The things I do for James Bond

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(c) Eon Productions

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Last month in Colombo, I was looking forward to attending my workplace’s end-of-year party.  Then the invitation for it arrived in my work inbox and my enthusiasm suddenly waned.  The party, the invitation informed me, had a theme.  You had to come in a costume appropriate to the theme and the costume judged to be best would win a prize.  And the theme was: carnival.

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Carnival?

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Now do carnivals connect in any way with me?  No.  Carnivals are the products of Latin American cultures where the climate is always warm and the sun always shines; where the faces always smile and the temperament is always joyous; where the inhabitants know how to dress colourfully and exuberantly; and where one can happily and un-self-consciously dance the night away without imbibing even a smidgeon of wine. 

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I, on the other hand, come from a culture where the weather is always dreich and the sun is always wrapped in smirr and haar; where the faces frequently scowl to the point of resembling well-skelpt arses and the temperament is two parts Knox-ism to three parts Calvinism; where daring to wear a pair of patterned socks can earn you condemnation for being a reckless  attention-seeking exhibitionist; and where, after you’ve sunk about 12 pints of beer, you might countenance getting onto the dance-floor to shake your two left legs for a couple of minutes to something like Dogs of War by the Exploited.  Carnival, I thought in my best Rab C. Nesbitt voice.  Carnival my arse.

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But then, looking around my bedroom, I saw evidence that I did like one type of carnival.  I noticed, for example, the presence of these skull-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers on top of my bookshelf.

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Also, there was this ornate skull-shaped candle located on a corner of my desk.

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And there was this painted wooden skeleton hanging on a wall.

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And these two skeletal Mexican senoritas stood grinning on top of my wardrobe.

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All these skeleton-themed items come from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, known in English as Day of the Dead, which sees folk gather together and celebrate in honour of family members and friends who have passed away.  The reason I have so much Dia de los Muertos memorabilia is because my partner’s family live in San Antonio in Texas, about 150 miles north of the Mexican border, and three years ago we went to visit them in mid-October.  Not only were the local shops then full of merchandising for the upcoming Halloween festivities on October 31st, but they contained an equal amount of stuff for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos festivities on November 2nd.  The latter made excellent souvenirs to bring back from Texas. 

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When I thought about it, it also occurred to me that – as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know – I’m a big James Bond fan.  And didn’t the most recent Bond movie, 2015’s Spectre, begin with a long, tense and stylish chase / action sequence using as a backdrop a Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City?  For part of this sequence, Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is attired in a natty-looking outfit of top hat, skull mask and skeleton-patterned white-on-black suit and is accompanied by a glamorous lady in a summer frock and Venetian mask.  Now why couldn’t my partner and I attend our end-of-year work party dressed like that glamorous duo?

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Therefore, Dia de los Muertos was the carnival that provided us with general inspiration, while Daniel Craig and friend became our models.

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I should mention that in reality Mexico City never hosted a Dia de los Muertos parade until after 2015.  The makers of Spectre simply used dramatic licence and invented the occasion.  However, after the film’s release, the Mexico Tourism Board got so many inquiries about the non-existent parade from potential visitors that they decided to initiate one in their capital city to keep everyone happy (and, no doubt, make a bit of cash too).  Proof that life does imitate art.

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Assembling my Daniel Craig / Dia de los Muertos costume proved to be a trickier task than I’d expected.  I knew I was going to have to do much searching in Colombo to locate a top hat, but it was as difficult to find a skull mask.  I traipsed around several fancy-dress and party shops and got the same answer: “Oh, we had lots of skull masks two months ago, at  Halloween, but we don’t have any now!”  Thankfully, we discovered a wonderfully variegated and cluttered little costume store called JoJo’s tucked away in the back streets off Duplication Road where I was able to both rent a top hat and buy a skull mask (and my partner got her Venetian mask too).  The skull mask was actually gunmetal grey and I think it was meant to be the face of a robot skeleton – like the scary, stomping exoskeletons in the Terminator movies – and back at home I had to spray-paint it white.

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But the biggest problem was creating the skeleton-patterned suit.  I bought rolls of double-sided adhesive tape in a stationer’s and I cut the ‘bones’ out of strips of laminated white paper.  When I started to place the bones on the black jacket, the tape did initially make them stick to the fabric – until the moment when I tried to put the jacket on.  At the slightest movement of the fabric, the bones promptly fell off again.  I had to resort to laboriously sewing the bones on with white thread.  (The jacket was an ultra-cheap number I’d originally bought in Primark for twenty pounds, so I wasn’t concerned about disfiguring it.)  This took a lot of time and I only got the jacket finished minutes before the party was scheduled to start.  I hadn’t time to sew the leg bones onto my black trousers, so, reluctantly, I relied on the double-sided adhesive tape to fasten those.

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Incidentally, I managed to incorporate one item from my Dia de los Muertos memorabilia into the costume.  I fashioned a walking stick out of a rod and some kitchen foil and planted the ceramic skull-shaped salt shaker on one end of it as its head.  

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Finally, we were ready and off we headed for the party.  I’d barely got across the venue’s threshold when I began to suffer what are known nowadays as ‘wardrobe malfunctions’.  The adhesive tape continued to be worse than useless and my leg-bones were soon, and repeatedly, dropping off.  In fact, you could track me back and forth through the venue by following the little trail of bones I’d left on the ground behind me.  Trying not to dislodge them, I ended up moving around as slowly and stiffly as possible, and anyone who saw me probably thought I was stricken with severe constipation.

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Still, my Sri Lankan colleagues seemed impressed and kept inviting me to pose for photos with them.  I suspect, though, that they didn’t know about Dia de los Muertos or Spectre and merely thought I’d dressed up as a skeleton with a top hat because I was extremely weird.

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At the end of the evening, when the party organisers were finishing proceedings with a thank-you speech, they announced that the prize for best costume was being awarded to… me.  (Thankfully, the speaker referred to James Bond and Spectre at this point, making it clear to the assembled crowd that there was a method to my skeletal madness.) 

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And the prize was… a Miniso citrus juicer.  It now occupies a proud corner of our kitchen and, because it came as the result of a 007-inspired costume, I think of it as ‘the James Bond juicer’.  Alas, it doesn’t have a secret button on it that you press to make it turn into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft.

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Little England

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No, I’m not beginning 2019 with another online diatribe about Brexit Britain.  ‘Little England’ is the nickname – an unfortunate nickname considering the backward-looking parochialism and xenophobia that drove millions of real Little Englanders to vote in 2016 to prise the UK out of the European Union – that Sri Lankans often give to the town of Nuwara Eliya. 

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Located at an altitude of 1870 metres, it’s the highest and, climatically, coolest town in the country.  Nuwara Eliya was founded in 1846 and quickly became a retreat for members of the British colonial establishment eager to escape the heat and humidity of the lower-lying parts of the island.  And with them, they brought British architecture, British pastimes and sports, and British clubs and associations. 

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(I became aware of the coolness of the temperature while I was approaching Nuwara Eliya on a steadily-climbing road.  Looking out of the window of my vehicle, I suddenly saw a very strange and disconcerting sight indeed – Sri Lankan people wearing coats, scarves and woollen hats.)

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Last month, my work brought me to Nuwara Eliya for a couple of days and I had a chance to explore it.  I didn’t do any touristy things like venturing out into the surrounding hill country to, for example, experience the nearby Horton Plains or visit the several famous waterfalls or tour one of the local tea plantations.  This was because at some point in the future my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I would like to spend a proper holiday in the district and it made sense to leave the big tourist attractions until then.  Instead, I simply wandered about the town, took some photographs and mooched in a few pubs.  Here are my impressions.

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Firstly, you needn’t expect to find a picture-postcard English village that’s been magically transplanted into the highlands of Sri Lanka.  Nuwara Eliya’s centre contains the usual guddle of modern, garishly-coloured buildings – hastily erected and now looking slightly the worse for wear – that are a feature of most towns in this country.  And even in the less-recently developed parts away from the town centre, there are indications that the era when the British used to hang out here en masse are long gone.  Witness the picturesque Lake Gregory at Nuwara Eliya’s southern end.  Anchored by the lakeside is a long, narrow, double-decker boat that serves as a floating restaurant called the Hua Yuan, obviously aimed at foreign visitors of a different nationality.

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Come to think of it, the only Briton I encountered during my time in Nuwara Eliya was an old English fellow who’d travelled to the country for the recent England-Sri Lanka test series.  The moment the final cricket had been played, and unable to withstand the sweltering climate of lowland Sri Lanka any longer, he’d hopped into a taxi and had the driver make a beeline for here.

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That said, there are plenty of reminders of the presence and patronage of the old colonial regime.  A little way short of the town centre is the imperiously and imperially-titled Victoria Park – which has in an adjoining corner a square-sided, grey-stone pillar that acts as a war memorial.  Like most war memorials in Britain, this one’s World War I plaque is a lot longer than the World War II plaque.  The former commemorates 17 members of ‘the glorious dead’, while the latter sports just three names.

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Across the road from Victoria Park is a genteel golf course with a hotel at its end containing a mock-English pub called – what else? – the 19th Hole.  The Nuwara Eliya Golf Club isn’t the only organisation with a slightly-snooty-sounding name you see on signs here, for the town is also home to the likes of the Hill Club (‘established in 1876’) and the Royal Turf Club.

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And some of the British architecture lingers on.  Nuwara Eliya’s main post office is housed in a red-brick building with multiple layers and levels of roofing and its own little clock tower, which looks like it was moved to Sri Lanka brick by brick and slate by slate from Trumpton.  Meanwhile, the local branch of the Hatton National Bank is contained in a stately-looking structure with arched windows.  Scattered elsewhere are a number of other mansion-like buildings, often with Tudor-style patterning on their facades and their windows crammed with small, square panes.    

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In fact, the days when stereotypically British architecture would spring up in Nuwara Eliya may not yet be over.  For during my wanderings I saw this billboard advertising a new estate – “Make Nuwara Eliya your second home!” – consisting of detached dwelling-houses with mock-Tudor designs.  The scheme is called Little England Cottages, though there’s nothing remotely cottage-like in the scale of the residences involved.

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Another Christmas in Colombo

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that everyone loves Christmas: not only people in Christian countries, but also people in Buddhist, Muslim and downright atheistic ones too.

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In Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Santa Claus was lurking outside the store-entrances in the run-up to December 25th, even though as a mainly Orthodox-Christian country they weren’t supposed to be celebrating the birth of Christ until two weeks later.  In Japan, the Christmas trees, decorations, presents, carols and so on provided a pretty backdrop to the end-of-year bonenkai parties.  In Tunisia, I saw Tunisians gamely sporting Santa hats while they did business in the alleyways of Tunis’s Medina.  Even in North Korea, at a time when the only religion you were officially allowed to practice was one where you worshipped the abilities and achievements of Kim Jong Il, my local supermarket insisted on having a rather scruffy-looking Christmas tree out in its foyer – not just over the festive season, but for the full twelve months of the year.

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So it’s no surprise that Sri Lankans are big Christmas-philes too, even if their country is predominantly Buddhist.  As late as yesterday, Christmas Eve, a market selling Nativity scenes and Christmas trees was doing a busy trade on the Dehiwala stretch of Galle Road.  Meanwhile, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, the prestigious and leafy boulevard lined with fancy shopping arcades and imposing ministry and embassy buildings, is currently home to a gorgeous nocturnal display of Christmas lights.  And my local branch of Keells, the Sri Lankan supermarket company, had a sign up yesterday announcing that its booze section would be closed on Christmas Day.  That’s really entering the spirit of Christmas.

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Here, though, is a selection of my favourite images from this current Christmas in Colombo.  Firstly, I liked the above giant toy soldiers standing guard at the entrance to Hafele’s on Duplication Road.  A change from the usual tacky Santas and glitzy Christmas trees, they give the shop’s façade a nicely wintry, Germanic flavour – even if the temperature was in the 30s and the air was swelteringly humid when I took the photo.

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For Christmas trees, hats off to my local picture-house, the Savoy Cinema, for erecting this cinematically-themed tree outside its doors.  Its trunk is a big curling strip of celluloid and, instead of baubles, the tree is decorated with film-reels.  It would have been nice to report that the Savoy had gone even further into the spirit of the season and was showing a selection of classic Christmas movies like Gremlins (1984), Die Hard (1988), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Bad Santa (2003) today.  But no, it’s showing Aquaman (2018) and Mary bloody Poppins Returns (2018).

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Running the Savoy a close second in the ‘inventive Christmas tree’ stakes is this one at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, which has been made entirely out of empty wine bottles.  It’s an appropriately sobering reminder that the worst aspect of Christmas is not the pressure to buy expensive presents or the arguments with relatives, but the hangover on Boxing Day.

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There are a lot of Nativity scenes dotted around Colombo this Christmas – and almost all of them seem to be equipped with an unfeasibly large Baby Jesus.  I mean, just look at him.  He’s enormous!  He really looks like he popped out wholly grown, complete with a full head of hair. Indeed, in the second picture below, he looks as big as the ox – and looks like he could probably eat an ox too.

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And finally, although it’s less fancy and extensive than some of the items pictured above, here is my favourite piece of Christmas in Colombo this year – the tree on the veranda of my number-one ‘man-pub’, the Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  In the rapidly developing lanes between Galle Road and Marine Drive, with old-style houses vanishing at a rate of knots and new, concrete apartment blocks popping up like mushrooms, the Vespa really does feel like a hold-out.  It’s one of the last surviving remnants of a bygone era.  Let’s hope it remains intact during 2019 too.

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In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Lanka metal

   

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Back in 2014 when I moved to Sri Lanka, I accepted there’d be certain things I’d gain from the move and certain things I’d lose from it. Among the gains would be the following: sunshine, warmth, delicious spicy food, lots of interesting Buddhist and Hindu temples to explore, access to some gorgeous beaches, access to the equally gorgeous Hill Country of the island’s interior, and a chance to see an occasional elephant.  Among the losses…  Well, I assumed one thing absent from my new life in Sri Lanka would be the opportunity to hear my favourite musical genre played live.  No, I definitely didn’t expect to attend any heavy metal gigs there

   

Indeed, I imagined the only live music I’d come across would be some traditional Sri Lankan music – absolutely nothing wrong with that, I should add – and plenty of lame middle-of-the-road cover bands playing insipid versions of Eagles, Bryan Adams and Lionel Ritchie songs to crowds of sweaty Western tourists and moneyed local would-be hipsters in the big hotels at the country’s holiday resorts – absolutely everything wrong with that.

     

But one of the pleasantest surprises of my past four years in Sri Lanka has been my discovery that there’s actually a thriving heavy metal scene in the country.  Lanka metal is really a thing.  So here’s a quick round-up of my favourite local headbangers.   

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A good place to start is Stigmata, on the go since 1998 (when the founding members were still schoolboys) and responsible for an impressive sound that, to me at least, combines the best of Iron Maiden and Sepultura.  Recently, they’ve played a few small-scale gigs at the Floor by O bar next to the Colombo Cricket Club and I decided to attend one of these.  (My previous experience of the band had been when  they performed a set at the 2017 Lanka Comic Con.)  I arrived early, when the band had barely begun to assemble their equipment, and before long none other than Stigmata’s vocalist and co-founder Suresh De Silva had wandered over to have a chat. 

   

After we’d had a blether about the new Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, we got onto discussing great heavy metal gigs I’d attended in the past.  The fact that I’d seen Megadeth supported by Korn in Chicago all the way back in 1995 must have made me seem ancient to De Silva.  But then when I went on to reminisce about seeing Nazareth play a gig in Aberdeen in 1983, he probably wondered if I’d wandered in from Jurassic Park

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Later, Stigmata gave a thunderous live performance.  Unfortunately, by then, I was parked at one end of the Floor by O bar-counter and they were playing in a corner at the other end of it, and the photos I took of them – blurry and with lots of bar paraphernalia getting in the way – hardly did them justice.

 

   

I’m also a fan of Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry describes them as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  They’re of a slightly-younger vintage than Stigmata, having been formed in 2001.  Among their assets is their spandex-wrapped vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who has the enviable double-advantage of looking a bit like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a bit like the equally late, great Bon Scott.  Their best songs include Open up the Gates with its twiddly, thumping guitar sound; the punky, foot-tapping Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy; and Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrows its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but is still a blast played live.

    

For a heavier sound – death and black metal – check out the Genocide Shrines, whose ‘lyrical themes’ according to the Metal Archives website include ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and, er, ‘arrack’.  Well,after you’ve spent all day waging tantra and spiritual warfare to the death, I suppose you need to relax with a glass of arrack.  Aside from their juggernaut sound, their most memorable feature is their fondness for wearing scary masks onstage, Slipknot-style.  Though I have to say I was a bit disappointed when I saw them live one time and at their set’s end they ‘rewarded’ their fans by taking their masks off and revealing themselves to be ordinary-looking blokes.  That spoiled their mystique somewhat.

   

   

Other Lanka metal bands I’ve seen include old-timers – established in 1995 –Whirlwind.  I have a copy of their 2003 album Pain in my possession and I have to say its opening song Break Away sounds unexpectedly and weirdly like Counting Crows’ Mr Jones. I’ve also see Neurocracy, Mass Damnation and Abyss, plus a couple of young up-and-coming bands who’ve equally impressed and amused me with their boundless Sri Lankan politeness and their boundless gratitude to the audience for turning up to see them.  In between their songs they kept saying, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you for coming, thank you so very much…” and then a half-minute later they were emitting blood-curdling throaty black / death metal gurgles and screaming “F**K!  F**K! F**K!”

    

Much of the Lanka metal I’ve seen live has been at the Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which I have to say isn’t my favourite venue. For one thing, it doesn’t really have sidewalls.  Both sides of the auditorium open onto small outside compounds with dilapidated toilets – well, the male toilets are dilapidated – at their ends.  This means the acoustics aren’t great because a lot of the sound seeps out into the night.  Conversely, and especially if you turn up at the wrong part of the evening, a great many mosquitoes get in. There are also surreal moments when big bats flap in from one side, cross above the heads of the audience and flap out of the other side – sights that’d be more appropriate at a goth concert than a heavy metal one.   

   

   

If you squeeze my lizard*

 

I haven’t posted anything on this blog for the past fortnight, apart from one item about Remembrance Sunday.  This is not because there hasn’t been anything to blog about.  On the contrary, there’s been a great deal – for example, the recent midterm elections in the USA, where some 46-47% of the electorate saw fit to vote for the party of a racist, misogynist, preening, loud-mouthed pile of sentient manure like Donald Trump; or the manner in which the UK’s epically incompetent Conservative government has continued to let the country career towards the disaster of Brexit like a dysfunctional troop of baboons at the controls of a spaceship while it disappears over the event horizon of a black hole; or indeed, the constitutional crisis that has rocked the country I’m currently living in, Sri Lanka.  But it’s all so bloody depressing that I don’t feel like writing about any of it just now.

 

Often, when people feel down while they’re putting stuff online, they try to cheer themselves up by posting pictures of cute cats.  However, because I’m weird, I thought I would offer a variation on this custom by posting pictures of cute lizards (which, by the way, are a prominent form of wildlife here in Sri Lanka).

 

For starters, here’s a picture of a little fellow I photographed on top of a wall in the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee.  Basking in the Sri Lankan sun, he’s surely the happiest lizard I’ve ever encountered.

 

 

And here’s one that scampered into view one day while I was tramping about the grounds of Avukana Temple in North Central Sri Lanka: a frilled, inquisitive and slightly insolent-looking character.

 

 

Monitor lizards are a well-known type of lizard in Sri Lanka.  They’re slow, ponderous, lugubrious, a bit grumpy, a bit ugly, but they usually get to their objective in the end – so I feel some affinity for them.  This one was snapped in the gardens below Sri Lanka’s famous Sigiriya Rock.

 

 

Finally, my partner and I were staying in the town of Habarana a little while ago, in a hotel-room that had a partly-outdoor bathroom.  The shower end of the bathroom was roofless and there was even a large bush growing out of one of its corners.  This bush was home to two lizards who spent the five days we were there clinging to and crawling along its branches (with the occasional foray out across the wash-basin and in front of the mirror).  One was a skinny creature, not much more than a glorified gecko.

 

 

The other was a bigger specimen with a green stripy body and an impressively long, whiplash-like tail.  He had a strange ability to change the colour of his head.  Sometimes it would be a verdant green, like the rest of him.  At other times it would become alarmingly orange.  Come to think of it, that would be a useful talent for a British government’s Secretary of State to Northern Ireland to have.

 

 

* This is a reference to the 1984 Motörhead song Killed by Death, which begins: “If you squeeze my lizard / I’ll put my snake on you / I’m a romantic adventurer / And a reptile too.”  Lemmy’s lyrics were always poetry.

 

The temple of revenge

 

 

Just offshore from the coastal village of Seenigama in south-western Sri Lanka, you’ll find a temple consisting of two small buildings perched on top of a rocky little island.  The temple is devoted to an imperious-looking deity called Devol, who’s believed to look after the local fishermen and, it’s said, local truck drivers too.  But he’s more famous for being a god of revenge.  If someone has wronged you, you can travel to the island and make an offering to Devol in the hope that he’ll impose retribution on the culprit.

 

To get from the island from Seenigama’s beach, you have to travel in a flimsy-looking blue-brown boat with an outboard motor.  It can take a dozen or more people at a time, some of whom – not all – are given life-jackets.  When I got to the beach, I discovered that most of my fellow passengers were feisty old Sri Lankan ladies who boarded the boat by enthusiastically beetling up over its stern and sides and into its two rows of seats.  A little later, they transferred themselves from the boat to the island itself with a similar, impressive display of agility and sprightliness.  I couldn’t help but wonder if those elderly ladies were heading to the temple to call on Devol to wreak revenge on their enemies.

 

 

The boat-trip only took a minute and the island quickly swelled up out of the sea ahead of us.  At the island’s waterline were black rocks and higher up were grey ones, and then the natural formations gave way to man-made walls of faded yellow with blue-painted arched crests along their tops.  The boat ended up bobbing and swiveling drunkenly in the surf next to some slimy boulders that, further up, transformed into stone steps.  Walking around the island in footwear isn’t allowed and I’d already removed my boots and stashed them in my bag – which was just as well, because to get from the boat and onto the boulders I needed to wade through a swash of seawater.

 

While I ascended to the steps, I felt uncomfortably like Stephen Maturin, the landlubberly and accident-prone ship’s surgeon in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books, who “at one time or other… had contrived to fall between the boat that was carrying him and almost every class of ship and vessel in the Royal Navy.”  But I managed to negotiate the boulders and steps and get onto the temple grounds above without slipping and falling and drenching myself.

 

 

In addition to the buildings, the temple contains a tiled yard, a clump of palm trees, a well, a shed with a pump inside, a small metal sculpture of a rooster and a tall concrete pole with spotlights attached.  The day I was there, many pigeons were perched on the golden-yellow roofs and for some reason flies were crawling in great profusions about the tiled ground.

 

Inside the smaller temple-building I found a tall statue of Devol with a coppery-red face and a curly moustache.  His image is partially obscured by curtains, supposedly – I’ve read somewhere – to lessen the harmful effects of his wrath as it radiates from him.

 

 

After taking a few photographs in that building, I turned around and stepped out of it again.  The moment my bare feet touched the moonstone at the threshold – which like all the horizontal surfaces here was wet and treacherous – I slipped spectacularly and landed with a great thud on my ‘jacksy’, as they say in Glasgow.  Thankfully, my bag, with my boots inside it, muffled the impact of the fall and possibly saved me from breaking my tail-bone.  It was embarrassing, however.  All the visitors in the yard outside promptly looked my way and enjoyed a quiet chuckle at my haplessness.

 

 

The larger temple building contained an altar on which, if you wish Devol to wreak revenge on someone, you present offerings of chilis, garlic and hot spices that, later, a priest grinds up in a ritual outside.  And that’s how it works here – to place a curse on the person who’s mistreated you, you need to contribute to the making of a chili paste.  Three deities lurk in alcoves behind and to the left and right of the altar.  The central one looks fairly benign, but the other two are more sinister.  The left-hand deity wears a helmet and girdle made out of interlocking cobras while the right-hand one is even more ghoulish, with a rictus grin and fangs protruding downwards from the ends of its long mouth.

 

 

Various travel blogs in which I’ve read about the temple have gone on in detail about how the visiting pilgrims, seemingly intoxicated by the idea of getting revenge on their persecutors, work themselves into states of ecstasy and hysteria.  But I saw none of that.  The crowd who’d come with me in the boat seemed calm, composed and quietly respectful.  (Well, apart from their moment of mirth when I keeled over on that slippery moonstone).  As I’d said earlier, most of them were elderly local ladies.  It occurred to me afterwards that Devol has several roles – he’s a guardian of fishermen and truck-drivers as well as a bringer of revenge – and maybe the ladies had come with a more peaceful purpose.  Maybe they just wanted to pay their respects to Devol and ask him to look after their sons and husbands, who were making their livings out on the waves or on the roads.

 

 

Cosplay in Colombo

 

 

It’s a typically hot, humid Sri Lankan afternoon and I’m walking along an avenue in the quaintly-named Trace Expert City, a business park west of Fort Railway Station and Beira Lake in central Colombo.  Ahead of me, beneath the trees that mercifully cast a little shade over the avenue, I spy a gathering of people.  What’s going on?  What are they crowding around to see?  Intrigued, I draw closer…

 

…And discover that everyone’s attention is focused on Spiderman, who’s strutting his funky Spidey-stuff while he engages in a dance-off with his sinister, black-costumed, alien-symbiote nemesis Venom.

 

 

For yes, I have just arrived at Lanka Comic Con 2018, Sri Lanka’s annual convention for enthusiasts of comics, films, TV shows, anime, games and books in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror (and anything else that’s suitably weird and quirky).

 

At this year’s Comic Con, which was held on August 25th and 26th, Spiderman and Venom were just the first of many cosplayers I saw, i.e. fans who devise their own costumes, make-up and accessories in order to impersonate their favourite characters from the more fantastical reaches of popular culture.

 

This year the impact of Marvel Comics’ commercially and critically successful superhero movie Black Panther (2018) was evident.  I noticed a couple of folk clad as characters from the film’s fictional African setting of Wakanda, including an effective-looking Okoye, the warrior lady played in the film by Danai Gurira.  And Marvel’s big rival DC Comics had influenced more than a few Sri Lankan cosplayers in 2018 too.  Here’s someone having their picture taken with DC Comics’ nautical superhero Aquaman and his lady pal – what’s her name?  Aqua-Girlfriend?  No, I believe it’s actually Mera, ‘daughter of the king of the Atlantean tribe of Xebel’, who’ll be played by Amber Heard in the new Aquaman movie to be released at the end of this year.

 

 

All right, not all the cosplayers could quite capture the exact look of their characters.  But still, they should be applauded for the work that’s gone into assembling the necessary bits and pieces for their costumes – not always an easy feat when you’re on a budget and you live on the slightly out-of-the-way island nation of Sri Lanka.  It’s fascinating to see their ingenuity – how, for instance, a pair of sawn-off wellie-boots and a lick of paint were used to create footwear for an Elven warrior from the Kingdom of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings.

 

For me, this year’s cosplay winner was the bloke in the following photograph.  As I laid eyes on him, I found myself singing to myself, “If there’s something strange… In your neighbourhood…  Who ya gonna call…?  Ghostbusters!”  Because he was dressed in an outfit worn by Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, complete with a fabulously intricate Ghostbusters backpack.  I’ve also posted a diagram of the original backpack from the original film, so you can compare them.

 

From pinterest

 

You’ll notice in the same photo a sweet little girl who seemed to be having the time of her life while she dashed around waving a wand and wearing a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts scarf and gown.

 

Then I saw this fearsome character.  Who was he?  Was he one of the many scary and grotesque villains who’ve menaced Batman in Gotham City during the last eight decades?  But then I realised he was ambling towards one of the snacks and refreshments tents erected at the head of the avenue and I understood who he really was: Pringles-man.

 

 

While I wandered around Lanka Comic Con, two things occurred to me.  Firstly, I loved the idea that Sri Lankan kids wanted to dress up as characters who’d originated in a wide spectrum of cultures – from Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ pioneering attempt to create a superhero who’d appeal to an African-American readership, to a plethora of characters rooted in the manga and anime cultures of Japan.  It’s cultural exploration, the very opposite of cultural appropriation.  And it nicely illustrates how far science fiction, fantasy and comic books have travelled since the days when they were seen as the preserve of nerdy middle-class white kids – white boys – in the USA and Britain.

 

But at the same time, I’d like to think that in years to come, as Sri Lankan writers and artists get more opportunities and recognition, there’ll be a big roster of Sri Lankan characters for them to impersonate too.

 

Secondly, I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous.  These geeky kids today don’t know how lucky they are.  When I was a kid and into geeky stuff, reading geeky Marvel and DC comics, reading geeky fantasy paperbacks by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard and watching geeky TV shows like Doctor Who (1963-present), the original Star Trek series (1966-69) and Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970), I had to keep extremely quiet about my geeky enthusiasms for fear I’d be ridiculed or even roughed up by the normal, sensible kids around me.  And even when I was older and at college, I felt too embarrassed to advertise my geeky interests in front of cool college-associates who claimed to be into Albert Camus and The Smiths.  (I still remember my horror when a mischievous younger sibling blurted out in front of a couple of my college friends how, when I’d been a wee boy, I’d persuaded my granny to knit me a super-long Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.)  But youngsters nowadays don’t have to be afraid.  It’s quite acceptable for them to gather together and dress up as their (super)heroes in public.  They can wear their geekiness proudly.

 

Alas, it’s too late for me now.  I’m way too old to be part of this cosplay scene.  Pretty much the only character I could cosplay convincingly at my age would be Captain Teague from Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End (2007) – who was played by Keith Richards.

 

© Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Martin’s museum

 

 

The novelist, poet, short-story writer, playwright, literary critic, biographer, travel writer, science writer, philosopher, religious scholar and all-round Renaissance man Martin Wickramasinghe was born in 1890 in the village of Koggala on Sri Lanka’s south coast.  By the time of his death in 1976 he’d authored some 85 books.  His Wikipedia entry grandly but uninformatively describes him as ‘the father of modern Sinhala literature’.  This profile in Sri Lanka’s Daily News gives more detail about what to expect from his writing, calling him ‘a liberal intellectual who consistently attacked dogmatism, obscurantism, oppression and elitism from any source, religious, political or social.’

 

As far as I know, not many of his books were written in or translated into English – both Wikipedia and the website dedicated to him list 11 such titles – which makes it difficult for someone like myself, illiterate in Sinhala, to immerse myself in his work.  I have, however, read two of the translations.

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

His Selected Short Stories (2007) reveal a man who’s unhappily aware of the social divisions in Sri Lankan society and the hardships and indignities that poverty heaps upon those at the bottom of it.  For example, Diversion is a damning account of how some wealthy, Anglicised Sri Lankans amuse themselves whilst waiting for the passengers to disembark from a liner at Colombo harbour.  They start throwing coins over the jetty’s edge, so that they can enjoy the spectacle of the poor local street children diving into the water in a race to retrieve them.  This has tragic consequences for one child: “The little urchin was nowhere to be seen,” recounts the narrator.  “I had myself forgotten him in the excitement surrounding the divers.”

 

Meanwhile, Bondage is the story of a hard-working but ailing carter and his beloved, similarly hard-working and similarly ailing cart-bull, which has the reader wondering which of the two is going to die first.  The Torn Coat features a just-married man dreading having to confess to his wife that the fancy outfit he wore at their wedding was actually borrowed from a richer family in their village.  And Woman compares the situations of two female friends.  One has tried to be virtuous, but thanks to a treacherous husband struggles to make end meet and is prematurely aged.  The other has lived shamelessly and now, as a rich man’s mistress, enjoys wealth and comfort and remains youthful.  “We have to accept that we pay for sins carried over from the past,” the poor decent one tells the rich immoral one, despite the evidence suggesting this isn’t true.  Other stories in the collection explore other themes, but these ones about economic hardship I remember best.

 

I’ve also read Lay Bare the Roots (translated in 1958), Wickramasinghe’s account of his childhood in Koggala.  It lovingly records the characters, stories, flora and fauna, arts and crafts, pageantry, customs and religious rites of a time and place that seem very distant now – especially as that part of Sri Lanka is best-known today for its tourist beaches and hotels.

 

It’s interesting that Wickramasinghe defends the hedonistic, earthy elements that once pervaded the local Buddhist festivals and processions – carnival-style entertainments and stalls, for instance, and folkloric ‘devil dancing’ by non-religious mummers – against the complaints of more earnest Buddhists.  He notes regretfully: “Men’s desire for amusement must be satisfied as well as their religious piety.  The religious festivals held at our village temple once catered for both these needs; but due to a few clamorous and educated busy-bodies they have now turned into dull gatherings for the purpose of austere worship and contemplation which only appeal to hermits.”

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

Koggala’s most famous son has left the village, which is actually more of a town these days, with an important physical (and no doubt money-spinning) legacy.  Contained there in the writer’s former home is the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum.  It displays countless historical and cultural items that he collected over a period of 70 years.  These include religious artefacts like temple lamps, monks’ fans, alms bowls, Buddhist paintings and stone, brass, marble and wooden Buddha statues; old agricultural and fishing implements, such as a lasso for catching buffalo, a fishing-net weaving machine and wooden rattles and stone-firing bows used ‘for scaring away birds’; artistic items like masks, puppets and musical instruments; tools for preparing traditional medicines; pottery; jewellery; weapons; and articles from the traditional textile, leather, carpentry and cane and reed industries.  There’s also a Sri Lankan costume gallery, an exhibition hall full of antique furniture and a shed containing ‘traditional vehicles’, which range from handcarts and ‘temple tricycles’ to tuna-fishing boats and fishing-net barges.

 

A few months ago while we were enjoying a holiday on the south coast, my partner and I visited the museum.  I decided the following things were my favourites in the collection: among the masks, some satirical ones that caricatured red-faced and obviously sunburnt and sweating ‘British officers’; among the puppets, a life-sized marionette show; and a selection of traditional Sri Lankan board games including wadu getage, ‘a carpenter’s puzzle’ that could be likened to a very old Rubic’s cube, magul parakhuwa, which consisted of 11 pieces of wood contained within a square and which challenged you manoeuvre the largest piece out through a side-opening by sliding aside but not lifting out the smaller pieces, and magul getaya, known as ‘the wedding knot mystery’, which was apparently used at wedding parties by the bride’s parents to test their new son-in-law’s brainpower.

 

A sign just past the museum entrance warned visitors to beware of unofficial and duplicitous guides.  Accordingly, when I was in the middle of museum and a small, rather elderly man approached me and attempted to strike up a conversation, I initially tried to shake him off.  It was embarrassing when a little later my better half did start talking to him and we discovered that he was really the institution’s curator.  He’d seen me taking my time looking at the exhibits and writing comments in a notebook and he’d wanted to explain things to me in more detail.  (We must have seemed unique to him because, alas, the local visitors didn’t hang around.  They whooshed through the museum.  For a while I even found myself being propelled along in a fast-moving line of chattering Sri Lankan grannies – whom you might’ve expected to proceed more slowly, given that they were probably old enough to remember a few of those exhibits actually being used.)

 

So, should you ever visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum, don’t be alarmed if a little old man comes up to you and starts talking.  He’s not some money-grubbing fake guide, but the very informative proprietor of the place.

 

Also, don’t forget that, on your way out, there’s a little shop next to the exit where you can stop and purchase a couple of books by the museum’s distinguished founder.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 12

 

 

This post is about collocations, for which the Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: “a word or phrase that is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning.”  Collocations can involve verbs and nouns, as in ‘do your homework’; or adjectives and nouns, as in ‘heated argument’, or verbs and adverbs, as in ‘rain heavily’.

 

If, like me, you’ve spent part of your working life teaching the English language to non-native speakers of it, you’ll appreciate the difficulty students often have getting their heads around collocations in English.  I seem to have spent hours explaining to people that you don’t ‘write your homework’ but ‘do’ it; that calling an angry exchange a ‘hot argument’ just doesn’t sound right; and that you can’t describe extreme precipitation as ‘raining painfully’.  Note that with all these mistakes, I fully understood the meaning the speaker was trying to convey.  (The last mistake cropped up when I was working in a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where, yes, it seemed to rain painfully every day.)

 

The problem is, we simply don’t put those particular words together to express those particular things.  It may well be that the reasons for certain collocations being right and other collocations being wrong are psychological, on the part of the listener, as much as they are linguistic, on the part of the language itself.  Also, it didn’t surprise me when I heard a language researcher claim one time that collocations are the biggest causes of mistakes in speaking and writing by high-level learners of English.

 

In literature, of course, the way in which a writer uses collocations can contribute greatly to his or her style.  Shunting together words that don’t normally collocate can add an inventive flourish to the prose.  However, if the results can be embarrassing if a writer overdoes it and the attempted collocation falls flat.  I still haven’t forgotten a sentence in an Anthony Burgess novel where a character ‘tramples’ a page with his ‘signature’ – ouch!  And I’ve read a review of Martin Amis’ 2012 novel Lionel Asbo – State of England, in which Amis is taken to task for the clumsiness of his writing – much of which is down to him trying to collocate words that have no business being collocated: for example, ‘Dawn sizzled…’, ‘unfallen eyes’ and ‘a heavy silence began to fuse and climb…’

 

Anyway, this is a prelude to saying that I recently noticed a mural painted on a wall outside a school on Colombo’s Duplication Road that makes heavy use of English collocations.  It pairs off various English verbs and adverbs so that the school-pupils receive a list of instructions about how to behave properly.  Some of the collocated verbs and adverbs work for me and some don’t.  I wonder if this is because the creator of the mural had mistaken ideas about what words collocate appropriately in English or if he or she simply stuck them together without knowing at all.  Or is it because these collocations have become acceptable in Sri Lankan English while it’s evolved apart from ‘standard’ English (whatever that is) over the years?  Or are they the result of literal translations from the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil?

 

By the way, I’m not trying to take a pop at Sri Lankan English here for being incorrect.  The dialect of English where I come from originally, Northern Ireland, has often been dismissed as being ungrammatical or uneducated or just plain incomprehensible, but I would absolutely defend people’s right to speak English that way.  And it contains some collocations of its own that would probably earn an arrest-warrant from the Standard-English Grammar Police: “It’s fierce hot,” “She’s a big age,” “The weather’s powerful today,” and so on.

 

 

So let’s see.  Which of the mural’s collocations work?  ‘Dress smartly’?  Obviously.  ‘Save regularly’?  Yes.  ‘Eat sensibly’?  I suppose so.  ‘Act fearlessly’?  Well, that’s a bit dramatic and it would be exhausting to act fearlessly all the time, but I guess it’s acceptable.  ‘Sleep sufficiently’?  Hmmm…  ‘Plan orderly’?  No, sorry.

 

Some of these collocations sound downright odd, yet I can think of certain people to whom they would make perfect sense.  ‘Spend intelligently’ – did you hear that, Mr. Johnny Depp, the man who last year was reputed to be blowing two million dollars a month on wine, staff, security, a private jet and 14 residences?  ‘Think truthfully’, meanwhile, would be excellent advice for Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, David Davis and the other members of Britain’s Brexiting Conservative government, who are currently possessed by self-delusion on an epic scale about Britain’s prospects after it leaves the European Union.

 

And ‘walk humbly’?  Well, I’m not quite sure how you would physically do that.  But I would advise this man to at least give it a try.

 

© Disney Enterprises Inc

© Stefan Rousseau / From the Times

From CBN News

 

Kataluwa Temple

 

 

A few months ago my partner and I spent four days at the beach resort of Unawatuna on the south coast of Sri Lanka.  Not being beach bums, or beach bunnies, or whatever the term is nowadays, we eschewed lounging on the sand and instead passed the time shuttling along that part of the coast doing some sightseeing.  One attraction we checked out was Kataluwa Temple, which is east of Unawatuna and overlooks a channel linking Koggala Lake with the sea.  We were keen to see this temple because, according to Lonely Planet, it has its origins in the 13th century, boasts ‘some recently restored murals’ and generally feels so quiet and out-of-the-way that it’s ‘like the temple that time forgot’.

 

It proved to be the temple that our tuk-tuk driver – who’d been driving us around for the previous day or two and was knowledgeable about the area’s other sights – seemed unaware of.  However, we’d done our homework with Google Maps and were able to direct him there.  After we’d rattled in through its gates, Kataluwa Temple certainly matched Lonely Planet’s description of it because there were no other visitors present – neither tourists having a look around nor locals saying prayers and leaving offerings.  And actually, the place didn’t seem that remarkable.  It was just a pleasant sand-and-grass-covered compound with a few buildings, statues, bells and palms trees, indistinguishable from hundreds of other quiet country temples scattered across Sri Lanka.

 

 

But then our tuk-tuk driver got talking to a temple handyman and he directed us through a stone gateway at the back of the compound.  This led into an additional part of the temple grounds, where there was an octagonal building of some antiquity and a house that accommodated the temple’s complement of Buddhist monks.  After we’d inquired at the house, a young monk came out, unlocked the other building and showed us inside – myself, my partner and the tuk-tuk driver, who was no doubt making notes at this point and planning to add Kataluwa Temple to his repertoire of south-coast attractions to take foreign tourists to.

 

The temple building’s interior was gorgeous – for it contained the restored murals that Lonely Planet had talked of.  Its walls were packed with colourful religious illustrations.  Images paraded along horizontal rows from the floor to the ceiling, as if the walls had been methodically wallpapered with pages from a giant comic-book or graphic novel.  Depicted there were gods, demons, kings, queens, priests, monks, warriors, merchants commoners, servants, elephants, horses, birds, snakes, carriages, thrones, doors…  Along the bottom were even some pictures of demons tormenting sinners in hell, though unfortunately these remained rather faded and spotty.

 

 

After that, we entered the monks’ house to receive a Buddhist blessing, say our thank-yous and make a donation towards the temple’s upkeep.  When the young monk asked me where I was from and I told him I was originally from Ireland, I was pleasantly surprised by his delighted reaction.  Only later did I learn that the Dutch government has helped to fund the restoration of the murals in this temple – and probably he’d misheard me and thought I was from ‘Holland’.