Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for February, 2018

Yemen in Crisis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th February, 2018

Yemen in CrisisThe ancient Romans referred to Yemen as Arabia Felix, but there is little that is happy about the country now. Often divided in modern history, it is now in danger of total disintegration. With only very limited oil resources, it is by far the poorest country in the Middle East, and unlike the other states located in the Arabian peninsula, it has never been allowed to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — though the cohesion and usefulness of the GCC itself have been undermined with the recent stand-off with Qatar. Far more acute than the lack of oil, however, is Yemen’s depleted source of water; Sana’a risks becoming the world’s first capital city to run out of water completely. In rural areas that used to be fertile, subsistence agriculture is a dwindling lifestyle, as predominantly young men migrate to the cities in search of work. Such migration is of course a common feature of many developing countries, but it has been more acute in Yemen than in many other states. Moreover, the government of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh compounded the situation by its corrupt handling of the economy, which enriched a small elite while impoverishing the masses. Hence the size and vigour of the anti-Saleh demonstrations that erupted during the 2011 so-called Arab Spring.

Yemen conflict 2However, even at the height of the uprising, the situation in Yemen was never black and white. There was always a complex nexus of rivalries, based on tribal loyalties, regional variations and a certain degree of religious difference. All too often the current conflict in Yemen is over-simplified as a battle between the Sunni-backed internationally-recognised but largely exiled government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Shi’i-backed Huthi rebels, but as Helen Lackner’s excellent book, Yemen in Crisis (Saqi, £25), explains with admirable clarity, Yemen’s modern history is far more complex than that. And as she points out, the military intervention of a Saudi-led coalition in 2015 turned a political and humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe. The Saudi blockade of the port of Hodeidah, for example, led to widespread malnutrition — not least among infants — that has been described by the United Nations as the most serious humanitarian crisis of our time. A major outbreak of cholera last year compounded the situation. As Helen Lackner rightly argues, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman probably launched the Yemen War in the hope that a quick victory would cement his rise to power. But nearly three years on, the situation is a quagmire and it is the Yemeni people who are suffering.

Helen Lackner is the ideal guide for readers wanting to understand some of Yemen’s complexities and how it has ended up in its current dire situation. She worked in the country for 15 years — largely in the field of rural development — and has been researching it for far longer. Her love of the place and its people shines through the text, which is academically sound but totally accessible to the general reader. I travelled widely in Yemen myself in the 1980s and 1990s, which Ms Lackner now sees as the good old days. Whether it will ever be possible for such a period of relative calm to return in the near future remains to be seen, but even if so, the cost of reconstruction is going to be gargantuan, as the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure and unique cultural heritage continues apace.

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The Shape of Water ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th February, 2018

The Shape of WaterMonsters have never been my thing, whether in books or in films, so I approached Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, The Shape of Water, with a degree of scepticism. Not only does the “monster” — actually a scaly, aquatic creature with a distinctly handsome, human face — not speak, but neither does the mute (but not deaf) young Hispanic cleaner, Elisa, who falls in love with him. She works in a secret US installation that is up to its eyes in Cold War scheming against the Soviets, the Americans annoyed at being beaten by the Russians in the race into space. It’s 1962 and both misogyny and racial prejudice rule among the alpha white males of the installation, not least the man who is tormenting the poor captured creature, brought in from the Amazon where indigenous peoples had revered him as a river god. At this point the film morphs into a fairy tale, full of mystery and not a little humour, punctuated by outbursts of sudden violence. The period atmosphere is beautifully recreated, from the glorious Cadillacs in a car showroom to the tacky advertisements in magazines and on television. At times the narrative heads off into pure fantasy, allowing the director to indulge in some agreeable referencing of multiple film genres, from black-and-white dance spectaculars to John  Le Carré style spy thrillers. Sally Hawkins as Elisa is genuinely affecting and one empathises enough with her predicament to forgive some of the implausible strands of the plot, though objectively speaking, much of it is tosh. Yet somehow the film is intriguing enough to hold one’s attention. As the story progresses, one increasingly feels that good must win out in a context where so much evil is present — though the dénouement is far from predictable.

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King of the Belgians ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd February, 2018

King of the BelgiansLast night I was at Birkbeck College’s cinema in Gordon Square for the launch of a mini-season of Belgian films: Focus on Belgian Cinema. It was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, as for most of the eight years I was based in Brussels as a journalist, I had a nice little side-line reviewing films for the English-language weekly there, The Bulletin (all of which figures in my forthcoming memoir of those Brussels years). At last night’s event, there were two excellent presentations by Belgian film critics/professors, outlining what has been happening in both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking movie making over the three decades since I left. The interesting point was made that films made (in French) in Wallonia-Brussels attract much bigger audiences outside Belgium than they do at home, whereas many of the Flemish films are locally popular. Belgium being Belgium, however, many films are effectively multi-lingual, including both French and Flemish (the latter sometimes in its very particular regional dialects), as well as German, English and so on. In fact, the film that followed the two talks — King of the Belgians (2016), directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth — included Turkish, Bulgarian and a snatch of Albanian, too. The film is a comic mockumentary, theoretically commissioned by the Belgian Queen, to try to make her rather stiff husband, King Nicolas III, seem more human. The King is beautifully played by one of Belgium’s leading actors, Peter van den Begin — tall, awkward and often at a loss for words (one could well imagine him a blood relative of the late King Baudouin, though no such caricature was officially intended).

The King and his faithful retainers get stranded in Turkey by freak weather which means that planes are grounded, so the little group has to turn to more unorthodox means of transport to return home via the Balkans, when Wallonia declares independence (a nice touch, as it is Flemish nationalists who sometimes call for independence for Flanders). Most of the film is thus an often funny road movie, as disaster piles upon disaster and the King and his entourage of three (plus the putative Scottish documentary maker) try to pass incognito through sometimes risky lands. Along the journey, there are many nice asides about Belgian life and the pomp and circumstance of royal protocol, but the King himself, probably encountering normal people in a natural way for the first time in his life, gradually opens up and begins to savour the world around him — a sort of middle-aged coming of age.

The rest of the Focus on Belgian Cinema mini-season is taking place at the Ciné Lumiere at the French Institute in South Kensington over the next four days, and includes a number of Q&A’s with directors of the films being screened, including André Bonzel and his black crime comedy, Man Bites Dog. Bookings through

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Shopping as a Lifestyle

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th February, 2018

1C3D254A-2708-44A8-9596-37E596D4DF3CIt has often been noted that we live in a materialist age, where we are increasingly judged by what we own, rather than what sort of person we are. Advertising pressures us to build up our self-image by buying more; indeed, the proponents of free market capitalism would argue that by boosting consumption we grow the economy and therefore become richer as a society. Or at least that’s the theory, though the growing numbers of homeless rough sleepers on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that the post-War economic model has not been an unqualified success — and that’s before we consider how sustainable the consumer society is, given rising population and the earth’s finite resources. I’ve been prompted to these musings by being based for the past week in Dubai, which is a city that has become almost symbolic of the “more is better” approach to global living. Over the three decades I’ve been coming here the place has been totally transformed from being a rather charming medium-sized trading hub, still enjoying the revenues from its twilight years of oil production, to an in-your-face post-modern multicultural city, constantly expanding. Dubai has astutely diversified its economy much more effectively than most places in the Gulf, including building up light industry, financial services and tourism. Partly to keep the flow of tourists coming, Dubai has also branded itself a shoppers’ paradise; even outside the annual shopping festivals, people are urged to buy, buy, buy, with all kinds of discounts and special offers. Shopping malls have proliferated, with new ones often vaulting themselves as the biggest and best. You don’t even need to go to Korea for the Winter Olympics at the moment, as there are malls in Dubai where you can ski and ice-skate, no matter how high the temperature outside. At the height of summer, when the temperatures reache the high 40s centigrade, the air-conditioned malls are of course an oasis, but in fact they are busy all year round. Moreover, they are one of the few places where you can see Emirati families, who make up only about 10 per cent of the city’s population. They have certainly bought into the shopping dream, to the extent that it has almost become a lifestyle. Even if the emirate’s economy is reportedly not doing quite as well as it was and some companies have been laying off staff, the message is still loud and clear: go to the Mall and shop till you drop!

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Early Man ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th February, 2018

A8AC253F-61C3-488B-AEE1-C53CF31BE7ACI have long been a fan of Nick Park’s stop motion animated films. I can’t count the times I’ve watched the Wallace and Gromit movies — made all the more special because my late, inimitable friend Peter Sallis voiced the character of Wallace — and I laugh each time. Shaun the Sheep, longer and more ambitious, turned out to be a gem as well, but I worried that as Aardman Animations grew from its modest beginnings to its current global mega-status whether it would be able to maintain the magic. So I went to see Early Man this afternoon with a certain degree of trepidation. It’s all on a much grander scale than its predecessors, with a large cast of “human” figures (albeit Stone Age and a Bronze Age ones). The central character is a goofy but courageous youth, Dug, who takes on the  Bronze usurpers with the aid of his faithful sidekick, a determined and bright, semi-canine wild boar. Surreally, the battle between the two civilisations takes place on a football pitch, which enables Nick Park and his colleagues to spoof the beautiful game, its players and commentators, offering some amusing referencing for dads (and some mums) accompanying their children to see the film. The outcome is inevitable; in true British tradition, the underdog must come out on top. And there is even a romance in the offing for Dug with a Bronze Age girl whose secret dream is to be a soccer star. One result of Aardman’s record of achievement is that a veritable galaxy of stars provide the voices, from Eddie Redmayne as Dug, through Tim Hiddleston as the villain (deploying an outrageously cod French accent) and Miriam Margoyles as the Bronze Queen. Doubtless these big names will help ensure the film’s commercial success, especially in the United States, but it should really be the strength of the characters in Park’s films, with all their petty faults and quirks, that make the movie work. Usually they do, but I am less convinced this time. Though the toothy figures are still visually true to the Aardman brand, the plot and action veer quite a long way towards Disneyland. Early Man is still fun, nonetheless, and kids will laugh as their parents smirk at some of the double entendres and nods to football mania. But it’s not up there with Wallace, Gromit and Shaun, alas.

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Palestine in Black and White

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th February, 2018

5B3889E2-D8DB-4D45-B59D-55D7F70692F4Art can be a form of resistance, especially for an occupied people, whether it is in the form of graffiti on walls, paintings or cartoons. So there is little wonder that the 50 years of illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing blockade of Gaza have been the subject of many works of art as well as biting political cartoons, both inside Palestine as well as in the wider Arab world and beyond. Most Arab newspapers feature black-and-white cartoons attacking dictatorships, corruption, the perceived evils of the United States and the “West”, not least in relation to Israel and Palestine. Many of those cartoons are deliberately simple, to put across a clear message not just to the literate elite but also to the less educated poor and marginalised. But some Arab cartoonists opt for more complex styles and messages. That is the case of Mohammad Sabaaneh, whose work is featured in the book Palestine in Black and White (Saqi, £10.99).

0979AF0C-DD4E-4848-9C7A-7167E1060C21Sabaaneh has achieved widespread recognition, including in Europe and North America, for both the artistic quality and the political poignancy of his drawings. Like many young Palestinian activists, he has spent time in Israeli jails — five months in solitary confinement. Prison is a central theme of the 100 cartoons in the book, both literally and figuratively, the latter reflecting the reality of life for many Palestinians, their movement curtailed by the Wall, security checks and curfews. It is not just the benighted inhabitants of Gaza who feel trapped.  Children grow up in this unnatural and at times frightening environment, and they occur frequently in Sabaaneh’s drawings, sometimes innocently playing, at others menaced by bombs and guns. Sabaaneh uses a variety of styles in his work as a cartoonist. Some are reminiscent of lino-cuts and wood-cuts of the kind favoured by the xilogravura popular artists of north-East Brazil — perfect for featuring stylised images of despair. But other drawings are more reminiscent of very detailed comic strips, with a multitude of characters and the military paraphernalia of occupation. So much is going on in this category of images that one needs to study them carefully for minutes on end. Yet another type is influenced by Modernist artists, not least Picasso; one cartoon, “The First Intifada”, even references Guernica. Some of the cartoons in this collection do have explanatory titles and all are arranged in thematic chapters. But many just speak for themselves, with a powerful voice that deserves to be widely heard.


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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th February, 2018

9B42423F-F841-4B0C-8AB0-E55CF2BC40A0When a young woman is raped and killed in a small town in America’s Deep South, her mother, Mildred, rages at the local police’s inability to find any suspect. After months of no progress, Mildred challenges the police and the whole of the town’s largely redneck community by posting provocative messages on three battered old billboards on the outskirts of town. This puts her on a collision course with the head of the local police station and his somewhat dim-witted younger colleague. Mildred, who runs a gift shop selling cheap china animals, essentially becomes an outcast, like the barely emancipated black inhabitants of the area and the gays. Her reaction is effectively to turn into an outlaw, with escalating consequences. Martin McDonagh’s film deals intelligently with the grey zone between right and wrong and as each of the characters develops during the film we begin to realise that they are not as good or bad or even stupid as they first appear. Too often in cinema, when there is a strong moral narrative, characters can seem two-dImensional, but in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri they are remarkably multi-dimensional, sometimes surprising themselves as well as the viewer. The pace of much of the film is as languorous as the southern community it portrays, but punctuated with shocking outbursts of violence. Both Woody Harrelson as the police chief and Sam Rockwell as his underling put in fine, nuanced performances that enrich the drama, but the undoubted star is Frances McDormand as Mildred, with her care-lined face and half-destroyed soul, both grieving and vengeful over her daughter’s fate. One is rooting for Mildred from the beginning until things start to go seriously wrong and her actions become ever more deceitful and aggressive. Only during a chance encounter with a deer do we get to see an inner sweetness to Mildred, which has otherwise been buried beneath a hard carapace of bitterness and despair. McDormand is magnificent in conveying all of Mildred’s complexity and Martin McDonagh should be applauded for producing a truly remarkable movie.

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It’s OK to Talk about Mental Health

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th February, 2018

mental health 1When I was a child I went through prolonged periods of what I now understand was mental depression. From the age of seven, I over-slept (when I was allowed to), over-ate when I was awake and withdrew into myself so fully that I was not just anti-social but barely conscious of the world around me at school, much less at “home”. I don’t need to rehearse the reasons why here, as I have written about them in my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes*. But what is important to draw attention to is that (a) in the 1950s and 1960s, nobody acknowledged that children could have mental health problems, and (b) mental health was a matter of utter shame, to be kept out of view. If adults suffered some mental condition they tended to hide it and in extreme cases committed suicide as a result. Their families (with some noble exceptions, I am sure) shunned them, and covered over the facts of their illness — especially if they were sent to a “loony bin”, out of the way. Even Britain’s royal family did that. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote brilliantly about Western society’s self-declared need to incarcerate — and even punish — those who were mentally “abnormal” or who demonstrated odd behaviour.

mental health 2Though I wouldn’t wish on anyone what I went through as a child — with its distressing repercussions later in life — I draw comfort from the fact that these days it is recognised that children’s odd behaviour may have roots in some mental problem and that people of all ages can talk more openly about periods of mental illness. Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, played an important role in mainstreaming mental health during the 2010-2015 Coalition government and some of those improvements have endured in the UK. There is still a way to go with regard to public perceptions and undoubtedly the education system at all levels needs to foster greater understanding as well as care. At SOAS these days lecturers are encouraged to spot what could be mental problems with students and to refer people accordingly. I hope that is the practice now in higher education everywhere. How much more sensible than just sending a child or young person to go and lie down in the sick-bay, which is what happened to me at school whenever I had one of my “turns”!



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Exit from Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th February, 2018

Catherine Bearder 3Yesterday Catherine Bearder MEP hosted a rally in Richmond-upon-Thames as part of the LibDems’ campaign to Exit from Brexit. As the Party’s London spokesperson on Brexit, I gave a short speech of welcome, underlining the importance of two dates this year. First is May 3rd., when there will be all-out elections for councillors in all 32 London boroughs. Though obviously local issues will be at the fore, these elections can also serve as a verdict on the Conservative government’s chaotic performance so far in relation to Brexit. Moreover, for citizens of the other 27 EU member states who are resident in the UK, this is a chance (maybe their last) to make their voice heard through the ballot box. So local parties need to be encouraging those who are not yet on the electoral register to get on, and to make clear to EU voters that the Liberal Democrats are the only major party in England campaigning for an Exit from Brexit. The second important date is October, by which time, in principle, the UK and EU will have mapped out their proposed new trading relationship, and a public vote on the details of that deal would be timely. So we need to persuade the public as well as Parliament over the next six months or so that such a vote is desirable, so they can pass their verdict on “Is this really what you want?”

Sarah Olney Catherine Bearder Costanza de TomaFittingly at a time when Britain is celebrating the centenary of the extension of the franchise to women (over 30, initially), the rest of yesterday’s event was entirely in the hands of women. Catherine Bearder gave a speech outlining many of the practical problems that will occur if Britain does leave the Customs Union, as the Government maintains. Many things will be more expensive, choice will be reduced and there will inevitably be delays, threatening the viability of many businesses. Sarah Olney, LibDem MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston until last June’s general election, gave an update on the progress (or otherwise) in Parliament regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill and other related legislation. The House of Lords is currently proving its worth by critically analysing what is before it. But there is a growing feeling that the timetable the Government has set for Brexit is impossibly short. The third principal speaker yesterday was Costanza de Toma of the 3 Million group, which lobbies for the rights of EU citizens here (and liaises with representatives of UK citizens on the continent and in the Republic of Ireland, who will also be impacted by Brexit, if it goes ahead). Much of her testimony highlighted the gross injustices and absurdity of the way the situation is developing, as well as the frequent incompetence of the Home Office. The 3 million are encouraging EU citizens to vote in local elections in May, so they could make a real difference.

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Murder before Bedtime

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th February, 2018

SpiralIt’s interesting how different people choose their own routine before going to bed at night. For some, it’s a glass of whisky, for others reading a few pages of a novel. But for me there is one thing above all that settles me, preparing me for a good night’s sleep — a good murder mystery. In Britain we have been well served on that front of late, with several TV channels screening detective stories, usually at 9pm or later; BBC4 has notably established a tradition of broadcasting a two-hour session of a continental who-done-it on a Saturday night. Series 6 of the French drama Spiral has just finished and tonight we can savour the first two episodes of the second series of Sweden’s Modus. BBC iPlayer even has box sets available sometimes; last night I binged on the last three episodes of the rather weird and bloody supernatural drama Requiem before heading off to sleep. What’s striking is how complex some of the scenarios of murder series are these days, highlighting not just the disturbed psychological state of killers but also the often dysfunctional personal lives of detectives, too. Midsomer Murders (reportedly a great favourite of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel) is more chocolate-boxy on that front, as well as in its choice of idyllic English rural settings — though the idyll is repeatedly shown up as an illusion by the carnage going on behind the scenes, often multiple bodies in each programme. Which brings me to the question: why do grisly murder stories appeal, especially late at night? The standard psychological explanation is that they are a way of assuaging our anxieties (especially for women, apparently). And the same is true for the genre in books. We are witnesses experiencing vicariously some of our worst fears or dreams being acted out, but are then able to retreat to our safe beds strangely calmed. So, yes, in a way fictional murder before bedtime is a type of therapy — though an addictive one at that.

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