Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for July, 2018

Two Summers of Billy Morton ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th July, 2018

Two Summers of Billy Morton1968 really was a year to remember, what with the Prague Spring, the Paris May events, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Tet offensive in Vietnam, to mention but a few highlights. Fifty years on there have been many commemorations of individual events, but novelist Barry Stewart Hunter takes the year’s complete timeline as the backdrop to his picaresque tale of young Billy Morton, student photographer and opportunistic rent-boy, coming of age in swinging London at a time when sexuality was fluid and abortion recently legal (Two Summers of Billy Morton, Martin Firrell Company, £11.99). Billy’s “good” summer sees some strong and educative relationships on both sides of the fence, as well as the (not always disinterested) patronage of older people, including a one-armed lady picture editor based in Notting Hill (when the area was shabby, not chic) who suggests he go to Paris to see what the students were up to there. Having experienced the adrenaline rush of police horses charging an anti-War demonstration outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, Billy is up to the challenge, as well as being agile and comely enough to depend on the kindness of strangers when he gets to the French capital.

Barry Stewart Hunter The Paris middle section of this novel in three distinct parts produces some of the most memorable characters, including a transvestite benefactor, Mme Georges, and a handsome young Arab, Lafcadio, with whom ever-so-English and still quite naive Billy becomes involved. But unlike in the 1960s children’s classic by Shel Silverstein, this Lafcadio is not the lion who shoots back but rather the harbinger of Billy’s “bad” summer that sees a chain of mysterious dangers with death in their wake. For a literary novel — and Two Summers of Billy Morton is highly literary — this book is packed with action, though at times it can appear hallucinatory, daring the reader to cease suspending their disbelief. Though the principal narrative voice is Billy’s, other people chip in from time to time, almost as if giving evidence to a police investigation. Some of Barry Stewart Hunter’s characters are more credible than others; I found parts of the Bloomsbury salon chatter and a supposed interview with novelist Graham Greene a little arch. But the central figure of Billy, in all his contradictions, is engagingly real and memorable. Indeed, as I myself ventured alone to London aged 18 in the summer of 1968, Billy could have been me.

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Devaluation of Political Discourse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th July, 2018

Donald Trump 5Last night I did one of my occasional slots on the one-and-a-half hour (Bangladeshi) Channel S TV current affairs show, Let’s Talk. It was sweltering in the studio — the air conditioning was too noisy to be left on during live transmission — and all three of us (me, the host and another studio guest) were roasting in suits and ties. Moreover, the topic for discussion was a heated one: reactions to Donald Trump’s recent visit to the UK and the effect of Trumpism on politics globally. A caller for Oxford bemoaned the fact that Trump has encouraged people to follow his example to use coarse words (as well as bending the truth, of course), which enabled me to talk about what I see as the davaluation of political discourse. Rational debate has often given way to shouty confrontation, and “alternative facts” are seen as equally valid as the truth, providing you believe in them. I am all in favour of satire at appropriate moments — and indeed quite often poke fun at the more absurd arguments of Brexiteers on twitter. But it is clear that social media have encouraged the decline in respect for logic and evidence-based judgments. Mr Trump is partly to blame for this, as some people, on both sides of the Atlantic, feel that if the Tweeter-in-Chief can blast off like an angry child in a playground, so can they. The mainstream media has aided and abetted this lowering of standards. As I said on the programme last night, it was disgraceful that a newspaper such as the Daily Telegraph should pose the question whether Theresa May is a “traitor” because of her Chequers Soft Brexit plan. The gutter Press, not least the Express and the Mail, have continued their obnoxious Brexiteer tirades; do you remember that awful headline about Supreme Court judges being “enemies of the people”? Brexit and Trump are two sides of the same coin, and just as Trump’s rhetoric encourages white Americans to turn against immigrants, Muslims and Mexicans, so the Brexiteer narrative, personified by Nigel Farage, has turned a section of the British public against East Europeans, other ethnic minorities and Islam — fuelling support for anti-hero “Tommy Robinson” and the English Defence League. The BBC, for which I worked almost full-time for 20 years, is itself guilty in giving undue oxygen to extremists; Farage has appeared on Question Time more than any other guest. Meanwhile, both in the United States and here in Britain, society is polarising to such a degree that it is no longer fanciful to draw parallels with the 1930s. We all know what the devaluation of political discourse led to then. It is in everyone’s true interest to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

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A Summer of Discontent

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th July, 2018

The Summer of Our DiscontentWere the likely effects of Brexit not so serious, the shambolic way the Government is handling matters would be laughable. At a weekend Cabinet gathering at Chequers earlier this month, Theresa May put forward her version of a Soft Brexit plan. All the Cabinet supported it at the time, but within days, David Davis and Boris Johnson had both resigned and the latter was extremely rude about the proposed deal, which he said would make Britain a colony of the EU. I’d been saying for months that Mrs May should sack Boris before he had the chance to resign, but in the event, both have been weakened by the way things have happened. In the meantime, several other (junior) Ministers have resigned, as well as other Conservative party luminaries, most of whom one had never heard of. But the debates about related bills in the House of Commons this week have taken the whole Brexit saga down to a new low. Mrs May caved in to the demands of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his euphemistically-named European Research Group and made her Soft Brexit a little harder. A dozen Tory rebels nobly voted to keep the UK within EU medicines regime, but on other issues the Government saw off amendments, with the help of the Labour Brexiteer Gang of Four, Kate Hoey. Frank Field, John  Mann and Grahame Stringer. The Government hoped to prorogue Parliament tomorrow, five days early, to limit inconvenient debate, but dropped that idea when it became clear that the suggestion was dead in the water. The problem is, Mrs May’s Soft Brexit is dead in the water, too; a country can’t effectively be within the Single Market for some things and outside it for others. The EU, rightly, will not compromise on the four freedoms, so Mrs May is just wasting time pursuing pipe dreams. In the meantime, Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is failing pathetically to stand up to this government nonsense — mainly because he has always been hostile to the EU. And even though a majority of Labour MPs were Remainers (and most probably still are), they are frightened to stick their heads too far above the parapet, with noble exceptions such as Chuka Umunna, David Lammy and Ben Bradshaw. Doubtless the Prime Minister will be hoping that things go quiet over the recess, but I woudn’t count on that. With both the Brexiteers and the anti-Brexiteers angry about the current mess, it is likely to be a long, hot summer of discontent.

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John Tusa Making a Noise ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2018

John Tusa bookWithout a doubt, my favourite period during the 20 years I was based at BBC World Service at Bush House was when John Tusa was its Head. Having worked there in more junior roles at earlier stages in his career, he understood what made the place tick. The basement canteen was an extraordinary meeting place of resident experts and guests from all over the world, and he made a point of spending time there, chatting to everyone. As his autobiography, Making a Noise (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), makes clear, he would have loved to go on to be the BBC’s Director General, but there were powerful forces who were determined not to let that happen. Instead, the Corporation was landed with John Birt (or “the Dalek”, as we called him without affection at Bush), who wanted to bring about a revolution of management systems and efficiency measures which leeched much of the soul out of the institution. Fortunately for John Tusa, he had other fish to fry, not least as a TV presenter, not just on international affairs but also covering music and the other Arts — a passion shared with his wife Annie, with whom he has enjoyed a close partnership ever since they met as students at Cambridge. They went back to Cambridge, briefly, when he was appointed Principal of Wolfson College — an unmitigated disaster, as he recounts it, that lasted barely a year. That didn’t turn him completely off academe, however, as later, after a long, productive period running the Barbican Centre in the City, he would become Chairman of the University of Arts London, juggled along with being Chairman of the Clore Leadership Programme. Though now officially retired he is still full of beans, as I discovered when I went to see him being interviewed about the book by Robin Lustig at New Broadcasting House recently. All in all, he has had what is often tritely called a “glittering career” and not one many would have predicted when his father took him and the rest of his immediate family out of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939, to run a Bata shoe factory in Essex. Oddly, John Tusa never lived abroad himself again, though his broadcasting and Arts careers led to many short foreign assignments. He was thus a witness to important moments of history, including events in Poland in 1989, when Communism started to crumble in central and eastern Europe. There is therefore much that is fascinating about this book, though perhaps inevitably the later sections about Arts and academic administration are maybe less appealing to the general reader than earlier accounts of his work with the BBC. I would have liked more detailed pen portraits of some of the significant figures he encountered; instead there is a pot-pourri of amusing short memories in an “Envoi” at the end. Throughout, however, the author comes across as a man of great decency and discernment and a champion of several of the very best things about British and European civilization.

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Dump Trump

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th July, 2018

808A8666-5BFB-4B28-AAB1-CB96F9ABF5DFit was heartening to see many tens of thousands of people turn up this hot Friday afternoon to march against the views and practices of US President Donald Trump. There was a carnival atmosphere right from the moment that a giant Baby Trump in a nappy was inflated this morning and floated over Parliament Square, but at 2pm big crowds converged on Portland Place near the BBC’s headquarters before marching down Regent Street and on to Trafalgar Square. There was a host of nationalities represented and lots of flags — the EU’s and Palestine’s particularly visible — but it was the home-made signs that attracted the attention of the TV cameras, from the predictably scatalogical (“F**k Trump”) to the deliciously English (“I’m really rather cross”). A brass band enhanced the mood. I didn’t spot all that many politicians (Ed Miliband and Jo Swinson being notable exceptions) but there was every age and social group present, as well as trade unions and single issue groups holding up colourful banners, all united in their opposition to Mr Trump’s current visit to the UK. As I write this, he is sitting down to tea with the Queen at Windsor Castle, and one can only hope that he will be more diplomatic with her than he has been with Prime Minister, Theresa May. In an exclusive interview with the Sun newspaper, published this morning, the Donald rubbished Mrs May’s Soft Brexit plan and said he thought that former Foreign Secretary and government bad-boy Boris Johnson would make a great PM. The President’s busy schedule kept him well away from the big London demonstration, but he will doubtless hear about it and see pictures on his twitter feed. It was massive, and made abundantly clear that for many Brits and others living here, he is not a welcome guest.

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Bye-bye BoJo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th July, 2018

Boris Johnson and John McKendrickYesterday there was a collective sigh of relief within the Westminster village when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson finally resigned. His sudden departure from one of the four great offices of state had been looming for months; the only question was: would Prime Minister Theresa May sack him or would he quit? It was probably quite shrewd of Mrs May to leave the initiative up to him, therefore making herself theoretically blameless, though the drama of his leaving was anyway upstaged by Brexit Secretary David Davis jumping ship first. As ever not a gentleman, BoJo sent the PM a particularly unpleasant letter of resignation, effectively calling her compromise deal on Britain’s strategy for the Brexit negotiations (which he had in principle endorsed at the weekend Cabinet gathering at Chequers) a betrayal of Leave voters, as well as claiming Britain will become a “colony” of the EU as a result. However, the general feeling around Westminster is that Johnson has weakened, not strengthened, his own political position (the only thing that ever really concerned him) and that he is therefore further away from his goal of becoming Prime Minister. Several of his erstwhile colleagues in government have been quite uncomplimentary about him, but the prize for unfond farewells must go to the Attorney General of Anguilla, John McKendrick QC, who tweeted the photo shown here with the caption: “Meeting the worst Foreign Secretary we’ve ever had amongst the destruction of Hurricane Irma in Anguilla. Disinterested and out of his depth he cared nothing for our situation. Good riddance.” Touché!

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Facing Austria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd July, 2018

Logo EU-Ratsvorsitz 2018At the weekend, Austria assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union. That is quite a challenge at the best of times, but at present it is something of a poisoned chalice. The second half of 2018 is make-or-break time for the Brexit “negotiations”; even if diehard Remainers like myself now hope for “break”, so that the whole thing goes away, it is going to be a tetchy period. Not that Brexit is top of the agenda anywhere except in London (and possibly Dublin). As the Chargé d’Affaires of Austria to the Court of St James’s said in remarks at the opening of the Facing Austria exhibition at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in London Smith’s Square this evening, “security” is the number one issue for Vienna — and with a new centre-right-far-right Coalition in power there, that means addressing the concerns of good Austrians about “illegal migrants”/refugees. We can expect Austria to take a firm stand on this, hand-in-hand with other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, aka the Visegrad Group: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is already feeling their uncomfortable breath down her neck. It is therefore somewhat ironic that one important element of the 20 photographers’ work in the Facing Austria exhibition is celebrating diversity (which is indeed official EU policy). Lovely shots of African men against snow-capped Alpine peaks and of dazed-looking Syrian refugees in Austrian cities, for example. Britain’s wretched Tory-(DUP) government has deliberately created a “hostile environment” for unwanted, undocumented incomers, but nobody does “hostile environment” quite as efficiently as Austria, when it is in the mood. Still, the six-month presidency has only just started, so let’s see if the often cheerful pictures in the exhibition are more reflective of the Austrians at the helm than some people might fear. It would be nice to think that the United Kingdom, as a self-professed bastion of liberal democracy, would be in there fighting hard to make sure that the EU doesn’t get pushed to the right over the coming months. But alas Mrs May is far too preoccupied trying to find the handle to the EU exit door, all the time worrying if it may come off in her hand.

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Path of Blood *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd July, 2018

Path of BloodFollowing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of the world media’s Middle East focus was on what transpired in that benighted country. But from 2003 to 2009 another story was unfolding, in Saudi Arabia, though not much was reported about it in the West, partly because foreign journalists did not have easy access to the desert Kingdom. The narrative promoted by George W Bush (and his then acolyte, Tony Blair) was that the godfather of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden — initially holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan — posed an existential danger to Western civilisation, for which one obvious piece of evidence was the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. But a more immediate goal of bin Laden and his followers was the overthrow of the House of Saud. So for six years, a terror campaign was carried out in the Kingdom, mostly by radicalised young locals. Not all the attacks were successful, but some were very bloody, and on one occasion Al Qarda operatives managed to get to the Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, though somewhat miraculously he survived. It is this six-year war of underground activity that is the subject of Jonathan Hacker’s riveting documentary, Path of Blood, which combines footage from both the Saudi security forces and Al Qaeda cells. The juxtaposition provides a unique portrait of a cat-and-mouse game between what most Westerners would see as religious fanatics and a not always efficient state apparatus. Some of the shots are predictably gruesome — this is not a film for anyone who can’t bear the sight of blood, or of dismembered body parts — but other moments give an unparalleled insight into the minds as well as the practices of Al Qaeda extremists. Some scenes of the boys — and some are little more than boys — larking about inevitably raise a smile. But when a clearly rather educationally backward youth makes a real hash of recording his pre-suicide mission video, there is undeniable pathos. I have spent nearly three decades reporting on the Gulf and the wider Arab world, but this film taught me more in one-and-a-half hours than some trips to the region. It is due out in cinemas from 13 July.

http://www.pathofbloodfilm.com/

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And Then God Created the Middle East…

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st July, 2018

Karl reMarksAnyone living in the Middle East, or writing about it, as I do, needs to have a good sense of humour. But few are as sharp or as poignant as the London-based Lebanese architect — and occasional stand-up comedian — Karl Sharro (aka Karl reMarks). He is a master of killer one-liners (“After the Arab awakening comes the Arab siesta.”) but also makes verbal and graphic commentary on both the foibles of the Middle East and the complex love-hate relationship it has had with the West. One can now savour some of his best work — punchy sayings as well as cartoons — in an attractive pocketbook from Saqi Books: And Then God Created the Middle East and Said “Let There Be Breaking News”. It’s a real bargain at £6.99 and is packed with juicy items one wants to go back to again and again. I particularly liked his Lebanese version of a monopoly board. There’s some biting social and historic commentary (“As a Middle East person, when you visit a museum in Europe, it feels like when you visit friends and see a book you lent them years ago proudly displayed in their bookcase.”) But unlike some cartoonists and comedians from the region, Sharro’s humour is not all barbed or anti-Western or anti-Israel. His satire is often targeted at Arab rulers (“An Arab dictator is like a matryoshka doll in reverse. Every time you remove one, you get a bigger one.”). And ordinary Arab civilians come in for a ribbing as well. Even Western liberal intellectuals of the kind who might buy this book don’t escape his gently mocking eye (“The stages of Western civilisation: (1) Feudalism (2) Enlightenment (3) Industrial revolution (4) Modernity (5) Po-Mo (6) Inventing new hummous ‘flavours'”). I was tempted to say, leave this book in your loo, so every visitor can enjoy a quiet chuckle. But no, leave it prominently on your coffee table, and let everyone guffaw.

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