Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for July, 2019

Britain’s Post-War Demolition Madness

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 31st July, 2019

The Rovers ReturnGrowing up in Eccles, on the western outreaches of Salford, a few years after the Second World War, I was very conscious how drab and grey much of Greater Manchester was. Whereas the 19th century had seen an extraordinary industrial boom, propelling the city from a certain obscurity to global importance, the 20th century had witnessed gradual decline. Many of the magnificent city centre buildings had become soot-black, and stately warehouses and commercial premises were empty or abandoned. Even as a schoolkid, busing across both Salford and Manchester every weekday to get to Manchester Grammar School, I was aware that a lot of demolition was going on. Coronation Street — which really existed — and many other back-to-back housing districts were being “cleared” in the 1960s, just when the Granada TV series (launched in 1960) that had expropriated the name was becoming a national ITV favourite. The fictional street had a pub called the Rovers Return, and that name was also a steal: the real Rovers Return had been the self-proclaimed oldest “beerhouse” in Britain, in Shudehill, supposedly established in the early 14th century, but demolished in 1958. It may seem incredible to us now that such a piece of heritage could be casually disposed of, as the city’s socialist administration aimed to “modernise” and “regenerate” the urban environment. But that was the leitmotif of the era. Even as a callow youth I decried the demolition of some of the fabulous mansions on “Millionaires Row” near Hope that my bus passed daily.

Poplar 1950When I came to London in 1982 (after eight years in Brussels) I discovered similar things had been going on here, as housing estates and high-rise blocks of flats replaced more traditional forms of low-rise housing. When I moved to Bow, in 1986, I assumed that the blocks of flats on the other side of the road had replaced bomb-sites, but not a bit of it. There had been rows of late Victorian terraced houses, just like mine, that had been bulldozed after the War in the name of progress. These days, our side of the road is a conservation area, thankfully, but the neighbourhood opposite cannot be conserved because it has gone. Of course, German bombing did destroy a lot of Britain’s urban landscape, but was it really necessary to just continue obliterating the physical memories of the past? I believe not. At least trees are being planted everywhere in Tower Hamlets these days. But even their beautiful greenness cannot hide the architectural ghosts of the past.

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Marianne & Leonard ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th July, 2019

Marianne & LeonardCreativity can be a cruel affliction. The number of writers, painters and other creatives who struggle with depression, battle with drink and drugs or have completely chaotic private lives is beyond count. The beautiful Norwegian blonde Marianne Ihlen, who was living on the Greek island of Hydra with her young son Axel in the 1960s, had to cope with that when she fell for the Canadian writer-turned-singer Leonard Cohen, becoming his mistress and his muse. At the outset, Cohen was living on a shoestring (life was cheap on the island before it was discovered by the international jet set), but as his reputation grew and he divided his time between Hydra and Montreal, with concerts and recordings elsewhere, he became affluent enough to indulge in all the excesses of the 1960s, popping acid and Mandrax, drinking half the day and indulging in free love to the extent that he effectively became a sexoholic. Muse Marianne could only ride the choppy waves of their affair, until cruelly replaced by a determined Other. Little Alex not surprisingly went off the rails and ended up in an institution. So as a love story, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is bitter-sweet, to put it mildly. The “words of love” are what Cohen sent Marianne in a letter on her deathbed (he would follow her three months later), at last telling her what she always wanted to hear. But of course it was too late. She had left Hydra — a “paradise” that destroyed many of the creatives who were taken in by its siren charms) — and back in Oslo she became a secretary and got married. Cohen’s own muddled mind led him to escape to a Zen monastery for six years. When he came out he found that his manager had embezzled all his money, so he was forced back on to the concert stage in his 70s, astonishing everyone (not least himself) by becoming a big star. At least Marianne got to see him in concert then. Because Broomfield’s film is sensitively made from contemporaneous footage as well as black-and-white photographs it really captures the spirit of the age, a unique period of social history against which the free spirits of the Arts world played out their experimental lives. But there is an added twist, namely that Nick Broomfield himself had been to Hydra as a young man and had briefly been Marianne’s lover. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that she comes over as a much more sympathetic soul than Leonard Cohen. He is dark, handsome, irresistible to women and phenomenally talented, but like many great artists a bit of a shit, tied up in his own creative preoccupations.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th July, 2019

GCHQ. AldrichOn 1 November the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) will be celebrating its centenary. The very fact that it is acknowledging this landmark is a reflection of how things have changed. Much of GCHQ’s work may still be top secret, but in an era of greater transparency, it doesn’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. Moreover, the distinctive “doughnut” building in Cheltenham that houses most its UK-based staff has become iconic, even if it does not allow in visitors, unlike its US equivalent. Though the doughnut cost a small fortune, it has proved to be too small, thanks to the recent proliferation of hostile actors and threatening activities, from Islamist terrorists to drug cartels and cyber warriors. A cogent exposition of these is one of the most valuable parts of Richard J Aldrich’s updated unofficial history of the organisation, GCHQ (William Collins, £12.99), issued in time for the centenary. In nearly 600 pages, Aldrich (Professor of International Security at Warwick University) provides not just a chronological account of GCHQ’s development and its sometimes fractious relationship with counterparts both in Europe and beyond but also an overview of how dramatically the post-modern world has changed, thanks to technology, not least computers and satellites.

GCHQ doughnutThis would have been unimaginable to most of the people — mainly in the armed forces — who decided after the First World War that it would be useful if Britain had its own unit to develop codes and cyphers as well as to crack those of the enemy. Though the work started relatively modestly, the onset of the Second World War changed all that and Bletchley Park (a mansion astonishingly purchased privately by the man who was determined to see it up and running) became the ultra-secret hub of “sigint” work, home to Alan Turing and other pioneers in the field as well as linguists and code-breakers whose contribution to the war effort was duly acknowledged by Winston Churchill. Peace brought no real let-up to the activity, as the Soviet Union had become the new focus of prime attention and GCHQ became a key partner in Britain’s intelligence community, with outposts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Subsequently, GCHQ’s reach has gone truly global as well as monitoring groups and persons of interest within the United Kingdom itself. That aspect of surveillance has caused concern among civil libertarians and at times GCHQ’s activities have themselves come under sharp scrutiny from campaigning journalists such as Duncan Campbell. In an age of metadata we are all under various kinds of scrutiny, not just from governments but from giant tech companies as well. This situation raises all sorts of moral questions about the right balance between national security and individual freedoms, and Richard J Aldrich does not shy away from these. But one great value of this book is his fairly dispassionate approach to the subject of GCHQ; he is neither its champion nor its critic, but based on an immense amount of research he has produced a gripping account that leaves one with much food for thought. GCHQ has commissioned its own, official history to mark its centenary, but I doubt whether even in the age of transparency that could be as richly informative as this unofficial one.

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It’s Jo!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd July, 2019

JF Jo Swinson Ed DaveyThe result of the Liberal Democrats leadership election was announced this afternoon, with Jo Swinson notching up a clear win over Sir Ed Davey. That is no reflection on Ed’s talents and experience, nor indeed on his selection campaign, which was robust, engaging and at times masterful. But clearly many of the 72% of LibDem members who voted in the selection (a pretty impressive turnout) felt that as a relatively young woman who has already proved her mettle as Deputy Leader Jo has the qualities and the image that are needed to take the party forward in these excitingly volatile times. That was certainly my logic in voting for her (the first time I have actually backed a winning candidate in a Liberal/Liberal Democrat leadership contest, from the days of John Pardoe onward!) She will be refreshingly different from either Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson, if, as expected, Johnson cruises to victory in the Conservative leadership contest tomorrow. Moreover, she will be able to slap down Boris’s casual, careless sexism, racism and other unpleasant traits that he tries to pass off as jokes. That sort of apologia might work over toasting crumpets in one’s study at Eton but it won’t wash on the floor of the House of Commons if he becomes Prime Minister. I say “if”, because we can expect more resignations by current government ministers in the wake of Sir Alan Duncan’s today. And some Tory MPs might even cross the floor and join the LibDems, destroying the Government’s wafer-thin majority in a flash. Several Cabinet Ministers, most notably the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, have made clear that they would be ready to pull the rug from under Boris rather than allow him to take Britain over the cliff edge of a No Deal Brexit on 31 October. And that is before the Conservatives lose the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on 1 August, as now seems almost inevitable. So, Jo Swinson is taking over the LibDems at an extraordinary moment, able to build on the healthy legacy of Sir Vince Cable, to deploy her foreign policy experience (all the more important at a time of crisis in the Persian Gulf) and to rally a cross-party legion of sensible politician and voters, most of whom are not only pro-EU but anti-Boris.

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Matthew Sturgis’s “Oscar”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st July, 2019

Oscar SturgisWhen I heard Matthew Sturgis was writing a biography of Oscar Wilde, my initial reaction was “Why?”. Surely everything had already been said? I have two whole bookcases full of books about Wilde and his work and his circle of family and friends, including three volumes of my own. For many years, Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (1987) in its bright green dust-jacket was seen as definitive, but the meticulous work of scholars over the decades then identified a whole string of errors and omissions. I was very conscious when putting together my little book Wilde for Haus (2005) that Ellmann’s coverage of the writer’s two years of life after his release from prison was relatively concertinaed and, more seriously, more uniformly downbeat than some of the reality recounted in Wilde’s prolific correspondence of the time. Ellmann was himself near death as he struggleded to complete his book (for which he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize). So, yes, more than 30 years on perhaps it was time for a truly definitive biography of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde 3Given the immaculate research and elegant text of Matthew Sturgis’s Walter Sickert (2005) I should have been confident that Sturgis was the right man for the job. And indeed with his Oscar (Head of Zeus, £25) so he has proved to be. It is a massive work, full of detail not readily available elsewhere, especially not in a single place. There is illuminating coverage of Wilde’s lecture tours to America, for example, and by resisting the temptation to enter into critical analysis of the plays, poems and essays, Sturgis keeps the focus firmly on the man, his doings and his creative environment. Unlike many books on Wilde, moreover, this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet-job. Wilde’s literary importance as well as his significance as a social former ahead of his time are given due weight, as is Wilde’s championing of the “Uranian” lifestyle and his unbridled pursuit of comely youths after he went into exile. One sees both the light and dark sides of the playwright and watches how his character changes, first with growing arrogance and self-centredness during his heady rise to success and then acquiring a degree of humility and self-awareness through the almost redemptive horrors of prison life. The tumultuous relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas of course figures large, but for all its intensity and disruptiveness, it was only one aspect of a very complex and extremely social life.

The Ballad of Reading GaolSo Sturgis’s book is what is sometimes popularly referred to as a “warts and all” biography. There are moments when Wiled’s emotional cruelty to his wife Constance or unfair criticism of devoted friends such as Robbie Ross make the reader recoil. But Matthew Sturgis avoids much overt moralising about this, instead letting the facts speak for themselves. I have always been a fan of Oscar, but after reading this book I feel I know him much better, seeing his weaknesses more clearly as well as his strengths. Because the book is so hefty I suspect many people will find it challenging to read straight through over a short period of time; I actually deliberately lingered over its reading for months. It was far too big and heavy to carry around so it became the book on the side table in the sitting room that I picked up and got back into whenever I sat in the comfortable armchair at its side. Knowing the main lines of the story pretty intimately, this was not an instance of wanting to know what happens next when reading the book, but rather I savoured each chapter slowly and with relish. Not perhaps what a book reviewer should normally do, but in this case well-justified and thoroughly rewarding. Quite simply this is a magnificent achievement by Matthew Sturgis, a monument to Oscar Wilde fitting to the 21st century. The book now sits in one of my Wilde bookcases and I know it will be consulted frequently as the authoritative source on a unique figure in the modern literary world.

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Midsommar *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th July, 2019

MidsommarMidsummer in Sweden is a time to escape the cities and relish the almost midnight sun, in jolly celebrations in which young maidens in ethnic dress and with crowns of flowers on their heads dance daintily as family and friends commune with nature. But what if a community of religious cultists obsessed with reading the runes and practising pagan rituals cut themselves off almost completely from the outside world and every 90 years had a particularly significant ceremony of blackest intent? That is the main scenario of Ari Aster’s new film, Midsommar, which is a brilliantly original piece, though not something for the squeamish. There’s a prologue in America where a very needy young woman (a great performance by Florence Pugh) is driving her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to distraction, though when her worst fears about her sister’s bipolar condition are realised he rallies round and offers to take her to Sweden along with a fellow young anthropologist friend (William Jackson Harper), and another, rather goofy, college mate (Will Poulter) tags along. One knows as soon as this mismatched quartet pitch up in a superficially idyllic location where little blond children (in real life mainly Hungarian, rather than Swedish, as it happens), run around and the rest of the commune members are engaged in various pastoral and mystical activities that somehow everything is going to turn sour. Indeed, gradually the true nature of the cult begins to emerge and the sinister intentions of its leaders towards the foreign visitors become clear. Clues, like a bear imprisoned in a small wooden cage, are casually laid before the viewer. The rising tension is periodically punctured by some rather good jokes and sexual play. But darker and darker the action gets, despite the bright June light; far from bringing the two lead characters together the Bizarre situation drives them further apart and there are major casualties along the way. Some reviewers have described this a horror movie, but to my mind that is far too simplistic a classification. There are some nasty moments and one empathizes with  the growing anxiety of the American visitors. But it is a far more complex work of art than a mere shocker, making one think about relationships, family and the communal discipline of cults. And the ending is positively operatic as a climax.

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Zurich Isn’t Just for Gnomes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st July, 2019

ZurichAs I hadn’t been to Zurich for at least 30 years I was pleased that the latest ALDE Party Council took place in Switzerland’s financial capital at the weekend. My hazy memory of the earlier visit was of grey skies and rather grey people — it must have been winter — whereas this time Zurich could not have looked more different. Cloudless blue sky, high summer temperatures and an attractive mix of buildings old and new, most in an immaculate state or repair. The lake and waterways are an added charm and the local people naturally were spending a lot of time outdoors, by day and at night. Hundreds of restaurants, bars and cafés have tables outside in summer or are open to the street, yet without any feeling of being crowded or noisy. Of course there are tourists, but not that many.

The city has a brilliant integrated transport system, including a notably efficient and regular tram service. Everything, including the trains, runs on an honour system; I am sure there must be ticket inspectors, though I didn’t see one. The Zurich card (one or three days) that can be bought at the airport or central station allows one unlimited travel, even on the train to and from the airport, as well as entry to a number museums and other attractions. The ALDE Council met at the SIX Convention Point, a well-equipped but totally anodyne purpose-built small conference centre that could have been anywhere and was located on an uninspiring main road. So I was glad I had booked a hotel in the much groovier district of Wiedekon; lots of ethnic restaurants and laid-back bars. Yet also remarkably free of much traffic. I was woken each morning by birdsong more typical of the countryside than a city. And what of those gnomes that are part of Zurich’s stereotype? Bankers is dark suits busy managing other people;s money. Well, they are certainly not the predominant species that you will encounter in the streets, moreover the city seems to have attracted a largely younger crowd of residents, dressed down in shorts and t-shirts and not in the least grim.

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