Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for February, 2019

Green Book *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd February, 2019

Green BookIn 1962, the southern United States was not a place that African Americans could move around freely. “Negroes” were banned from many restaurants and hotels, and they faced frequent discrimination and humiliation. To make the life of black travellers a little easier a guide to places that were open to “Coloureds” was published — a sort of paperback Michelin Guide known as the Green Book. So when the phenomenally talented black pianist Don Shirley decided to challenge the colour bar and do a concert tour sweeping through the Mid West and Deep South he wisely took a copy with him, along with a Italian-American driver — a bouncer from the Bronx, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga — who would stand up for him when things got tough, which inevitably they did. The film Green Book is about that tour and the unlikely friendship that developed between the two men. The result is a road movie unlike any other, an often comic but at times searing social critique, beautifully managed by director Peter Farrelly. The personal drama takes place on the cusp of profound political change in America, with John F Kennedy in the White House and his brother Robert as Attorney General, but the red necks who still ruled the roost in the South paid little or no heed to liberal Washington. There was a high degree of moral hypocrisy around; Don Shirley was feted for his music and played in rich men’s mansions but was not allowed to use their lavatories. The irony was that he was super-sophisticated — effete, even — whereas Tony Lip, who could go about unhindered, was a loud-mouthed tough with atrocious eating habits. The contrast between the two characters — brilliantly played by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Modensen — makes the film truly delicious, as they overcome their mutual distaste to bond, as something much closer than employer and driver. Vallelonga’s son, Nick, was involved in the writing, drawing on interviews with and letters from his father,though Shirley’s family questioned the historical veracity of some parts of the story. But if one accepts a little artistic license, this is a gem of a movie, so atmospheric of the period — a dark age that isn’t ancient history but contemporary with my own childhood.

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Celebrating Chaves Nogales

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st February, 2019

Chaves Nogales bookManuel Chaves Nogales (1897-1944) was witness to many of the catastrophic events of the first half of the 20th century, from the turmoil that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in the USSR to the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, which saw the loss of millions of lives. Though opposed to General Franco Chaves Nogales was also disenchanted with the reality of the Republican government in Madrid. Instead he dreamed of a “third Spain”, as outlined in his 1937 book A Sangre y Fuego. A self-described Liberal petit bourgois, he acknowledged that he was at risk of being shot by both sides in the Spanish Civil War, so went into exile in Paris, where he worked on the book. Much of his professional life he spent as a journalist and editor, interviewing, among others, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels — dismissing him as “ridiculous, grotesque, with his tiny raincoat; the most dangerous man in Germany.” As the Third Reich cast its shadow over the continent of Europe, Chaves Nogales moved to London, where he set up a news agency in Fleet Street, did some work for the BBC and mixed with other Spanish exiles. He died in 1944, thus missing the end of the War that he longed for, and he is buried in North Sheen cemetery in Richmond-upon-Thames. His legacy has not been forgotten, however, and there is currently a very informative and attractive exhibition about his life and work in the 12 Star Gallery at Europe House in Smith Square, Westminster. It runs until 1st. March (10am to 6pm) and is a thought-provoking reminder of darker times which ultimately led to the creation of the European Union as a guarantor of “never again”.

Chaves Nogales material


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Beautiful Boy ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th February, 2019

Beautiful BoyI have never had the slightest temptation to dabble in drugs and I don’t have a son (nor ever wanted one). So I am maybe not the ideal person to empathise with the main characters in Felix Van Groeningen’s movie, Beautiful Boy. The story of how a father tries to rescue his 18-year-old offspring from the downward spiral of addiction and self-destruction, encountering a disorientating mixture of cooperation and resistance along the way, is based on the true-life experience of David Sheff and his son Nic, both of whom later wrote books about what they went through — the sort of survival memoir that is increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The setting (mainly) is affluent, white middle class California, especially San Francisco, with a sidebar in New York. Young Nicolas should have everything going for him, but he rebels against his comfortable, liberal home life (nonetheless fractured by his parents divorce) and after early academic and sporting success rejects the idea of college life. The film is therefore mainly about a struggle both with and inside young Nic; he is played by Timothée Chalamet, who I loved in Call Me By My Name, but who is less successful in this challenging role; at times one wants to hose his character down with cold water, but maybe that is partly the point. Steve Carell as the father, however, is brilliantly cast. One accompanies his emotions, his frustrations and underlying paternal love through each agonising development. Much of the film is shot in semi-darkness or very low light which heightens the mood of frequent despair and potential disaster, and there are long periods where no word is spoken (spoilt for me by a soundtrack of music, both ancient and modern, which I felt superfluous, even counter-productive). The characters being American, they shout at each other rather a lot. But of course, the story is of relevance worldwide. There are moments that are memorable, in a not altogether satisfactory whole; I suspect I might have preferred reading David Sheff’s book.

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The Brexit Wrecking Ball

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th February, 2019

B14E3D6B-1E23-4C31-B818-F231C26D827FThe UK airline Flybmi is going into administration, citing Brexit uncertainty as the reason; there is no guarantee they will be able to fly between European destinations if Britain leaves the EU on 29 March as scheduled. The company is just one of many that are closing or else shifting their operations to another member state of the European Union. According to experts’ figures released this week, Brexit is costing the UK £800million a week, and we haven’t even left yet. Note that this is nearly twice what Brexiteers claimed we would save through Brexit, the windfall supposedly being passed to the NHS. It seems inconceivable that the Conservative Party, as the traditional party of Business, should allow this economic vandalism to take place. But the sad truth is that the Tory party has been taken over by right-wing, xenophobic Brexiteer extremists and Prime Minister Theresa May is more interested in saving her own political skin than saving the country.

BFA67A8C-098E-4D73-828E-ADFA9A4762FABrexit is now showing its true colours: it is a wrecking ball that is smashing many of the economic gains of recent years, as well as dividing society. Just how bad those divisions are has been shown by the violent confrontations outside Parliament — yellow-vested Brexiteers assaulting police yesterday — and the fact that several female Remainer MPs have been advised to move home or else avoid travelling alone in order to stay safe. Meanwhile, Parliament has shown itself incapable of uniting behind one forward course of action and the Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has proved to be miserably inadequate and indecisive, thus failing to provide a true Opposition. No wonder a number of both Labour and Conservative MPs are thinking of resigning their party whip, with the Conservatives in thrall to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Reform Group and Labour to what Mike Gapes MP has called a Stalinist cult.

1EC0B2E1-3999-4261-A6E2-50B828249EFAOpinion polls have recently consistently shown that were there to be a referendum on whether to accept Mrs May’s “deal” or to stay in the EU, a majority would vote to remain. The People’s Vote campaign, backed by the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, is still keeping up the pressure and has called for a mass demonstration in London on 23 March, less than a week before D for Departure Day. One hopes that something significant may have happened before then — ideally extending Article 50 to allow for a People’s Vote. But it is important that people turn out in huge numbers on the March. Moreover, the organisers must ensure that EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the rest of the EU are properly represented, as they have more to lose personally than most of us.

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Bohemian Rhapsody ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th February, 2019

D5F4B5E4-7120-45A7-85F0-1EA91156D236I deliberately did not see Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody when it first came out. I’m not a fan of pop or rock and couldn’t have named one song by Queen unless prompted. Of course I knew about Freddie Mercury, the boy from Zanzibar with projecting teeth and an outrageous peacock style on stage, who died from an AIDS-related illness. But with such a crop of good films out recently, I had other priorities. However, the movie was in the selection offered on my recent Emirates airline flight — not the best way to see a film, I know — and I found myself riveted. Lead actor Rami Malek has received both awards and brickbats for his performance, but I found him credible and engaging, as well as convincing in the star’s decline. I loved the music (most of which I did recognise, after all) and I thought the long Live Aid scene really moving. It was astonishing to see an unrecognisable Gwilym “Midsomer Murders” Lee as Bryan May, displaying a talent I didn’t know he had. All in all, it’s a great entertainment (with some brilliant comic moments), as well as a  challenging reflection on the highs and lows of the popular music industry. Even an old square like me was engrossed.

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South to Sur

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th February, 2019

59A74439-0048-477A-81BB-FF109212357BYesterday I went by local coach from Ruwi to Sur, a town I last visited about 20 years ago. It only took two-and-a-half hours this time, thanks to the four-lane highway that now cuts through the barren black hills before joining the coast. There has been quite a bit of new construction in Sur itself since I was last here as well, but I was pleased to see that much of the old centre is more or less unchanged and the heart of the souk district is getting some covers for its alleys. Sur was historically best-known for its boat-building — great wooden dhows (or variants thereof) that would sail down the coast of East Africa and across to Bombay in British India. I visited one of the few remaining boatyards 20 years ago; local craftsmen had been replaced by workers from Bangladesh, though the techniques were still the same.

A582E31F-0913-44AC-8A34-3DFAE0799280So I wasn’t surprised today when I walked along the sweeping corniche and then round the bay to the (restored) old watchtower, to see Bangladeshis out with boats. Even though the weather at present is delightful, unlike the furnace that is summer, one sees very few locals about, unless they are driving a car on largely empty roads or else men going into the mosque in response to the prayer-call. The variety of mosques in even a modest place like Sur is quite astonishing. When I was wandering round one residential quarter this morning, a small herd of goats came running over to take a look at me, as if surprised to see a human out and about, Much of the Omanis’ lives, especially for the women, takes place within the four walls of their residences, many of which are substantial, though rarely as grandiose as those in some wealthier parts of the Gulf. The shopping mall culture that dominates social life in the other GCC states hasn’t really caught on here in the same way yet. There isn’t even a Starbucks outside of the capital, Muscat, which would doubtless dismay some American travellers. But there are countless Indian “coffee shops” and juice bars, serving fabulous fresh fruit juices, my two favourites being mango and papaya.

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Serendipity and E M Forster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th February, 2019

8D7FA5BF-072B-4D30-AF67-E45E0A170EC8Last week, walking home from the tube in London, I saw that a neighbour (unknown) had left out a dozen books or so on a wall for passers-by to pick up and take away. By chance my eyes fell on an old Penguin edition of E M Forster’s Howards End, which I had never read, despite a great affection for the author and his work. I guess this was because as a young man during my intense fiction-reading days I was attracted to the continental and the exotic, whereas Howards End sounded terribly English. As indeed it is, as I have discovered as I savour it in moments of leisure while I am travelling in Oman. But it is deliciously satirical of the English middle class — especially those who did not have to work for a living — and as Christopher Isherwood once memorably put it, Forster “tea-tables” the emotions and the dramas, with a precise and critical eye for detail. I sometimes hear older people say, “Oh, I wish I had known about such-such-a-book years ago!” But I am glad that I have happened upon Howards End in later life. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much half a century ago. Moreover, the serendipity of spotting it on the wall in London, picking it up and bringing it with me to Oman somehow enhances the pleasure in reading it. And, yes, when I finish it, I will leave the 1957 paperback on a wall or the seat in a bus shelter to ensure the book’s next chance encounter.

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Ambling from Muttrah to Muscat

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th February, 2019

AD0CEBC9-6A94-43A9-BA4E-837C982579C2The short, winding coastal road from the port of Muttrah to Oman’s capital, Muscat, was the first in the country to be paved. Even the current Sultan’s arch-Conservative father recognised that it would be sensible if goods being brought into the country arrived in one piece. But the trucks bringing produce to Muscat needed to get there before nightfall as otherwise they would find the walled town’s gates firmly locked. That is all now all part of history, but I was in the mood for nostalgia as I walked from Muttrah to Muscat this morning — a cloudless blue sky and a temperature of about 23 degrees making it a very pleasant amble. The local bus from Ruwi, where I am staying, dropped me at the gates of Muttrah port, where memories started flooding back, as that is where I disembarked from a ship that had brought me from the Musandam peninsula (part of Oman, but separated from the rest of the country by a slice of the UAE) a quarter of a century ago. I was pleased to see that the modest Marina Hotel, where I stayed that night, is still standing. The Corniche has been widened, but it is still full of interesting little shops as well as the entrances to the Gold and General souks.

4239C53A-778C-4A5B-AA8C-F4373DB4A7DFThe great advantage of walking along the shoreline is that substantial chunks of the original road are still there, separated from the modern, well-landscaped four-lane dual carriageway sufficiently for one to savour the contours of the rocks, as well as the plants, trees and birds. Conveniently half way along the route is the tiny village of Kalbuh, where one get a coffee or a soft drink, or even bathe off its little beach, if one wishes. There was one Indian family doing just that this morning, but otherwise the place was deserted. Once one reaches the crown of the hill beyond Kalbuh, suddenly the great gate of Muscat is visible — now housing a museum — though the old gate to the intimate inner city is quite a lot furt(er on. Inside this inner city is the Sultan’s office complex, government offices and beautiful flower displays, but it’s also worth finding your way through a small tunnel in the cliffs to see the impressive hilltop fortresses that once guarded the entrance to the tiny, sheltered bay.

(This walk can be done from November to March, but summer is much too hot and humid).

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Welcome to Muscat!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th February, 2019

D8954DF2-8EE7-4811-B6DA-72AB9C5C2BB1Since I last came to Oman a new airport is up and running, serving the capital, Muscat. It’s rather a splendid affair, toned in mellow browns and greys, rather than the usual garish international colours. The interior is extremely spacious, with travelators to ease weary passengers’ way, as well as an efficient and friendly immigration and baggage claim environment. These days travellers can apply for an Omani tourist visa online (valid for 10 days or one month), which has definitely smoothed the entry procedures. There is an exchange counter in the baggage claim area. The most striking difference for me, though, is that there is now a well-signed route down an escalator to the bus station below, with regular departures to Ruwi downtown — a 45 minute to one hour ride for the princely sum of a half dinar, not much over £1. You pay the driver on the bus. Ruwi bus station is conveniently located in one of Muscat’s most animated districts, only a five minute walk to the hotel where I am staying for the first few days, the Tulip Inn.

D1FE9D30-FD9E-4070-9B53-71DFD5664D45I initially stayed in Ruwi when I first came to Oman over 20 years ago, making a half-hour radio documentary on the country for BBC World Services, later travelling down to Salalah to cover ambitious plans for the development of its port. I was invited back in 2000 for the 30th anniversary celebrations of Sultan Qaboos’s assumption of power. He has overseen the transformation of Oman from one of the most isolated countries on earth (there were only 10 kilometres of paved road in 1970), shifting its dependence on oil revenues towards a more diversified economy and opening up the country to carefully managed tourism (not mass package holidays). In fact the last time I was here was leading a small tour group to Muscat, Salalah and Nizwa, site of Oman’s most impressive fort. There are lots of historic sites in the country, reflective of Oman’s former imperial and maritime glory and the rugged scenery as well as the desert in the south make it by far the most attractive of the Gulf States. The sun has now risen over the rocky outcrop outside my window, so it’s time to get out and about.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th February, 2019

MelissaMcCarthyLee Israel was a celebrity biographer who experienced declining sales and increased penury in 1990s New York, falling out with her agent and behind with her rent. Her only solace was her aging cat. Having successfully sold one, genuine autograph letter to a local bookshop she then set about forging 400 others, purporting to come from a whole range of literary and media figures from Noel Coward to Dorothy Parker. She even filched some genuine letters from reference libraries. Inevitably her deception was uncovered — one trigger being that one of her “Coward” letters was just too openly gay — though for a while she was able to prolong her success by using her flamboyantly louche homosexual friend Jack as a surrogate salesman. The FBI was now on to her, though once confronted with this sad and somewhat delusional figure, the justice system was fairly lenient on her — and she had the last laugh by writing up her experiences in a book. Lee Israel and Jack are both dead, but in Marielle Heller’s deliciously constructed Can You Ever Forgive Me?, they are brought vividly back to life by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. McCarthy’s performance as the antisocial, often foul-mouthed whiskey-dependent cat lady, is a tour de force. She is the personification of 50-year-old dowdiness, frowning beneath her fringe. She is both pathetic and achingly funny and the audience soon becomes co-conspirators in her criminal activities as she launches into them with ever increasingly gusto. Richard E Grant has great fun — and is great fun — as the camp blagger Jack, living in a world of fantasy and casual pick-ups. They are an odd couple but their tetchy partnership is one of the most delightful things in this perfectly pitched and nuanced film. Truly a gem.

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