Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

The Right to be a Copycat

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday December 19 2014.


Colman's Column3

Some thoughts on intellectual property rights.

Pirates are not only a problem off the coast of Somalia. BSA (The Business Software Alliance) president and CEO Robert Holleyman says, “Software piracy persists as a drain on the global economy, IT innovation and job creation. Governments must take steps to modernize their IP laws and expand enforcement efforts to ensure that those who pirate software face real consequences.”

The BSA 2011 Global Software Piracy Study recorded a 2% drop in its PC piracy rate in 2011, bringing the rate down to 84% from 86% in 2010. Shalini Ratwatte, Consultant to the BSA Sri Lanka Committee saw this as “a clear indicator that efforts within Sri Lanka to improve the levels of awareness and adherence to intellectual property rights are effective. We are certainly on the right path, as the country journeys towards creating a more vibrant IT industry and a strong offshoring destination for global IT companies”.

I wonder if Sri Lanka is really getting to grips with this. When I bought a new PC in Colombo a few years ago, the supplier entreated me not to tell Microsoft about him. I did take the precaution of buying authorised software myself direct from Microsoft. Whenever I take the PC in for repair, it comes back with a great deal of unauthorized and unwanted software with which the over-enthusiastic technicians have gifted me without asking.


The BSA argues that the chief reason for not using unlicensed software is avoiding security threats from malware. How does that argument work with DVDs? Sitting down to watch a movie one is assailed by a noisy prologue asserting: “You wouldn’t steal a handbag, you wouldn’t steal a TV etc”. There is an irony in this strident propaganda against pirate DVDs because the disc on which it was included was purchased in Majestic City for 230 rupees, a long way from the cost at Amazon (not to mention the rapacious postal charges and the dirty fingers of the customs people at the post office). These pirate emporia are openly advertised in reputable business magazines in Sri Lanka.


Where does one buy pukka DVDs in Sri Lanka? I would be happy to support the wholly admirable Criterion Collection but they do not ship to Sri Lanka. If I can get the complete works of Ingmar Bergman for a reasonable price – what to do? Whom am I hurting? Certainly not cheery old Ingmar! Should I feel sorry for all those starving Hollywood stars and producers? Most of the knock-off DVDs I buy in Colombo would not be bought at all if they were full price.

Philip Danks, 25, was given a two-year and nine-month jail sentence at Wolverhampton Crown Court he secretly took a video Fast and Furious at the Showcase Cinema in Walsall on the day it was released in the UK before being shown anywhere else in the world. Chris Marcich from the Motion Picture Association of America said: “Online copyright infringement represents a significant threat to the continued success of the UK’s creative industries and to the continued development of legal sources of film and TV content. It is important that those making money on the back of other people’s hard work and creativity, paying nothing back into the creative economy, are held accountable.”

The earliest recorded historical case law on copyrights comes from ancient Ireland. The Cathach is the oldest extant Irish manuscript and the earliest example of Irish writing. It is traditionally ascribed to Saint Columba as the copy of a Psalter lent to Columba by St Finnian. A dispute arose about the ownership of the copy and King Diarmait mac Cerbaill gave the judgement: “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”


A copyright, as the word suggests, is the right to make a copy. The passage of a law known as the Statute of Anne in 1710 protected books. If you buy a book, you can do many things with it but you cannot make copies of it. The right to do that belongs to the author of the book and the author’s heirs and assigns.


Article I of the US Constitution gives Congress power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The Copyright Act of 1790 set the length of copyright at fourteen years, renewable for another fourteen, after which the work falls into the public domain. In 1831, copyright was made renewable for up to forty-two years from the time of publication; in 1909, for up to fifty-six years. In 1976, the law was rewritten to protect copyright for fifty years after the death of the author. In 1998, protection was increased to life plus seventy years, thanks to the passage of what is known as the Sonny Bono (of I Got You Babe fame) Copyright Term Extension Act.

The original Article 1 prohibition was designed as an incentive for the protected party. For a limited period, authors enjoy the profits from sales of their books, and this induces people to write. Prohibiting copying and selling someone else’s original work is a way of encouraging the writing of useful or entertaining books, just as awarding a patent is a way of encouraging the invention of useful or enjoyable things. The intended ultimate beneficiary is the public not the creator. After the term of protection expires, a work cannot be copyrighted again and becomes a public good.

In an illuminating article entitled Copywrong in the New Yorker dated October 20 2014, Louis Menand points out that the film industry, the music industry and the publishing industry, make money by producing and distributing content. Silicon Valley makes money by aggregating other people’s content. Silicon Valley accuses Hollywood of “monopoly” and “artificial scarcity,” and talks about the democracy of the Internet. Hollywood accuses Silicon Valley of “free riding” and talks about protecting the dignity of the artist.


The research and writing that academics do is part of their part of their salaried job. They do not depend on sales to live. They happily write pro-bono for scholarly journals or newspapers because it raises their profile in the world that does pay them. Freelancers, relying on Grub Street for the grub on their table, are not so sanguine about others cutting and pasting their work on the internet or on editors, who themselves are on salary, thinking they are doing the author a favour by publishing his or her work without payment.

Academics oppose copyright protection because, reasonably enough, they want access to the research in their fields. Companies like Springer, Elsevier, and Wiley make gigantic profits by charging enormous fees to the libraries of the universities that supported the very work they are selling back to them.

In parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century, Thomas Babington Macaulay called copyright “a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers.” Creators want to sell high, and consumers want to buy low.


First established in 1886, the Berne Convention relates to literary and artistic works, which includes films. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the convention, which requires member states to provide protection for every production in the literary, scientific and artistic domain. A core principle is that each signatory would give citizens of other member states the same ownership of copyrights that it gives

its own citizens. The stated purpose of the convention is protection of authors rather than publishers and others, in addition to establishing a system of equal treatment.


Eben Moglen, Professor of Law and Legal History at Columbia University, writes in his dotCommunist Manifesto: “Society confronts the simple fact that when everyone can possess very intellectual work

of beauty and utility, reaping all the human value of every increase of knowledge – at the same cost that any one person can possess them, it is no longer moral to exclude … the bourgeois system of ownership demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay.” He also observes “the more we give away, the richer we become.”


It is great, for we journeymen writers to have access to Wikipedia, Google, Word Press and Questia so that we can easily research the drivel we inflict on the world. A lot of this is free to us, so we need to be grateful. However, one feels somewhat differently when the fruits of one’s own labour are lifted. I was rather pleased when I discovered that something I wrote five years ago had re-appeared in the New York Times. I would have been even more pleased if they had paid me- or asked my permission- or even just told me. It came as a worse shock to me later when I saw my own immortal words in print without payment or even a mention of my name. It came as an even worse shock when I saw some more of my words in print in a Sri Lankan newspaper with someone else’s name at the top.


Commenting on press freedom, Moglen says : “When everybody owns the press, then freedom of the press belongs to everybody.” Welcome to the world of citizen journalism.


I have run this article through a plagiarism checker to ensure that I have not ‘borrowed’ someone else’s creative property without attribution.

Jeremy Thorpe RIP

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday December 10 2014.

Colman's Column3

The news of former UK Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe’s death surprised me. My first reaction was, echoing Dorothy Parker’s question on hearing of the demise of President Calvin Coolidge: “How could they tell?” I was surprised that Thorpe had not died long ago. There have not been many sightings of him over the past several decades but when I last saw a picture of him, he was decidedly cadaverous.


I have often noted a quality of masochistic auto-schadenfreude in some Sri Lankans. They boast about how awful things are in their own country and marvel at how wonderful things are in the motherland of their former oppressors. They will concede that there is corruption and other wrongdoing in the UK but delude themselves that wrongdoers are always brought to justice and often the culprit does the honourable thing by resigning.

The case of Jeremy Thorpe is instructive. Obituaries describe him as charismatic and witty. His jibe after Harold Macmillan sacked several of his Cabinet in 1962: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his own life.” Of Edward Heath, he said “a plum pudding around whom no one knew how to light the brandy”.


Way back in 1979, I was on secondment from the big city of Manchester to the small town of Ashton-under-Lyne. The town was decidedly working class but also conservative. I could not get my usual liberal-left Guardian and had to settle for the Tory Telegraph. This proved to be a blessing in disguise because the Torygraph had a well-deserved reputation for providing detailed reports on salacious court cases. This was the go-to paper for sexual scandal, far superior to the late and unlamented News of the World.

In 1979, Thorpe was on trial for conspiracy to murder Norman Joliffe (otherwise known as Norman Scott). Scott had become a persistent nuisance to Thorpe with his claim that he had had a homosexual affair with the Liberal Party leader at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.


In late 1960 or early 1961, Thorpe first met Scott at Kingham Stables at Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, where the younger man was working for Thorpe’s friend Norman Vater. Thorpe told Scott if he ever needed help, should call him at the House of Commons. Soon after meeting Thorpe, Scott fell out with Vater and lost his job and national insurance card. On 8 November 1961, Scott went to the House of Commons to see Thorpe. Thorpe promised he would help to get him a replacement NI card. Scott claimed that a homosexual liaison with Thorpe began that same evening, at Thorpe’s mother’s home, and continued for several years.

Thorpe helped Scott in many ways, but Scott was resentful and claimed that Thorpe held on to the new NI card. Thorpe denied this and the missing card became a major grievance for Scott. In December 1962, Scott told a friend of his plan to shoot Thorpe and commit suicide. The friend alerted the police, to whom Scott gave a detailed statement about his affair with Thorpe. The police took no action but a report was added to Thorpe’s MI5 file.

In mid-March 1965, Scott wrote a long letter to Thorpe’s mother informing her of the homosexual affair. He accused Thorpe of callousness and disloyalty. Ursula Thorpe gave the letter to her son, who drafted a statement rejecting the “damaging and groundless accusations” and accusing Scott of attempting to blackmail him. Thorpe turned to Liberal MP Peter Bessell for advice. Bessell flew to Dublin in April 1965 and after that for two years Scott stayed quiet in Ireland. In July 1967, Scott returned to England. Bessell began paying Scott a “retainer” of between £5 and £10 a week and gave him £75, on the understanding there would be no further demands for a year.

Thorpe was now leader of the Liberal Party but was not an immediate success. Some of his aides, doubtful about his sexual orientation, were disturbed by his comments about his marriage to Caroline Allpass: “worth five points in the polls”.

Scott’s reappearance in November 1968 disturbed Thorpe and, early in December 1968, he summoned Bessell to his office in the House of Commons. Thorpe said: “We’ve got to get rid of him”, and later: “It is no worse than shooting a sick dog”. Thorpe argued that disposal of Scott’s body down a mine was feasible. He suggested his friend David Holmes, a party assistant treasurer and best man at Thorpe’s wedding, as an appropriate assassin.

In May 1969, Scott married. Later, when his wife could not claim maternity benefits, Scott again threatened to talk to newspapers. Bessell managed to get him an emergency NI card and Scott went quiet for a while. In 1970, Scott’s marriage collapsed; he blamed Thorpe, and again threatened exposure. Bessell kept Thorpe’s name out of the divorce proceedings, and Thorpe anonymously paid the legal costs.

In May 1971, Scott told his story to senior Liberals, who, although unconvinced, felt the matter warranted further investigation. A confidential party inquiry dismissed Scott’s allegations.

Thorpe’s first wife had been killed in a car crash in 1970 and in 1973, he married Marion, Countess of Harewood, whose former husband was the Queen’s cousin. In the February 1974 general election, the Liberals won over six million votes (19.3% of votes cast), but won only 14 seats.

In January 1974, Scott told his story to Tim Keigwin, Thorpe’s Conservative opponent in North Devon, but his leadership told him to keep quiet. In January 1974, Holmes paid £2,500 for documents Scott had passed to his doctor. Builders renovating a London office formerly used by Bessell found a further cache of papers in November 1974, which they took to the Sunday Mirror who passed the papers to Thorpe and suppressed the story.

Newton lured Scott to Porlock Moor, shot Scott’s dog, Rinka, and turned the gun on Scott, saying, “It’s your turn now”. The gun jammed several times and Newton drove away. At the trial that convicted Newton of firearms offences, Scott made his claims about Thorpe public.


In Private Eye on 12 December 1975, Auberon Waugh wrote: “My only hope is that sorrow over his friend’s dog will not cause Mr Thorpe’s premature retirement from public life”. In the 1979 election, Waugh ran against Thorpe on the Dog Lovers’ Party ticket. Waugh published his own account of the trial The Last Word: An Eye-Witness Account of the Thorpe Trial. Most newspapers knew what was going on but covered it up. Nevertheless, as with the current situation relating to a former cabinet minister and rumours of paedophilia, journalists were firing warning shots.


Barry Penrose and Roger Courtiour, collectively known as “Pencourt”, had originally been hired by former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson after his retirement, to investigate his theory that Thorpe was a target of South African intelligence agencies. Barry Penrose returned to the story, this time in association with Simon Freeman and wrote a book, which gripped my attention when I read it at the time. (Bloomsbury Publishing brought out a new edition, 17 July 1997 Rinkagate: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe). They believe that Thorpe probably formed the outline of a plan to silence Scott early in 1974.Holmes later said that Thorpe was insistent that Scott be killed. Through a series of intermediaries Holmes was put in touch, in February 1975, with Andrew Newton, an airline pilot, who said he was willing to dispose of Scott for an appropriate fee—between £5,000 and £10,000 was suggested. Newton always insisted that the size of his fee showed that his job was to kill, not frighten Scott.

In January 1976, Scott appeared before magistrates on a social security fraud charge, and spoke in court about a sexual relationship with Thorpe. This claim, made in court and therefore protected from the libel laws, was widely reported. On 10 May 1976, Thorpe resigned as Liberal leader.


Newton, released from prison in October 1977, sold his story to the London Evening News. He said that he had been paid £5,000 to kill Scott. A lengthy police enquiry followed, at the end of which Thorpe, and three others were charged with conspiracy to murder. Thorpe was additionally charged with incitement to murder.

Reporting restrictions were lifted, which meant that newspapers were free to print anything said in court without fear of the libel laws. Thorpe had hoped for an in camera hearing which would avoid unfortunate newspaper headlines. Scott gave clinical details of his alleged seduction by Thorpe in November 1961 and on other occasions.


Comic genius Peter Cook mocked the judge’s summing up for the jury: “You will now retire to consider your verdict of not guilty.” The real judge himself said of Scott: “He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”


eye acquittal

Despite the acquittal, the broader public perception was strong that Thorpe had not behaved well, nor had he adequately explained himself. He continued to be an embarrassment to the Liberal Party which blocked a return to active politics. In 1982, Amnesty International appointed him director of its British section, but after protests from the organisation’s staff, he withdrew. Not long afterwards, Thorpe first showed signs of the Parkinson’s disease that led to his almost complete withdrawal into private life in the mid-1980s.

The son of Thorpe’s defending counsel George Carman, who won the acquittal ,told The Times: “The best deal done by Carman QC was persuading Taylor QC [counsel for the prosecution] not to use any of the abundant evidence of Thorpe’s promiscuous homosexuality.”

The papers, Waugh asserts, knew a great deal about the whole affair for years, but, mostly out of cowardice and obsequiousness, declined to write about it. Many journalists knew that the scandal was potentially much bigger than just a case of a gay party leader. There have long been allegations on the internet that Jeremy Thorpe had a taste for young street boys and runaway teenagers were often brought to him. Thorpe certainly covered up the sordid activities of Cyril Smith the paedophile Liberal MP for Rochdale. There is a suggestion that Thorpe was acquitted because he threatened to expose the perversions of others in high places. Rumours of paedophile rings in government and parliament have persisted for decades and continue today.


The case of Jeremy Thorpe is instructive. Obituaries look hard for the good in him, describing him as charismatic and witty. He spoke out against apartheid and the racist Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia. He made a show of detesting inequality, but did not formulate a practical plan to improve matters. He was involved in a company that was charging 280 per cent interest on second mortgages, and when, at the end of 1973, the company collapsed there was revealed a tangled web of fraud. Rumours of ballot-rigging, clouded Thorpe’s election to the presidency of the Oxford Union as long ago as 1951.

He reacted strongly against Establishment snobbery but did not hesitate to use his connections to protect himself. An Old Etonian and Oxford graduate from a long line of Conservative MPs, he could have been a Tory. Labour politicians as well as Conservative and Liberal protected him. There has been some comment in the blogosphere along the lines of: “Thorpe was a victim of homophobia”. He was not on trial for Homosexuality. Bisexuality or paedophilia. He was on trial for incitement to murder and conspiracy to murder. He used his establishment connections to get away with it.

Sir Cyril Smith

Auberon Waugh, when writing his book, had to be careful about the libel laws. Even if he knew Thorpe was guilty, a jury had acquitted him. He explains that his book “may be read, if people choose, as a gesture of atonement for ever having entertained the silly idea that a Privy Councillor, an MP, an Old Etonian, a barrister, a friend of prime ministers, archbishops and high officials, a former client of Lord Goodman, could ever be found guilty of conspiring to murder a homosexual male model of lower-middle class background and doubtful record.”

This is England, after all!

Crowding and Consumer Protection

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday May 29 2011.

Football Hillsborough disaster

We have a beautiful new hospital in Badulla, with modern equipment and helpful staff. Badulla Provincial Hospital provides treatment free to all. Private, paid consultations are carried out in another building, a hell-hole reminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta. On our most recent visit to this private clinic access and egress were particularly difficult because the main road outside was being re-made. Whatever about that, access is always difficult. There is only a small forecourt, which is thronged with patients trying to get through the narrow entrance, which also appears to be the only exit, while three-wheelers manoeuvre amongst them. A harassed peon tries vainly to control the melee as people book in at reception.

The crowd surges up the narrow staircase into the crowded waiting rooms. There is air of clammy anxiety about the place. All the waiting rooms are packed and all the seats are taken. Every available inch of space is taken and one constantly has to shuffle about to let people pass. We have to stand for two hours although we are there because my wife has chronic spine problems. Our ticket number is 19. A woman with ticket number 32 is clearly very stressed and keeps trying to get into the consultation room arousing the anger of other patients. She may have travelled far and now it is dark outside and raining heavily. An ugly mood could develop into a riot and a stampede. The room is very hot and our clothes are drenched with sweat. Our particular waiting room is the furthest back and there is no exit door. If there was a fire, we would have to fight our way through the crowd in the corridor and down the narrow stairs.

Elias Canetti wrote in Crowds and Power that both socialism and capitalism were defined by the “modern frenzy of increase”, in which production led to ever bigger crowds of goods and consumers.

I have a fear of being caught in crowds. I am not phobic. My fear is perfectly rational. There are names for a phobic fear of crowds – demophobia, enochlophobia or ochlophobia – and you can pay people to cure you. Professor Keith Still has devoted his life to studying crowd dynamics. There is much interesting material on his website:

I remember being caught in a press of crazed hippies trying to get into the music venue the Paradiso in Amsterdam. Both my feet were off the ground and I think it was right to be scared. A peaceful afternoon and evening watching a Neil Young concert in Finsbury Park was spoiled by being “kettled” into a dangerous zone by huge police horses.

Readers may remember the horror of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Ninety-six people died because of the crush at a football match in Sheffield. Before the kick-off, a bottleneck had developed outside the ground with more fans arriving than could enter the Leppings Lane Stand. People who had been refused entry could not leave the area because of the crush behind them but remained as an obstruction. The police, to avoid deaths outside the ground, opened a set of gates, intended as an exit, which caused a rush of supporters through the gate into the stadium.

A huge crush built up at the front of the terrace, where people were being pressed up against the fencing by the weight of the crowd behind them. People entering were unaware of the problems at the fence. The intensity of the crush had broken the crush barriers on the terraces, later holes in the perimeter fencing were caused by desperate fans tearing. Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia. The pitch quickly started to fill with people sweating and gasping for breath and injured by crushing, and with the bodies of the dead.

Only 14 of the 96 fatalities ever arrived at a hospital. The final death toll reached 96 in March 1993, when Tony Bland was taken off a life support machine after four years in a vegetative state. Andrew Devine, eight years after he was also rendered vegetative at the age of 22, became aware of his surroundings and started communicating with his family. He is still alive.

The tragedy changed the face of English football as safety measures were introduced.

There have been many instances, even in recent times, of fires in garment factories and sweat shops. The 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York can stand as a specimen. This was the deadliest disaster in New York until 9/11. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Like Hillsborough, the Shirtwaist tragedy led to changes. Globally though, workers continue to die because the greed of employers makes them negligent about

There have been many instances of people being killed in crowded night clubs and discos. In January this year, Hungarian police arrested five people in connection with the apparent trampling to death of three young women at a nightclub in Budapest. Police focused on whether the disco was overcrowded and whether it had sufficient exits. Interior minister Sandor Pinter said that almost 3,000 people were admitted to the event, although the disco had a capacity of only 1,600 and emergency exits sufficient for just 307 patrons. He described the organizers of the event as “irresponsible” and “greedy.” He said he had ordered a review of the law. “This cannot happen again,” he said.

Everyone here is here in this private clinic because they are sick enough to consult a doctor, sick enough to put themselves through this hell. How many people go through this building every day? How many people will be crammed into the building together at any given time? Are the proprietors required by law to limit the numbers? How would they be evacuated in an emergency? Health and safety law seems to be focused on the protection of employees. What are the rights of customers? I have written to the chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority but have yet to receive a reply.

I said there are cures for ochlophobia. Would you have to endure such conditions to see the doctor?

How long will it be before patients are crushed and killed in this kind of situation? How long before a minister has to say: “This cannot happen again”.

I would like to hear the views of doctors and patients. I would like information on what the law says about this.

Theodore Roethke Part 2

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 7 2014

Tail flicks from another world.

In the Balance between the Animal and the Human

Roethke views man in the framework of nature, taking from nature metaphors of increase and communion. He sees the realm of spiritual beginnings in nature. Even his love poems are not just evocations of the loved one or his feelings about her. The loved one is at the centre of the physical universe and the poet communes with the elements and the natural universe through her.

Throughout his poetic career, Roethke used the idea of evolution to show forth the childhood fears buried in his subconscious and his developing self. The poems often have creatures emerging from the primeval slime and there are worms feeding on the dead. He developed a lithe structure and rhythm, which was well suited to his project of inspecting his psychological and emotional growth.


The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948)

In The Lost Son, Roethke tries to come to terms with his ambivalent feelings for his father, who died when the poet was only fourteen. Louise Bogan (Roethke’s one time lover) reviewed this collection in the New Yorker on May 15 1948. She wrote: “He plunges into his subconscious as into a pond and brings up all sorts of clammy amorphous material…Where Jarrell frequently only describes, Roethke relives.” She recommended that Randall Jarrell and Roethke be read together. I intend to write about Jarrell in a future article in these pages.

The title poem of the collection has five parts in which the poet examines the various stages of his feelings of sorrow and desolation to reach a conclusion that provides hope for the future.

Roethke himself wrote of the poem:

It “follows a narrative line indicated by the titles of the first four sections: ‘The Flight’, ’The Pit’, ‘The Gibber’, ’The Return’.’The Flight’ is just what it says it is: a terrified running away – with alternate periods of hallucinatory waiting (the voices, etc.); the protagonist so geared-up, so over-alive that he is hunting, like a primitive, for some animistic suggestion, some clue to existence from the subhuman. These he sees and yet does not see: they are almost tail-flicks, from another world, seen out of the corner of the eye. In a sense he goes in and out of rationality; he hangs in the balance between the human and the animal.”

Although the first section is a recollection of childhood feelings, he is already thinking of death – there is a reference to a cemetery in the first line:

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

His hard time is coping with the death of his father. His flight is from this cemetery and from the fact of death. He prays not to God but to the creatures of nature to give him a sign. They only answer him in riddles – The moon said, back of an eel – and in negatives: You will find no comfort here,/ In the kingdom of bang and blab. As if in response to this comment, the section ends with a riddle posed by the poet, which describes a strange creature, part which some readers suggest is an unborn child.

He hopes to find solace in nature:

Nothing nibbled my line,

Not even the minnows came.

The second section, “The Pit” describes a period of physical and psychic exhaustion, involving a strong death wish or an unwillingness to face further hardships in the quest for human completion.

Where do the roots go?

Look down under the leaves.

Who put the moss there?

These stones have been here too long.

Who stunned the dirt into noise?

Ask the mole, he knows.

I feel the slime of a wet nest.

Beware Mother Mildew.

Nibble again, fish nerves.

In “The Gibber”, there is a frenetic activity, then a lapsing back into peace.
At the wood’s mouth,

By the cave’s door,

I listened to something

I had heard before.

Dogs of the groin

Barked and howled,

The sun was against me,

The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,

The snakes cried,

The cows and briars

Said to me: Die.


After this, he finds himself at a calm centre, on the threshold of transformation and rebirth.


Do the bones cast out their fire?

Is the seed leaving the old bed?

These buds are live as birds.
Section IV returns to childhood memories, which, although dreamlike, are physically literal as well as symbolic.

A fine haze moved off the leaves;

Frost melted on far panes;

The rose, the chrysanthemum turned towards the light.

Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds

Moved in a slow up-sway.


The roses are real and breathing. – the family greenhouse business   provided much vegetative imagery. The morning emerges from the dark night bringing a sense of renewal, a resurrection of “Papa.”


In the final untitled section, the illumination, the coming of light suggested at the end of the last passage occurs again, this time to the nearly grown man. The illumination is still only partly understood; he is still “waiting.” Like the flowers in the greenhouse, he finds himself in a fragile state as he slowly climbs out of an abyss of inner tensions:


The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,

Above the blue snow.

It was beginning winter,

The light moved slowly over the frozen field,

Over the dry seed-crowns,

The beautiful surviving bones

Swinging in the wind.


There is a deliberate echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Both works explore the self, its history and development. Both seek realisation in a spiritual order, although Roethke avoids orthodox religion. Roethke probably intended the echo as a statement of difference. For Roethke, the moment of light lacks any theological resonance, as it would have in Eliot. The illumination for Roethke is natural and based firmly on personal knowledge and evidence, on the individual’s understanding of the transcendent. The visitation at the end of “The Lost Son” displays the progress of the spirit over the difficult stages of evolution.


Praise to the End! (1951)

Praise to the End!, published in 1951, combines several long poems from The Lost Son with new poems that continuing the same themes. Bogan described Roethke’s subject as, “the journey from the child’s primordial subconscious world, through the regions of adult terror, guilt, and despair, toward final release into the freedom of conscious being.”

Roethke himself wrote: “the method is cyclic. I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some ‘progress’. Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out- that is difficult; for few know where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.”

Roethke offered these suggestions on how to read the new book: “You will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, naively, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert. (A large order, I daresay!) Listen to them, for they are written to be heard, with the themes often coming alternately, as in music, and usually a partial resolution at the end. Each poem … is complete in itself; yet each in a sense is a stage in a kind of struggle out of the slime; part of a slow spiritual progress; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more.”



Next week, I will discuss Roethke’s 1953 collection The Waking.


Wednesday Morning 2 a.m.

I was having an unusually good sleep after a few glasses of California Red when i suddenly became aware that my wife was a wake. She had been woken by the activity of the puss Mimi (seventeen –year old Belle of Bellvelly).

I am used to springing into action to isolate rats in the bathroom and dispose of them into a box and out of the window before Mimi bites off their heads.

This time Mimi was more circumspect. Curled up on the bedroom floor- black cement flecked with white- was a black and white baby krait.


Despite my befuddlement I opened the kitchen door, fetched a metal bin and brought a bread knife with which my wife flicked the serpent into the bin and I tossed it out of the back door.

According to Wikipedia: The common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) is a species of venomous snake of the genus Bungarus a member of the “big four”, species inflicting the most snakebites on humans in the Indian subcontinent.

It is known to take up residence in termite mounds, brick piles, rat holes, even inside houses. It is frequently found in water or in proximity to a water source. The common krait feeds primarily on other snakes, including: “blind worms” (snakes of the genus Typhlops); and cannibalizes on other kraits, including the young. It also feeds on small mammals (such as rats, and mice), lizards and frogs.

During the day, it is sluggish and generally docile. It often hides in rodent holes, loose soil, or beneath debris, so is rarely seen. It often rolls its body into a loose, coiled ball, keeping its head well concealed. When in this ‘balled’ condition, the snake allows considerable handling, but over handling often instigates bites. However, at night, the snake is very active and escapes by hissing loudly, or keeping still, occasionally biting the source of the annoyance. It is reluctant to bite, but when it does, it typically holds on for a while, which enables it to inject considerable amounts of venom. It may become aggressive at night if threatened.

The common krait’s venom consists mostly of powerful neurotoxins, which induce muscle paralysis. Clinically, its venom contains presynaptic and postsynaptic neurotoxins, which generally affect the nerve endings near the synaptic cleft of the brain.

Kraits are nocturnal, so seldom encounter humans during daylight hours; incidents occur mainly at night. Frequently, little or no pain occurs from a krait bite, and this can provide false reassurance to the victim. Typically, victims complain of severe abdominal cramps, accompanied by progressive paralysis. Once bitten, the absorption of the venom into the victim can be considerably delayed by applying a pressure bandage to the bite site (using about the same tension as one uses for a sprained ankle) and immobilising the area. This allows for gentle transport to medical facilities, where the venom can be treated when the bandage is removed. As no local symptoms present, a patient should be carefully observed for signs of paralysis (e.g., the onset of ptosis) and treated urgently with antivenom. It is also possible to support bite victims by mechanical ventilation, using equipment of the type generally available at hospitals. Such support should be provided until the venom is metabolised and the victim can breathe unaided. If death occurs, it takes place about four to eight hours after the krait bite. Cause of death is general respiratory failure, i.e. suffocation.

Often during the rainy season, the snakes come out of their hiding places and find refuge inside dry houses. If bitten by a krait while sleeping, a victim may not realize he has been bitten, as the bite feels like of an ant or mosquito. The victim may die without waking up. Krait bites are significant for eliciting minimal amounts of local inflammation/swelling. This may help in species identification if the snake has not been seen.

The few symptoms of the bite include: tightening of the facial muscles in one to two hours of the bite; inability of the bite victim to see or talk, and, if left untreated, the patient may die from respiratory paralysis within four to five hours. A clinical toxicology study gives an untreated mortality rate of 70-80%.

We wondered how the snake got into the bedroom. Did it fall from the roof? Did it come up a plughole?


My wife’s theory is that it came in a beer crate but this could be homonym confusion.



Irish Slaves

This article appeared on Page 7 of Ceylon Today on Wednesday December 3 2014.

Colman's Column3

I recently saw a video shot on the West Indian island of Montserrat in 1976. A Mr and Mrs Allen ran the local post office. They had, as one might expect, black faces. However, if one closed one’s eyes one might imagine they were speaking from Ireland. They spoke English with the emphatic singsong Scandinavian lilt of County Cork.


Montserrat came under English control in 1632 and a neo-feudal colony developed. Seventy per cent of the population of Montserrat by the mid 1600s under Governor Sir Thomas Warner (who amassed a fortune of over £100 million in today’s terms) was Irish.

Today, with fewer than 12,000 inhabitants on its 39 square miles, Montserrat’s population is 95 per cent Black but there are still Irish place names, like Kinsale, Cork Hill, Roche’s Mountain, Sweeney’s Well and Carty’s Ghaut. The telephone directory has page after page of Allens, Ryans, Daleys, Farrells, Rileys, Skerretts, Sweeneys, Brownes, Roches, Lynches, Cartys and Kirwans.

Plantation Economies

The plantation system as we know it in Sri Lanka today developed to facilitate tea production on a large scale with a division of labour and financial arrangements more typical of industry than agriculture. In 1827, Ceylon’s Governor Sir Edward Barnes initiated the recruitment of indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu to work on the country’s coffee plantations. Immigration of Indian Tamils steadily increased and, by the end of the coffee era, there were 100,000 Indian labourers in Sri Lanka. The numbers increased as tea cultivation became the country’s main industry.

This kind of colonial mass export/import of labour began much earlier with the Irish. The first recorded sale of Irish slaves to the New World was to a settlement along the Amazon in 1612. The Irish slave trade began in earnest in 1624 when 30,000 Irish prisoners were sold as slaves to English settlers in the West Indies. Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were white.

The British originally settled the West Indies with the aim of growing tobacco and cotton for export to Europe. Sugar eventually replaced these crops and became the main crop. At first, land was given over to smallholdings, but sugar needed much land and investment and large plantations developed. The business was also labour-intensive and the first settlers had inconveniently exterminated the indigenous people.

The Portuguese had dealt with labour shortages in their sugar business in Madeira by using African slaves since 1460. The British were heavily involved in the slave trade, which brought prosperity to the English cities of Liverpool and Bristol. In the West Indies, the British also used “indentured labour” and convicted prisoners. In theory, indentured servants agreed to work for a given number of years for a fixed wage. On Barbados, in 1643, there were 18,600 white farmers, their families and servants. There were 6,400 African slaves.

Prison and Profit

Today, the USA has a prison–industrial complex that profits from the incarceration of mainly black people. The increase in the prison population seems to have been deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries. There was certainly one example of a judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits. The British were doing this to the Irish in the 17th Century.

Across the harbour from my father’s birthplace of Cobh in County Cork is Spike Island (Irish: Inis Píc). This island of 103 acres was originally the site of a monastic settlement in the seventh century but its strategic location within Cork Harbour meant it was used at times for defence and as a prison – “Ireland’s Alcatraz”. In the 17th century, Spike Island was used as a holding centre for Irish people in transit to Bristol where they were sold as slaves and transported to Barbados. These were people captured in war or sentenced for political or civil crimes.

African slaves might have been more suited to working in the Caribbean climate but Irish slaves were cheaper. The Irish were more profitable because they just had to be caught or sentenced for transportation. There were not enough political prisoners or prisoners of war to satisfy the planters’ demands so every petty crime won a sentence of transportation and press gangs roamed Ireland looking for labour.

Irish Slave Trade

Under the Tudors and Stuarts, Scottish and English Protestants were sent as colonists to the plantation of Ulster. By 1641, up to 80,000 English and Scots Protestants had been settled in the previously Catholic north of Ireland. The dispossessed native Irish became landless labourers. Oliver Cromwell’s son, Henry, was Major General in command of his forces in Ireland. Under his reign, hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women were shipped to the West Indies.

Although often described as indentured servants, there is little doubt that the Irish were exiled and sold against their will and could be resold, or given away in payment of debts. From 1641 to 1652, the English killed half a million Irish people and sold 300,000 as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 – this in a land mass the same size as Sri Lanka, which today has a population of around 20 million. Over 100,000 Irish children between ten and fourteen were sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England during the 1650s. From 1680 to 1688, the Royal African Company sent 249 shiploads of slaves to the Indies and American Colonies. Out of 60,000 Irish and Africans, more than 14,000 died during the passage.

Cromwell’s maritime wars were linked to slavery because the Portuguese and the Dutch dominated the trade. White landowners in the West Indies could not generally buy African slaves and   Irish prisoners made up for a serious labour shortage. What African slaves there were received better treatment than the Irish. Owners would hang Irish slaves by their hands and set fire to their hands or feet as a punishment. Africans cost about 20 to 50 pounds Sterling, compared to 900 pounds of cotton (about five pounds Sterling) for an Irish slave.

The planters used Irish women as breeding mares to produce valuable human livestock. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, and although an Irish woman might herself become free, her children were still property. Most Irish mothers stayed with their children after being freed. Planters then began to breed Irish women with African men to produce slaves with greater value because of lighter skin.

The planter/colonisers of Northern Ireland were prominent in colonising, in turn, the territories that became the British Empire. Belfast became rich on cotton and its commercial and industrial successes were linked to trade with the slave economies of the West Indies. The founding president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Waddell Cunningham made a fortune from slavery and unsuccessfully tried to set up a slave company in Belfast in 1786. He even had a plantation of his own in Dominica, which he called Belfast. An exhibit in the Linen Hall Museum shows a bill of sale of a child named William to Ulsterman Samuel Ferguson for $245.

Current Descendants

Although African slavery in Barbados continued until 1834, the 1880 census identified no Barbadian as Irish. Barbados, which received the majority of slaves from Ireland still has a small population- only about four hundred people – descended from Irish imports. These people are known locally as ‘red shanks’. This community has been largely endogamous; only since the late twentieth century have the red shanks begun to integrate and assimilate with the black people of Barbados. According to the Barbados Free Press, most live in poverty. They have bad or no teeth because of poor diet and lack of dental care. In-breeding has caused haemophilia leading to premature deaths and diabetes has left men blind and without limbs.

The red shanks seem anomalous and are vulnerable in a society that does not know what to do with them. The great tides of history, of ‘isms’ and ‘isations’ and empires, buffet little people, hurt them, maim them, kill them, uproot them and inflict damage that lasts for generations. All over the globe vicious wars, fragmenting nations and dying empires still today produce a flotsam of refugees and migrant workers. Kosovars tend the garden of my Sinhalese father-in-law in Thornton Heath. Globalisation drowns a gang of Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay. People swindled by human traffickers suffocate in lorries. There are Polish shops in Cobh now, and Polish homeless in Dublin, Polish suicides. There are Estonian lap-dancers in Cork City. Indian Tamil estate labourers drown in 300 feet of mud in Koslanda.


Theodore Roethke Part 1

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday November 30 2014



The Poet, a larger-than-life-size figure, balanced on the edge of excess. John Montague.

A reader encountering Theodore Roethke’s poetry for the first time might initially be reminded of other poets. Descriptions of animals as in “The Lizard” are reminiscent of DH Lawrence.

He too has eaten well-

I can see that by the distended pulsing middle;

And his world and mine are the same,

The Mediterranean sun shining on us equally.


In “What Can I Tell my Bones”, he reminds me of Whitman:


The wind rocks with my wish; the rain shields me;

I live in light’s extreme; I stretch in all directions;

Sometimes I think I’m several.


There are elements of Blake. “Once More, the Round”:


What’s greater, Pebble or Pond?
What can be known? The Unknown.
My true self runs toward a Hill
More! O More! visible.

Now I adore my life
With the Bird, the abiding Leaf,
With the Fish, the questing Snail,
And the Eye altering All;
And I dance with William Blake
For love, for Love’s sake;

And everything comes to One,
As we dance on, dance on, dance on.


“The Pike” prefigures Ted Hughes, although Roethke’s approach to nature does not succumb to the self-parody that Hughes sometimes achieves.

I lean and love these manifold shapes,

Until, out from a dark cove,

From beyond the end of a mossy log,

With one sinuous ripple, then a rush,

A thrashing up of the whole pool,

The pike strikes.


Unlike John Berryman, Roethke did not fight against the influence of Yeats – he revelled in it. In “The Dying Man”, In memoriam W.B. Yeats, Roethke deliberately adopts the Yeatsian manner and mood to probe the extremes of perception and knowledge that the self may attain.

The edges of the summit still appal

When we brood on the dead or the beloved;

Nor can imagination do it all

In this last place of light: he dares to live

Who stops being a bird, yet beats his wings

Against the immense immeasurable emptiness of things.


I will examine Roethke’s main themes in more detail later but, in brief, Roethke’s work is characterised by its introspective examination of the self, rhythm and natural imagery. His recurring theme is the correspondence between the poet’s inner life and the life of nature, the similarities between his human life – his spiritual evolution and search for psychic identity-   and that of plants.


The poet was born Theodore Huebner Roethke in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, owners of a   25 acre greenhouse, which his parents ran with his Uncle Charlie. He drew inspiration from his childhood experiences of working in the family business. Roethke wrote of his poetry: “The greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”

From “The Rose”:

And I think of roses, roses,

White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,

And my father standing astride the cement benches,

Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells, and his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, only a child, out
of myself.

What need for heaven, then,

With that man, and those roses?


He also roamed the game sanctuary that the family maintained, “a wild area of cut-over second-growth timber,” as he described it years later in a 1953 BBC interview: “I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine. One favorite place was a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested”

Roethke’s father died from cancer in 1923 and in the same year, his Uncle Charlie committed suicide. Roethke graduated magna cum laude at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1925. Resisting family pressure to pursue a legal career, he dropped out of law school after one semester and, from 1929 to 1931, took graduate courses at the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School, where he worked closely with the poet Robert Hillyer.

The Depression forced Roethke to leave Harvard and he took up a teaching career at Lafayette College. He was able to meet established poets like Louise Bogan (with whom he had an affair) and Stanley Kunitz.


In 1935, Roethke suffered the first of his recurring bouts of mental illness. He also taught at Pennsylvania State University and published his work in such prestigious journals as Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Sewanee Review. He brought out his first volume of verse, Open House, in 1941.His last teaching position was at the University of Washington, leading to an association with the poets of the American Northwest. His students included James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, Jack Gilbert, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner. Roethke’s poetry influenced Sylvia Plath so much that when she submitted “Poem for a Birthday” to Poetry magazine, the editors rejected it because it displayed “too imposing a debt to Roethke.”

In 1953, Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell, a former student whom he met while teaching at Bennington . She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field, as well as a book of his collected children’s verse, Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures, in 1973.


He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking, and he won the annual National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1959 for Words for the Wind and posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field. In 1959, he won the Bollingen Prize. In 2012, a US postage stamp pictured him as one of ten great 20th Century American poets.

Open House (1941)

In his first book, Open House, Roethke reflected the battle within his consciousness between his spiritual aspirations and his sensual desires. WH Auden deemed Open House “completely successful.” Elizabeth Drew wrote that “his poems have a controlled grace of movement and his images the utmost precision; while in the expression of a kind of gnomic wisdom which is peculiar to him as he attains an austerity of contemplation and a pared, spare strictness of language very unusual in poets of today.”

My secrets cry aloud.

I have no need for tongue.

My heart keeps open house,

My doors are widely swung.

An epic of the eyes

My love, with no disguise.

My truths are all foreknown,

This anguish self-revealed.

I’m naked to the bone,

With nakedness my shield.

Myself is what I wear:

I keep the spirit spare.

The anger will endure,

The deed will speak the truth

In language strict and pure.

I stop the lying mouth:

Rage warps my clearest cry

To witless agony.


He describes the transition of the seasons in “The Light Comes Brighter”:

The light comes brighter form the east; the caw
Of restive crows is sharper on the ear
A walker at the river’s edge may hear
A cannon crack announce an early thaw.

The sun cuts deep into the heavy drift,
Though still guarded snow is winter-sealed,
At bridgeheads buckled ice begins to shift,
The river overflows the level field.

Once more the trees assume familiar shapes,
As branches loose last vestiges of snow.
The water stored in narrow pools escapes
In rivulets; the cold roots stir below.

Soon field and wood will wear an April look,
The frost be gone, for green is breaking now;
The ovenbird will match the vocal brook,
The young fruit swell upon the pear-tree bough.

And soon a branch, part of a hidden scene.
The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,
Will turn its private substance into green,
And young shoots spread upon our inner world.

Mind and nature are bound by laws and enjoy a common awakening and nature yields an analogy with human existence.

Roethke knew Schwartz, Berryman and Lowell and his work sometimes has elements of the “confessional”. However, he does not identify with the “urban” themes developed by such contemporaries. In The New Poets (1967), ML Rosenthal wrote:

“For the most part Roethke had no subject apart from the excitements, illnesses, intensities of sensuous response, and inexplicable shiftings of his own sensibility. The greenhouse poems enabled him to objectify it for a time, but then he had nowhere to go but back inside himself. We have no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends, in whom there is so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of the age – unless the damaged psyche out of which he spoke be taken as its very embodiment. But that was not quite enough. The confessional mode, reduced to this kind of self-recharging, becomes self- echoing as well and uses itself up after the first wild orgies of feeling.”


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 ( 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. .

“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?”

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.


betcha can't read just one


Just another site

A Sri Lankan blog

Rick Lucke

Chasing Illusion, Living Lies


Follow me on twitter @RichyDispatch


spotlight on abuse: the past on trial

Forum for Peaceful Coexistence, Sri Lanka

A Group of Professionals and Social Workers in Sri Lanka

The Immortal Jukebox

A Blog about Music and Popular Culture

What's up, Turkey?

a blog about Turkish politics and society

Oscar Hokeah

Celebrating Tribal Diversity Through Literary Fiction!


A great site

Worldly Winds

It's not easy being me!

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

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

Trade News in Brief

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

The Jazz Labels

All That's Jazz…and More

Vixens With Convictions!

"Women and Elephants never forget" Dorothy Parker.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 484 other followers