Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘English PEN’

The Case of Nabeel Rajab

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th October, 2016

nabeel-rajabYesterday I joined fellow member of English PEN along with other human rights activists at a vigil outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London for the imprisoned Bahraini human rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab. He was due to be sentenced that day by a court in Bahrain, but in the event the decision was postponed until 31 October. He is charged with a list of freedom of expression “offences”, including insulting a Bahrain state institution and Saudi Arabia in online postings. He is also accused of “spreading false news and rumours and inciting propaganda during wartime which could undermine the war operations by the Bahraini armed forces and weaken the nation”. The government has insisted that Rajab, aged 51, remain in custody throughout his trial despite recurring health problems, for which he was briefly hospitalised in June. Nabeel had previously been serving a prison sentence for his human rights work, before being pardoned on health grounds, but he was rearrested in June, prior to his hospitalisation. Since the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, there has been a crackdown on dissent, especially among the island nation’s Shia majority, who argue that they are marginalised from society by the Sunni ruling elite. I used to go to Bahrain several times a year and prior to 2011 it was one of the most liberal states in the region. However, that has changed dramatically over the past five years and the last time I tried to go to Bahrain I was refused entry because of tweets I had posted criticising the government’s crackdown and in particular, the imprisonment of doctors who had treated wounded demonstrators. Yesterday, outside the FCO, I gave a short interview to LuaLuaTV, in which I said I was ashamed of the way that Britain’s Conservative government continues to give unconditional support to Bahrain’s regime despite its egregious human rights abuses. So does our royal family, for which they should be challenged. In the meantime, human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Index on Censorship will continue to campaign for Nabeel Rajab and other detainees and journalists such as myself will make our voices heard. jf-interviewed-by-lualuatv


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Speak up for Raif Badawi

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th June, 2015

imageimageIt’s three years since the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was detained and although so far he has only received 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he was condemned, his health is of great concern. Raif’s “crime” was to suggest that it is possible to be Both Saudi and liberal — to have free thoughts and express them. To the duopoly of the conservative Saudi monarchy and the country’s antideluvian Wahabbi religious hierarchy, this was both heresy and political incitement. Many NGOs and human rights campaigners around the world have taken up Raif’s case, including English PEN, which has been holding weekly demonstrations outside the Saudi Embassy in London. Some Western political leaders have mentioned the case when in discussion with the Saudi royal family, who frankly ignore such approaches as they are not backed with even a hint if any sanction. I’m ashamed that Britain is one of the prime offenders when it comes to appeasing the Saudis, because of arms sales, oil and other strategic interests. How can the UK claim the moral high ground when it turns a blind eye to the ongoing human fights abuses in the desert kingdom, including regular public beheadings? I fear that one day in the not too distant future Saudi Arabia’s rulers will be overthrown in a bloody revolution, but imprisoning and mistreating liberal nationals like Raif Badawi makes that prospect more likely, not less. King Salman is ushering in a new generation of Saudi royals, but that should be the prelude to far more radical political reforms.

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A Joyous Funeral at the Charterhouse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th July, 2014

Peter Day CharterhousePeter Day 1My old friend, the publisher and editor Peter Day, left very precise instructions for his funeral, which took place at lunchtime today at the Charterhouse in the City (where he spent the last 14 years of his life). There was to be absolutely NO EULOGY, and he guaranteed laughter throughout the chapel by wry comments left in his undated set of instructions about who might or might not be around to see him off. The place was packed, which was a tribute to the vast, and not always inter-locking, range of friends that he had. Very few from English or International PEN, I was sad to note, but plenty from the worlds of publishing and literacy agencies, including a gaggle from Allison & Busby, for whom he edited the first paperback edition of my André & Oscar. His great friend Julian Wilson — much talked of, but never met, so far as I and many others of the old PEN circle were concerned — was there with his extended family. And so too were others who have contributed to the ongoing tribute website (to which I added a short piece the other day, transferred from this blog). The service was admirably short, but ending with a particularly poignant organ recital of Bach’s Fantasia in C Minor (BWV562), as Peter’s mortal remains were carried off to Golders Green crematorium. There was a suitably generous reception afterwards — Peter would never have wanted his friends to go hungry, or much less thirsty — enabling all of us to catch up on old friends and make new ones, while paying nodding respect to Old Father Time.


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Remembering Peter Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th July, 2014

Peter DayThe publisher, editor and longtime English PEN activist Peter Day, who has died, could on occasions be extremely sharp-tongued, but at heart he was a man of immense human kindness. He particularly sprang into action whenever any of his friends was ill. When our mutual friend, the late novelist Francis King, was in deteriorating health, Peter virtually moved in to look after him. I first met Peter through English PEN, when we were both serving on that writers’ body’s executive committee, he ex officio as the editor of International PEN’s newsletter. Later, he would edit the first paperback edition of my book on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and André Gide, André & Oscar; he was a joy to work with, meticulous but also deeply supportive  and it helped that several of our working sessions were conducted over lunch at his flat up in the tower of a gothic block of flats in Shepherd’s Bush. He loved to entertain, but was an eccentric host, especially at his dinner parties at the table in his kitchen. He insisted on washing up between each course, which was distinctly disconcerting, and in order to make sure that people didn’t stay too long, Peter had his lights on automatic timers so that after 10pm they used to go off, one by one. Only the most thick-skinned guest failed to get the message. In his latter years, Peter moved into Charterhouse, the residential accommodation for distressed gentlefolk. The rule there was that everyone had a set place allocated at the communal dining tables, so one’s neighbours at meal times were always the same until one died, yet to my surprise Peter adapted to this somewhat monastic lifestyle with remarkable good faith.

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Virginia Woolf at the NPG

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th July, 2014

Virgina Woolf exhibition NPGVirginia Woolf at GarsingtonWhen I was doing English Lit A level, many moons ago, one of my classmates had a great passion for the writings of Virginia Woolf. She was not on the curriculum, and our English Master openly mocked this boy’s predilection, preferring instead the richness of Shakespeare, the subtlety of Jane Austen and the almost masochistically intensity of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Michael Holroyd’s seminal biography of Lytton Strachey was published that very year of 1967, yet it was only when I went to university that I got round to reading that and then dived into the world of the Bloomsbury Group like a young penguin that has just learned to swim. Once installed in Brussels, working for Reuters — and therefore at last in a financial position to buy lots of books — I savoured Virginia Woolf’s novels and all the volumes of diaries and letters and the wide range of related biographies as they came out. It was the first collective love affair of my life. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that this morning I went to the Press View of the new Virginia Woolf exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. All fans, like my school-friend, his name now long forgotten, to an extent feel they possess their idol and so it was too with me and Virginia nWoolf. Even her feminism stirred me. I was reassured in advance of the exhibition to know that it was curated by my old friend and former colleague at English PEN, the art historian and biographer, Frances Spalding, who indeed gave a brilliant unscripted tour of the exhibition to the thronging hacks at this morning’s Press View. Of course, I needn’t have worried. This is the first exhibition of its kind, amazingly, focused on the central figure of Virginia Woolf, but through photographs, paintings, letters and ephemera following her sensitively through the various phases of her life and her growing struggle with depression. Having lost so many dear friends in the First World War, she was metaphorically pummeled to the ground by the Second, with the complete destruction of one of her London homes, and the horror of more human losses. Inevitably her end is seen as tragic, with her suicide by drowning in 1941, her husband Leonard no longer able to haul her up from the depths of despair. But mercifully, she had retrieved her diaries from a bomb-damaged house and these were later stored in a bank vault by Leonard. Their later publication told us so much about the author, her life and loves (of both sexes), but also so much about England in an era now gone and of her passion for London. All this and more comes out so clearly in the exhibition, which should not be missed. And highlighted on one wall is a quote that remains in my mind above all else that she wrote: “Thinking is my fighting”.

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Remembering Francis King

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd November, 2011

The text of the Address I will give at his Memorial Service at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, later today:

Remembering Francis King

Francis was a man with many voices. That is, of course, the novelist’s prerogative. But he had multiple personalities as well. Many people only saw his formal side; a short and for many years rather portly figure  with Edwardian manners and movements. He’d be immaculately turned out in suit and tie, and more often than not a hat as well, chosen to match the season. His natural courtesy extended to all those strangers he encountered. More than once I witnessed the look of astonished pleasure on the face of a young waitress at the Café Rouge off Kensington Church Street when she handed him the menu and he declared in a voice redolent of the British Raj, ‘Thankyou!’

But those of us who knew Francis as a dear friend were aware of the complex individual that inhabited that courtly carapace. The man who’d chaired International PEN with such flair and tact actually had quite a low threshold of tolerance when it came to bores and time-wasters. It was a source of permanent astonishment and aggravation to him that most human beings were neither as self-disciplined nor as productive as he. Though never rude to anyone’s face, he could be devastating about them once they’d gone. Occasionally the mask would slip, as happened on one of English PEN’s annual summer outings to a place of literary interest. As the assembled party dithered and bickered about which tea-shop they should visit for afternoon refreshments, Francis’s sighs and murmerings got louder by the minute, until Josephine Pullein-Thompson – who ran these jaunts with all the military efficiency of a Pony Club event – exclaimed in exasperation, ‘Stop grizzling, Francis!’

I wonder how many of the hundreds of people Francis entertained in his role as British Council representative in Greece, Italy and Japan realised that their punctilious host also had a side that can only be described as camp. He’d apparently acquired the nickname Francesca da Rimini Pimini while at Baliol College, Oxford, and many of the hundreds of letters that I have from him are indeed signed Francesca, though in recent years he adopted another moniker: Auntie Fanoula. I realised after a while that this was actually a useful device that he’d devised, consciously or unconsciously, to let off steam. Francesca and Fanoula could be as bitchy as they wanted about mutual acquaintances, whereas Francis would never have been so indiscreet.

He did however see a certain affinity between himself and Mrs Thatcher. This conclusion was based not only on their shared Conservatism but even more importantly on the fact that both only needed four hours sleep. When Francis and I travelled together, in places as disparate as Egypt and Romania, I would struggle down to breakfast bleary-eyed to find that he had already written a review for The Spectator, or corrected the proofs of a chapter of his latest book and was now chomping at the bit to go out sight-seeing.

He was able to squeeze a lot into his 20-hour days. Though he went much more rarely to the theatre after he ceased being a drama critic, his social diary in London was packed. He disliked large gatherings, but thrived on lunch and dinner parties, of which he hosted a great number himself. As a neatly embroidered little cushion on the sideboard in the dining room of his house in Gordon Place declared, ‘The Queen Doesn’t Cook’. Catering was invariably courtesy of ‘Maisie Sparks’, the Marks and Spencer food hall in Kensington High Street. In the middle of the round glass-topped dining table sat a Lazy Susan, on which the food revolved, like in a Chinese restaurant. Often Francis had invited too many guests to fit round the table, so chairs were placed along the walls. Dessert and cheese were set out on a second sideboard underneath a magnificent reclining male nude by Duncan Grant.

Afternoons were often spent walking in Holland Park or Kew Gardens, unless Francis had some friend to visit in hospital or in prison. Visiting the afflicted and the convicted was a charitable act that was about as near as Francis got to any religious belief or practice. I don’t think he did this for the good of his soul; the very concept of ‘soul’ was lost on him. But he was fascinated by the human condition, and one often sees that at its most raw when people are vulnerable. He relished details of friends’ illnesses and treatments, as well as stories of the criminal underworld. Not surprisingly, these sometimes later filtered into his novels.

For a man who was so kind and so generous, he was extraordinarily interested in people who were mean or even wicked. They were like specimens under a microscope for him, and he would often be on the phone to me to describe the latest appalling behaviour by some acquaintance. Perhaps he was able thus vicariously to feel sensations that were completely alien to his personality. For Francis himself was one of the 20th Century’s true gentlemen, a wonderful friend and a compassionate confidant. In a nutshell: rather naughty, but so nice.

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In Memoriam Francis King

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th July, 2011

Francis King, who died at the weekend, was my oldest friend and closest confidant. In the 35 years or so that we knew each other we shared not just our views on everything under the sun but also our innermost thoughts and fears. I suppose everyone has someone like that in their lives, or would like to. I first met Francis in Brussels, at the home of my honorary (not blood) grandmother, Edith Bisch, who wrote novels under the pen-name Edith De Born. When I later moved back to England, Francis helped me settle into literary London, particularly through the activities of English PEN, but also at the many lunch and dinner parties that he organised at his house in Kensington, which became a fixture of my social life for three decades. He had an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances and was extraordinarily welcoming to strangers who were visiting London and who had been given his name. He was also unstinting in the time he was prepared to give to reading unsolicited manuscripts — a degree of self-sacrifice that I found incomprehensible. Though a strong supporter of the Conservative Party, Francis was very liberal in most ways: a gentleman of the old school, in the best sense of the term.

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Michael Palin’s 1980s Diaries

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th December, 2010

Long bus journeys and hours of torrential rain have made me grateful for the company of Michael Palin’s “Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988” (Phoenix, 2010). The clown of Kentish Town is actually an accomplished writer as well as actor — not surprisingly, given the number of film and televsion scripts he has produced. Originally best known for his part in the Monty Python phenomenon, he went on  to launch a highly successful solo career as traveller-cum-presenter on various long TV journeys, out of which lucrative books also emerged. This volume of Palin’s Diaries — which he has been keping meticulously for many years — cover the period immediately prior to his departure as a modern Phileas Fogg on a voyage round ther world in 80 days (an opportunity Alan Whicker apparently turned down). There is a lot of Hollywood and London gossip but also  real insight into certain well-known people, including John Cleese (predictable) and former Beatle George Harrison (less so). A thorough index means one can go back to savour special favourites. But the passage that really made me howl recounts a June 1987 English PEN dinner when Palin sat down at the wrong table and found himself next to the formidable lesbian novelist Sybille Bedford. She had no idea who he was, he notes with a certain degree of pique, but he clearly had no idea who she was either. To compound matters, he then helped himself to her very good bottle of French red wine (she always brought her own, even when wine was included in a meal), provoking outrage amongst her coterie. Having known Sybille quite well, as well as some of the fierce women she had as companions, I can just picture this gloriously comic scene.

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The Art of Autobiography

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th July, 2009

Julia Blackburn The Three of UsAutobiography is not about truth. Autobiography is about memory, which is a fickle friend. One can never be sure whether to trust it or not. But as a genre it is increasingly popular; we love to share people’s perceptions of themselves. Hence the establishment, many years ago now, of the Ackerley Prize, named after J R Ackerley, literary editor of the Listener and author of those extraordinary books My Father and Myself and Hindoo Holiday, amongst others. This evening, at the gallery at Foyles bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, the 2009 prize was awarded to Julia Blackburn, for her book The Three of Us. Unfortunately, the author herself could not be present to accept the cheque, as her house on the hilltop in Italy where she lives had been hit by a thunderbolt. How literary is that?

Instead, we had some entertaining short readings and comments from two autobiographers of note, Dan Jacobson (Time and Time Again) and Miranda Seymour (The House of My Father), in an enjoyable, but not always entirely audible, session moderated by the Chairman of the Ackerley Prize, Peter Parker. The Gallery was filled to capacity, which only goes to show that the book is not dead — or at least our nosiness about other people’s lives is enduring.  ‘One of the pleasures of being a writer is taking revenge,’ the deceptively mild octogenarian Dan Jacobson declared, with a half-smile as innocent as that of a clockwinder. ‘Memoir is a very English literary form’ countered Miranda Seymour.  ‘Americans tend to turn their story into fiction.’

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The Good Tourist

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th October, 2008

  The Good Tourist sounds like it ought to be a novel by John Le Carré, but in fact it is a fascinating and highly personal exploration of ethical tourism by the former Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, Lucy Popescu. Most books on the subject concentrate on the environmental and social impact of tourism in developing countries, but The Good Tourist (Arcadia Books, £11.99) takes a different tack, devoting individual sections to some of the world’s favourite exotic tourist destinations — such as Cuba, Egypt, the Maldives, Mexico and Morocco — in which the attractions are first set out in fairly broad-brush terms (enlivened by anecdotes from Lucy’s own travels, or those of her friends), followed by often harrowing descriptions of human rights abuses there.

Syria and Uzbekistan are examples of a particularly acute contradiction between beautiful countries and fascinating history on the one hand and hideous repression and torture on the other. Lucy does not spare us some of the gruesome detail, but it is all well-sourced, relying mainly on the testimony of local writers, journalists and human rights activists whose causes have been taken up by PEN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the like. When it comes to Burma (Myanmar) in particular, the question has often been asked: should tourists go there at all, as much of the income generated goes straight into the hands of the ruling junta? Lucy sets out the arguments both for and against and invites the readers to make up their own minds.

At times the book is delightfully quirky (though I fear some Ukrainians will bristle at seeing the Crimea discussed under ‘Russia’). I laughed out loud at the image of Lucy cornered in a quiet Istanbul back street by jeering, leering policemen who had confiscated her passport and refused to give it back, until she shouted repeatedly ‘Margaret Thatcher!’ But otherwise there is much to make one rage and even cry. Frustratingly, there is no index, which rather reduces the book’s worth as a reference volume, but amongst its strengths is a list of useful things a good tourist can do (as well as organisations that will help) and a very well-selected booklist of recommended books to read before, during and after one’s trip.


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