Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for September, 2019

Murder in Istanbul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th September, 2019

Murder in IstanbulExactly a year ago, on the last Saturday of September in 2018, at a Palestine conference organised by Middle East Monitor, I met the Saudi journalist and former Saudi royal family intimate, Jamal Khashoggi. He seemed a little distracted, which I put down partly to the cold he was trying to fight off and anticipation for his upcoming marriage to a younger Turkish woman. He was due to fly to Istanbul on the Monday, but the day after that he was dead, apparently interrogated, tortured and then murdered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate building, while his fiancée waited outside. Through a series of leaks and a lot of speculation the story of what had happened gradually emerged, though anyone who did not follow things closely over the coming months — including a not inconsiderable number of red herrings — could be forgiven for not knowing all the details. That makes Owen Wilson’s book Murder in Istanbul (Gibson Square, £9.99) all the more useful, as well as timely. It painstakingly analyses the evidence, as revealed by the Turkish authorities and various media outlets, on both sides of the Atlantic, including the United Nations, as well as background information that makes the affair more understandable, if not forgivable. The author’s career as a journalist with the Financial Ties and as a writer of books on crime gives him just the right sort of experience and voice for the task. The British sigint agency, GCHQ, had, it appears, picked up traffic suggesting that Jamal Khashoggi (who was by this stage mainly resident in the United States and contributing to the Washington Post, critical of the regime in his home country and calling for media freedom across the Arab world) was at risk of being kidnapped and rendered to Riyadh from Britain; the logical assumption is that the British (perhaps also informing the Americans) made it clear through appropriate channels that that would be totally unacceptable.

Jamal Khashoggi Sadly, he was less safe in Istanbul, where he had just purchased an apartment for himself and his future wife, though one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the discussion of what the Turkish intelligence service MIT (and indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) really knew and when. There were all sorts of fantastic stories, worthy of a latter-day James Bond novel, regarding alleged recordings of Jamal being dismembered while still alive, supposedly transmitted via his Apple watch to the iPhone he had left with his fiancée. Wilson rightly dismisses the more preposterous reports and theories, but inevitably the conclusion was drawn that the assault on Khashoggi had been sanctioned at the highest level in Riyadh. Indeed, just this week the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, accepted ultimate responsibility “because it happened on my watch”. So there will need to be a postscript to the book at some stage to analyse “So, what now?” — though if US President Donald Trump is anything to go by then the desert kingdom with its immense oil-derived wealth is just too rich to fall out with.

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AEJ Visit to the Scottish Parliament

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th September, 2019

73B96ADC-F1D2-481E-BD85-4F885053502FThe UK section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) made a timely visit to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh this week — my first direct experience of that institution. It is housed in a beautiful modern complex, full of light and symbolic detail. The architect unfortunately died before everything was up and running, so a few of the secrets of that symbolism went to the grave with him. We were given a very detailed and entertaining tour by a Portuguese guide. The number of EU workers in the capital is high, including all the hospitality staff at the hotel where the AEJ group was staying. So it was no surprise to hear from the three MSPs (SNP, Labour and Conservative) who addressed us over a sandwich lunch that the removal of freedom of movement if Brexit goes ahead is one of Scotland’s major concerns about the near future. The indigenous population, as in so much of the UK, has a demographic lopsided to older people. Scotland, in contrast to England and Wales, voted strongly to remain in the 2016 EU Referendum, and all three MSPs had voted Remain themselves, though the Conservative was true to his party line, saying that we must now “respect the vote of the British people”.

We also sat in on First Minister’s Question Time in the main chamber, which admirably is a hemicycle, rather similar to many continental parliaments, rather than the adversarial set-up at Westminster. But there were some lively exchanges, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made repeated references to tentative plans for a further Scottish independence referendum. The Conservatives were also trying unsuccessfully to get her to commit to “full life” sentences for the most heinous crimes; her riposte was that judges are always free to impose sentences that are longer than the culprit’s expected life span. It was good to see the spectators gallery full — including a large party of school children — and the contemporary, airy environment was far more welcoming than the sometimes intimidating surroundings of the Palace of Westminster. The message (moreover stated in print in admirably concise and well-designed leaflets) was clear: this is your Parliament and we are working for you.

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The Truly Supreme Court

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th September, 2019

Baroness-HaleThe UK’s Supreme Court may only be a decade old but it represents centuries of judicial independence. Yesterday, it delivered an historic decision when it declared unanimously that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to the Queen which led to the prorogation of Parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect”. The five week closure, effectively preventing MPs from debating Brexit until mid-October — only two weeks before Mr Johnson wishes to take the country out of the EU — was therefore deemed illicit. The Speaker, John Bercow, grinning like a Cheshire cat on College Green, was swift to announce that the House of Commons would therefore reconvene at 1130 this morning and the Prime Minister had to cut short his visit to New York where he was speaking at the United Nations General Assembly. What happens now, as with so much regarding the Brexit chaos, is anyone’s guess. In normal circumstances one would have expected the Prime Minister to resign, but these are not circumstances and Boris Johnson is not a normal Prime Minister. He is likely to try to hang on and the Labour Opposition is reluctant to call for a vote of no confidence as there is no guarantee it would be won. However, the Government is in principle bound to ask for an extension to Article 50 because of a move by MPs before the prorogation and Mr Johnson might be loathe yo try to circumvent that illegally despite his bluster. Meanwhile, the President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, delivering the Court’s verdict while dressed in black with a large silver spider brooch on her chest, has become on overnight heroine to Remainers and a demon to Hard Brexiteers. But the important thing is that the Rule of Law has been defended and the principle upheld that no-one is above it, not even Boris.

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Brexit without the Bullshit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd September, 2019

Gavin EslerThe day after Britain’s EU Referendum in June 2016 the most common google search term in the UK reportedly was “What is the EU?” Of course, many of those asking the question would not have voted in the Referendum and just wanted to know what all the fuss was about when the shock result (52:48 in favour of leaving) was announced. But the searchers would also have included people who did vote without really knowing what the EU is or does, or what Britain gets out of membership. No recent British government, including that of Europhile Tony Blair, ever bothered to explain to the public why we were members of the EU, preferring to bash Brussels when anything unpopular was happening or claiming all the credit for themselves when there were positive developments. For ordinary citizens the positive aspects included the right to travel, live, work and retire in any of the other now 27 EU member states, an end to mobile phone roaming charges and the EHIC card, guaranteeing free health cover on a reciprocal basis throughout the EU, to mention but three.

Brexit without the BullshitAll those, and many more, are now at risk as Boris Johnson determinedly presses on with his plan to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October. Parliament may have succeeded in postponing such an exit — the next few weeks should clarify that situation — but meanwhile the country is bitterly divided between Leavers and Remainers. Those wishing to stay in the EU claim with justification that the Vote Leave side lied shamelessly during the Referendum campaign (for example, that the NHS would benefit to the tune of £350 million a week when we left or that Turkey was about to join the EU, meaning Turks could flood into the UK), but they also have to admit hat the Remain campaign was lousy. The dire warnings of the economic cost of leaving were branded Project Fear by the Leave side and backfired badly. Three years on, the Government’s own warnings about the implications of crashing out on 31 October without a deal with the EU (outlined in the Operation Yellowhammer report that 10 Downing Street tried to suppress) are pretty disturbing, notably with regard to the continuity of medicine and food supplies. And the political debate rages on within an increasingly polarised electorate.

Cue the arrival of a sober, sane analysis of what Brexit is all about and what the likely consequences will be, namely Gavin Esler’s handy paperback, Brexit without the Bullshit (Canbury Press, £8.99). Many readers will know Mr Esler from the time he presented BBC 2’s Newsnight, but he also stood (unsuccessfully) as the lead candidate in London for ChangeUK in this May’s European elections. So there is no surprise about where his sympathies lie. However, his account of the EU and matters relating to Brexit is factual and buttressed by interviews he carried out with people up and down the country. The style and tone remind me of the 1980 Brandt Report of the Independent Commission into International Development: outlining the challenges and the dangers in clear terms without indulging in polemic. It is a reasonable book for reasonable people and therefore will be welcomed by many Remainers as a useful tool to help frame their own arguments. But in the heated atmosphere of today I fear other people may not be in the mood to listen to clearly articulated, reasonable arguments but will prefer to stick to their emotion-based discourse of alternative facts and fake news.

 

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The Roaring Whirl

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th September, 2019

The Roaring WhirlThe Royal Society of Musicians’ charming new headquarters in Fitzroy Square earlier this week hosted the launch of a CD of a cross-cultural “music-narrative”, The Roaring Whirl, with music by composer Sarah Rodgers. Set in the Indian state of Punjab at the time of Kipling’s Kim, the work blends Eastern and Western forms as well as words and music to almost hypnotic effect. The clarinettist Geraldine Allen was on hand to play a medley of three short extracts alongside Baluji Shrivastav (sitar, tabla and pakhavaj) and the narrator, actor Bhasker Patel. The work was premiered at the Nottingham NOW Festival in 1992 and a recording was made, but that was not commercially released because Geraldine Allen was involved in a serious car accident that led to the cancellation of further performances at other festivals and on the BBC. For many years it seemed that Ms Allen would never be able to play again but thanks to a range of alternative therapies she can now perform as before and the work us properly seeing the light of day under the banner of the Divine Art Recordings Group. Cross-cultural works are more common today than they were nearly three decades ago, but this is an original and genuinely exquisite piece that deserves widespread exposure.

CD: métier msv28592

The Roaring Whirl 1

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For Sama *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th September, 2019

For SamaOver history there have been several sieges of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial centre, but only the latest, ending in 2016, was broadcast to the world by brave journalists and activists, often transmitting their footage and interviews via mobile phones. One such was Waad al-Kateab, who stayed with her doctor husband and infant daughter in the ever-decreasing enclave controlled by opponents to the regime of Bashar al-Assad until the final surrender. With co-director Edward Watts she has made a film of that experience, For Sama, which is the most graphic and revealing portrait of Syria’s civil war that you are ever likely to see. Much of the footage is from inside the hospitals that were the centre of the little family’s life — hospitals which the Russian aircraft helping the Assad regime deliberately and relentlessly bombed. Accordingly there are many dead and mutilated bodies in this film as well as streams of blood, and one feels the terror of the people huddled in buildings as the bombs and the ceilings fall down. The great strength of this documentary, however, is the way the trajectory of the political developments — from the euphoria of the early Arab Spring uprising of 2011-2012 to the acceptance of defeat and exile four years later — is paralleled by the intimate story of how Waad and the doctor fell in love, baby Sama’s entry into this dystopian world and later a further pregnancy. In counterpoint to the bombardments and gore there are scenes of charming domesticity, especially involving a portly neighbour, her husband and their three children; she manages to remain cheerful almost to the last. One valid criticism of the film would be that there is only passing mention of how Islamist militants (backed by Gulf Arabs) co-opted and radicalised the insurrection, and no fighting by militia groups is shown. But as a portrait of human resolve in adversity this is an extraordinary documentary, unmissable for anyone who wants to understand the reality of Syria’s modern tragedy.

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Downton Abbey **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th September, 2019

Downton AbbeyI am one of that rare breed of people in Britain who never watched a single episode of the long-running cult TV series Downton Abbey, though I did sit in on a live interview with its creator, Julian Fellowes, some years ago. One day, I thought, they will make a film of it, which I shall go to see, even though nostalgia-infused upstairs-downstairs dramas aren’t really my thing. This is indeed that feature film. The screenplay is also by Lord Fellowes and the cast will be familiar to fans of the TV show. In fact, I suspect it was mainly made to provide comfort and sustenance to those who had been feeling Downton withdrawal symptoms. The action is set in the late 1920s — after the general strike has caused a few shudders — and centres on an imagined visit by King George V and Queen Mary to Downton Abbey as part of a royal peregrination among fine houses in Yorkshire and other points North. Highclere Castle (the real “Downton Abbey”) is as glorious as ever in its starring role and Harewood House puts in a cameo appearance. Cue for National Trust members to swoon. And in all fairness, it is all very beautiful. Of course it is the intrigues and amours of both the extended Crawley family and their devoted servants that provide the meat in this period piece stew. A couple of new excitements, including an attempted assassination and a police raid on a pop-up gay dance venue, add an extra frisson, but otherwise the film just drifts gently along like a cricket match on a late summer’s afternoon. Hugh Bonneville, as the Earl of Grantham, is charmingly ineffectual; it is the women of the household who have  some gumption. Maggie Smith as the Dowager matriarch has a few spicy, acid quips and asides, but the part does not stretch her. Remember, this is an actor who is capable of something as remarkable and magnificent as the eponymous The Lady in the Van. There are some handsome men and some pretty women in Downton Abbey, which will please many punters. And I suppose as a couple of hours of escapism from 2019 Brexit Britain the movie has its uses. But, oh dear, surely it could have been less superficial and cutesy make-believe?

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Tajikistan Bursts onto London Scene

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th September, 2019

TajikistanTajikistan is the least known of the central Asian republics — and I don’t just say that because it is the only “stan” that I have not yet visited. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and its major constituent states became independent countries, Tajikistan descended into a brutal civil war that would prevent it enjoying the sort of economic development experienced by several its neighbours and playing a full part on the international stage. Still working at BBC World Service in Bush House at the time, I thought of going to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, but was warned that it was too dangerous and that I might well be kidnapped. That’s assuming I was granted a visa, of course.

Samir AbdourazakovHowever, that situation has since changed dramatically and when Tajikistan posted a dynamic young Ambassador, Masud Khalifazoda, to London earlier this year it was with a determination to make a mark in what is still one of the world’s premier capitals. A Tajik-British Chamber of Commerce has been established as well as a friendship society and tourism is being promoted. Tajikistan is a mountainous country with hundreds of lakes making it an extremely attractive but not yet popular destination. There was an exhibition of beautiful scenic photographs at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane last night before the country’s National Independence Day reception (a first in London), at which Ambassador Khalifazoda gave one of the wittiest speeches I have ever heard at a diplomatic event. This is a man who will really make his and his country’s presence felt. A charming touch at the reception was that a 10-year-old child prodigy pianist, Samir Abdourazakov, gave a brilliant performance of Scarlatti and Rachmaninov, among others, seemingly unfazed by the chattering guests. Dushanbe is definitely now top of my bucket list!

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When Things Fall Apart

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th September, 2019

Boris Johnson Emperor's New ClothesBoris Johnson has been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for less than two months, but already the wheels are coming off his government’s carriage. He swept many Cabinet Ministers from their posts, replacing most of them with Brexiteer hardliners, and when some of those ousted had the temerity to vocalise their objection to a threatened “No Deal” Brexit on 31 October, he ordered the Conservative whip withdrawn from them. Actually, reports suggest that it is chief adviser Dominic Cummings — unelected and unaccountable — who has been calling the shots in 10 Downing Street since Boris Johnson moved in. Cummings master-minded the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and has become Johnson’s eminence grise. The purged include two former Chancellors (Finance Ministers) and the grandson of wartime premier Winston Churchill. He, Nicholas Soames, along with several others, has said he will not stand at the next general election, but others have indicated that they will stay on and fight, as Independents or One Nation Conservatives or whatever. Meanwhile, several MPs — from both the Conservatives and Labour — have defected to the centre-left Liberal Democrats, attracted by the party’s unequivocal anti-Brexit stance.

BRITAIN-EU-POLITICS-BREXIT Pro-EU demonstrations have taken place up and down the country on an almost daily basis, though yesterday in London about 200 pro-Brexit protesters were also out in Whitehall, clashing with police and chanting that they love Boris Johnson. This does not bode well for public security in the near future. I have long believed that civil disobedience (from left and right) is a real possibility if the current malaise continues. Interestingly, the pound sterling has risen as Boris Johnson’s woes have increased, but he himself looks rattled; he is known by his intimates to have a short fuse to his temper. Denied the chance of calling a snap general election, thanks to a combination of the Fixed Term Parliament Act which the Liberal Democrats insisted on in the 2010-2015 Coalition government and the solidarity of the opposition parties (and some Tory rebels) in not agreeing to an election before No Deal is legally off the table, Johnson is now in office but not in power. Amber Rudd is the latest Minister to resign not only from her job but also the Conservative whip. In desperation Boris Johnson may look for a lifeline to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, asking for an electoral pact, but the Brexit Party currently has no MPs (despite its significant number of MEPs) and such a pact would likely drive more Conservatives away from their party. Things have fallen apart so much and so quickly that Boris Johnson is increasingly looking like an Emperor with no clothes [see brilliant cartoon above by the inimitable Peter Brookes]. No wonder rumours swirl that he could be forced to resign. But the Brexit millstone will not go away, whoever is Prime Minister, probably until the matter is put to the British electorate once more for a final decision one way or the other.

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Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd September, 2019

Dolor y gloriaIt might sound like a truism, but many film directors are in love with the art of making films. This is particularly true of what the French call films d’auteur, in which the director’s artistic personality is a core element. Though there are some North American directors whose work falls into that category — interestingly more often Canadian than American, in my experience — the genre for me is quintessentially European. We can all rattle off a list of greats, particularly from France and Italy. And of course Pedro Amodóvar from Spain. When I watched his high-camp romp Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited, 2013) I feared he may have gone off the boil, but if anyone else thought that Almodóvar had passed his peak, they should go to see his latest release Dolor y gloria. The central character is clearly at least partly autobiographical: a film director in late middle age who is plagued by several ailments, physical and psychological. He is still handsome in a grey fox type of way (Antonio Banderas was the natural choice of actor and executes his role brilliantly) but distinctly going a bit to seed. He is lacking inspiration for any new project and repeatedly turns down invitations to festivals and social events, yet one such invitation prompts him to contact an actor with whom he fell out two decades earlier, a superannuated hippy who regularly uses heroin. Somehow this encounter triggers a reflective mood in the director, as he remembers his impoverished childhood living in a village of cave dwellings where he had a shocking realisation of sexual attraction when he saw a young house-painter taking a bath. The whole setting and handling of his childhood, as well as a subsequent echo of that experience, is elegiac. Later another man who was probably the love of his life fleetingly re-enters it. Little wonder, given the exquisite pace of the film and the sensitivity of the direction, with occasional little twists of humour that leaven the pathos, that one is put in mind of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. This is a film that will not easily be forgotten.

 

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