Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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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Stop the Coup!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st September, 2019

Stop the Coup 2Up and down Britain marches and rallies have been taking place to oppose Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to prorogue (i.e. suspend) Parliament by about five weeks from the second week of September, thus leaving precious little time for opponents of a No Deal Brexit to scupper his plans to take the United Kingdom out of the EU on 31 October. Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith has branded the protesters as a “Corbyn hate mob”, as the government’s rhetoric against those who believe Britain is better and safer within the EU becomes ever more extreme. Rather as on the anti-Brexit marches that have taken place over the past three years, the self-styled “Stop the Coup” protests have mainly been populated by the anxious educated middle classes and the young, orderly and cheerful, despite their anger at what is going on. Many are not members of any political party and only a minority are Corbynistas (enthusiastic supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn). These demonstrations have been nothing like the sometimes violent anti-Poll Tax riots of the Thatcher years. The police on duty, far from clashing with protesters, were often smiling and petting the numerous dogs. But there is an important difference between the current protests and the earlier anti-Brexit marches. The latter were big, one-off events, usually in the capital, whereas the new demos are all over the country — indeed, even in some foreign cities where there is a British migrant population or just holiday-makers determined the make their voices heard. Lots more are planned today and as next week could be crunch-time in Parliament for blocking No Deal or setting in motion a process to prolong Article 50 (the notice of Britain’s EU withdrawal). Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and his non-elected eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, have warned rebel Conservative MPs — including a significant number of former Cabinet Ministers — that they will not be allowed to stand as Conservatives at the next general election (which could be occur this autumn) if they oppose what the government is doing. Bravely, some, like David Gauke, former Justice Minister, have come out saying they will do what their conscience tells them is best for the country and not be cowed into silence.

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A Constitutional Outrage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 28th August, 2019

Boris Johnson 7Queen Elizabeth this afternoon acceded to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request that Parliament should  be prorogued for about five weeks starting in the first half of September. The Prime Minister argued that this is necessary so that a new session of Parliament can begin following a Queen’s Speech in mid-October, but critics — including many within the governing Conservative Party — believe that the real reason is to limit the time MPs will have to challenge Mr Johnson’s plan for a No Deal exit from the European Union on 31 October (assuming in the meantime he is unable to produce a new Deal with the EU like a rabbit out of a hat). The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has denounced the government’s move as a “constitutional outrage”, a phrase echoed by Opposition parliamentarians, including the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. I suspect the Queen was none too pleased either, but the terms of the unwritten British constitution are such that the monarch is effectively forced to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. However, the ructions are starting to be felt up and down the country. The Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, is reportedly on the verge of resigning and several senior former Ministers, including the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, have protested loudly. Half a million people signed a petition against the proroguing of Parliament within a matter of hours and thousands descended on Westminster this evening in a spontaneous demonstration against what many are calling “the coup”. Other gatherings are taking places in different parts of the country and social media are fizzing. Boris Johnson may think he has been extremely clever, but this could all lead to his having the shortest term of office of any British Prime Minister, or the break up of the United Kingdom, or both.

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A New Divan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th August, 2019

Genius Loci Weimar 2016 / Ackerwand / Foto: Henry SowinskiIn Weimar, where the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died in 1832, there is a monument: two solid seats, facing each other. They look as if they are waiting for two people to come along and exchange ideas across a divide that is nonetheless bridgeable. And that is indeed their function, actual and metaphorical, recalling the encounter between East and West, the Islamic world and the Christian, in particular the Persian poet Hafez/Hafiz (1315-1390) and Goethe. Hafez was born and died in the garden city of Shiraz and he wrote of love (towards favourites, whose gender is contested, thanks to the ambiguity of the Persian language), wine and religious hypocrisy. Not someone who the the mullahs at the head of the current Islamic Republic of Iran therefore might view with favour, one might imagine, though when I visited Shiraz some years ago (long after the 1979 Revolution), people in Shiraz still brought up Hafez’s name, and recited his poems. Even if one cannot understand Farsi the rhythm  is intoxicating. Goethe obviously felt this, too. His encounter with Hafez was through the translations of the gifted Austrian Orientalist and diplomat, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. In particular, Goethe was inspired by Hafiz’s work to write his own West-Eastern Divan, published in 1819 — a collection of lyrical poems suffused with the tastes and perfumes of the Orient and effectively an act of homage to Hafiz. Goethe’s work was not greatly appreciated by his contemporaries, unlike much of his output. But it caused echoes across many countries and resonates still today.

A New DivanTwo hundred years on, to mark the bicentenary of the original publication of East-Western Divan, the UK-based publisher Gingko has produced an admirable and elegant volume that is also an act of homage: A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East & West (£20) that is itself a celebration of artistic sensibility transcending geographical and ideological or religious boundaries. Edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson the volume contains poems by 24 authors, East and West, in nearly a dozen different languages, with English translation on the facing pages. The act of translation is itself at the heart of the project, as most of the poems in English are renderings by an English mother-tongue poet based on a more literal translation by a third party. To emphasize the importance of the nature and art of translation even more, there are three essays (among a few others) which follow the poems and which give added food for thought. The poems themselves are to be read and reread, some raising a smile, others a wince of pain, all inviting the reader to enter into the poet’s state of consciousness. Beautiful, certainly; troubling at times, particularly when one considers the traumas that the whole of the Middle East and North Africa has been going through in recent years. I think Goethe would have been intrigued, and I hope Hafez would have been proud — knowing that seven centuries after his birth, under the fiery reign of Timur/Tamerlane, his influence persists.

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Boris Johnson’s Hiding to Nothing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd August, 2019

Boris Johnson and Angela MerkelThe UK Prime Minister has been calling on his German and French counterparts this past couple of days, in an attempt to persuade them to alter Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement from the EU, specifically by dropping the controversial Irish “backstop”. Both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have been emphatic that they will do nothing that could undermine the integrity of the European single market or possibly endanger the Good Friday Agreement, which ushered in an era of relative calm in Northern Ireland and is seen as vital by most communities on the island of Ireland. Frau Merkel, rather in the guise of a secondary school teacher giving a lazy student a bit of a dressing down, gave Boris Johnson 30 days to devise some workable alternative that would enable frictionless trade and movement between the Irish Republic and the North, but as no-one has been able to come up with a potential solution over the past three years the prospect of that do not look good. However, Mr Johnson’s spin doctors will doubtless portray as a victory the fact that the German Chancellor had suggested some amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement is possible, though that frankly will be clutching at straws.

Boris Johnson and Emmanuel MacronFor his part, President Macron was in jovial mood, joking to Boris Johnson that he could always use a small table in the Elysée Palace as a footstool (which the clown then promptly did, creating a very unfortunate image). But M. Macron was adamant that there is no alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement and that Theresa May got the best deal for Britain that was available. He also twisted the knife in by saying that of course Britain could still revoke Article 50, and thus stay a member of the EU under its current terms, at any time up until leaving day. That date, Boris Johnson has said, will be 31 October, come hell or high water, but if his government persists with that line then a No Deal crash-out is highly likely. Even the British government’s own analyses predict that would be an economic disaster and special interest groups such as farmers are alarmed that their livelihoods could be almost instantly wiped out. Despite devoting huge sums of money into “preparing” for disruptions to food and medicines supplies in the case of No Deal the government cannot guarantee there will not be a crisis. O)r indeed civil unrest. The Prime Minister and the arch-Brexiteer Tory media are already blaming the EU for this looming catastrophe. But be in no doubt: the fault lies firmly at Boris Johnson’s door.

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