Something fishy

 

© Heinemann

 

The other week my better half (Mrs Blood and Porridge) and I were travelling in a three-wheeler along Colombo’s Marine Drive when we found unexpectedly found ourselves at the back of a traffic jam.  This was unexpected because we were on a wide part of the drive that isn’t normally prone to bottlenecks; and it was the middle of a Sunday, when Colombo’s frequently severe traffic isn’t that severe.

 

Then we realised that the congestion was caused by a large number of vehicles left parked at the seaward side of Marine Drive.  Crowds of people had climbed out of those vehicles and crossed the railway tracks, which run alongside the drive, to get to the rocky shoreline overlooking the Indian Ocean.  We asked our driver what was happening.  He didn’t know, but thought that someone might have drowned – and the onlookers were there out of ghoulish curiosity to see the police retrieve and remove the body.

 

By chance, the place we were travelling to on Marine Drive, the 14-storey Ozo Hotel, stood opposite the spot that seemed to be the focus of the crowds.  We planned to have some lunch at the hotel’s rooftop bar.  After we’d finally arrived there and taken the lift to the top of the building, the first thing I did was go to the railing and look down over Marine Drive and the railway, shoreline and sea and find out what had been drawing all those spectators.

 

Far below, lying across some sand whilst being gently pummelled by endless silvery breakers, was a big pale carcass maybe twenty feet long.   A carcass of what, I couldn’t tell.  It was so decayed and shapeless and bloated that it was unrecognisable.  I was relieved to be 14 storeys above the scene, well out of the way of what must have been a vile reek of putrefaction.

 

 

At first I thought it might be the remains of a whale-shark – the world’s biggest fish species – because two months earlier someone had told me she’d been scuba-diving at a shipwreck a short distance out into the ocean from Colombo when one of those giant (but non-carnivorous) sharks had swum at her out of the murk and spent a minute moseying around her.  However, according to a news report that appeared subsequently, the badly-decomposed carcass was identified not as a shark but as a whale.

 

This occurred just a fortnight after a well-publicised incident where a 50-foot-long corpse was washed up at Seram Island in Indonesia.  Rotting, but still bleeding enough to turn the surrounding waters red, the thing initially caused speculation that it might be the remains of some gargantuan and hitherto-unknown sea-creature.  Later, though, marine experts were able to identify it, from the presence of baleen plates, grooves along its body and certain skeletal features, as a whale too.

 

Being into literature, the carcass on Marine Drive set me wondering about giant washed-up bodies in books and stories I’d read.  I could think of two examples.  One occurred in the whimsical (and occasionally twee) fantasy novel Mr Pye (1953) by Mervyn Peake, which is set on Sark in the Channel Islands and concerns an eccentric evangelist who arrives to preach a message of love and compassion to the islanders.  A first attempt to convert a mass audience ends in disaster, however – he assembles Sark’s inhabitants on a beach one evening with the promise of a giant picnic, but before he can start proselytising, the waves inconveniently dump a dead whale on the sand nearby and the stench of it drives everyone away.

 

The other example I thought of was the short story The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard, which appeared in his 1964 collection The Terminal Beach and, as its name suggests, isn’t about a whale carcass but about a gigantic human one that’s inexplicably deposited on a beach following a violent storm.  In his typically perverse fashion, Ballard has no interest in who the giant was or how he came into existence or how he ended up on the beach.  Rather, he focuses on the reaction to him by the ordinary, normal-sized humans living along the coast.

 

This begins with intense and rather disrespectful curiosity – soon they’re clambering over his huge, dead bulk like the Lilliputians swarming over Gulliver.  Then it turns into even less respectful greed, with the body gradually being dismantled and processed by “a fertiliser company and a cattle-food manufacturer”.  And finally the poor giant fades out of both the landscape and human consciousness.  The stretch of beach that was his final resting place is left empty save for a “clutter of bleached ribs like the timbers of a derelict ship” that “make an excellent perch for the sea-wearying gulls.”  Meanwhile, the anonymous narrator observes that “most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.”

 

One of Ballard’s most haunting and melancholic stories, The Drowned Giant can be read here.

 

When your neighbourhood collapses

 

Late on the morning of May 18th I was at my Colombo workplace when I was telephoned by my partner, who was back in our apartment.  She said that in the mid-morning she’d heard a cacophony of sirens – police cars, ambulances and / or fire engines – on the street outside.  Then, soon after that, she’d received a call from our local electrician, who’d been in the apartment the day before to check an electrical fault in a couple of our wall-sockets.

 

The electrician’s reason for ringing today was nothing to do with the condition of those sockets.  He’d just heard a news-flash saying that a building in our neighbourhood had collapsed and he wanted to make sure we were okay.

 

Reports about what’d happened were already appearing on the Internet.  It turned out that part of a big banquet / party / wedding reception complex called the Excellency, which stands behind the Savoy Cinema on Galle Road, had caved in.  The building’s façade remained intact but its back half, where some new floors were being constructed on top of an existing section, had suddenly fallen like the proverbial house of cards.  Trapped in the rubble were both members of the Excellency’s staff who’d been in the completed bit at the bottom and builders who’d been working in the under-construction bit at the top.

 

Not only were the emergency services soon on the scene to begin rescue efforts, but members of the Sri Lankan army were drafted in too.  By bad luck, shortly after the disaster happened, it started raining heavily and Colombo endured what was probably its wettest day so far of 2017, which meant that the rubble and dust that the rescuers were working in must have turned into a quagmire.

 

By the day’s end we’d heard reports that 23 people had been pulled out of the debris and taken to hospital and one person had later died of their injuries.  The bodies of two more victims were to be recovered from the flattened building over the next few days.

 

 

I walked past the place the following evening.  The soldiers were still present – indeed, one off-duty group of them sat and gazed out forlornly at the rain from the back of a truck parked next to our apartment building.  The stretch of street at the front of the Excellency had been sealed off with big white-and-red traffic cones, though the police guards posted there were tolerant of pedestrians walking through the closed-off area so long as they kept walking and didn’t make nuisances of themselves.

 

Considering what’d happened, the Excellency’s façade showed surprisingly little sign of damage.  If you peered down the alleyway at its side, you could make out a piece of still-standing wall with a pile of rubble at its bottom and, hanging above it, a broken, twisted mess of roofing.  Meanwhile, the floor of the Excellency’s front lobby was slathered with dried muddy footprints left by rescue-workers going to and coming from the devastation at the rear.  And one of its front windows had disintegrated and covered the street below in pieces of blue-tinted glass – it looked like there’d been a snowfall and then a thaw and now there was a thick slush full of lumps of melting ice.  At first, I thought that window might have been smashed by the rescuers, wanting to get some bulky rescue equipment into and through the building; but then, seeing how all the broken glass was lying outside rather than inside, it occurred to me that the window had probably been knocked out by the shock-waves from the collapse.

 

 

The pavement in front of the entrance to the Savoy Cinema was cordoned off with ropes and the building was atypically dark and silent.  A sign in the door said simply: “We are closed today.”

 

To see the collapsed building itself, you had to go onto the bridge where Galle Road crosses the Kirillapone Canal.  From there, you could view a giant, crumpled hole among the row of buildings backing onto the canal.  Debris and rubble oozed like a semi-solid effluent down into the canal-water below.  The whole, sad sight was framed between the big green fronds of the trees that grow near the bridge.

 

 

Barely had the disaster occurred than journalists got wind of the fact that the building had received inadequate planning permission.  The owner had been authorised to build three storeys by the canal – but at the time of the collapse the structure was five storeys high and the intention was to finally raise it to seven.

 

Initially, we’d heard rumours that the Excellency’s owner – whom, understandably, the police were keen to speak to – was ‘out of the country’.  However, on May 21st, news came through that he’d been arrested.

 

And without wishing to prejudice any upcoming trial, I can only say to that: “Good.”

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 9: Bambalapitiya Station

 

 

Colombo is being redeveloped at a frenzied rate these days.  Multi-storey hotels and apartment blocks seem to shoot up out of the ground with the suddenness and speed of mushrooms.  So many cranes loom over the downtown area that the horizon there resembles a pincushion.  And a grand, if not grandiose, reclamation project is forcing the sea back from the Fort district, banishing it behind giant dunes of sand and boulders.

 

With all this happening, it’s a surprise when you see the under-developed state of the city’s railway system, the antiquated and fusty railway stations in particular.

 

A typical example is Bambalapitiya Station, not far from where I live.  It’s one of three stations standing on Marine Drive, the city’s main coastal road.  A pair of railway lines run along a strip between the road and the sea’s edge, one carrying southbound trains heading in the direction of Galle, a few hours away down the coast, and the other carrying northbound trains for central Colombo.  Bambalapitya Station is roughly at the midpoint of Marine Drive.  There, the railway lines bulge apart and create between them a narrow, faintly elliptical space which the station building and platforms straggle along.  Past where the platforms stop, the two tapering ends of the space are covered in sand, rocks, rubble, litter, grass and weeds.

 

 

At peak travelling hours, Marine Drive is teeming with vehicles and to get people safely across the road to the station there’s a pedestrian bridge covered with corrugated-iron roofing of various unappealing shades of grey and brown.  The stairs at the end of the bridge descend into the station building itself, long and low and with walls that are a faded amber colour.  Corrugated-iron ‘awnings’ stick out on either side, over the middle parts of the platforms.  Their ends, though, are exposed to all weathers.

 

Plenty of people enter the station without using the bridge.  Its main part is separated from Marine Drive by a low wall and fence, but many folk stream off the road, around the wall and fence and onto the ends of the waste ground.  From there they clamber up onto the platforms; or more hazardously, they clamber up into the end-carriages of the trains, which when they’ve stopped usually protrude past the platforms.  The latter course-of-action can be even more of a struggle at peak hours when the carriage doors are already garlanded with the bodies of clinging, hanging-out passengers.

 

 

There’s a second, bigger wall standing behind the outer railway track, presumably to shield the tracks, trains, platforms, buildings and travellers from the spray and occasionally the waves of the sea just a few yards further away.   The wall is a mishmash of sections, rising to different heights and featuring different textures of brickwork and plasterwork.  It’s also become a canvas for Colombo graffiti-artists who’ve daubed it with hip-hoppy scrawls.

 

 

The most striking, and saddest, feature of Bambalapitiya Station is found behind that sea-wall.  Against its rear side, along the narrow rocky strip between it and where the ground drops to the sea, some poor Sri Lankan people have erected a line of huts and shacks.  Their walls have been patched together with wooden panels and planks and their roofs consist of tarpaulin and corrugated iron weighted down with rocks and discarded railway sleepers.  The boulders outside their doors are strewn with things that’ve no doubt been salvaged and scavenged: plastic chairs, plastic water containers, a bathtub, lengths of piping, shapeless chunks of scrap metal.  The hut at the northern end appears to function as a rudimentary shop / tearoom for there’s a hatchway in its sidewall with a makeshift table and stools arranged in front of it.

 

 

In 2011, the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper published a feature about this ramshackle settlement.  It makes depressing and upsetting reading.  Its description of how the huts regularly get flooded with seawater correspond to what I’ve seen, from a distance, on stormy days when the waves climb the rocks and strike the huts with a violence that makes you fear they’ll be swept away.  At the time, local politicians stood accused of ignoring the plight of Bambalapitya Station’s backdoor residents; and from the look of things, they’ve done little or nothing to help them since then.

 

www.sundaytimes.lk/111023/Plus/plus_01.html

 

Well, there’s one thing that’s apparently changed since that newspaper feature six years ago.  At least some of the huts seem to have power now.  The evidence for this is the couple of poles sticking up above the sea-wall with TV aerials fastened to their tops.

 

 

Just after the final hut at the wall’s southern end, a blue-painted Christian shrine has been set up.  A glass-fronted box on its summit contains figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  It makes an atmospheric sight after six o’clock in the evening, while the silvery-gold sun dips towards the sea and a few long skinny clouds along the sky glow so redly that they look like bloody scratch-marks.

 

 

I should say that I’ve never ventured behind the railway’s station’s back wall and stuck my camera in anyone’s face.  I only wish other visitors to Colombo would be respectful too of the privacy of the people there.  On one occasion, I saw a big tour bus parked on Marine Drive beside the station and, on the far side of the railway tracks, some Chinese tourists crowded at the end of the shanty town and snapping pictures of it – treating it as a ‘poverty porn’ stop on their travel itinerary.

 

As for the roadside wall at the front of Bambilapitiya Station – or half-a-wall because part of it has disappeared and, as I’ve said, been replaced by a fence – somebody tried at some time to brighten it by painting a series of murals along it.  However, these last for only a few yards.  Their images – Buddha, stupas, rivers, forests, lotus flowers, demons, deer, elephants, fish, turtles, elephants, birds and butterflies – are pleasingly colourful, simple and child-like.

 

 

A mixture of rickety charm and some truly grim poverty, Bambalapitiya Station feels increasingly out of place in its neighbourhood.  It stands opposite the junction of Marine Drive and Station Road – a minute’s walk up the latter street is the trendy and popular Majestic City shopping centre.  And the opposite side of Marine Drive itself is currently in the throes of redevelopment.  One building, for instance, has been gutted and is being transformed into a new, high-falutin’ Indian restaurant with the amusing name of Planet Bollywood.

 

 

I suspect that before much longer some big, possibly Chinese-led consortium will flatten the old station and others like it and then raise new versions of them, fashioned in concrete, glass and steel.  Perhaps someone is on the case already.

 

Since writing this post I’ve noticed that the station’s front wall and the bottom half of its back wall have recently been given a lick of dark-red paint – the murals at the front have been spared, thankfully.  So clearly somebody in the Sri Lankan railway authorities is of the opinion that the place needs ‘doing up’.

 

Christmas in Colombo

 

 

For a country where just seven percent of the population professes to be Christian, Sri Lanka sure seems to love Christmas.  That’s the conclusion I draw after tramping about Colombo for the past couple of weeks and snapping pictures of the many festive-themed adornments to the city-streets.

 

For example, here’s a Nativity scene that’s been created on a little platform just inside the front wall of St Peter’s College on Galle Road.  Brightly-coloured figures kneel, bow and pay homage amid the straw: red-robed Magi, blue-and-red-winged angels, the usual little sheep that look like they’ve strayed from a toy farm set.  A narrow strip of wood runs from the wall to the platform, looking a bit like a drawbridge that Mary and Joseph can pull up when they get tired of the visitors.

 

 

Further down Galle Road, silhouettes of Father Christmas and his reindeer decorate an arch in front of the entrance to the Majestic City shopping complex.  I have to say that Santa here looks particularly horrible.  He’s a brown, shapeless and worryingly faecal-looking blob with a red Santa-hat on top.  They say that you can’t polish a turd, but evidently you can stick a red hat on one and call it ‘Santa’.

 

 

Meanwhile, there’s more Santa-related shenanigans down on Marine Drive, where I spotted this life-sized image of him hanging outside a balcony several floors up an apartment building.  The building itself looks pretty grotty with rusty-brown stains creeping down the masonry below the satellite TV dishes and air-conditioning extractor fans, and I can’t help wondering if Santa is desperate to climb into the place or climb out of it.

 

 

Further down Galle Road at the entrance of another shopping centre, Crescot City, these Christmas ice-palace fortifications have been erected.  They’ve become selfie-central for Colombo’s well-heeled young shoppers.  When I was there the outside temperature was about 30 degrees Celsius, so it was no surprise that the clumps of snow on the palace’s stonework seemed to be melting.  Or that the heavily-clad elf at the top seemed to be flailing with heat exhaustion.

 

 

Next door to Crescot City is the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.  Entering its lobby, the song Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs immediately started playing in my head because pink is the colour scheme the hotel management have adopted for their Christmas-tree and holly-wreath decorations this year.  Downstairs, a floor has been given over to a Christmas Market.  During my visit the market’s fish-stall seemed to be selling only long, thick, roasted, smoked and silent-screaming eels.  Out of festive delicacy, I will avoid traumatising you by showing pictures of their dead, gaping faces.

 

 

Finally, I have to say my favourite Christmas sight in Colombo is this cheap, humble but charming Christmas tree standing outside the Vespa Sports Club, one of the ‘man-pubs’ in the city that I frequent.  Sitting drinking beer next to a tatty Christmas tree on a ramshackle veranda in the tropics – for me, that’s what the Spirit of Christmas is all about.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 8

 

 

For the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, an invasion has been taking place.  I think of it as the Invasion of the Pink Pavements.

 

This has not been a quiet, surreptitious, barely noticeable invasion as in Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, which was filmed four times beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956.  No, it’s been a full-on, noisy, destructive invasion, like the one conducted by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, filmed most recently by Steven Spielberg in 2005.  For a long time I watched it rage in the busy coastal neighbourhoods south of central Colombo, in Kollupitya, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta, along two of the main traffic arteries there, Galle Road and Duplication Road.  New pavements were being installed at the sides of those roads, but what’d been there before seemed to put up a hell of a fight against them.  As I wrote in my notebook in the autumn of 2014:

 

“The objective seems to be, eventually, to replace all the old pavements with new, smart, corporate ones consisting of neat, level surfaces with small, pink bricks organised in geometrical patterns.  And in places, segments of new pavement have appeared; but they’re like small islands of sanity amid the chaos and carnage of yawning holes and trenches, former holes and trenches that’ve been unevenly filled in, hillocks of excavated earth, trucks, JCBs, noise, dust, guys working with shovels, guys idling and leaning on shovels, warning signs, barriers, barricades, milling pedestrians, awkwardly-manoeuvring three-wheelers and confused street-dogs.”

 

And yet, somehow, suddenly, the work ended and the new pavements were complete.  As I said, they’re composed of small pink bricks, though with occasional zigzags of grey brick woven into them.  They also have yellow seams of grooved or studded tactile paving running through them, to help the visually impaired.

 

I wonder if the unexpectedly quick and efficient manner with which the job was finished had something to do with the presidential election held in Sri Lanka in January 2015.  I’ve been in enough places to know that, with an election pending, public construction projects that’ve messily meandered on for years suddenly buck up and get completed in a rush.

 

However, the third main artery in this area of Colombo had been largely untouched by the pink pavements.  Marine Drive runs parallel with Galle Road and Duplication Road and, as its name suggests, follows the coast of the Laccadive Sea.  It’s not quite on the shoreline, as there’s a coastal railway track between them.  Until recently, a pavement existed on the northern stretch of Marine Drive between Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya Stations; but for the whole way down from Bambalapitya Station to the drive’s end at the southern edge of Wellawatta, pedestrians had to trudge along a dusty, earthen roadside.

 

 

However, Marine Drive, which goes past the bottom of my street, experienced a transformation this summer.  I returned from a holiday and hey presto!  I discovered that a new pink pavement had planted itself on the drive’s hitherto-bare seaward side.

 

I suppose this was unsurprising.  The past few years have seen the once-shabby drive get a dose of gentrification and it’s had fancy new arrivals like the OZO Hotel and the neighbouring NDB Bank building.  No doubt some better-heeled Colombo-ites are walking on it these days and they don’t appreciate getting dirt on their shoes, having their elbows brushed by too-close-to-the-side traffic and having to avoid smelly, open roadside drains.

 

 

The new pavement also allows you to properly pause, look out from the shore and admire the sea.  Previously, if you didn’t want vehicles honking at your back, you had to clamber into the middle of the railway tracks to do this.

 

 

You can also stop and study the interesting new safety signs that the Sri Lankan railway authorities have erected alongside the train-tracks.  Check out the poor guy in the picture in this sign’s top right-hand corner – actually, it looks like it was designed by the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, the subject of this blog two entries ago.

 

 

But this doesn’t mean that pedestrians can navigate all of Marine Drive by pavement now.  A kilometre’s gap still exists immediately south of Bambalapitya Station.  Though the new length of pavement runs up through Wellawatta and part of Bambalapitya, it suddenly stops dead in front of the Westeern Hotel.  There it gives way to a muddle of excavation work.

 

 

Coincidentally, the pavement’s current end-point, the Westeern Hotel, is home to Harry’s Bar, which is one of my favourite spit-and-sawdust pubs in Colombo.  So for now it feels like the city authorities have installed a pathway for me personally, so that I can walk with ease to the door of a treasured drinking hole and back.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 7

 

 

One depressing thing about living in Colombo during the past year-and-a-half is seeing the city’s traffic get progressively worse.  Galle Road, at one end of my street, has always been congested.  Unfortunately, at the street’s other end, Marine Drive – which as its name suggests runs alongside the Indian Ocean – has become busier and busier and now, around rush hour, it’s a nightmare to travel along.

 

In the past it was common for traffic to move between Galle Road and Marine Drive by scooting in and out of my little street and seventy-odd others – collectively known as ‘the lanes’ because some of them are simply called 8th Lane, 13th Lane, 17th Lane, etc. – that link the two thoroughfares like rungs connecting the two shafts of a ladder.  However, to help prevent the lanes from becoming congested too, a lot of them have recently had one-way-systems imposed on them.  You can enter them from Galle Road, or from Marine Drive, but you can’t enter them from both.  For instance, my street is now accessible only from Galle Road.  Turn into it from Marine Drive and you’re breaking the law.

 

Drivers were initially blasé about the new rules, but it soon became clear that the police meant business enforcing them.  I’ve been in both a taxi and an auto-rickshaw which got stopped by the cops, and whose driver got a bollocking, because they’d picked me up whilst going the wrong way along my street and had illegally emerged from it onto Galle Road.

 

To make sure that drivers got the message about the new one-way rules in the lanes, this curiously worded sign appeared at the entrances of some of them a few months ago.  Below a message written in Sinhala, the sign declares in English: LANE DISCIPLINE.  And below that is an ominous reminder / warning: LAW IS ACTIVE.

 

 

Actually, it sounds like the lyrical accompaniment you’d find on a tune by some late 1970s / early 1980s German industrial band.  A robotic voice intoning over a harsh drone of noise, “Lane discipline…” and a moment later a cacophony of equally robotic voices croaking the refrain, “Law is active!”

 

“Lane discipline…  Law is active!  Lane discipline…  Law is active!  Lane discipline…  Law is active!”  Yes, that’s got a non-groovy, non-melodic and definitely Orwellian ring to it.  I’m sure Einstὔrzende Neubauten would approve.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 6 (plus a Scottish preamble)

 

It’s said that all bullies are cowards at heart.  Similarly, I suspect that if you took a serial boaster and bragger and subjected him or her to psycho-analysis, you’d soon discover a host of neuroses, insecurities and inferiority complexes.  I’m afraid this is true about the country I’ve called home for much of my life, Scotland.

 

You don’t need to live in Scotland for long before you realise that the national character is seriously beset by hang-ups.  Lurking just below the surface is a terrible conviction that Scotland is, well, rubbish.  Rubbish compared with the rest of the world in general and with England in particular.  Rubbish in terms of culture, economy, education, health and – especially – sport.  This lack of self-confidence, so crippling to the national psyche, is well-documented enough for it to have received its own name: the Scottish Cringe.

 

Many would argue that the cringe manifested itself spectacularly a year ago on September 18th, 2014, when by a ten-percent margin the Scottish electorate voted against Scotland becoming an independent country again.  All right, a lot of Scots voted against independence because they’d considered things rationally and concluded that it was against Scotland’s political, economic and cultural interests.  But there must have been a sizeable number of ‘no’ voters who voted the way they did because they believed that their country was just too crap to be independent.  Too poor, too wee and too stupid.

 

And yet, going to the other extreme, I’ve found that one unappealing feature of Scotland is the propensity of certain Scots, under certain circumstances, to start bragging about how great their homeland is.  If you’re familiar with Scotland, you’ll know the score.  You go into a pub and without warning you get cornered by some drunken blowhard who spends the next half-hour raving about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Rabbie Burns, Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Scottie-from-Star Trek, golf, whisky, the hills, the glens, etc., etc.  Several years ago, while I was trying to have a quiet pint in the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, I got stuck in the company of one such havering idiot.  When he wasn’t babbling about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, etc., and punctuating his discourse with occasional cries of “Freedom!”, he assured me that the Scots were the friendliest people in the world.  Everyone loved them, and they loved everyone else, because if there’s one thing the Scots aren’t, it’s racist.  “No,” he added, “like them racist English bastards.”  After he’d finally shut up, and finally f***ed off out of the pub, the barmaid leaned over the counter and said apologetically, “Och, never mind him.  He’s had a rough time lately.  His wife has just divorced him.”

 

At the end of such a pro-Scottish bragging session, it’s customary for the braggart to conclude tearfully with an old adage: “Aye, wha’s like us?  Damned few – an’ they’re a’ deid!”  (For those of you unable to cope with anything not worded in precise Standard English, I shall translate: “Yes, who’s like us?  Very few – and they’re all dead!”)

 

One thing that looms large in any boasting session about Scotland is the claim that the place is so wonderful because of the natives’ inventiveness.  Human civilisation could never have advanced without Scotland because, basically, Scottish people have invented or discovered everything necessary for it to advance.  You name it, some Scottish genius cobbled it together originally in his garden shed.  Tarmac, thanks to which mankind can now drive along the road without being bumped to death?  That was John Louden Macadam.  The mackintosh raincoat, which prevents mankind from getting wet when it rains and dying of hypothermia?  That was Charles Macintosh (without a ‘k’).  The adhesive postage stamp?  James Chalmers.  Criminal fingerprinting?  Henry Faulds.  The ATM?  James Goodfellow.  The kaleidoscope?  Sir David Brewster.  God, can you imagine the horror of living in a barbaric primitive world where an enterprising Scotsman hadn’t invented the kaleidoscope?!

 

I was reminded of this Scots-invented-everything malarkey a few weeks ago in Colombo, of all places, while I was walking along my neighbourhood stretch of Galle Road.  I came across this large billboard, erected next to the bridge that crosses the Kirillapone Canal.

 

 

It’s a joint advertisement for Scotland’s Napier University and Sri Lankan educational specialists BMS, who between them are offering flexible / distance degree-courses to local students.  For this particular advert, Napier University decided to play up the Scottish connection and so it shows the faces of five great Scottish geniuses who’ve invented or discovered something massively important: John Napier (inventor of the calculator); Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin); James Watt (the steam engine); Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone); and John Logie Baird (television).  Undertake a Scottish / Napier University-affiliated degree course, the advertisement tells its target audience, and you too could invent something momentous and make pots of money from the patent.

 

Now I don’t want to dispute the fact that, for the size of its population, Scotland has produced a remarkable number of inventors and discoverers.  Although I think that with this advert Napier University has exposed itself, slightly, to the risk of prosecution for violating the Trades Description Act.

 

For one thing, it’s disingenuous to say that John Napier, who died in 1617, invented the calculator – the pocket version of which I don’t remember seeing prior to 1976.  Napier, a mathematician, physicist, astronomer and (as was common for men of learning in his day) reputed occultist, did devise a manually-operated calculating device that was nicknamed ‘Napier’s bones’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napier%27s_bones).  But if that qualifies as a calculator, then shouldn’t the calculator’s invention be attributed to whichever ancient Babylonian thought up the abacus?  It might have been more honest for the advert to say that John Napier discovered logarithms and popularised the use of the decimal point, but probably logarithms and decimal points look less sexy on a billboard.

 

Meanwhile, Alexander Graham Bell chose in later life to become an American citizen, so arguably the telephone is an American rather than a Scottish invention.  Besides, there’s controversy over whether or not Bell really invented it.  Some evidence suggests that the true telephone-inventor might have been Elisha Gray, an American, or Antonio Meucci, an Italian.

 

But what irks me about this advert is not so much its accuracy or inaccuracy.  It’s that grandstanding line about “Scotland’s proven track record of producing great thinkers.”  I find it an uncomfortable reminder of Scotland’s neurotic boastfulness – boastfulness which hides a paralysing lack of confidence, which surfaced very clearly during the referendum last September.

 

Aye, wha’s like us?  Quite a lot of folk, actually.  And most of them live in independent countries.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 5

 

 

When I first heard the term ‘Frisian horse’, I thought immediately of some genetically-engineered mutant beastie that was an amalgamation of the equine species and the common black-and-white Friesian cow that’s the world’s most productive dairy animal.  I visualised a stallion with horns or a mare with milk-dripping udders.  However, translated into French, Frisian horse is cheval de frise, which is actually the term for a simple but brutal defensive device from medieval times.

 

It’s a basic wooden frame, or even a log, that’s been porcupined with long wooden spikes or metal blades and placed across an area to discourage an enemy’s cavalry from riding through it.  And should the cavalry decide to ride through the area, it’s there to stop them – messily and gorily.

 

The cheval de frise, the Frisian horse, takes its name from the coastal part of mainland Europe bordering the North Sea that was the homeland of the Frisian people.  I’d always assumed that Frisia corresponded to the modern-day province of Friesland in the Netherlands, where people still speak the West Frisian language and the mainstay of the local agricultural economy is the place’s most famous export, the afore-mentioned Friesian cow.  However, when I did some research, I discovered that once upon a time Frisia had extended across the coast of the modern-day Netherlands, across the coast of north-western Germany and to the edge of Denmark.  Apparently, the medieval Frisians invented the nasty, spiky, horse-troubling cheval de frise as a defensive device because they possessed very little cavalry of their own.

 

As time passed and as the horse became less important in military science – as did mechanisms for stopping horses – the term cheval de frise grew looser in meaning.  It came to refer to any sort of spiked impediment that’s erected in defence of a place.  This included the vicious-looking crests of broken glass that householders would embed in mortar along the tops of their perimeter walls to deter – and if necessary, maim – would-be burglars and other trespassers.

 

These days, people in Britain are urged not to crown the tops of their walls with large jaggy pieces of glass.  The Ask the Police website warns: “Using barbed / razor wire and broken glass in order to stop people getting into your home is not advisable.  You are making yourself liable to civil action as you owe a duty of care to ensure that visitors to your property are reasonably safe.  Odd as it may seem, you also owe a duty of care to trespassers.”  Instead, the website advice, which was obviously written by a horticulturally-minded police-officer, is to reinforce your external walls with “(p)rickly plants such as hawthorn, poncira, pyracantha (rapid growth), rosa rugosa, or any kind of berberis,” which “are an effective obstacle against possible intruders and much more pleasant to look at.”

 

Apparently, either the police in Sri Lanka are less concerned about trespassers suffering multiple lacerations and about keeping up the aesthetic appearances of neighbourhoods; or Sri Lankans pay a lot less attention to what their local coppers say.  That’s because around where I live in Colombo, walls that sport long lethal-looking ridges of jutting, fragmented glass – usually pieces of broken bottle – are a familiar sight in the residential side-streets.  Indeed, there’s one wall on the seafront, close to my local supermarket, that’s so packed along its top with fangs of glass that I was inspired to whip out my notebook and write a few lines about it.  “It resembles,” I waxed poetically, “the spine of a punk stegosaurus”.

 

I wasn’t surprised when I recently read Straw Hurts by the Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera, a short story included in Gunesekera’s collection Monkfish Moon, and saw one of the scene-setting opening sentences describe “the sun… on the smashed bottle-glass embedded in the curved top of the roadside cement wall”.

 

One thing’s for certain.  If you’re a burglar in Sri Lanka, you need to make sure that you’ve had your tetanus shots.  This is a place where the cheval de frise still has a painful kick.

 

 

Mount Lavinia

 

 

Since arriving in Sri Lanka in May last year, I have tried to avoid posting blog-entries that depict the place as a sun-drenched island paradise: entries that peddle the image of it that the country’s tourist authorities peddle.  Yes, parts of Sri Lanka are gorgeous.  But I’ve felt a little too aware of the country’s recent turbulent history – it was wracked by a civil war that lasted for a quarter-century and left between 60,000 and 100,000 people dead, including one Sri Lankan president (Ranasinghe Premadasa) and one Indian prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi) – to want to promote it as some blandly-dreamy tourist magnet.

 

However, just over a week ago, a general election took place and it went off without trouble.  Power was transferred with surprising peacefulness from Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s strongman leader of the past decade, to new leader Maithripala Sirisena (who’d served as Rajapaksa’s Minister of Agriculture and then Health).  On top of this unexpected show of political stability and maturity, Pope Francis then arrived in Sri Lanka and told everyone how wonderful they were.  So with the country’s credit deservedly high at the moment, I’ve decided to post an entry that does portray the place as a sun-drenched island paradise.

 

Besides, at the moment, I’m back in Scotland and, looking out of my window, all I can see is a white, wintry, slushy, sleety hellhole.   And the BBC weather forecast assures me that temperatures in my locality tonight will be around the minus 13 mark.  So I’m more than ready to indulge in some sun-drenched-island-paradise rhetoric.

 

Mount Lavinia is a district of Colombo that’s on my doorstep.  It’s just a few minutes’ ride away by trishaw, south along Galle Road.  It has a reputation for being among the city’s more well-to-do areas and, indeed, is home to St Thomas’ College, one of Colombo’s most prestigious schools.  And once you get away from the smoky, noisy and congested artery that is Galle Road, the area becomes surprisingly tranquil – its ambience feels more like that of the sleepy countryside than a city suburb.  In particular, the temples in this district are oases of calm, quiet and charm.

 

 

Also, Mount Lavinia comes with a precious commodity in Colombo – it has a ‘Golden Mile’ of beaches and is regarded as the city’s very own seaside resort.  Though oddly, the area’s Sinhalese name, Galkissa, is derived from an old word ‘kissa’ that means ‘rock’ rather than ‘sand’.

 

The place’s showcase building is the Mount Lavinia Hotel at Number 100, Hotel Road, which has 275 rooms and a history that stretches back more than 200 years.  It was originally constructed as a home for Sir Thomas Maitland, who served as British Governor of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, from 1805 to 1811.  Nicknamed ‘King Tom’, Maitland was obviously also something of a tomcat; for after his arrival on the island he wasted no time in falling in love with a half-Portuguese, half-Sinhalese woman called Lovina Aponsuwa, who was the lead performer in her father’s dance-troupe.  According to the blurb on the Mount Lavinia Hotel website, she possessed ‘long flowing jet black tresses’ and ‘large, expressive, hazel brown eyes.’

 

 

To avoid scandalising his fellow Britons on the island – and indeed to avoid scandalising the Sinhalese locals, because Lovina belonged to the Rodiya community, the Sinhalese’s lowest caste – Maitland sneakily had his new residence built with a secret tunnel that ran from its wine cellar to a disused well near Lovina’s father’s house.  During the next six years, they used this tunnel as a way to carry out their lovers’ trysts, away from the disapproving eyes of their British and Ceylonese contemporaries.

 

Ill-health eventually forced Maitland to leave Sri Lanka, but he seems to have held Lovina in genuine affection – their relationship wasn’t just based on expediency and lust.  As well as naming his mansion and its surroundings Mount Lavinia, which was supposedly a veiled sign of his love for her, he also gifted her with a large area of land in the village of Attidiya, a little way further east.  And until the end of his days – he died in Malta in 1824 – Maitland remained a bachelor.  The legendary tunnel, meanwhile, is supposed to have been sealed in 1920.

 

Maitland’s mansion didn’t become a hotel until 1947.  Before then, as well as serving as a governor’s residence, it saw duty during World War II as a military hospital.  It has also served as a film set – some scenes for The Bridge on the River Kwai were filmed there in the mid-1950s.

 

 

With a lobby area that’s embroidered with strips of foliage and artificial waterfalls, the Mount Lavinia Hotel is a grand and impressive place to explore.  However, I suspect that for many residents its main attraction is the glorious stretch of beach that it overlooks – and I use the adjective ‘glorious’ to describe it even though I’m not by any means a ‘beach person’.  A panorama of wonderfully clean sand, glassy-blue waves, palm trees and boats, it’s easy to sit there and forget that central Colombo is just a couple of miles up the coast.

 

 

And in the grass-roofed hut that houses the hotel’s beach-side bar and restaurant, you’ll be entertained by some predictably tame, predictably cute and predictably well-fed Sri Lankan squirrels.

 

 

Incidentally, on the day that I visited it, posters had been put up to advertise a forthcoming attraction in the Mount Lavinia Hotel.  Being held there soon was an immersive and improvised comedy show that’s based on the famous 1970s British TV sitcom, Fawlty Towers.  This show was called The Fawlty Towers Dining Experience.  I find it ironic that a building that once symbolised the British Empire at its most powerful is now hosting displays of classic, self-mocking British comic stupidity.  Then again, I’m more comfortable with the world knowing us for our self-deprecating ridiculousness than for our imperialist might and ruthlessness.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 4

 

 

Do kids play in treehouses anymore?  For the past decade at least, I can’t recall seeing a treehouse in the part of Scotland where my family live.  I suspect that for most modern kids, brought up on a diet of flash-bang-wallop computer games like Plants vs Zombies and Crypt of the Necrodancer, the idea of hanging out in a rickety wooden structure in the upper regions of a tree would seem rather lame.  Also, given the contemporary obsession with ‘health and safety’, any parents who allowed their kids to play in the upper regions of a tree, with a potentially bone-breaking distance between them and the ground, would probably run the risk of seeing their young offspring taken into care.

 

How different it was when I was a kid, back in 1970s Northern Ireland.  Admittedly, my own attempts to build a treehouse were abortive, mainly because I was a little porker at the time and had difficulty hauling my rotund body more than two feet up a tree-trunk – never mind transporting up all the tools and building materials needed for the treehouse-construction.  But some friends of mine, the Wilson kids, whose parents owned a farm in the Feglish townland of County Tyrone, did have one for a while in a tree rising out of some scrubby ground behind their garden.  I was mightily impressed by their treehouse (after I’d completed the arduous business of climbing up to the thing), although thinking about it now I realise it was a wee bit precarious.

 

The Wilsons had built it with only enough wood to form the frames of the walls and roof.  The actual walls and roof themselves were made of plastic sheeting or old plastic fertiliser bags stretched across the frames.  Lean against those walls a little too heavily and you’d have burst through them and dropped out of the treetop – quite possibly impaling yourself below on the vertical stakes supporting the gooseberry plants that grew along the garden’s edge.  Just as well health and safety wasn’t such a hot potato in those days.  Those kids would’ve ended up in care for sure.

 

One treehouse I’ve always wanted to visit is the massive one in the gardens of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland – yes, that’s the stately home that stood in for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies – which contains its own restaurant.  Improbably, considering that the treehouse is made of cedar, redwood and pine and is located in the branches of a copse of lime trees, the restaurant is equipped with its own log fire.  I’d intended to go there while I was living in nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne but, alas, never got around to it.

 

http://www.alnwickgarden.com/explore/whats-here/the-treehouse

 

I’d been under the impression that the Alnwick Garden treehouse was the largest treehouse in the world, but apparently that honour belongs to one in Crossville, Tennessee.  This was built by a preacher called Horace Burgess, who claims to have received his instructions from God.  “If you build a treehouse,” God told him one day, in a vision, “I’ll see to it that you never run out of material.” To the dismay of Burgess, and presumably of God, the state closed the Crossville treehouse to the public in 2012 because it violated fire-safety rules.  Yes, there it is again.  Bloody health and safety.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Burgess’s_Treehouse

 

Anyway, when I moved to Colombo six months ago, I was delighted to discover the treehouse in the picture above, contained among some trees that rose up from behind the stone wall, timber gate and metal railings of a property in my new neighbourhood.  It appeared to be a one-room cabin with a balcony or external platform attached to the end facing away from the street.  It wasn’t located at any great altitude – just a couple of feet above the top of the wall – and a wide wooden ladder propped against its base gave it easy access.  There was no need for Tarzan-style climbing and clambering to get up to it.

 

In fact, it seemed to be quite a posh treehouse.  Its roof was made of bluish corrugated plastic and I noticed electrical cables snaking up the tree-trunk to it, which suggested it had its own lighting system.  At the same time, it’d clearly seen better days and on one side the plastic roofing was holed and broken.  I hoped that sooner or later the owners would get around to repairing it.

 

But then the other week I returned to Colombo after a trip abroad and discovered that the treehouse had gone.  Well, it’s mostly gone.  Its floor, its wooden base, is still in place but I’m sure that won’t survive much longer either.  Indeed, much of the trees that’d cradled it is gone too – all but their largest branches sawn off, those remaining branches ending in gruesome stumps and just an odd clump of leaves suspended here and there.

 

 

I wonder what happened.  Did the Sri Lankan Department for Health and Safety make them dismantle it?