Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2020

Conspiracy Theories

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th April, 2020

Conspiracy theories bookAs someone who writes and broadcasts predominantly about the Middle East I am confronted by conspiracy theories on a daily basis. Some go global, like the theory that the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York was an inside job by the CIA, possibly with Mossad support. Or that Princess Diana was the victim of an assassination plot by the Duke of Edinburgh in order to stop her marrying a Muslim. Perhaps one shouldn’t grace such fantastic notions with the respectable academic word “theory”; that certainly is the view of Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at Warwick University, whose short but thought-provoking book Conspiracy Theories (Polity, £9.99) draws a distinction between rational conspiracy theories (like the 1605 Gunpowder Plot) and Conspiracy Theories (with a capital C & T) that are utter bollocks. Well, he doesn’t actually employ that term, but his language and style are easily accessible and at times folksy. Professor Cassam’s central argument is that conspiracy theories are a form of political propaganda and that therefore the response to them also has to be political. With President Donald Trump churning out fake news in Washington on a daily basis in counterpoint to the disinformation being pumped out of Russia and China, politicians globally do need to be on conspiracy alert.

conspiracy theory word cloudConspiracy theories date back far into history, one particularly long-lasting and pernicious one being that Jews are plotting to take over the world. But whereas in the past it took time for such tropes to circulate, these days, thanks to the Internet, conspiracy theories can reverberate almost instantaneously. Countering the falsehoods is not necessarily a straightforward business, as those of us who were trying to avert Brexit discovered. Moreover, Quassim Cassam helpfully points out that when trying to deal with conspiracy theorists one needs to understand that the conspiracy mindset is an ideology rather than a personality trait. Besides, when engaging with conspiracy theorists one runs the danger of drawing attention to their wacky ideas. Not that this should dissuade those of us who value truth from standing up to them. That is particularly true for people working in the media — for whom this little book can serve as a useful primer — but also for the population at large. Indeed, because the Internet is now all-pervasive, especially in developed countries, it is important that part of education — even at primary school level — should equip people at an early age with critical thinking skills and what the author refers to as “intellectual virtues” to help them distinguish between truth and lies, information and disinformation.

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When Animals Take Over

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd April, 2020

sheeo at McOne month since lockdown began in London it’s starting to get on some people’s nerves. But if we are honest there are some benefits. Air pollution is well down on normal levels as industrial activity and traffic flows are now only a fraction of what we’re used too. Birdsong is suddenly much more audible and on the daily walk we are allowed to take (unless one is in enforced isolation) we have been able to watch Spring develop in all its glorious fresh colours, boosted by unusually warm and sunny weather. But one of the things that has charmed me most has been the way that animals have started to reclaim their rightful place as part of our living environment. So far I haven’t seen a fox siting in the road, though I am sure there must be some living in the woodland park behind the house. Grey squirrels there are in droves.

bears in New JerseyThe Internet is full of pictures and video clips of both farm and wild animals that have moved into spaces normally monopolised by humans. Some of my favourites have been the sheep that descended on a branch of McDonald’s in Wales, kangaroos that took over a sports pitch in Australia and the bears going house visiting in New Jersey, USA. Keep your eyes peeled and enjoy the spectacle for as long as it lasts!

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The Deer Hunter (1978) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd April, 2020

The Deer HunterWhen Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter was released over 40 years ago I felt I could not face it, even though at that stage in my life I was reviewing films for an English-language magazine in Belgium. Partly this reluctance was because I was (and remain) avidly anti-blood sports; indeed I was at that stage vegetarian and a consultant to the League against Cruel Sports. But a more important reason for staying away was because it was just seven years since my second experience of the Vietnam War (as a young reporter) and there were too many painful memories. So it is only now at the start of the film’s appearance on BBCiPlayer (for the next four weeks) that I buckled down to watch it. I knew the film won the best picture award at the Oscars, amongst other garlands, and that Robert de Niro’s performance would set him firmly on the road to be perhaps the greatest screen actor of our day. But I deliberately read nothing else about the film, no reviews, nothing.

The Deer Hunter 1 So I hadn’t realised that the the first, long section based in a hick steel town in Pennsylvania would be so important in setting up the three main male characters, buddies bonded by a love of hunting, drink and partying. A Russian Orthodox church plays an important role in their tight community, which retains many cultural traditions from their forefathers’ home country while at the same time pledging patriotic support for America. That support becomes all the more fervent when the three young steelworkers go off to fight in the Vietnam War, literally dropped in at the deep end. Though filmed in Thailand, the movie captures well the atmosphere of helicopter warfare in rural areas as I remember it, as well as the sleaze of Cholon, the predominantly ethnic Chinese quarter of Saigon with its girlie bars and gambling dens. I never heard of Russian roulette being one of the games of chance among even the most rapacious there, but that dicing with death forms the leitmotif for much of the rest of the film. That means that there are scenes that are definitely harrowing, more so than the early slaughter of a beautiful stag. But any observant viewer will by now have understood that much of the film is allegory and far from blessing America, as the inhabitants of the Pennsylvania steel town sing, the country and its overseas war are damned. No-one who was not in the Vietnam War will ever fully grasp its pointless horrors but no-one who was there, even if not seriously wounded, emerged unscathed. This was an astonishing film for its time, and one you won’t easily forget.

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Turkey’s COVID-19 Aid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th April, 2020

COVID19 - Turkey aidIt was probably a surprise to many people in Britain that Turkey has sent a significant consignment of medical supplies — predominantly personal protection equipment (PPE) — to Britain, though presumably a welcome surprise. Actually, this is not the first time this has happened, as 10 days ago another such shipment arrived at RAF Brize Norton. China’s offer of COVID-19 assistance to many countries, including Britain, has received a lot of media attention, as has Cuba’s despatch of doctors and nurses, to predominantly developing countries hit by the pandemic. But Turkey’s efforts have had less press coverage, at least until now. But in fact Ankara has received requests for help from 88 different countries and has so far been able to spring into action for more than 30. This is despite the fact that Turkey itself has the highest rate of coronavirus infection in the Middle East. However, the Turkish government is proud of the fact that it closed schools and universities just one day after the first confirmed case was identified. Subsequently it has implemented weekend curfews (the first rather hurriedly, prompting a spate of panic buying) while urging people to maintain social distancing at all other times. Some cynics might argue that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is engaging in this COVID-diplomacy, like the Chinese, as an exercise in soft power. But Ankara insists that the motivation is in fact entirely humanitarian, as, it would say, has been its sheltering of over three-and-a-half million Syrian refugees.

RumiThough Turkey has officially been a secular state since the time of Kemal Atatürk, Islamic beliefs, including charity and compassion, are at the heart of the ruling AK Party’s ideology, or so it would argue. In a nice touch, the virus aid consignments to Britain as well as being branded with the UK and Turkish flags also bore a well-known saying by the 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi: “There is hope after despair and many suns after darkness”. With Ramadan approaching later this week, we can expect more of this kind of diplomatic discourse. There is of course an irony in the current situation regarding Turkish aid to the UK as during the EU Referendum some of the Leave campaign, including Dominic Cummings, raised the (completely fabricated) “threat” of 70 million Turks arriving in this country as a result of Turkey’s supposed imminent membership of the EU. I don’t recall Boris Johnson objecting to that. Yet of course part of his family lineage is Turkish. Anyway, the government in London has thanked Turkey appropriately for its assistance at this time of need and in Britain’s post-Brexit reality doubtless both sides will be keen to see a distinct warming in relations..

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th April, 2020

Amália RodriguesSaudade is a peculiarly Portuguese concept, not translatable into a single word in any other language that I speak, embracing nostalgia, longing and a beauty suffused with melancholy. It finds one of its purest manifestations in the fado genre of song, one of whose greatest practitioners was Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), who was known as the Queen of Fado. I recall one magical evening in May 1990 when, along with other delegates to International PEN’s 55th Congress on the island of Madeira, I sat outside having dinner in the garden of one of Funchal’s more exquisite official buildings as Amália moved from table to table. Thirty years on, I can remember it as if it were yesterday. I can even hear her singing in my head.

Hotel Ingles RioToday, saudade was brought to my mind this morning as I looked in my day-to-day diary and noticed that this should have been my last day in Rio de Janeiro after a stay there for Easter; I would have flown overnight tonight to Lisbon and then on to London for the beginning of the SOAS university term. Although I have been going to Brazil every year — often more than once — for a long time now, this has mainly been to Fortaleza in the north-east. In fact, the last time I was in Rio was in 1992, again for an International PEN Congress, and I was impatient to rediscover the city’s charms. In 1992 I stayed at the Congress hotel, the Copacabana Palace, but this Easter would have been lodging at the much more modest Hotel Inglês, which is actually more my style; more authentic, less touristy. But of course those plans were thwarted by the arrival of COVID19 and its spread around the world. At least I should be able to reschedule Rio for a future date when life returns to normal, distant though that seems. So, yes, I feel saudade about Rio and Brazil as a whole, a certain sadness but also with a deep longing.

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Effie Gray (2014) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th April, 2020

Effie GrayThe art critic John Ruskin was a complex character, intense, driven yet capable of inspiring great admiration and loyalty from young devotees, including Oscar Wilde while that brilliant Irishman was a student at Oxford. But in Richard Laxton’s film Effie Gray — available on BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks, with a screenplay by Emma Thompson — Ruskin is a callous, self-centred ingrate, almost smothered by an over-protective mother. As played by Greg Wise (Thompson’s real-life husband) he is  Heathcliff-like, handsome and broodingly aloof. Euphemia (Effie) Gray, in this biopic based largely on true happenings, was the young woman who married Ruskin at the age of 19, having been befriended by him when she was not yet in her teens. John Ruskin did indeed have a liking for young girls, in common with his contemporary Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), though that does not mean he was a paedophile in the overtly sexual sense. Indeed, there is a strong possibility that he was asexual; certainly, he was horrified by the sight of young Effie’s naked body when she stripped off for him on their wedding night, as faithfully depicted in the film. The marriage was never consummated, which some years later gave her the chance to have it annulled, enabling her then to marry the dashing young Pre-Raphaelite painter Everett Millais, with whom she went on to have eight children.

Effie Gray 1In the film, Effie (a rather timid and much side-lined creature in Dakota Fanning’s representation) is encouraged to appreciate her own worth by the wife of the President of the Royal Academy, played with great panache by Emma Thompson. It is largely Thompson’s feminist reading of the story that gives the air of tragedy to most of the film — much helped by the rain sodden Scottish landscape in its second half — but the real Euphemia was no shrinking violet. In fact, she was a notable flirt and seems to have had a wild time with attentive Austrian soldiers in Venice when Ruskin was in the city to write his celebrated volume about it, leaving her largely to her own devices. There is only a hint of her future happiness at the very end of the film. But it is a visually beautiful movie, running at a pace redolent of a pre-electric age (which some viewers might find too languid for their taste). There is a star-studded cast in supporting roles, but neither David Suchet nor Derek Jacobi really has enough meat to get their teeth into. However, even if the film has its weaknesses, it is well worth watching, and the story it tells intrigues enough for one to want to know more about the real Mr and Mrs John Ruskin.

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Killing Eve: The Jury’s Out

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th April, 2020

Killing EveWhen Villanelle shot Eve in Rome as the climax of series 2 of Killing Eve we knew the older woman could not really be dead, not least because a series 3 was in the works. But I doubt if any of us imagined that Eve would turn up working in the kitchen of a Korean restaurant in New Malden, or that Villanelle would be getting married to a beautiful and super-rich woman in Italy. But as Eve nurses her emotional wounds Villanelle is still her murderous psychopathic self. And the intelligence services of both Britain and Russia are still manoeuvring in the background. Most of our favourite characters from the two previous series duly materialise and in its 40 minutes of action-packed horror, mixed with cheeky characterisation, the first episode of series 3 packs in enough hares and red herrings to keep the viewer guessing what on earth is going to happen next. Killing Eve has created a genre-defying blend of espionage, murder and the blackest of black comedy, so inevitably the question is: will series 3 live up to the others? Frankly, on the basis of this episode it is too early to tell. But of course one wants to see what happens next week to judge whether the magic is still there or whether they really have gone too far this time.

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Care Homes’ COVID19 Crisis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th April, 2020

care homeBritain’s official death toll from coronavirus topped 10,000 yesterday, but in fact the true figure is considerably higher, as the government only releases statistics relating to deaths in hospitals. Some people who have self-isolated with symptoms have died at home but what is probably an even greater number are passing away in care homes. The level of infection in some care homes is alarming — not least to the families of elderly people in care who are not able to visit them because they are in lockdown — and there have been grim reports of bodies being left for days in their rooms in some instances because of the pressure on funeral services. There is an uncomfortable air of “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to the way care homes have been almost ignored as nearly all the focus has been on the magnificent work being done to save lives in over-stretched hospitals. But care home workers are just as much at risk as they look after their elderly residents. Such is the concern in the sector that the Alzheimer’s Society, Marie Curie UK, Age UK, Independent Age and Care England have banded together to issue an urgent appeal, namely:

The Government needs to provide:

— PPE equipment for staff in care homes

— Priority coronavirus testing for care home staff, and people who are discharged from hospital into care homes

— Support for residents in care homes so they can stay in touch with their families

— Good palliative and end-of-life care for people dying in the care system

— Daily updates on coronavirus deaths in the care system, so that the scale of the challenge can be fully understood.

My comment: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as you recuperate at Chequers, please take note and act!


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There Are No Facts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 12th April, 2020

Friedrich NietzscheThe German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Nonetheless, at my primary school, History was all about “facts” — names and dates, almost all linked to kings and queens of England. But at secondary school, the radical insight that facts could be interpreted differently and therefore that History was mainly about interpretation — analysis, if you prefer — was an eye-opener for me. Even a topic as apparently black and white as War could be legitimately judged independently and differently, as a matter of opinion. And at university level, one learned that opinion had to be backed up by evidence. So far so good, taking Nietzsche’s saying at face value, but whatever would the philosopher have made of Donald Trump?

Donald Trump VsignTrump — probably not an avid student of German philosophy — has taken the concepts of “facts” and “truth” one stage further, by arguing that there can be “alternative facts” and apparently believing that anything can be true if you believe it. Does the President actually realise he is lying when he utters his endless string of alternative facts and deceptions? I suspect not, half of the time. But if he does, I doubt that he cares. Like a king out of a fairy tale, he believes he is all-knowing as well as all-powerful, and he is surrounded by sufficient sycophants to just nod (or at least hide their grimaces) when he chunters on, scattering nonsense like confetti. Meanwhile, while Mr Trump denounces mainstream media as “fake news” there are plenty of conservative TV channels and political commentators willing to treat what Trump says as Gospel.

George OrwellWhich brings me to Easter. For two millennia devout Christians have believed the unbelievable, that Jesus rose from the dead this Easter Sunday in a resurrection that defies scientific logic. Of course, religion and science have often found themselves on opposing sides since the Enlightenment, but for many followers of religion — any religion — articles of faith are believed without concrete evidence. They are a kind of alternative facts. So if countless millions believe such things should we be surprised that other countless millions believe what is said by Donald Trump, or Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China Xi Jinping? This is very disconcerting for anyone brought up in a secular, liberal democratic tradition in Europe and who has digested the warnings about Newspeak and the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Orwell was writing half a century before the emergence of social media, which in some ways have been a blessing for many people (especially at a time of isolation and social distancing) but they also have a dark side. On social media often there are no facts, only opinions. And they serve as a channel for disinformation as much as they do for information. When the coronavirus crisis passes, as it will, the virus of disinformation and of genuinely fake news will still be with us, and will alas probably prove far more resilient.

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Back to Nature

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th April, 2020

tulipsFor all us busy city dwellers the abrupt curtailment of normal activity nearly three weeks ago was quite a shock to the system. I was used to the luxury of knowing that the West End is only a 20-minute Tube ride away and that the brilliant local Genesis arts cinema is only a few bus stops from me. And of course, being able to pop out for a drink or for a meal at a restaurant was a privilege we all just took for granted. Now the lockdown means that the options are massively reduced, the mantra of permitted sorties drilled into us daily: you can shop for necessities like food and medicine; you can take ONE daily form of exercise; you can travel to work if it is essential and you can’t work from home; and you can so out to help others, such as the housebound who need assistance. All the time maintaining social distance. Otherwise, STAY HOME!

blossomAs a writer, I am used to spending long periods of time alone, sitting hours in front of the computer screen. But it does feel odd not to talk anyone face-to-face for weeks, possibly months, on end. Yes, there is skype and Facetime, including for TV interviews, and most of the meetings I usually attend have migrated to Zoom. But I wonder when will be the next time it is possible to touch another human being, just to shake their hand. I love films, so it has not been a chore that I have to watch one every evening, on TV or Netflix, as part of a regular schedule I adopted on Day One to give structure to this new form of living. But what I have really learned to treasure is that one permitted daily walk, which I have been taking in the glorious Cemetery Park just behind the house.

Formerly a Victorian cemetery it is now very much a woodland park, full of winding pathways and hidden corners, bursting with flowers as well as bird song. I only used to visit it sporadically, but now I treasure this daily connection with Nature, watching the spring bulbs give way to meadow flowers as the season progresses and how blossom flourishes and then falls as fresh green leaves sprout on the trees. It is astonishing just how many different plant species there are in this oasis and I now find myself taking note of each in a way I haven’t done since childhood, when I would march out into the fields armed with an “I Spy” book on flowers. I suppose one could call that communing with Nature. Certainly, Nature is communing with me, offering beauty and a sense of calm at this unprecedented stressful time.

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