm of the intellectual haute bourgeoisie. Elio is a talented amateur pianist, so music naturally plays a very important role in the film, but even more atmospheric and at times breathtaking is the cinematography, by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Some shots are like perfectly composed still photographs, making imaginative use of angle as well as light. Probably some people will consider parts of the film of the too graphic, but Guadagnino wanted to express both desire and joie de vivre in a positive light, as well as the bonds of loving family relationships, especially between father and son, as exquisitely represented by Elio and the professor. All in all, the film is a masterpiece.

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The London Liberal Democrats Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th October, 2017

Ed Davey sockThough the Party has been bumping along for too long at seven per cent in the national opinion polls, the Liberal Democrats’ membership has grown remarkably. There are now more than 20,000 LibDem members in London — making it the most successful LibDem regional party — so maybe it was not so surprising that yesterday’s London autumn conference was the best-attended ever. A very high proportion of those attendees were “newbies”; a woman from Brent who sat next to me had defected from the Conservatives just last week! The venue was fresh: the beautiful new University of West London complex in Ealing, where staff really looked after us well — including the food. But of course it was the food for thought that was the important thing, and we were treated to fine speeches by the capital’s three London MPs, Tom Brake, Ed Davey and Vince Cable. Ed Davey captured everyone’s attention by taking off one of his socks (to make an environmental point, apparently) while Tom Brake, as the party’s Brexit spokesman, gave a rather dispiriting account of the dog’s breakfast that is the Conservatives’ Brexit. A high percentage of new LibDem members joined the Party in their anger or frustration over Brexit and inevitably fighting for an Exit from Brexit will remain a major focus for LibDem campaigning for the next year and probably well beyond. But as Vince Cable made clear in a thoughtful speech that ended the formal business, this is not a one-issue Party. He spoke about the economy, but also health and education, and demonstrated the great quality that distinguishes him from both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn: wisdom. It was a great relief that the voters of Twickenham returned him to parliament with a majority of nearly 10,000 in June, following two years in the political wilderness. He noted that he was the first London MP to lead the Liberal Democrats since William Gladstone’s period as MP for Greenwich (1868-1880), and so maybe it’s not surprising that London LibDems like me tend to think of him as “our Vince” and are rallying behind him to bring about the Party’s national revival.

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Tom Holland at the Authors’ Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th October, 2017

Tom Holland historianThe Authors’ Club (founded 1891) and the Literary Circle of the National Liberal Club held their annual dinner at the NLC this evening, with guest speaker, Tom Holland, the historian. He was pleased to be in a location so closely associated with the late Victorian Prime Minister, William Gladstone, whose statue gloriously presides over the main dining room. And it was largely because of Gladstone’s zeal on behalf of the oppressed — the Bulgarians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, for example — that Tom Holland gave a more sombre and thought-provoking talk than maybe some might have expected on a Friday night. Though perhaps best known for his popular TV series and books relating to ancient Western cultures, Holland has also delved deeply into the Persian imperial past. And it was that Middle Eastern connection that led him to Sinjar, when it was liberated from ISIS, to learn about the Yazidis.

Yazidis Sinjar Denounced as devil-worshippers by many Muslims — by no means only Salifist fanatics — the Yazidis trace their religious origins to beliefs linked to reverence for the sun and the moon that pre-date the three Abrahamic “religions of the book”. Though thought of as pagan by other groups in the region, they have actually developed a faith that is quite eclectic. But for those like ISIS who assume both a literal and an extreme interpretation of the Koran and other Islamic texts, the Yazidis’ “heresy” merits death — or in the case of nubile young girls, sexual enslavement. They suffered terribly in what Tom Holland justifiably referred to as a modern genocide, yet one that received very little attention in the West. That lack of attention, he argued, was partly a matter of timing, as the worst moments coincided with the latest (2014) Israeli pummeling of Gaza, which is a conflict more familiar to European audiences. Moreover, the Yazidis do not have an extensive diaspora — though that situation is perforce changing — and therefore there were few people to speak up about their plight. Tom Holland did so eloquently this evening, however, and in true Gladstonian spirit, he was applauded for his seriousness and human concern by his audience at the NLC>

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The Death of Stalin ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th October, 2017

The Death of Stalin 1I was only a toddler when Joseph Stalin died, so his demise did not impinge on my consciousness. But I vividly remember his successor, Nikita Krushchev, and his notorious shoe-banging episode at the UN General Assembly in 1960. Yet intriguingly it is neither Stalin nor Krushchev who really stand out in Armando Iannucci’s controversial new film satire, The Death of Stalin, but rather Georgy Malenkov and Laventriy Beria. Jeffrey Tambor plays the former as a dim-witted but callous automaton incapable of human emotion, who has risen way above his rightful station, while Simon Russell Beale (without doubt one of the finest British actors working today) is truly chilling as the calculating Soviet security chief (much tubbier than his real-life character). Though some moments in the film have a slapstick quality that has resonances of Monty Python, far more striking is its exposure of the banality of evil, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase about that other 20th century circus of horror, Nazi Germany. Without rubbing one’s face in gore, the film nonetheless leaves one in no doubt about the brutality and pervasive sense of fear in Stalin’s Russia, yet most of the  key figues are portrayed as being rather ordinary men, constantly watching their backs while looking for opportunities to stick the knife into others. I’m not surprised the film has divided critics and audiences, as some may feel that the subject matter is too serious to be made fun of, and there are at least as many uncomfortable moments watching it as here are laughs. The Moscow backdrops give it a sometimes disconcerting validation. No wonder the Russians have been in two minds about whether to ban the film. For me, it is something I can’t exactly say I enjoyed watching, but I am glad I did.

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The Party *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th October, 2017

The PartyWhen an ambitious Labour politician is appointed Shadow Health Secretary, she invites her closest friends round to the house for a small celebration. But from the moment her neglected husband starts acting weirdly it becomes clear that things are not going to plan. That turns out to be the understatement of the year, as the complex plots strands of this rich black comedy become ever more tangled and extreme. Tightly constructed, Sally Potter’s film The Party is shot in black-and-white, intensifying resonances of 1960s’ French cinéma d’auteur, as well as Look Back in Anger and other kitchen-sink dramas. The contemporary twist is that this is essentially a film about women, by a woman, and with a stellar cast of female actors, including a bravura performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as the increasingly discombobulated politician hostess, Janet. The screenplay — by Sally Potter herself — fizzes and the camera work is brilliant, some of the most effective shots being taken at floor level. All in all, this is a wonderful, subversive package of surprises, leaving this viewer at least stunned and with much food for thought.

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The Future of UK-China Trade

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd October, 2017

JF addressing Chinese LibDems AGMLiam Fox and other Brexiteers in the UK’s current Conservative government are fond of saying that when we are “free” from the European Union, we will be able to enter into a great new dawn of trading partnerships with other big players around the world, not least China. Actually, it was David Cameron and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who really championed the idea of a bright future hand-in-hand with the People’s Republic, though they never imagined that would be something totally separate from EU-China trading relations. Theresa May, interestingly, has been a little more cautious in her embrace of President Xi Jinping, who has been expertly consolidating his authority at the Chinese People’s Congress this week. But despite the bluff reassurances of Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson, forging an advantageous new trading relationship with China is unlikely to be straightforward, for a number of reasons. First, until Britain formally leaves the EU — in principle on 29 March 2019 — it cannot make any bilateral arrangement with Beijing. Moreover, there are not sufficiently qualified negotiators in Whitehall to handle such a sensitive matter (as the EU has dealt with our trade negotiations for the past four decades) and little Britain, with 60 million inhabitants, is going to be at a distinct disadvantage in taking tough with the colossus of China, unlike the 500-million strong EU, which is still the largest trading bloc in the world. Bilateral trade is already skewed in China’s favour, and is likely to be more so in future, not less. Other factors make prospects mixed. China under Mr Xi is becoming more assertive in global affairs, having largely sat on the sidelines for many years, even within the UN Security Council. Many people in China believe the time has now come for China to reassert its pre-eminence in the world, as was the case prior to 1500 and the rise of European Empires. The four hundred years of European dominance, followed by a century of American hegemony, may in future be seen as a blip in comparison to China’s long supremacy. Then there is the issue of Donald Trump, who is repositioning the United States to be more isolationist (and certainly more self-centred), racheting up conflicts with countries such as Iran and North Korea in a way that risks souring US-China relations. Yet Theresa May aspires to be Mr Trump’s greatest ally, despite disagreeing with him over the Iran nuclear deal. This could prove awkward. In the meantime, the British government has downgraded human rights as a priority in its foreign policy, which is sweet music to Xi Jinping’s ears — though Britain must be careful to ensure that as a future relationship evolves it does not end up dancing to Beijing’s tune.

This is a summary of remarks I made as the guest speaker today in London’s Chinatown at the AGM of Chinese Liberal Democrats:

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Remembering Vietnam

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th October, 2017

Vietnam War helicopterRecently I’ve been watching the stupendous 10-part series of one-hour films on the Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, screened on BBC4 but also available through BBCiPlayer. The project took ten years to put together, from contemporary news footage, home videos, interviews with survivors or families of those killed, Vietnamese North and South as well as American. There are also extremely telling tapes of US presidents J F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon talking to top advisors, hoping to believe that everything was going well, whereas it became increasingly obvious that victory against the Communists — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, against the Vietnamese people — was impossible. Tonight I watched Episode 6, covering the first half of 1968, which had some iconic moments, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the US as well as the Tet offensive, when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops spirited into the South, hoping their assaults on major cities would lead to an uprising by the South Vietnamese, who would overthrow the corrupt regime of Nguyen Van Thieu and welcome them with open arms. That did not happen, though casualties on all sides were horrendous and the old imperial capital of Hue was largely destroyed. US propaganda portrayed the Tet Offensive as a failure for the Communists, arguing that the 510,000 US troops now in South Vietnam fighting alongside the South Vietnamese forces (as well as troops from Australia and South Korea, notably) were sure of victory. But many of the people really in the know, including Robert McNamara, who had recently stepped down as Defense Secretary, were aware that the cause would inevitably be lost, sooner or later. Anti-War protests were by now rampant on both sides of the Atlantic at it was at that moment, in the summer of 1968, that I decided that when I left school after taking the Oxbridge entrance exams, I would head out to Vietnam to see the truth for myself — as recounted in the second half of my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes.

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Loving Vincent *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th October, 2017

Loving VincentVincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), the Dutch post-Impressionist painter, is today recognised as one of the fathers of Modern Art, though in his day his work was derided by all but a few devoted supporters, including his brother and the subject of one of his finest portraits, Dr Gachet. He sold precisely one of his 800 or so canvases before dying from a gunshot wound to the chest, usually presumed to be self-inflicted. But in the extraordinary hand-painted full-length feature film, Loving Vincent, now on release in the UK< the directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, an alternative explanation of the artist’s demise is the centre of speculation: that he was accidentally shot by a gang of boys who had been tormenting him for some time. But what is truly original in this film is the way that an essentially new genre of hand-painted animated film using actors and backdrops of Van Gogh’s own work has been created. Apparently it took seven years to make, with a hundred painters working on it — a genuine labour of love. It is also a wonderful example of European film cooperation — with Poland in the lead — underlining just how valuable such transnational work within the EU can be. The film is visually seductive, sensitively handled and the provincial English and Irish accents of several of the lead performers give an added flavour of alternative authenticity.

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Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 16th October, 2017

Oscar Wilde 2Today is the 163rd birthday of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and as usual on this anniversary occasion the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth brought together an extraordinary band of people to celebrate, this time in the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair, which was frequented by Oscar and his wife Constance at least as late as 1893. Gyles is London’s networker sans pareil; the late socialite, writer and editor Fleur Cowles must be spinning in her grave with envy. Half of the British theatrical royalty were there, including Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Simon Callow and Ronnie Hardwood, as well as a whole cricket team of members of the House of Lords, the odd duchess, marchioness and — as Gyles put it cheekily in his witty homily — a bit of rough trade, of which Oscar would have approved. Oscar’s sole grandson, Merlin Holland, loyally put in an appearance. But this evening’s event was special for another reason, this being the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of sexual relations between consenting adult men — the “crime” that had sent Oscar to prison. How fitting, therefore, that one of the speeches of the night should have been from the head of the capital’s police, the Commissioner of the Metropolis, Cressida Dick, who was there with her wife. How things have changed.

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