Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2018

BlacKkKlansman *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th August, 2018

BlacKkKlansmanSpike Lee burst into the mainstream film world’s consciousness with his 1989 feature Do the Right Thing, but although that won him a best screenplay award, it lost out for best film to Bruce Beresford’s gentle comedy Driving Miss Daisy, about which Lee was most displeased. He courted controversy the following year with some of his comments about Jews and Hollywood, around his film Mo’ Better Blues, gaining a reputation in some quarters as a touchy bad-boy. However, with his latest release, BlacKkKlansman, he is absolutely at the top of his form; the film rightly won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and seems bound to make waves now that it is out on general release. The main storyline recounts the true experiences of a young black policeman, Ron Stallworth, who goes undercover in Colorado Springs, to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, establishing a relationship even with the Grand Wizard, David Duke, over the phone. When he has to be seen at their events in person, a white colleague stands in for him. This provides a gem of a comic scenario, but Lee does not frame everything for laughs. The period of the early 1970s, with Richard Nixon in the White House and casual racism rampant, is beautifully evoked and John David Washington (complete with tight Afro) is credibly sincere in the role of Ron Stallworth, walking a dangerous tightrope between the demands of his job and a blossoming romance with a radical female black student leader. The film is sensitively paced throughout — even the soundtrack is inspirational — and at times the juxtaposition between Klan gatherings and meetings of young activists calling for Black Power is thrilling in its dramatic intensity. Harry Belafonte puts in a moving cameo appearance as an old man recounting the lynching and burning of a close friend when they were both teenagers. The local KKK chapter is only too credible and aspects of community tensions 40-odd years ago still resonate today, though that doesn’t quite prepare one for the film’s ending, which hits you like a punch in the guts. See this film. It is terrific.

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Britain up a Cul-de-sac

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd August, 2018

May Corbyn 1August is traditionally the political silly season, where nothing of import happens and the media look for quirky stories to fill newspaper pages or broadcasting airtime. We have had a little bit of that this year, for example all the hype given to the rescue of a woman who somehow managed to “fall” off the back of a cruise ship. But otherwise here in Britain there is an air of gloom about the place, like an invisible pea-souper fog, all to do with Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May must know that she is on a hiding to nothing, pursuing her Chequers vision of a Brexit deal with the other 27 EU member states; Michel Barnier quiet rightly said after his meeting with Brexit Minister Dominic Raab on Monday that Britain cannot expect the rules-based EU to change its principles or to undermine the integrity of the single market just because Britain is hell-bent on leaving. But the official Opposition gives no cause for cheer on this front either. Jeremy Corbyn yesterday failed six times to give a straight answer to a straight question from Channel 4 News, as to whether he believed Britain would be better off outside the EU. Of course, both he and Theresa May know the answer to that is “No”, as is becoming increasingly clear, but they are afraid to say so. The Armageddon option on Brexit is a “no deal” situation, which Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently rashly suggested was a strong possibility, which professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and the Road Hauliers Association have warned would lead to serious shortages and cuts to services, as well as higher prices and a possible run on the pound. The plain truth is that Brexit Britain is up a cul-de-sac, and with both major parties (accordingly to Ipsos MORI) currently polling 40% each, the electorate clearly doesn’t know which way to turn. But as anyone who drives into a narrow cul-de-sac knows, there is only one sensible strategy to follow: back up and back out.

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Christopher Robin **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th August, 2018

A A MilneDisney bought the rights to A A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh for a reported $350 million dollars (richly endowing some of the late author’s beneficiaries, including the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club, in the process). That means Disney can basically do what they like with the characters of the children’s books until the copyright expires in 2026, including, it appears, what they like with the character of A A Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, for whom the books were originally written. Simon Curtis made a rather good biopic about the boy, Goodbye Christopher Robin, which came out last year and which highlighted how overwhelmed the lad felt by all the attention caused by the books’ success; in later life he just wanted to escape from it. Christopher Robin Milne died in 1996, but I fear he may be churning in his grave over the latest film offering from the Disney studios, Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin.

Christopher Robin 1 This is despite a sterling performance by Ewan McGregor, who somehow makes himself totally credible in the tittle role, while around him are prancing animated cuddly toys such as Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh, the latter two voiced by American voice actor and singer, Jim Cummings — doubtless to make the movie more attractive to the American market, but it just sounds wrong in the context of this most English of settings. Similarly, the honey-textured musical soundtrack might have struck someone as a good idea, but it intrudes on the real drama of part of the story: the adult Christopher Robin’s relationship with his wife and daughter in a world where work takes first place. The real problem, though, is that the film doesn’t seem to know who its audience is. Children may love the scampering and blundering stuffed animals, but will adults be so enchanted? Similarly, while adults can relate to the human drama of this fictionalised version of the mature Christopher Robin’s life, including a flashback to his military service in the Second World War, will children really understand the nuances of what is going on? In other words, Christopher Robin falls between two stools with a thud. It’s only really worth seeing for Ewan McGregor as you have never seen him before, but otherwise frankly it’s a turkey.

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Soldiers of a Different God ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th August, 2018

Soldiers of a Different GodWhile considerable attention has been paid by the media to jihadi groups and terrorist attacks of various kinds, the spotlight has not been shone so brightly on the counter-jihad movement. That is the term Brussels-based writer Christopher Othen gives to the motley collection of political activists, commentators and miscellaneous Islamophobes who are the subject of his book, Soldiers of a Different God (Amberley, £18.99). The sub-title on the cover offers the promise that the book will explain how the counter-jihad movement created mayhem, murder and the Trump presidency, but in fact the narrative thread is not as assertive as that. Indeed, at the very end, the author tentatively opines: “Decide whether Islam is an existential threat to Western liberal democracy or a slandered religion of peace that just wants to co-exist. Even Houllebecq the mage on the cover of Charlie Hebdo might find that kind of prediction beyond his powers.”

The French novelist Michel Houllebecq is just one phenomenally successful literary figure whose contribution to the counter-jihad movement is considered. Far more significant in many ways is Oriana Fallaci, who raised herself from her sickbed to write La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio, which, Othen writes, “spewed rage and venom like an out-of-control firehose.” Othen’s rhetoric is a fiery as that of many of the characters he introduces into the story, from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders to Milo Yiannopoulos and Nigel Farage, but that does not mean he shares their views. Steve Bannon, formerly Donald Trump’s right-hand man, and for a while a key figure in alt-right Breitbart News, comes across as a particularly hiss-worthy pantomime villain. Othen was a journalist before turning to writing books, and much of this volume is written in colourful journalese, which suggests the volume is geared towards a younger readership, yet there are pages of copious notes at the end, giving it an apparent badge of academic respectability. I liked the way that he managed to include most of the right-wing nutters on both sides of the Atlantic that one has learned to hate, while not glossing over the terrorism, rape, human rights abuses and other causes of their ire, so the book does serve as a useful source for easy reference. But I do wish he had taken a clearer authorial stance. Serves me right for taking at face-value what was on the cover.

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Why Diaries Matter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 12th August, 2018

diaryI’m currently writing a memoir of the years I was based in Brussels (1974-1981), initially with Reuters covering the European institutions and NATO, later freelance writing film and theatre reviews and books — the second of which (a biography of Christopher  Isherwood) led to travels across America. Fortunately I still have a stack of diaries from the period, not just appointment agendas but extensive accounts of what I did and thought, people I encountered, places I passed through. It’s salutary to remember how in that age before computers, the Internet and mobile phones one wrote so much down. In fact, my diary was a sort of silent companion, a sounding board and a vent for frustration for a twenty-something British expat finding his way in the world. Some of the situations and people I am now reading about in those diaries are still fresh in my mind, whereas others are so unfamiliar that it is as if they never happened or existed, yet they’re all down there in black and white. Accordingly, the diaries act as a supplement to memory and at times a corrective. Of course, these days with the worldwide web, we can access a wealth of information immediately, wherever we are. But as someone who wrote history and biography before turning to memoir, I can’t help feeling that we have lost a lot by ceasing to write detailed diaries (and indeed letters). In my own case, I now blog instead. But so much that happens in my daily life now goes unrecorded and it will doubtless disappear into oblivion. Maybe that does not matter, but it is sad if one is only left with that sometimes unreliable tool, memory.

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Boris and the “Burka Ban”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th August, 2018

NiqabThe former Foreign Secretary and Tory bad-boy, Boris Johnson, has well and truly put the cat among the pigeons with his Daily Telegraph column in which he likened Muslim women who wear the “burka” to letter boxes and bank robbers. I am sure he well knows that what he is talking about is the niqab (face veil) rather than the burka, but he is happy to chime with the populist riff in which “burka ban” has a satisfyingly alliterative resonance. This is more than a storm in a tea-cup, as several important issues are at stake. First, we live in a liberal, multicultural democracy in Britain, in which everyone should be free to wear whatever he or she wishes. Many white British may find the niqab unattractive or disturbing, but similarly many Muslims find topless bathers at least as offensive. As for the burka, while I saw lots of these in Afghanistan, and know that they have appeared in parts of north-west Pakistan, I have never seen one in England, though some of the many hundreds of people who have responded to a tweet of mine earlier today about the burka affair have assured me that  they have seen some in Ilford and Leicester. Anyway, the point is that it is not for us to tell people what they should wear, otherwise we become like some of the authoritarian societies which we rightly criticise.

burkaBut of course, there is a more important political point, namely that Boris Johnson has refused to apologise for his offensive remarks, despite being urged to by the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Brandon Lewis, and, more weakly, by the Prime Minister. By refusing to agree, Boris Johnson is essentially showing two fingers to Theresa May, knowing she is too weak to sack him (he resigned as Foreign Secretary, remember; he was not sacked, though he should have been). I agree with Lord Sheikh, founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, that Boris Johnson should have the Conservative whip withdrawn if he stubbornly refuses to back down. Islamophobia is a problem within the Conservative Party, and whereas I do not believe Boris Johnson is personally Islamophobic (indeed, part of his pedigree is Turkish), I do believe that he is shamelessly pandering to the more disgusting of right-wing prejudices. He appears to be modelling himself on Donald Trump, saying the most outrageous things, knowing that he will carry a certain amount of the population with him. But Britain does not need such populism, nor should be tolerate it. We said “No!” in the 1930s, and we should say “No!” now.

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Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th August, 2018

COUTEL-Temoigner, entre acte et paroleThe title of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s new book (Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World, Balland, €15) reflects the boundless optimism that the man himself displays, despite the many hard knocks he has received over the years and his involuntary status of political exile. I guess the allusion in the title is to the golden era of Angkor, where, at the start of the 12th century, an estimated one million people lived around the temple complex, which would make it the largest conurbation of its time. But for most people, of course, Cambodia entered their consciousness when the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) came to light. Though a sizable majority of the population today are too young to have any direct experience of the horrors of the concentration camps and killing fields, the trauma endures, barely alleviated by the kleptocratic nature of the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The PM, his family and cronies have amassed great fortunes over recent decades while most Cambodians suffer a standard of living that is among the lowest in South East Asia, and much of the country’s environment has been ravaged.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won 90% of the seats in last month’s general election, which was widely denounced by foreign governments as a sham. Sam Rainsy’s National Rescue Party was excluded, having been forcibly “dissolved” by the authorities last year, though he pursues his political agenda in exile through the newly-created Cambodia National Rescue Movement. This book, in a series of sometimes sketchy, very short passages, gives some pointers to the sort of society he would like to see in a putative Cambodian renaissance, based on the rule of law, an end to corruption and full civil rights. As a devout Buddhist, he is forgiving towards his political enemies, even if they do not return the courtesy, and he is prepared to work with any outside country, including China, to build the nation he envisages. This is not entirely pie-in-the-sky, as Sam Rainsy in the 1990s was Minister of Finance in the government of Norodom Ranariddh (which was overthrown in a coup in 1997) and he has excellent international contacts, not least through the Liberal International. But for the time being, he is an outcast, admired (often in secret) by millions of his compatriots, denounced by Hun Sen, and sadly unlikely to be able to flesh out the bones of his vision for a new Cambodia any time soon.

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Five Escape Brexit Island ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th August, 2018

Five Escape Brexit IslandLike most children in the 1950s I was a great fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. I had a slight crush on Julian, disliked tomboy George and wished to be the dog Timmy. They got up to all sorts of exciting adventures, though everything always turned out alright in the end. Above all, they represented escape — escape from everything that was unsatisfactory about everyday life at home. Bruno Vincent’s Five Escape from Brexit Island (Quercus, £7.99) is one of a whole series of spoof Enid Blytons published by Hodder & Stoughton (itself a sub-division of Hachette), who these days own all the rights to the Enid Blyton estate. The plot and writing style are fairly loyal to the spirit of the original books, though with added expletives that must have Ms Blyton spinning in her grave. And the illustrations are lifted from genuine predecessors, not all of them as aptly captioned as they could be. The central premise is a good wheeze: that the Famous Five accidentally find themselves incarcerated in a secret detention centre on an island off the coast of Dorset following Brexit, before escaping on a home-made raft. There are a few good jokes, such as a series of increasingly exasperating messages in bottles pulled from the sea, and the hostile reaction of British holidaymakers when the plucky quintet on landfall try to use French and Spanish in the mistaken belief they have drifted abroad. But overall it is pretty tame stuff. A more biting satire of both Brexit and of Blyton’s wholesome tales could have been much funnier, but in that case she would most definitely not have approved.

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What Makes a Terrorist *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th August, 2018

What Makes a TerroristTerrorists, like revolutionaries, tend to come not from the impoverished masses but from the middle class, and usually have an above-average level of education. This was the shock central finding of Alan B. Krueger’s What Makes a Terrorist when it was published a decade ago, thus challenging the widely-held assumption that poverty is the root cause of terrorism. A 10th anniversary edition of the book has now appeared (Princeton University Press. £22), with the addition of a new Prologue, in which Professor Krueger points out that despite the high level of publicity surrounding terrorist attacks, the risk of being a victim of such an outrage is minimal and has not increased since 2008, notwithstanding blanket coverage of incidents in the media, including social media. In the 15 years between 9/11 and 2016, for example, 123 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks, whereas 240,000 were murdered.

9 11The main body of this book comprises three lectures that Dr Krueger (Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton) gave at the London School of Economics, snappily entitled Who Becomes a Terrorist? Where does Terror Emerge? and What Does Terror Accomplish? As a regular commentator in mainstream media in the United States, the author is adept at explaining things in layman’s terms, while sacrificing none of his academic rigour. The unique quality of his work rests on the fact that he approaches the subject from the perspective of an economist (statistics and all, though there is only one mind-boggling equation to daunt the non-specialist). He draws on useful examples, not least from Iraq and the Basque Country, as evidence to support his theories and certain quantifiable patterns do emerge. While most of us may find it impossible to imagine a situation in which we would deliberately kill random people in an act of violence, probably sacrificing our own lives, it is maybe useful to understand why some youths — and they are overwhelmingly young men — do and what they hope to achieve. Anger about a situation of poverty and injustice, such as the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, can be a motive, even if the perpetrators are not poor themselves. But I found particularly intriguing Professor Krueger’s assertion that there is a correlation between the origin of terrorists and the lack of civil liberties in that country. So although there is probably still substance to the argument that reducing poverty and injustice could reduce the incentives for terrorism, improving civil liberties and good governance could be at least as effective. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, please take note.

 

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