Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January, 2018

The Post *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st January, 2018

The PostThe Pentagon Papers (at least some of them) were published by the New York Times and Washington Post in the summer of 1971, just before I set off — for the second time — for Vietnam, to cover President Nguyen Van Thieu’s re-election (he was the only candidate; he won). Though the explosion caused by the publication of details of how successive US Presidents had lied to the American people about the “success” of the War was not quite as huge in Britain as it was over the other side of the Atlantic, it meant that Saigon was a pretty febrile place by the time I got there. Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, opens with scenes of US soldiers in Vietnam — very much as I remembered them — but most of the movie’s action takes place in Washington, in the Washington Post’s editorial office and at the printing presses, as well as the mansion of proprietor Katherine Graham and grand residences of her friends, including the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (for whom actor Bruce Greenwood is made up to be a disconcertingly spitting image). As the title of the film suggests, it is essentially about the newspaper and the way that Kay Graham learned fast how to behave as its owner and to guarantee its bright future in the face of legal challenges launched by the Nixon administration. Authenticity is added by the detailed recreation of the atmosphere of early 1970s newsrooms and the workings of linotype printing, as well as some key realtime tape recordings of Richard Nixon talking to Henry Kissinger and others over the phone from the Oval Office. Meryl Streep is such a consummate actor that one expects her to be brilliant, and she does not disappoint. But the real star, without a doubt, is Tom Hanks, who just is the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee — utterly convincing both in his professional and domestic personae. Not all Spielberg’s films are unalloyed triumphs, but this one undoubtedly is. I can almost hear it hooverng up the Oscars already…


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Just Say Goodbye *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th January, 2018

Just Say GoodbyeJesse is a skinny but artistic 16-year-old living in a suburb of a small town in Massachusetts, bullied at high school and largely ignored by his handsome but sometimes violent alcoholic father. As a small boy, he found his mother’s body, dead in bed from taking an overdose of pills. No wonder the kid is introspective. But Jesse has a devoted school-friend, Sarah, to whom he confesses his determination to commit suicide himself, at midnight on his next birthday. All her efforts to dissuade him are in vain. This might sound like the makings of a really heavy movie, but in fact Just Say Goodbye, directed by the young Matt Walting, is an often lyrical piece of great sensitivity and profound psychological insight. Though shot on a minuscule budget, raised from a range of donors, the film is anything but amateurish, fortified by a powerful script by Layla O’Shea and an extraordinarily self-assured performance by Max MacKenzie as Jesse; his voice is mesmerising and his steely determination to put an end to his largely unsatisfactory life gripping. Given the subject, the film could so easily have been maudlin, whereas in fact it is just the opposite: unsentimental and dignified, with an unusually perceptive insight into a troubled adolescent’s mind.

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Cities of London and Westminster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th January, 2018

City of LondonTheresa May is hanging onto power with all the tenacity of a terrier refusing to let anyone take its bone away. But there is always a possibility that the Conservative Government — only in office because of an arrangement in the House of Commons with 10 Ulster Protestants from the Democratic Unionist Party — could fall some time this year, as the complexities of Brexit become clearer. If so, the Liberal Democrats are well-prepared, with prospective parliamentary candidates in place in most seats. In my case, I have been selected for the Cities of London and Westminster, which includes the City, London’s prime business and banking area, as well as the southern half of Westminster borough, including the Houses of Parliament and much of the West End.

Houses of ParliamentIt’s a good fit, as although I live just over the eastern boundary in Tower Hamlets, I spend much of my working week in the area. It’s also a bit of a homecoming, as the constituency was the one in which I was able to vote for the first time, in February 1974, when I lived in Pimlico. I had just started working at Reuters News Agency, so unsurprisingly was drafted to help with the media relations for the then PPC, Trevor Underwood. A highlight was going canvassing in Buckingham Palace — not the Queen, of course, as she cannot vote, but a number of her domestic staff, some of whom were very sympathetic. This time, as prospective candidate, I’ll be focussing on the financial and business communities in particular, as they are naturally concerned about the possible effects of Brexit. That also fits in well with my ongoing role as the Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesperson for London. Otherwise, I’ll be pitching in to help the Westminster local party get its first Councillors elected this May. It’s certainly about time!

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Truth in Politics

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th January, 2018

post-Truth politicsMany people are put off politics because they don’t trust what politicians say. Alas, that situation has got worse over the past year or so, with the election of Donald Trump to the White House and the chaotic Brexit discourse in the UK. Of course, with Trump one can never be sure whether he is deliberately lying or simply does not know the facts. What is certain, though, is that in this new era of post-Truth, if you don’t like the facts just make up your own, and trumpet them as if they are valid. In Britain, Nigel Farage and the arch-Brexiteers are masters of that black art, proclaiming “alternative facts” such as Turkey being about to join the EU and there being 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians just waiting to flood into the country. The Daily Express newspaper is a daily catalogue of lies and distortion, but the Daily Mail, the Sun and even the Daily Telegraph are often as bad. Even the Government twists the truth. This week Mrs May was boasting that the government had got rid of unfair credit card charges, whereas in fact this was as a result of EU action. The Conservatives regularly claim credit for things that have proved popular (such as the raised tax threshold and same-sex marriage) even though these were Liberal Democrat initiatives. Now the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has got in on the act. This morning, on Peston on Sunday, he repeated the false claim that in order to be in the European Single Market one has to be a member of the EU, even though he has been told Norway and Switzerland, for example, are evidence to the contrary. I used to have a lot of respect for Corbyn, having worked with him on human rights issues relating to the Palestinians and the Kurds. But he has squandered that respect by becoming a cheerleader for Mrs May’s Hard Brexit, despite the pro-EU  leabings of a majority of Labour Party members. Moreover, he has joined in the delivery of lies and half-truths to try to destroy Britain’s European vocation.

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In Another Life *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th January, 2018

In Another Life 1In another life, Adnan (Elie Haddad) was a teacher in Syria, but he and his wife Bana (Toyah Frantzen) had to flee as their home city, Aleppo, was destroyed around them. Their flight took them through Turkey to Lesbos in Greece, then braving hostile security guards and dogs in Hungary before arriving in Calais. Bana was successfully smuggled away to England, but Adnan had to face the law of the Jungle — the informal camp where refugees from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other parts of Africa risked their lives trying to board trucks or trains to the UK, harassed by French police, prey to unscrupulous people traffickers, but supportive of each other and grateful for gestures of kindness from people who came from England and elsewhere to help. Though Adnan is the main focus of Jason Wingard’s powerful and at times gut-wrenching film, In Another Life, he is a 21st Century refugee Everyman, his plight one of a million personal dramas and tragedies. He finds solace in friendship, even though his closest friend, Yousef (Yousef Hayyan Joubeh) turns out to be living in a fantasy world in which his parents’ long-distant support is nought but a fantasy. Much of the film takes place in the Calais Jungle — real and constructed — shot in black and white in documentary style, gritty and immediate. Occasionally, there are insights into Adnan’s dreams, including an imagined attempt to swim the Channel, and despite all the setbacks, sordidness and inhumanity around him, hope and his love for Bana drive him on. The acting is powerful, so that at times one forgets that this is not a fly-on-the-wall biopic, and there are moments of real beauty to alleviate the greyness and gloom. The film — largely crowd-funded — was made on a shoestring, but the use of hand-held cameras and drone footage adds effectively to its impact. Doubtless some people will criticise In Another Life for being “political”, maybe even “left wing”, but in fact it is a brilliant portrait of the human condition in our time, in the tradition of Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens, depicting those who find themselves at the very bottom of the pile in their contemporary world; as Oscar Wilde put it, in the gutter, but with their eyes firmly fixed on the stars.

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Gauguin — Voyage de Tahiti **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th January, 2018

GauguinArtists often make wonderful subjects for biopics. Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir (2012), for example, was marvellously evocative of both time and place, as well as a sharp portrait of the man at work, and Kobiela & Welchman’s animated treatment of Van Gogh, Loving Vincent, was one of the highlights of last year. So I watched Edouard Deluc’s Gauguin — Voyage de Tahiti  with eager anticipation. But what a disappointment! After some rather loud and clumsy intimations of gai Paris during the Belle Epoque, the action suddenly shifts a rain-sodden Polynesia where the heavily made-up and bearded actor, Vincent Cassel, makes a grumpy and frankly unconvincing job of Paul Gauguin as unappreciated genius and part-time stevedore. Malik Zidi makes a better fist of it as his sympathetic friend, Henri Vallin, but although Tuhei Adams certainly looks the part of Gauguin’s Tahitian mistress, Tehura, half the time she appears as if she would rather be somewhere else. Weirdest of all, given that the principal subject was revolutionary in his use of bright colour, very little in the film is colourful or even sunlit. Indeed, at times it is almost funereal in its gloom. It could so easily have been a bird of paradise, but in fact turned out to be a turkey.

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120 Battements Par Minute *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th January, 2018

A9BAF350-A708-41A5-98C6-EE75ACE2BC48The 1990s were a terrifying time to have AIDS, when no medication had yet been invented to hold the HIV virus in check. One watched dear, young friends slowly die, often reduced to a skeleton, pockmarked with Kaposi’s Sarcoma and in great pain. Some accepted their fate with resignation, while others organised and campaigned, demanding  governments and health authorities do more to publicise the risks of unsafe sex and the life-saving potential of condoms, and lobbying pharmaceutical companies to speed up the release results of their drug trials. That is the context of Robin Campillo’s remarkable film 120 Battements par Minute, which starts in documentary style filming imagined group meetings of Act Up Paris in a college lecture theatre, discussing tactics such as public die-ins, the invasion of medical seminars using fake blood bombs and participation in Gay Pride. Gradually the different characters involved emerge as individual personalities, from nervous new members with the virus to the mother of a 16-year-old infected through contaminated blood, before homing in on two young men who form a relationship: handsome Nathan (Artaud Valois), who has managed to stay HIV-negative despite sexual contact with at least one infected partner, and the boyish Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), who probably contracted the virus when he was seduced at school by a married teacher. Nathan stands by Sean as the latter’s condition worsens; Campillo’s sensitive handling of the intimacy between them as death approaches is heart-wrenching. Perez Biscayart’s performance is nuanced and powerful, as he changes from being a sometimes angry young man into an increasingly helpless physical being. The film brilliantly conveys the solidarity between the protagonists as well as the atmosphere of the age. Long sections are without dialogue, as we watch them enjoying a disco or going to the beach, and there are numerous pertinent small details, like the alarm clock that goes off at 2am, to prompt Sean to take his pills (which in the early days of only palliative treatment had to be taken every few hours, exactly on time, to have any effect). Though well over two hours long, the film keeps one engrossed and well deserved the Grand Prix that it was awarded at Cannes.

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Britain and the Arab Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th January, 2018

AD409BBC-8DAA-47D4-92AA-A809A7CA3A16Britain’s war against the Ottoman Empire, following the Turks’ decision to side with Germany in the First World War, was considered a side-show by many generals and politicians in London, who believed that the Western Front was the real battlefield. Yet British intervention in the Middle East, partly in harmony with Arab forces keen to liberate themselves from the Ottoman yoke, was to have resounding consequences that are still being felt today. Rober H Lieshout’s weighty study of the subject, essentially covering the years 1914-1919, Britain and the Arab Middle East (I B Tauris, £29.95), examines the voluminous public records covering the period, notably of the War Cabinet and Foreign Office, supplemented by diaries, presenting material in such detail that one almost believes one is present. There were wrangles aplenty about just how much encouragement the British Government should give Sherif Hussein of Mecca regarding the putative independent Arab Kingdom that was meant to come into being after peace was agreed, but there is little doubt that he and his sons were largely duped. Despite the Entente, France comes over very badly most of the time, and whereas by 1918 the Lloyd George government believed that the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up spheres of influence in the non-Turkish parts of the Ottoman Empire could not stand in its original form, because of the Wilsonian doctrine of self determination, Paris dug its heels in, determined that France should have its Syrian and Lebanese cake and eat it. Another issue that gave rise to huge disagreements within the British government was the Balfour Declaration, whose centenary was commemorated last year. The only Jewish member of the Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, was strongly opposed to the Zionists’ pleas as he believed the Arab population of Palestine would not agree to Jewish domination there and moreover that Jews elsewhere might suffer further persecution in their home countries if a Jewish state were proclaimed. Some of the most valuable parts of Lieshout’s book cover these sometimes heated discussions and the personalities involved. Largely, he lets the documents speak for themselves, keeping critical commentary and theorising to a minimum, which allows the reader to make up their own mind. Presumably for marketing purposes, the book uses a fetching photograph of T E Lawrence in Arab garb on the cover, though he was in reality quite a marginal figure, despite the publicity that his romantic derring-do later generated. The index will be of use to serious scholars of the period, as well as to amateur historians of the Middle East, as this well-documented narrative is a valuable resource.

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Iran Protests

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd January, 2018

8F9C6AB2-8F5A-439B-86AD-97F53DC39D7BOver the New Year holiday many of my thoughts have been with the people of Iran, where protest demonstrations have been taking place in many towns and cities, in some extreme cases descending into riots. I am all in favour of people taking to the streets to voice their grievances if they feel their views are not being heard through other channels, and indeed President Hassan Rouhani has endorsed that right of expression, even if some of the country’s religious leadership have been more condemnatory. It is sadly not surprising that some in the religious hierarchy have alleged that the protests have been orchestrated by Iran’s “enemies”, notably Saudi Arabia and the United States, though witnesses on the ground suggest rather that these have been spontaneous uprisings by predominantly young people (mainly but not exclusively young men), protesting about unemployment, high prices and the difficulties experienced by ordinary Iranians despite the country’s huge oil and gas wealth. Most of those youngsters would still have been schoolchildren when the (much larger) “Green” protests took place in 2009 following a widely contested election result. Unfortunately, it only nourishes the conspiracy theorists when Donald Trump and numerous Israelis (sic) tweet messages of support for the demonstrators. The actions of some militants, such as setting fire to police kiosks and even a bank) do nothing to help their cause, but similarly heavy-handed tactics by the security forces can only widen the breach between the representatives of authority and Iran’s young population. I love Iran and have travelled widely in the country, both before and since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The people are some of the most hospitable on earth, as well as among the most well-educated, rightly proud of their country’s long history and rich, diverse culture. So I sincerely hope that many of the young people protesting now get much of what they want, peacefully, and that the regime in Tehran opts for negotiation and not violent confrontation in the way it responds to what is going on.

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