Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

John Berryman Part Three:Berryman’s Irish Sojourn

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 24 2014.


In the 1960s, Berryman started receiving a great deal of national attention from the press, from arts organizations, and even from the White House, which sent him an invitation to dine with President Lyndon B Johnson at a dinner in honour of General and Mrs Ne Win of Burma.

Berryman wrote to tell LBJ that he had not boycotted the event. The invitation arrived after the event and he could not have gone because he was living in Ireland on a Guggenheim Fellowship. With his wife Kate, who was of Irish origin, Berryman arrived at Cobh, my father’s birthplace, on September 1, 1966. He quickly adapted to Dublin life and pub culture. Ronnie Drew (whose singing voice has been described as sounding like coke being pushed under a door) of the Dubliners folk group became one of Berryman’s drinking buddies.

Dream Song 366

Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves

well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,

seven or so in number,

I forgive my enemies, especially two,

races his heart, as so much magnanimity,

can it all be true?

Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.

Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,

a testament & such.

Is you going? —Oh, I suffer from a strike

& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,

Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,

I took it in my stride & out I struck,

lonesome Henry.

These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand

They are only meant to terrify & comfort

Lilac was found in his hand.

 John Berryman

Berryman wrote many Dream Songs during his Irish sojourn. He also managed to upset some Irishmen with his condescending manner and boorishness when drunk, which he often was. The Irish poet John Montague remembers Berryman in his book of essays The Figure in the Cave and describes a comic scene at a Dublin reading by Berryman when Patrick Kavanagh took offence at Berryman and went off in a huff.


Montague had met Berryman in 1954 when the Irish poet enrolled in Berryman’s workshop at the University of Iowa. Montague remembered seeing Berryman eating alone at the Jefferson Hotel, a copy of The Caine Mutiny open before him, “nervous, taut, arrogant, uneasy.” Berryman was offended at Montague mentioning Iowa, which he regarded as a territory of limbo.


Kavanagh was offended when Berryman mentioned Liam Miller of the Dolmen Press, whom he considered an enemy.

ronnie drew

Ronnie Drew objected to a member of the audience expressing his admiration too loudly and kept saying, “Shut up, John”. This confused John Berryman and John Montague.


During his Irish sojourn, Berryman was introduced to the actor John Hurt and was star-struck. Hurt, in turn was impressed by Berryman’s bravura recitations of his poems. Hurt commented: “That man has genius and it’s burning him up”.


Berryman was not impressed with the local poetic talent and some have accused Montague of inflating his own relationship with him.

All these poets!  Holy God!

Many are drunk & some are odd.  

What am I myself here doing

when I could be off & doing?


My near namesake, Philip Coleman, is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also Director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas programme His book John Berryman’s Public Vision: Re-locating the ‘scene of disorder will be published in 2014.

 dream songs

In Dream Song 312 Berryman claimed he went to Ireland “have it out” with Yeats:

I have moved to Dublin to have it out with you,

majestic Shade.

Whatever about the impression Berryman made on Dublin, or the impression Dublin made on him, Berryman will be celebrated in Ireland on the centenary of his birth. A John Berryman Centenary Symposium is being organised by the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies in October 2014 at the Mater Dei Institute, Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra. Academics from all over the world will speak on topics such as The Metabolization of Tradition, Berryman, Boredom and Identity, Berryman’s Schwartz, Satanic pride: Berryman, Schwartz, and the Genesis of Love & Fame, The Pornography of Grief: John Berryman and the Language of Suffering. There will be a walk to Berryman’s lodgings in Ballsbridge. A symposium was held at Trinity College Dublin, in January 2002, to mark the 30th anniversary of Berryman’s death. The event was marked by the publication of a book of essays titled After Thirty Falls.

Perhaps he did want to exorcise the influence of Yeats. Despite the immense influence of Yeats on Berryman’s early work, he now believed that Yeats’s overweening ego had made him turn everything he came in contact with into a symbol and he understood “nothing about life”. He made a pilgrimage to Yeats’s grave in Sligo.

Yeats on Cemetery Ridge

Would not have been scared, like you& me,

He would have been, before the bullet that was his,

Studying the movements of the birds


However, he wrote in his diary Dublin was “CHEAP; English spoken, [and it was] n[ea]r London & [the] continent”.


On New Year’s Day 1967, Berryman resolved to go through, at a rate of five a day, the 300 Dream Songs he had collected. Unfortunately, he fell and hurt his back so badly that Kate thought he had broken his spine. He denied that alcohol was the cause of the fall but he was particularly accident-prone, which must have been related to his drinking. He stuck to his schedule and hoped to finish the project by March. At the end of January, Kate had him committed to Grange Gorman, a gothic mental hospital. After a week, he begged her to get him out.


He placed his alter ego, Henry, in the hospital for some Dream Songs.


I love my doctor, I love too my nurse,

But I am glad to leave them, as now I do.

Too long it’s been

out of the world, away fr. whisk’, the curse

of Henry’s particular life, who has pulled thro’

too & again makes the scene…


At one point, he had nearly set fire to the place:

Henry walked the corridor in dark, drug-drunk, smoking

And dropt it & near-sighted cannot find.

Nurses will deal hell if the ward wakes, croaking

To smoke antic with flame…


A Alvarez (Berryman’s biographer Paul Mariani repeatedly calls him “Tony Alvarez” even though most people know the poet and critic as Al Alvarez) came to Dublin to film Berryman reading his Songs and talking at the Ballsbridge house and Ryan’s pub. The BBC broadcast the programme on March 11 and Berryman was back in New York on April 24 when Sonnets was published.

Although he had become bored with Ireland, he told a friend that the Irish had received him “like Sam Johnson at the court of the Dauphin”. Ireland was a place, he said, “right on the edge of Europe…crawling with delicious people who all speak English and are blazing with self-respect”.

Critic Kenneth Connelly saw in the Dream Songs the influence of two celebrated Dubliners: “Henry, the catalytic character of his poem—as well as the way his story is told—are greatly beholden to James Joyce, probably by way of Samuel Beckett…. [However] diluted, the presiding concepts and techniques of Joyce and Beckett structure his entire vision and method.” Like Joyce, Berryman mingles high verbal sonority and childish humor, literary high style with dialect and colloquialisms.

The use of dialect can go horribly wrong.

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.

How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,

terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety.

Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,

what could happen bad to Mr Bones?

—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father

who dared so long agone leave me.


Kevin Young is a Black American poet who has produced an edition of John Berryman’s verse for the Library of America’s American Poets Project. Young wrote that Berryman’s “use of ‘black dialect’ is frustrating and even offensive at times, as many have noted, and deserves examination at length. Nonetheless, the poems are, in part, about an American light that is not as pure as we may wish; or whose purity may rely not just on success (the dream) but on failure (the song). Berryman allows us to admit our obsessions, both as writers and as Americans.“

Next week a summation of Berryman’s life and achievements.

John Berryman Part 2

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 17 2014


The Life

In the introduction to Dream Song, his 1990 biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani said: “Much of what Berryman wrote about himself in his various autobiographical guises was brilliantly and highly original in its manner of saying. But it was also oblique, defeated, and – because of his long obsessions with alcohol, love, and fame – often, as he came himself to understand, delusory”. Last week I hinted at the problems he encountered from an early age with his father’s suicide (or possibly, murder) his mother’s sexuality and the family’s peripatetic life.


Berryman was not happy at school – his condescending manner and self-pitying wimpiness caused him to be bullied and he got little sympathy from the teaching staff of South Kent in Connecticut. He eventually came to an accommodation with the bullies and the teachers and made some friends – engaging in some mild homosexual activity. Later he quickly ended a friendship when a young man told him he was in love with him. In his teens, he became interested in girls. In later life, this developed into compulsive womanising. He wrote for school publications and got high marks for English literature, although his work had a tendency to be too cold and calculating.



At Columbia, he read voraciously and became smitten with Milton’s Lycidas. In Mark Van Doren, he found an inspirational teacher and a good friend for life, although he had antagonistic relationships with other teachers. He had written poetry at South Kent but at university, he put aside the “morass of adolescent love verse” and tried verse forms like the double quatrain and couplets of uneven length. He communicated with Randall Jarrell.

with Beryl


His literary work was good enough for him to win a scholarship for two years at Clare College, Cambridge. When he arrived in London, he had the nerve to introduce himself to the Woolfs to ask them to publish his poetry. He sent a poem to Yeats and made friends with Auden. He had some drunken sessions with Dylan Thomas and upgraded his estimation of the Welshman’s poetry. Yeats invited Berryman to tea and Thomas tried to get him drunk beforehand. Berryman’s tutor at Cambridge was the distinguished Shakespearian scholar George Rylands. Berryman was surprised by how little English literary people knew about American literature. FR Leavis was to have been one of Berryman’s supervisors in his second year but declined when he sensed Berryman’s hostility to him.

Berryman was already worried by wild mood swings: “mental instability fits of terrifying gloom and loneliness and artistic despair alternating with irresponsible exultation”.

hat and beard

Back in the USA

When Berryman returned to the US, some of his friends, including Mark Van Doren, avoided him because of his irritating British affectations. Another aspect his friends found off-putting was his tendency to try to steal their girl friends. Poet WD Snodgrass said that the problem with Berryman was “as soon as he liked you he began making your life difficult by tampering in your love life and sometimes trying to tamper with your wife.” Berryman had no compunction about seducing his students. He tried to seduce them even in the presence of their very large and strong boyfriends. He persistently made drunken phone calls to female students. He spoke to a psychiatrist about his mother’s flamboyant sexuality and his own relationships with women.


Columbia offered him a teaching job and he worked hard, sending poems to the quarterlies. Delmore Schwartz was then a rising star and poetry editor of The Partisan Review and wanted to publish some of Berryman’s poems. Schwartz was impressed by Berryman’s intelligence and vividness. He commented on the violence running through his poems. Berryman accepted an almost unpaid job as poetry editor of The Nation and persuaded Wallace Stevens to contribute a poem and even to go to the trouble of explaining some obscure lines.


Berryman suffered from epileptic seizures, which his first wife Eileen had dismissed as his way of dealing with his mother. He had nightmares about hacking women’s bodies and leaving the pieces under various houses to be discovered. In 1948, he won the Shelley Memorial award for $650, which paid some bills and let him buy a bottle of Scotch, which he drank in one sitting. Throughout the rest of his life, he experienced countless drunken episodes, black-outs, wandering fugues, injuries, memory loss. He was violent to his wives on occasions.

Rather than facing his alcoholism, he blamed his mental condition on the way Americans mistreated their poets. Despite his brilliance as a lecturer, his reputation as a drunkard and a troublemaker was well known. He had insulted most of the department’s members and their wives and did not hide his disdain. In 1960, he began wetting the bed. Sometimes he was so drunk on the podium that he delivered the same lecture twice to the embarrassment of his students. Someone described him as “a painfully shy man” blinking “out through the mask of his beard”. Ralph Ross said “I concluded that the only John one could love was a John with 2 or 3 drinks in him, no more & no less, & such a John could not exist”.

The Dream Songs

Berryman put much of his life into the Dream Songs, which eventually amounted to 308 poems. Since 1955, he had been working on the sequence. In 1964, he published 77 Dream Songs. This volume was awarded the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The Academy of American Poets states that “the poems of 77 Dream Songs are characterized by their unusual syntax, mix of high and low diction, and virtuosic language.”This was followed in 1968 by His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. This book won both the National Book Award for Poetry and the Bollingen Prize in 1969.

The work follows the travails of a character named “Henry” who bears a striking resemblance to Berryman. “Henry has a hard time. People don’t like him, and he doesn’t like himself. In fact, he doesn’t even know what his name is. His name at one point seems to be Henry House, and at another point, it seems to be Henry Pussycat.” These poems establish “Henry” as an alienated, self-loathing, and self-conscious character. Berryman also establishes some of the themes that would continue to trouble Henry in later dream songs (like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide). Berryman references his father’s suicide as “a thing on Henry’s heart/ so heavy, if he had a hundred years/ & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time/ Henry could not make good.”

“The volume was dedicated “to Mark Van Doren, and to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz.” Although many of the poems eulogize the deaths of Berryman’s poet/friends, more of these elegies (12 in total) are about Delmore Schwartz than any other poet.

In addition to the elegies, this volume also includes poems that document Henry/Berryman’s trip to Ireland, his experiences with fame, his problems with drugs and alcohol, and his problems with women.

Dream Song 14


Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy   

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   

means you have no


Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,   

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes   

as bad as achilles,


who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.   

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag   

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving            

behind: me, wag.


Contemporaries, including Elizabeth Bishop and Conrad Aiken were very impressed and wrote Berryman letters of congratulations on his achievement in the volume. Upon its publication, the book also received a positive review in The New York Times Book Review by the literary scholar Helen Vendler.


More about the dream songs and Berryman’s time in Ireland next week.        

Inequality -Europe and the Precariat

A version of this article appeared in the July 2014 issue of Echelon magazine


European Values and Inequality

In theory, the core of the EU project was opportunity. Free movement, competition, a single market and non-discrimination should be pillars of an equal society. Nevertheless, socio-economic inequalities in Europe are greater today than in the 1980s and many who oppose free movement were recently elected to the European Parliament.


Five years of austerity policies have led to a further deterioration of living standards. Europe’s social model of welfare will no longer be sustainable if a majority of citizens can barely scrape by and have no security or opportunity. In Greece, infant mortality is up 43% because of stringent cuts to healthcare services. In Spain, over 400,000 families lost their homes. There were 4.5million people in Ireland on Census night (10th April 2011). There are an estimated 1,300 ghost estates in Ireland with 300,000 houses lying empty. There are plans to demolish these estates. In 2012, Focus Ireland, a charity for homeless people dealt with 8,000 customers.


Spending on education has effectively dropped in most EU countries. Youth unemployment affects a quarter of young Europeans and in Greece and Spain, 50% of the young are unemployed.

A study launched by UK deputy PM (at time of writing) Nick Clegg (educated at the private Westminster School and Cambridge University), shows that in Britain, one child in five is on free school meals. Only seven per cent of children attend private schools, but these schools provide 70 per cent of High Court judges and 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs.

David Boyle, a fellow at the New Economics Foundation think-tank, warned that rising property prices would effectively render the middle classes extinct as the dream of home ownership becomes ever more distant. The “squeezed middle”, would need to take three or four jobs just to make ends meet and no longer have time for cultural activities.

Causes of Inequality

Over the last few decades, large international corporations have been powerful generators of inequality. By the early 1980s, the CEOs of the largest 350 US companies were getting 30 times as much as the average production worker. By the start of the 21st century, they were getting between 200 and 400 times as much. Among the 100 largest UK companies, the average CEO received 300 times the minimum wage.

The EU encourages cuts in social spending, even presenting them as preconditions of recovery. They argue that recovery depends on “employer-friendly practices”. “Labour flexibility” really means crushing trade unions. More than a third of all workers in the private sector were union members forty years ago; now, fewer than seven percent are members of a trade union. France and Spain used to have powerful unions, but today less than ten per cent of their workforce is unionised.


Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Spirit Level and Malignant Growth

The Spirit Level is a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009. The book argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. The authors claim that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in unequal rich countries.


Capital in the 21st Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty, focuses on wealth and income inequality in Europe and the US since the 18th century. The book’s central thesis is that inequality is not an accident but rather a feature of capitalism that requires state intervention to reverse. The book argues that unless capitalism is reformed, the democratic order is in danger.

Piketty predicts that the rise in inequality under neoliberalism will increase throughout the 21st century, reaching Victorian levels by 2050. He argues that if growth is low, labour’s bargaining power weak, and the returns on capital high, this will encourage speculation rather than entrepreneurial risk-taking or working hard to accumulate wealth.

Arguments against Promoting Equality

Companies are reluctant to implement equality measures because of what they see as heavy costs, which reduce their profit margins and impede their investment capacity. Equality and anti-discrimination contradict the ‘freedom’ of their enterprise, as executives would not be free to hire and do business the way they choose. They argue that inequality is not systemic but a failure of individuals to be resilient.

The engine of the neo-liberal system is widespread discrimination, and inequalities of class and geographical location. Globalisation so far has ensured that cheaper labour can always be found somewhere else. Some entrepreneurs have been cynical enough to claim that discrimination makes perfect business sense and should be acknowledged as such. From this perspective, removing inequalities would bring this very profitable system (for a few) to collapse.

Arguments for Equality

Almost all production and wealth creation is the result of cooperation. Society as a whole and its infrastructure contributes to everyone’s income and living standards. Accumulated technical and scientific knowledge, an educated population, transport systems and electricity supplies help the wealthy to become and remain wealthy. The combined efforts of vast numbers of people affect the living standards of even the rich.

Promoting equality is an investment. Excluding able individuals entails a huge loss of talent and skill when the economy needs to harness all potential creativity. A 2012 talent shortage survey found that around one in three employers around the world found it difficult to fill vacancies. Talent is often wasted because of discrimination.


In a speech to the Sutton Trust, Mr Clegg admitted that the Coalition “cannot afford” to leave a legacy like the current position. “Morally, economically, socially: whatever your justification, the price is too high to pay. We must create a more dynamic society.” Clegg’s statement is part of thetherapeutic management of inequality”- the officially sanctioned smokescreen of seeming to promote fairness, social justice, social equality, and equal access to education. A fear of what UK PM David Cameron called a “broken society” is the organising principle behind a wide range of measures to regulate supposedly dysfunctional behaviour. The “middle” sees itself as living in a nightmare world being ripped apart by greedy bankers at one extreme and sub-human Chav ‘trailer trash’ at the other.

Standing noted that, lacking any work-based identity, or sense of belonging to a labour community, the psychology of the precariat is liable to be determined by anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation. Perhaps the precariat will rise up but they are not the real vandals. The one per cent or ten per cent’s constant looting of the middle classes as well as the working class engenders resentment. In a context of too much debt and slow or no growth, austerity weakens the body politic rather than strengthening it. Austerity only really helps those who are wealthy enough to take advantage cheaper asset prices and sell the assets back later.

The EU needs to remember its founding principles and take action to complete the banking union, protect small savers from the banksters, create decent jobs, implement a realistic investment policy, and protect consumers and the environment. Equality must be at the heart of every European policy.


Tired of London? London in the 21st century. A tale of two Sams.

A version of this article appeared in the July issue of Echelon magazine although they forgot  to  put my name on it. I originally used a strapline – Capitalist capital of crap. London in the 21st century – but the editor did not like that.



“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Sam Johnson


Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell was a Scot. Johnson was not a Londoner. He came from Lichfield and spoke with a harsh Midland accent. Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits from Scotland. Boswell wrote in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.”


‘London claims to be a world city – a modern, 24-hour metropolis – but this is mostly just a pretence put on for visitors.” – Sam Jordison.


Another Sam, Sam Jordison came up with the idea of a league table for crap towns of Britain. The original Crap Towns was a publishing sensation in 2003 and came out of a conversation between Jordison and Dan Kieran, deputy editor of the Idler magazine, (Dr Johnson published a book of essays called The Idler) about the respective awfulness of their own home towns.

The city of Kingston-upon-Hull proudly sat at the top of the league for five years. Hull was Hell and “smelt of death”. It may come as a surprise that London was the city that toppled Hull.

How can London be crap? London is a major world metropolis. It has recently also been voted top city in the world in terms of overall attractiveness in a survey organised by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in cahoots with the IMF and other multinational financial groups. Financial houses, multinational corporations and management consultants form a major component of what makes today’s London unattractive to humans.

The PwC’s survey boasted: “The women and men of PwC reflect the highly skilled, globally mobile services sector whose personal investment of themselves and their family is so critical to the ongoing progress of urban communities worldwide.”


So, all urban dwellers should be grateful to PwC? Many people in London are less blessed than the golden PwC employees are. Significant numbers of families across Britain are skipping meals in a bid to make ends meet. Every region of the country is affected, but in London, the proportion rises to 28 per cent of families.

leather bottle

When I moved to London from Manchester, I had to double my mortgage to get a much smaller house. True, I was able to drink alongside Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones in the Leather Bottle pub, but he lived in a six-bedroom house on the posher side of Kingston Road in Merton Park. Back in 1982, I wondered how the lowly paid people, whose contribution was vital to the operation of the city and the comfort of PwC’s golden employees, managed to find homes. The situation is worse now.


I lived in London from 1982 to 1998. I visited it many times before and many times since. I still love many things about the place.


I can also understand the perspective of those who voted it crappest town in Britain. I was living in London at the time of “greed is good”, when Thatcherism was forcing many to sleep on the streets. Travelling to work on a jammed up underground train, I witnessed an incident that epitomised the tenor of the times. A pregnant woman was straphanging. A gentleman of the old school stood up to offer her a seat. Before she could sit down, a Yuppie type slid underneath her and claimed the seat with a look of triumph.


Towards the end of my stay in London, I was paying GBP 2,000 per year for a season ticket to commute to central London from Lewisham (posh Blackheath/Greenwich side).


It should have been a ten-minute journey but took longer because all the trains were full after six a.m. With privatisation the trains got shorter and shorter. I never got a seat – on these cattle trucks we were just grateful for a small pocket of breathable air away from armpits. One day I thought I  saw an empty seat and made my way towards it. As I approached, I saw that the seat was occupied by a pile of human turds. People were standing all around this without complaint. That is my enduring image of London.

Sam Jordison said that many who live in London are fed up with queuing, rocketing house prices, the chore of commuting, “the dangers and pure exhaustion of living there”. I once enjoyed a memorable night at Charlie Gillett’s World Music Disco but getting home after was a problem. I was a member of Ronnie Scott’s Club and saw many jazz legends perform there. Ronnie’s shuts at about 3.30 am, but the Tube closes its doors around midnight. People complained to Jordison about city bankers and a transport system that abandons late-night revellers to the mercy of rickshaws, minicabs or night buses. Cab drivers do not like going “south of the river”. Taking the night bus is a not recommended- it is a vomitorium on wheels full of drunks and psychopaths.

The annual Cities Survey, organised by the website Trip Advisor, collates the opinions of travellers to the top 37 urban tourist destinations around the world. Moscow came last. London came 11th, but achieved a respectable second place for nightlife and third for shopping. London’s worst performance was in value for money – visitors voted the city 34th in terms of how far a pound will stretch. London came 32nd of the 37 cities when the question was “how helpful were the locals?” The Trip Advisor website provides many horror stories of squalid and expensive London hotels. The horrors experienced by the Griswold family in Chevy Chase’s film National Lampoon’s European Vacation understate the awfulness of the reality.


London was rather drab in the 1950s and took some time to recover from the war. Years of decline and depopulation made much of the centre affordable. Artists, writers, musicians flocked in. It was possible, even up to the 1970s, to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Notting Hill, Marylebone or Camden Town. I stayed with people just as poor as me in Islington and Hampstead and Kensington. These days, only rich Arabs or the Russian mafia can afford those areas. Central London is a ghost town that only benefits absentee investors. The art students, musicians, and people starting out in the creative industries can no longer walk home from clubbing in Camden. The young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Soon there will nothing cool left about London. Cool will be residing in Bristol or Falmouth or Newcastle.

London has already changed irreparably. Rich financiers have made it unaffordable for the working class. The real threat comes from governments giving incentives to wealthy elites to take up residence. Russians receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the UK gives to those who can pay a million pounds. The proprietor of the London Evening Standard is Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former officer of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB.



To end on a more cheerful note: If you do decide to visit London, there is still much of interest (if you can manage to find somewhere decent to stay). I have many happy memories of walking around central London and the periphery. I was lucky enough to have done several jobs in the heartland of the metropolis, which enabled me to walk easily to Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, and Covent Garden and to eat my lunch to the accompaniment of brass band concerts on the Embankment near the Adelphi.


My first residence was in Putney and on long summer evenings I could walk from Putney to Barnes, stopping on the way to enjoy Young’s ambrosial nectar at the Half Moon (also purveyors of excellent live music – I saw Dr John and Maria Muldaur there among many others). The Bull’s Head at Barnes also purveys Young’s ales and fine live jazz.

Iain Sinclair on the south bank of the river Thames, London, Britain - 26 Aug 2011

Before you visit, I would recommend reading the writing of people like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who explore the psychogeography of London and examine the prehistoric atavistic mind of the city that entranced Dr Johnson, Dickens, Blake, and TS Eliot. Ackroyd and Sinclair explore the mythic strata upon which contemporary Londoners walk. Much of Sinclair’s recent work consists of a revival of occultist psychogeography of London. In London Orbital he wrote about a trek around the M25, which JG Ballard described as: “A journey into the heart of darkness and a fascinating snapshot of who we are”. Andrew Duncan’s walking guides provide practical help for those wishing to explore this magical world. Duncan’s Secret London tells you how to find London’s buried rivers, underground tunnels, abandoned tube stations, elegant squares, dark alleyways and cobbled courtyards and explains who owns most of the freehold property. Duncan, Ackroyd and Sinclair help to keep alive the magic of London.



The Brilliant Work and Difficult Life of John BerrymanPart One

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 10



The school of “Confessional Poetry” was associated with several writers who redefined American poetry in the ’50s and ’60s. These included Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, ‘Confessionalism’ is a style focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide.

John Berryman incorporated much of his personal experience into his poems and his was an eventful life. The poet started out as John Allyn Smith Jr. He was born in Oklahoma where he was raised until the age of ten, and then submitted to a peripatetic existence. When Berryman was twelve years old, his father, John Allyn Smith Sr, shot himself. With the Florida land bust, suicide was not uncommon and Smith’s death did not grab the attention of the Tampa police. Much was made of Smith’s insomnia, depression and money worries, but nothing of his marital problems or the absence of powder burns. Ten weeks after her husband’s death, Martha Smith married John Angus Berryman, who had been her lover before Smith’s demise. The future poet took the new husband’s name and was taught to call him “Uncle Jack”. His mother took to calling herself “Jill”.

His father’s suicide (or murder?) left a mark on the poet.

Thought I much then of perforated daddy,

daddy boxed in & let down with strong straps,

when I my friends’ homes visited, with fathers

universal and intact


In his 1990 biography of Berryman, Dream Song, Paul Mariani wrote: “Much of what Berryman wrote about himself in his various autobiographical guises was brilliantly and highly original in its manner of saying. But it was also oblique, defeated, and – because of his long obsessions with alcohol, love, and fame – often, as he came himself to understand, delusory”.

After a long struggle with alcoholism and mental illness, Berryman threw himself off a bridge in 1972.

Early Work


Berryman’s early work formed part of a volume entitled Five Young American Poets, published by New Directions in 1940. One of the other young poets included in the book was Randall Jarrell, whom I will discuss in future articles. New Directions published Berryman’s first book, entitled Poems, in 1942. His first mature book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later, published by William Sloane Associates. Charles Thornbury recognised in this early work themes that would recur throughout Berryman’s work- the rite of reformation, cycles moving simultaneously to the alternations of day and night, desire and conception, the progression of the seasons, and the stages of youth and age.


The Dispossessed was not well-received. Randall Jarrell wrote, in The Nation, that Berryman was “a complicated, nervous, and intelligent [poet]” whose poetry in The Dispossessed was too derivative of WB Yeats. Berryman later said, “I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”

The influence of Yeats is everywhere in the early work. Berryman also tried on the ill-fitting public persona of the WH Auden of the 1930s. Most of these socio-political poems are what Randall Jarrell called ”statues talking like a book”.



In 1947, Berryman started an affair with a married woman named Chris while he was still married to his first wife, Eileen. He documented the affair with a sonnet sequence of over a hundred poems. This marked a major stage in his development, moving from a public rhetorical style to a more intimate, confessional, nervous voice. He refrained from publishing the Sonnets to Chris until 1967.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

Berryman’s first major work was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The long title poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953 and the book was published in 1956. Berryman addressed the life of 17th century puritan American poet Anne Bradstreet, the first recognized poet of the American literary tradition, and combined her history with his own fantasies about her. Berryman told an interviewer in 1972: “The idea was not to take Anne Bradstreet as a poetess – I was not interested in that. I was interested in her as a pioneer heroine, a sort of mother to the artists and intellectuals who would follow her and play a large role in the development of the nation.”

Anne Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively privileged life in England. She was born in Northampton, in 1612, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, a steward of the Earl of Lincoln. Because of her family’s position, she grew up in cultured circumstances and was a well-educated woman for her time, tutored in history, several languages and literature. At the age of sixteen, she married Simon Bradstreet. At the age of eighteen, she, her husband, and her parents sailed with John Winthrop for the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts Bay. Her first book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in England in 1650 by her brother-in-law without her knowledge. These first poems are sometimes candid and immediate, but more often they are conventional in style and on accepted topics — her love for husband, children, God. Later poems show a different attitude. Both Anne’s father and husband were later to serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a series of fifty-seven, eight-line verses, Berryman comments on, converses with and courts Bradstreet and sometimes speaks as her. In section 31, Berryman has Bradstreet moving towards him:


–It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge

up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed

yellow, in heaven, eyed

by the melting hand-in-hand or mere

desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,

make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt—

the hefty pike shifts, sheer—

in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge-


Berryman employed an eight-line stanza of great flexibility, gravity and lightness. The poem took him five years to complete and demanded much from the reader but won plaudits from critics at the time and continued to win praise in later years. In 1989, Edward Hirsch observed, “the 57 stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet combine the concentration of an extended lyric with the erudition and amplitude of a historical novel.” Berryman’s friend Saul Bellow described the poem as “the equivalent of a 500-page psychological novel”.

Out of maize & air

your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,

from the centuries it.”


Berryman makes Mistress Bradstreet a rebel speaking out against the constraints of gender and environment. The underlying subject is, as Berryman indicated later, ”the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse in a land that cared and cares so little for it.” The poem examines the tension between Bradstreet’s personal life and her artistic life, concluding in a spirit of fatalism. The work primarily examines creative repression, religious apostasy, and the temptation to adultery. Critic Luke Spencer focused on “Berryman’s intimate dialogue with Anne Bradstreet and the mutual sexual attraction”. Berryman tried to “colonise” and seduce a virtuous member of the Puritan community by turning her into his mistress. Berryman portrays her as rejecting both her husband and father and the Puritan deity that sanctions their view of life. The historical Bradstreet’s letters portray her as a model of devotion to her husband; members of her family encouraged her writing of poetry.


Among the most moving parts of Berryman’s work are about Bradstreet’s conflicts with her own sensuality and the struggle for religious faith and peace. Berryman finds Bradstreet’s value and meaning in her suffering.


Veiled my eyes, attending. How can it be I?   

Moist, with parted lips, I listen, wicked.   

I shake in the morning & retch.

Brood I do on myself naked.

A fading world I dust, with fingers new.

—I have earned the right to be alone with you.   

—What right can that be?

Convulsing, if you love, enough, like a sweet lie.



More about Berryman’s life next week and about his masterwork Dream Songs.


They Do Things Differently in Louisiana

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 27 2014.

Colman's Column3

The Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies recently honoured me with an invitation to the launch, on August 15, in conjunction with the Marga Institute, of a publication titled: Issues of Truth and Accountability (The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka).

I first encountered CHA in 2010 when I purchased a magazine called Groundview. The Groundview magazine was published by CHA and contained an article that dealt with the aftermath of the war in Sri Lanka.

Post-War Reconstruction

In that article, one Joshua M Shoop chastised the Sri Lankan government for its laggard lack of action in the Northern Province. “The destitution and ineptitude in Mannar Town and the surrounding area is visible to anyone,” he wrote. Josh was studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had been living in Sri Lanka for all of three months when he wrote his article. “Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “In progressive nations, this is where a government would come in to assist.”

Josh conceded the government had built new roads, which help the local economy, but he was unhappy because the roads were “helpful for military operations”. This reminded me of the Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese as Reg of the PFJ (People’s Front of Judaea) complained, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” “Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? PFJ Member: Brought peace? Reg: Oh, peace? SHUT UP!”

Dependency Culture


Josh claimed the military was depriving “the locals” (that is what tourists call “the natives”) of jobs. “Several international and community-based organisations are operating in the area, assisting where they can, while further perpetuating a dependence on foreign aid.” Josh was one of those perpetuating that and planning a career based on such dependence. I would be interested to know how his career had developed. A Google search did not enlighten me.


Third World Louisiana


“Natives” in Louisiana, particularly blacks, are still “suffering immensely from the impacts” of America’s own civil war. That war lasted four years and ended 145 years ago. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 30 years and only ended 16 months before Josh wrote his article. Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to those of third- world nations. The average life span of an African-American in New Orleans is nearly as low as for a North Korean. By contrast, Sri Lanka is a paradise. The World Health Organisation has said that Sri Lanka’s health indicators are improving all the time.

Tsunami and Hurricane

We are coming up to the tenth anniversary of the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka’s coastal areas. Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana on Monday, August 29, 2005. It would be instructive to contrast Sri Lanka’s reaction to the tsunami with the US response to Hurricane Katrina. The immediate Sri Lanka state response to the tsunami on 26 December 2004 was weak, but an effective, spontaneous, immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, “Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks”.

Twenty thousand Sri Lankan soldiers were deployed in government-controlled areas to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system and community awareness of basic sanitary and hygienic practices ensured that there were no disease outbreaks. Essential medical aid, emergency food, and other relief supplies were mobilized within a day. It was possible to feed, clothe, and shelter survivors; provide the injured with medical attention; and ensure that the thousands of bodies were quickly cremated or buried.

In 2008, Judge Stanwood Duval of the US District Court placed responsibility for surge protection failures in New Orleans on the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). USACE could not be held financially liable because of sovereign immunity in the Flood Control Act of 1928.

Primum non nocere

Sheri Fink’s brilliant book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital describes what happened to hundreds of patients stranded in the Memorial Hospital in New Orleans for five days.

The hospital was part of a private for-profit chain owned and operated by the Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corporation. There was no generator mechanic on duty; there was no evacuation plan, despite the city’s history of hurricanes and flooding. The hospital generators were expected to work for 72 hours, but most were in the basement, which soon flooded. On August 31, the last generator gave up. Sewer systems and essential medical equipment were not operating. Staff smashed windows to let in air. In some parts of the hospital oxygen supplies ran out. Fifty-two patients, few of whom could walk, were in an intensive care wing without light or air conditioning. Could they survive?

Doctors felt the need to make some hard decisions and later referred to their behaviour as “battlefield triage”. This was not a war. Conditions were difficult but the hospital had food and water and was only a mile from dry ground.

Reverse Priorities

Patients who could walk were placed high on the priority list for evacuation and those with “do not resuscitate” orders were placed at the bottom. Evacuation began slowly on the third day. On the fifth day, the euthanasia began. On September 1, 2005, morphine and midazolam, a nervous-system depressant, were administered. Some of these patients, it later transpired, were not as infirm as they appeared, and fatal injections were given even after rescue helicopters had arrived.

New Orleans’s public Charity Hospital had about twice the number of patients as Memorial, a lower ratio of staff to patients, and no helipad or corporate assistance. There was similar flooding and lost power, but only nine patients died. The public hospital had a different ethos than the for-profit Memorial – “the sickest were taken out first instead of last”.


When the evacuation from Memorial was complete, 45 patients were dead. Forensic consultants determined that 23 corpses had elevated levels of morphine and other drugs, although few of these patients had been prescribed morphine for pain. The investigators decided that 20 patients were victims of homicide. One patient in particular, Emmett Everett, was alert and in the hospital awaiting surgery for a condition not acutely life-threatening. He was only 61. He had fed himself breakfast that morning. One of his nurses later told investigators he had said, “Cindy, don’t let them leave me behind.” Dr Anna Pou was alleged to have administered a lethal cocktail of drugs to Everett with the intent of ending his life.

One doctor admitted to Fink smothering a man to death with a towel when the morphine did not work. Fink focuses largely on the investigation into the actions of Dr Pou and two intensive care nurses, Cheri Landry and Lori Budo, all three of whom were charged with second-degree murder. Anna Pou was regarded locally as a heroine who worked under desperate conditions and was now being victimised by the inept authorities who were responsible for the city’s plight. The charges against Landry and Budo were eventually dropped, and a grand jury chose not to indict Pou in 2007.

Hippocratic Oath

The main precept of bioethics, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, is “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.” Dr Bryant King, an internist at Memorial, told CNN after he had escaped by boat, “I’d rather be considered a person who abandoned patients than someone who aided in eliminating patients.” Bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote in his expert report that the administration of the drugs was “not consistent with the ethical standards of palliative care that prevail in the United States”. He wrote that the death of a patient must not be the goal of a doctor’s treatment; and death, in his opinion, was the goal in these in cases.

Anna Pou went on to make much money as a lecturer on “ethical considerations” in disaster medicine. In her lectures, she has been less than candid about the conditions at Memorial hospital. She neglects to mention her decision to inject her patients with fatal doses of morphine.

Licence to Kill

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro testified, “human beings were killed as a result of actions by doctors” at Memorial after Hurricane Katrina. …whether or not there was a homicide and whether or not there is a case that can be brought are different matters”. The documentation compiled by investigators (50,000 pages) has been sealed by Louisiana courts. Pou refused to be interviewed by Fink based on her lawyer’s advice.

Pou helped write and pass three laws in Louisiana giving immunity from most civil lawsuits to health care workers operating in mass casualty situations.

The Duality of Edinburgh – the Light and the Dark

This article appeared in the August issue of Echelon magazine.


For its role in the 18th century enlightenment Edinburgh earned the title “Athens of the North”. As well as enlightenment, Edinburgh has darkness – and cold- and rain- and wind. Getting off the night-sleeper from London at Waverley Station, I felt I had landed on another planet- a cold, wet, windy planet. Waverley rests in a steep, narrow valley between the medieval Old Town and the 18th century New Town. Climbing the hill (Robert Louis Stevenson once called Edinburgh a “precipitous city”) from the station, battling in the face of a cyclone, I noticed huge pieces of metal and large dustbins flying all over the street. On my right, I saw a shop sign that said “Brass Monger”. This brought to mind the old saying: “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Was this shop in the business of fixing them back on again? (There is also a pub called the Brass Monkey  on Drummond Street,  close to the University’s  Old College).



In the 18th century novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett, one character describes Edinburgh as a “hotbed of genius”. By 1750, Scotland’s major cities had created an intellectual infrastructure of mutually supporting institutions, such as universities, reading societies, libraries, periodicals, museums and Masonic lodges. The Scottish Enlightenment had numerous dimensions, including architecture, art and music. The central achievement was a new capacity to recognize and interpret social patterns.


David Hume

Intellectual life in Edinburgh from 1710 revolved around gentlemen’s clubs. One of the first was the Easy Club, co-founded by the Jacobite printer Thomas Ruddiman. The Political Economy Club created links between academics and merchants. Other clubs in Edinburgh included The Select Society, formed by artist Allan Ramsay, and philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith.


Adam Smith

David Hume (1711–76) was a major influence on later Enlightenment figures. His Treatise on Human Nature (1738) and Essays, Moral and Political (1741) helped outline the parameters of philosophical Empiricism and Scepticism. The influence of the movement spread beyond Scotland across the British Empire, and onto the Continent. The political ideas coming out of Edinburgh had an important impact on the founding fathers of the US. Representative of the far-reaching impact of the Scottish Enlightenment was the new Encyclopædia Britannica, which was designed in Edinburgh and published between 1768 and 1771. While the Scottish Enlightenment is traditionally considered to have concluded toward the end of the 18th century, Edinburgh made large contributions to British science and letters for another 50 years.


Even in the 18th Century, Edinburgh had a dark side comparable to that conveyed in the writings today of Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. By the first half of the 18th century, despite rising prosperity evidenced by its growing importance as a banking centre, Edinburgh was being described as one of the most densely populated, overcrowded and unsanitary towns in Europe. Various social classes shared the same urban space, even inhabiting the same tenement buildings.

The Edinburgh Medical School was established in 1726, and soon attracted students from across Britain and the American colonies. It is one of the oldest and best medical schools in the English-speaking world. However, it relied increasingly on body snatchers for a steady supply of “anatomical subjects”. The activities of these “resurrectionists” were so profitable that they progressed from grave robbing to murder. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about Burke and Hare in his short story, The Body Snatcher in 1884. The story was the basis for a 1945 film directed by Robert Wise and starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.





Deacon Brodie was a member of The Edinburgh Cape Club. He was a cabinet-maker, deacon of a trades guild and Edinburgh city councillor, who maintained a secret life as a burglar, partly for the thrill, and partly to fund his gambling. He fathered five children to two mistresses (who did not know of each other). Brodie was hanged on 1 October 1788, before a crowd of 40,000. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father owned furniture made by Brodie, wrote a play (with W. E. Henley) entitled Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life, which was unsuccessful. However, Stevenson remained fascinated by the dichotomy between Brodie’s respectable façade, and his real nature and was inspired to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

In 2004, Edinburgh became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, an accolade awarded in recognition of its literary heritage and lively literary activities in the present. Waverley Station is named in honour of Sir Walter Scott and his memorial watches over the main shopping thoroughfare, Princes Street, like a Victorian Gothic space module. Scott was the respectable face of Edinburgh writing and was the first English-language author to have a truly international career in his lifetime.

There is a darker side to Edinburgh literature. James Hogg published Confessions of a Justified Sinner anonymously in Edinburgh in 1824.The book is an early example of crime fiction with the story told partly from the viewpoint of the killer. It was greatly praised in the 20th century as a representation of the power of evil and a case-study of totalitarian thought. It inspired RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One interpretation of Stevenson’s novella sees the Jekyll and Hyde duality as representative of Scotland and the Scottish character. There is a further parallel with the city of Edinburgh itself. Edinburgh consists of two distinct parts: the old medieval section historically inhabited by the city’s poor, where the dark crowded slums were rife with all types of crime, and the modern Georgian area of wide spacious streets representing respectability.

The novella has also been noted as “one of the best guidebooks of the Victorian era” because of its description of the fundamental dichotomy of the 19th century “outward respectability and inward lust”. Edinburgh was once called a city of “public probity and private vice”. Morningside, a late-Victorian suburb on the south side of Edinburgh, epitomises this hypocrisy and has been described as “propriety in built form”. The area has been caricatured as being patrolled by curtain-twitching killjoys. In fiction, it was the home of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie. In real life, Ian Rankin lived in Morningside (or rather in nearby Merchiston).

Drugs, AIDS, Poverty

Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is set in Leith, Edinburgh, in the mid-1980s, when heroin use there was just taking off. Pure opium arrived in the city in 1693. By 1877, it was widespread among the middle classes. Heroin was first synthesised in 1884, and Edinburgh factories were soon manufacturing it. By the end of the 19th century, Edinburgh produced most of the world’s opiate drugs, heroin included. Production continues to this day.

There were 584 drug-related deaths in 2011, 99 (20 per cent) more than in 2010. This was the highest number recorded since the series of figures began in 1996, was 10 (2 per cent) more than

the previous largest figure (which was 574 in 2008), and was 252 (76 per cent) more than in 2001. The number of drug-related deaths has risen in six of the past ten years: the long-term trend appears to be upwards.

In the 1980s, Edinburgh was known as the AIDS capital of Europe. The Muirhouse council housing estate was the centre of the 80s drug scene in Edinburgh. Junk devastated many families and completely ruined a community. Even today more than 30 per cent of households in Muirhouse were on low income.

The Duality of Inequality

Ian Rankin has written: “Edinburgh has always seemed to me a furtive place. Throughout history it has made its money from invisible industries such as banking and insurance.” Edinburgh’s relatively buoyant economy, traditionally centred on banking and insurance but now encompassing a wide range of businesses, makes it the biggest financial centre in the UK after London. However, a new report on inequality describes Edinburgh as “a city divided” with average incomes nine per cent above the rest of the country, yet 50,000 families below the poverty threshold. At the end of last year, the Trussell Trust estimated there were 6216 people in Edinburgh and the Lothians relying on food banks. The report said 22 per cent of households in the city live on incomes below the poverty threshold Eighteen per cent of all children in Edinburgh live in low income households, a total of some 17,600 young people, and 19 per cent of workers were paid below the living wage.

The Enlightened Future

Scotland decides on September 18 whether Edinburgh becomes the capital of an independent Scotland with Alex Salmond as prime minister. Salmond maintains that Scotland is a rich nation held back by being part of the UK. He calls on the values of the Edinburgh Enlightenment. “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education…I ’m going to argue that our international policy – like our domestic policy – should be governed by another enlightened Scottish idea – the one Adam Smith pursued in the Theory of Moral Sentiment – of enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we will help ourselves.”

Corruption and Construction

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 20 2014.

Colman's Column3

Urban renewal seems to be inseparable from corruption. T Dan Smith was once a local hero in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then he was sentenced in 1974 to six years in prison for accepting bribes. Smith believed strongly in the need to clear Newcastle of slum housing and put a great deal of effort into regeneration plans.


Modernist planning was at its height in Britain during the 1960s, after the end of post-war austerity. Newcastle, as well as Manchester and Birmingham, was drastically transformed. It was a time of “clean sweep” planning, where the only constraints on redevelopment were economic. Conservation policy was restricted to the preservation of a limited number of major buildings and monuments. In his article, Alas Smith and Burns? Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne city centre 1959–68, John Pendlebury of the School of Architecture at Newcastle University, wrote “though modernist rationalism was the driving force in the city’s re-planning, it co-existed with a conscious policy of conservation, born out of a picturesque design tradition.”

Not everyone appreciated Smith’s efforts. Alec Glasgow wrote a contemporary folk song:

Weep, Geordie, weep,

At the murder of your city.

Weep, Geordie, weep

For the vandals have no pity.


Smith’s name is usually spoken in negative terms regarding the destruction of historic and aesthetically pleasing buildings, which were replaced with a concrete jungle.

Some called him Smith “Mr Newcastle” others called him “the mouth of the Tyne”. Another nickname was “one-coat Smith”. When he ran a painting and decorating firm, his painters were noted for their stingy use of materials. Despite this, the firm was granted more than half the contracts for painting council houses.

While his evangelical zeal to make Newcastle a better place may have been genuine, Smith’s desire to make money was stronger and got mixed up with his political ambitions. Smith was appointed Chairman of Newcastle council’s Housing Committee in 1958 and was elected as Leader of the City Council in 1959. He created one of the country’s first free-standing Planning Departments and made it the most powerful department in the council. He strengthened his power by creating an inner Cabinet of his own supporters. When Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, Smith was confident that he would be invited to take a national ministerial post. However, Wilson had vague suspicions about Smith’s probity and did not call him.

In 1962, Smith set up a PR firm to support redevelopment of other urban centres in the northeast, and later nationwide. Through this, he established links with John Poulson, an architect with a reputation for rewarding those who put business his way. Smith eventually received £156,000 from Poulson for his work, which typically involved signing up local councillors on to the payroll of his companies and getting them to push their councils to accept Poulson’s redevelopment schemes. Poulson earned more than £1,000,000 through Smith.


Another of Poulson’s contacts was the then Shadow Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling. In 1966, Maudling accepted an offer to be Chairman of one of Poulson’s companies for £5,000 per annum. Maudling’s son Martin, who had left Oxford University without taking a degree, went to work for another Poulson company. Poulson agreed to donate large sums of money to a charity patronised by Maudling’s wife. Maudling helped to bring pressure on the government of Malta to award a £1.5 million contract for the new Victoria Hospital on Gozo to Poulson. This had led to heavy losses to the Maltese government. A Parliamentary inquiry into Maudling’s conduct concluded that he had indulged in “conduct inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its members”.


No punishment was imposed but Maudling drank himself to death at the age of 61. The son, William Maudling, 42, who once lived in Downing Street with his family, threw himself from the 16th floor in 1999, his life ruined by heroin.

Smith’s PR firm was also involved with Wandsworth Borough Council in pushing a redevelopment scheme. Smith’s Wandsworth council contact, Alderman Sidney Sporle, fell under police suspicion of corruption in the late 1960s. The police investigation led to Smith himself being charged with bribery in January 1970. He was acquitted at his trial in July 1971, but was forced to resign all his political offices. Smith was arrested again in October 1973 after Poulson’s 1972 bankruptcy hearings disclosed extensive bribery. He pleaded guilty in 1974 and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment; despite his guilty plea, he continued to assert his innocence.

After his death, Smith’s career was the inspiration for Austin Donohue, a character in Peter Flannery’s play, Our Friends in the North. The part was first played by Jim Broadbent in the Royal Shakespeare Company production, and then by Alun Armstrong (who once stayed at our friends’ guesthouse in Badulla) in the 1996 BBC television drama version.

Back in the early 70s, I worked as a social security visitor in a poor district of Manchester. Some of the street names were already familiar to me from reading about the Moors Murderers. Brady and Hindley once trod those drab streets in Gorton and Ardwick. Things were changing in those days. The streets had been built as warrens of terraced back-to-back houses for the workers of the industrial revolution. Lives could be cramped and stunted but there was also a sense of community still celebrated by the popular teledrama Coronation Street, which started in the early 60s and is still running.

Manchester Corporation, like similar ruling bodies in other municipalities, probably had good intentions when they embarked on slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the old houses were pretty grim with outside toilets and some had gas mantles rather than electric light.

New blocks sprang up quite quickly. These resembled something out of a movie about the French Foreign Legion. Local people called them Fort Ardwick and Fort Beswick. As well as disrupting the sense of community enjoyed in the old terraces these new blocks might have been designed to assist crime with their walkways in the sky.

Even when they were brand new, these dwellings proved not fit for purpose. They were put up very quickly using prefabricated materials like a huge Lego kit. They were not as durable or well-designed as Lego.

The kind of concrete used caused condensation indoors so that the walls were dripping wet, causing respiratory problems in the elderly and in babies. Under floor heating was installed which could not be controlled by the tenants. Tenants were often baked to a frazzle and faced with huge fuel bills that they could not pay. A friend of mine lived in a council property in Hulme and found the place infested with cockroaches and beetles because the walls were built of straw.

I visited Manchester eight years ago and the area once covered by Fort Beswick had neat little rows of houses all on ground level. Although there was more space and the houses looked in good condition, they did rather remind me of the old terraced houses that were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not far from Beswick is the new home of Manchester City football club. The new stadium was built at a cost of GBP 110 million for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The stadium is owned by the City Council and leased by the football club which, despite its previous lack of glamour, in 2008 became the richest club in the world after a takeover by an Arab consortium headed by Dr Al-Fahim, known as the Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi. A previous owner was former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, known to Mancunians as “Frank Sinatra”.

Manchester City FC signed an agreement with the Council in March 2010 to allow a £1 billion redevelopment led by architect Rafael Vinoly of land around the stadium and possible stadium expansion. In a spooky link with T Dan Smith, Vinoly was hiredby Wandsworth Council in London to develop the area around Battersea Power Station. The proposed development is supposed to generate 15,000 jobs. The network of tall curved blocks of offices will block the view of Sir Gilbert Scott’s industrial masterpiece. The accommodation is not intended to attract local families but hordes of predatory bankers with no children but easy access to the City and huge bonuses.

Manchester City’s stadium was a part of the massive Eastlands redevelopment. According to the consultative regeneration framework document, 3,000 jobs were created in ten years. This is low considering that at least 2,000 jobs were axed to cut public spending. The much-lauded regeneration of East Manchester never lived up to the hype of galvanising growth and job-creation in one of the city’s most deprived areas. New jobs tended to be poorly paid ‘flexible’ jobs, servicing the consumption habits of middle classes. Only half of the hundreds of new jobs at supermarkets went to local residents. Save the Children found that 27 %per cent of children in Manchester were living in “severe poverty” – the worst record of any local authority in the country.

On my last visit to Manchester, the city centre was very different from the bleak place it was during the Thatcher years. The IRA did the city a favour by blowing up the ugly Arndale Centre and opening the way to better buildings. The new city centre reminded me of Seattle. There were luxury apartments and chic hotels. Even old churches and cotton mills had been converted into housing. Salford used to be grim but now it has luxury accommodation and an arts centre dedicated to LS Lowry. Somehow, it was still grim.

According to the Eastlands document, 5,000 extra homes have been built in East Manchester. However, the Manchester-Salford Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (whoever came up with that name!) between 2008 and 2009 demolished 2,200 more homes than it built at a cost of GBP 600 million. The project ground to halt, leaving a wasteland behind it.

How will Beswick, Bradford and Lower Openshaw compete with the new enterprise scheme at Manchester Airport (another arm of the council)? There are many empty office blocks in Manchester and but more will be built at the airport.

Some people will have made a lot of money out of continually knocking British cities down and re-building them. Not many of those people will go to prison like T Dan smith did. In 1985, Smith wrote that “Thatcherism, in an odd sort of way, could reasonably be described as legalised Poulsonism. Contributions to Tory Party funds will be repaid by the handing over of public assets for private gain”.

Thatcherism and Poulsonism live on in all the British political parties.

Cruel and Unusual Part2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 13 2014.


Colman's Column3

An examination of  issues relating to capital punishment, continued from last week.

What Do the Philosophers Say?

Immanuel Kant wrote: “But whoever has committed murder, must die. There is, in this case, no juridical substitute or surrogate that can be given or taken for the satisfaction of justice. There is no likeness or proportion between life, however painful, and death; and therefore there is no equality between the crime of murder and the retaliation of it but what is judicially accomplished by the execution of the criminal.”

Nietzsche recognised cruelty in Kant’s position. Cruelty can be, and often is, masked as morality. Base pleasure in inflicting cruelty can be, and often is, rationalised as moral duty. “Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?” Nietzsche sees the origin of this “strange hypothesis” in commercial law – “debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.” Commercial contracts provide a model for the social contract, which requires that humans undergo an internalisation of their aggressive drives. This has a psychological effect causing what Freud would call a neurosis. Nietzsche describes it as that “serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced – that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace”. Nietzsche warns that this psychic formation (or deformation) brings the risk of the subject becoming her or his own executioner.

Nietzsche suggests that abolitionists are not immune to cruelty. By preferring imprisonment to the death penalty (protracted cruelty, that is, over immediate death) they are making an aggressive attack on aggression which paradoxically preserves, or redoubles, aggression even as it seeks its eradication. As I mentioned last week, Yanna Brishyana, when sentenced to death in the Colombo High Court, appealed to the court to have her executed immediately.

Victor Hugo was a staunch abolitionist. He travelled across Spain as a young boy. Along the roadside, heads of convicted robbers were displayed as warning to others; one man had been dismembered and re-assembled in the shape of a crucifix. As Voltaire put it: Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres. In his short novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829), written when he was 27, Hugo writes about a man who has been condemned to death by the guillotine in 19th century France. He writes down his thoughts while awaiting his execution. Hugo had witnessed executions and told a story about the blade sticking halfway through a condemned man’s neck. The man freed himself and stumbled off holding his spurting head in place with his hand. The executioner’s assistant jumped on his shoulders and finished hacking his head off with his pocketknife. Baudelaire did not agree with Hugo. The poet celebrated capital punishment as a supremely sacred and religious proceeding.

Albert Camus deals with the “eye for an eye” trope: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Jacques Derrida addresses Baudelaire’s criticism of Hugo’s abolitionism. Hugo argues that the death penalty should be opposed because the right to life is absolute. Derrida says abolitionists “are afraid for their own skins, because they feel guilty and their tremulations are a confession; they confess, with the symptom of their abolitionism, as it were, that they want to save their lives, that they tremble for themselves because … unconsciously, they feel guilty of a mortal sin… ‘I want to abolish the death penalty because I am afraid of being condemned.’”

Derrida tries to expose the way that the abolitionists are implicated in the death drive, suggesting that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness. He suggests that abolitionists are like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of pornography. Derrida himself opposed the death penalty, but could still ask whether some abolitionists are committed to other forms of cruelty that are masked by elegant moral formulations, ones that rationalise prolonging the time of cruelty and the tenure of sadistic delight. Abolitionists have made sure to promote the punishment of life without parole as the alternative to execution, taking care of the question of the worst of the worst being allowed out to commit fresh crimes.

Democracy and Death Penalty

Edmund Burke, told his 18th century constituents in Bristol that, while he would attentively listen to their opinions, he would reject any talk of “authoritative instructions” or “mandates issued” which he might be expected to obey. The death penalty is normally cited as the classic example of the disconnect between politicians and the people they represent. I have written often about the lack of democracy in the EU. The EU has made abolition of the death penalty a condition for membership of the club. In every Western democracy that has scrapped the death penalty, politicians have acted against the wishes of a majority of voters. A European politician running on a platform of restoring capital punishment would be wasting his and the voters’ time, unless he was willing to leave the EU as well.

In the UK, a majority of MPs have consistently opposed the death penalty and a majority of the public consistently supported it. It used to be over 70%, but these days roughly half of the UK population support the death penalty for “standard” murder. Overall US public opinion remains clearly in favour of the death penalty, with around 60% or more of Americans saying they want it retained as a punishment for murder. Michael Dukakis’s opposition to capital punishment in a televised debate sank his 1988 presidential run.

The most combative abolitionists openly assert that they know better than their voters, and are saving them from themselves. Former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, defended his position: “Capital punishment raises important questions about how, as a society, we view human beings. I believed as governor, and I still believe, that the practice and support for capital punishment is corrosive; that it is bad for a democratic citizenry and that it had to be objected to and so I did then, and I do now and will continue to for as long as it and I exist, because I believe we should be better than what we are in our weakest moments.”

Cuomo could only block capital punishment until he left office – it was reinstated. Yet in states whose state legislatures have voted in recent years to abolish it, after long debate, there are no signs of it being brought back on to the statute books.

It is a strange state of affairs when politicians are moral arbiters acting in our best interests and keeping us on an ethical path.



Writers [sic] Bureau

I posted a version of this on Open Salon on January 4 2010.


Over many decades I have made desultory attempts to do writing courses by distance learning. I think the first time I tried this was when I was still at school, when word processors and e-mails were not even a fantasy. I was using an antique and extremely heavy Remington which you wouldn’t want to drop on your foot. PCs hadn’t been invented and computers filled huge rooms.

The Director of Studies of the first organisation I tried seemed like a character out of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. His name was Athelstan Ridgway (which sounded fictional) and the brochures carried pictures of him carrying a cane and looking languid and bored wearing a large-brimmed hat, and flowing cape. (X Trapnel from Dance to the Music of Time springs to mind?!) I have recently done a Google search on the name and he did actually seem to have existed. His books (thrillers and historical novels) are advertised on antiquarian book websites. He also seemed to have served in some editorial capacity at the Everyman Library.

I did not persist long with the course. I tried another one in the 70s and again a few years ago. Over those many decades, the modus operandi of these courses has changed very little. One is set a number of assignments, which involve looking at publications which one might like to submit to and analysing their style and requirements. Generally speaking, the tutors say that one’s work shows great promise.

On my most recent foray I made enquiries of an organisation that advertised frequently in The Guardian, a newspaper I generally trust.  Once I had contacted them, they bombarded me with promotional material. One of the things that persuaded me to give it a try was this claim: “Finally we come to what, in our view, is the most important point of all –YOUR PERSONAL TUITION. This is the individual advice, help, guidance and encouragement that you receive from your tutor … Many students come to know their tutor as a real friend. Through this firm but gentle approach your tutor will do everything possible to help you develop your writing skills…Within the overall context of the course, your study path can be flexible to your own requirements and circumstances.”

I was persuaded to sign up and made the full payment. The amount did not break the bank but I could have got a book published by x libris for less. Nevertheless, it would have been a bargain had the promises made in the brochure not proved to be hollow.

Four months after making the full payment, I had still not received the course material. Snail mail usually takes less than a week to get to me in Sri Lanka from the UK. Every time I mentioned non-receipt of the course material, the Director of Studies told me to be patient. I had received and completed the first assignment by e-mail and was anxious to get on, but could not do so without the course material. I asked the Director of Studies to scan and e-mail the relevant pages. She was not willing to do this and made the excuse that I lived in a remote place. Eventually, I received a replacement pack and a disk with the two relevant pages arrived on the same day. Later she boasted about the trouble they had taken delivering the material to Sri Lanka.

I noted that nearly all the testimonials that came with the promotional literature came from outposts of the old British Empire. There used to be a show on the BBC Light Programme in my childhood hosted by a dance band leader called Victor Sylvester (“slow, slow, quick, quick, slow”). The suave, silver-haired and silver-tongued Victor would read out requests for music that was very different from Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. The natives of the colonies and the colonial administrators desired less dangerous fare. The addresses he read out were very similar to the testimonials for this organisation. When one reads the testimonials more carefully one realises that these people in Malaysia, Zimbabwe and Burmuda (sic) are not boosting the success they achieved by doing the course. They are merely saying that they hope it will help them to writing success.

The late John Diamond once wrote in The Spectator about a correspondence course run by The Writers [sic]  Bureau:


“Mr E H Metcalfe has written from Manchester to tell me that if I send him £189 “The world can literally be your oyster.”


A test then:

  • Does E H Metcalfe know what the word “Literally” means?
  • Does E H Metcalfe know what an oyster looks like?
  • What do you think are the chances of my becoming a well-paid and successful writer under  Metcalfe’s tutelage


Mr Metcalfe is principal of The Writers Bureau (no, I don’t what’s happened to the possessive apostrophe either) of Dale Street, Manchester…. [P]ersevere (‘The most important quality you require is not brilliance, but perseverence’ (sic) confides Mr Metcalfe) and eventually the literal thing with the oysters will start to happen.”


I will now reveal that it is of the Writers (sic) Bureau that I write. This will not be the last time you see the word “sic” in this essay. I foolishly signed up and paid more than £189 – I got most of it back after a struggle.


As my first assignment, I was asked to write a brief descriptive piece and also set out what I wanted from writing and from the course. This is what I wrote:  “I was greatly encouraged by teachers and family and friends who thought I could write, but I let them down and drifted. Apart from contributions to the school magazine that were forced out of me by supportive teachers, I did not complete much. Now I have the time and the material, I have no excuse for avoiding writing. Signing up for this course will, I hope, provide an incentive and a discipline.”

I wrote a descriptive piece about Badulla market where I do my shopping. My tutor commented “excellent…I am sure we are going to get along.” He also wrote “Here is your first mared (sic) assignment.


My tutor was one David Kinchin. A great deal was made in the promotional material of the fact that I could expect personalised tuition from a tutor who was a successful and experienced freelance writer. A great deal was made of the concept of flexibility. I expected the tutor to use the biographical – or “bibliographical” (sic) as he put it- information I provided in order to tailor the tuition to my needs and desires.

He got my name wrong.

He had no fault to find with my writing in this first assignment but confused me by going on at great length about the mistakes I could have made (but hadn’t) and rewriting my piece the way he thought it shouldn’t be done. I spent many years as a staff trainer and this approach violated a fundamental principle: don’t confuse the student by doing it wrong.


I had described the fish stall and tried to make the point that the tuna was a big brute of an animal not like those dainty little chunks you get in a tin. He corrected me and helpfully pointed out that the tuna was a fish not an animal.


I hope the following does not sound arrogant because I do not mean it to be. I may not be infallible when it comes to English grammar and usage but I feel fairly comfortable about it and have lots of reference works and check with when I am uncertain. I did not need the Writers (sic) Bureau to tell me about spelling and punctuation (especially when they seemed so ill at ease with it).


I have spent many years writing official reports, letters to the public, briefing and speeches for government ministers. I have written decent university essays and had research reports published by HMSO. I am experienced in researching archive documents and the internet. I have had my poetry published alongside Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.


My main purpose in signing up was to learn how to approach publishers and to find out which publishers might be interested in what I could do.  How to write a query letter would be the epitome of this. What does it tell me in the Writers (sic) Bureau material? See Module 6. Book 2, page 50. There is a letter concerning a trite idea about dogs biting postmen (postmen biting dogs would have been more interesting) followed by the remark “That may not be the best query letter ever written…”

In a short article in an old edition of Writer’s Market, there are just a few pages giving much more helpful guidance from real editors on how to write a query letter. There are examples of good and bad practice. The article refers the reader to a book on the subject. The book is available from Amazon for less than 10 GBP. Moreover, advice on query letters from the book can be called up on the screen and saved for future reference free of charge.

For my second assignment I wrote about cholesterol, discussing doubts that some people have about whether it is a myth conjured up to make profits for Big Pharma. I posted a version of this on OS and it got a huge response including favourable comments from both Dr Amy and Dr Jeff. My tutor was not impressed by my effort. He said he was very disappointed in me and I felt like a chastened infant. I started the article in what I hoped to be an amusing way by describing the hypochondria of Sri Lankans and my own experience of participating in a famous study carried out by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. My tutor at first said he liked the opening. Later on he said: “This is all about you. You keep using the word ‘I’” I only used it in the first two paragraphs which he said he liked.

“You attempt a little subtle humour on one or two occasions but it doesn’t really work”.  At one point he commented “You are now confusing me.  I actually think that is what you are trying to do here, but I am not sure that is a useful exercise”. “You need to aim you (sic) sights a little lower, maybe looking at weekly and daily publications which take fillers and feature length pieces.”

There was a consistent thread of trying to persuade me to aim low. I analysed Reader’s Digest as a market and did an article based on that. My tutor said: “you have picked a very awkward market in Reader’s Digest.  RD only take (sic) fillers and fully commissioned articles.  They commission their pieces by inviting experts and well known names to come and write for them.  I don’t really see you getting onto their pages with a feature article such as this – they just don’t work like that.” I acknowledge what he is saying and I have not been published by RD yet but I did manage to establish a friendly first-name correspondence with the editor- in-chief for RD Asia and he said: “Send whatever stories you have to me. I’ll have a look “. He also described one of my pieces as very well-written. (I did get paid by RD for a filler many years ago.)

On another occasion, Kinchin advised me to remember that even jokes on snack packets are written by someone. Perhaps there is just as much of a chance of being rejected by the snack company as by Reader’s Digest, and the experience wouldn’t have been so worthwhile. He sent me something he had written called “The Perfect article”. It was an article from a parish magazine. Oh, what a fate to aim low and miss!

I accepted his point about my article not flowing well. I thought this was because I felt restricted by the format imposed by the assignment. I asked him if he would look at a longer version and advise me. He responded that looking at “extra” work is “something which us (sic) tutors are told by the Bureau not to do.”

For assignment three, I wrote about the mass slaughter of streets dogs in Sri Lanka and the campaign to find more humane ways of combating rabies. Again, I concede that the article did not flow too well and I took too long getting to the point. My attempt to build up a little suspense at the beginning was misguided.

I tried to describe the tea- growing country in which Bandarawela is set. I said, “if you look at the map” in the sense of “if you read a guide book”. He picked on this and went off into a personal fugue. “You mention a map or maps at the beginning.  You need to known (sic) who owns the copyright of any such map and whether they will allow it to be reproduced in this publication.  You may get lucky and find that you can reproduce it for free (sic)if you state where it comes from – but you still have to get that permission before it goes into print.  The editor will, no doubt, be very hot on copyright law as his job may be on the line if things go wrong.” I had no plans to reproduce any copyright map!

His response to the piece I submitted as Assignment 4 was: “The trick with any short filler article, or any letter to the editor, is to reach the heart of your writing as quickly as possible.”  I was not attempting to write a filler or letter to the editor. I thought I had the option of writing a piece suitable for Adoh! – the magazine I had analysed. Assignment 4 did give an option OR “Write one short article (between 500 – 750 words) on any subject of your choice for this magazine.”


By this stage, I had realized that the course was not working for me and I wrote to Diana Nadin, the Director of Studies. Initially, she agreed with me that the tutor had made a gaffe banging on about the copyright of maps when I had no intention of reproducing a map in my article. She later retreated from this position and said: “When I re-read assignment 3 I did not find his comment about the map either odd or irrelevant.  Even if you had no intention of offering the editor a map as illustration for your work it was valuable information that any writer might find useful at a later date in his career.  You might be surprised by the number of queries we receive from students about the vexed topic of copyright on illustrations that they wish to use with their work.”

She proceeded to rubbish all my work. Of assignment 4 she said it: “has nothing new to say and the points David made were valid – I would be rather surprised if you managed to sell this piece of work.  David has been frank but encouraging and I don’t think anyone could have said anything better or provided a more personal and individual approach to your work.” Kinchin himself had said: “It has the feel of an editorial.  That is the sort of style you have used, but you are not the editor of the magazine, you are just an (sic) noncommissioned (sic) writer trying to write a piece to sell.  I don’t think you have quite got the right style or content here.”  Adoh! published and paid. The editor described it as “fantastic” and begged me to send her more articles.

When Assignment 5 came along and my task was to write something for a men’s magazine I lost the will to live and asked for a refund. Ms Nadin persistently misunderstood the nature of my gripe. ”I suspect that you wish to withdraw from the course because David has been more critical of your writing than you expected.  He would not be doing his job properly if he did not give necessary and appropriate feedback.”

She also got my name wrong!

My wife jokes that I welcome “constructive criticism” by which I mean “unstinting praise”. My complaint against the Writers (sic) Bureau was not that they were finding fault with my work but that they were not providing what the brochure promised –“individual advice, help, guidance and encouragement that you receive from your tutor … Many students come to know their tutor as a real friend. Through this firm but gentle approach your tutor will do everything possible to help you develop your writing skills…Within the overall context of the course, your study path can be flexible to your own requirements and circumstances.”

Rather than going out of their way to meet my individual requirements they seemed more interested in telling me what they were NOT prepared to do. While I was waiting for several months for the course material to arrive, they were not prepared to scan a few pages from the booklets for me so that I could make a start.  I expected that I would be able to give articles to my tutor in order to get an in-depth analysis and advice on potential markets for these articles. My tutor told me that the Bureau frowns upon this and that he can only consider specific assignments. When I asked for his advice on markets, he responded: “I am not your agent”. When I persisted, his response was along the lines of “I’ll give it some thought” followed by “I can’t think of an answer”.

I had strong doubts about the bona fides of the Writers (sic) Bureau personnel. All my life, I have been a voracious reader and still subscribe to countless print and online magazines. I had only heard of one of the tutors. My own tutor claimed that he “regularly submits material to editors in North America using e-mail.”  As I was keen on exploring American markets myself, I asked him where his work had appeared. I could hear a loud gritting of teeth in his response: “It is good to see that you are checking us out and making sure we are who we say we are.”

When pressed further by me he responded: “I have written for Law & Order and for Corrections Technology Management and also for some other titles in that line.  I have done casual pieces for Best of British and some health pieces for some jounrals (sic) whose names escape me for the moment. I did do a play for a theatre publishers, called Deadline but that hasn’t sold terribly well over there.”

Best of British was not a publication I knew so I checked it out. It was certainly not a North American magazine. The editor at the time, Linne Matthews, said “Sorry, but that name does not ring any bells with me.  We have had many hundreds of contributors over the years, but I don’t have any record of that name.”  I sent Linne an article about Skiffle, which she loved and published and paid me for. I later sent them an article on my father and the Royal Pioneer Corps. They published that as a three page centre spread illustrated by an oil painting and archive photographs. They paid me for it. I maintain a friendly e-mail correspondence with Linne.

I did find some small items contributed by David Kinchin to a US publication called Law and Order but they were about seven years old.

The biography of David Kinchin provided in the Writers (sic) Bureau pack is rather like the “testimonials”; it deals with aspiration rather than achievement. “David’s current ambitions are to finalize his novel Bluewater Two (but there is never enough time) and to write some situation comedy.” It seems odd to be telling us about what he has failed to achieve.

What are David Kinchin’s qualifications to advise beginners on how to publish non-fiction articles? His main field of expertise is clearly PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder); his work on that may well be admirable. His biography does not convince me that he is a successful freelance writer in other fields. According to his biography, “He is also keen to explore any new technology which might assist his writing and regularly submits material to editors in North America using e-mail. His philosophy is to try something new whenever the opportunity presents itself”.

“His philosophy is to try something new whenever the opportunity presents itself.” This could be translated as “can’t settle to anything and complete it successfully”. “In 1999, David was appointed as the editor of the quarterly counselling journal, Counselling at Work. However, he decided that editing was not for him, and stepped down from this post in 2001.”

At one point he said to me : “you are working through the assignments fairly swiftly… Sometimes the Directors of the Bureau check on the progress of students, particular if they think students are rushing ahead a bit quickly. Just a piece of advice not to go too quickly and to share your time between assignments and other work.  Remember there is no time limit to this course.”

Soon after that, despite totally undermining my confidence, Kinchin wrote to me saying: “I think you may now be reaching the stage where work (sic) should be of a standard suitable for submission.”

I realise now that it was foolish of me to expect Ms Nadin to support the paying customer rather than a WB employee. I have since discovered that on Linkedin that both say they live in Oldham. She helps out on his PTSD courses. They seem close. This is how she defended him:

“Moving on to the work that David has had published.  I think that David has been trying to reassure you that he earns his living from writing – not boasting.  (I didn’t suggest he was boasting – he seemed to be LYING) Many colleges use tutors who earn their living from tutoring – not from writing.  We don’t do this. (My main point was that I had doubts about his ability to earn a living from writing)  I have known David since the 1990s when he was one of our students.  He was the Association of British Correspondence Colleges’ Student of the Year for his success on the Writers (sic) Bureau course.  He then joined us as a tutor.  We like to employ ex-students as tutors because they are familiar with the course, they can empathise with the problems of distance learning students and their success usually provides motivation for others. Since that time David has been published regularly in a wide variety of magazines on topics that interest him (police and law enforcement – he was a policeman – PTSD, religion, transport etc (sic)).”

When the Writers (sic) Bureau was challenged over a claim that one of their students had received a 25,000 GBP advance for a novel, they produced as evidence a bank paying-slip which is, of course, no proof at all as anyone could have concocted it. Similarly, here they are making unsubstantiated assertions in response to my queries about the tutor’s qualifications. She is avoiding telling me, as Kinchin himself also did, about specific publications on which I can check.

“In addition he has taken breaks from tutoring to work on books which have been published (the books have indeed been published- I do not challenge that) and we were so impressed that we recently commissioned him to write a distance learning course for us. Most writers don’t get wealthy picking and choosing to write for magazines.  They have to use their talents and experiences to write for a wide variety of media – if they want to earn a living – and I can assure you that David has a broad experience of article writing, non-fiction book writing and course writing (sic).  He has also had plays broadcast in the past – though I suspect that this is not he (sic) favourite form of writing.  As you are currently on the non-fiction part of the course I would like to suggest that his fiction credentials are not really relevant at this stage.”

Here she glancingly raises, but does not address, an issue I was complaining about. I signed up for the course specifically so that I could be helped to write and publish non-fiction articles. Why then, does the instruction pack and the assignments cover Religious and Inspirational Writing, Writing a Novel, Writing Specialist Fiction, Writing the Short Story, Short Stories for Radio, Writing Radio Drama, Writing for Television, Writing for the Stage?

It seemed very odd to me that Ms Nadin seemed to be gloating about the fact that she did not think my writing was publishable. I had only just started taking a course that her organisation claimed would help me to get published. I did not claim to be a professional – that is why I was paying them to help me.

I did not prove to be such a no-hoper. In December 2007, I had an article published in Sri Lanka’s leading business magazine, Lanka Monthly Digest. (The article was about truth and lies.)They selected that article to be included in a compilation of Best of LMD which was published to launch a new Sinhala- language business magazine. I have been writing a regular monthly column for LMD since December 2007. Yesterday I was asked to do a second monthly column. I also write a regular column for LMD’s sister magazine, Living.

My work has appeared in all the English-language Sri Lankan newspapers. I have had articles in five consecutive issues of Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan Airlines. They come to me to ask me for articles. They pay me.

I also blogged regularly on Le Monde diplomatique. The editor described my work as “wonderful”. (Yesterday the former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN gave me a plug in a Sunday newspaper.) My articles  from that blog get picked up by newspapers and websites all over the world and have been reprinted in, among others, the New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and the Scotsman.

I currently write two articles every week for Ceylon today and two articles every month for echelon, a business magazine

This has not brought me fame and fortune but it does indicate that I can write.

The Writers (sic) Bureau brochure carried a puff for one Christina Jones: “My first three novels are best sellers! The Writers (sic) Bureau made this possible for me. Within six months of enrolling on my course I was having work commissioned by editors. Now I’m writing novels for Harper Collins and my life has changed completely. Most of all, I’m earning my living doing what I love best.”

Rob Spence, an English lecturer from Manchester, decided to investigate this claim. “Hmmm… Funny that her name doesn’t appear in any list of bestsellers I’ve seen. Anyway, she’s happy – writing has changed her life. Odd then, that on her website, she attributes her success to meeting an agent at a Romantic Novelists’ Association event. She says she did the Writers Bureau non-fiction course a year later – so here’s someone who was already a published writer of fiction before doing the course, which wasn’t about fiction anyway…She also reveals that she’s still working as a barmaid at weekends. You’d think a bestseller would be beyond that, wouldn’t you?”

In the interests of balance please look at Christina Jones’s website

where she gives a great deal of detail about her “award-winning bucolic frolic romantic comedy novels” (I fought hard to resist adding the punctuation she omitted) and how successful her writing has been (much more successful than me) and thanks the Writers (sic) Bureau for her success. She also mentions that she filmed a series of TV ads for WB.

According to the Writers (sic) Bureau promotional literature, Jon Eagle received £25,000 as an advance for his first novel and has sold the film rights. He tells us he’s working on the script. “The success of Red’ is thanks in no small part to The Writers (sic) Bureau who offered very valuable advice.”  Rob decided to investigate. “Jon Eagle did publish a book called Red- but he published it in 1996, which makes you wonder why The Writers (sic) Bureau is using it as an example. Surely, they have more recent success stories? What’s more, according to the details on Amazon, it was published by Minerva. This notorious company was a shady vanity publishing outfit, and thus far more likely to charge the author than to fork out 25 grand as an advance. A BBC investigation led to their downfall…The IMDB doesn’t list the author as a scriptwriter, and none of the various films called Red seem to relate to his book.”

Rob took the case to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and they adjudicated on 7 November 2007.They judged that the Writers (sic) Bureau had breached codes on grounds of truthfulness, “We noted from the contract that Jon Eagle sold an exclusive option over the film rights to a production company for £1.  We understood from the contract that he would co-write the script, but only in the event that the production company chose to exercise its option.  We considered that the testimonial implied that a film based on the novel Red would definitely be made.  Because we understood that, almost 11 years after Jon Eagle told WB he had sold the film rights and would be co-writing the script, no such film had been made, we concluded that the claim could mislead by exaggerating the extent of Jon Eagle’s success.”

They also upheld the complaint in the case concerning Christina Jones. “We considered that readers of the testimonial were likely to interpret the claim ‘My first three novels are all best sellers’ to mean that Christina Jones’ first three novels were near the top of the sales list in a widely recognized book chart.  We considered that the top 80 was unlikely to be seen as near the top of the sales list.  We understood that a best seller list was compiled by examining cumulative book sales up to a given date.  We understood that a fast seller list, however, was an annual survey of the 100 top selling paperbacks published for the first time during a particular year by British publishers.  We noted The Publishing News targeted the trade, not consumers. Because the evidence did not support the likely interpretation of the claim, we concluded that it could mislead.”

The London Daily Mirror covered the story: “Perhaps Writers Bureau boss Ernest Metcalfe needs a refresher course from the National School of Salesmanship. It shouldn’t be hard to get a place – he runs it.”

As Rob Spence says, it is difficult make a decent living from writing alone and one should not believe claims from purveyors of writing courses that it is easy. My advice would be to read what successful writers like Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell have to say about working in the real modern world of PCs and Facebook rather than the Dickensian world of stamped addressed envelopes. Study websites like Writer’s Market and Writer’s Digest (note the correct use of the apostrophe) and Freelance Success.

Above all WRITE!




Rick Lucke

Chasing Illusion, Living Lies


Follow me on twitter @RichyDispatch


spotlight on abuse: the past on trial

Forum for Peaceful Coexistence, Sri Lanka

A Group of Professionals and Social Workers in Sri Lanka

The Immortal Jukebox

A Blog about Music and Popular Culture

What's up, Turkey?

a blog about Turkish politics and society

Oscar Hokeah

The Adventures of a Literary Journey


A great site

Worldly Winds

It's not easy being me!

The Stuff They Won't Include in Any Tourist Guide: The Real England

The Real England is a concise, direct, and not-so-gentle window into the depths of the leftovers of the world’s once greatest empire. It is told from the perspective of one lone (or not so lone) long term visitor. It informs one of the dregs of the country and helps to explain quaint British oddities such as the crack addicted chav.

Trade News in Brief

International Economic Affairs & Relations / Regional & International Organizations / Global Commerce & Business


All That's Jazz…and More

Vixens With Convictions!

"Women and Elephants never forget" Dorothy Parker.

NAMA Wine Lake

Click the green link above for latest news and over 2,600 related articles. NAMA - National Asset Management Agency - part of Ireland's response to its banking crisis and property bubble

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka


Just another weblog

My Apologetics

News Satire Opinion


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