The shrines of Negombo

 

 

Located on Sri Lanka’s western coast about 35 kilometres above Colombo, the town of Negombo is one of my favourite places on the island.

 

That’s not so much because of Negombo’s beach and the major tourist drag it has north of its town centre.  Actually, I get the impression Negombo rates only as a second-division Sri Lankan holiday spot, and it mainly attracts holidaymakers and visitors because: (1) it’s closer to Sri Lanka’s international Bandaranayake Airport than Colombo and makes a convenient place for tourists just arrived in the country to hang out and recover from their jetlag before they head for the more lauded likes of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Arugam Bay; and (2) it’s only a short drive away for Colombo-ites wanting to chill out in an environment less built-up and noisy than their home city.  That said, along the seafront, I like a section of Lewis Place where the restaurants and hotels look unflashy and homespun and seem to have grown organically out of the town, before the hulking corporate hotels and raucous music-blasting bars take over further north.

 

What I really like about Negombo is mostly found in the streets away from the tourist area.  I’m talking about the many symbols, signs and relics of Negombo’s Christian heritage and the serene, at-times-slightly-incongruous (given the tropical surroundings) atmosphere that these generate.

 

For much of the past thousand years the place was occupied by various outsiders, firstly the Moors, then the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British, but it’s the Portuguese who’ve left the biggest cultural legacy.  During their watch in the 16th and 17th centuries, Negombo’s indigenous inhabitants embraced Catholicism en masse and the town became studded with Roman Catholic churches.  Today, close on two-thirds of the population are said to be Catholic and Negombo is sometimes known by the nickname of ‘Little Rome’.

 

 

And the most widespread reminder of this heritage is the presence of Christian shrines outside houses and at the entrances of streets.  These range in size from ones that look scarcely bigger than birdhouses to lavish ones contained within their own small pavilions.

 

Standing inside the glass cases that invariably feature in these shrines, you often get Holy Virgins and lady saints – hands clasped in prayer, bodies swathed in flowing robes, heads serenely tilted to one side.  One such shrine I noticed contained a Holy Virgin and Child, both of whom were wrapped in a single, huge orange cloak so that, sweetly, their heads peeped out together from the top of it.

 

 

Then there was a shrine at someone’s front gate where a lady in a pink robe, with pink roses on either side, stood within an octagonal glass case on top of a cylindrical pedestal covered in pink and white tiles.  No doubt it had religious significance but I have to say that, to me, it looked a bit like a wedding cake.

 

 

Christ himself appears in many forms – dressed in red, in blue, in white, depicted alone or surrounded by disciples, saints and wise men.  One shrine I saw him in was festooned with thick silvery bands of tinsel, so that his surroundings had a Christmasy feel.  In another, he stood in front of a glittery red curtain, as if he was addressing his flock from a theatre stage.

 

 

One other character found in the shrines of Negombo is the town’s patron saint, St Sebastian.  He isn’t depicted like he is in many pieces of Western artwork, as a tragic martyr who’s just been pin-cushioned with arrows.  The Negombo St Sebastian tends to be the macho character who served as a captain in the Praetorian Guards under the Roman co-emperors Maximian and Diocletian.  Indeed, the glass cases that enclose him make him resemble a Roman Army action figure, still in its packaging.  He stands guard in armour where St Sebastian Road (appropriately) branches off from Chilaw Road.  Meanwhile, he’s clad in similar military attire and sits on horseback at the junction of Keerthisinghe Place and Lewis Place.

 

 

There’s often a fair amount of chintz – plastic flowers, fairy lights, ribbons, tinsel, glitter – adorning these shrines, but I don’t find that a problem.  In fact, they give Negombo’s streets an undeniable colour, sparkle and charm.

 

Surgical Edinburgh

 

 

Almost twenty years ago I lived in Edinburgh and worked as a teacher.  Occasionally in the afternoons, when I couldn’t be bothered planning a proper lesson, I’d herd my students along to the medical museum at Surgeon’s Hall on Nicholson Street.   I’d get them to look around the place and make notes and then, back at the school, write a review of it for a pretend travel magazine or a comparative essay measuring medical care a couple of centuries ago against medical care now.  The students always seemed to enjoy the experience, even though while they looked at the items in the many glass cases and glass jars, they’d grimace and exclaim, “Ick!” or “Yuck!” or “Eeew!”

 

Then, a few years ago, while I was posting entries on this blog about various museums in Edinburgh, I thought I’d check out Surgeon’s Hall again.  But I discovered that it was shut.  It’d closed for refurbishment in 2014 and didn’t reopen until a year-and-a-half later.

 

I was recently back in Edinburgh and took the opportunity to visit the new, improved Surgeon’s Hall.  Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to use cameras inside, so the photos accompanying this post are from the street, grounds and stairwell outside.

 

The museum is bigger, more comprehensive and more attractively laid-out that it was in its old incarnation.  It’s actually comprised of three museums – not just the main medical one, but the Wohl Pathology Museum and the Dental Collection.

 

 

The first change I noticed, though, was the addition of a £6.50 entrance fee – twenty years ago, you could wander in and explore the place for free.  If, like me, you remember how it used to be and this sudden, unexpected expense causes a sinking of the heart, it’s perhaps appropriate that the first room you enter after the desk is one devoted to the heart.  Among other things, it houses 27 real human hearts in glass jars and containers, in various conditions of illness and disrepair, often misshapen and leathery and at times so swollen that they resemble giant brown gourds.  The most bloated heart there was apparently afflicted by cor bovinum or ‘cow’s heart’, whereby “increased pressure in the heart chambers causes it to slowly get bigger.”

 

Close by is a pleasantly retro-looking room called the Anatomical Lab, which displays such artefacts as a shark’s jawbone, a six-kilo stone removed from the bladder of an elephant and big, old-fashioned teaching models of the human eye, ear and torso.

 

The museum’s main chamber has in its centre a mock-up of an anatomical-medicine lecture theatre from about two centuries ago.  Banks of wooden seating rise from a dissecting table with a cadaver on it.  You receive an anatomical lecture when you sit there, but it’s conducted in a resolutely ungory fashion – a lecturer in period dress talks from a screen and, as various organs and internal body-parts are mentioned, images of these light up on the cadaver (which appears to be a fibreglass dummy).

 

Meanwhile, a wealth of information and a multitude of objects are displayed on the surrounding walls.  For a start, you get an account of the history of surgery in Scotland.  Key dates include 1505, when Edinburgh town council granted a seal to the Incorporate of Surgeons and Barbers, and the following year, when things were ratified with a Royal Charter from King James IV.  This recognition meant that the guild was entitled to one body (of an executed criminal) every year to be dissected, so that its members could get a proper knowledge of anatomy.  By the late 1500s the Surgeon-Barbers had become the most prestigious guild in Edinburgh and by the 17th century they even had the privilege of being allowed to distil ‘whisky or Aqua Vitae’.  It wasn’t until 1722 that the guild split and the surgeons and the barbers went their separate ways.  The stripy red-and-white pole that still adorns barber’s shops today, representing blood and bandages, is a reminder of how the two professions used to be entwined.

 

The collection’s oldest artefact is a dissected body of a child presented in 1702 by “Archibald Pitcairne, Doctor of Medicine, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and one of the Chirurgen Apothecaries of Edinburgh”.  Standing in an upright wooden case, the body resembles a grotesque puppet left hanging in its box after a performance.  Other items include a baby’s caul (“membranes from the head of a female child born at Colchester, Essex, 10th April, 1888, and much prized by the mother on account of their supposed, supernatural virtues”); a cast of the shoulder of an American soldier blasted by gunshot – the surgeon “cut into the joint and removed the shattered head of the humerus”, leaving the shoulder oddly sunken and deflated; and a bust of the unfortunate Robert Penman before the removal, in 1828, of a huge tumour on his lower jaw – the tumour filled his mouth like a giant, obscene second tongue and is now on display as a weird honeycomb-like structure containing part of Penman’s mandible and a couple of his teeth.  (The surgery took place in the days before anaesthetic, but according to the museum’s website Penman “bore it well” and later grew “a large beard to disguise the scarring.”)

 

Indeed, the museum has countless reminders of why we should feel grateful to live in an age after the development of anaesthetic and after doctors and scientists had learned about the dangers and causes of infection.  One information panel shows the ridicule aimed at Joseph Lister and his theories about infection and micro-organisms by a 19th-century medical contemporary: “Where are these little beasts?  Show them to us, and we shall believe in them.  Has anyone seen them yet?”  Nearby hangs a painting called Opisthotonus, done by Charles Bell in about 1805, showing a dying soldier in the final hideous convulsions induced by tetanus.

 

© Surgeon’s Hall Museums

 

Upstairs, there’s a dental section with antique toothbrushes, toothpicks, dentures, drills and unappetising-looking forceps for pulling out teeth and ‘elevators’ or ‘punches’ for levering out those tricky little stumps or roots left behind by extracted teeth.  It was here that I discovered how the Battle of Waterloo kept Britain supplied with dentures for many years – that’s to say, the market demand for ‘false’ teeth was met with ‘real’ teeth pulled from the mouths of thousands of slain soldiers.

 

Also on display upstairs are more things relating to surgery.  These include an array of ‘foreign objects’ that have been removed from human bodies over the decades, including giant hairballs, lengths of TV cable, hat pins, nails, screws, pieces of a horseshoe and a cherrystone that’d spent 18 years lodged up somebody’s nose.

 

On the other side of the stairwell is the Wohl Pathology Museum, whose shelves contain examples of every conceivable part of the body, suffering from every conceivable disease, disorder or injury.  Hence, you see such things as a skull massively inflated by hydrocephalus, a gangrenous foot, pieces of intestine with Crohn’s disease, a row of five foetal skeletons ascending in age from five-and-a-half months to seven-and-a-half months old, and ten containers – I counted them – housing testes that have been dissected and opened out.

 

Finally, space is given to the Edinburgh medical world’s two best-known overlaps with popular culture.  There’s a portrait of the perceptive and observant Joseph Bell MD, FRCSE, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and one-time teacher to a young medical student called Arthur Conan Doyle.  Later, Doyle recalled how, when he was first formulating the character of Sherlock Holmes, he thought of his “old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his eerie trick of spotting details.  If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but inorganised business to an exact science…”  On display too is a letter from Doyle to Bell dated 4th May, 1892, in which the author confesses: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”

 

And inevitably, there’s material about the body-snatchers who 200 years ago kept the medical schools’ dissecting tables supplied with illegally obtained corpses.  In Edinburgh, of course, this practice led to the murderous activities of William Burke and William Hare, providers of suspiciously fresh corpses for the formidable and determined anatomist Dr Robert Knox in the late 1820s.  Burke and Hare are synonymous with body-snatching but in truth they did no such thing – they didn’t snatch bodies but created bodies, by murdering people, and the cadavers they brought to Knox had never been in the earth of the cemetery.  At the museum, this grisly episode is commemorated by the presence of such items as Knox’s violin and Burke’s death-mask and, bizarrely, a little pocketbook that’s said to be bound with a portion of Burke’s skin.

 

However, the museum doesn’t contain the skeleton of William Burke (who, following his execution, had his body handed over for dissection just as the bodies of his victims were).  That’s to be found in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.

 

 

Things I’ve learned from British politics in the last fortnight

 

© For Dummies

 

Once upon a time, I believed this blog would be able to keep up with all the crazy stuff happening in the world.  Whenever something crazy happened somewhere, I thought, I would publish timely, perceptive and erudite comment on it.

 

However, in the past year, I’ve come to realize this policy is untenable.  Thanks to the antics of Trump, Putin, Rajoy, Erdogan, Duterte, Kim Jong Un, etc., there’s an entire planet-load of craziness – bad craziness – going on 24/7.  And it isn’t humanly possible to keep abreast of it all.

 

Still, I thought I’d make a few comments about the craziness happening in British politics just now.  Here are a few things I’ve learnt from it over the past fortnight.

 

Harvey Weinstein is a butterfly

According to Wikipedia, Chaos Theory propounds the idea of “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state”.  Or to use a popular metaphor, a butterfly flapping its wings in Argentina may lead, a few weeks later, to a tornado occurring in Texas.

 

In British politics, however, an earthquake has been caused not by a butterfly, but by the blubbery, walrus-like form of Hollywood movie-mogul Harvey Weinstein flapping around in an ever-constricting net of allegations about him being a rapist, sex-pest, harasser, stalker and general monster towards the women who’ve had to endure his professional company over the decades.  This has encouraged women (and sometimes men) in other vocations and other places to speak out about how about they’ve been sexually exploited and mistreated too.  Including, eventually, in politics in Britain.

 

From North Yorks Enquirer

 

How distant and unimportant the Weinstein scandal must’ve seemed to certain male British parliamentarians a few weeks ago.  Most of them probably hadn’t even heard of Weinstein before.  Some of them probably hadn’t watched a Hollywood movie since, oh, Deep Throat with Linda Lovelace in 1972.  No, they must have thought, while they flicked through the pornographic images on their Westminster computer screens or groped the lower limbs of lady journalists trying to interview them or composed and fired off lewd text messages to whatever femme du jour had taken their fancy or shouted at their female assistants, “Oi, Sugar Tits, nip down to the sex shop and buy me a new vibrator, will you?”  Absolutely nothing to do with me.

 

Well, now, things are slightly different.  Inside Britain’s political doghouse these days, it’s standing room only. Among those implicated or accused: Michael Fallon, Stephen Crabbe, Mark Garnier, Damien Green, Christopher Pincher, Dan Poulter, Charlie Elphicke and Daniel Kawczynski, all Tories; Kelvin Hopkins, Jared O’Mara and Ivan Lewis, all Labour; and up in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP’s Mark McDonald.

 

Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that various male politicos saw themselves as irresistible, hot-and-funky sex-hunks, even if that view wasn’t shared by the unfortunate people who were the target of their amorous advances.  What does surprise me is the amount of victim-blaming that’s gone on in the Daily Mail since the scandal broke – it’s published a string of articles belittling the women who’ve made allegations, such as Kate Maltby and Andrea Leadsom.  Yes, I know, it’s the Daily Mail, which exists to be despicable.  But it’s the only national British newspaper where women form the majority of its readership.

 

It makes you wonder a bit, a teeny wee bit, if they’re worried that this exposure of sexual misconduct in the film and political worlds might be followed by more of the same in the journalistic one.

 

Priti Patel’s holiday sounds like a bundle of laughs

Meanwhile, there’s the saga of Priti Patel, who until yesterday was Minister for International Development.

 

It transpires that in August Priti went on holiday to Israel.  Evidently, she was keen to find a way of making her holiday less ghastly than holidays normally are, what with delayed flights, crowded terminals, rip-off taxi drivers, scam artists, pickpockets, crap hotels, jam-packed tourist attractions, overpriced tourist tat, screaming children, moaning teenagers, biting insects, sunburn, food poisoning, hangovers and fights with German holidaymakers over who got to the sun-loungers first.

 

So what did she do?  She decided to intersperse her holiday activities with clandestine meetings with Binyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli bigwigs, where the discussions included the possibility of channeling some of Britain’s foreign-aid money towards funding Israeli Army activities in the occupied Golan Heights.  Wow.  Binyamin Netanyahu.  That sounds like a brilliant way to spice up your holiday.

 

Unfortunately for Priti, the BBC decided to share some of her holiday snapshots with the nation on November 3rd.  And – surprise! – that was the first her boss Theresa May had heard about it.

 

From @ yairlapid

From paxonbothhouses.blogspot.com

 

If Boris Johnson rides to your rescue – hide!

On November 1st, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – I feel a chill run through me every time I type those five words – spoke up in defence of the British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who’s been imprisoned in Tehran since 2016 on charges of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.

 

She claims she’d only gone to Iran for a holiday and to visit relatives.  Yet the bold Boris announced to a parliamentary committee that she’d been there “teaching people journalism”.  Stirring stuff – until the Iranian authorities seized on his words as justification for keeping her in prison.  In fact, there’s now a real possibility that they might extend her sentence.

 

People have demanded that Johnson be sacked for his stupidity, but I’d go further and have him arrested – is being the world’s biggest gobshite a criminal offence?  Then Britain could approach Iran and ask if they’d like to swap prisoners.

 

David Davis can make things stop existing by the power of his will

Once, there were supposed to be 58 sectoral analyses looking at how the 58 most important parts of the British economy would fare after Brexit.  These ran from A to (almost) Z, from Advertising and Marketing to Wholesale Markets and Investment Banking.  According to a written ministerial statement, each one was “a wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum.  It examines the nature of activity in the sectors, how trade is conducted with the EU currently in these sectors and, in many cases, considers the alternatives following the UK’s exit from the EU as well as considering existing precedents.”

 

Well, that sounds thorough, doesn’t it?  That sounds like someone had been doing their homework – conducting serious research about the challenges facing the UK economy once Brexit has been enacted.  Right?

 

Except that Brexit Secretary David Davis has just declared that no such things exist.  There “is not, nor there has ever been, a series of discreet impact assessments examining the quantitative impact of Brexit on those sectors,” he told MPs on November 7th, contradicting everything that’d been said before.

 

How odd that suddenly they don’t exist.  You might almost think they constituted such grim reading that they were made not to exist.

 

© RTE / BBC

 

Mrs Brown should be our queen

The leaked Paradise Papers have contained many revelations about where the rich and powerful have been stashing their cash – beyond the reaches of their countries’ taxmen, obviously.  Among those named are Britain’s Royal Family.  For example, we now know that millions of pounds from the Queen’s private estate have ended up in a fund in the Cayman Islands.

 

You’d expect the British media to make hay about this.  Yet they’ve appeared more interested in another Paradise Papers revelation, i.e. that three stars of the bawdy Irishman-in-drag TV sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys – Patrick Houlihan, Martin Delany and Fiona Delany – have avoided paying tax on two million pounds by sneakily transferring the money to Mauritius and back.

 

This means either that Mrs Brown and her offspring are now more important to the British public than the Queen is; or that Britain’s brown-nosing journalists prefer to focus on some minor comedy actors to take the heat off the monarchy.  I believe the first reason to be true, obviously.

 

Mind you, say what you like about the Queen, but she usually has more gravitas than to accidentally skewer someone up the bum with a rectal thermometer or use a dildo to whisk cream while the priest’s visiting.

 

Theresa May is now a waxwork

Well, no surprise there.

 

© The Guardian

 

The world seemed a very different place seven months ago

Didn’t it just?

 

© The Guardian