The Vespa vanishes

 

 

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.

 

The sound of silence

 

From unsplash.com / © Vienna Reyes

 

Having perused the British media for the past week, I’ve reached the conclusion that the song that best sums up late-August Britain in this coronavirus-stricken year of 2020 is The Sound of Silence, recorded by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in 1964, although not a hit for them until two years later.

 

But it would have to be The Sound of Silence played with the volume turned down.  No sound.  Just silence.

 

The first silencing I’ve read about is one that’s caused the latest stramash in Britain’s seemingly never-ending culture wars.  Previous instalments in these culture wars have seen a statue of a notorious slave trader in Bristol get chucked into the sea and ridiculous long-haired historian Neil Oliver react to the deed by wailing about ‘anarchists and communists’ trying to destroy the British way of life…  Shaven-headed right-wing thugs giving Nazi salutes in London whilst attempting to protect another statue, one  of Winston Churchill, a man revered in Britain for, er, standing up to Nazis…  And a great deal of red-faced spluttering when the BBC, on its UKTV streaming service, temporarily suspended a 1975 episode of Fawlty Towers in which the dotty old Major character uttered some offensive racial epithets.

 

The BBC is also at the centre of the newest storm.  It’s decided to have the patriotic British songs Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia performed at this year’s Last Night of the Proms concert in the Royal Albert Hall without vocalists there to sing the lyrics.  The BBC claims this is to reduce the number of people onstage and allow for social distancing.  It detractors allege it’s because the lyrics have been deemed inappropriate in these overly sensitive, politically correct times.

 

In the clips of Last Night of the Proms concerts that I watched on TV in the past – in the distant past, because even as a teenager I found it a gruesome spectacle and never wanted to look at the thing again – most of the singing was done by the audience.  And the audience was a sea of drunken, Union Jack-waving Hooray Henrys and Hooray Henriettas making a cacophony that was as pleasant to listen to as a burning chicken-shed.  Due to Covid-19, the audience won’t be present this year.  That’s got to be an improvement, whether or not the songs are performed as instrumentals.

 

Predictably, the BBC’s decision to de-vocalise the songs was greeted by howls of outrage from the right-wing shit-sheets that make up much of the British national press, i.e. the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express.  It was also seized upon by Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, after performing a veritable Gordian knot of humiliating U-turns recently, was desperate to direct attention away from his governmental crapness.  Johnson declared that it was time to ‘stop our cringing embarrassment’ about being British.  Actually, at this stage, the best way to stop people feeling embarrassed about being British would be to build a time machine, pop back in time 56 years and persuade Stanley Johnson to wear a condom.

 

Also climbing onto the anti-BBC bandwagon was publicity-seeking hybrid human-donkey mutant Nigel Farage, who promptly tweeted footage of himself singing a lusty rendition of Rule, Britannia at some pro-Brexit rally.  This in turn prompted comedian David Baddiel to remark: “There might be some who feel a little sad about Rule, Britannia, seeing it, now divorced of triumphalist origins, only as a Proms tradition.  Watching this, however, makes it clear how it’s still basically a C*nts’ Anthem.”

 

Well, I wouldn’t be quite as severe as Baddiel in his assessment of Rule, Britannia, though I too have difficulty thinking positively of it and Land of Hope and Glory when I see the likes of Nigel Farage belting them out.  But apart from that, in terms of actual musical quality, I’ve always thought Rule sounded a bit cheesy and Land was a pompous dirge.  I say that as someone who spent his childhood in a fairly Protestant part of Northern Ireland, where the air often reverberated with the sound of people singing patriotically pro-British tunes.  While these tunes were frequently offensive to Roman Catholic ears, they, unlike Rule and Land, at least managed to be catchy.

 

(I remember one good friend from a quarter-century ago, a university lecturer who was a skilful pianist.  His university would sometimes rope him into providing live background music at official receptions.  He confessed to me that during one such event, bored stiff with ‘tinkling the ivories’, he felt a sudden powerful urge to start playing The Sash.  When I pointed out to him that he was a Glaswegian Catholic, and had a cousin who’d once been skipper of the Glasgow Celtic football team, and therefore wasn’t supposed to be a fan of The Sash, he shrugged and said, “Aye…  But at least it stirs the blood.”)

 

© Warner Music Group – XS Music Group

© Victor

 

However, it hasn’t just been Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory that have been silenced lately.  Reading a separate news story, I learned how restauranteurs in Scotland have been complaining about a ban on music on their premises, prompted again by the current Covid-19 pandemic.  The Scottish government implemented the ban on August 14th, afraid that if eateries were full of loud music, people would have to tilt their heads close together and shout and thereby increase the risk of spreading the virus.  The restauranteurs have dismissed this thinking as ‘ridiculous’, ‘nonsense’, ‘a disgrace’ and having ‘no logic’.  One even complained that “We need background music to kill the deathly hush as people feel they have to start whispering when a restaurant is quiet.  Diners want to eat out in a place with atmosphere, not a library.”

 

This set me thinking of the half-dozen restaurants that my partner and I most often go to in Colombo, Sri Lanka, our current city of residence.  I can’t remember hearing music played in three of them.  If it was played, it was at such a low volume as to be unnoticeable.  One restaurant plays music but softly and unobtrusively – I recall Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man (1965) getting an airing there the other week.  The fifth used to play some weird 1960s Euro-lounge / psychedelic / jazz stuff, like what you’d hear on the soundtrack of a Jess Franco movie, but they seem to have stopped that since the venue reopened after Sri Lanka’s two-month Covid-19 curfew.

 

In fact, only one of the six restaurants plays music at a distinctly discernible level and that makes it problematic for us.  Although the staff are lovely, the décor is charming and the food is decent, the music is often naff and intrusive.  Commonly featured on its aural menu from hell are Phil Collins, Robbie Williams, Coldplay, the Corrs and 1970s / 1980s-era Fleetwood Mac.  Come to think of it, there’s only thing I can think of it that’s more horrible than the Corrs and Fleetwood Mac, and that would be the Corrs doing a cover version of a Fleetwood Mac song.  And – oh yes! – the restaurant sometimes plays that puke-inducingly twee version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams that the Corrs did in 1998.

 

So in other words, the only restaurant we have an issue with is the one that plays music at any volume.  And the reason we like to eat in a quiet environment, or in a near-quiet one, is so that we can generate our own noise by indulging in the basic human art of conversation.  We like to communicate while we eat, and I certainly like to communicate without having to shout and risk spraying mouthfuls of grub into my dining companion’s face.  Also, I assume that any half-decent, welcoming restaurant will be one where the customers feel relaxed enough to strike up conversation immediately.  The afore-mentioned ‘deathly hush’ where people feel ‘they have to start whispering’ would suggest a venue that’s snobby and inhospitable.

 

The same news story contained one quote that made sense to me, however.  It came from a spokesman for a chain of pubs who snorted contemptuously, “We don’t go with the crowd so we don’t have music in any of our premises.  Our customers are used to it and like it.  We have shown you don’t need music to run a pub.”  Quite right.  Just let the punters chat to one another and create their own entertainment.

 

Alas, that spokesman represented the JD Wetherspoon chain, which run 75 pubs in Scotland.  It’s also the property of Tim Martin, who’s a well-known Brexit-loving, Faragist nincompoop.  Martin’s the sort of bloke who probably thinks Covid-19 is a leftist-woke conspiracy to stop patriotic folk from properly singing Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope of Glory by forcing them to wear facemasks.

 

Thus, realising that I’ve just agreed with a statement issued by Tim Martin’s outfit, I think I need to have a wee lie-down now.

 

© The Irish Times / Alan Betson

Social distancing at the Greenlands Hotel

 

 

During the last half-dozen years, one of my favourite places in Colombo to retire to after a busy day’s work and relax with a couple of beers has been the liquor bar at the Greenlands Hotel, which stands just off a street with the quaint name of Shrubbery Garden.  No, the hotel doesn’t have any connection with Greenland (although the interior walls of its liquor bar have been painted a pale, minty-looking shade of green) and there isn’t much sign of a garden, with shrubbery in it, in the immediate neighbourhood.

 

The bar adjoins a venerable restaurant that sells South Indian vegetarian dishes like dosai and rice and meat-free curry.  I’ve heard this restaurant described as a Colombo institution, although I suspect its glory days are behind it and it’s regarded now as something of a museum piece.  The Sri Lankan review website YAMU says that it ‘still holds a place in people’s heart for sheer nostalgia’ but adds a little cruelly that ‘the staff of Greenlands seem as old as the establishment itself, sporting hair as white as their crisp white dhoti and shirt’.  When the restaurant staff don’t have anything to do inside, which seems often, you’ll see these elderly geezers sitting on its front steps, watching the world pass by – at least, the tiny sliver of the world that passes the hotel gates on Shrubbery Garden.

 

 

The main fellow tasked with the running of the liquor bar seems a veritable youngster in comparison with his colleagues in the restaurant, but the clientele are hardly what you’d call spring chickens.  (Not that I’m a spring chicken myself, of course.)  They appear mainly to be professional and reasonably well-off blokes in their middle age who find pleasure in snatching a quick bottle of Lion beer and / or a quick glass of arrack during that little oasis of evening-time when they don’t have to worry about the responsibilities of their workplaces or the responsibilities of their households.  The bar counter and shelves are contained in a narrow room at one end, from which the barman provides a waiter service.  The clientele sit in a series of small square rooms extending one after another along the rest of the premises.  The rooms are spartan, with their bare minty-green walls and hard burgundy-coloured floors, but look extremely clean despite their basicness.

 

One pleasant touch was that whenever I appeared there and sat down, the barman would put an English-language Sri Lankan newspaper in front of me before fetching my first drink.  As a foreigner living in Sri Lanka it’s easy to get cocooned in your own affairs and not pay attention to the society around you, so those visits to the Greenlands Hotel helped keep me informed with what was happening locally.  That was my main reason for going there, obviously.

 

 

Early in 2020, I was alarmed when I went into the Greenlands Hotel one evening and was told by a restaurant waiter (while he sat on the steps, of course) that the liquor bar was ‘closed for repairs’.  I know from bitter experience that when one of Colombo’s surviving, old-style, spit-and-sawdust pubs gets closed down, it tends to stay closed down – often because the premises are to be demolished to make way for some soulless new development.  Then, when Covid-19 forced the government to impose a curfew starting on March 20th, and the pubs went into hibernation for God knows how long, I seriously wondered if I’d ever see the inside of the Greenlands Hotel liquor bar again.

 

 

However, come May and the easing of the curfew, I made a point one evening of strolling down Shrubbery Garden and looking into the Greenlands Hotel to see what the situation was.  I was delighted to find that both the restaurant and the liquor bar were functioning again – although as usual, most of the restaurant staff were warming the steps with their behinds.  In the bar, changes had been made to safeguard the clientele against the new virus.  Long tables, surely meeting the recommended 1.5-metre standard for social distancing, had been arranged with a chair at either end.  There were two tables in each room, meaning each room accommodated just four drinkers.  To be honest, I don’t think the reduction in seating capacity had done anything to damage the bar’s ambience, as even at the busiest of times it seemed a very peaceful little place.

 

One other safety precaution, to reduce the possible spread of infection by minimising the number of objects that folk touch on the premises, had resulted in a sad loss.  On the evening that I returned there, the barman told me apologetically, “I’m sorry.  I can’t give you a newspaper anymore.”

 

No worries.  I was just happy to see this unabashedly old-fashioned drinking establishment on the go again.

 

Locked-down Colombo

 

 

A few weeks have now passed since Colombo, the city where I live, emerged from Covid-19 lockdown.

 

Even now, walking about the city has a slightly eerie feeling of unreality.  The traffic isn’t quite as heavy as it was, though it’s gradually returning to the standards of the congested bad old days.  But some business premises remain closed, fewer pedestrians are using the pavements and nearly everyone is wearing a mask.

 

Not that I’m complaining about the masks, of course.  When it comes to the wearing of these, I’m in agreement with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who memorably tweeted the other day, “The science is unanimous – if we all wear masks, we slow down the spread and can open safely.  It’s not a political issue.  Anyone making it a political issue is an absolute moron…”  That sounds even better if you read it aloud in the Terminator’s accent.

 

I say ‘lockdown’, but in fact what we had for nearly two months in Colombo was a curfew, where you stayed indoors and supposedly weren’t even allowed to nip outside for a spot of exercise.  Hence, whenever I went down to the front door of our apartment building to pick up a delivery, I’d be greeted by the sight of our neighbour from upstairs burning off calories by riding her bicycle around and around the building’s small concourse.  Sri Lankan people seemed generally to accept and put up with the inconvenience of this.  I suppose it’s partly due to unhappy past experiences.  Events like the 30-year civil war, the 2004 tsunami and the Easter Sunday bombings last year have made them appreciate the importance and necessity of emergency security measures.

 

The curfew was imposed on Friday, March 20th.  There was an experimental half-day lifting of the curfew four days later, which gave folk a chance to get to the shops and stock up on supplies.  (By this point, Colombo’s food retailers hadn’t yet set up a coherent online system whereby people could order things from their homes and have them delivered.)

 

On March 24th, curfew-lifting day, I got up and headed out at about 7.00 AM, my goal being do some shopping at the nearest supermarket, Food City on Marine Drive.  When I arrived at Food City, I discovered that a queue had formed outside, which was slowly being threaded into the premises by a group of shopworkers and policemen.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.  The queue actually turned 90 degrees at the far corner of that block and continued up a side street, and by the time I reached the end of the queue I’d counted 173 people.  Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a long queue of 173.

 

 

The queue inched along and more than two hours passed before I got into the supermarket.  The shopworkers and police at the entrance were making sure that only a couple of dozen people were inside the shop at any one time, to enable social distancing.  But I’d expected a long wait and brought a book along and I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1975 gothic opus Interview with a Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems pretty bearable.

 

 

The people I saw outside and inside Food City behaved responsibly, but March 24th’s curfew-lifting didn’t seem to be a success.  Later that day, I saw reports in the media about crowded shops, markets and vehicles across the city and the country where the infectious and opportunistic Covid-19 virus would have enjoyed a field day.  Afterwards, when the authorities re-imposed the curfew, they kept it in place for a long, long time.

 

In fact, the only time I ventured beyond the edges of our premises during the next seven weeks was one day when I realised that I needed to get cash.  By now Colombo’s retailers had managed to set up a working delivery system, but not everything could be paid for online and / or with cards.  Sometimes you needed to pay the deliverers with physical money when they arrived at your door.  So off I trudged to the nearest ATM, not knowing what to expect.

 

This experience did make me feel like I was journeying through a city in the grip of a pandemic – a pandemic portrayed in an apocalyptic sci-fi / horror movie.  Traffic on Marine Drive was no more than a trickle.  The only people I saw who weren’t in vehicles or uniform were the staff at the Lanka Filling Station – a few vehicles were nosing onto their concourse to get petrol – and a couple of guys on the far side of the road, next to the sea, loading white Styrofoam boxes of fish onto the back of a delivery truck.  All the businesses along the road looked like they’d been shut for an eternity.  Oddest of all was the sight of our local branch of the KFC, which I’ve rarely seen not busy.  There was something utterly grim about the sight of all its chairs upturned and set on top of its tables, their jutting chair-legs forming a prickly metallic forest in the shadowy, unlit eating area.

 

Despite its close proximity to our building, the ATM I was heading for was actually in a different district of Colombo, across the Kirillapone Canal that forms the boundary between Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya.  And a security checkpoint staffed by three armed soldiers and ten police officers and consisting of a tent, desk and wheeled metal barriers had been set up by the canal bridge.  I noticed how this had also become the gathering point for the local population of crows, who usually assemble hungrily and hopefully where human beings assemble too.  So I had to traverse this checkpoint, show them my passport and explain where I was coming from, where I was going to and why.  I was allowed to continue to the ATM on the strict proviso that I returned home immediately afterwards.

 

During April and into May rumours about when the curfew would be lifted were plentiful, but it wasn’t until the week beginning May 11th that a modicum of normalcy returned in Colombo.  Not only were businesses allowed to have some ‘essential’ employees back at their workplaces (as opposed to ‘working from home’), but the general public were permitted outside on one weekday according to the final digit of their ID card number.  If that last digit on your ID card (or, if you were a foreign resident, your passport) was a 1 or 2, you were allowed out on Monday; if it was a 3 or 4, you were allowed out on Tuesday; and so on.  For me, this meant I could finally escape house arrest on Thursday, May 14th.

 

I was actually working from home for most of that day, so I didn’t get to venture out until late in the afternoon, which in the pre-Covid-19 era would have coincided with Colombo’s homeward-heading rush-hour.  This time the experience felt nowhere near as desolate as when I’d trudged to the ATM the previous month.  Most of the city remained closed, however, and considering what time of day it was, the lack of traffic on Marine Drive was astounding.  I was also shocked when a train rolled past along the nearby coastal railway tracks.  In the normal world, the train would have been stuffed with end-of-the-day commuters.  The more adventurous ones would be hanging out of the doorways while Colombo whooshed past below them.  But some carriages in this train barely contained a soul.

 

 

I felt melancholy walking around Colombo that day because I passed a few businesses to which I’d given my custom in the past – okay, pubs – and they looked practically derelict.  I wondered if they’d ever reopen.  One example was the Western Hotel, which’d optimistically put potted palm trees out along its façade shortly before the virus and curfew arrived.  Another was that mainstay of Sea Avenue, the Vespa Sports Club, its colonial-era bungalow standing silently in the middle of its empty courtyard.

 

 

More encouragingly, I happened to pass my favourite Chinese restaurant, the Min Han on Deanstone Place, just as one of its owners, Mo, materialised at its doorway.  So I was able to enjoy a socially distanced blether with him.  He told me that the restaurant was taking orders and providing takeaways and money was thankfully starting to trickle in again.

 

 

Now, a month later, the Min Han seems to be fully back in business and I’d advise all Colombo-based lovers of authentic Chinese food to head there immediately.  It’s highly recommended.

 

One other feature of traversing this strange, semi-deserted version of Colombo was how, in places I’d walked through practically every day of the past six years, I noticed things in the quietude that I’d never noticed before.  For example, there was a flowery Christian shrine near the Seylan Bank on Duplication Road.  Or a depiction of Mariah Carey, lurking sinisterly in the undergrowth near the entrance of the disused Indra Regent building, a little further south along the same street.

 

 

So those are my memories of locked-down Colombo between March and May 2020.  It was an economically brutal experience for the city and for the country as a whole.  But I think it was a necessary experience because three months after Covid-19 appeared here, the total number of cases have been kept below 2000 and there’ve been only 11 deaths.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis that went on in the UK, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.  Or worse, what happened in the USA with Donald ‘Drink Bleach’ Trump at the helm.  Let’s just hope that, after all the sacrifices made, and with life making a hopeful return to normal, Sri Lanka doesn’t have to deal with a resurgence of that bloody microbe in the near future.