Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November, 2019

Knives Out *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th November, 2019

KO_07197.dngWhodunnits are an important genre of popular fiction, perhaps best typified by the prolific output of that West Country mistress of mystery, Agatha Christie. Many of her books were turned into films or television specials; one thinks particularly of Murder on the Orient Express and the long-running TV series, Poirot. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which has just been released in the UK, is in many ways a tribute act to Christie, with the setting moved to New England. The celebrated private detective, who is able to deduce what the more plodding law enforcement officers cannot, is an ill-shaven southerner with an outrageous drawl, Benoit Blanc (improbably but entertainingly played by Daniel Craig). Most of the action takes place within an ugly, gloomy mansion, its interior eclectically stuffed full of weird objects and books reflecting the unconventional character of its octogenarian owner, a hugely successful crime writer (Christopher Plummer). He summons all of his dysfunctional family for his 85th birthday party, where jealousies and feuds bubble under the surface, periodically bursting out like molten lava. Each of the family members has glaring faults and is clearly waiting for the old man to die so they can inherit. The only sympathetic character is a young Latin American nurse-companion, whose nationality the snobbish family constantly misremembers. When the writer’s body is found up in his garret study the following morning, with its throat cut, the assumption is that he has committed suicide, until Benoit Blanc (anonymously commissioned to look into the matter via an envelope stuffed with money) suspects foul play.

Knives Out Daniel Craig As in a Christie novel, everyone seems to have a motive for such a killing, but the plot of Knives Out veers off in an unexpected direction, more than once, so it really is only at the end that Blanc is able to tie up the loose ends in front of the astonished family assembly. In the meantime, the movie has walked a tightrope between detective story and black comedy, in which there are indeed many laugh-out-loud moments. There are infinite nods not only to Agatha Christie but also to other popular crime writers; at one moment, the Latin American nurse comes home to find her mother watching Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote on TV, dubbed in Spanish. The actors playing the writer’s family members in Knives Out clearly have a lot of fun personifying nastiness — from a chillingly calculating Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the daughters to a creepy young Jaeden Lieberher as a nerdy grandson with alt-right tendencies. Rian Johnson wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film and the dialogue is a triumph of social observation as well as literary referencing. This may not be the most suspenseful whodunnit you will see this season, let alone the most significant piece of cinema, but as pure entertainment it is hard to think it will be beaten.

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Open Eurasian Literature Festival

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th November, 2019

JF speaking at Open Eurasia Literature Festival 2019For much of this week I was in Brussels, attending the Open Eurasian Book Forum and Literature Festival, organised by the Eurasian Creative Guild. This annual event is a celebration of writers from Central Asia and Eastern Europe, with a special focus this year on Abai Qunanbaiuly (1845-1904) and Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008), towering figures from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan respectgively. In the impressive surrounds of the Brussels Expo centre I delivered a paper on universal themes in Chinghiz Aitmatov and Oscar Wilde, which I had previously presented at two universities in Kazakhstan as well as in London. In some opening remarks at Expo, as well as on the following day at a lecture hall in central Brussels, I said how fitting is was that all this should be happening in the city that prides itself on being the Capital of Europe, but which should embrace far more than just the current 28 member states of the European Union. I also referred to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the collapse of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union into its constituent republics, many of which were represented at the festival.

Open Eurasian Literature Festival Numerous authors from the Eurasian region were able to showcase their work and there was also an awards ceremony for the winners of the associated cultural competition. Russian is still the lingua franca among the former Soviet republics and much of the event was in Russian, as well as presentations in English. Central Asian literature is still relatively little known in Western Europe, but dedicated enthusiasts are working hard to change that situation, not least the main driver of the whole enterprise, the Uzbekistan-born Marat Akhmedjanov of the Hertfordshire Press.


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9 November 1989

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th November, 2019

CF50D9B1-9624-4099-AA55-EFC2AE403324On the 9th of November, 30 years ago, I had done my usual daily shift for BBC World Service at Bush House and had settled down to watch the TV news at home when the first extraordinary images came through of people climbing onto the Berlin Wall and passing through it. For those too young to know what the Cold War was like, it is hard to convey the magnitude of what was happening before our eyes. For four decades, the possibility of conflict — indeed, nuclear conflict — with the Soviet Union and its satellites had been a permanent reality, despite efforts at detente (not least by the West Germans). The Berlin Wall itself was not just symbolic but a grim and dangerous barrier between East and West. Some reckless, brave souls had been killed trying to get through it over the years, while millions of others were separated from family and friends. As a Westerner — and a journalist to boot — it was easy for me to visit East Berlin, usually on day trips via Friedrichstrasse, with an obligation to return to West Berlin by midnight — and sometimes I had longer stays in the Communist half of the city, which really was like another world. Most of Berlin’s historic centre was in the eastern sector; I went to the opera house once, to see the ballet Gisele, during which three Soviet dignitaries sat by my side studiously reading Pravda. I often visited the small Quaker group in the East, and was dismayed when one dear Friend meeting me outside the Friedrichstrasse station one morning burst into tears when I handed over a bunch of white Lily of the Valley, because she had not seen any for many years. I was in East Berlin again in the early autumn of 1989, when I visited a friend who lived on Leninallee. Hungary had already opened its border with Austria, but my friend lamented, “It could never happen here!” But it did, only weeks later, catching almost everyone by surprise. We should never lose our sense of wonder at that, nor sacrifice the benefits of Europe Reunited.

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The Irishman *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th November, 2019

The IrishmanHollywood has often glamorised the world of gangsters, giving the nastiness a gloss of adventure and sometimes comedy. But Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman takes the viewer far more subtly into the head of an Irish American truck driver, Frank (played by Robert De Niro), who gets sucked into the violent world of Italian mobsters before graduating to become a hitman and confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (an unrecognisable Al Pacino), head of the Teamsters Union, who is himself up to his neck in fraudulent and thuggish activities. Frank’s rise is not through ambition but rather as a result of circumstances, then later as a means of survival. Any moral qualms he had at the beginning quickly evaporate, but from an early age one of his four daughters looks on disapprovingly, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, somehow intuiting her father’s inner corruption before breaking with him completely. The rise and fall of the Kennedys (Jack and Bobby), then the nefarious activities of Richard Nixon, are all backdrops to some of the action, whose grisly inevitability underlines the fact that there is no honour among thieves. By the end, when almost everyone else is dead, a wheelchair bound Frank, in a care home for the elderly, is offered the possibility of a sort of redemption, or at least forgiveness, but he cannot bring himself to feel regret, let alone remorse, for the deaths and collateral suffering he has caused. In Robert De Niro’s brilliant portrayal, Frank’s dissociation is burningly credible. You think he could have been a nice fellow in other circumstances, and as things get progressively worse he is mentally increasingly absent, though physically present, even centre stage. De Niro’s career is choc-a-bloc with great performances but this is the capo dei capi among his roles. He is on screen for almost the entire three-and-a-half hours of the film, but one’s interest in him never wavers as we watch him morally disintegrate the higher he rises, while still seeing himself as a regular guy. Martin Scorsese’s direction is impeccable, particularly in its depiction of 1950s and 1960s Pennsylvania and the mid-West, with their garish clothes and super-size cars and grizzly motels. With a budget reputed in excess of $120,000,000, no expense has been spared in the production of this movie and the attention to tiny details is such that one could willingly sit through the whole thing again — and I probably will.

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The Taylor Wessing Prize 2019

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th November, 2019

Non NPG Work - Competition Exhibition – Born DigitalPeople watching is one of my favourite occupations, honed on the terraces of Parisian cafés or the Grand’Place in Brussels. But not everyone appreciates being studied intently, perhaps understandably, which is one reason why photographs have such immense appeal. You can stare at them as hard and as long as you like; what’s more, the image is of a precise moment captured. The very best can linger in one’s mind for decades. So I always look forward to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This year’s opened today and runs until 16 February. The competition attracted around 1,600 entries, from 70 countries. Interestingly, the NPG chose as its main publicity shot for the exhibition the photo I liked best, of an Estonian lady of a certain age, in big round spectacles (a la Iris Apfel); the somewhat vacant expression on her face probably reflects the depression to which the sitter is prone; her photographer daughter, Sirli Raitma, suggested doing various pictures of her in different dress in an effort to lift her mood.

However, the winner of the £15,000 first prize was Los Angeles-based Pat Martin, for a series of uncompromising shots of his late and voluminous mother; she looks as if she could be a fairly terrifying figure, though the dog T-shirt she wears in one photograph suggests a certain degree of humour, too. She struggled with addiction throughout her life, putting strains on her relationship with her son, but his taking photos of her helped them to reconnect. As Pat Martin comments, “For most of my life, I misunderstood my mother and witnessed how the world misunderstood her. Photographing her became a way of looking into a mirror and finding details I never noticed.” As an outside observer, one can intuit the pain in that experience, as well as a degree of resolution.

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Europe in Flux

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 6th November, 2019

Europe in FluxThirty years ago this weekend the Berlin Wall came down, signalling the demise of Communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War. I still remember watching the extraordinary scenes on TV as East Berliners crossed into the West in a state of disbelief. It seems like yesterday. Yet for anyone under 35 there will be no real memories of when Europe was divided and nuclear obliteration was a background possibility. Or just how grey life was in much of central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Soviet Union. Or how cruel, not just in the gulags in Siberia but also under the Stasi in East Germany or in the inhuman prisons in Romania. However, it would be wrong to think that everything changed from dark to light in November 1989. The subsequent conflicts in former Yugoslavia were most acute in Bosnia Herzegovina (I went to Sarajevo not long after the dreadful siege was lifted), and the economies of many parts of the disintegrating Soviet Union collapsed. So it is right and proper that the photographic exhibition by Pierre Alozie, Europe in Flux, running at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House, Smith Square, Westminster, until 6 December captures not just the euphoria of that astonishing night in Berlin but also the struggles and the suffering that followed in different parts of the former Communist lands. Indeed, some areas have still not fully recovered from the trauma. And some of the greatest social tensions today are in countries that were on the wrong side of the Wall during the Cold War, but are now members of the European Union.

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Ethel Walker at the Thackeray Gallery

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 6th November, 2019

Ethel WalkerA large Ethel Walker still life of blood red poppies and black-and-gold Chinese lacquer boxes dominates (in the positive sense of the word) the sitting room of our house in London. It was a painting that as soon as I saw it around 25 years ago I knew I had to live with. The artist (not to be confused with the late Dame Ethel Walker) lives in Argyll and the Scottish landscape, or rather its encounter with the sea, has been the main theme of her more recent work. A new exhibition of her seascapes, whose opening at the Thackeray Gallery in Kensington she attended last night, transports the urban viewer to a distant world of raw nature, where the light of a sun peeking or sometimes streaming through clouds casts strange patterns and colours, at once exuding a mystical calm along with the threat of squalls to come. One is literally drawn into her works as if by some magnetic force so that one finds oneself skimming over the sea like some low flying bird. Though the core theme is constant each image is different, deceptively simple until one surrenders to its power. The exhibition runs until 22 November.



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Legacy of Empire

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th November, 2019

Legacy of EmpireOn 18 February 1947 the Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, stood up in the House of Commons and declared, “We have reached the conclusion that the only course now open to us is to submit the problem [of Palestine] to the judgement of the United Nations. We shall explain that the Mandate has proved to be unworkable in practice, and that the obligations undertaken to the two communities in Palestine have been shown to be irreconcilable.” Those obligations had been set out 30 years earlier in the deceptively brief Balfour Declaration, which was in the form of a letter from the then (Conservative) Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to a leading member of the UK’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, stating, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” [my italics]

UN partition planFor three decades successive British governments (and their representatives on the ground following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War) had struggled to reconcile those irreconcilables, trying to appease both the Zionists, who had won the backing of Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George for their “return” to the historic land of Israel, and the Palestinian Arabs who were alarmed by the growing immigration of predominantly European Jews into Palestine. That alarm turned to outright hostility in the mid-1930s and in true colonial fashion, the British administration put down the consequent Arab Revolt forcefully, while at the same time sending messages to London that a further Jewish influx would only inflame the situation. But after the Second World War, a mixture of collective sympathy and guilt over how appallingly Jews had suffered under Nazi rule — even worse than under earlier Russian and eastern European pogroms — as well as a nimby-esque policy of wishing to limit the amount of Jewish immigration into Britain and North America, led almost inevitably to the creation not of a Jewish homeland within Palestine but of the Jewish state of Israel in a substantial part of the previously mandated territory. Partition (as happened simultaneously in the case of India and Pakistan) seemed to be the only logical way forward, and that is what the fledgling United Nations decided after Britain threw in the towel.

Chaim WeizmannThis is the context for Gardner Thompson’s admirable history of Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel, Legacy of Empire (Saqi, £20). Unlike many books written about what would become designated as the Israel-Palestine conflict, Thompson’s eschews polemic, instead adopting a cool, rational approach and a judicious, critical use of a wide range of diverse sources. Some readers may be disappointed that the author does not overtly take sides regarding Zionism itself, though it is hard not to be shocked by the stated Euro-centric view of  “the Arab” from Chaim Weizmann (who would become Israel’s first President): “His laziness and primitivism turn a flourishing garden into a desert.” It was Weizmann, too, who articulated a plan (communicated in 1941 to the Soviet Ambassador in London) “to move a million Arabs now living in Palestine to Iraq, and to settle 4 or 5 million Jews from Poland on the land which the Arabs had been occupying.” That wasn’t quite what happened in the event, but the extent of Palestinian dispossession in 1947-1948 was on a similar scale; small wonder Palestinians still today refer to it as the naqba or Catastrophe and see it in terms of ethnic cleansing. Because of the very irreconcilables mentioned earlier, there were bound to be winners and losers, whatever happened.

Frequently the whole issue of Israel-Palestine is shrugged off as being impossibly complicated, as well as insoluble, but as Noam Chomsky (quoted by Thompson) has said, although the world treats it as a multifaceted and complex story, it is in fact “a simple story of colonialism and dispossession.” The great virtue of this book is that the reader is provided with the tools necessary to understand how colonialism was a determining factor in the territory’s destiny a century ago, as it remains today.

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The European Liberal Family (ALDE)

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd November, 2019

12836C57-4082-48C4-B8C6-5EA2ED7AF71AFor most of last week I was in Athens, the cradle of democracy, for the ALDE Party Congress, which brought together dozens of Liberal parties from across Europe, not just the EU. I’ve been on the ALDE’s elected Council as a UK Liberal Democrats’ representative for many years and am currently standing for re-election to that role (all LibDem members can vote). As ever, one of the highlights of the Congress was the welcoming into membership of new parties, the details of which can be found on the ALDE website*. But inevitably a lot of the political discussion, especially outside the plenary sessions, was about Brexit. It was good to be able to confirm that the UK would not be leaving the EU on 31 October after all, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s do-or-die pledge. The British delegation worked hard to strengthen the resolve of our Continental counterparts (the Irish are well on board!) to support our efforts to Remain. When Luxembourg Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, declared in his plenary speech that he regretted the UK’s departure, he was rightly heckled by London MEP Irina von Wiese, “We’re not Leaving,”

5D6E7B66-4657-4764-A539-A4A387F6AD9BSubsequently, after the Congress, a 3-month extension to Article50 was granted by the EU27 and a general election was called in Britain for 12 December, in which Brexit will inevitably be a major issue. However, the ALDE Congress agenda was much broader than that and there was a range of interesting fringe meetings, including an event put on by (the worldwide) Liberal International on fighting Fake News and Alternative Facts.

ALDE itself is a very broad church, embracing social liberals, like the UK LibDems and D66 from the Netherlands, as well as more economically conservative parties, such as the German and Swiss FDPs. But there are many strongly shared values, not least on human rights (including LGBTi matters) and environmental protection. In the European Parliament, ALDE parties are together in the Renew Europe Group with Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche from France, and with 108 MEPs — a sharp rise from 2014 — constitute the third largest grouping, with considerable influence. But one of the healthy things about the ALDE Congress is to remind us all that Europe is far wider than just the EU and that all of us have a shared European heritage, despite our glorious diversity.


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