Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Isherwood’

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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Armistead Maupin’s Logical Family

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th November, 2017

EB429773-971F-4C02-9C12-43B25DDEC73DThough Armistead Maupin is several years my senior, and has devoted most of his life to writing, fiction rather than history and biography like me, there are quite a few parallels in our lives, as I discovered when reading his entertaining memoir Logical Family (Doubleday, £20). I realised my alienation from the household I grew up in earlier than he did, but away from our hometowns we both found friends and constructed a “logical” rather than “biological” family among whom we felt at ease. Spookily, it turns out that we were both in Vietnam during the War, twice, at the same time, he first with the US military then later as a civilian volunteer, me as a very young journalist. Less surprising was our friendship with and mutual admiration for Christopher Isherwood. Like Chris, Armistead found his adopted sexual-spiritual home in California, though in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. Moreover, like Isherwood’s autobiographical works, Maupin’s is a (sometimes no holds barred) confessional. He bathed in the promiscuous freedom of pre-AIDS gay life before settling down with a psychologically supportive younger partner, now husband. Apart from the extended passages relating to a Vietnam — which obviously had a special interest to me — the memoir is largely a coming-of-age/coming out story of an originally awkward conservative Southern boy whose almost accidental fictional vocation helped him along the road of self-discovery. The book ends with a touching final meeting with his shrunken, widowed father, who casts aside decades of homophobia in what amounts to a benediction.

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Tom of Finland

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th September, 2017

Tom of Finland film posterI have never been a fan of the drawings of Tom of Finland, skillfully executed but to my mind grotesque caricatures of gay sex role models, from leather bikers to sadistic cops, all with bubble butts and humongous genitalia. However, they were phenomenally popular; when I was in California in the mid-1970s, researching my biography of Christopher Isherwood, they seemed to be everywhere. Until yesterday, however, I had virtually no idea about the man behind these homoerotic works, but after watching Dome Karukoski’s biopic of the artist Touku Laaksonen, Tom of Finland, at the ICA, I feel wiser and more positively inclined. A decorated officer in the Second World War, mainly fighting the Russians, Laaksonen found it difficult to adjust to civilian life as a gay man in a particularly homophobic environment. That environment only improved gradually and it is no exaggeration to say that Tom of Finland helped the cause of “gay liberation”, which really started in America, where he briefly rode the crest of a wave of success before the whole scene was clouded by the arrival of HIV/AIDS. One might imagine that this subject matter would make for grim, even sordid, viewing, but in fact Karukoski’s film is beautifully and sensitively constructed and features a stellar central performance by Pekka Strang in the title role. Laaksonen was clearly a very thoughtful as well as talented man who dared to express himself in a way that would inevitably at first provoke outrage and censorship, but which later became an important part of the counter-culture of the second half of the 20th century.

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When Writing, Dislocation Helps

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 31st July, 2017

JF writingSome people might think it odd that I am writing about life in Brussels in the 1970s while currently based in Fortaleza, Brazil. But I have often found that dislocation can be a great aid to writing, be this memoir or other. It was the novelist Christopher Isherwood — who will appear in my new book — who first made me aware of this, when I asked him how he managed to write his vivid Berlin stories far away from the German capital and years after the events partly described. It’s all about digging into the deeper recesses of memory (in my case, supplemented by diary entries) and then reforming images and actions through words  in a way that can be transmitted to the reader and make a visual impact in their brain. If I were in Brussels now, for example, I would be distracted by aspects of the city in 2017 rather than the reality of 40-odd years ago. Photographs help when it comes to people, of course; in fact, they can be a fantastic trigger of memory. Then there is the matter of selection. Great diarists can write material that withstands the test of time, but most of us jot things down in a way that is neither literary nor necessarily very interesting to anyone but ourselves. When I kept those diaries (from the age of 16 onwards) did I realise that one day I would turn my hand to memoir? I don’t believe so. But something compelled me to write notes which were then put aside for decades. Maybe unconsciously I realised that my memory would need their aid some time in the future, some place else.

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Time for a Novel?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd April, 2016

novel 1Having recently finished a childhood memoir, which I hope will see the light of day later this Spring, the inevitable question I now face is: what next? The big difference betwen writers and would-be writers is that whereas the latter can’t start, the former can’t stop. Of course, writing blog posts, tweets and Facebook entries is a useful way of dissipating creative energy, but for anyone who has actually had a book published — or in my case, a dozen — the compulsion to get cracking on something more susbtantial is irresistible.

Isherwood coverI had a complete break over Easter, while getting a couple of dental implants done, but I am now chomping at the bit, in more ways than one. As my childhood memoir ends with me just turned 19, in Karbala in Iraq, it might seem logicial to pick the story up from there. But I know that that is not what my impulses are telling me. Instead, I shall fast forward to the mid-1970s when I was in Brussels, initially wotking for Reuters news agency, subsequently freelance. The exact location of the action and the main characters are all so clear in my head, but this will be a novel, not a memoir, even if it is inspired by a lot of personal experience (rather like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, though I would be lucky to achieve anything like as good an end-product as his novels). I wrote a biography of Isherwood,.which involved two summers in California, interviewing him, while I was still based in Btussels and I remember him saying that having started his writing life as a novelist, he had ended up as a biographer and memoir-writer. My trajectory hopefully will be in the opposite direction, but here goes.

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Return to Sintra

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th January, 2016

imageToday I went to Sintra for the first time for 40 years, taking the train from the Rossio station in Lisbon, itself totally transformed from how it looked in the 1970s. The journey itself was different, too, as modern apartment blocks have taken over much of the previous scrubland and only a few of the picturesque single-storey dwellings that I remembered remain. I first went to Sintra when I was researching my biography of Christopher Isherwood, who lived there for a period with his German boyfriend Heinz, before the Second World War. It was not hard to picture it in the 1930s, as most of the grand late-19th and early 20th century villas still stood, as they do today, even if nowadays some have been transformed into guesthouses. I’m glad I went back there in winter now, when the town was largely free of tourists, who I imagine flood the place in summer, which certainly was not the case four decades ago. And this time, because I was not in search of echoes of Isherwood’s past but just enjoying the place for itself, I did go into the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, which I had almost to myself — an extraordinarily atmospheric royal residence, with spiral staircases and sudden views of the valley below and an all-pervading atmosphere of loss, as if the building itself was crying out for the excited voices of young princes, long gone into exile.

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Stalin’s Englishman

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th October, 2015

imageAndrew Lownie’s biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) was in gestation for 30 years, but like a fine single malt it is all the better for it. Though Burgess has been dead for half a century, his flight to Moscow with the other “Missing Diplomat”, Donald Maclean, still resonates in the English collective consciousness. Too often he has been portrayed as something of a joke, a spoilt mummy’s boy who wore Old Etonian ties even in his Soviet exile, who drank and dribbled, groped and propositioned and when in his cups alternately mocked and lauded his home country. Burgess was viewed wrongly as the most frivolous of the so-called Cambridge spies, but as is clear from Andrew Lownie’s extensive interviews of both Russian and British friends, colleagues and lovers of his subject, he methodically transferred to the Soviet intelligence service thousands of classified documents, as well as providing them with in-depth analyses of British politicians and other public figures, many of whom had been his personal friends — and some of whom would remain so even after it became clear that he had abused his positions at the BBC, in the Foreign Office and the British intelligence services.

imageAlan Bennett’s rather endearing dramatisation of a real-life meeting in Moscow between Guy Burgess and the actress Coral Browne (An Englishman Abroad) offers an image of a man who was a rather pathetic figure, a fish out of water in his adopted home, but that was only partly true. At the height of his powers — when not drunk or feeling sorry for himself — he was brilliant, amusing, phenomenally well-read and a lively gossip. It was not only his overbearing mother (who used to send Fortnum & Mason hampers to him in Moscow) who adored him. So did his Russian housekeeper and several of his lovers, including Jack Hewit (whom I interviewed for my biography of Christopher Isherwood) and Tolya, the faithful young Russian companion who he first met in a foul-smelling Moscow public toilet (perhaps planted by the KGB, who knew he frequented such places?). Like many very bright people, Burgess was easily bored and I get the impression from this definitive biography that the naughtiness and excitement of treachery were as much of a motivation for his actions as his rather shaky ideological conviction. He was a Marxist, but was not particularly impressed by the Soviet reality. Yet although he spied for the Soviet Union (including during his time at the British Embassy in Washington) not because of blackmail (as was the case with the Labour MP Tom Driberg and others) but out of some kind of commitment, it was nonetheless a very half-hearted commitment at times. It is no criticism of Andrew Lownie that this reader felt at the end of his meticulous work that Burgess still remained something of an enigma; that is what Burgess would have wanted, what he succeeded in being for much of his life.

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Tim Llewellyn and Lebanon’s Spirit of the Phoenix

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th May, 2010

SOAS played host to the Arab British Centre and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU, on whose Board I sit) this evening, for a talk on Lebanon by the former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. We must have overlapped briefly in Beirut, while I was doing some work for the Middle East Council of Churches in 1980, though our paths didn’t cross in the city. Tonight’s event also served as a book promotion for Tim’s latest volume: Spirit of the Phoenix: Beirut and the Story of Lebanon (I B Tauris, 2010; sale price £12.99), a series of vignettes in a style that Tim described as akin to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Several of these tales are amusing, though the tone of Tim’s talk was grave, as he fears that it is only a matter of time before there is renewed conflict with Israel. Asked in the question time afterwards what he thought of Tony Blair’s effectiveness as the Quartet’s special envoy to Israel/Palestine, Tim commented damningly, ‘Useless!’

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Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th November, 2008

An impressive (free) exhibition of photo portraits by young photographers, photography students and gifted amateurs opens today at the National Portrait Gallery in London (where work by the American super-photographer Annie Leibovitz is coincidentally currently on display). There is something about good portrait photographs which I find eerily compelling, as they can give one an entry into the sitter’s soul. Amongst the most treasured volumes in my library are books of black-and-white prints by Bill Brandt, John Deakin and Richard Avedon, and the walls of my study are covered in signed, framed photos of people I have written about, including W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas and Oscar Wilde.

Over 2,500 people entered this year’s Taylor Wessing prize (sponsored by the European law firm of the same name). The winner was Lottie Davies, for her representation of a friend’s nightmare of giving birth to quintuplets, though I have to say I was more struck by Hendrik Kertstens’ ‘Bag’, a witty and evocative potrait of a young Dutch woman with a plastic bag on her head, shaped like a seventeenth-century cap, echoing Vermeer and other old Dutch masters. Kerstens was awarded the second prize. Otherwise, the images which really struck me were not those of beautiful young women (or indeed men), of which there were plenty, but the characterful lined faces of novelist Doris Lessing and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and a chilling picture of an almost zombie-like Vladimir Putin.

The exhibition runs until 15 February and as often at the NPG, there is an accompanying book (NPG, £12.99), with a forward by Ben Okri and interviews with the prizewinners by Richard McClure.

Link: www.npg.org.uk

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Biographers’ Club Prize

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd September, 2008

Sod’s Law has it that every time I have a nice dinner lined up, the TV rings and asks me to do a live Press Review — but I can’t complain, as they pay, and I know that if I said ‘no’ they would only ask someone else… So, I missed the middle bit of the Biographers’ Club prize-giving dinner at the Savile Club earlier this evening, at which the accolades went to Michael Bundock of the Johnson Society for his work on Samuel Johnson, whose tercentenary falls next year. I don’t think this is the same Michael Bundock who wrote an erudite tome on shipping law, but I can’t be sure. Infuriatingly, I was seated at the same table as him, but alas, by the time I had returned from the TV studio (the Savile had kept a dinner warm for me, bless them, maybe because I used to be a member), he was up and gone. Similarly, I missed hearing the main speaker, my old chum Simon Callow, who has written on fellow thespians Charles Laughton and Orson Welles. However, I did get a chance to have a good reminiscence with him (mainly about Laughton’s next-door-neighbour in Santa Monica, Christopher Isherwood, whose biography I wrote). And as a penance for missing Simon’s speech, I promised that I will go to see him in the pantomime ‘Peter Pan’ in Richmond this Christmas. Sigh.

Link: www.biographersclub.co.uk

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