Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for June, 2018

Make Votes Matter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th June, 2018

Make Votes MatterBritain’s democracy is at a crisis point, with the Prime Minister shackled by the need to appease about 60 hardline Brexiteers in her parliamentary party as well as the whims of the 10 right-wing DUP members from Northern Ireland, whose support she bought with a bung of a billion pounds. Meanwhile, the Opposition Labour Party, which should be on the crest of a wave given the government’s incompetence and distress, is actually behind in the opinion polls, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s endorsement of Hard Brexit and fears among the middle ground of UK voters that the party wants to turn Britain into a kind of socialist utopia. The voices of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, meanwhile, are muted by the fact that their parliamentary representation is disproportionately small — just one MP in the Greens’ case. This is a direct result of the country’s antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system, which means that many electors vote not for the party whose policies they agree with, but for the lesser of two evils — or who don’t bother voting at all, “because my vote won’t make any difference”. Some people might argue that the current system obliges both the Conservatives and Labour to be “broad churches”, to be able to have a chance of forming a working majority, but the Brexit situation has underlined the fact that there are deep splits within both parties, making it difficult for either of them to hold a coherent line. For these and other reasons, pressure is building for a reform of the electoral system to some form of proportional representation — which already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland and was used in the European elections nationwide. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Ireland is probably the most effective in producing results that largely reflect the electorate’s wishes, and which give the voter the opportunity to differentiate between their feelings about different candidates or parties. So today, when  there is a national day of action in favour of fairer votes — proportional representation — don’t be surprised to see or hear a lot about STV. No electoral system is perfect, but STV gives more power to the voter, and would avoid the most grotesque distortion as of the current system, in which sometimes a party can win fewer votes but more seats.

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What Is Writing Worth?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th June, 2018

wordcloud writing.pngThere is a massive paradox at the heart of Britain’s creative industries: though these are now worth over £90billion a year (and growing much faster than the economy as a whole), writers’ earnings have been declining sharply. In other words, the packaged goods are booming, but the people who produce core content are not getting properly remunerated, which inevitably means that many are having to search for other ways of earning a living. Let’s take a look at the figures. According to the latest survey of authors’ earnings — carried out by the University of Glasgow, on behalf of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS)*, and launched at the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group summer reception in Parliament yesterday — the average actual earnings for professional writers in the UK last year was £10,437. That’s well below what someone on the minimum wage would earn for a 35-hour week. Worryingly, this sum is down from £12,330 in 2005 and £11,000 in 2013, when similar studies were carried out — and that doesn’t even take inflation into account. For part-time writers the figures are even worse. Now, I have met people who say “writers should write because of their love of writing, not for the money!” But that’s rather like saying, “chefs should cook for their love of cooking, not for the money!”. And just as one should not expect a free meal in a restaurant — or at least, one for which the chef is not being paid — neither should people expect free content when they get a book or other form of creative content. Sadly, one of the adverse effects of new technology and the ability to download content to all sorts of devices has been that consumers do increasingly expect a lot for free. But to do so risks cutting off the supply of the very thing they want. That’s why the work of bodies such as ALCS, the Society of Authors, the Writers’ Guild and others is so important, in campaigning for the respect of copyright and proper payment for creators. Work on copyright awareness is increasingly taking place in schools and other sectors, fortunately. So as this new alarm bell over writers’ impoverishment is rung, does that mean that when a further study is done in a few years time, we’ll see an upturn in the median earnings? Like most authors, I fervently hope so — but I’m not holding my breath.

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Sustainable Cities

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th June, 2018

61FE9C9F-3DBF-422F-BA46-EA249C559737The key theme of the 200th Executive Committee of Liberal International, which finished in Berlin last night was climate justice — how climate change and other environmental problems can be tackled in a way that improves people’s lives. A striking difference between Green and Liberal political parties is that whereas the former are eco-centric, the latter see the quality of human life as central to political priorities. With parties from more than 50 countries (both developed and developing) represented at the Berlin gathering, there was inevitably a wide range of views, but also common cause in stressing the urgency of action to address the issue, as reflected in a new LI Berlin Declaration that was passed nem con and will be available through the organisation’s website. As more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, the challenges of urban sustainability were a topic for special consideration by a panel of politicians from the Philippines, Senegal and Poland. Josephine Sato and Diene Farba Sarr spoke respectively about what is being done to enhance living conditions in Manila and Dakar, while Marek Szolc posed the question of how far governments should either encourage or force citizens to be more environmentally responsible. Certainly this is something that cannot be left to market forces alone, but a balance between incentives and punitive measures needs to be struck. Doubtless further discussion on such matters will take place at the Liberal International Congress in Dakar at the end of November.

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McQueen *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th June, 2018

Alexander McQueen and Isabel BlowAs a lad in London’s East End, Lee McQueen (later to be rebranded with his posher-sounding middle name Alexander) had little interest in the subjects he was meant to be studying, instead spending most of his time in class drawing. His taxi-driver father would have liked him to become a mechanic or something similarly practical, but the podgy youth — encouraged by his mother and gran — was determined to become a fashion designer, pursuing his vocation with a determination that belied his years. He managed to get an apprenticeship at a tailor’s in Savile Row, but already his creative imagination was heading in directions that were wildly different from the norms of traditional fine tailoring or haute couture. An MA course at Central St Martin’s (paid for by an aunt who withdrew her nest-egg to sponsor him) enabled him to experiment, to learn about working in a team, and to get noticed. His designs were outrageous, both in their style and often in the materials they were made of. He was essentially on the breadline financially, living off the dole after graduation, while hiding the fact that he was working, and forming a key friendship with the avant garde style guru, Isabel Blow. He embarked on a number of gay relationships, but none was to prove permanent, as his work always came first. And as he rose rapidly to success — becoming chief designer of Givenchy in Paris as well as maintaining his own label in London — his moods became darker and his personal life started to fall apart. On 11 February 2010, the eve of his mother’s funeral, he hanged himself, aged just 40.

Alexander McQueen showFrom this potted biography one can see that McQueen was an obvious subject for a biopic, but rather than use actors to tell the tale, the co-directors of the movie McQueen, Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui chose a documentary style, enabling the story to unfold through interviews with McQueen’s family, lovers and friends, as well as clips of the designer himself talking about his work, home movies, catwalk footage of his increasingly dark and bloodily-themed shows, all to a characteristic soundtrack by Michael Nyman. Quite a lot of the footage is jerky or blurred, adding to a growing sense of anxiety as McQueen’s character mutates from talented ingenué to angst-ridden diva. The pace and mood are brilliantly controlled and even if one is not interested in the slightest in women’s fashion (certainly true in my case) the portrayal of a strikingly original talent heading towards seemingly inevitable self-destruction — underscored by cocaine-abuse and McQueen’s HIV status — this is a film which engages one’s emotions to an extraordinary degree, so that one is left grieving with his spectacularly ordinary relations at the end.

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The Happy Prince ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th June, 2018

The Happy Prince 1In Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright’s final couple of years — in other words, the period between his release from prison and his death in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris — gets somewhat short shrift, partly because Ellmann himself was a dying man as he struggled to complete his book. I have long maintained that that means that Wilde’s exile is nearly always portrayed as pure tragedy, whereas in fact any close reading of his voluminous letters from 1897 to 1900 makes clear he enjoyed many good times and sexual encounters in France and Italy, free of the moral strictures of perfidious Albion (less so in Switzerland, where he thought the people looked like turnips). Indeed, as his devoted friend and first homosexual lover, Robbie Ross, recalled soon after Oscar’s death, apart from a few barren periods when his monthly allowance ran out, he was able to have champagne every day. I was delighted that in Rupert Everett’s films, The Happy Prince, which is now on release in London, the champagne does indeed flow. As do the willing youths of Naples and the Paris boulevards, including the delightful young soldier Maurice Gilbert, who was passed around among members of what would in the 1930s would wittily be dubbed The Homintern of well-connected queer gentlemen.

The Happy Prince 2But Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and partly produced The Happy Prince, as well as playing the lead role) focuses particularly on the tragic triangle of Oscar’s main loves: his wife Constance (by this time handicapped after a fall down stairs in the House Beautiful in Tite Street and doomed to die before her husband), Robbie Ross, and the “golden boy”, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Colin Morgan (unrecognisably blond) was an inspired choice to play Bosie, as he radiates exactly the sort of pretty petulance and sporadic vindictiveness that made Bosie mad, bad and dangerous to know — a true scion of the Black Douglases. At times one wants Oscar just to slap him, though one knows that he won’t, besotted as he is, despite everything that has happened. Instead, it is (in this film’s imaginative relating of the story) Robbie — sensitively and beautifully played by Edwin Thomas — who lashes out at Oscar’s graveside. But it is an empty victory, because everyone has in fact lost, in the battle for Oscar’s love and compassion.

The Happy Prince 3Rupert Everett’s own portrayal of Wilde externalises the playwright’s inner torments and bitter regrets, so that his face is often distorted and his visage a ravaged mockery of his own glittering past — a sort of walking Picture of Dorian Gray, brought down from the attic. I am not convinced that Oscar or Reggie Turner (Colin Firth, as one has never seen him) would have been quite so ready with the expletives as they are in the film. But a lot of the scenes are redolent of fin-de-siecle atmosphere and historical fact, though the notion recounted that Robbie Ross at the age of 17 picked up Oscar in a public lavatory was actually the scurrilous tittle-tattle of the self-aggrandising pornographer Frank Harris, rather than the more prosaic truth that Robbie came into Oscar’s orbit because Constance (Emily Watson in the film) and Robbie’s mother were both active in the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association. Of course, film-makers must be allowed some poetic licence, and Everett only had the length of a feature film to put over his concept of Wilde, a person who has dominated much of his artistic thinking for years (as it did earlier with Stephen Fry). The title of the film comes from Oscar’s first real literary success, a book of short stories for children, originally composed for his young sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, but then polished and made suitable for an adult audience as well, with a profound moral message, unlike some of the sanctimonious twaddle wrapped up in some other Victorian fairy tales. The story is used imaginatively to bookend the film, and is at other times cleverly woven into the narrative. So although this movie is not perfect, there is much in it that is beautiful, and sad, and gives one cause for reflection.

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Iftar with Anwar Ibrahim

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th June, 2018

Anwar Ibrahim and Abdullah FaliqLast night at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel there was a particularly joyful Iftar dinner in honour of Malaysian politician Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who was released from prison last month after a decade of incarceration, most of it in solitary confinement. As the charges against him were widely seen as fabricated, one might expect him to feel aggrieved against the man who wanted him out of the way, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but in a dignified speech before breaking the day’s Ramadan fast he said that one had to learn to forgive and forget. Only Dr Ibrahim’s wife and children were allowed to visit him in jail, but he was able to read voraciously, not only political and economic volumes but also religious texts (Islamic and others) and the complete works of William Shakespeare — the latter six times. Two themes were central to Anwar Ibrahim’s remarks last night: inclusivity and good governance. Malaysia has Islam as its official religion, though only slightly over 60 per cent of the total population are Muslims, and he argued that it is important that other groups including Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, as well as the animists of Sabah and Sarawak, should feel they are citizens with the right to play a full part in society. He slammed corruption — often euphemistically referred to as “commission” when the bribes involve high officials or politicians — and said that the challenge of the coming years must be how to make Malaysia and many other countries genuine democracies, where rulers are accountable and there is the rule of law. I asked him whether his vision for his country chimed with Dr Mahathir’s Vision2020, which is essentially about economic and social development, but he said his ideas would comfortably supplement that programme. After recent elections, Dr Mahathir, now aged 92, somewhat unexpectedly returned to power after a period out of office and made Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, Deputy Prime Minister (a role Anwar himself had had before his downfall). For me it was a privilege, as a member of the Executive of Liberal International, to work with Wan Azizah during Anwar’s imprisonment, as she campaigned for their common goals, with tenacity and dignity. Soon maybe Anwar Ibrahim himself will be back in government, as it is widely expected that he will succeed Dr Mahathir in the Prime Minister’s office.

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Two Graves *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th June, 2018

Two GravesIt is said that revenge is a dish best served cold, but before anyone considers taking the law into their own hands in retribution for a crime or injury, it is best to note what Confucius had to say on the subject: “Before embarking on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” — in other words, one for the victim and one for oneself. That is the inspiration for the title of Gary Young’s first full-length feature film, Two Graves, which had its West End premiere at the British Urban Film Festival in the Curzon cinema in Soho last night. A middle-aged pathologist, Margaret (played by Cathy Tyson), can’t find closure on the death of her son until she has extracted a confession of murder from the young man, Finn (Neal Ward), whom she believes to be guilty, enlisting the help of a bitter young former junkie, Zoe (Katie Jarvis). But incapacitating him with an epidural and slicing off one of his fingers leads to a totally unexpected revelation and a nightmare sequence of events in which Finn’s father, a vicious gangster called Tommy (David Hayman, in truly sinister mode), becomes a key protagonist. By now, like in a Greek tragedy, it is clear that things are going to end badly, and as in a classical drama, despite some flashbacks, there is unity of time and place, as the action unfolds one day in the ruins of an abandoned shipyard. The horror and suspense are alleviated by a few flashes of black humour, but the tension is increased by shots of circling seagulls and a chilling soundtrack. This is film noir at its blackest. Remarkably, Two Graves is a début not only for its director but also for several of its actors, and moreover the whole thing was made with a budget of £500,000 — peanuts, by film production standards. Instead of costly special effects or other extravagances, the director and cinematographer (Adam Barnett) use some powerful still images and random shots — such as a pigeon up in the rafters — to unsettle the senses, Hitchcock-style. All in all, a remarkable achievement, with the impact of a punch in the gut.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th June, 2018

Mary and the Witch's FlowerJapanese anime have rightly won a global reputation. Compared with the often saccharine products from Disney et al the films often have an appealing edge to them. In Mary and the Witch’s Flower, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes the very English magical mystery story The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart and gives it a Japanese makeover. Thus the plucky little heroine Mary could well have been a figure in a movie by the great Hayao Miyazaki, to whose work Yonebayashi gives more than a few nods. There are some spectacular action visuals — with lots of flashing lights — that are distinctive and form a sometimes startling counterpoint to the chocolate-box setting of Mary’s great-aunt Charlotte’s rural home, to which the little girl has been sent out of her parents’ way. Quickly bored, Mary sets out for adventure and soon encounters a cheeky boy as well as two cats (my favourite characters) before being whisked off on a magic broomstick to a sinister magic school beyond the clouds. Inevitably Harry Potter and Hogwarts come to mind, but Yonebayashi opts for Middle Eastern oriental rather than Victorian Gothic for his house of spells. Some of the magic effects are memorable, but others I found rather banal, which mean that the overall effect is not as striking as it could be. Children may love it, however.

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Entebbe *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th June, 2018

ENT_LD_011216_05434.NEFThe Israeli raid on Entebbe airport in July 1976 is often hailed as a great tactical success in what would later become known as the War on Terror. The vast majority of the hostages who had been on an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris were rescued unharmed (a significant number having already been released by their Palestinian and revolutionary German captors), and only one Israeli commando died — a brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, as it happens. What is often not mentioned is that 36 Ugandan soldiers were killed, as collateral damage; no wonder the country’s dictator Idi Amin was annoyed. It would have been very easy to have made a gung-ho Hollywood movie about the events surrounding Operation Thunderbolt, as it was dubbed, as others have indeed done previously, but to his great credit, Brazilian director José Padilha takes a much more nuanced approach, highlighting the ambiguities and contradictions within people’s characters as well as within the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. Imaginative use of dramatic dance sequences by the Batsheva Dance Company and pulsing music by Rodrigo Amarante really help pump up the tension. Though the discussions in the Israeli Cabinet — a real power-play between Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres — the verisimilude of much of the action is heightened by characters speaking in their own language (sub-titled) — Arabic, German, Hebrew and French. The underlying message is that in the end everyone lost, as fighting can never be a permanent substitute for negotiated peace. And as a caption screened at the very end of the film, in silence, says, 42 years later, no meaningful negotiations are happening.

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McKellen: Playing the Part ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd June, 2018

Ian McKellenPossibly the greatest living male Shakespearean actor, Sir Ian McKellen has reinvented himself in his latter years, coming out (on the BBC) as homosexual at the age of 49, campaigning on LGBT rights issues and going into schools (sometimes adopting his Gandalf voice) to encourage children to be themselves yet enter into the world of make-believe. Sir Ian was a latecomer to film; as we learn from Joe Stephenson’s biopic, McKellen: Playing the Part (showing this weekend at my lovely local cinema, Genesis in Stepney Green), he was a bit sniffy about the seventh art until he actually took part in it. He was and is a stage actor par excellence. Theatre is in his blood. The film is essentially an extensive interview, illustrated with marvelous clips of McKellen’s performances (goodness, how chilling he was as Richard III!), a little reconstruction of his childhood and various shots of him behind-the-scenes. Despite living in Tower Hamlets for decades, he has never lost his northern affections — born in Wigan, but especially fond of the Grand Theatre in Leeds. It was the twin evils of the fatal AIDS epidemic and Mrs Thatcher’s Clause 28 that propelled him into political activism, raising funds to establish the London Lighthouse and to launch Stonewall. Latterly he has sometimes camped it up as “Serena”, notably pairing up with his old pal and fellow thespian, Derek Jacobi, in that ghastly TV series Vicious (tactfully not mentioned in Stephenson’s documentary). But we do see him facing up to a Tory homophobe in a memorable TV interview as he slaps down the idea that youngsters are not aware of their own innate feelings. This is done with such calm dignity that his opponent is left speechless. But, one might in fairness ask, as the octogenarian McKellen looks back on his life and playfully plans his own funeral, did he sacrifice personal happiness for the sake of his craft? Despite an earlier partnership with the younger theatre director, Sean Mathias, McKellen was and is essentially a lone figure, though revered by millions of fans around the world.

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