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.