Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for March, 2018

Easter in Rome

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th March, 2018

D0E180F4-0506-45E5-8BAD-FD50B5A051DEHaving spent more than half a century travelling around Europe — most of it for work, including eight years based in Brussels (the subject of my next memoir) — I’ve been just about everywhere, except Kosovo since it declared independence. But of course there are some “experiences” I still have to have — not exactly a bucket list, but nonetheless things that it would be nice to have notched on my belt before I pop my clogs. So here I am in Rome for Holy Week, the Easter palomba cake on the kitchen table at my friend’s flat off the Piazza di Spagna. I’d expected the city to be super-crowded, but apart from the occasional crocodile of Chinese chugging down the pavement, this part of town is relatively manageable. The Piazza del Popolo at the end of the street was packed on Wednesday for the funeral of the  much-loved TV presenter Fabrizio Frizzi, but otherwise I have been able to wander and when the mood takes me, to sit in the Spring sun on a cafe terrace. Mind you, I have kept well away from the Vatican, which I imagine will be heaving, especially as the Easter weekend progresses and the Pope appears. I shall leave that to the devoted, as I abandoned organised religion decades ago. But a priest is coming to a fish supper at the apartment this evening, so we are sort of entering into the spirit of things.

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Phantom Thread *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th March, 2018

10915E47-725E-4134-9207-12EFA7BEE9D7I have never had the slightest interest in women’s fashion, so was a little tardy in viewing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, but of course one doesn’t need to be engaged with haute couture to understand what a very special film this is. Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he says is his swan song as an actor, although only 60 years old, employed all the skills of method acting to become the lead character, Reynolds Woodcock — handsome and superficially charming until his total self-centredness and obsession with his work comes to the fore, buttressed by his icily supportive sister and collaborator, Cyril (a brilliant piece of character acting by Lesley Manville). But the person who pierces Reynolds’ carapace is a German waitress encountered by chance at a hotel in Yorkshire, Alma — an apt name, as it is her spirit as well as her beauty which captivated him. But like a butterfly collector who seizes a spectacular specimen and pins it to a board, so Reynolds tries to exert complete control over Alma as model and muse, belittling her whenever she shows any sign of individuality or passion. But Alma (captivatingly portrayed by the relative newcomer from Luxembourg, Vicky Krieps) is built of sterner stuff than any of the other devoted women surrounding the maestro. She hatches a devilish plot, straight out of a fairy-tale, to weaken Reynolds and then strike in the guise of apparent saviour. The viewer watches with fascination as the spider Alma spins her web and grabs her prey. What makes the film truly great, however, is the direction, which not only brings out the best in the actors but also draws the viewer convincingly into the world of fashion houses in 1950s London, with their snobbery and pandering to the egos of wealthy but often unattractive women, as well as highlighting the dedication of the seamstresses (many taken from real life, rather than using actors). The timing in this exquisite film is all: long drawn out silences, powerfully-delivered single words (no that gradually becomes yes, in the arc of the story) and flashes of sudden anger. All is not well in the House of Woodcock, and his secretly sewing little messages into the hems of the dresses of his ladies will not stave off the curse that is coming and against which he is powerless.

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From Russia with Love

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th March, 2018

SIFFA UKThere isn’t much love between the UK and Russia these days, in the wake of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, but while the war of words continues between the two governments, at a cultural level there is a determination to keep things friendly. So there was a good turn-out — and no embarrassing demonstrations — at the gala UK premiere of Artyom Mikhalkov’s 2016 film, Betting on Love, at the Soho Hotel’s screening room in Soho last night. The event was all part of the London end of the Sochi Film Festival Awards (SIFFA) — a relative newcomer to the film festival circuit, based in the Black Sea resort that hosted the Winter Olympics four years ago. There were drinks and awards of various kinds before the Soho screening, with a great many bouquets of flowers. Stephen Frears — who collected a certificate, along with one for an absent Dame Judi Dench — was so festooned with blooms he could have opened a stall in Columbia Road market. Artyom Mikhalkov was on hand to receive his own Sochi gong. His film was a romantic comedy that made many nods to the rom-coms of the 1960s and 1970s, with a bit of James Bond thrown in. The hero was a diminutive Armenian waiter working in a sushi restaurant who nonetheless has the chance of winning the hand of a fair maiden. There are some nice gags about Russian mafiosi as well as armospheric location shots in Las Vegas, but the film was as frothy as whipped cream in a can — and everyone kissed, made up and paired off at the end.

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25 Years of the National Literary Trust

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd March, 2018

gruffaloLast night I was at the Plaisterers’ Hall in the City for a fundraising dinner celebrating the 25th anniversary of the National Literary Trust. This is an independent charity working with schools and communities to give disadvantaged children the literacy skills to succeed in life. It’s a shaming part that in some of the poorest parts of Britain hundreds of thousands of primary school children are unable to read or write, which severely handicaps their chances in later life. Parents and the home learning environment have the greatest effect on how a child develops language and literacy skills. So much of the work done by the Trust focuses there. The charity’s Patron is the Duchess of Cornwall, who gave a short unscripted speech last night, and was joined by three dozen successful writers, including Tony Bradman, Chair of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), on whose table I sat. My own engagement with the National Literary Trust has been through the Ruth Rendell Award for the promotion of literacy, as I have been one of the judges choosing the winner in the first two years of the award’s existence. As one might expect from the location, there were a lot of financial high-flyers at the dinner last night and with the help of an auction including pictures of the Gruffalo drawn on the spot by Axel Sheffler, £175,000 was raised.

Link: https://literacytrust.org.uk/

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Brexit Can Be Stopped

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th March, 2018

Stop Brexit 1There is a glaring paradox at the heart of Britain’s Conservative government at the moment. On the one hand, the government is criticising Russia and accusing it of various kinds of interference in British life (including attempted murder) while on the other hand it is pursuing a course that will facilitate one of the Kremlin’s main aims, namely Brexit. It now seems highly likely that Russia campaigned anonymously through social media in favour of a Leave vote in 2016, and weakening the EU (which Britain’s departure will undoubtedly do) is a key Russian foreign policy goal. The Paradox I mentioned earlier is personified by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who has castigated the Russians for “trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation” (rather a good description of himself, incidentally) while being a prominent cheerleader for Brexit. However, the wheels are beginning to come off the Brexit bus as it becomes ever clearer that the British public were grossly misled about what Brexit would mean in practice. We were not told that it would make us poorer, that many of our rights as European citizens would be taken away, that we would be leaving the customs union as well as the single market, or that some sort of border controls might have to be introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

75D3F4DB-40AC-4E69-931C-71CE29A3729C London and Brussels have come up with a transition deal, to see us through the period from March next year, when Britain is due to formally leave the EU, and the end of 2020. But it is clear from the details of the deal so far released that basically we will still have all the obligations of being an EU member while losing some of the benefits and having no say in EU deliberations. And it can only get worse after that. Because of Mrs May’s precipitous invoking of Article 50 there are now only 12 months before EU departure day, but if Brexit is going to be halted measures have to be taken long before that. October this year really would be the deadline for effective action, as Brussels wants to have a post-Brexit deal with Britain finalised by then, so it can be ratified by the other 27 member states. That means that we need a summer of discontent, of people taking to the streets to protest that we were sold a pup in the EU Referendum and that we want the chance to vote on the terms of the deal that has been negotiated — with an option to stay in the EU. Yes, Brexit can be stopped!

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Syria Seven Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th March, 2018

Syria destruction 4 largeSeven years ago, as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East, demonstrations began in Syria. By chance I was there when the first manifestations occurred, in Deraa, before they spread to other cities — especially after the violent way the authorities cracked down on the early protesters. This was hailed by enthusiasts as Syria’s Revolution, with the major commercial centre Aleppo mainly coming under rebel control. But how badly things subsequently went wrong. Seven years on, the revolution that turned into a civil war is still going on — longer than either the First or Second World War — hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced and much of the country is in ruins. Bashar al-Assad and his mafia-like clique are still in charge and indeed since the Russians and Iranians piled in are increasingly with the upper hand, pounding and moving in on remaining rebel strongholds such as eastern Ghouta.

Last night I took part in a debate on Orient News TV, a Syria-focussed TV station based in Dubai and Amman, discussing the seventh anniversary. I was asked why Europe failed to get as deeply involved in Syria as the Russians have and explained how Britain in particular was scarred by the negative experience of the Iraq War and late by the chaotic outcome of the Libyan intervention. Besides, given the history of colonialism in the area, would the Syrian people really have taken kindly to British or French involvement? There are some in Britain who regret that Parliament voted against intervention in 2013, but would it have made a positive contribution if the vote had gone the other way? The UK only really got involved when it came to fighting Daesh (ISIS), and now limits activity mainly to RAF reconnaissance and personnel training. The US has been more directly involved, especially in helping the Kurds, who are now under attack from Turkey, while funding for some of the self-styled Islamic groups have had huge backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Assad government, emboldened by recent military successes, brands all opposing forces as terrorists, but in truth they are a motley crew, pursuing different agendas. But the voices of the ordinary people who just wanted a taste of greater freedom and democracy than that accorded them by the Assad dynasty have been almost completely drowned out. And a peaceful settlement remains tantalisingly elusive.

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On Memoir

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 14th March, 2018

RSL On MemoirLast night at the British Library the Royal Society of Literature put on an evening On Memoir, moderated by Rupert Christiansen. It’s a genre that held little appeal to me when I was young — devouring 20th century novels at a rate of several a week — and in my 40s and 50s history and biography took centre stage. But perhaps in one’s 60s one becomes more reflective, more introspective, mulling over one’s life, what one did and what one might have done. And in fact my own last book, Eccles Cakes, was a childhood memoir. I found it was very therapeutic writing it, so I was interested to hear Sigrid Rausing at the RSL event say that writing her account of having a brother and sister-in-law who were drug addicts, Mayhem, was cathartic. I loved her memoir and was pleased to take part in a book group discussion of it immediately before the RSL evening. Interestingly, the group split almost exactly down the middle between those, like myself, who really empathised with the author’s experience and others who felt quite alienated by it. In the evening discussion, Sigrid Rausing was joined by Aida Edemariam (interviewed by James Naughtie in a recent BBC World book show) and Philippe Sands. Aida Edemariam’s book, The Wife’s Tale, is based on interviews with her now deceased Ethiopian grandmother, whereas Philippe Sands’ East West Street traces not only the footsteps of his grandfather in Lviv (now in Ukraine) but also, among others, the originator of the word “genocide”, Raphael Lemkin. So although each of the authors had dealt with family members, involving both memory and research, their books are very different. It was fascinating to hear how Philippe Sands was shepherded by his editor in structuring and rewriting his memoir; I thought such editors no longer existed! But one thing that struck me about all three authors was the intensity of their connection to their subject matter — more so, perhaps, than that of any novelist or biographer.

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China’s Retrogressive Move

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th March, 2018

Xi JinpingChina’s People’s Congress, meeting in Beijing today, has altered the constitution so that term limits on the presidency have been removed. That means that the current incumbent, Xi Jinping, could become President for Life, if he chooses. The term limit was brought in to avoid anyone becoming a second Mao Zedong, but that increasingly appears to be what Mr Xi aspires to. Already his political writings have been enshrined into the nation’s Communist canon, echoing the position of Mao Zedong Thought. During the Cultural Revolution that ran for about a decade from the mid-1960s until Chairman Mao’s death, Mao’s Little Red Book was every person’s compulsory accessory and its messages were thrust down everyone’s throat — quite literally, in some extreme cases. Espousing any different view was a recipe for receiving humiliation, imprisonment or even death. Chinese diplomats will doubtless say that that couldn’t happen today, but the increasing authoritarianism at the centre of power is stifling free debate. Dissidents have been arrested, or have simply disappeared. And meanwhile China is moving into pole position to become the world’s leading economy, hoovering up the natural resources of Africa and gaining a growing commercial and financial hold over the rest of the world. That includes Britain, where Chinese capital investment has been entering strategic sectors of the economy. As Brexit looms, the Conservative government in London is keen to build on links with China, but it should only do so if it keeps its eyes wide open. Of course we need to keep a close eye on Trump’s America, too, as Washington flirts with protectionism and champions America First. But one big difference is that whereas Donald Trump will be out of office in 2021 (or 2025 at the latest), Xi Jinping is likely to be in power for as long as he wants. And he doesn’t play by the West’s rules.

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MBS Comes to Town

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th March, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman billboard vansThe Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been in London today, getting right royal treatment befitting of a state visit, with lunch with the Queen, tea at 10 Downing Street and dinner with Prince Charles. There was some bemusement yesterday among Londoners as electronic billboard vans drove round the city welcoming MBS’s arrival, and today many newspapers had three half-page spreads reinforcing that message. For anyone familiar with the Gulf monarchies that is not in the least surprising, however; rulers and their crown princes are celebrated with giant pictures everywhere in their home territories, including whole sides of multi-storey buildings. Such apparent vaingloriousness is infra dig in Britain, but we should remember that we started eroding the power of absolute monarchs 800 years ago, whereas Saudi Arabia is a kingdom only 80-odd years old.

Mohammed bin Salman with Queen Elizabeth I was kept busy myself today, doing both television and radio interviews about the prince’s visit, as well as attending a session on youth’s place in Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, at the Dorchester Hotel (where else?). Several people elsewhere asked me outright: well, are you for or against this visit? As one might expect from someone with a background in Reuters and the BBC, and with one foot in academe, I answered in more nuanced terms. As Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and actually sits on the UN Human Rights Council it must expect its domestic human rights record to come under scrutiny. The detention of dissidents has increased since MBS’s sudden ascendancy to the role of neo-dauphin and the rate of executions has actually doubled these last few months. Similarly, the immense human cost of the war in Yemen — exacerbated by the blockade of the port of Hodeidah, which has caused widespread malnutrition — is a legitimate cause for concern, even anger, made more acute by the fact that British arms sales (and some advice) has been helping the Saudi war effort there. However, on the other side of the coin, MBS (with his father’s approval, presumably) has ushered in some reforms that are noteworthy, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving later this year and at least a partial crackdown on corruption, as well as the introduction of VAT as a new source of tax revenue. So he should not be condemned out of hand, but neither should he be the object of unqualified praise. As I quipped on BBC Radio London this afternoon, under MBS’s guidance Saudi Arabia has entered the 20th century, but it hasn’t yet arrived in the 21st.

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Mrs May’s Rose-tinted Vision

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd March, 2018

Theresa MayThis lunchtime the Prime Minister delivered her long-awaited vision for Brexit Britain. The speech was beautifully crafted (congratulations to whoever actually wrote it), but my analysis of the content is less complimentary. As there have been conflicting statements about Brexit even among Cabinet Ministers — along a spectrum from Chancellor Philip Hammond to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — it was good to hear what Mrs May, supposedly speaking on behalf of the Government, actually envisages as the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Some basic principles were very clear, namely that the Government respects the result of the 2016 EU Referendum and therefore Britain is leaving the European Union. Similarly, it wishes to guarantee the integrity of the United Kingdom. But other things were not so clear-cut. However, in a nutshell, what Mrs May was calling for was a bespoke deal for Britain that would be quite different from any other trade arrangement the EU has — for example with Norway or Canada — but would seek to achieve the best possible results for both sides, while defending the security and prosperity of the UK. She said Britain would like to stay inside some EU agencies, such as the European Medicines Agency, and would therefore accept a degree of European Court of Justice jurisdiction, though only on a piecemeal basis. The City of London will be dismayed that the Prime Minister accepted that banks and financial institutions based in the UK will not enjoy passporting rights to the EU because it will leave the single market; one can almost hear the stampede out of London for Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin already as a result. Equally, Britain will not be part of the customs union (or even Jeremy Corbyn’s “a customs union”), but the Government would still hope there to be frictionless trade with the EU. This really is having cake and eating it territory and is likely to be met with a giant raspberry from Brussels. Then there is the thorny issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Mrs May said the Government does not want to see the return of a hard border with border controls, asking rhetorically whether this is something Brussels would wish to impose. That is disingenuous, as clearly an external border of the EU cannot be completely open to the movement of goods, people and services so some sort of compromise solution will be necessary unless Northern Ireland has some separate customs arrangement from the rest of the UK — which is anathema to the Conservatives’ political bedfellows, the DUP. Despite the fact that the Government’s own studies showed that UK economic growth will be hit whichever Brexit route the country follows, Mrs May still sees the post-Brexit future through rose-tinted spectacles, in a world in which Britain will enjoy new freedoms and enhanced prestige while retaining what it wants from current arrangements. Cherry-picking, in a phrase. What she did not specify, however, is how her vision — which included a number of practical alternatives on trade — would benefit the country. But that’s not surprising, because it can’t.

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