Kazuo in Kafka Country

 

© Faber & Faber

 

For me, one thing that’s suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic has been my reading.  Before the appearance of the virus, on average, I was able to get through one book a week.  However, since the pandemic forced some lifestyle changes – starting with two months of strict lockdown, and then a period with more freedom but limitations on my social life and ability to travel, and also a new working life where I have to do everything on a laptop at home with the result that I sometimes don’t go outside for three days at a time – my reading ability has diminished and it commonly takes me twice or three times as long to read a book now.  I suppose it’s something to do with my brain receiving less stimulation than it did in the old days.  In the current situation, my brain has grown lethargic, its processing muscles have atrophied, and reading has become a struggle for it.

 

That said, even back before anyone had heard of Covid-19, I think I would have found the book I’ve just finished reading, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, hard going.

 

I’d previously read only three of Ishiguro’s novels – 1986’s An Artist of the Floating World, 1989’s The Remains of the Day and 2005’s Never Let Me Go – but I’d enjoyed them and was looking forward to reading The Unconsoled when someone recently bought it for me as a present.  It tells the story of a world-famous pianist called Ryder who arrives in an unnamed city in the Germanic part of Europe a few days before he’s scheduled to top the bill of a concert there.  It gradually transpires that this concert has much invested in it.  It’s supposed to mark the rehabilitation of a local composer called Brodsky who, after many years as a chronic alcoholic, appears to be on the mend.  Brodsky occupies a talismanic position not just for the city’s artistic community but for the city as the whole, and the citizens whom Ryder encounters assume that Brodsky’s success or failure at the concert will lead to the city’s future well-being or decline.

 

This basic scenario is curious, then, but more curious still is what happens to Ryder after he books into his hotel in the city.  For he finds himself deep in the heart of what can only be described as Kafka Country.  Yes, Ishiguro drops his main character into a labyrinth of improbable confusion and frustration, like those that feature in the pages of the great Czech author’s The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926).

 

Firstly, people he’s only just been introduced to pour out their problems to him and beg him for help – starting with Gustav, the hotel’s elderly porter, who believes that Ryder can somehow engineer a reconciliation between him, his estranged daughter Sophie and his grandson Boris.  Also requiring Ryder’s assistance is the hotel manager Hoffman (who thinks Ryder can help thaw the icy relationship between him and his wife) and Hoffman’s son Stephan (who wants to enlist Ryder’s aid in winning his parents’ respect).  Plus Ryder is soon being pestered by various city dignitaries in a panic about what Brodsky might do at the forthcoming concert, and by local journalists who for some mysterious reason want him to do a photo-shoot next to a controversial monument on the city’s outskirts, and by an embittered musician called Christof, whose fortunes have begun to wane as those of the now-teetotal Brodsky have begun to wax again.

 

Ryder agrees to help these many people out and soon ends up with a hectic pre-concert schedule.  But – and here’s the Kafka-esque part – he rarely manages to get from one appointment to another without being waylaid by somebody else.  The plot is a series of resolutions by Ryder to assist Person A by going to Place B, only to encounter Person C and get diverted to Place D.

 

From asianews.it

 

The laws of physics also conspire against Ryder.  Distances unaccountably expand so that addresses and buildings that seem only minutes away become harder and harder to get to.  But occasionally they contract too, so that function halls and restaurants in remote parts of the city turn out at the last moment to handily adjoin the very hotel Ryder is staying in.  Further weirdness occurs when Ryder acquires a temporary omniscience and finds himself eavesdropping on conversations that are happening rooms away from him or witnessing events that happened in his new acquaintances’ distant pasts.

 

To make things more confusing, it’s not just the physical universe that’s collapsing around Ryder.  His internal universe seems to be doing the same.  Improbably, as he beetles about the city, he keeps encountering people he once knew during his childhood and youth in England.  Even though he’s only just met Sophie and Boris, he somehow simultaneously seems to have known them for years, to the point where Sophie is his long-term partner and Boris his son.  And his elderly and ailing parents have supposed arrived somewhere in the city, with the intention of watching him perform for the first time.  But although he keeps hearing reports of his parents, he never quite manages to catch up with them.

 

So what is going on?  I wondered if it was all happening in Ryder’s dazed mind and Ishiguro was trying to create a nightmarish satire on modern celebrity.  Ryder, in other words, has gone mad whilst constantly having to fight his way through throngs of obsequious yes-men and hangers-on, all determined to exploit his fame in different ways.  However, I don’t think it’s a spoiler with this type of novel to warn that you may not have got the answers by the end of it.

 

Incidentally, it’s interesting that The Unconsoled appeared in 1995, just before the Internet took off and just before the carrying of mobile phones became de rigueur for everyone.  I can only imagine what a tangled plot The Unconsoled would have had if it’d been written a few years later, with the beleaguered Ryder also being assailed by phone calls, texts, emails and WhatsApp messages as well.

 

I’m a fan of the works of Franz Kafka and there are plenty of other books I admire that could be described as Kafka-esque.  Alasdair Gray’s 1980 classic Lanark is one.  But what makes The Unconsoled such a slog is that Ishiguro appears to have no ‘edit’ function when it comes to the dialogue.  Or more accurately, the monologues, because the book has an endless succession of them.  People approach Ryder, ostensibly to flatter and fawn over him, but really to unburden their problems on him, which they do in screeds of repetitive and obsessive blather.  It soon got to the point where, whenever a new character appeared, I’d shudder and check out the pages ahead to find out how long the inevitable, pleading soliloquy would go on for.  New York might be the City That Never Sleeps, but the anonymous city here is the City That Never Shuts Up.

 

Of course, this incessant, unstoppable prattling adds to the Kafka-esque quality of the situation enveloping Ryder.  But it isn’t much fun to read, especially when the novel clocks in at 535 pages.  That’s an awful lot of prattling to get through.

 

If Ishiguro had made The Unconsoled half its published length, he’d have created a novel with the same uncomfortable, disorientating qualities, but one that would have been far less of a chore to read.

 

Incidentally, I’ve just checked out the most recent Penguin editions of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle and found that they run to 208 and 320 pages respectively.  Would they have had the same impact if Kafka had added an extra 200 or 300 pages to them?  Or would this have diminished their effectiveness through overkill?  I suspect the latter.  As it stands, The Unconsoled doesn’t feel so much like a book influenced by The Trial as a book that’s just, well, a trial.

 

© Penguin Books

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.

Jim Mountfield looks ahead to strange days

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

Jim Mountfield, the name under which I write much of my fiction, has a new short story called New Town Tours featured in Strange Days, a 500-page, 36-author anthology that’s just been published by Midnight Street Press.

 

The writers submitting work to this anthology were asked to consider and build stories around the following theme: “The world is in a mess.  It seems that from a human perspective, we’re pretty well screwed…  Greed, political imperatives, narrow-minded thinking, poverty, ignorance…  we are experiencing very strange days.  There’s a mass extinction happening and it may well include our species.”  Thus, the fiction featured in its pages should “reflect the strange times we are living in and… sum up the precariousness of modern existence.”

 

Ironically, the deadline for submissions to Strange Days at the end of February coincided with the growing international panic over the Covid-19 virus.  It came just before many governments imposed lockdowns and curfews to thwart the virus’s spread.  Thus, the three months between that deadline and the publication of the anthology itself, in late May, have witnessed some strange days indeed.

 

To promote Strange Days, its editor Trevor Denyer has invited the contributors to record themselves introducing and reading extracts from their stories.  The resulting film clips have been placed on a webpage that is accessible here.

 

You can hear me – as Jim Mountfield – talking about how New Town Tours, my dystopian contribution to Strange Days, was based on experiences I had years ago living in Edinburgh.  Scotland’s capital city has always struck me as a perplexing place because it has a famously grand, affluent, historical and cultural city centre but also a periphery of housing schemes “which were built in recent history… suffer from a lot of poverty, from a lot of social problems, and for a lot of the people living on them, they’re not easy places.”  And I point out that Edinburgh was, appropriately enough, “the hometown of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde… it always seemed to me like a Jekyll and Hyde town.”  I also mention that when I stayed in Edinburgh, I was working on what would be called today a zero-hours contract, I wasn’t a particularly happy bunny at the time and New Town Tours was coloured by the negativity I felt.  It takes a bleak view of humanity and none of the story’s characters, whether they’re from the poor side of the tracks or from the rich side, come out of it well.

 

Midnight Street Anthology 4: Strange Days is now on sale.  It can be purchased from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

Millennium Dom

 

From the Cyprus Mail

 

Spin doctor Dominic Cummings, the Svengali to Boris Johnson’s Trilby, the Rasputin to Johnson’s Tsarina Alexandra, the organ-grinder to Johnson’s dancing monkey, the puppet-master to Johnson’s, well, puppet, has become Britain’s Most Hated Man.

 

That’s because everyone in Britain now knows that Cummings didn’t just break the coronavirus-lockdown rules that he himself helped draw up for the population, but pulverised them.  The Gollum-like governmental advisor apparently believed that rules exist only for plebs and he, as a superior being, had a divine right to flout them.  In late March he drove his wife and child 260 miles from London to his parents’ farm near Durham in northeast England, while his missus was displaying coronavirus symptoms.  He developed symptoms soon after.  Also, while in the northeast, he drove 30 miles to local tourist attraction Barnard Castle, an action he subsequently justified by claiming he’d done it to check if he could drive safely even though the virus was affecting his eyesight.  I guess that’s the equivalent of a brain surgeon performing an operation to check if the palsy he’s been suffering from isn’t making his hands shake too much.

 

I should say not quite everyone in Britain is baying for Cummings’s blood, for I’ve noticed a few right-wing folks complaining on social media that Cummings has been the victim of a stitch-up by Britain’s hideous lefty mainstream press.  Such people regard Cummings as the Messiah, thanks to him being Campaign Director of the Vote Leave movement in 2015-16 and playing a major role in getting Britain out of the European Union.  According to them, the lefty newspapers that have it in for poor Dom include that notoriously socialistic organ, the Daily Mail.  Looking at the state of the comments posted by those fulminating right-wingers, I just hope they cancel their subscriptions to the Daily Mail and invest the money they’ve saved in taking punctuation courses where they learn how to use apostrophes correctly.

 

Anyway, reading the screeds of print written about Cummings in the past week, I’ve been reminded that Cummings first made a name for himself during a little-remembered episode in recent British political history.  It happened shortly after the advent of the new millennium, in a part of the world where I was living.  I’m talking about the referendum on setting up a regional assembly in northeast England, held in 2004.

 

Soon after Tony Blair’s New Labour government arrived in power in the late 1990s, devolution was implemented in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Assembly.  This left England as the only part of the UK without devolved government, which caused some awkward anomalies.  How, for example, could Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians turn up at the British parliament and vote on issues affecting the English population, when English politicians weren’t allowed to attend the three devolved parliaments and have a say on equivalent issues affecting the populations there, like health and law enforcement, entrusted to those parliaments under the devolution settlement?

 

The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act of 2003 was meant to restore constitutional balance.  It was envisioned that, eventually, eight regional assemblies would operate across England.  As England had a population five times the size of that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, a patchwork of small English assemblies would ensure that too much power wasn’t concentrated in a single, huge English assembly.  And the first English region to get the chance to approve the establishment of its own assembly was northeast England, which had an all-postal ballot on the matter on November 4th, 2004.

 

Cynics would say that the northeast was given first say because it seemed highly likely to do what the government wanted it to do.  It was deeply pro-Labour at the time and contained Tony Blair’s constituency, Sedgefield.  Also, it seemed the English region with the strongest local identity – a place that’d want its own assembly making decisions on its behalf rather than having decisions imposed on it from faraway London.  At the time I was living in the northeast’s biggest city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, without wishing to confuse the city with the region, I have to say the Geordies of Newcastle did seem a complete race apart.

 

I’d spent most of my youth in Scotland, where devolution had been a burning political issue for a generation.  There’d been a referendum about establishing a Scottish parliament back in 1979 and a majority had voted in favour of it.  Due to some disgraceful rule-bending by the Labour government of the time, though, it was decreed that the majority wasn’t big enough and the parliament wasn’t delivered.  Soon after came the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which massively reshaped the economy and culture of the UK in the 1980s.  Most people in Scotland didn’t vote for Thatcher but the existing constitutional set-up left her free to do what she wanted with the place – a sorry state of affairs that resulted in the nadir of the Poll Tax, imposed solely on Scotland in 1989 as an experiment to see how it was likely to go down in the rest of the UK.  A great ‘what-if’ of Scottish political history is how a Scottish parliament, if one had been created at the end of the 1970s, might have stood up to Thatcher.  I certainly can’t imagine things being any worse than they were.  Anyway, it seemed to me a no-brainer that people in northeast England should get their own assembly in 2004.

 

However, in the run-up to the referendum, I realised my devolutionary enthusiasm wasn’t mirrored in the Geordies and north-easterners around me.  This was largely due to the influence of the anti-assembly campaign North East Says No, chaired by local businessman John Elliot and with a certain Durham-born, Oxford-educated character called Dominic Cummings as one of its prime movers.  The anti-assembly campaign whipped up resentment against the proposed establishment.  It warned that an assembly would be an unnecessary extra layer of government, diverting yet more public money into the pockets of yet more politicians – and diverting it away from areas that really needed it, like health.  “More doctors,” declared one of its ads, “not politicians.”  Actually, that sounds familiar.  Didn’t Dom peddle a similar message in a more recent political campaign?  Although in Newcastle in 2004 I didn’t see it emblazoned on the side of a bus.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

It didn’t help the assembly’s cause that the senior politician entrusted with overseeing its creation was deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who famously had not one but two princely Jaguar motor cars at his beck and call and generally wasn’t known for his frugality.

 

Cummings’s anti-assembly message certainly got through.  With hindsight it was scary how many left-wing, liberal-minded people I knew in Newcastle, who’d normally have detested everything Cummings stood for, unconsciously parroted his rhetoric.  I remember in my workplace a Russian woman, who had British citizenship and the right to participate in the referendum but wasn’t too clued-up on local politics, asking a colleague for advice on how to vote.  The colleague, a Guardian-reading progressive if ever there was one, promptly told her the assembly was a nonsense and to vote against it.  Meanwhile, my best mate in Newcastle, also no right-winger, dismissed the proposed assembly as a ‘white elephant’ designed to ‘line politicians’ pockets’.

 

It didn’t surprise me, then, when Prescott and company lost the referendum and a majority voted against the assembly’s establishment.  It did surprise me how emphatic that majority was – of those who bothered to vote, 78% voted against it.  And that wasn’t only the prospect of a north-eastern assembly killed stone dead, but the prospect of any future devolution in England generally.  No politician would touch the project after that whipping.  Dominic Cummings had secured his first and, alas, not his last big victory.

 

Although Newcastle is pictured by some as a drunken hellhole where ghastly nightclubs are pillaged by stag and hen parties clad in little more than jockstraps and G-strings while freezing easterly gales howl around them from the North Sea – an image that admittedly isn’t wide of the mark if you venture into the city’s Bigg Market district on a Friday or Saturday night – I thought it was a great city.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there during the first half of the noughties.  It had some great pubs (away from the Bigg Market), a good live music scene, decent shops and easy access to libraries and galleries.  You could generally find whatever it was that floated your boat, be it antiques markets or creative writing groups or comedy shows or whatever.  And I loved how you were mere minutes away from some of the most scenic landscapes in England.  And the Geordies were great company.  Indeed, I would have stayed for longer if the money I was earning in my job there hadn’t been so crap.

 

Looking back, though, I was probably lucky that I left Newcastle when I did and avoided the years of austerity that were inflicted on it by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 onwards.  The newspaper reports I’ve read about what happened to Newcastle make grim reading – slabs of money hacked off its budget every year, a total of some 300 million pounds lost by 2019, with a resulting cull of libraries, youth clubs and children’s centres and a general neglect of public services.  Even the city’s lollipop men and ladies weren’t spared – their numbers declined from 64 to seven in the space of five years.  Would a north-eastern assembly have been able to protect the city against some of this savagery?  Like the hypothetical 1980s Scottish parliament and Margaret Thatcher, I doubt if it would have made things any worse.

 

 

Incidentally, I think the missed opportunity of the English regional assemblies will contribute eventually to the breakup of the United Kingdom.  Occasional senior Labour politicians – Gordon Brown especially – still talk up the prospect of a federal UK as a way to keep Scotland British.  With their parliament nestling amid a bunch of similar-sized English ones where power is equally distributed, the Scots, the theory goes, will neither feel neglected nor get ideas above their station.  They’ll accept they’re fairly treated and accept their lot as happy Brits.  That might be true in an alternative universe, but it isn’t going to happen in this universe.  There won’t be a properly federal UK because people in England, as 2004 proved, aren’t interested.  And with so much power entrusted to dolts like Boris Johnson in London, I can’t see the Scots putting up with the existing constitutional status quo for much longer.

 

Modern right-wingers adore Dominic Cummings for what he’s supposedly done to restore British sovereignty.  But he’s actually done more than most to crock the whole concept of Britain.  Thanks in part to his exploits, including those in 2004, Britain as a union of four nations is doomed.  Dom-ed, in fact.