Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

From New Orleans to Mannar

This article appeared in Lakbima News on September 19 2010.

Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

Much good has emerged from Louisiana: Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dr John, Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers and Cajun musicians like Doug Kershaw, Gladdy Thibodaux and Dewey Balfa.

There is a downside. When I was there, white people would inveigh against blacks. I could feel the hatred in the eyes of the blacks along Frenchman’s in New Orleans. Louisiana is still segregated.

Tulane University was established in New Orleans in 1843. Its motto is: “Not for oneself, but for one’s own” – a bizarre mission statement in a segregated society. Joshua M Schoop is studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane. He had been living in Sri Lanka for all of three months when chastised us, in an article in the magazine Groundview (published by CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies).

“The destitution and ineptitude in Mannar Town and the surrounding area is visible to anyone”.

“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 concedes the government has built new roads which help the local economy but the roads are “helpful for military operations”. Is the army not doing useful work de-mining and rebuilding? Schoop claims the military is depriving “the locals” of jobs.

Following the American civil war, Louisiana, was under martial law.

“Several international and community-based organisations are operating in the area, assisting where they can, while further perpetuating a dependence on foreign aid.” Josh, are you not planning a career based on such dependence?

I was shown around a plantation house in Louisiana  by a “docent” employed to sanitise the horrors of the Old South for the heritage industry. Before the civil war, Louisiana’s wealth depended on slavery.

White Democrats blocked black voter-registration and institutionalised racial discrimination. 47% of Louisiana’s population in 1900 was African-American – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century.

Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations.

The victims of Hurricane Katrina were disproportionately black. More than 80% of African-American births in inner-city New Orleans are to unmarried women. There is a cohort of rootless adolescent males which translates into potential social disorder probably worse than anything in Mannar. Blacks form a disproportionate share of the US prison population. Louisiana State Prison at Angola Prison Farm, like US prisons generally, incarcerate a disproportionate number of blacks. Two of Louisiana’s great musicians – Huddie Ledbetter and James Booker – did time there. This prison is on land bought in the 1830s with slave-trading profits. In the 1930s, hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. Even in the 1970s, weak inmates served as slaves who were gang-raped, and traded like cattle. In 2009 James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.”

In 2008, mayor Ray Nagin threatened that any New Orleans residents caught looting after Katrina would be immediately transported to Angola.

Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system ensured that there were no disease outbreaks after the tsunami; neither were there any major health problems in what the west saw as “extermination camps” at war’s end. Essential supplies were mobilized within a day of the tsunami. 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.

US authorities reacted to Katrina with mind-boggling incompetence. Five years on, tourists are back in the French Quarter enjoying the over-rated cuisine, the great music and the transsexuals. Beyond the tourist hotspots, for example in St Bernard parish, homes have not been rebuilt and more than a third of residents have not returned. Tens of thousands of people still live in trailer parks in Texas and beyond. The Lower Ninth Ward was the most devastated part of New Orleans. All that’s left from many of the houses that were destroyed are foundations. Brad Pitt helped to provide 200 affordable houses for residents who would like to return, but few wish to do so. Henry Irvin, aged 74, did return in 2008 and his is the only occupied house on his square. He says the problem is racism and greed. “Some big people in this town are trying to buy all that land to build motels and casinos”. A federal judge ruled that the criteria for awarding rebuilding grants discriminated against black people. A Kaiser Foundation poll found that a third of New Orleans residents say their lives are still getting worse. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to say they still had not recovered from Katrina.

Life expectancy for black US males was 70 in 2003; the average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans is 69.3 years, nearly as low North Korea. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that Sri Lanka’s health indicators are improving all the time.”  Life expectancy in Sri Lanka has risen steadily. In 1946 it was 43.9 for males and 41.6 for females. Life expectancy in 2001 for males was 70.7 years; for females, it was 75.4 years. 17, 2009).

In 2003-05, the infant mortality rate (IMR) in the US as a whole for African-Americans was 13.6; the rate for White Americans was 5.7 per 1000 births. IMR is generally seen as an indicator of a nation’s level of health development and is one of the best predictors of state failures. Sri Lanka’s IMR was 11.2 in 2003 for 2006 was 10 per 1,000 live births. WHO regards this as a great success and attributes it to “effective and widely accessible prevention and primary healthcare strategies including treatment of minor infections”.

Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Use of food stamps jumped 13 % in 2008 to nearly 9.8 million U.S. households, led by Louisiana.

The three most violent cities in the world are Cuidad Juarez in Mexico, Caracas in Venezuela and New Orleans. Louisiana’s murder rate has been the highest in the US for 21 consecutive years. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been the highest of any state for the last 20 years; it retains the death penalty. Should Josh be scolding his compatriots that these measures are not effective?

America’s civil war lasted four years and ended 145 years ago. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 30 years and only ended 16 months ago. The Reconstruction era was a difficult period in American history . Progress is already being made in Sri Lanka but we are too slow for Josh.

It is good of Josh to take the trouble come over here to Sri Lanka to help us out when there is so much to do back home. I wonder what he is doing to help us.

The President and the Press

Colman's Column3

 

As soon as the president was elected, he tried to co-opt into his project cabinet members and military officers of as wide a political variety as would cooperate with him. He used presidential patronage to gain the loyalty of newspaper owners, editors, and journalists. He enlisted many from the media to jobs as ambassadors, revenue collectors, postmasters or presidential aides as part of his strategy to save the unitary state from secession. The president gave one editor’s son a naval commission, making it unlikely that his paper would oppose a war in which his son was fighting. The president helped another editor to set up a new paper, which was given juicy government advertising. The editor was also given a senior and lucrative government post.

It was hard to manage the press in wartime. The president had to deal with the complaints of some journalists because some of his generals hated to have reporters anywhere near them. Some generals cultivated journalists in order to undermine the president.

The president felt compelled to curb some civil liberties because of war and had no compunction about silencing reporters who knew too much about troop movements. The president tried to stay out of squabbles his generals were having with journalists but many government departments joined in actions to restrict or censor newsgathering. The president generally just let this censorship happen, without taking the blame. Those who tried to bypass the censorship could end up in prison. When one editor was jailed for treason, other editors protested and the president re-opened the paper and released the editor but deported him.

The president could charm those who had been personally insulting to him or who had tried to undermine his conduct of the war. One previously hostile editor received a visit from the president and said: “Few men can make an hour pass away more agreeably. “ The president would make himself comfortable with his feet on the desk, recounting anecdotes , impressing with his knowledge of local politics and leaving behind new friends who could help him in the future.

All this is covered in a new book by Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion. Harold Holzer has been an authority on Abraham Lincoln for decades, served as a script consultant to the Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, and wrote the official young readers’ companion book to the movie.

The book aims, Holzer writes, “to show how the leading figures in the intractably linked world of politics and the press waged a vigorous, often vicious, competition to determine which political belief system would emerge with more popular support and thus shape the national future.”

In 1861, 200 newspapers and their editors were subjected to scattershot menacing by federal agencies, civilian mobs or Union troops. A number of Democratic editors were imprisoned at Fort Lafayette in Brooklyn, which came to be known as the American Bastille. In 1864, more than 30 papers were attacked by mobs.

Lincoln believed that “with public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” The telegraph, the new invention that made instant reporting possible, was moved to the office of Secretary of War Stanton to deny it to unfriendly newsmen.

From his earliest days, Lincoln was an avid reader of newspapers. As he started out in politics, he wrote editorials and letters to argue his case. Sometimes he wrote anonymously and sometimes his wife wrote on his behalf. In 1841, he was challenged to a duel after two had collaborated on a series of scurrilous letters from a fictitious “Rebecca” that vilified James Shields, a rising candidate in the Democratic Party. Lincoln spoke to the public directly through the press. He even bought a German-language newspaper to appeal to that growing demographic in his state. Lincoln massaged, pummelled, and manipulated the three most powerful publishers of the day: James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, Henry Raymond of the New York Times and Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.

Even after so many years, there are those who are reluctant to believe that the civil war is over and wish to continue refighting the battles that Lincoln won. The mission of the Southern Sentinel (http://southernsentinel.wordpress.com/about/) is “Don’t settle for what the victors or the media give you as truth, get the other sides of the story before you believe. Be proud of who you are and where you come from. I am here to help teach and learn the Truth, especially when it comes to Southern Heritage, God, and my Family.”

Like the Global Tamil Forum, Southern Sentinel believes the president was guilty of many crimes. Here are some of them:

  • Lincoln waged a war that cost the lives of 620,000 Americans. He murdered 50,000 innocent Southern civilians.
  • He arrested thousands of Marylanders suspected of Southern sympathies, and imprisoned many without trial for several years.
  • He unconstitutionally suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
  • He illegally shut down the presses of critics and imprisoned journalists.
  • He re-instated and promoted an Army officer who had been cashiered for war crimes.
  • He issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice when he refused to back his illegal actions.
  • Chief Justice Roger B Taney ruled that Lincoln’s actions were illegal, criminal and unconstitutional.
  • He ordered Federal troops to interfere with Northern elections.
  • He had his Generals burn US cities full of women and children to the ground.

In The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Thomas DiLorenzo argued that Lincoln instigated the American Civil War not over slavery but rather to centralize power in his own hands. DiLorenzo criticizes Lincoln for the suspension of habeas corpus, violations of the First Amendment, war crimes and the expansion of central government power. He asserts that, during the Civil War, Lincoln repeatedly flouted the law and often suspended the Constitution altogether.

To critics, General Sherman‘s “March to the Sea” was a marauding rampage of robbery, rape, and slaughter. Lincoln’s troops razed the South and doomed to poverty generations of Southerners for many years to come. According to critics, Northern armies targeted civilians and private property as a matter of official strategy.

Native Americans were dealt with harshly as well as militant separatists. Up to eight hundred white settlers were butchered during the first four days of a rampage by indigenous people. Minnesota statehood in 1858 had pushed the Dakota off their native lands. The Dakota were dependent upon government gold annuities that were promised by the land treaties, and upon the foods and sundries peddled by white traders. Government agents paid annuity moneys first to the traders who had given credit to the Dakota for goods purchased at highly over-inflated prices. Those Dakota who refused to give up their traditional ways were in an even worse position and spent many winters in near-starving conditions. In 1862, the financial cost of the Civil War was forcing austerity measures on the federal government, and there were persistent rumours that the Dakota would not get their annuity. After the US Army suppressed the uprising, it established a commission that condemned 303 Dakota men to death in trials that were clearly unjust. The commission had conducted 392 trials, including 40 in one day.

Federal law required the president’s approval of the death sentences. This was wartime; if Lincoln overturned all the convictions, his clemency could have led to mob violence in Minnesota. In the largest mass execution in American history, 38 were hanged on a mass gallows before thousands of spectators. In the next year, there was a punitive expedition against those Dakota who had escaped.

Lincoln is often viewed as a secular saint. It should not be forgotten that he was a consummate politician. He was also Commander in Chief in time of war. He won a brutal war. Harsh measures had to be taken. It is a mistake to think of any politician as a hero. Politics is a rough old trade calling on reserves of compromise and brutality that most of us would shudder at in ordinary life. That is even more so in wartime.

 

A Cow Is Just a Cow

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 20 2011

It is now over ten years since I tried to convert the editor of the Catholic Herald to Buddhism.

I have never been a great fan of the London Daily Telegraph but I want to recommend one of their columnists to Lakbima News readers. Cristina Odone currently blogs at the right-wing Telegraph. She gets reactions: “You are a horrible, vile, vindictive little woman who really shouldn’t be writing in any national newspaper.”

Previously she was deputy editor of the left-wing New Statesman and a regular columnist for the liberal-left Observer. She was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991-1995. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank (founded by Margaret Thatcher and her batty guru Sir Keith Joseph). Ms Odone is American. She is a Catholic, although she is married to a divorced man. Generally speaking , her Catholicism is a pick-and-mix kind of faith but she seems to be strongly against abortion and euthanasia and strongly for faith-based education, creationism.

Andrew Brown wrote about her time at the Catholic Herald: “Few can be the amusing writers who have not been approached by a whirlwind of flirtatious energy and propositioned to write something for absurdly small sums of money. Most have accepted, sometimes with noisy results.”

She recently sprang again into my consciousness for her comments on a peripheral matter relating to the Murdoch investigation. A news item about Louise Mensch MP caused Ms Odone to exclaim that although she had lived in England for thirty years and was married to an Englishman, “every now and then something crops up which makes me feel as alien as if I were on Mars”. According to Ms Odone, this was because of the reaction when Mensch told an interviewer she was anxious to look good for her husband Peter Mensch, the American rock band manager (Jimmy Page, Metallica and Red Hot Chilli Peppers).

What was worrying about Mensch was not that she wanted to please her husband (she also sort of confessed to having a face-lift before being given the chance to grill the Murdochs in parliament) but that she was behaving like an air-head, posh-totty variety. Some found her impressive at the Murdoch hearings but others were amused by her saying she had to leave early to pick up her children. Guardian women’s editor Jane Martinson :“The question is, what on earth was Louise Mensch up to yesterday? Was she striking a blow for women in Westminster, putting the issue of childcare centre stage? Or was this, as Martinson suggests, “the worst kind of display parenting”?

Odone’s unfavourable view of the English compared with Johnny Foreigner would probably be bolstered by that. The English just don’t like children as much as those warm-hearted Italians.

Odone is apt to make these sweeping generalisations. I noticed her having a swipe at the English about their attitudes to animals back in 2001.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2001/mar/04/footandmouth.comment .

“It is the usual hyperbole the British go in for when they talk of four-legged, fanged or furred beings. Ever since it became primarily an industrialised, rather than agricultural, country, Britain has lost all perspective on animals.”

I wrote to her about that article. Here is an edited version.

“The main thrust of your argument can be summarised as follows: ‘There is a hierarchy of beings. Man stands at the top. God made all creatures, but only man in his image. Man ranks above other animals because he has a soul. This entitles man to exploit animals for his own ends. Animals are an economic investment. They can be allowed to suffer if that suffering leads to the cure of ‘even one child’. It is sentimental anthropomorphism to take any other view. To recognise the sentience of animals or to argue that they have rights as a result of their sentience belittles human dignity and ‘defiles the memory of human suffering.’

There is a thin line between espousing a hierarchy of species and seeing hierarchies within species. It’s OK to eat a pig (unless you are a Jew or a Muslim) but not to eat a guinea pig (unless you are a Peruvian) or a dog (unless you are a Korean). Some people think it is OK to abuse ‘inferior’ races or people with disabilities. It has been argued that some other humans lack rationality or a soul and therefore can be exploited with impunity. The United States was founded on genocide and developed by treating human beings as property. It did not matter what cruelties were inflicted on Native Americans or African slaves and their descendants because the advantages to be gained from their exploitation prevented consideration of their sentience or their rights. Women’s alleged lower ranking in the divine order was an argument for withholding the vote. There is a hierarchy of nations. The USA stands at the top. This entitles its President and his cronies from the energy industries to pollute the planet – it would be sentimental to put the future of the human race before their investment.

It is easy to scoff at anthropomorphism. I have often done so myself. It is clearly ridiculous to think of real animals being cuddly and benevolent. Each of our cats (thrust upon us not bought) has a clearly distinguishable character, usually appealing, but respect for the rights of pigmy shrews or birds is lacking. It is ridiculous to think of Mr and Mrs Pigmy Shrew building a little home for their young ones, paying a mortgage, worrying about their education, hoping they will find suitable spouses. Ridiculous, but it might have a point if induces empathy.

Does a lack of reason or speech or a soul justify inflicting pain? Voltaire was no sentimentalist but he was outraged at the animal experimenters of his day. ‘There are barbarians who seize the dog, who so greatly surpasses man in fidelity and friendship, and nail him down to a table and dissect him alive, to show you the mesaraic veins! You discover in him all the same organs of feeling as in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel’?’   Jeremy Bentham wrote ‘The question is not can they reason? Nor can they talk? But Can they suffer?’ He denounced man’s dominion over animals as ‘tyranny’ rather than ‘legitimate government’.

In the Thomist universe charity does not extend to animals because, according to Aquinas, irrational creatures are not competent to possess good, this being proper to rational creatures; we have no fellow feeling with them, and charity is based on the fellowship of everlasting happiness, to which the irrational creature cannot attain.

Can the idea that man was created in the divine image in order to have dominion over other species survive the findings of Darwin? Surely, the idea of evolution is pretty widely accepted – even by Christians apart from a few fundamentalists? The publication of the human genetic code showed that humans carry little more genetic information than mice, and barely twice as much as tiny fruit flies or a simple worm. Hundreds of genes have been smuggled into human chromosomes by bacteria. The dog is 85% identical to a human in terms of genetic sequence and many of the 380 inherited diseases in dogs are very similar to human diseases. We are animals too. I do not find this thought depressing. There is a spiritual dimension to awareness that we are all part of what E. O. Wilson called ‘the delicate web of reciprocity’.”

Life is tough for Odone: “For most of us ‘squeezed’ middle-class parents, our little treasure’s education will set us back £30,000 a year (the average boarding school bill). For many of us this means not only giving up on luxuries such as exotic holidays and theatre outings, but also remortgaging our home, going begging to the in-laws, and moonlighting and other small humiliations.” Sad, no? In recent writings, she has been attacking the Lib Dems for favouring euthanasia and abortion, attacking Irish comedian Sean Hughes for condemning child abuse by Catholic priests, and Richard Dawkins for being an atheist. “Catholic schoolchildren used to pray for the conversion of England; nowadays, I’d settle for the conversion of Richard Dawkins”. Odone has seemed quite happy to disobey her church’s teaching on contraception. A more serious Catholic, Caroline Fallows, wrote: “As a high profile and influential Catholic, Cristina Odone risks reinforcing existing error as well as leading people into sin. Sometimes I wish we could have more authentic female catholic voices in the media and not just the privileged catholic aristocracy”

In a debate with Odone, Dawkins asked: “So why stick with it? Why call yourself a Catholic when you don’t do what Catholics are supposed to?”

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/author/cristinaodone/

Go read. Have a laugh.

I did not convert Odone to Buddhism but she did send me a postcard from the New statesman saying she would try to be more compassionate. Ten years on, the promise is unfulfilled.

For Argument’s Sake

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday December 5 2011

Critical Thinking

Recent encounters in the blogosphere led me back to my shelf of books on critical thinking. The most accessible of these is philosopher Nigel Warburton’s Thinking from A to Z.

Current usage of the term “liberalism” is an example of what rhetoricians term “lexical ambiguity”. A whole book could be written on how this applies to liberalism but I will deal with that in another article.

Lexical Ambiguity

The word “argument” itself is an example of lexical ambiguity. In common parlance, an argument can be a rowdy fracas, in which all reason is abandoned. In philosophy, an argument is a set of reasons supporting a conclusion. This is in contrast with an assertion which is an unsupported statement of belief. Asserting something loudly does not make it true.

Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments would provide a useful guide to writers and politicians or indeed anyone whose mental health, and the sanity of those around them, would be improved by clarity of thought.

Lexical ambiguity occurs when a word with more than one meaning is used in the same sentence. One often finds that people are discussing totally different topics using the same words so there is no chance of agreement. “Discrimination” can be a good thing when it comes to appreciating art, but a bad thing when practising racial injustice. When Dr Johnson saw two harridans shouting from their respective doorsteps, he said they were “arguing from different premises”. A character in a Flann O’Brien novel dismisses an argument because it was made on “licensed premises” i.e. the disputant was probably drunk.

I examined the subject of critical think on a blog some time ago using as a peg arguments about Israel. This brought out quite a variety of comments in which people allowed sloppy thinking to muddle their arguments.

Tu Quoque- the Companions in Guilt Ploy

Defenders of Israel tend to use a category of rhetoric known to philosophers of critical thinking as tu quoque or “the companions in guilt move”. This is brought into play in order to dilute the force of an argument by demanding a spurious consistency that the arguer may not feel is germane. Some people use it  to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that other people also behave badly. Just because many people do something that is wrong , that does not make it right or less dangerous – for example, the defence that everyone has driven while under the influence of drink. First of all not everyone really has done so and, more importantly, it would be very dangerous if everyone took that as permission to drive under the influence.

One often hears in Sri Lanka a refusal to accept criticism of human rights failings because the critics are American or British and are guilty of worse crimes. I have argued this way myself. In my defence, I believe it is not the same as Israel’s tu quoque. Israel’s defenders say if you are going to criticise us you must also criticise the Arabs. Sri Lankans are saying look at the beam in your own eye and prove your “credible allegations”.

Straw Men

Another stale old rhetorical device is  the straw man. You set up a caricature of your opponent’s viewpoint and knock it down. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims and Arabs just love to kill innocent children.

Are Hamas bombers to be condemned because they are, in killing innocent children, adopting the low moral standards of Israel? Or does it mean that, just because Palestinian terrorists kill innocent children, that Israel should refrain from killing innocent children? Israel seems to have failed morally on that score.

Opinions divorced from facts or knowledge.

Voltaire said  “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice. An adage often touted on blogsites is “Opinions are like #*!eholes. Everyone has one and they all stink”.

I have long felt a general dismay at people putting forward opinions without the knowledge to back them up and proceeding with specious arguments based on faulty logic and fallacious premises.

People who are blogging clearly have access to the internet. A few minutes on Google and Wikipedia should prevent basic  errors of fact.

The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.”

Confusion between explanation and approval

I had to state  quite plainly that I do not believe that historical and contemporary acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors. Nevertheless, the explanation of current terrorist actions has to take account of the terrorism and ethnic cleansing involved in the foundation of the state of Israel. The actions of the Jewish paramilitaries have a bearing on the current situation and help to explain Palestinian discontent.

When I tried to explain in another article how Tamil militant separatism took hold in Sri Lanka and described stated Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. When I explained the government viewpoint I was condemned as a government lackey.

Truth Matters- National Myths

In their book Why Truth Matters Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write:

“History is not simply a narrative about the past; it is a research-driven form of empirical enquiry. Mythic or invented or ‘wishful’  history is thus not history at all, but a different thing – a branch of literature or story-telling. History is not propaganda, myth-making or a self-esteem inflation device, though it has often been pressed into service for those tasks. History is highly interpretative, to be sure, but it is always, when done properly, grounded in evidence. The questions are empirical ones, and the interpretation is of evidence, not of daydreams or fantasies. There has been quite a lot of glorious past-invention in the name of history recently”.

How the Buggers Lie to Us

Sam Leith has a new book titled You Talkin’ to Me? Leith argues that the advertising copywriter is no less a rhetorician than the statesman, they both employ persuasive words to fulfil their own ends. Leith’s own title is an example of a trope known as erotema, a figure of speech where something is asserted by asking it as a question. It also demonstrates the use of the demotic by charlatans such as Tony Blair. “You know I’m a straight kind of guy, don’t you?”

When he was our hope for change, Obama’s signature rhetorical figure was “anaphora”, or the repetition of words or a phrase at the beginning of a clause or sentence – although his monumental “Yes we can” was its opposite, or “epistrophe”.

Obama’s rhetoric all seems a bit feeble now. Fine words butter no parsnips and solve no economic crisis. Understanding rhetoric is probably the most vital tool any of us can possess that we can have some inkling of how they are shafting us.

 

 

 

Samurdhi and Dependency Culture

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday December 5 2010

Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, lead researcher at Jaffna think-tank the Point Pedro Institute of Development told the UNHCR newsletter: “The Vanni will remain a perpetual basket case” if the people are not weaned away from “over 25 years of dependence on relief and welfare handouts from the government, NGOs, donors, et al”.

That is an unusual interpretation of the plight of people who suffered great hardship under LTTE dictatorship for so long.

When I first came to Sri Lanka, I was surprised to read references academic papers on poverty to a “dependency culture”. This is a phrase most often used in the west by the right wing. Many people have regarded the UK welfare state as an achievement to be proud of, rather than a cause for shame. However, Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith has just announced a radical shake-up of the British benefit system, asserting it was a “sin” that millions of jobs in this country were being done by foreigners because Britons were not “capable or able”. I was puzzled that Sri Lankans who were supposed to be advocates for the poor could toss around terms like dependency culture when there seemed to be little in the way of cash support for those who were not working.

The term dependency culture is usually defined as a system of social welfare that encourages people to stay on benefits rather than work. In the UK , there is a concept called the poverty trap. This means that technical deficiencies of the system mean that people can have less money if they do more work.

In another life, I worked for a long time in the poverty business. I worked as a hospital porter in a government hospital and then in Manchester my job was to visit benefit claimants in their homes to ensure they were getting their correct entitlement. I moved up to a more strategic position working for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee, mingling with the ministers and senior civil servants who set the policy and the pressure groups who tried to influence them.

There was much discussion of topics such as relative poverty and incentives. I was able to bring some enlightenment to the committee members with my experience of actually meeting benefit recipients. I recall one claimant whose house was lit by gas mantles because he had no electricity. Few people had cars. Many welfare recipients were without TVs. Today, someone in the UK would be regarded as deprived if they did not own a DVD, mobile phone and broadband connection.

Poverty experts use three definitions of poverty: absolute poverty, relative poverty and social exclusion. Absolute poverty is the lack of sufficient resources with which to keep body and soul together. Many people all over the world suffer this, but it must be rare in countries which have a safety net which ensures financial payments to people unable to work. Relative poverty means low resources in relation to the average, which causes an absence of the material needs to participate fully in accepted daily life. Sceptics are cynical about this – the UK is a successful capitalist country (or used to be), people’s incomes are high but very greatly varied. North Korea has equality, so the measure says no relative poverty (everyone earns the same), but plenty of starvation. Academic epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level , demonstrate that inequality in itself is detrimental to a nation’s well-being. Critics proclaimed their work a new kind of “evidence-based politics” and it has sold 36,000 copies in the UK, more than Barack Obama’s Change We Can Believe In. Unequal societies are more likely to suffer from a range of problems, including low life expectancy, illiteracy, stress, and a high crime rate. Even climate change is less of a challenge for a society with a narrow gap between rich and poor.

The main state support in Sri Lanka for the poor is provided by Samurdhi, eligibility for which is means-tested. In my days in social security in the UK, there was much debate about the relative merits of universal and means-tested benefits. The means test was remembered with humiliation by those who had lived through the Depression. The current UK government appears, in order to save public funds and to punish the feckless, to be moving away from the universal principle to targeting benefits on those it deems to be the most needy. However, It is well understood that administrative cost is an increasing function of the accuracy of targeting and that the goal of minimizing leakage might lead to stigma effects and under-coverage.

 

According to An Empirical Evaluation of Samurdhi Programme by Elena Glinskaya for the World Bank, Samurdhi, the poverty alleviation programme introduced in Sri Lanka in 1995, claims almost 1% of gross domestic product (US$139 million in 1999) or roughly half of all welfare expenditures, excluding expenditures on education and health.

 

Some anecdotal observations of my own about the way Samurdhi works in my village. One component of Samurdhi is a savings and credit programme operated through Samurdhi banks, and loans meant for entrepreneurial and business development. Our immediate neighbours are relatively prosperous: they have cattle, goats, poultry; they sell milk, meat (lorries come in the middle of the night, and one suspects that illegal slaughtering is taking place). They have steadily encroached on tea estate land and are growing many kinds of fruit and vegetables for sale. They regularly attend Samurdhi meetings and are aggressively proactive in claiming ‘entitlements’. They are building a new house for one of the daughters and receiving a Samurdhi loan because her husband is said to have abandoned her. A Samurdhi worker has also been doing the rounds collecting donations for the construction. The family has been collecting sand from the river, wood from the Crown Land, and boulders from our boundary wall to save on the building costs. The supposedly absconding husband waved to us the other day as he returned home with some shopping.

 

That same Samurdhi worker (programme administrators are considered among the beneficiaries of Samurdhi and 8% of the total budget is allocated for their salaries) has been pressing another neighbour to take out loans he cannot afford. The man only works in short bursts because he always fights with workmates or employers. He takes out a loan for some home improvement which he then botches by interfering with it. Somehow he manages to pay a loan off (mainly through his abused wife’s hard work) and the Samurdhi woman is immediately pressing him to take out a new one. He recently borrowed 50,000 rupees to start a business making and selling short-eats. He bought a small truck which immediately needed repair and then travelled great distances to find markets. The loan was quickly used up and he made no profit.

 

Amartya Sen has argued that a transfer programme might have less support from middle- and upper-income constituencies if it renders benefits to the poor only. Glinskaya demonstrated that that households from the lowest quintile were not accessing as many loans as the better-off and argues that subsidising nonpoor households has diminishing benefits to society. She also argued that the people who carry out the programme are not free of political influence, and no external checks and balances are present to prevent them from acting on the demands of politicians. The absence of strict rules for eligibility does not help the cause either. Politicization is embedded in the design and influences both the selection of Samurdhi administrators and the selection of beneficiaries. Party affiliation or voting preferences also influence allocation of Samurdhi consumption grants. These patterns indicate that targeting errors are not random, but rather reflect flaws in the design of the programme that allow for the deliberate omission of certain groups of vulnerable individuals.

 

 

The third component is rehabilitation and development of community infrastructure through workfare and social (or human) development programmes. The way this seems to work out in practice is that people we are paying a good wage take days off to go and fulfil commitments to Samurdhi for being granted loans.

 

Glinskaya demonstrated that households from the lowest quintile were not accessing as many loans as the better-off and argues that subsidising non-poor households has diminishing benefits to society. She argued that checks are not in place to prevent allocation of Samurdhi grants being influenced by political affiliations, which means some vulnerable people are deliberately excluded.

According to the Central Bank, the Samurdhi Social Protection scheme benefited 33% percent of the population in zoo8, but the number of people below the poverty line is 15.2%. Allowances under this scheme amounted to almost Rs ten billion in 2008; half of this was paid to those who did not need it. Glinskaya showed that in 1998, Samurdhi missed almost 40% of households ranked in the lowest expenditure quintile, while a substantial number of households with higher relative welfare received Samurdhi consumption grants and other forms of Samurdhi assistance. Poor provinces are less effective in reaching their poor than richer provinces.

Universal Cash Benefits

Although the west seems to be regressing away from universal cash benefits towards means-tested work-fare type of programmes, evidence from Sri Lanka seems to suggest such schemes are costly and do not reach the most needy people. The Keynesian theory, which UK governments of all persuasions tended to follow in the past, was that if you gave money even to the undeserving and feckless poor, there is a common good because they stimulated the economy and manufacturing by having money to spend, rather than staying at home and selfishly starving to death.

In Europe, since the days of Bismarck s Prussia, the welfare state has been developed as part the mechanisms named “repressive tolerance” by Marcuse. Workers were persuaded to accept the inequalities of capitalism and refrain from overturning the state by being provided with cash benefits. Sri Lanka has had more than its share of bloody rebellion by the disaffected. At present the Sri Lankan masses are quiescent in the face of poverty and rising prices. In the west today, Zizek says, the welfare state is being dismantled and “a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent, turning into a constant, a way of life”. Austerity measures are hindering economic recovery while protecting the bankers who caused the crisis.

Might not a system of universal cash benefits in Sri Lanka be more effective in alleviating poverty and stimulating the economy than means-tested benefits in kind? Might this avert another bloody uprising?

 

Richard Murphy (long version)

murphy-collectedpoems52-00

I have been writing a series of articles for the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today about American poets who impressed me in my long-departed youth. In my mind, I am using the working title The Mad Poets Society because these people – Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke- all knew each other and all battled with similar demons: alcohol, mental illness and troubled relationships with women.

The latest sub-series, when Ranga Chandrarathne deigns to publish it, will be about Theodore Roethke. While researching these as-yet-unpublished articles, I recalled reading a memoir in Granta No. 75 in 2001 by the Irish poet Richard Murphy in which Murphy describes a trip Roethke and his wife Beatrice took on Murphy’s fishing boat in the west of Ireland. I also read Murphy’s autobiography, The Kick, from which the article was extracted. Murphy constructed the book from detailed diaries spanning fifty years.

Richard Murphy

The book would not be to the taste of another of my editors who has a phobia about names and quotations. If one cut the names out of Murphy’s book there would be nothing left as he is an inveterate name-dropper who has met everyone who is anyone. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, at 17, and his tutor was CS Lewis and he gave up going to lectures by JRR Tolkien because the creator of Lord of the Rings mumbled inaudibly. Ken Tynan (founder of the National Theatre and the first man to say “fuck” on BBC TV) arrived wearing a suit made of billiard cloth. Murphy met Stephen Spender and C Day Lewis and Jill Balcon,  parents of Daniel Day. He met all the living poets – Empson, Auden, Eliot, Larkin, Lowell, Berryman, Richard Eberhart, XJ Kennedy, John Montague and Seamus Heaney. Poet James Dickey, author of the novel on which the film Deliverance was based, tried to upstage Murphy at poetry performances but later praised his work highly. In the corrugated roof of a shed he was living in Murphy  found some papers which turned to to belong to a previous tenant – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

MurphyDunnLarkinHughes

Left to right: Richard Murphy, Douglas Dunn, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes

In June 1950, Murphy stopped in Dublin and met Patrick Kavanagh in McDaid’s pub. He asked the poet how he might obtain a copy of his book The Great Hunger, which was out of print. Kavanagh told him he would be calling on Mrs Yeats that afternoon, and if Murphy could give him 10 shillings, he would get a copy of the Cuala Press edition from her and give it to Murphy later that day in McDaid’s. Kavanagh took the money and Murphy didn’t see him again for five years.

In 1954, he settled at Cleggan, on the coast of Galway. Several years later, in 1959, he purchased and renovated a traditional type of boat, which he used to ferry visitors to the island. In 1969, he purchased Ardoileán (High Island), a small island near Inishbofin. Visitors to Murphy’s Irish home included Robert Shaw of Jaws fame (who was also a noted playwright and novelist). A knock on his front door was by a new neighbour come to introduce himself – Peter O’Toole.

In 1962, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath came to stay with Murphy in Connemara. At dinner Sylvia gave Murphy a playful kick under the table and seemed to be flirting with him. Hughes left the next day without saying goodbye to his host.

Cork library

I was surprised to learn that Murphy spent a great deal of his childhood in Ceylon where his father, Sir William Lindsay Murphy was the last colonial Mayor of Colombo (and first Municipal Commissioner from 1937 to 1941). Richard was taken to Ceylon at the age of six weeks, having been born in a damp, decaying big house in the west of Ireland. The young Richard Murphy spent holidays in Diatalawa, which is not far from my home. After leaving Ceylon, Sir William succeeded the Duke of Windsor as Governor of the Bahamas.

John O’Regan pursued a long career in the British Colonial Service. He served in Ceylon, Jamaica, Nigeria, Uganda and, finally, Iran. In From Empire To Commonwealth: Reflections on a Career in Britain’s Overseas Service he gives an account of the concerns of the Overseas Civil Service during the period spanning the end of the empire and the emergence of independent nation-states. He profiles figures such as Sir Andrew Caldicott and D.S. Senanavaka in Ceylon, Sir Hugh Foot, Sir Alexander Bustamente and Norman Manley in Jamaica, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in Nigeria. O’Regan  describes Sir William as a “genial Irishman” who was “respected and liked by all communities and I was therefore most fortunate to have my initial impressions of Ceylon influenced by him”.

In the late 1980s, Murphy returned to Sri Lanka and was inspired by Ashley Halpé’s translations to write The Mirror Wall, versions of poems inscribed on a long wall of polished plaster at Sigiriya. The book was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1989 and  received the Poetry Book Society Translation Award.

Murphy’s memoir reveals that he was in Sri Lanka during some troubled times for the nation. In 1971, HAI Goonetileke, librarian of Peradeniya University had invited him thus: “The son of your father will be welcome in this still resplendent isle”. However, the first JVP uprising had deterred Murphy from taking up the offer. Murphy notes that news of bodies floating down the Kalani River under the Victoria Bridge on the airport road brought back his childhood terror of dying in Ceylon.

News of the July 1983 pogrom, which was, at best, badly mishandled by the UNP government,   troubled him.  Murphy hints that the pogrom was orchestrated by a UNP cabinet minister but does not name him. DBS Jeyaraj names Cyril Mathew and writes about violent groups that “had absolute impunity and had the protection of important members of the United National Party (UNP) Government then in power.” Jeyaraj also wrote: “Many of the mobs were led by functionaries of the UNP trade union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS). Several UNP municipal and urban councillors were involved. Many prominent supporters and strong – arm men of cabinet ministers were involved. The Police were ordered by UNP politicians not to arrest the violent elements.”

Nevertheless,  Murphy decided to return, in November 1984, to the country that was by then called Sri Lanka, “intending to examine my colonial past in the light of its legacy and to purge my fear”. He had planned to spend his time wandering around Colombo, Kandy and Bandarawela on his own, “surprising myself with spontaneous recollections evoked by bodies, buildings, sounds and smells”. However, his mother had insisted on getting introductions through the High Commission and on arrival, he was taken under the wing of the Tourist Board and arrangements were made for him to meet President Jayewardene. Murphy’s 86-year-old mother accompanied him on his travels in Sri Lanka. On meeting the president she said: “we were barbarians when you had a great civilisation at Anuradhapura.” The president replied, “Yes, but a long time ago you overtook us.”

Murphy’s driver Samson pointed out Welikade Prison and said, “That’s where more than fifty Tamil detainees were killed during the riots”. Murphy and his mother chided him for spoiling the journey. Samson replied: “One hundred per cent terrorists”. A year later, the prison director gave Murphy an guided tour and showed him the woodshed from which guards allowed Sinhalese prisoners to take saws and axes with which they broke down Tamil prisoners’ cell doors and hacked them to death.

In Kandy, Murphy and his mother visited the house on Brownrigg Street (named after Robert Brownrigg the “butcher of Uva-Wellassa, whose gazette notice condemning  all those who rebelled against British Rule as “traitors” was revoked by President Rajapaksa in 2011) which was her first home in the country in October 1922. The house was guarded by sentries from the Sinha Regiment commanded by Major Nihal Pelpola, who greeted the visitors warmly. In 1989, Richard Murphy visited Colonel  Pelpola in Colombo General Hospital where he was in intensive care after being stabbed in the back by a member of the JVP.

On the 1984 trip, they travelled from Kandy to Trincomalee via Dambulla, passing several army checkpoints en route. Murphy noticed a line of chained prisoners accompanied by policemen. The Tamil wife of an Anglican church rector said these were young Tamil boys being taken to be castrated.

A Tamil man in his thirties called Stephen Anthony, who had lost his livelihood because of the pogrom, guided Murphy around Colombo. According to him sites belonging to Tamil professionals had been given away to enrich UNP supporters after the Tamil owners had fled from the looting. Stephen showed Murphy the Methodist orphanage in which he had been raised and introduced him to the warden Victor Atapattu, who tried to persuade Murphy to adopt a 17-year old boy called Nimal Jayasinghe.  Nimal had been assaulted with an axe by his mother’s boyfriend and could not return to her shanty. Murphy did indeed become his legal guardian and got him  US and UK visas. He arranged intensive training in the English language and Nimal became an Irish citizen, developed a successful fabric business and was able to buy his mother a house in Sri Lanka.

Murphy claims that, in spite of the horror stories he heard about Sri Lanka, he felt safer there than he did in Dublin. “No one robbed, mugged or threatened me or told me to go back to Britain where I belonged.”
On his 1987 visit, he met a 17-year-old friend of Nimal called Anura Wickremasinghe, who helped with cooking and shopping. Anura’s mother had been thrown out of her home on Peradeniya University land and the shanty was bulldozed. This was the time of the Indo-Sri Lankan Pact and the Indian Army was increasing tensions in the North and East. Anti-Indian and anti-government feelings gave fuel to the JVP.

Murphy’s former pupil, April Brunner, was now the wife of Britain’s High Commissioner, David Gladstone and he was invited to many social functions over the next three years. Gladstone told him that he was inundated with visa requests because of fears that the JVP would soon take over the country and install a Pol Pot-type regime. The JVP had forced schools to close and intimidated many employees to stay away from work.

On December 19, the UNP prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa became  president after an election dominated by fraud and JVP intimidation. Murphy’s barber, Wasantha, was hacked to death by the JVP near the Ladyhill Hotel. The JVP gave detailed instructions about how the funeral should be conducted. On 22  January 1989, Murphy noted in his diary that the body of an old man was floating in Kandy lake just in front of the Hotel Suisse and that the hotel telephone operator could not get anyone in the police department to take an interest. Murphy himself disturbed the DIG at his lunch and eventually seven armed police arrived. “Why bring such weaponry on a mission to remove a dead body from a temple lake in a sacred area in which it is prohibited to catch fish? Because the police are afraid of being shot at by subversives wherever they happen to go.”

In April 1989, Murphy managed to get visas for two more boys, Darrell and Sathiya. They were granted Irish citizenship and accepted by St Andrew’s College, Dublin, from where they went on to university and successful careers. In all Murphy took five boys to Ireland and got them an education and decent jobs. “None of the five that I brought to Ireland encountered racist hostility until the end of the millennium, by which time our country had become multiracial with an economy powered by multinationals.”

By the time Murphy returned to Sri Lanka in November 1989, the JVP had closed all the hospitals. Fifty cancer patients died without medical or nursing assistance. When the hospitals reopened  a child’s body was found stuck to a bed. JVP leader Rohana Wijiweera sent out a “request” to soldiers to desert. The request was backed up by a threat to kill their families. The police and army liquidated anyone remotely suspected of JVP connections. Sathiya’s uncle told Murphy that he had personally counted 300 bodies floating down the Kelani River. People stopped eating fish. Rohan Guneratna told Murphy that up to 60,000 “suspects” mainly young men had been taken by special units and summarily executed. Guneratna saw, beside the road leading down from Heeragilla, bodies  that had been burnt on tyres.

Wijiweera was captured living in bourgeois comfort in a planter’s house near Kandy and questioned for 72 hours by intelligence officers. The version of Wijeweera’s  death accepted by Murphy is that he was  thrown alive into the crematorium near the golf course in Colombo. A journalist called Nihal Ratnayake told Murphy “ironically” that there was no censorship in Sri Lanka because self-censorship operated effectively enough. Asoka Ratwatte, a cousin of Sirimavo Bandaranaike told Murphy he was convinced that the army was killing people with no connection to the JVP: “Now they are decorating trees in my village with chopped off hands and feet.” Murphy heard that his friend Anura, beaten badly, blindfolded and his head covered by a gunny sack, had been taken by soldiers from house to house. Rohan Guneratna’s contacts told him that Anura had eventually been shot dead. A major with military intelligence told Guneratna: “Tell your friend Murphy that Anura is non-existent.”

Tissa Wijeyratne, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to France, told Murphy: “In Colombo the municipal crematorium works all night  long…Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the rural areas approve the beating and killing of JVP suspects. I saw three corpses hung from an electric transformer, multiple injuries, holes in the head. My first reaction was immediate fear, that this could happen to me, not moral horror.”

An article on Richard Murphy’s memoir appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday November 20 2014. It was on page 11 of the E-paper

 

Murphy-Patrick-McGee-c1999

SB Dissanayake told Murphy that he had been on a bus when the driver slowed down to let the passengers  see  many bodies of young men and women, all stripped to the waist, by the roadside. Mothers held up their children so that they could see. Dissanayake also saw, at the temples at Lankatilleke, dismembered bodies lying under a tree. “Dogs eat the flesh that isn’t burnt by the tyres set alight under the corpses that are strewn along the roads at night.”

Murphy met Major Asoka Amunugama of the Sinha regiment at the bungalow where Sir William and Lady Murphy had lived soon after their marriage. The Major did not deny that atrocities were occurring but blamed vigilante groups. He agreed that the government fully supported these groups and would have a problem controlling them. He admitted that he thought a military victory would never solve the problems caused by poverty and frustrated youth.

Anuradha Seneviratna, Professor of Sinhala at Peradeniya had told Murphy that many of his students had been taken by the Army. He said his fifteen-year old son ahd not been able to eat or sleep after seeing a body burning on a tyre but eventually got used to seeing many of them and no longer got upset. A JVP man had shot dead the bursar of the university and escaped on a bicycle. The Army went on a rampage and the next morning there were fourteen severed heads with battered faces on the parapet wall around the lotus pond and fourteen butchered torsos in a secluded part of the campus.

When he visited Sri Lanka in December 1991, Murphy was disappointed that the Gladstones had been ejected from the country by President Premadasa because the British High Commissioner  had complained about election fraud perpetrated by the UNP. “I felt that the country I loved was being changed for the worse” by this UNP president. In 1993, Premadasa, who had supplied arms and funding to the LTTE, was killed by a Tiger suicide bomber.

As I have said before in these pages, as a foreigner, I have absolutely no emotional attachment to the UNP or the SLFP. Nevertheless, it surprises me to hear my UNP friends wax nostalgic about the good old days before Mahinda Rajapaksa became president. I have heard from these very people horror stories about their own experiences during the JVP times, similar to those recounted by Richard Murphy. To hear my UNP friends speak, Sri Lanka today is unprecedentedly awful. This is the worst of all times. It seems from my compatriot’s observations that unimaginable horrors occurred under UNP administrations. Are similar horrors prevalent today? To this Irishman who has lived in Sri Lanka for twelve years, life is far more comfortable, if a good deal more expensive than when he first arrived. On arrival, I was disconcerted that, under a UNP government, military roadblocks were such a normal part of life that they were sponsored by commercial advertisers. There are no roadblocks today. I have not seen any bodies burning on tyres. Even up here in the mountains, roads have improved greatly and facilities in our small town are better by far. More importantly, I can stroll around Colombo without fear of being blown up. Whatever about crime rates, I do not see hundreds of corpses floating down the river.

I understand that Richard Murphy, who is now in his 87th year, currently lives permanently in Sri Lanka. Can we assume that that Irishman, like this Irishman, believes the country he loved, “this resplendent isle”, whatever its many faults, has changed for the better?

Richard Murphy80

If anyone can tell me the whereabouts of Richard Murphy please contact me at spikeyriter@gmail.com

 

Richard Murphy

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 19 2014

Colman's Column3

The distinguished Irish poet, Richard Murphy, spent a great deal of his childhood in Ceylon where his father, Sir William Lindsay Murphy, was the last colonial Mayor of Colombo. Richard first went to Ceylon at the age of six weeks. He made many visits to this country over the years and, according to Wikipedia, lives here now. Ashley Halpé’s translations inspired Murphy to write The Mirror Wall, versions of poems inscribed on a long wall of polished plaster at Sigiriya. Bloodaxe Books published the book in 1989 and it won the Poetry Book Society Translation Award.

murphy-collectedpoems52-00

Murphy’s autobiography, The Kick, reveals that he was in Sri Lanka during some troubled times for the nation. In 1971, HAI Goonetileke, librarian of Peradeniya University had invited him thus: “The son of your father will be welcome in this still resplendent isle”. However, the first JVP uprising had deterred Murphy from taking up the offer. Murphy notes that news of bodies floating down the Kalani River under the Victoria Bridge on the airport road brought back a childhood terror of dying in Ceylon.

News of the July 1983 pogrom, which was, at best, badly mishandled by the UNP government,   troubled him.  Murphy hints that the pogrom was orchestrated by a UNP cabinet minister but does not name him. DBS Jeyaraj names Cyril Mathew and writes about violent groups that “had absolute impunity and had the protection of important members of the United National Party (UNP) Government then in power.” Jeyaraj also wrote: “Many of the mobs were led by functionaries of the UNP trade union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS). Several UNP municipal and urban councillors were involved. Many prominent supporters and strong – arm men of cabinet ministers were involved. The Police were ordered by UNP politicians not to arrest the violent elements.”

Despite his fears, Murphy decided to return, in November 1984, to the country that was by then called Sri Lanka, “intending to examine my colonial past in the light of its legacy and to purge my fear”. He had planned to spend his time wandering around Colombo, Kandy and Bandarawela on his own, “surprising myself with spontaneous recollections…” However, his mother had insisted on getting introductions through the High Commission and, on arrival, the Tourist Board took the Murphys under its wing and arranged for them to meet President Jayewardene. On meeting the president, the 86-yer-old Lady Murphy said: “we were barbarians when you had a great civilisation at Anuradhapura.” Dickie replied, “Yes, but a long time ago you overtook us.”

Murphy’s driver, Samson, pointed out Welikade Prison and said, “That’s where more than fifty Tamil detainees were killed during the riots”. Murphy and his mother chided him for spoiling the journey. Samson replied: “One hundred per cent terrorists”. A year later, the prison director gave Murphy a guided tour and showed him the woodshed from which guards allowed Sinhalese prisoners to take saws and axes with which they broke down Tamil prisoners’ cell doors and hacked them to death.

In Kandy, Murphy and his mother visited the house on Brownrigg Street, which was her first home in the country in October 1922. The street was named after Robert Brownrigg the “butcher of Uva-Wellassa”, who issued a gazette notice condemning as “traitors” all those who rebelled against British Rule. (President Rajapaksa revoked the gazette notice in 2011.)  Sentries from the Sinha Regiment commanded by Major Nihal Pelpola guarded Lady Murphy’s former home. In 1989, Murphy visited Colonel Pelpola in Colombo General Hospital where he was in intensive care after a member of the JVP stabbed him in the back on Galle Face Green
On the 1984 trip, they travelled from Kandy to Trincomalee via Dambulla, passing several army checkpoints en route. Murphy noticed a line of chained prisoners accompanied by police. The Tamil wife of an Anglican rector said these were young Tamil boys being taken to be castrated.

A Tamil man in his thirties called Stephen Anthony, who had lost his livelihood because of the pogrom, guided Murphy around Colombo. According to him, sites belonging to Tamil professionals had been given away to enrich UNP supporters after the Tamil owners had fled from the looting.

Murphy’s former pupil, April Brunner, was now the wife of Britain’s High Commissioner, David Gladstone who invited him to many social functions over the next three years. Gladstone told him that he was inundated with visa requests because of fears that the JVP would soon take over the country and install a Pol Pot-type regime. The JVP had forced schools to close and intimidated many employees to stay away from work.

On December 19, the UNP’s Ranasinghe Premadasa became  president after an election dominated, according to Murphy, by fraud and JVP intimidation. Murphy’s barber, Wasantha, was hacked to death by the JVP near the Ladyhill Hotel and the JVP gave detailed instructions about how to conduct the funeral. On 22 January 1989, Murphy noted in his diary that the body of an old man was floating in Kandy Lake just in front of the Hotel Suisse and that the hotel telephone operator could not get anyone in the police department to take an interest. Murphy himself disturbed the DIG at his lunch and eventually seven armed police arrived. “Why bring such weaponry on a mission to remove a dead body from a temple lake in a sacred area in which it is prohibited to catch fish? Because the police are afraid of being shot at by subversives wherever they happen to go.”

When Murphy returned to Sri Lanka in November 1989 after a few months in Ireland, he found that the JVP had closed all the hospitals and fifty cancer patients had died without medical or nursing assistance. When the hospitals reopened, a child’s body was found stuck to a bed. JVP leader Rohana Wijiweera sent out a “request” to soldiers to desert. The request was backed up by a threat to kill their families. The police and army responded by liquidating anyone remotely suspected of JVP connections. A friend told Murphy that he had personally counted 300 bodies floating down the Kelani River. People stopped eating fish. Rohan Guneratna told Murphy that up to 60,000 “suspects”, mainly young men, had been taken by special units and summarily executed. Guneratna saw, with his own eyes, beside the road leading down from Heeragilla, bodies that had been burnt on tyres.

Wijiweera was captured living in bourgeois comfort in a planter’s house near Kandy and questioned for 72 hours by intelligence officers. The version of Wijiweera’s death accepted by Murphy is that he was thrown alive into the crematorium near Colombo golf course. Asoka Ratwatte, a cousin of Sirimavo Bandaranaike told Murphy he was convinced that the army was killing people with no connection to the JVP: “Now they are decorating trees in my village with chopped off hands and feet.”

Tissa Wijeyratne, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to France, told Murphy: “In Colombo the municipal crematorium works all night long…Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the rural areas approve the beating and killing of JVP suspects. I saw three corpses hung from an electric transformer, multiple injuries, holes in the head. My first reaction was immediate fear, that this could happen to me, not moral horror.”

SB Dissanayake told Murphy that he had been on a bus, when the driver slowed down to let the passengers see many bodies of young men and women, all stripped to the waist, by the roadside. Mothers held up their children so that they could see. Dissanayake also saw, at the temples at Lankatilleke, dismembered bodies lying under a tree. “Dogs eat the flesh that isn’t burnt by the tyres set alight under the corpses that are strewn along the roads at night.”

Murphy met Major Asoka Amunugama of the Sinha regiment at the bungalow where Sir William and Lady Murphy had lived soon after their marriage. The Major did not deny that atrocities were occurring but blamed vigilante groups rather than the Army. He agreed that the UNP government fully supported these groups and would have a problem controlling them. He admitted that he thought a military victory would never solve the problems caused by poverty and frustrated youth.

Anuradha Seneviratna, Professor of Sinhala at Peradeniya had told Murphy that many of his students had been taken by the Army. He said his fifteen-year old son had not been able to eat or sleep after seeing a body burning on a tyre but eventually got used to seeing many of them and no longer got upset. A JVP man had shot dead the bursar of the university and escaped on a bicycle. The Army went on a rampage and the next morning there were fourteen severed heads with battered faces on the parapet wall around the lotus pond and fourteen butchered torsos in a secluded part of the campus.

When he visited Sri Lanka in December 1991, Murphy was disappointed that the Gladstones had been ejected from the country by President Premadasa because the British High Commissioner had complained about election fraud perpetrated by the UNP.  Murphy wrote, “I felt that the country I loved was being changed for the worse” by this president. In 1993, Premadasa, the UNP president who had supplied arms and funding to the LTTE, was killed by a Tiger suicide bomber.

As I have said before in these pages, as a foreigner, I have absolutely no emotional attachment to the UNP or the SLFP. Nevertheless, it surprises me to hear my UNP friends wax nostalgic about the good old days before Mahinda Rajapaksa became president. I have heard from these very people horror stories about the JVP times, similar to those recounted by Richard Murphy. To hear my UNP friends speak, Sri Lanka today is unprecedentedly awful. This is the worst of all times. It seems from my compatriot’s observations that unimaginable horrors occurred under UNP administrations. Are similar horrors prevalent today? To this Irishman who has lived in Sri Lanka for twelve years, life is far more comfortable, if a good deal more expensive than when he first arrived. On arrival, in January 2001, I was disconcerted that, under a UNP government, military roadblocks were such a normal part of life that they were sponsored by commercial advertisers. There are no roadblocks today. I have not seen any bodies burning on tyres. Even up here in the mountains, roads have improved greatly and facilities in our small town are better by far. More importantly, I can stroll around Colombo without fear of being blown up. Whatever about crime rates, I do not see hundreds of corpses floating down the river.

I understand that Richard Murphy, who is now in his 87th year, currently lives permanently in Sri Lanka. Can we assume that that Irishman, like this Irishman, believes the country he loved, “this resplendent isle”, whatever its many faults, has changed for the better?

If anyone can tell me the whereabouts of Richard Murphy please contact me at spikeyriter@gmail.com

Socialist Struggle in Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday May 1 2011.

There used to be a series of ads on British TV for a range of do-it-yourself products. An actor playing the role of a horny-handed son of toil would fix the viewer with a surly gaze and, thrusting a can of varnish at the camera, intone menacingly: “It does just what it says on the tin!”

I recently bought a book titled Struggle for Socialism: The Role of the Communist Party in Sri Lanka edited by Wiswa Warnapala. It does not do what it says on the cover.

warna
As someone with leftish inclinations who has chosen to make his home in Sri Lanka, I am interested in the part played in this island nation by various sections of the left. I paid good money for this book, as I believed it would enlighten me. It did not.
The book is a strange production altogether. It is difficult to establish how Professor Warnapala has “edited” it in any normal sense of the term. The book is riddled with typos and spelling mistakes – a blurred photo of Peter Keuneman is captioned “Peter Kenuman.” Although the professor gives the ritual thanks to his typist and publisher, they have not done him any favours. Does no one employ a proofreader anymore?

The professor states that pamphlets and tracts produced by leading figures in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) “constituted an important part of the political literature of the country.” That may well be true, but it is not helpful to just deposit steaming chunks of this stuff between the covers of a book and leave it to readers to sort it all out.

Pages 41 to 608 are a mess. For example, do we really need to know CPSL receipts and expenditure for 1965?
Professor Warnapala thanks various members of the Communist Party, such as DEW Gunasekera, for helping him locate the material. He does not give us any guidance on the material – there are no notes, no index, no information about when the material was first written or published. There is no afterword setting the whole thing in context and explaining the relevance of the CPSL today.

“As a party of the Government and the  Opposition, the Communist Party played an effective role in Sri Lankan politics from the point of view of its ideology. It is this fundamental aspect which needs discussion.” It is not discussed in any depth throughout the book, although Professor Warnapala provides a workmanlike, if repetitive, introduction.

‘Not much seems to have changed’

 

Although the book purports to be a collection of “essays” by Dr SA Wickremasinghe, MG Mendis, Pieter Keuneman and P Kandiah, these are not essays in any normal sense of the term. Most of the Kandiah material is a long extract from Hansard recording what he had to say about the language issue in 1956. This does indicate that Kandiah was a better parliamentarian than today’s crop, but it is not an essay. Dr Wickremasinghe has some interesting things to say about how the UNP’s economic plans immediately after independence maintained what the colonial power put in place.

Not much seems to have changed today: “Our capitalists … have engaged, not in production, but in the provision of services. Small men that they are, they lack skill, vision experience and prosper only so long as those on whom they depend also prosper. The soil in which they grow is the soil prepared by the alien exploiter for his own benefit.”
Wickremasinghe makes good points about how the monoculture of tea took up land that could have been more productive if used to grow food or provide pasture, and about deforestation and soil erosion, which leads to excessive flooding. He does not link this with the role of the CPSL.
The British satirical magazine Private Eye has been bursting bubbles of pomposity since the early 60s. One of the Eye’s great comic creations is the all-purpose lefty agitator Dave Spart. Spartism has entered the English language. The Urban Dictionary defines a Spartist as: “An individual who observes Marxist theory to the exclusion of all else. Often condemns most things in society and the world with meaningless far left-wing dogma, and often ends up in logical cycles and jumping to conclusions in the process. Such people claim to be progressive, but are as backward thinking, unimaginative, hare-brained and colourless as the leaders of the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe.”
There is a lot of Spartism in this book. One should beware of feeling superior to Dr Wickremasinghe from our vantage point in 2011. Even in the 1970s, clever western academics like Joan Robinson and C Wright Mills were telling us that capitalism was dead and that China and Cuba had established utopias that other countries should copy. Today, we know that millions died because of Mao’s insane schemes like the Great Leap Forward.

Dr Wickremasinghe might not be expected to know about this in the 1950s. However, he should have known enough about Stalin’s crimes to prevent himself writing: “the magnificent and immortal leader of progressive mankind, JV Stalin laid bare the basic economic law of capitalism in its decaying, imperialist stage…This brilliant and profound definition of Stalin helps us to find out the basic reasons for the present economic plight of Ceylon.” Khrushchev ousted Stalin in 1956 but the USSR continued to do dirty deeds. As we watch events unfold in the Middle East, let us not forget that the Soviet Union brutally put down revolts in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1978).

The role of the Communist Party

 

Pieter Keuneman bizarrely states: “On the global scale, the Regan (sic) administration still adheres to the dangerous illusion that it can attain military superiority over socialism and break the parity between the USSR and the USA.” He mocks US leaders who sought to “roll back communism.” Only two years later, the USSR was defunct. This does not say much for Keuneman’s political acumen or foresight.

keuneman
What then was the role of the Communist Party in Sri Lanka? Back to Professor Warnapala’s introduction. “It was the Communist party which consistently campaigned and fought for left unity.” Professor Warnapala quotes historian Kumari Jayawardene as saying that the country needed a political party that could give leadership to the anti-imperialistic struggle and the working class movement. However, it was the LSSP, not the CP that took on this dual role. The CP was formed in 1943 because some felt the LSSP was too disapproving of Stalinism, veering towards Trotskyism, and placed too much emphasis on social welfare rather than “scientific” economic development.
Professor Warnapala claims that the “electoral agreement of 1960 galvanized all the left progressive forces into a common struggle against the UNP.” This mantra is repeated many times in the introduction – “the Communist Party, which always campaigned for broader unity within the left movement.” Did this campaigning achieve unity on the left?

Full Spart mode

DEW Gunasekera was in full Spart mode when addressing the 19th Congress of the CPSL in September 2010. “We salute the ruling Communist Parties of China, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Laos for their ideological contribution against neo-liberalism and for their significant achievements enhancing their national strength and international prestige… We must strengthen our base – the Working Class Base. We must protect our social base. We must sharpen the ideological struggle against neo-liberalism… Though Socialism is a long-term perspective, we must relentlessly carry forward our struggle to defend and promote Socialism. We must strengthen our fraternal relations with the Left forces at Regional and International level. Long Live the Communist Party of Sri Lanka!”

dewgunasekara1
This is the man who, after opposing the 18th Amendment, voted for it and joined the government. This is the man who, in February 2011, he said the country had been failed by politicians over corruption. “All of us should be ashamed. There is an urgent need to take remedial action to restore confidence in the public sector.”

 

The Colonial Project- how did my family benefit from plunder?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 27 2011

Last week Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. He also referred to the publication by Juliet’s company of Marlon Ariyasinghe’s poetry collection Froteztology. I have read some of Malinda’s own poetry and, on the strength of that, I respect his judgement enough to want to read Marlon’s work. I am working on my own poetry collection with the provisional title of The Toxicity of Taxonomy. My running themes are the poisonous nature of stereotyping, nationalism and racism and how the inexorable tides of imperialism and other isms drown helpless little people. I’m looking for a publisher, Juliet!

Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.

I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago, Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle – Rajpal’s articles about the gay mafia in the UNP reminded me of Edward’s court) and later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.

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I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.

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As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.

Sam3

Imperial service certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.

 

My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.

My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.

My father made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.

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Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university. Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.

When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.

No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex  inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’

Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.

The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.

I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals” and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.

 

Alderney – Thank God It Isn’t Jersey

A version of this article appeared in the September issue of  The Abacus

https://casrilanka.com/casl/media/sep_2014/index.html#/62

Lloyds Bank victoria st

Two thousand alcoholics, clinging to a rock.

alderney_flying_in

There were Nazi concentration camps on British soil. The inmates described the Channel Islands as Les Rochers Maudits.

History and Geography

map

Alderney is the most northerly and third biggest ( three miles long by a mile-and-a-half wide) of the Channel Islands, 60 miles away from the British mainland and 20 miles from the bright lights of Guernsey. The Duchy of Normandy annexed Alderney in 933 AD. In 1042, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy (later William the Conqueror, King of the English) granted Alderney to the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. After 1204, when mainland Normandy was incorporated into the kingdom of France, Alderney remained loyal to the English monarch as Duke of Normandy. Today, residents of Alderney are subjects of the British Crown, but are not represented at Westminster. Alderney is not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union. As of April 2013, there were 1,903 people living on Alderney.

 

Jersey

 

I first took against Jersey when I was actually there but had not intended to be. I was going on a camping holiday to Alderney with a friend and our plan was to travel to Jersey from Weymouth and then get a hovercraft to Alderney.

Unfortunately, there was no hovercraft until the next day and we had no money for accommodation. A Jersey restaurant ripped us off. We tried sleeping on the beach but it was too wet. We tried a shelter in the park but dogs woke us up and we found ourselves wandering the streets at about 5 am A Gestapo-like policeman searched us and threatened to throw us in jail for vagrancy. The TV series Bergerac, which portrayed Jersey as a seething pit of crony corruption and gangsterism, confirmed my view. In more recent years, personal experience of off-shore banking has confirmed in my mind that Jersey is Rip-Off Island.

Laissez Faire

Alderney was more hospitable. There is a common expression elsewhere in the Channel Islands that Alderney is “two thousand alcoholics, clinging to a rock”. Alderney was one of the last places in the British Isles to introduce a smoking ban in pubs, shops and restaurants. Alderney allows people to ride motorbikes without helmets and drive cars without seatbelts. Although peace and quiet attracts elderly people there is, occasionally, a vibrant nightlife. While Jersey hosts offshore banks, Alderney hosts over a dozen gambling website operators. One of these is Full Tilt Poker, which is currently being prosecuted by the US and Canadian governments.

Alderney has two policemen but almost no crime. People do not lock their cars. Because it is quiet and secluded, Alderney has attracted some famous residents, including TH White (The Once and Future King) cricket commentator and poet John Arlott, cricketer Sir Ian Botham, Beatles producer Sir George Martin, actress Dame Julie Andrews.

Spooky

However, there was something spooky about Alderney. We had thought we would be pitching our tents on a busy campsite. It turned out that ours were the only two tents on a farmer’s rather isolated field, overlooking Saye beach.

Saye_Beach_Campsite_from_Air

One night, something snuffling about outside my tent woke me up. I shone my torch but could not see anything. Another night, I dreamt that there was a small chapel in the field. It was covered in ivy which indicated that no one had gone in or out for a long time. Slowly the ivy began to break as the heavy door painfully creaked open from the inside. My companion told me in later years that he had had the same dream.

Local people liked to scare newcomers with tales of a headless German horseman who was said to haunt the road leading to our campsite. One night, after an evening spent in the pubs of St Anne’s (the only town), circumstances dictated that I had to walk back to the campsite alone. It was a moonless night and at one point, the trees met over the top of the road, forming a dark tunnel. I saw no headless horseman. I survived.

German Occupation

During the Second World War, the Channel Islands were the only part of the British Commonwealth occupied by German  forces. In June 1940, around 1500 residents were evacuated from Alderney. The German occupation was a test run for the occupation of Britain.

Evacuation-prams

The Germans built four concentration camps in Alderney, with an estimated population of 6,000. Organisation Todt (OT) was a Third Reich civil and military engineering group named after its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi.

todt

arbeit

 

Most OT workers were forcibly recruited, but the real slave workers were citizens of the Soviet Union, mostly from the Ukraine and Jews. OT used forced labour on Alderney to build bunkers, gun emplacements, air-raid shelters and concrete fortifications.

fort

 

fort2

batterie_annes

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alderney-castle_1693647c

copper

enemy

Local people told us that the huge mound beside our campsite had been a German “hospital”. In fact, the campsite is the location of the Lager Norderney camp, which in 1943 was “home” to European slave labourers. Close by is a tunnel from the camp to the beach, which, some allege, was a killing site.

350px-Forced-workers5

The Germans sent miscreants from other islands to Alderney. This meant that there were witnesses to the brutality. Arbitrary beatings occurred daily for the most trivial reasons such as searching for food in garbage buckets. Witnesses described sadistic games the OT guards played with the prisoners. One set Alsatians on the workers. Another took pot shots out of a window. Prisoners were dragged around until they lost consciousness.

_48806874_germansolidersalderney-brianbolland

The worst thing was the systemic violence of overwork and starvation. Breakfast was half a litre of ersatz coffee without milk or sugar; lunch half a litre of thin vegetable soup; supper, the same with a kilo of bread between six men. There was systematic corruption by which the Germans deprived the prisoners of their meagre rations. No clothing was issued. The men worked at least twelve hours a day, with a half-hour break, seven days a week.

map_showing_sylt_camp

It is difficult to say with certainty how many perished in the Alderney camps. In his book, The British Channel Islands under German Occupation, 1940-1945, Paul Sanders believes that it is not unreasonable to assume that one third of those who entered the camps died, which mean a death toll of well in excess of 1,250.

sylt

Paul Sanders wrote: “Whatever may have been written elsewhere about the exemplary demeanour of German troops in the Channel Islands, in Alderney, an almost imperceptible, yet genuine disintegration of morale took place which found an outlet in corruption, alcohol excess, sexual debauchery and cruelty towards foreign workers.” Officers routinely kept mistresses or “comfort women” and Major Hoffmann opened his own brothel in a quiet corner of the island. On the larger islands, there were routine health checks of prostitutes but on Alderney, VD was out of control.

Returning Evacuees

On their return to their island, Alderney evacuees had little knowledge of the crimes committed on their island during the occupation. They were shocked to see the state of Alderney, with many houses completely derelict. The Germans had used anything wooden as fuel. When evacuee Marion Bates returned in 1945, she noted the absence of birds – Alderney without birdsong suggested that the island had lost its soul. However, the Germans had installed water pipes, electricity and tarmac roads.

return

Alderney Today

St Anne's church

Le Huret

The economy has gone from depending largely on agriculture, to the tourism and finance industries. E-commerce has become increasingly important. The residents on Alderney enjoy a 20% income tax rate, and no VAT, inheritance tax or capital gains tax. It is more welcoming than Jersey and Guernsey. Jersey likes no one who is not super-rich and in Guernsey, there are restrictions on incomers buying property. Unlike other Channel Islands, Alderney enjoys an open housing market.

house for sale route de braye

There is a growing stock of commercial property on the island and the States of Alderney are enthusiastic supporters of economic growth. Alderney enjoys a gentle pace of life but still offers a very welcoming environment to dynamic businesses, thanks to high-speed broadband.

fort clonque

The island usually receives about 3,000 visitors a year. There is virtually no entertainment apart from pubs. There is an old-style cinema, which has two weekly showings of films way behind the UK release dates. There are decent places to eat – a choice of Thai, Italian, Indian, pub-grub. Informal dance music events often take place in abandoned bunkers. Families from the mainland come for the white sandy beaches and the dramatic cliff-top walks. ‘Twitchers’ come for the 260 species of birds.

The birds, the soul of Alderney, came back.

alderney-braye-bayclonque2

 

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