Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for February, 2020

Simon Hughes on What Went Wrong

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th February, 2020

Simon Hughes 3I spent most of today at a pop-up conference put on in Bermondsey by the Liberal Democrat lawyers’ group, Rights Liberties Justice. The key theme was how liberalism can combat populism in the world today, with interesting contributions from Professor David Howarth, former MEP Irina von Wiese and messaging strategist Rob Blackie. But little more than two months out from the disastrous general election it was not surprising that many of the attendees were keen to understand what went wrong then — and ideally to avoid such problems in the future. The former local MP, Simon Hughes, in his speech this afternoon tackled that issue head-on and did not hold back in his criticism of the LibDems’ general election campaign. He thought it was undemocratic for the Party to propose Revoking Article 50 — though that is what the Bournemouth party conference decided — and he thought we should have stuck with arguing for a People’s Vote, for which there was sizable support within the House of Commons, even if not perhaps a majority. More serious was the decision to run a presidential-style campaign with a new Leader most of the electorate had never heard of (despite the fact that Jo Swinson had been a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government). This was particularly crass at a time when not only was the parliamentary party more gender-balanced than ever before but also (thanks to high-profile defections from both the Conservatives and Labour) more diverse than ever.  This was something the LibDems should have championed, but it missed the opportunity, with which I agree. It was also foolish, Simon Hughes believes, to reject outright the idea of allowing Jeremy Corbyn to form an interim government, rather than pushing for a general election which was a terrible gamble in which the stakes were stacked against us. Moreover, the election campaign was devoid of a punchy, memorable message to counter the Tories’ “Get Brexit Done”. Our messages were wishy-washy, eminently forgettable and presented in excessive quantities of insipid leaflets. The net result, of course, was that the party lost half of its opinion poling support during the final weeks. Far from being able to form a government — a palpably absurd pretension — it registered a net loss of one MP compared with 2017, with a final total of just 11. Simon is not alone in hoping that lessons will be learnt from all this. Baroness Dororthy Thornhill is chairing the election review group (on which David Howarth sits). So watch this space.  

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David Hockney at the NPG

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th February, 2020

David Hockney NPGI have met few people whom I would classify as a genius, but David Hockney is certainly one of them. Moreover, he was immensely helpful and kind to me when I was researching my biography of Christopher Isherwood in the mid-1970s. They were close in California (location of “The Bigger Splash” and other iconic Hockney paintings). But I met up with the artist in Paris, where he was living with his lover, later business manager and curator Gregory Evans, who is one of several key friends and family members who feature prominently in a new National Portrait Gallery exhibition which opens to the public tomorrow, David Hockney: Drawing from Life. The Gallery has brought together from both public and private collections approximately 150 works covering more than half a century of output from this super-talented draughtsman. Early works, notably of himself and his mother, bear witness to his technical mastery before he started to branch out into experimental forms and perspectives. The parallel with Pablo Picasso is obvious. Picasso famously had a number of female lover-muses, but in Hockney’s case his main female model has been a friend, the textile and fashion designer Celia Birtwell, who is well represented in this exhibition. But I found most fascinating Hockney’s numerous self-portraits and their charting of a man aging through time, rarely flattering but self-perceptive. I have never especially appreciated his iPad work but this exhibition has helped me view that and his earlier use of Polaroids in a more positive light. Yet it is the line drawings that linger most in my mind, especially the recent walnut brown ink portraits reminiscent of Rembrandt in tone. The exhibition will run till 28 June and should not be missed.

[photo: David Parry/NPG]

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Emma **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th February, 2020

EmmaJane Austen’s novel Emma was a set text in my ‘A’-level English Literature course; as the author intended, doubtless, one half-loved, half-despised, the 20-ish daughter of a devoted but hypochondriac father, Mr Woodhouse, living a life of ease in early 19th century England, with little to worry or vex her. Match-making is her favourite pastime, one of the great delights of Austen’s ironic humour being that Emma is remarkably bad at it, while dismissing any idea of matrimony herself. But matrimony is a very serious business in Austen’s world and period, which means that Autumn de Wilde’s decision essentially to make fun of the whole thing in her film left me feeling uneasy. Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of the eponymous character is itself playful, flirtatious, her father (perfectly pitched by a hesitant, draught-avoiding Bill Nighy) seen by her more as somebody to smile about behind his back rather than an elderly dependent whom she would never leave without her aid. Interestingly, some of the minor characters are most memorably represented in the movie. Mia Goth is a joy as poor, silly Harriet Smith, Emma’s protégée. Tanya Reynolds is similarly impressive as the bitchy Mrs Elton, though her husband, the vicar, is rather taken over the top by Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown). Presumably this was on the director’s advice, and she must be responsible for portraying the schoolgirls as a cross between Margaret Atwood’s hand-maidens and a gaggle of geese. Several of the interior scenes (especially with the servants in the Woodhouse household) are almost slap-stick. Yet some of the external scenes are lyric tableaux. I think it is that imbalance that left me predominantly dissatisfied with the film. Much of it is beautiful and the costumes and houses (far grander than Austen’s originals) are gorgeous. But somehow it leans too much towards 21st century tastes and not enough to a real reflection of the novel’s period.

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My Talisman

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd February, 2020

My TalismanThe great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin has often been poorly served in English translation, which is probably why his star does not shine so bright in British eyes as that of the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. And yet for millions of Russians, past and present, Pushkin is the beating heart and soul of Mother Russia — brilliant, passionate, defiant and ultimately self-destructive. So it is with immense pleasure that I have read Julian Henry Lowenfeld’s book of translations of the poet’s selected verse, with a lengthy and engaging biographical introduction (Elegy Books, £22). As well as being a polyglot Mr Lowenfeld is a poet himself and the verses are thus often a poetic reworking of the original, rather than a literal translation. The rhythm and the spirit of the original is nonetheless impressively preserved and the translations can be read aloud with pleasure. There is much playfulness in the poet’s oeuvre, as well as the highs and lows of love and frustration about physical limitations placed upon him by the Tsar or the authorities. At times he is a bird in a cage that chafes in waiting to be set free, while at others he dreams of Italy and Spain — a romanticised southern Europe that he could never experience in reality. The biographical essay is especially useful for locating Pushkin’s work within a particular time and space, the poet’s emotions at the time frequently illuminated with short quotations from poems. The volume is illustrated throughout with Pushkin’s own charming doodles, which reflect his often impish sense of fun, his scorn of pomposity and his semi-detachment from the beau monde around him. Altogether this is a most attractive companion for anyone who cannot access Pushkin in the original Russian but who wants to sense his genius.

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1917 *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th February, 2020

1917Largely because of recent foreign travels I hadn’t got round to seeing Sam Mendes’s flm 1917 until this evening, but pleasure is often heightened when delayed. “Pleasure” might seem an odd word to use when talking about an epic portrayal of the hell of the First World War trenches and their devastated environs, but the movie is so masterful as to be a riveting and enjoyable experience. Right from the start one is immersed in the mud and squalour of the front line and quickly becomes desensitised to the sight of huddled, exhausted soldiers trying to rest, corpses in various stages of decomposition and black rats in large numbers. Brilliant cinematography gives the viewer the impression of following in one immense long take the lonely and dangerous journey of two young men tasked with carrying a vital message across the German lines to endangered British forces beyond. One becomes completely enveloped by their sense of urgency mixed with moments of despair as they confront an explosive series of challenges. Lance Corporal Schofield (played by George MacKay), as the one who must carry on alone when his companion is killed, has a haunting face, half-uncomprehending, half-resigned, almost shell-shocked from the horror and carnage around him, but driven to accomplish his mission. MacKay’s performance is unforgettable, but the whole film is an astonishing achievement: raw, unflinching and yet suffused with a contradictory sense of humanity and camaraderie that somehow survive the senseless buffeting of the War.

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Azerbaijan Goes to the Polls

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th February, 2020

E7EE3843-AB8B-47AD-B86E-131B745A4D4AToday voters in Azerbaijan are electing a new parliament in snap elections, brought forward from their scheduled date of November. The move was at the behest of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) and approved by President Ilham Aliyev late last year. The idea, officially, is to bring new blood into the Milli Majlis (National Assembly) in order to further an ambitious programme of economic and political reforms in the oil and gas-rich republic. Around 1,300 candidates are in the running to be MPs for a total of 125 constituencies. Almost 20 political parties are fielding candidates, though YAP has far more than any other, but in fact a large majority of candidates are standing as independents. Polling stations — many in schools, as in the UK — are open from 8am to 7pm and part of my job as an international election observer is to see how orderly and transparent the voting process there is. There are over 800 of us observers from abroad, many representing organisations such as the OSCE, the CIS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

408AC44C-B093-4D6B-8427-10A1E73BEA0AThere are foreign parliamentarians, too, including one British Tory MP and a Labour peer. I’m part of the media corps. I have to say that compared with elections in Turkey, for example, the process here in Baku is extremely well-organised and calmly efficient. There has been a good steady trickle of voters this morning, despite the bitter wind (snow has so far held off). The polling clerks and presiding officers could not have been more welcoming and helpful, and unlike elections in my home borough of Tower Hamlets in London there was no need for a noticeable police presence outside the polling stations. One marked contrast with other election situations I have monitored, including in Kazakhstan, is that there are literally thousands of local election observers, some representing parties, others NGOs and so forth, quietly sitting in a line behind tables inside the polling stations, watching what is going on. The President of the Central Electoral Commission last night gave a detailed explanation of the proceedings to the assembled local and international media. Later tonight there will be a press conference to assess how the day has gone, though results will not be available for some hours. One detail from last night’s presser which tickled me was that, in keeping with the South Caucasus’s reputation for longevity, the oldest registered voter is a woman reportedly 126 years old. What extraordinary changes she will have witnessed during the course of a life straddling three centuries!

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Back in Baku

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 8th February, 2020

6CD508CA-6105-4DE0-8CD2-DAAA28284A03It’s 10 years since I was last in Azerbaijan and it is fascinating to see how much the capital city, Baku, has changed. Lots of new buildings, of course, including a flower-like shopping centre under construction just next to the (new and magnificent) carpet museum. But both the fin-de-siecle edifices put up during the first oil boom more than a century ago and the historic old town are in much better nick than in 2010, and everywhere is fantastically clean and tidy (London take note!). The traffic is much heavier (and sometimes drives alarmingly fast!). But walking along the corniche on the banks of the Caspian Sea is a delight, especially when the weather is unseasonably warm, as it was yesterday — 18 degrees, though it is predicted to snow tomorrow. That’s unfortunate, as voters go to the polls in parliamentary elections then. I’m here as an election monitor and am keen to see how recent political reforms in Azerbaijan are panning out in practice. The Azeris are a handsome, proud and hospitable people; in the old Soviet Union it used to annoy me how rude some Russians were about them. And the country has clearly been investing a good part of its hydrocarbons wealth in improving the lives of local people, certainly in the capital, at least. It will be interesting one day to travel to the interior to see how things are in rural areas.

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Chris Patten on Hong Kong

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 3rd February, 2020

Alistair Carmichael and Chris PattenThis evening I was at Central Hall Westminster to hear Chris Patten deliver the inaugural Paddy Ashdown memorial lecture on Hong Kong, under the auspices of the human rights NGO Hong Kong Watch. As the last Governor of the colony, and a distinctly liberal Tory, Lord Patten could hardly have been bettered as a speaker. He has continued to follow events in Hong Kong closely and gave a very cogent appraisal of the current situation there, where a certain political impasse has led to a minority of protesters adopting violent techniques, which he does not endorse, though he understands why some firebrands have lost patience. He was highly critical of the Hong Kong Chief Executive. Carrie Lam, but even more so of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he said rightly does not share the sort of values that have underpinned the rules-based order that has dominated much of the international scene since the Second World War. It is important to note that dissent within the People’s Republic has been stomped on, as well as in Hong Kong, and oppression of the Uyghurs and their culture in Xinjiang is serious.

Chris Patten clearly wasn’t very happy about Huawei getting an entrée into the UK’s 5G development, either. It would have been interesting to know what the late Paddy Ashdown would have thought of that. He was passionately interested in defending the rights of Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas (BNOs), believing Britain had a duty to welcome them as immigrants if necessary. He learned Mandarin Chinese as part of his military training and we used to chat in it sometimes when we wanted to make some indiscreet remark in a crowded room. As Alistair Carmichael MP — Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons and Master of Ceremonies for this evening’s lecture — recalled, Paddy was not always the easiest person to work with, not just because of his great energy but also because when he thought he was right he ploughed on in the direction he had chosen regardless. That was my experience of Paddy as Party Leader, too, but I was very fond of him and I think he would be proud to know that this new memorial lecture series has been established in his honour on a subject dear to his heart.

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Brexit Blues

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 1st February, 2020

Brexit DaySo it has finally happened. At 2300 GMT last night Britain formally left the European Union. There will now be an 11-month transition period during which we still follow EU rules and regulations before properly striking out on our own, though I would not be surprised if that transition period were extended, despite what Boris Johnson says. I just can’t see how a functioning trade agreement with the EU can be worked out in such a short period of time. Meanwhile, like millions of other people in this country, I feel a great deal of sadness, tinged with anger. The anger is over losing my EU citizenship and associated benefits, including freedom of movement and the EHIC card. And the sadness is at Britain’s stupidity of discarding its place in the world’s biggest trading block in the pursuit of a spurious “independence”, fuelled by an unpleasant degree of nationalism and xenophobia. A crowd of Brexiteers gathered in Parliament Square to mark the Brexit hour, addressed by a grinning Nigel Farage. From various vox pops taken among them by the BBC it was clear that most of them had no clue what the EU actually is or does and how the UK has benefited from membership. For nearly half a century, successive UK governments failed to explain the reality, while a whole raft of newspapers spewed out Eurosceptic bile and lies. Boris Johnson was himself one of the culprits in that torrent of media disinformation and now he has the challenge of proving that unicorns really exist. Meanwhile I would quite understand if Scotland and Northern Ireland manoeuvre themselves towards independence/union with the Republic of Ireland. God help the rump England and Wales after that. But I suspect the UK may consider rejoining the EU before that happens. I just hope I am still around to witness that.

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