Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Soho in the Eighties ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th September, 2018

Soho in the EightiesIt is widely acknowledged that Soho bohemia had its heyday in the 20-odd years following the Second World War. My old friend Dan Farson (charming when sober, poisonous when drunk) wrote a successful book called Soho in the Fifties that captured the revels of the age, and in the 1990s, at the request of the National Portrait Gallery, I put together a little volume Soho in the Fifties and Sixties, lavishly illustrated with portraits from the gallery’s collection. Now Christopher Howse, the bearded deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, has taken the story forward a generation, in his new book Soho in the Eighties (Bloomsbury Continuum, £20), which is mainly a collection of stories and reminiscences from his own Soho days and nights during that period. The main venues where the action (or more properly, perhaps, inaction) takes place will be familiar to connoisseurs of Soho’s past, notably the Colony Room, the French pub and the Coach and Horses. In fact, the last-mentioned public house (presided over by the self-proclaimed Rudest Landlord in London, Norman Balon) figures particularly prominently, as Christopher Howse’s favourite drinking-hole. There’s even a convenient sketch map of the Coach’s interior, showing where the regulars often sat. Some of those regulars had been around for decades, leftovers with hangovers from the past, like Jeffrey Bernard, the Spectator‘s “Low Life” columnist, but other characters Howse mentions were new to me. The twin artistic peaks of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are still visible on the Soho landscape, though the YBA Damien Hirst and his fellows were starting to take over the Colony Room. Howse’s stories are largely the Soho stable of drink, bitchiness and occasional true wit, but it is telling that many of those he recounts actually date from the earlier, heyday, period, when Muriel Belcher still sat perched on her stool in the Colony Room, ready to pounce on any hapless newcomer, and where people still remembered Dylan Thomas. So although there are some amusing passages in Howse’s book, anecdotes scattered like confetti to mixed effect, overall it comes over as a Requiem for bohemian times past.

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AEJ-UK at 50

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th September, 2018

AEJ Brexit seminarWith Brexit looming on the horizon, there is not much for pro-Europeans to celebrate. However, yesterday afternoon the UK section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ)  held a seminar at Europe House in Westminster to mark 50 years of its existence. The theme was UK-EU Relations beyond Brexit, which most speakers were agreed would need to remain close — both on economics and security matters — even if Brexit does go ahead on 29 March 2019. However, several contributors, such as the former Whitehall mandarin Sir Martin Donnelly and the anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, minced no words about Brexit being a mistake and held out hope that somehow it could be averted. In contrast, the former Labour MP and arch-Brexiteer Gisela Stuart (soon to take up the position of Chair of the FCO’s policy forum, Wilton Park) maintained that the voters had made the right choice in the 2016 EU Referendum and that the result had to be respected.

Given the audience — which included over a dozen journalists from other AEJ sections, from Ireland to Cyprus and Bulgaria — there was quite a lot of discussion about the role of the media in Brexit. Quentin Peel, former Financial Times correspondent in Brussels, admitted hat he had been lucky in working for an employer who wanted to know the details of complex European matters which were also of interest to the paper’s readers, whereas Peter Foster, Europe Editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, outlined the difficulty of covering the European story in ways accessible to the general public. The name of the Telegraph’s “star” columnist, Boris Johnson, was unsurprisingly bandied about, as people recalled his fabrication of anti-EU stories early in his career and now his championing of his own Brexit scenario. I was based in Brussels myself for eight years, initially with Reuters news agency, and it was there that I first joined the AEJ (French-speaking Belgian section). The everyday minutiae of news from the European Commission were challenging to convey in an interesting fashion, but the longer I stayed in Brussels and began to understand the purpose of the European project, the more I believed in its aims — which is why the prospect of Brexit does sometimes keep me awake at night and why I will continue to fight for Remain, probably via a People’s Vote or new referendum on whatever terms Theresa May’s government agrees with the other 27 EU member states, always assuming agreement is possible.

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What Hope for Palestine?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th September, 2018

Netanyahu TrumpOn the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York, Donald Trump met Binyamin Netanyahu for a friendly chat. The relationship between the United States and Israel remains as close as it has ever been. President Trump did say in his trademark casual way that he thought he liked the idea of a two-state solution to the Middle East impasse. But his actions so far have done everything to undermine that goal. First there was the decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in defiance of the almost universal convention that until the final status of Jerusalem has been agreed, the Holy City should not be acknowledged as Israel’s capital. The PLO Office in Washington was ordered closed and bilateral relations between the US and Palestine downgraded. Then came the swingeing cuts to US funding for UNWRA, the agency that supports Palestinian refugees as well as the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, leaving millions of people — many already on the breadline — destitute. No wonder that the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has declared that the Americans are no longer a credible mediator.

Israe; Palestine separation wallThe Netanyahu government, meanwhile, was quick to announce that any future Palestinian state will be a “state-minus”. It won’t be allowed to be in charge of its own defence and security, as Tel Aviv intends to keep control of things militarily right up to the Jordanian border. So in other words, the Occupation would continue in all but name. Moreover, the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in contravention to international law, means that there is no viable Palestinian state left any more. The best that can be hoped for is a few little bantustans within an apartheid system. Anyone who doubts the appropriateness of the term “apartheid” in the Israel/Palestine context today needs to study the Nation State law recently passed in the Israeli Knesset. Non-Jews were de facto discriminated against within Israel before the passing of the law, but now that discrimination is officially sanctioned. As the USA under Trump is not going to do anything significant to stop the ongoing deterioration of the situation for Palestinians, it is time for the European Union to step up to the plate and become the Middle East mediator, with economic as well as political pressure on Israel to change its ways. Given Britain’s historical responsibility for mandate-era Palestine, the UK ought to be in the forefront of such action, though that is unlikely so long as Theresa May’s Conservatives are in power. However, one ray of sunshine in the otherwise cloudy landscape is that the Labour Party this week called for the immediate recognition of the State of Palestine following a similar move by the Liberal Democrats last year.

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Does Anyone Know Labour’s Brexit Plan?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th September, 2018

Keir Starmer 1Sir Keith Starmer caused great delight among Remainers at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool yesterday when he went off-script and said that not only was a public vote (he avoided the campaigning People’s Vote) on Brexit “on the table” but that this would include an option to Remain. After a moment’s stunned silence, hundreds of delegates were on their feet applauding, while veteran Eurosceptic Dennis Skinner sat scowling on the front row. He will not have been alone in his dismay, as some trade union leaders have been arguing that there should be a referendum, but only between Mrs May’s deal with the EU (whatever that turns out to be) or No Deal — a line also adopted by Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. On Newsnight last night, Emily Maitlis tried valiantly to get a straight answer out of Diane Abbott about what Labour’s position on Brexit now is, but as so often with the Shadow Home Secretary, it was like trying to pin down blancmange. Basically Ms Abbott argued that we would have to wait and see what Mrs May came up with. But as nothing Mrs May can come up with is going to satisfy the Six Tests by which Labour said it would judge the Brexit deal, this is just kicking the can down the road. Surely the Opposition, just six months out from EU Departure Day, ought to have a coherent policy on Brexit by now? Instead their default position remains “We want a general election!” However, Theresa May has said there is not going to be a snap general election. So get off the fence on Brexit before it is too late, Labour. Are you now in favour of a People’s Vote (Like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens) and if so, will Remain be an option, as Keir Starmer stated, or is all this still an exercise in smoke and mirrors?

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When the World Laughs at Trump

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th September, 2018

Donald Trump VsignThere was an extraordinary scene at the UN General Assembly in New York when US President Donald Trump declared from the rostrum that his administration had probably achieved more than any other US administration in history: everyone laughed. Even Fox News carried the embarrassing moment live. And when the President said, “Well, I wasn’t expecting that reaction!”, they laughed even harder. It really does seem that Mr Trump thinks he is the best leader since Abraham Lincoln, or maybe George Washington. There is no limit to his vanity and self-delusion. But at least he has now felt the pin-prick of polite public scorn. From the whole world. Is he so surrounded by sycophants at the White House that he is unaware what people think? Of course, the smiles on the faces of many of the delegates at the UNGA were bitter ones, as there are so many ways that Trump has harmed the planet in the two years he has been in power, from rowing back on measures designed to limit climate change to trying to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal. Because he is who he is, even British Prime Minister Theresa May — who clearly did not relish having her hand grabbed by him when she visited Washington — feels she has to suck up to him, reluctantly admitting to a reporter the other day, after repeated questioning, that she does “trust” Donald Trump. Mind you, poor Mrs May is not in a much better position, as much of the world is laughing at her and Brexit Britain too. This is not a healthy state of affairs for the so-called Western World. Of course, Donald Trump may be voted out in 2020, assuming he is not impeached first, whereas Mrs May could in principle be in Downing Street until 2022, though that is looking increasingly unlikely. What a lamentable state of affairs!

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Theresa May’s Temper Tantrum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd September, 2018

Theresa May Downing StreetTheresa May returned from the Salzburg EU Council in angry bird mode. In a fiery statement at 10 Downing Street she accused our 27 EU partners of a lack of respect and demanded that they come up with a workable alternative to her rejected Chequers Plan for Brexit. She was obviously riled by EU Council President Donald Tusk’s admittedly cheeky Instagram posting of a photo of the two of them with a cake-stand loaded with pastries, captioned “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.” This was a reference to the charge that Britain is trying to cherry-pick some of the greatest benefits of EU membership as it formally leaves the Union. Most notably, the Chequers Plan proposes effectively remaining in the European single market for goods and food, but not for services. The British government has been told repeatedly that this is a non-starter, as the EU is determined that the single market must not be undermined; it is indivisible. The 27 remaining members are united on that and French President Emmanuel Macron, in particular, was deeply irritated that Mrs May chirpily repeated her Chequers proposals at Salzburg all the same.

Tusk May cakeTo make matters worse, back in Downing Street the Prime Minister asserted that the EU had not explained why the Chequers Plan won’t work, which, to put it bluntly, is a lie. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, had set out very clearly the fundamental objections some time ago to his clueless British counterpart, Dominic Raab. The EU also believes that the British still have not come up with a workable solution to the Irish border issue — and it is for Britain to do so, Brussels argues, as it is Britain that is leaving the EU, not the other way round. But it was clear from Theresa May’s combative statement yesterday that facts are no longer at the centre of her political rhetoric. She has adopted the Trumpian disdain for truth that characterises her Brexiteer Tory MP colleagues. And it was to them, not to Brussels, that her remarks yesterday were really aimed. She is fighting to save her political skin. Chequers is dead as a dodo, but she is on the endangered list too, now. And meanwhile the clock ticks towards 29 March 2019, the scheduled date for Britain’s departure from the EU, which seriously threatens to be a disastrous crashing out with no deal unless common sense — and ideally a People’s Vote — prevails.

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Corbyn Has to Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th September, 2018

Jeremy Corbyn smallOn a personal level, I have always got on well with Jeremy Corbyn. We have sometimes shared platforms, at home and abroad, on issues of mutual concern, such as Kurdish rights and Palestine. On such occasions, his integrity and passion for justice shine through. I haven’t seen him so often since he became Leader of the Labour Party; in fact, I believe the last time was a glimpse of him within a huddle of admirers at (Lord) Eric Avebury’s memorial event. But of course I have been following what he has been doing. And not doing. Especially in respect to Brexit. Jeremy always had grave misgivings about the European Union, as a “capitalist club” which supposedly did not have the interests of the workers at heart. But one would have hoped that with the evidence about the economic and social benefits that Britain has enjoyed during the 45 years of its EEC/EU membership, he would have appreciated the fact that it is better to be in than be out. In principle, he backed Remain in the 2016 EU Referendum, but so sotto voce as to be almost inaudible. And despite the cross-party clamour for a People’s Vote on the Conservative government’s EU deal (always assuming it reaches one), he has basically sat on the fence about the whole issue. Indeed, that is putting it kindly, as in fact both his legs are dangling over the side of No New Vote and Leave.

Labour Party Conference 2018Meanwhile, despite the fact that the May government is probably the most incompetent in recent political history, with Brexit clearly going disastrously wrong, the Conservatives have been ahead of Labour in several recent opinion polls. This is not because voters believe Theresa May is doing brilliantly; on the contrary, her approval rating is dire. But Jeremy Corbyn’s is even worse, when people are asked who they would like to see as Prime Minister. Jeremy does of course have a huge fan club, not least the Momentum movement, which helped the Labour Party to surge to an astonishing 600,000+ members — more than all the other political parties put together. But Momentum does not speak for all Labour voters, let alone for the public at large. Moreover, the plain truth is that a very significant proportion of the British electorate do not see Corbyn as a credible leader to steer Britain through the approaching choppy waters. He could, of course, redeem himself at the forthcoming Labour conference in Liverpool by coming out in favour of a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal, as many of his MPs and indeed labour Party members want. But if he doesn’t, then I think most people (and certainly informed political commentators) will come away with the view that Labour is not ready for power, unless and until Jeremy Corbyn goes.

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LibDems and the Creative Industries

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th September, 2018

Nik PowellThe LibDem Creative Network held an excellent event on the fringes of the Brighton autumn party conference last night, in an upstairs room at the Bar Broadway in Kemptown. There were two great speeches by producer Nik Powell, former Director of the National Film and Television School, and drummer Bob Henrit, who used to play with The Kinks. They both underlined what a disaster Brexit will be for the sector if it means a return to the bad old days of intrusive customs searches, carnets for instruments and other red tape. The creative industries contribute well over £70billion each year to the UK economy and the sector is growing faster than most others. But all that could be brought to a shuddering stop, before going into reverse, if there isn’t the free flow of actors, musicians and other artists between Britain and the Continent. No wonder there was such a sea of blue-and-yellow EU flags and 12-Star berets at the Last night of the Proms. To undermine the sector really would kill the goose that has been laying the golden eggs as well as enriching our cultural lives.

Bob KinksI reprised the theme in a speech I gave in the Britain and the World debate in the main auditorium at conference this afternoon, calling for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to be actively involved in Britain’s “soft power” through cultural diplomacy, and to report regularly to Parliament about the international aspects of our creative industries. It’s not just institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service that are important, but the hundreds of thousands of individual creators who make an enormous contribution. I recalled the wonderful spirit that there had been at the time of the London Olympics in 2012, while lamenting how that has evaporated in the two years since the EU Referendum. But as the clamour for a People’s Vote on whatever “deal” the Government comes up with grows, we must be hopeful that a cliff edge can be avoided. Remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union would certainly facilitate matters, but if we are going to do that, then we might as well stay in the EU, full stop.

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Cold War *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 13th September, 2018

Cold WarWhen the Communists took over power in Poland after the Second War — marginalising the government-in-exile in London — the country had to adjust to new frontiers, a more homogenous population following the expulsion of minorities and the gradual imposition of a new political order to fit in with the dictates of Joseph Stalin in Moscow. The febrile period of the late 1940s provides the setting for the opening scenes of Pawel Pawlikowski’s melodrama, Cold War, in which we see a handsome pianist and musical director, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), fall under the spell of a fiery blonde singer/dancer, Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is part of a troupe training in the echoing halls of an abandoned stately home. They are both free spirits and as romance stumbles along its rocky path, they find their lives and art increasingly circumscribed by the demands of philistine bureaucrats. A trip to perform in East Berlin in the early 1950s enables Wiktor to escape by walking out of the Russian zone into the West, but Zula is too insecure to accompany him. He moves to Paris, where he plays in nightclubs, unable to get her out of his mind despite other relationships. Fate throws them together later, both in France and Yugoslavia, and such is Zula’s fascination that the defector Wiktor determines to follow her back to Poland, with dire consequences. In less capable hands, this story could be a romantic tear-jerker, but Pawlikowski’s handling of both image and mood is magisterial. Shot in black-and-white, Cold War beautifully captures the atmosphere of the times. Polishness and the country’s folk culture are part and parcel of the narrative, intertwined with the political trope and the passion of fatal attraction. There are odd flashes of humour, but as the story unfurls it is clear that things are going to end badly. Logically, there is only one way the two lovers can resolve their dilemma, as what has become the prison of the system in which they now have to live becomes unbearable. By this stage most viewers will have taken both Wiktor and Zula to their hearts. Shakespearean in its intensity, Cold War is without doubt a masterpiece and visually stunning.

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If All the World Could Sing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th September, 2018

divrse choirUnder the dynamic leadership of Merlene Emerson from Singapore, the World Traders livery company in London has its heart set on entering the Guinness Book of Records by bringing together the most diverse (by nationality) group of singers ever for an event on 8 October. The current record is 72, but the organisers are hoping for 101, at least, to render I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing: Imagine. The venue is the Goodenough College near Russell Square http://www.goodenough.ac.uk/ and there will be a (free) reception afterwards. Singers should bring their passports, to verify their nationality. At the moment the line-up is particularly short of participants from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, but as every nation on earth has residents in London, they shouldn’t be so difficult to muster, surely?

Volunteers need to register via: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/world-traders-and-goodenough-college-guinness-world-record-challenge-tickets-44981245115

Stand up, sing up and be happy!

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