Travellers at the bar

 

 

As I mentioned in my previous blog-entry, the latest Covid-19 lockdown in Sri Lanka, which was imposed for a good part of May and June, has recently been relaxed.  This relaxation has allowed some eating and drinking places to re-open.

 

However, one place that my partner and I have often retreated to in the past, when we’ve felt the need for calm and a touch of soothing, old-school luxury (to convey the illusion for a few hours that we’ve actually got money), remains off-limits to us.  This is the Traveller’s Bar and its lovely outdoor verandah, which overlooks the Indian Ocean, at Colombo’s Galle Face Hotel.  For now, the bar and verandah are open only for hotel guests, not outside customers.  This is a shame because few things are as good for the soul as sitting there between six and six-thirty on a clear evening and watching the sky segue from one gorgeous colour to another while the sun sinks behind the distant waves.

 

The Galle Face Hotel will soon be a venerable 120 years old and it’s prestigious enough to have featured in Patricia Schultz’s 2003 travel book 1000 Places to See Before You Die.  Predictably, during its long history, it has accommodated some very famous guests.  Many of these are commemorated by a gallery of framed photographs adorning the interior of the Traveller’s Bar, with information about the years, occasionally just the decades, when they stayed there.

 

Among the earliest people featured in the gallery are writers.  You see Anton Chekov (credited with being at the Galle Face in 1890), George Bernard Shaw (in the 1930s), W. Somerset Maugham (the 1920s), Noel Coward (1944) and Evelyn Waugh (the 1950s).  D.H. Lawrence showed up there in 1922, presumably either on his way to or from the 99-day sojourn he had in Australia that gave rise to his novel Kangaroo, published the following year.

 

 

One literary hero of mine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stayed at the Galle Face Hotel in 1920 and, unimpressed by its prices, described it as ‘a place where the preposterous charges are partly compensated for by the glorious rollers that break upon the beach outside.”  He was also unimpressed by the equally famous Mount Lavinia Hotel, which in those days stood beyond the southern edge of Colombo.  “There are two robbers’ castles, as the unhappy visitor calls them, facing the glorious sea, the one Galle Face, the other the Mount Lavinia Hotel.” At least he appreciated the journey between the castles: “They are connected by an eight-mile road, which has all the colour and life and variety of the East for every inch of the way.”

 

At this point Doyle was heavily into spiritualism and had been gullible enough to believe that the notoriously faked Cottingley fairies were real.  However, he retained enough of his wits not to be taken in by a display of the famous ‘mango-tree’ trick, which a Sri Lankan magician did for him just outside the hotel.  Doyle praised the magician’s skill, though: “He did it so admirably that I can well understand those who think that it is an occult process.”

 

I’m perplexed by the presence of a portrait of James Joyce, supposedly a guest of the Galle Face in 1904.  (Coincidentally, June 16th, 1904, was the date of ‘Bloomsday’, the day during which all the events of Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses take place).  To the best of my knowledge, he never travelled outside Europe, let alone visited southern Asia.  In fact, the only connections I can dig up between Joyce and Sri Lanka are that: (1) he makes mention of the ‘Cinghalese’ in Ulysses; and (2) he was known to own a copy of Henry Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism According to the Sinhalese Canon – Olcott was the American army officer who became the first president of the Theosophical Society and was an important figure in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, so much so that he’s honoured with a statue in front of Fort Railway Station today.

 

 

Perhaps somebody else with the name ‘James Joyce’ stayed at the hotel in 1904?

 

One writer not displayed in the Traveller’s Bar is legendary science-fiction scribe Sir Arthur C. Clarke, even though it was in the Galle Face that he supposedly wrote the last chapters of the last volume of his Space Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997).  However, Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, so he wasn’t really what you’d call a ‘visitor’ or a ‘guest’.

 

The Traveller’s Bar gallery is mostly a collection of the great and good, but it has at least one rogue in it, namely Richard Nixon.  He stayed at the hotel in the 1950s, sometime before he became the second-most crooked US president in modern history.  Other political dignitaries who were guests there include father and daughter Indian Prime Ministers Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1950) and Indira Gandhi (1976); and iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, whose portrait says he stayed in 1958, although according to a feature in Sri Lanka’s FT his visit was actually in August 1959.  He’d come to Sri Lanka because it was one of the first countries to recognize Castro’s Cuba.

 

 

From the mid-20th century onwards, Sri Lanka began to appeal as an exotic location to Western filmmakers and so the Galle Face Hotel had Hollywood movie stars stay while on their way to or from film shoots.  These include Sir Alec Guinness (1957), in town for the making of Bridge on the River Kwai and, I have to say, looking a bit shifty in his photograph; Harrison Ford (1983), there to make Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (whose production had switched from India to Sri Lanka after the Indian government objected to the ‘thuggee’ elements in its script); and Ursula Andress, whom I trust enjoyed her stay in Sri Lanka in 1976 even though she probably prefers to forget the film she made there, the Italian horror movie The Mountain of the Cannibal God, directed by Sergio Martini and considered so offensive in Britain that it was classified as a ‘video nasty’ and banned until 2001.

 

Andress, of course, found international fame as the very first Bond girl.  Meanwhile, the man responsible for the third cinematic incarnation of James Bond, Roger Moore, appears in the Traveller’s Bar too.  He’s said to have stayed at the hotel in the 1960s, but he’s depicted in his famous 1970s Bondian bowtie and dinner-suit, so the photo obviously wasn’t taken at the time.

 

 

One star in the Traveller’s Bar who’s rather forgotten nowadays is Lex Barker, who took over the role of Tarzan from Johnny Weissmuller in 1949.  Barker’s picture says he was there in the 1950s, although the only thing I can find in his filmography that was made in Sri Lanka was a 1963 movie called Storm Over Ceylon.  While Barker’s Hollywood Tarzan movies were too low-budget to be filmed on location in a tropical country like Sri Lanka, money was not a problem for Bo Derek and her director-husband John Derek, who used Sri Lanka for the jungle scenes of their notorious, mammary-obsessed Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), while using the Maldives for its beach scenes.  For their salacious take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Jungle, Bo, John and their crew imported some decidedly non-native wildlife into the country.  According to an article in the New York Times, they brought with them a lion (called Dandi), an orangutan (called C.J.), three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds and an 18-foot, 120-pound python.  Thus, Ms Derek is now commemorated by a portrait in the Traveller’s Bar as well.

 

A nice story is attached to Gregory Peck, who stayed in 1954 whilst making a film called The Purple Plain.  Apparently, he came down with a nasty bout of flu, but recovered with the help of a traditional local remedy of plain tea incorporating inguru and kothamalli (ginger and coriander).  In the 1950s Peck was a global heartthrob and his use of this remedy didn’t go unnoticed by his lady admirers in Sri Lanka.  As another article in the Daily FT observes: “It used to be said in lighter vein those days that many upper-class ladies of Colombo 7 began drinking ginger / coriander tea only after Gregory Peck told them about it.”

 

 

Finally, the gallery sports a picture of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, symbolically holding a white dove.  The great Russian cosmonaut came to Sri Lanka in 1961 and among the things done to mark the visit was the planting of a tree in his honour at the botanical gardens in Peradeniya, close to Kandy.  According to a piece published by the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Colombo, the tree was said to have stopped growing at the time of Gagarin’s death in a jet crash in 1968.  However, mysteriously, it continued to live, so that it’s resembled a young tree for the past half-century.  This is contradicted by an article in Ceylon Today, which claims it merely fell ill at the time of Gagarin’s death, but recovered and kept on growing.  I was at the botanical gardens a few years ago and really wish I’d examined the Yuri Gagarin tree to find out which of these accounts was true.

 

Still ruled by the Queen

 

© EMI / Elektra Records

 

Back in 2018, I found myself in a Colombo pub one evening having a blether with Suresh De Silva, the vocalist and co-founder of the Sri Lankan heavy metal band Stigmata.  Within seconds of the start of our conversation De Silva had asked me if I’d seen Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie biopic of the 1970s / 1980s rock band Queen, which’d been released in Colombo cinemas a few weeks earlier.  The unexpectedness of the question threw me a little.  It also reminded me of the hugeness of the phenomenon that is Queen.

 

It’s a phenomenon that transcends place.  National boundaries seem not to matter when it comes to liking Queen.  Meeting a Sri Lankan heavy metaller in 2018 who wanted to talk about the band wasn’t my first experience of this.  I remember working long ago at a language school in the UK that had weekend discos for its kids.  At one point there were a lot of self-consciously trendy and streetwise teenagers from Milan at the school and the DJ who oversaw that weekend’s disco thought he’d please his audience by playing then-modish big beat, drums and bass, UK garage and hard trance tunes.  But he ended up nearly causing a riot.  What did those trendy Italian teens want him to play? I Want to Break Free by Queen.  All bloody evening.

 

Their popularity also transcends time.  They remain fabulously popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991, when their singer Freddie Mercury passed away from AIDS.

 

I find this interesting because back in the days when they were a properly functioning band, friends of mine who considered themselves serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite.  Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute bees’ knees.

 

Incidentally, it seemed ironic to me how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who were unreconstructed, macho and laddish and who, in all likelihood, were pretty homophobic too.  They were liable to punch you in the face if you suggested they were into anything that might be classified as ‘gay’ culture.  But after a few moments of hearing the unashamedly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, shedding sentimental tears and singing along in emotion-cracked voices.

 

© 20th Century Fox / Regency Enterprises / GK Films

 

I wasn’t greatly impressed by Bohemian Rhapsody when I caught up with it, sometime after speaking to Suresh De Silva.  It takes many liberties with the truth.  For example, the band weren’t on the wane before their barnstorming appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, which the film claims pulled them back from the brink.  On the contrary, during the previous year and following the release of their 1984 album The Works, I remember them being as popular and prominent as ever.  And there was no big emotional moment before they took the Wembley stage when Freddie told his bandmates he was HIV positive.  In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.

 

Meanwhile the film airbrushes away the band’s real-life moral warts and carbuncles. We get nothing about, for instance, their misguided and money-fuelled decision to play at the Sun City Super Bowl in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, at the height of the apartheid era.  This act of unprincipled greed earned them a ban by the British Musicians’ Union.  Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity.  In 1984, the real Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and, considering the times, reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’.  I’m doing everything with everybody.”  But in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s presented as a victim, insecure about his sexuality and led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter, who introduces him to a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution.

 

Still, the sequence in the film with Mike Myers as a (fictional) record executive called Ray Foster, who’s aghast at the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody-the-song should be released as a single, is funny.  “It goes on forever.  Six bloody minutes!”  To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”

 

Personally, I thought 1970s Queen were great.  They produced albums like Sheer Heart Attack (1974), A Night at the Opera (1975), A Day at the Races (1976) and News of the World (1977) that were studded with classic songs and, though they sometimes felt all over the place stylistically, were admirable for trying to explore a wide range of musical genres, everything from music-hall singalongs and salsa-y Spanish guitar workouts to blues and jazz and even, with 1974’s Stone Cold Crazy, nascent speed metal.  The rip-roaring Death on Two Legs, which kicks off A Night at the Opera, is one of my favourite songs ever.

 

But for me they seemed to lose their creative mojo at the beginning of the 1980s.  The last song by them that I liked was probably their 1981 duet with David Bowie, Under Pressure.  Actually, I didn’t think much of Under Pressure at the time, but it’s grown on me since then.  It’s certainly a zillion times better than Vanilla Ice’s dire 1990 single Ice Ice Baby, which appropriated Under Pressure’s memorably nagging bassline.  (I remember being at a Saturday-night disco in my hometown in Scotland – the clubhouse of Peebles Rugby Club to be precise – when the DJ put on Ice Ice Baby.  The bassline started and everyone cheered and hurried onto the dance floor, thinking it was Queen and David Bowie.  Then the lyrics started: “Yo!  Let’s kick it!  Ice, ice baby…”  Everyone threw up their hands in horror and shouted, “Och, shite!  It’s Vanilla Ice!”  The dance floor immediately cleared again.)

 

Anyway, a few days ago, taking advantage of the fact that Sri Lanka’s most recent Covid-19 lockdown has been lifted, I went for a walk and ended up at the area where Colombo’s Dehiwala Canal meets with the Indian Ocean. It’s a pleasantly grassy and leafy neighbourhood although, thanks to the condition of the water in the canal, it’s a bit smelly too.  And lo and behold, on a wall standing at the canal’s southern bank, I saw further evidence of the global love for Queen.

 

 

Yes, it was a mural of Freddie Mercury in his moustached, short-haired, white-vested Live Aid incarnation, which presumably someone had painted after seeing Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018.

 

As I’ve suggested in this post, I have mixed feelings about Queen overall.  But the fact that in the 21st century a Sri Lankan graffiti artist was inspired to paint their iconic vocalist and master showman on an out-of-the-way, canal-side wall makes me feel strangely happy.

 

Here we no-go again

 

 

Sri Lanka is currently in the middle of another Covid-19-inspired lockdown. This is a 24/7 lockdown with nobody but police, health-workers, delivery staff and other essential service workers allowed to move around outside, so it’s a curfew basically.

 

This curfew was imposed by stealth. Originally, it was meant to last from the night of May 13th to the morning of May 17th, keeping people off the streets for a weekend.  Afterwards, for the rest of the month, people whose National Identity Card numbers (passport numbers if you were a foreigner) ended in an odd digit would be allowed out on odd-numbered days and those whose numbers ended in an even digit would be allowed out on even-numbered days.

 

However, another weekend lockdown was imposed from May 20th until May 25th and we were warned that a further one was planned from the 25th to 28th, which would keep people indoors during the Vesak Festival on May 26th.  Then it was announced that this lockdown would be extended until June 7th, with a couple of days along the way designated as ones when people could nip out to buy provisions. And then it transpired that those days when lockdown would be lifted wouldn’t actually happen, leaving the population with a 12-day stretch of home confinement until June 7th.

 

Who knows?  It wouldn’t surprise me if this lockdown gets extended again beyond the 7th36 people died of Covid-19 yesterday, a fairly typical daily number during the past few weeks, so the emergency remains.

 

Generally, since the Covid-19 epidemic began, my partner and I felt quite fortunate to be in Sri Lanka because, overall, the island seemed to have done a reasonable job of dealing with it.  After a strict initial lockdown last year, from March to May, the virus seemed to be contained. For months afterwards, while the virus wreaked havoc in supposedly more developed countries like the UK and USA, the Sri Lankan death toll remained static with fatalities only in the teens.

 

This changed in early October 2020 with the appearance of a major cluster at the Brandix garment factory in Minuwangoda, 35 kilometres north-east of Colombo.  By now, clearly, Covid-19 had got onto the island and wasn’t going away.  Still, however, the situation seemed manageable.  The island’s tropical climate helped.  People could go out and gather in relatively safe outdoor spaces – for instance, restaurant terraces and gardens – at times of year when in other regions of the world they’d be forced into hazardous, crowded, badly-ventilated, virus-friendly spaces indoors by cold weather.

 

Unfortunately, on Sunday, April 18th, at the end of a holiday week celebrating the Buddhist and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, we realised things were going to take a serious turn for the worse.  We went for dinner and a few drinks in a hotel bar we frequented. During our previous visits, the bar had been no more than 25 percent full, so that there was plenty of space for social distancing, and the punters were careful to wear masks whenever they left their tables.  This Sunday night, however, the bar was mobbed, social distancing was non-existent and faces were unmasked as folk wandered from group to group.  We lasted about two minutes there.  Then, feeling extremely uncomfortable, we retreated to a sparsely populated restaurant in the same hotel.  I suppose most of the clientele in the bar had just returned from their New Year holidays and were enjoying a final boozy night out before they went back to work.

 

In fact, the New Year festivities had been allowed to take place without any restrictions. People visited families and friends across the island and, the wealthier ones at least, crowded into the beach and mountain resorts as they would in any ordinary year.  This had predictable consequences.  As one journalist recalled, “cases began to rise rapidly, overwhelming the state’s mandatory quarantine care facilities.  Soon, the intensive care units of a delicate hospital system were at full capacity.  By May, hospitals were inundated.”

 

As I mentioned, May 25th was the last day when people could go outside, although strings had been attached to this ruling. Firstly, only one person per household was allowed to be out at any one time.  Secondly, ‘vehicular’ movements were not permitted and you had to walk.  This would presumably ensure that people visited only their local shops and strayed no more than a mile or two from home, thereby lessening risks of infection.  I ventured out in the late morning, to get some money out of an ATM and then hopefully buy a few supplies in a non-mobbed supermarket.

 

 

When I emerged onto Galle Road, Colombo’s main thoroughfare, it was devoid of traffic and disconcertingly silent and still for a minute. Then a set of traffic lights behind me must have changed from red to green because I was passed by a small fleet of cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles heading north towards the city centre.  But after they’d gone by, silence prevailed for another minute.  That was how things continued while I trekked along Galle Road to the ATM.  Every so often there’d be brief spurts of traffic that the lights had accumulated and then released.

 

 

Only shops selling food or medicines were allowed to open today.  Thus, there was activity around the little grocery / general-purpose shops that cluster near the entrance to Kathiresan Pillayar Temple on the eastern side of Galle Road in Colombo’s Bambalapitiya district.  One shop-sign there I hadn’t noticed before was the luridly coloured one for the ‘Irissh’ Super – which sounds like it’s owned by an Irishman who slurs a bit when he’s had too much to drink.  Further along, small queues of about half-a-dozen people waited to get inside the street’s pharmacies, like UniChemist, and mini-supermarkets, like Sathosa.

 

 

Having got cash from the ATM, I thought I would try the branch of Keells Supermarket on Marine Drive, which runs along the coast parallel to Galle Road.  I have to say that by this time I was starting to suspect that not everyone was following the rules.  As those knots of traffic passed me, I would notice the occasional middle-aged couple riding together on a motorbike, which made me wonder how strictly the police were enforcing the rule about only one member of each household being allowed out.  Though perhaps what I was seeing on those motorbikes were two mature, but still horny, members of different households taking advantage of the situation to pursue an illicit love affair.  Meanwhile, while I approached Keells, I noticed a suspicious number of cars pulling into its forecourt – this on a day when you weren’t supposed to travel by car.  Still, the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to be toeing the line.  The whole time I was outside, not one slowed and stopped and asked if I needed to go anywhere.

 

After seeing the small queues outside the minor supermarkets on Galle Road, I expected to have to wait for a time outside Keells, but I got in immediately.  It was busy, but not too busy.  The shelves and trays in the produce section had mostly been scoured clean, but there were reasonable stocks of everything else.

 

 

I carried my shopping home along Marine Drive, which was busier with traffic than Galle Road.  The police stations of Colombo’s coastal districts, south of the city centre at least, are positioned along Galle Road and the drivers were probably using Marine Drive instead because they figured there was less chance of them being stopped and checked. However, Marine Drive’s pavements were practically deserted and the shops along its seafront were almost all shut.  My local off-licence, the Walt and Row Association Wine Store, was shuttered – it was only food and medicine on sale today, strictly no booze.  Similarly silent was the Westeern Hotel, the passageway leading to Harry’s Bar at the back of the premises sealed by doors with rusty metal bars. Actually, the nation’s pubs had been ordered to stop doing business as early as May 3rd.

 

 

It proved a melancholy walk and I couldn’t help but feel melancholy about the situation overall.  Not just in Sri Lanka, where the authorities had taken their eye off the ball and a lot of people had acted selfishly and / or foolishly in April, resulting in this current crisis.  In countries like India, Brazil and the USA – where ridiculous things have happened, like Republican politicians getting vaccinated on the quiet so as not to upset the brainlessly delusional anti-vaxxers who make up a large part of their support – arrogance, complacency and both wilful and genuine stupidity have resulted in massive Covid-19 spikes and huge but avoidable death-tolls.  In Britain, despite a successful vaccination programme so far, there looks likely to be a third wave of infections while Boris Johnson’s hapless government dithers on whether or not to end Covid-19 restrictions later this month.

 

The sad thing is that the Covid-19 pandemic, serious though it is, doesn’t constitute the end of the world.  However, manmade climate change is making itself felt in our lives now and threatens to transform the planet in ways that could be catastrophic to our civilisation later this century.  If people generally, and politicians in particular, can’t get their act together to deal with Covid-19 in 2021, what hope is there for the decades ahead when we’ll really need to get our act together?

Zee-lanka

 

© Navin Weeraratne

 

In the old days, ‘overkill’ was a necessary, even a desirable component of a zombie-holocaust story.  There had to be a large and increasing amount of killing.  This would ensure there was a large and increasing number of dead people, who would then come back to life as zombies.  In turn, this would  ensure there was a large and increasing number of zombies posing a large and increasing threat to the small and decreasing number of human beings who were battling to survive.

 

Unfortunately, as far as zombies are concerned, ‘overkill’ has now taken on a different meaning.  These days there’s just too many movies, TV shows, books, graphic novels, comics and computer games featuring the bloody things.

 

They’re everywhere.  In the movie world alone, they’re in mega-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters, like 2013’s World War Z, and in low-budget rubbish, like last year’s ultra-opportunistic Corona Zombies.  They’re in Scottish movies, like 2008’s The Dead Outside.  They’re in high-school movies, like 2012’s Detention of the Dead.  They’re in musicals, like 2018’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S.  They’re in Christmas movies, like 2012‘s Christmas with the Dead.  Why, they’re even in Scottish / high-school / musical / Christmas movies like 2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse.

 

Today, in other words, zombies are ubiquitous.  And they’re predictable.  And dare I say it, they’re boring.

 

But having got all that off my chest, I have to admit I enjoyed Navin Weeraratne’s 2018 novel Zeelam, which is about modern-day Sri Lanka suffering its own zombie apocalypse.  The expected story-elements are all present and correct – bites, infections, ‘conjunctivitis-red eyes’, mayhem and lots of blood, gore and grue – but the book is helped by having a strong dose of social commentary too.

 

And social commentary is something I believe all good zombie stories should have.  For example, the first three zombie movies made by George A. Romero, the visionary filmmaker who created the template for zombie holocausts, commented on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War (in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), mindless consumerism (in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead) and the stupidity of the military (in 1986’s Day of the Dead).  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflected a modern Britain where anger was an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ had entered the popular vocabulary, while its sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), was an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq.  And Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirised a twenty-something slacker generation who couldn’t tell if someone was a zombie or just pissed, hungover or stoned.  Carrying on the tradition, Zeelam takes multiple swipes at the institutional and societal shortcomings of modern Sri Lanka.  But more about that in a minute.

 

Zeelam has two main characters.  One is Ruven Daniels, a member of a military response team whom we first see being sent to deal with an incident at Colombo’s posh Hilton Hotel. There, zombies – ‘zees’ as they’ve become known in Sri Lankan parlance – have suddenly appeared during a children’s birthday party attended by rich ‘Colombo 7’ housewives and their pampered offspring.  The ensuing carnage takes place under a PA system blasting out Bryan Adams’ The Summer of 69.  (“I love this song!” enthuses one of Ruven’s comrades.)  The other is Dinuka Fernando, a woman working for an NGO trying to prevent the zombie infections, which are caused by a virus being spread by mosquitoes.  Dinuka is a kick-ass character who goes about her duties armed with a Japanese katana.  Unsurprisingly, that katana is deployed with increasing frequency as the novel approaches its climax.

 

The zombies in Zeelam aren’t the dead-come-back-to-life ones portrayed in Romero’s films.  They’re more in the style of 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, people infected by a virus that sends them into a terrifying, murderous, red-eyed frenzy.  Weeraratne has his characters hypothesise that the virus was present in Sri Lanka for decades already in a less aggressive form.  Originally, it manifested itself in the country’s high levels of domestic violence, which didn’t receive much coverage because attentions were focused on the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 to 2009 – which itself became an outlet for the violence caused by the virus.  But now it’s mutated into something more devastating and its effects can no longer be concealed behind the walls of peoples’ homes or camouflaged by the mayhem of the battlefield.

 

Thus, though Weeraratne’s zombie scenario is imaginary, the context that gave rise to it isn’t.  Indeed, the text is peppered with superscript numbers that refer the reader to a lengthy appendix of endnotes.  Here, Weeraratne provides links to real-life studies, reports and news items about Sri Lanka and its relationship with violence, showing that he’s grounded his ideas in depressing reality.

 

Zeelam is also interesting because the virus is shown to create different types of infections.  These range from fully fledged, ‘berserker’ zombies to asymptomatic people who merely carry the virus around in them.  Most intriguingly, there’s a category called ‘sleepers’, who only show their zombie tendencies at night and are perfectly human-like during the day.  Indeed, among the book’s supporting cast is a character, a government inspector called Siripala Fonesaka, who spends his days desperately trying to cover up the monstrous things he’s done at night.

 

This diversity makes the threat posed by the zombies more hydra-like and difficult to deal with.  Also, it helps Zeelam to dodge the criticism I made at the start of this entry, that zombie stories have become too dull and predictable.  However, I have to say the pedant in me wished Weeraratne had explained these variations in the virus’s effects with the same scientific rigour with which he described the virus’s origins.  How, for example, does sunlight temporarily neutralise the virus in the sleepers?

 

As I’ve said, just as George A. Romero’s zombie movies highlighted the shortcomings of American society, and just as Danny Boyle painted an unflattering portrait of modern-day Britain in 28 Days Later, so Weeraratne spends much of Zeelam taking potshots at the frustrations and annoyances of 21st century Sri Lanka.  These include venal and corrupt politicians – the outbreak at the Hilton Hotel in the novel’s opening pages is the consequence of a seedy MP booking in there with a prostitute – and bungling, incalcitrant bureaucrats, and elements of the armed forces who in their minds have never stopped fighting the Civil War and pose as a big a threat to the public as the zombies do.

 

Then there’s the country’s class system.  Weeraratne doesn’t show the people at the top of the pile in a particularly sympathetic light.  When Ruven’s men cordon off a neighbourhood where an outbreak is in progress, one privileged young asshole rolls up in a fancy car and demands to be allowed to drive through because his father is ‘a judge’.  In a corresponding endnote, Weeraratne describes how he once heard someone say the exact same thing when people objected to him parking on a double-yellow line in Havelock Town.

 

Later, an alumnus of one of Colombo’s prestigious private schools, and thus an entitled member of the city’s ‘old-school-tie’ network, meets a humiliating end at the blade of Dinuka’s katana.  Described by Weeraratne with obvious relish, his death involves, shall we say, the relaxation of sphincter muscles.  This amused me because in the real world the school in question is at the top of my street.

 

114 pages long, Zeelam is a slim volume, and its impact is slightly lessened by a number of typos.  You sometimes wonder what was distracting the proof-reader from their duties — were they struggling against an encroaching zombie infection at the time?  But as an enjoyably gory piece of entertainment that doesn’t pull its satirical punches, it’s still pretty tasty.

 

From facebook.com

From sci-fi to Sri-fi

 

© yudhanjaya.com 

 

During the half-dozen years I’ve lived in Sri Lanka, I’ve read a  fair number of novels and short story collections by local writers, including works by Martin Wickramasinghe, Romesh Gunesekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller, Ashok Ferrey, Ameena Hussein and Michael Ondaatje.  The latter is probably the best known internationally, though ironically for a novel that doesn’t have much to do with Sri Lanka.  Their output is what snobby literary critics would describe as ‘mainstream’ literature.  I’ve seen none of them associated with ‘genre’ fiction, although Muller’s work contains a lot of humour and labelling it ‘comedy’ certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

 

On the other hand, I didn’t expect to encounter anything in the past six years that could be classified as ‘Sri Lankan science fiction.’  But, to my surprise, I have.  Romesh Gunesekera’s 2002 novel Heaven’s Edge is set in a surreal future Sri Lanka where the Civil War hasn’t ended but gone on and on, with the country becoming increasingly authoritarian and its environment increasingly despoiled.  An uneasy mixture of dystopian fiction, allegory and magical realism, with flashes of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, I have to say I find Heaven’s Edge the least impressive of Gunesekera’s books that I’ve read.

 

Better is the 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke.  Although Clark was in many ways a very English Englishman, Fountains is for me a very Sri Lankan book.  Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka for decades by the time it was published and the fictional island the story takes place on, Taprobane, is simply Sri Lanka with a few tweaks, for example, with Sigiriya Rock and Adam’s Peak being near neighbours when in the real Sri Lanka they’re 175 kilometres apart.  Set mostly in the 22nd century, though with some bold flashbacks to 2000 years earlier in Taprobane / Sri Lanka’s history, Fountains is about the construction of a giant ‘space elevator’ linking the earth’s surface with a space station in geosynchronous orbit.  Geographical factors necessitate the elevator being built from a mountaintop in Taprobane / Sri Lanka, which coincidentally happens to be the island’s most sacred location.  The book meditates on the conflict between preserving heritage and culture and pushing on with scientific and technological progress, with Clarke treating both causes sympathetically even if it’s obvious which one will ultimately prevail.

 

Now, I’ve discovered the 28-year-old Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and recently read two of his novels, Numbercaste (2017) and The Inhuman Race (2019).  While neither book is entirely to my pernickety tastes, I’d say they make a good case for Wijeratne being hailed as the potential future of Sri Lankan science fiction.

 

On his website Wijeratne identifies himself as a member of a ‘Data, Algorithms and Policy’ team working for a thinktank called LIRNEasia.  This background obviously helped shape Numbercaste.  Its narrator, Patrick Udo, is recruited by a tech company called NumberCorp in the 2030s and gets involved in a project with revolutionary consequences for humanity.  Its purpose is to collate every human being’s data – salary, bank balance, credit card rating, police record, social media profile and a thousand things more – and distil it into a single score, an all-important ‘number’ that determines the social and professional options open to him or her.  As Udo says near the book’s end, “Every morning I’d check Number News on my phone.  Tap, tap.  There, just above the news and the social gossip and the who-checked-in-wheres, was my score.  My score was critical.  It got me the best tables at restaurants I went to, all simple but pricy affairs.  It got me into the VIP section of any club where I wanted to party.  It got me first class tickets on the airplanes.”

 

A person’s number isn’t immutable.  It can rise or fall.  As Julius Common, NumberCorp’s visionary founder and leader, argues, this makes it a positive force because it rewards good behaviour and punishes bad.  For example, police officers who blot their records with corruption or brutality will see their numbers drop below the threshold required for them to remain employed.  Thus, they’ll be replaced by less crooked cops with better numbers.  That, of course, is Common’s spin on the system and the question throughout the book is if it’ll actually become a tool of oppression, locking everyone into their own social and professional cells on different tiers of society and keeping everyone in line with the threat of demotion to lower tiers if they don’t obey orders.  Will Common and NumberCorp lead the world to utopia or dystopia?  In the book’s afterword, Wijeratne notes that China has tried doing something like this in real life with its social credit project.

 

Much of Numbercaste details Udo’s Boswell / Dr Johnson-like relationship with Common.  This relationship sees Udo play the role of humble employee, then trusted lieutenant and finally fallen-from-favour outcast.  Although it’s largely set in California, a culture where the names Zuckerberg, Musk, Gates and Bezos are intoned as if they’re ancient but all-powerful deities, Sri Lanka makes an appearance along the way as an early test lab for Common and his scoring system: “We need a sort of guinea pig to test this stuff.  A small population that we can monitor and test and retest the bulk of our SEA algorithms on… This place is perfect…  Highly connected, almost everyone’s online, and the government will let us do whatever the hell we want as long as their ministers are happy.”

 

© Harper Collins

 

As I’m a relative luddite with information technology, and an avoider of most social media, Numbercaste isn’t a book that automatically appeals to me.  Also, I suspect more could have been done to humanise Common whilst chronicling his inexorable rise.  Perhaps he could have been given some Citizen Kane-style foibles that taint his success with bitter unhappiness.  Nonetheless, a lot of Numbercaste impressed me and Wijeratne’s prose style is spot on.  It provides just enough detail to give a firm sense of time and place, but never overdoes it and doesn’t get in the way of the fast-moving narrative.

 

Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world have made a lot of science fiction published before 2020 but set a short time after it seem dated.  In the real future, people in 2025, 2030 or 2035 will presumably talk about the 2020 pandemic in the way that we still talk about 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis now.  In the near-futures of pre-2020 science fiction, the characters aren’t talking about it because the writers had no idea it was going to happen.  The 2017-published Numbercaste gets around this credibility problem by accident rather than design.  It alludes to something called ‘the TRS-8I superbug’, which ‘hit Asia hardest’ and ‘had done in millions of people’.  Among its victims were ten million Sri Lankans, who presumably perished from it sometime in the 2020s.  So that’s why nobody mentions Covid-19 in Numbercaste.  The TRS-8I pandemic was so traumatic that it erased the earlier virus from the collective memory.

 

The Inhuman Race, meanwhile, takes place in an alternative universe, in a version of Sri Lanka in 2033 where, to quote the book’s back-cover blurb, “The British Empire never fell.  Communism never happened.  The flag of the Commonwealth still flies over its colonies, which lie stripped bare in the name of British interests, powerless to resist.”  The story begins with gangs of feral children scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of the Colombo seafront.  This is a legacy of the Chinese Emperor deciding to give the British a bloody nose: “having won the might of a united China,” he “brooded over his navy from his darkened throne-room.  The white devils that flew the Union Jack ruled too much of the ocean for his liking.  Dimly, he remembered Fa-Xian’s accounts of Ceylon, the Buddha’s blessed island…  And thus the British Empire’s first direct contact with China in two hundred years was when the Chinese warships pulled into Colombo port and began their assault.”  In the ensuing carnage, Colombo’s ‘Galle Face Green became Galle Face Brown.’

 

While the novel’s first part offers some good post-apocalyptic fun, with the different gangs using as their headquarters the shells of the different luxury hotels that used to do business along Galle Face, such as the Shangri La, the Taj and the Cinnamon Grand, and with a gigantic mountain range of garbage separating the city’s devasted seaboard from its more habitable parts inland, I enjoyed the later chapters more.  Here, the action switches to the island’s still-intact administrative centre, the mountain city of Kandy.  At the same time, the book’s main theme emerges, which is about how much robots built to emulate living beings should be regarded as living beings themselves.  This is hardly a ground-breaking theme in science fiction – though you might think it is if your name is Ian McEwan.  But Wijeratne explores it well, through the eyes of a sympathetic character called Dr Kushlani de Alemeida.  She’s an employee of a company manufacturing and using robots for dubious entertainment purposes.  Though these products look ‘a lot like what God would have made the humans to look like had he been limited to metal and cheap plastic’, Alemeida uncovers evidence that they’re more sentient than anyone had imagined.

 

What I really like about the book’s Kandy sequences are the glimpses it gives of Sri Lankan society in this weird, alternative-universe scenario where the British Empire is still a thing.  Order is maintained by ‘British’ soldiers, actually Indians and Gurkas, and by a fearsome outfit called the Inquisition that consist of ‘hooded monk-like figures’, from whom ‘a pale face with ruby lenses for eyes’ occasionally appears.  The economy has been portioned off to the control of several rich houses, the Ratwatte, Madugalle, Rambukpotha and Bandaras.  The judiciary is staffed by Buddhist monks, which leads to some interesting debate when Alemeida tries to convince a court that the robots should be treated like living creatures.  The British themselves, apart from a mention of a Governor, are invisible – though evidently creaming off the country’s wealth at the top.

 

In this way, The Inhuman Race reminds me of certain works of Sri Lankan literature set when the country was under British rule, like Martin Wickramasinghe’s Ape Game (1940) and Madol Doova (1947) or Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913).  (Okay, Village wasn’t penned by a Sri Lankan but by an Englishman, Virginia Woolf’s husband no less, while he worked for the Ceylon Civil Service.  But it was written from a native’s point of view, not from a colonialist’s.)  In those books too, the British are barely around.  The administrative machinery they’ve set up is run by the locals, which gives a semblance of Sri Lankan autonomy.  But again, up above, the Brits are discretely pocketing the profits.

 

One small but nice touch in The Inhuman Race’s is when a character refers to the words of ‘the great Pratchett’: “There is no justice… there is just us.”  So not only has Terry Pratchett churned out Discworld novels in this alternative universe too, but he’s even more revered than he is in our one.

 

I was slightly frustrated that The Inhuman Race didn’t show more of its future-imperialist / Buddhist society or, indeed, of the secretive Chinese Empire that pulverised Colombo at the novel’s start.  But The Inhuman Race is supposedly the first part of a trilogy, so hopefully Yudhanjaya Wijeratne will supply more details in the instalments to come.

 

© Harper Collins

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.