I’m saddened to report that last orders have been called at one of my favourite watering holes in Colombo, the Vespa Sports Club, which had been a fixture of Sea Avenue in the Kollupitiya district since the 1960s.
During the half-dozen years that I’ve been in Colombo, the Vespa, an old-style, slightly ramshackle bungalow with tables and chairs along its veranda and ample additional seating space in the compound around it, had been a regular haunt of mine. Well, it couldn’t have not been a regular haunt of mine, considering its attractions: cheap beer, cheap and wonderfully spicy food, no-nonsense serving staff, plenty of conversation, occasional live (but unobtrusive) traditional Sri Lankan music, a nice dog who was devoted to his duty of chasing feral cats off the veranda, and feral cats who were equally devoted to their duty of constantly creeping onto the veranda and keeping the dog on his toes (or paws).
The one concession to modernity was that during the day the surrounding compound doubled as a car park for people working in the businesses of nearby Galle Road. Thus, if you sat on its veranda during its lunchtime hours of 11.00 am to 2.00 pm, you found yourself contemplating a grid of stationary cars. Even so, it was a salubrious place for a midday refreshment. If I ordered a beer a few minutes before the two o’clock closing time, the staff were happy enough to lock up and go off and leave me there to finish my beer on my own. Though one time, one of them stayed behind to keep me company and we had a long, unexpected but lovely conversation about English-language poetry. He’d got his interest in poetry from his daughter, who worked as an English teacher.
Though it was ostensibly a man’s pub, women, both local and foreign, appeared there from time to time and nobody batted an eyelid while they sat, drank and chatted.
A few evenings ago, I dropped by the Vespa for a drink and was greeted, ominously, by the sight of a rope strung across its compound entrance, forbidding entry. When I juked under the rope and went to the bungalow, all the chairs and tables had been removed and a stranger there, a young guy, informed me that the place had just been shut by the ‘government’. I assume by that he meant ‘the local authorities’. I then retreated to a nearby bar, the Tavern on Galle Road, where a staff-member speculated that the Vespa had met its demise because of a drop-off in business.
From that, I imagine the Vespa management were unable to make ends meet and were evicted by whoever owns the property. Did the months of the curfew that the Sri Lankan government imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the attendant ban on the sale of alcohol, doom the Vespa to financial failure? Or were they forced out to make way for some lucrative new development on the site? Or was it a combination of both?
It’s a cruel development, as I’d been in the place a few times after the curfew was lifted and its atmosphere seemed no different from before. Well, apart from the new English-language signs urging social distancing on its timeworn yellow walls, next to the old signs in Sinhala. So I was starting to hope they’d got through the curfew without incurring significant financial damage.
I suppose it’s a miracle that somewhere as resolutely old-fashioned as the Vespa managed to survive for as long as it did in an area of Colombo, between the major thoroughfares of Galle Road and Marine Drive and almost on the seafront, that was so redevelopment-crazy. But its closure was inevitable sooner or later.
I’m also peeved to find, after searching through my computer hard drive, that I have hardly any photographs of the Vespa when it was on the go. After dark it wasn’t brightly illuminated, which added to its atmosphere but didn’t facilitate the taking of good pictures. I do have murky ones of the dog, though, and of the lopsided but endearing Christmas tree they used to erect on the veranda during the festive season.
And that’s that. We live in a world whose cities all seem determined to mutate into Dubai – to become soulless glass-and-concrete clones, consisting of nothing but square miles of corporate towers, sprawling retailing complexes and high-end apartment blocks. The Vespa’s fate should encourage us to embrace the surviving, but alas, dwindling, number of places that retain some individuality and personality. Places where you can experience all the things that make life properly worthwhile: conversation, laughter, cheap beer and spicy snacks, live music, dogs and cats.