Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Dump Trump

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th July, 2018

808A8666-5BFB-4B28-AAB1-CB96F9ABF5DFit was heartening to see many tens of thousands of people turn up this hot Friday afternoon to march against the views and practices of US President Donald Trump. There was a carnival atmosphere right from the moment that a giant Baby Trump in a nappy was inflated this morning and floated over Parliament Square, but at 2pm big crowds converged on Portland Place near the BBC’s headquarters before marching down Regent Street and on to Trafalgar Square. There was a host of nationalities represented and lots of flags — the EU’s and Palestine’s particularly visible — but it was the home-made signs that attracted the attention of the TV cameras, from the predictably scatalogical (“F**k Trump”) to the deliciously English (“I’m really rather cross”). A brass band enhanced the mood. I didn’t spot all that many politicians (Ed Miliband and Jo Swinson being notable exceptions) but there was every age and social group present, as well as trade unions and single issue groups holding up colourful banners, all united in their opposition to Mr Trump’s current visit to the UK. As I write this, he is sitting down to tea with the Queen at Windsor Castle, and one can only hope that he will be more diplomatic with her than he has been with Prime Minister, Theresa May. In an exclusive interview with the Sun newspaper, published this morning, the Donald rubbished Mrs May’s Soft Brexit plan and said he thought that former Foreign Secretary and government bad-boy Boris Johnson would make a great PM. The President’s busy schedule kept him well away from the big London demonstration, but he will doubtless hear about it and see pictures on his twitter feed. It was massive, and made abundantly clear that for many Brits and others living here, he is not a welcome guest.

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Bye-bye BoJo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th July, 2018

Boris Johnson and John McKendrickYesterday there was a collective sigh of relief within the Westminster village when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson finally resigned. His sudden departure from one of the four great offices of state had been looming for months; the only question was: would Prime Minister Theresa May sack him or would he quit? It was probably quite shrewd of Mrs May to leave the initiative up to him, therefore making herself theoretically blameless, though the drama of his leaving was anyway upstaged by Brexit Secretary David Davis jumping ship first. As ever not a gentleman, BoJo sent the PM a particularly unpleasant letter of resignation, effectively calling her compromise deal on Britain’s strategy for the Brexit negotiations (which he had in principle endorsed at the weekend Cabinet gathering at Chequers) a betrayal of Leave voters, as well as claiming Britain will become a “colony” of the EU as a result. However, the general feeling around Westminster is that Johnson has weakened, not strengthened, his own political position (the only thing that ever really concerned him) and that he is therefore further away from his goal of becoming Prime Minister. Several of his erstwhile colleagues in government have been quite uncomplimentary about him, but the prize for unfond farewells must go to the Attorney General of Anguilla, John McKendrick QC, who tweeted the photo shown here with the caption: “Meeting the worst Foreign Secretary we’ve ever had amongst the destruction of Hurricane Irma in Anguilla. Disinterested and out of his depth he cared nothing for our situation. Good riddance.” Touché!

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Facing Austria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd July, 2018

Logo EU-Ratsvorsitz 2018At the weekend, Austria assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union. That is quite a challenge at the best of times, but at present it is something of a poisoned chalice. The second half of 2018 is make-or-break time for the Brexit “negotiations”; even if diehard Remainers like myself now hope for “break”, so that the whole thing goes away, it is going to be a tetchy period. Not that Brexit is top of the agenda anywhere except in London (and possibly Dublin). As the Chargé d’Affaires of Austria to the Court of St James’s said in remarks at the opening of the Facing Austria exhibition at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in London Smith’s Square this evening, “security” is the number one issue for Vienna — and with a new centre-right-far-right Coalition in power there, that means addressing the concerns of good Austrians about “illegal migrants”/refugees. We can expect Austria to take a firm stand on this, hand-in-hand with other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, aka the Visegrad Group: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is already feeling their uncomfortable breath down her neck. It is therefore somewhat ironic that one important element of the 20 photographers’ work in the Facing Austria exhibition is celebrating diversity (which is indeed official EU policy). Lovely shots of African men against snow-capped Alpine peaks and of dazed-looking Syrian refugees in Austrian cities, for example. Britain’s wretched Tory-(DUP) government has deliberately created a “hostile environment” for unwanted, undocumented incomers, but nobody does “hostile environment” quite as efficiently as Austria, when it is in the mood. Still, the six-month presidency has only just started, so let’s see if the often cheerful pictures in the exhibition are more reflective of the Austrians at the helm than some people might fear. It would be nice to think that the United Kingdom, as a self-professed bastion of liberal democracy, would be in there fighting hard to make sure that the EU doesn’t get pushed to the right over the coming months. But alas Mrs May is far too preoccupied trying to find the handle to the EU exit door, all the time worrying if it may come off in her hand.

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Path of Blood *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd July, 2018

Path of BloodFollowing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of the world media’s Middle East focus was on what transpired in that benighted country. But from 2003 to 2009 another story was unfolding, in Saudi Arabia, though not much was reported about it in the West, partly because foreign journalists did not have easy access to the desert Kingdom. The narrative promoted by George W Bush (and his then acolyte, Tony Blair) was that the godfather of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden — initially holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan — posed an existential danger to Western civilisation, for which one obvious piece of evidence was the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. But a more immediate goal of bin Laden and his followers was the overthrow of the House of Saud. So for six years, a terror campaign was carried out in the Kingdom, mostly by radicalised young locals. Not all the attacks were successful, but some were very bloody, and on one occasion Al Qarda operatives managed to get to the Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, though somewhat miraculously he survived. It is this six-year war of underground activity that is the subject of Jonathan Hacker’s riveting documentary, Path of Blood, which combines footage from both the Saudi security forces and Al Qaeda cells. The juxtaposition provides a unique portrait of a cat-and-mouse game between what most Westerners would see as religious fanatics and a not always efficient state apparatus. Some of the shots are predictably gruesome — this is not a film for anyone who can’t bear the sight of blood, or of dismembered body parts — but other moments give an unparalleled insight into the minds as well as the practices of Al Qaeda extremists. Some scenes of the boys — and some are little more than boys — larking about inevitably raise a smile. But when a clearly rather educationally backward youth makes a real hash of recording his pre-suicide mission video, there is undeniable pathos. I have spent nearly three decades reporting on the Gulf and the wider Arab world, but this film taught me more in one-and-a-half hours than some trips to the region. It is due out in cinemas from 13 July.

http://www.pathofbloodfilm.com/

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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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Make Votes Matter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th June, 2018

Make Votes MatterBritain’s democracy is at a crisis point, with the Prime Minister shackled by the need to appease about 60 hardline Brexiteers in her parliamentary party as well as the whims of the 10 right-wing DUP members from Northern Ireland, whose support she bought with a bung of a billion pounds. Meanwhile, the Opposition Labour Party, which should be on the crest of a wave given the government’s incompetence and distress, is actually behind in the opinion polls, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s endorsement of Hard Brexit and fears among the middle ground of UK voters that the party wants to turn Britain into a kind of socialist utopia. The voices of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, meanwhile, are muted by the fact that their parliamentary representation is disproportionately small — just one MP in the Greens’ case. This is a direct result of the country’s antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system, which means that many electors vote not for the party whose policies they agree with, but for the lesser of two evils — or who don’t bother voting at all, “because my vote won’t make any difference”. Some people might argue that the current system obliges both the Conservatives and Labour to be “broad churches”, to be able to have a chance of forming a working majority, but the Brexit situation has underlined the fact that there are deep splits within both parties, making it difficult for either of them to hold a coherent line. For these and other reasons, pressure is building for a reform of the electoral system to some form of proportional representation — which already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland and was used in the European elections nationwide. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Ireland is probably the most effective in producing results that largely reflect the electorate’s wishes, and which give the voter the opportunity to differentiate between their feelings about different candidates or parties. So today, when  there is a national day of action in favour of fairer votes — proportional representation — don’t be surprised to see or hear a lot about STV. No electoral system is perfect, but STV gives more power to the voter, and would avoid the most grotesque distortion as of the current system, in which sometimes a party can win fewer votes but more seats.

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What Is Writing Worth?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th June, 2018

wordcloud writing.pngThere is a massive paradox at the heart of Britain’s creative industries: though these are now worth over £90billion a year (and growing much faster than the economy as a whole), writers’ earnings have been declining sharply. In other words, the packaged goods are booming, but the people who produce core content are not getting properly remunerated, which inevitably means that many are having to search for other ways of earning a living. Let’s take a look at the figures. According to the latest survey of authors’ earnings — carried out by the University of Glasgow, on behalf of the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS)*, and launched at the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group summer reception in Parliament yesterday — the average actual earnings for professional writers in the UK last year was £10,437. That’s well below what someone on the minimum wage would earn for a 35-hour week. Worryingly, this sum is down from £12,330 in 2005 and £11,000 in 2013, when similar studies were carried out — and that doesn’t even take inflation into account. For part-time writers the figures are even worse. Now, I have met people who say “writers should write because of their love of writing, not for the money!” But that’s rather like saying, “chefs should cook for their love of cooking, not for the money!”. And just as one should not expect a free meal in a restaurant — or at least, one for which the chef is not being paid — neither should people expect free content when they get a book or other form of creative content. Sadly, one of the adverse effects of new technology and the ability to download content to all sorts of devices has been that consumers do increasingly expect a lot for free. But to do so risks cutting off the supply of the very thing they want. That’s why the work of bodies such as ALCS, the Society of Authors, the Writers’ Guild and others is so important, in campaigning for the respect of copyright and proper payment for creators. Work on copyright awareness is increasingly taking place in schools and other sectors, fortunately. So as this new alarm bell over writers’ impoverishment is rung, does that mean that when a further study is done in a few years time, we’ll see an upturn in the median earnings? Like most authors, I fervently hope so — but I’m not holding my breath.

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Sustainable Cities

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th June, 2018

61FE9C9F-3DBF-422F-BA46-EA249C559737The key theme of the 200th Executive Committee of Liberal International, which finished in Berlin last night was climate justice — how climate change and other environmental problems can be tackled in a way that improves people’s lives. A striking difference between Green and Liberal political parties is that whereas the former are eco-centric, the latter see the quality of human life as central to political priorities. With parties from more than 50 countries (both developed and developing) represented at the Berlin gathering, there was inevitably a wide range of views, but also common cause in stressing the urgency of action to address the issue, as reflected in a new LI Berlin Declaration that was passed nem con and will be available through the organisation’s website. As more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, the challenges of urban sustainability were a topic for special consideration by a panel of politicians from the Philippines, Senegal and Poland. Josephine Sato and Diene Farba Sarr spoke respectively about what is being done to enhance living conditions in Manila and Dakar, while Marek Szolc posed the question of how far governments should either encourage or force citizens to be more environmentally responsible. Certainly this is something that cannot be left to market forces alone, but a balance between incentives and punitive measures needs to be struck. Doubtless further discussion on such matters will take place at the Liberal International Congress in Dakar at the end of November.

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McQueen *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th June, 2018

Alexander McQueen and Isabel BlowAs a lad in London’s East End, Lee McQueen (later to be rebranded with his posher-sounding middle name Alexander) had little interest in the subjects he was meant to be studying, instead spending most of his time in class drawing. His taxi-driver father would have liked him to become a mechanic or something similarly practical, but the podgy youth — encouraged by his mother and gran — was determined to become a fashion designer, pursuing his vocation with a determination that belied his years. He managed to get an apprenticeship at a tailor’s in Savile Row, but already his creative imagination was heading in directions that were wildly different from the norms of traditional fine tailoring or haute couture. An MA course at Central St Martin’s (paid for by an aunt who withdrew her nest-egg to sponsor him) enabled him to experiment, to learn about working in a team, and to get noticed. His designs were outrageous, both in their style and often in the materials they were made of. He was essentially on the breadline financially, living off the dole after graduation, while hiding the fact that he was working, and forming a key friendship with the avant garde style guru, Isabel Blow. He embarked on a number of gay relationships, but none was to prove permanent, as his work always came first. And as he rose rapidly to success — becoming chief designer of Givenchy in Paris as well as maintaining his own label in London — his moods became darker and his personal life started to fall apart. On 11 February 2010, the eve of his mother’s funeral, he hanged himself, aged just 40.

Alexander McQueen showFrom this potted biography one can see that McQueen was an obvious subject for a biopic, but rather than use actors to tell the tale, the co-directors of the movie McQueen, Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui chose a documentary style, enabling the story to unfold through interviews with McQueen’s family, lovers and friends, as well as clips of the designer himself talking about his work, home movies, catwalk footage of his increasingly dark and bloodily-themed shows, all to a characteristic soundtrack by Michael Nyman. Quite a lot of the footage is jerky or blurred, adding to a growing sense of anxiety as McQueen’s character mutates from talented ingenué to angst-ridden diva. The pace and mood are brilliantly controlled and even if one is not interested in the slightest in women’s fashion (certainly true in my case) the portrayal of a strikingly original talent heading towards seemingly inevitable self-destruction — underscored by cocaine-abuse and McQueen’s HIV status — this is a film which engages one’s emotions to an extraordinary degree, so that one is left grieving with his spectacularly ordinary relations at the end.

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The Happy Prince ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th June, 2018

The Happy Prince 1In Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright’s final couple of years — in other words, the period between his release from prison and his death in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris — gets somewhat short shrift, partly because Ellmann himself was a dying man as he struggled to complete his book. I have long maintained that that means that Wilde’s exile is nearly always portrayed as pure tragedy, whereas in fact any close reading of his voluminous letters from 1897 to 1900 makes clear he enjoyed many good times and sexual encounters in France and Italy, free of the moral strictures of perfidious Albion (less so in Switzerland, where he thought the people looked like turnips). Indeed, as his devoted friend and first homosexual lover, Robbie Ross, recalled soon after Oscar’s death, apart from a few barren periods when his monthly allowance ran out, he was able to have champagne every day. I was delighted that in Rupert Everett’s films, The Happy Prince, which is now on release in London, the champagne does indeed flow. As do the willing youths of Naples and the Paris boulevards, including the delightful young soldier Maurice Gilbert, who was passed around among members of what would in the 1930s would wittily be dubbed The Homintern of well-connected queer gentlemen.

The Happy Prince 2But Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and partly produced The Happy Prince, as well as playing the lead role) focuses particularly on the tragic triangle of Oscar’s main loves: his wife Constance (by this time handicapped after a fall down stairs in the House Beautiful in Tite Street and doomed to die before her husband), Robbie Ross, and the “golden boy”, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Colin Morgan (unrecognisably blond) was an inspired choice to play Bosie, as he radiates exactly the sort of pretty petulance and sporadic vindictiveness that made Bosie mad, bad and dangerous to know — a true scion of the Black Douglases. At times one wants Oscar just to slap him, though one knows that he won’t, besotted as he is, despite everything that has happened. Instead, it is (in this film’s imaginative relating of the story) Robbie — sensitively and beautifully played by Edwin Thomas — who lashes out at Oscar’s graveside. But it is an empty victory, because everyone has in fact lost, in the battle for Oscar’s love and compassion.

The Happy Prince 3Rupert Everett’s own portrayal of Wilde externalises the playwright’s inner torments and bitter regrets, so that his face is often distorted and his visage a ravaged mockery of his own glittering past — a sort of walking Picture of Dorian Gray, brought down from the attic. I am not convinced that Oscar or Reggie Turner (Colin Firth, as one has never seen him) would have been quite so ready with the expletives as they are in the film. But a lot of the scenes are redolent of fin-de-siecle atmosphere and historical fact, though the notion recounted that Robbie Ross at the age of 17 picked up Oscar in a public lavatory was actually the scurrilous tittle-tattle of the self-aggrandising pornographer Frank Harris, rather than the more prosaic truth that Robbie came into Oscar’s orbit because Constance (Emily Watson in the film) and Robbie’s mother were both active in the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association. Of course, film-makers must be allowed some poetic licence, and Everett only had the length of a feature film to put over his concept of Wilde, a person who has dominated much of his artistic thinking for years (as it did earlier with Stephen Fry). The title of the film comes from Oscar’s first real literary success, a book of short stories for children, originally composed for his young sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, but then polished and made suitable for an adult audience as well, with a profound moral message, unlike some of the sanctimonious twaddle wrapped up in some other Victorian fairy tales. The story is used imaginatively to bookend the film, and is at other times cleverly woven into the narrative. So although this movie is not perfect, there is much in it that is beautiful, and sad, and gives one cause for reflection.

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