Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Monolingual Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th December, 2019

58DC58EB-7D28-4043-8AE7-028ED9620E22It has often been said — not always in jest — that Brits are bad at learning foreign languages. But for many Brits the truth may be that they don’t see the point in making the effort, “as everyone else speaks English, don’t they?” That latter assumption is of course incorrect and to be honest it is a feeble excuse. And with Brexit looming, when the UK government wants to promote the idea of a Global Britain the population will be largely unprepared to engage with foreigners in other languages. According to, using figures from the EU statistics agency, Eurostat, the UK has the highest number of monolingual inhabitants of any of the 28 EU member states: 65.4%. Yes, almost two thirds. This is despite the fact that so many Brits travel abroad for their holidays. Moreover, by not speaking other languages monolingual Brits miss out on so much of Europe’s cultural richness. Compare our poor national linguistic performance with that of the most multilingual, the Swedes, of whom only 3.4% say they speak no other language. Part of the problem is that language teaching in British schools has dropped off in recent years. However, not all is lost. According to google searches hundreds of thousands of Brits have been searching online about learning another language, Spanish being the most popular: 112,000 in the past month alone. This individual initiative is to be applauded. But if the government wants to prevent the country becoming more isolationist after Brexit it needs to be encouraging more citizens to learn other languages as well.


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A Vida Invisivel *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th December, 2019

D6468D38-3CE8-425A-978F-14A6137D0103Just a few years after the Second World War two sisters in Rio de Janeiro rebel against the strict domestic regime of their humourless Portuguese baker father and his cowed wife. One, a talented pianist, dreams of going to study at the conservatoire in Vienna while the other takes the plunge and runs off to Europe with a handsome Greek sailor, which will see her banished from the family home when she returns, pregnant but with her marriage in ruins. The other sister meanwhile has married a man who despairs that she seems to care more for music than for him. Austria remains an unrealised dream. In reality, the greatest love the two young women have is for each other, but they will be kept apart by a wicked lie, each believing the other is on the other side of the Atlantic. The grief of separation is almost unbearable for the sensitive pianist. Karim Ainouz’s family drama could all too easily been schmalzy whereas in fact his delicate direction and the brilliant acting of Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler as the two sisters make this an unforgettable, lyrical portrayal of sibling love and loss. The physical settings of Rio in the 1950s and 1960s, often in rain or under low cloud, greatly add to the atmosphere. There are moments of humour as well as some unflinching sex, but the dominant key is minor, not major. The expression of growing helplessness on the face of the pianist as the years go by leaves an indelible impression.

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Say No to Visas for EU Citizens

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd December, 2019

Priti Patel 1In their latest move to cut Britain off from mainland Europe the Conservatives are proposing introducing electronic visas for EU and Commonwealth citizens making short-term visits to the UK. If that goes ahead, the EU would doubtless feel obliged to reciprocate by imposing visas for British citizens wishing to visit the Continent. This is ending Freedom of Movement with a vengeance. Home Secretary Priti Patel believes that this will make Britain more “secure” — a concern that last week’s terror attack in London has heightened. But the London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, like the other terrorists who have carried out incidents in Great Britain, was British. The problem lies within, not over the Channel. But this government has become ideologically obsessed with breaking our close relationship with our current EU and EEA neighbours, turning us into an isolated entity like the United States. But whereas the US is a whale and can survive with tough border controls, intent on keeping people out, Britain will be a minnow once it leaves the EU. Not only will imposing visas for EU citizens further antagonise our European neighbours, it will also do incalculable damage to major sectors of the British economy, not least the creative industries (where mobility is often crucial) and tourism. This really is a crazy idea and provides one more glaring reason why electors in Britain should not vote Conservative on 12 December.

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AIDS: Not Gone but Forgotten?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st December, 2019

World AIDS DayToday is World AIDS Day, but you are unlikely to see as many people wearing the related red ribbon symbol as was the case some years ago. Because effective drugs now mean that the HIV virus can be suppressed, though not yet eliminated, there is a tendency not to take the matter so seriously any more. In Britain, there are around 100,000 people currently living with HIV/AIDS but it is no longer the guaranteed killer that it was in the 1980s and 1990s. However, some people are still getting infected by not taking to heart the warnings about unprotected sex, in particular. Surveys show that there is rising nonchalance among some high risk groups, notably promiscuous gay or bisexual men, so some of them are now benefitting from wisely using PrEP — HIV prevention pills that substantially reduce the risk of infection. In Britain, the NHS does regard combatting HIV/AIDS as a top priority and most doctors, hospitals and STD clinics deal with sufferers with sensitivity. Yet there is still quite a high level of public stigma attached to HIV status which can put great psychological pressure on people who are HIV+, especially those who have no-one in whom they feel they can confide. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, of course, the situation remains much worse, with AIDS decimating the populations of many countries, notably among heterosexuals. The rate of infections has recently slowed, thanks to better health education and the availability of free or cheap drug treatment. But much still needs to be done. That is why on World AIDS Day people must acknowledge that the problem has not yet gone away, and should not be forgotten. Richer countries, including Britain, must continue helping the global fight against HIV/AIDS, as well as providing the necessary education, treatment and support at home.

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Knives Out *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th November, 2019

KO_07197.dngWhodunnits are an important genre of popular fiction, perhaps best typified by the prolific output of that West Country mistress of mystery, Agatha Christie. Many of her books were turned into films or television specials; one thinks particularly of Murder on the Orient Express and the long-running TV series, Poirot. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which has just been released in the UK, is in many ways a tribute act to Christie, with the setting moved to New England. The celebrated private detective, who is able to deduce what the more plodding law enforcement officers cannot, is an ill-shaven southerner with an outrageous drawl, Benoit Blanc (improbably but entertainingly played by Daniel Craig). Most of the action takes place within an ugly, gloomy mansion, its interior eclectically stuffed full of weird objects and books reflecting the unconventional character of its octogenarian owner, a hugely successful crime writer (Christopher Plummer). He summons all of his dysfunctional family for his 85th birthday party, where jealousies and feuds bubble under the surface, periodically bursting out like molten lava. Each of the family members has glaring faults and is clearly waiting for the old man to die so they can inherit. The only sympathetic character is a young Latin American nurse-companion, whose nationality the snobbish family constantly misremembers. When the writer’s body is found up in his garret study the following morning, with its throat cut, the assumption is that he has committed suicide, until Benoit Blanc (anonymously commissioned to look into the matter via an envelope stuffed with money) suspects foul play.

Knives Out Daniel Craig As in a Christie novel, everyone seems to have a motive for such a killing, but the plot of Knives Out veers off in an unexpected direction, more than once, so it really is only at the end that Blanc is able to tie up the loose ends in front of the astonished family assembly. In the meantime, the movie has walked a tightrope between detective story and black comedy, in which there are indeed many laugh-out-loud moments. There are infinite nods not only to Agatha Christie but also to other popular crime writers; at one moment, the Latin American nurse comes home to find her mother watching Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote on TV, dubbed in Spanish. The actors playing the writer’s family members in Knives Out clearly have a lot of fun personifying nastiness — from a chillingly calculating Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the daughters to a creepy young Jaeden Lieberher as a nerdy grandson with alt-right tendencies. Rian Johnson wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film and the dialogue is a triumph of social observation as well as literary referencing. This may not be the most suspenseful whodunnit you will see this season, let alone the most significant piece of cinema, but as pure entertainment it is hard to think it will be beaten.

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Open Eurasian Literature Festival

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th November, 2019

JF speaking at Open Eurasia Literature Festival 2019For much of this week I was in Brussels, attending the Open Eurasian Book Forum and Literature Festival, organised by the Eurasian Creative Guild. This annual event is a celebration of writers from Central Asia and Eastern Europe, with a special focus this year on Abai Qunanbaiuly (1845-1904) and Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008), towering figures from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan respectgively. In the impressive surrounds of the Brussels Expo centre I delivered a paper on universal themes in Chinghiz Aitmatov and Oscar Wilde, which I had previously presented at two universities in Kazakhstan as well as in London. In some opening remarks at Expo, as well as on the following day at a lecture hall in central Brussels, I said how fitting is was that all this should be happening in the city that prides itself on being the Capital of Europe, but which should embrace far more than just the current 28 member states of the European Union. I also referred to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the collapse of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union into its constituent republics, many of which were represented at the festival.

Open Eurasian Literature Festival Numerous authors from the Eurasian region were able to showcase their work and there was also an awards ceremony for the winners of the associated cultural competition. Russian is still the lingua franca among the former Soviet republics and much of the event was in Russian, as well as presentations in English. Central Asian literature is still relatively little known in Western Europe, but dedicated enthusiasts are working hard to change that situation, not least the main driver of the whole enterprise, the Uzbekistan-born Marat Akhmedjanov of the Hertfordshire Press.


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9 November 1989

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th November, 2019

CF50D9B1-9624-4099-AA55-EFC2AE403324On the 9th of November, 30 years ago, I had done my usual daily shift for BBC World Service at Bush House and had settled down to watch the TV news at home when the first extraordinary images came through of people climbing onto the Berlin Wall and passing through it. For those too young to know what the Cold War was like, it is hard to convey the magnitude of what was happening before our eyes. For four decades, the possibility of conflict — indeed, nuclear conflict — with the Soviet Union and its satellites had been a permanent reality, despite efforts at detente (not least by the West Germans). The Berlin Wall itself was not just symbolic but a grim and dangerous barrier between East and West. Some reckless, brave souls had been killed trying to get through it over the years, while millions of others were separated from family and friends. As a Westerner — and a journalist to boot — it was easy for me to visit East Berlin, usually on day trips via Friedrichstrasse, with an obligation to return to West Berlin by midnight — and sometimes I had longer stays in the Communist half of the city, which really was like another world. Most of Berlin’s historic centre was in the eastern sector; I went to the opera house once, to see the ballet Gisele, during which three Soviet dignitaries sat by my side studiously reading Pravda. I often visited the small Quaker group in the East, and was dismayed when one dear Friend meeting me outside the Friedrichstrasse station one morning burst into tears when I handed over a bunch of white Lily of the Valley, because she had not seen any for many years. I was in East Berlin again in the early autumn of 1989, when I visited a friend who lived on Leninallee. Hungary had already opened its border with Austria, but my friend lamented, “It could never happen here!” But it did, only weeks later, catching almost everyone by surprise. We should never lose our sense of wonder at that, nor sacrifice the benefits of Europe Reunited.

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The Irishman *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th November, 2019

The IrishmanHollywood has often glamorised the world of gangsters, giving the nastiness a gloss of adventure and sometimes comedy. But Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman takes the viewer far more subtly into the head of an Irish American truck driver, Frank (played by Robert De Niro), who gets sucked into the violent world of Italian mobsters before graduating to become a hitman and confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (an unrecognisable Al Pacino), head of the Teamsters Union, who is himself up to his neck in fraudulent and thuggish activities. Frank’s rise is not through ambition but rather as a result of circumstances, then later as a means of survival. Any moral qualms he had at the beginning quickly evaporate, but from an early age one of his four daughters looks on disapprovingly, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, somehow intuiting her father’s inner corruption before breaking with him completely. The rise and fall of the Kennedys (Jack and Bobby), then the nefarious activities of Richard Nixon, are all backdrops to some of the action, whose grisly inevitability underlines the fact that there is no honour among thieves. By the end, when almost everyone else is dead, a wheelchair bound Frank, in a care home for the elderly, is offered the possibility of a sort of redemption, or at least forgiveness, but he cannot bring himself to feel regret, let alone remorse, for the deaths and collateral suffering he has caused. In Robert De Niro’s brilliant portrayal, Frank’s dissociation is burningly credible. You think he could have been a nice fellow in other circumstances, and as things get progressively worse he is mentally increasingly absent, though physically present, even centre stage. De Niro’s career is choc-a-bloc with great performances but this is the capo dei capi among his roles. He is on screen for almost the entire three-and-a-half hours of the film, but one’s interest in him never wavers as we watch him morally disintegrate the higher he rises, while still seeing himself as a regular guy. Martin Scorsese’s direction is impeccable, particularly in its depiction of 1950s and 1960s Pennsylvania and the mid-West, with their garish clothes and super-size cars and grizzly motels. With a budget reputed in excess of $120,000,000, no expense has been spared in the production of this movie and the attention to tiny details is such that one could willingly sit through the whole thing again — and I probably will.

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The Taylor Wessing Prize 2019

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th November, 2019

Non NPG Work - Competition Exhibition – Born DigitalPeople watching is one of my favourite occupations, honed on the terraces of Parisian cafés or the Grand’Place in Brussels. But not everyone appreciates being studied intently, perhaps understandably, which is one reason why photographs have such immense appeal. You can stare at them as hard and as long as you like; what’s more, the image is of a precise moment captured. The very best can linger in one’s mind for decades. So I always look forward to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This year’s opened today and runs until 16 February. The competition attracted around 1,600 entries, from 70 countries. Interestingly, the NPG chose as its main publicity shot for the exhibition the photo I liked best, of an Estonian lady of a certain age, in big round spectacles (a la Iris Apfel); the somewhat vacant expression on her face probably reflects the depression to which the sitter is prone; her photographer daughter, Sirli Raitma, suggested doing various pictures of her in different dress in an effort to lift her mood.

However, the winner of the £15,000 first prize was Los Angeles-based Pat Martin, for a series of uncompromising shots of his late and voluminous mother; she looks as if she could be a fairly terrifying figure, though the dog T-shirt she wears in one photograph suggests a certain degree of humour, too. She struggled with addiction throughout her life, putting strains on her relationship with her son, but his taking photos of her helped them to reconnect. As Pat Martin comments, “For most of my life, I misunderstood my mother and witnessed how the world misunderstood her. Photographing her became a way of looking into a mirror and finding details I never noticed.” As an outside observer, one can intuit the pain in that experience, as well as a degree of resolution.

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Europe in Flux

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 6th November, 2019

Europe in FluxThirty years ago this weekend the Berlin Wall came down, signalling the demise of Communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War. I still remember watching the extraordinary scenes on TV as East Berliners crossed into the West in a state of disbelief. It seems like yesterday. Yet for anyone under 35 there will be no real memories of when Europe was divided and nuclear obliteration was a background possibility. Or just how grey life was in much of central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Soviet Union. Or how cruel, not just in the gulags in Siberia but also under the Stasi in East Germany or in the inhuman prisons in Romania. However, it would be wrong to think that everything changed from dark to light in November 1989. The subsequent conflicts in former Yugoslavia were most acute in Bosnia Herzegovina (I went to Sarajevo not long after the dreadful siege was lifted), and the economies of many parts of the disintegrating Soviet Union collapsed. So it is right and proper that the photographic exhibition by Pierre Alozie, Europe in Flux, running at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House, Smith Square, Westminster, until 6 December captures not just the euphoria of that astonishing night in Berlin but also the struggles and the suffering that followed in different parts of the former Communist lands. Indeed, some areas have still not fully recovered from the trauma. And some of the greatest social tensions today are in countries that were on the wrong side of the Wall during the Cold War, but are now members of the European Union.

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