Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Serendipity and E M Forster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th February, 2019

8D7FA5BF-072B-4D30-AF67-E45E0A170EC8Last week, walking home from the tube in London, I saw that a neighbour (unknown) had left out a dozen books or so on a wall for passers-by to pick up and take away. By chance my eyes fell on an old Penguin edition of E M Forster’s Howards End, which I had never read, despite a great affection for the author and his work. I guess this was because as a young man during my intense fiction-reading days I was attracted to the continental and the exotic, whereas Howards End sounded terribly English. As indeed it is, as I have discovered as I savour it in moments of leisure while I am travelling in Oman. But it is deliciously satirical of the English middle class — especially those who did not have to work for a living — and as Christopher Isherwood once memorably put it, Forster “tea-tables” the emotions and the dramas, with a precise and critical eye for detail. I sometimes hear older people say, “Oh, I wish I had known about such-such-a-book years ago!” But I am glad that I have happened upon Howards End in later life. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much half a century ago. Moreover, the serendipity of spotting it on the wall in London, picking it up and bringing it with me to Oman somehow enhances the pleasure in reading it. And, yes, when I finish it, I will leave the 1957 paperback on a wall or the seat in a bus shelter to ensure the book’s next chance encounter.

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Trump’s Christmas Carol ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th December, 2018

2FAD63ED-0E38-47BA-999D-6189F9410C89Donald Trump is such a preposterous individual that he is actually quite hard to satirise. Satire tends to exaggerate characteristics and exaggerating his is quite a challenge without appearing absurd. However, the pseudonymous author Watt T. Dickens found a nice conceit by recrafting Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol with Ebenezer Trump taking the part of Scrooge (Ebury Press, £7.99). He is visited in turn by Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton (the ghost of Christmas past) and Barack Obama (the ghost of Christmas present) before the deathly ghost of Christmas Future shames him into a modicum of compassion. Barely has his last visitor left, however, before Trump reverts to being the greedy, sexist, racist narcissist that he was at the outset. All his loud-mouthed pussy-grabbing faults are laid bare, and whereas some of the earlier passages are indeed quite funny, by the end one really feels quite sick with the ghastliness of it all. However did that tangerine egomaniac with the impossible hair get into the White House? And how is it only too credible that he might get re-elected in 2020?

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Soldiers of a Different God ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th August, 2018

Soldiers of a Different GodWhile considerable attention has been paid by the media to jihadi groups and terrorist attacks of various kinds, the spotlight has not been shone so brightly on the counter-jihad movement. That is the term Brussels-based writer Christopher Othen gives to the motley collection of political activists, commentators and miscellaneous Islamophobes who are the subject of his book, Soldiers of a Different God (Amberley, £18.99). The sub-title on the cover offers the promise that the book will explain how the counter-jihad movement created mayhem, murder and the Trump presidency, but in fact the narrative thread is not as assertive as that. Indeed, at the very end, the author tentatively opines: “Decide whether Islam is an existential threat to Western liberal democracy or a slandered religion of peace that just wants to co-exist. Even Houllebecq the mage on the cover of Charlie Hebdo might find that kind of prediction beyond his powers.”

The French novelist Michel Houllebecq is just one phenomenally successful literary figure whose contribution to the counter-jihad movement is considered. Far more significant in many ways is Oriana Fallaci, who raised herself from her sickbed to write La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio, which, Othen writes, “spewed rage and venom like an out-of-control firehose.” Othen’s rhetoric is a fiery as that of many of the characters he introduces into the story, from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders to Milo Yiannopoulos and Nigel Farage, but that does not mean he shares their views. Steve Bannon, formerly Donald Trump’s right-hand man, and for a while a key figure in alt-right Breitbart News, comes across as a particularly hiss-worthy pantomime villain. Othen was a journalist before turning to writing books, and much of this volume is written in colourful journalese, which suggests the volume is geared towards a younger readership, yet there are pages of copious notes at the end, giving it an apparent badge of academic respectability. I liked the way that he managed to include most of the right-wing nutters on both sides of the Atlantic that one has learned to hate, while not glossing over the terrorism, rape, human rights abuses and other causes of their ire, so the book does serve as a useful source for easy reference. But I do wish he had taken a clearer authorial stance. Serves me right for taking at face-value what was on the cover.

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Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th August, 2018

COUTEL-Temoigner, entre acte et paroleThe title of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s new book (Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World, Balland, €15) reflects the boundless optimism that the man himself displays, despite the many hard knocks he has received over the years and his involuntary status of political exile. I guess the allusion in the title is to the golden era of Angkor, where, at the start of the 12th century, an estimated one million people lived around the temple complex, which would make it the largest conurbation of its time. But for most people, of course, Cambodia entered their consciousness when the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) came to light. Though a sizable majority of the population today are too young to have any direct experience of the horrors of the concentration camps and killing fields, the trauma endures, barely alleviated by the kleptocratic nature of the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The PM, his family and cronies have amassed great fortunes over recent decades while most Cambodians suffer a standard of living that is among the lowest in South East Asia, and much of the country’s environment has been ravaged.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won 90% of the seats in last month’s general election, which was widely denounced by foreign governments as a sham. Sam Rainsy’s National Rescue Party was excluded, having been forcibly “dissolved” by the authorities last year, though he pursues his political agenda in exile through the newly-created Cambodia National Rescue Movement. This book, in a series of sometimes sketchy, very short passages, gives some pointers to the sort of society he would like to see in a putative Cambodian renaissance, based on the rule of law, an end to corruption and full civil rights. As a devout Buddhist, he is forgiving towards his political enemies, even if they do not return the courtesy, and he is prepared to work with any outside country, including China, to build the nation he envisages. This is not entirely pie-in-the-sky, as Sam Rainsy in the 1990s was Minister of Finance in the government of Norodom Ranariddh (which was overthrown in a coup in 1997) and he has excellent international contacts, not least through the Liberal International. But for the time being, he is an outcast, admired (often in secret) by millions of his compatriots, denounced by Hun Sen, and sadly unlikely to be able to flesh out the bones of his vision for a new Cambodia any time soon.

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Five Escape Brexit Island ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th August, 2018

Five Escape Brexit IslandLike most children in the 1950s I was a great fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. I had a slight crush on Julian, disliked tomboy George and wished to be the dog Timmy. They got up to all sorts of exciting adventures, though everything always turned out alright in the end. Above all, they represented escape — escape from everything that was unsatisfactory about everyday life at home. Bruno Vincent’s Five Escape from Brexit Island (Quercus, £7.99) is one of a whole series of spoof Enid Blytons published by Hodder & Stoughton (itself a sub-division of Hachette), who these days own all the rights to the Enid Blyton estate. The plot and writing style are fairly loyal to the spirit of the original books, though with added expletives that must have Ms Blyton spinning in her grave. And the illustrations are lifted from genuine predecessors, not all of them as aptly captioned as they could be. The central premise is a good wheeze: that the Famous Five accidentally find themselves incarcerated in a secret detention centre on an island off the coast of Dorset following Brexit, before escaping on a home-made raft. There are a few good jokes, such as a series of increasingly exasperating messages in bottles pulled from the sea, and the hostile reaction of British holidaymakers when the plucky quintet on landfall try to use French and Spanish in the mistaken belief they have drifted abroad. But overall it is pretty tame stuff. A more biting satire of both Brexit and of Blyton’s wholesome tales could have been much funnier, but in that case she would most definitely not have approved.

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What Makes a Terrorist *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th August, 2018

What Makes a TerroristTerrorists, like revolutionaries, tend to come not from the impoverished masses but from the middle class, and usually have an above-average level of education. This was the shock central finding of Alan B. Krueger’s What Makes a Terrorist when it was published a decade ago, thus challenging the widely-held assumption that poverty is the root cause of terrorism. A 10th anniversary edition of the book has now appeared (Princeton University Press. £22), with the addition of a new Prologue, in which Professor Krueger points out that despite the high level of publicity surrounding terrorist attacks, the risk of being a victim of such an outrage is minimal and has not increased since 2008, notwithstanding blanket coverage of incidents in the media, including social media. In the 15 years between 9/11 and 2016, for example, 123 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks, whereas 240,000 were murdered.

9 11The main body of this book comprises three lectures that Dr Krueger (Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton) gave at the London School of Economics, snappily entitled Who Becomes a Terrorist? Where does Terror Emerge? and What Does Terror Accomplish? As a regular commentator in mainstream media in the United States, the author is adept at explaining things in layman’s terms, while sacrificing none of his academic rigour. The unique quality of his work rests on the fact that he approaches the subject from the perspective of an economist (statistics and all, though there is only one mind-boggling equation to daunt the non-specialist). He draws on useful examples, not least from Iraq and the Basque Country, as evidence to support his theories and certain quantifiable patterns do emerge. While most of us may find it impossible to imagine a situation in which we would deliberately kill random people in an act of violence, probably sacrificing our own lives, it is maybe useful to understand why some youths — and they are overwhelmingly young men — do and what they hope to achieve. Anger about a situation of poverty and injustice, such as the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, can be a motive, even if the perpetrators are not poor themselves. But I found particularly intriguing Professor Krueger’s assertion that there is a correlation between the origin of terrorists and the lack of civil liberties in that country. So although there is probably still substance to the argument that reducing poverty and injustice could reduce the incentives for terrorism, improving civil liberties and good governance could be at least as effective. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, please take note.

 

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Two Summers of Billy Morton ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th July, 2018

Two Summers of Billy Morton1968 really was a year to remember, what with the Prague Spring, the Paris May events, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Tet offensive in Vietnam, to mention but a few highlights. Fifty years on there have been many commemorations of individual events, but novelist Barry Stewart Hunter takes the year’s complete timeline as the backdrop to his picaresque tale of young Billy Morton, student photographer and opportunistic rent-boy, coming of age in swinging London at a time when sexuality was fluid and abortion recently legal (Two Summers of Billy Morton, Martin Firrell Company, £11.99). Billy’s “good” summer sees some strong and educative relationships on both sides of the fence, as well as the (not always disinterested) patronage of older people, including a one-armed lady picture editor based in Notting Hill (when the area was shabby, not chic) who suggests he go to Paris to see what the students were up to there. Having experienced the adrenaline rush of police horses charging an anti-War demonstration outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, Billy is up to the challenge, as well as being agile and comely enough to depend on the kindness of strangers when he gets to the French capital.

Barry Stewart Hunter The Paris middle section of this novel in three distinct parts produces some of the most memorable characters, including a transvestite benefactor, Mme Georges, and a handsome young Arab, Lafcadio, with whom ever-so-English and still quite naive Billy becomes involved. But unlike in the 1960s children’s classic by Shel Silverstein, this Lafcadio is not the lion who shoots back but rather the harbinger of Billy’s “bad” summer that sees a chain of mysterious dangers with death in their wake. For a literary novel — and Two Summers of Billy Morton is highly literary — this book is packed with action, though at times it can appear hallucinatory, daring the reader to cease suspending their disbelief. Though the principal narrative voice is Billy’s, other people chip in from time to time, almost as if giving evidence to a police investigation. Some of Barry Stewart Hunter’s characters are more credible than others; I found parts of the Bloomsbury salon chatter and a supposed interview with novelist Graham Greene a little arch. But the central figure of Billy, in all his contradictions, is engagingly real and memorable. Indeed, as I myself ventured alone to London aged 18 in the summer of 1968, Billy could have been me.

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John Tusa Making a Noise ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2018

John Tusa bookWithout a doubt, my favourite period during the 20 years I was based at BBC World Service at Bush House was when John Tusa was its Head. Having worked there in more junior roles at earlier stages in his career, he understood what made the place tick. The basement canteen was an extraordinary meeting place of resident experts and guests from all over the world, and he made a point of spending time there, chatting to everyone. As his autobiography, Making a Noise (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), makes clear, he would have loved to go on to be the BBC’s Director General, but there were powerful forces who were determined not to let that happen. Instead, the Corporation was landed with John Birt (or “the Dalek”, as we called him without affection at Bush), who wanted to bring about a revolution of management systems and efficiency measures which leeched much of the soul out of the institution. Fortunately for John Tusa, he had other fish to fry, not least as a TV presenter, not just on international affairs but also covering music and the other Arts — a passion shared with his wife Annie, with whom he has enjoyed a close partnership ever since they met as students at Cambridge. They went back to Cambridge, briefly, when he was appointed Principal of Wolfson College — an unmitigated disaster, as he recounts it, that lasted barely a year. That didn’t turn him completely off academe, however, as later, after a long, productive period running the Barbican Centre in the City, he would become Chairman of the University of Arts London, juggled along with being Chairman of the Clore Leadership Programme. Though now officially retired he is still full of beans, as I discovered when I went to see him being interviewed about the book by Robin Lustig at New Broadcasting House recently. All in all, he has had what is often tritely called a “glittering career” and not one many would have predicted when his father took him and the rest of his immediate family out of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939, to run a Bata shoe factory in Essex. Oddly, John Tusa never lived abroad himself again, though his broadcasting and Arts careers led to many short foreign assignments. He was thus a witness to important moments of history, including events in Poland in 1989, when Communism started to crumble in central and eastern Europe. There is therefore much that is fascinating about this book, though perhaps inevitably the later sections about Arts and academic administration are maybe less appealing to the general reader than earlier accounts of his work with the BBC. I would have liked more detailed pen portraits of some of the significant figures he encountered; instead there is a pot-pourri of amusing short memories in an “Envoi” at the end. Throughout, however, the author comes across as a man of great decency and discernment and a champion of several of the very best things about British and European civilization.

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And Then God Created the Middle East…

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st July, 2018

Karl reMarksAnyone living in the Middle East, or writing about it, as I do, needs to have a good sense of humour. But few are as sharp or as poignant as the London-based Lebanese architect — and occasional stand-up comedian — Karl Sharro (aka Karl reMarks). He is a master of killer one-liners (“After the Arab awakening comes the Arab siesta.”) but also makes verbal and graphic commentary on both the foibles of the Middle East and the complex love-hate relationship it has had with the West. One can now savour some of his best work — punchy sayings as well as cartoons — in an attractive pocketbook from Saqi Books: And Then God Created the Middle East and Said “Let There Be Breaking News”. It’s a real bargain at £6.99 and is packed with juicy items one wants to go back to again and again. I particularly liked his Lebanese version of a monopoly board. There’s some biting social and historic commentary (“As a Middle East person, when you visit a museum in Europe, it feels like when you visit friends and see a book you lent them years ago proudly displayed in their bookcase.”) But unlike some cartoonists and comedians from the region, Sharro’s humour is not all barbed or anti-Western or anti-Israel. His satire is often targeted at Arab rulers (“An Arab dictator is like a matryoshka doll in reverse. Every time you remove one, you get a bigger one.”). And ordinary Arab civilians come in for a ribbing as well. Even Western liberal intellectuals of the kind who might buy this book don’t escape his gently mocking eye (“The stages of Western civilisation: (1) Feudalism (2) Enlightenment (3) Industrial revolution (4) Modernity (5) Po-Mo (6) Inventing new hummous ‘flavours'”). I was tempted to say, leave this book in your loo, so every visitor can enjoy a quiet chuckle. But no, leave it prominently on your coffee table, and let everyone guffaw.

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Pay No Heed to the Rockets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd April, 2018

Pay No Heed to the RocketsFor such a small territory, Palestine has generated a disproportionate amount of books; I have several shelves-full in my library. But most of those works are about history, war and the search for peace. Literature rarely gets a look in. So Marcello Di Cintio’s journey among Palestinian writers in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, Pay No Heed to the Rockets (Saqi, £8.99, officially published next month) is both refreshing and informative. The writers the Canadian author encounters physically or through texts range from the dead and famous, such as poet Mahmoud Darwish, to brave young literary activists (some feminist, one gay) mainly working in cafés in Ramallah, Gaza City and Haifa. Each has a unique story, all in some way affected by the dispossession and dislocation caused by 1948 and/or 1967, but to very different degrees. Marcello di Cintio says he was prompted to embark on this project — part travelogue, part lyrical tribute to the craft of writing — by a picture of a young girl joyfully retrieving her rather battered books from the rubble of her home after an Israeli attack on Gaza. The author managed to track her down, as well as some of the writers who have been harassed at times by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. One of the most moving passages in the book recounts a visit he made to a venerable family library in Jerusalem’s Old City which has successfully fought off expropriation by Israel and encroachment by so-called settlers. As usual when Palestine and the Occupation are being examined, there is much to make one angry or depressed, but one of the great strengths of Di Cintio’s book is that he does not become emotionally partisan, nor does he lose his critical faculties while hearing the stories of those he meets along the way. They emerge from the text as recognisable individuals, with their strengths and their foibles, and one gets a clear sense of the environments in which they live and work. All in all, this is one of the best books I have ever read about Palestine and it should prompt people to get to know some of the work by the Palestinian writers themselves.

(Marcello Di Cintio will be visiting the UK 15-20 May)

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