Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Ceylon Today

Lying and Lying Liars

This article was published in Ceylon Today on December 16 2019. A little late I am afraid.

“Score me up for the lyingest knave in Christendom”

Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew

In the first article that I published in Sri Lanka back in 2007, I quoted Rauf Hakeem: ““The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Who knew? The only thing we could rely on politicians for was to lie to us and break their promises. Since then things have got worse with Donald Trump who has taken lying to  a stratospheric level. There are many websites listing and rebutting Trump’s porkies; here is one chosen at random:

New words have been added to the lexicon as a result of Trump’s twitterings: truthiness, alternative facts, post-truth. Politicians have always lied and set out to deceive the voters. Perhaps a paradigmatic change occurred during the Vietnam war when politicians had to pretend to believe that the mightiest nation on earth was not being humiliated by poorly equipped guerrilla fighters. Hannah Arendt described the way lying became insitutionalised and telling the truth became treasonous. “The extravagant lengths to which the commitment to nontruthfulness in politics went on at the highest level of government…the concomitant extent to which lying was permitted to proliferate throughout the ranks of all governmental services, military and civilian”.

I am in London, watching with fascinated horror the performance of Trump’s mini-me, Boris Johnson, in the general election campaign. Johnson is one walking, breathing lie, a porky on legs. There is nothing genuine or honest about him. He even lies to himself about himself. Political commentator Ian Dunt wrote: “There’s this great yawning chasm between the way the prime minister thinks of himself and the manner in which he actually behaves. In copy, he is a tower of strength, a thoroughly manly masculine man of the most magnificent macho order. But the things he does in real life serve to effectively pop the bubble. He evades, he ducks out, he cowers, he blames other people. He’s ultimately just a bit of a coward.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agreed to be interviewed by the fearsome Andrew Neil and got a severe mauling. Johnson is even evasive about whether he will be interviewed by Neil. As another commentator, John Crace, might have put it, “pifflepaffle, whiffle waffle”.

The Conservative Party tried to mislead the public by rebranding one of its Twitter accounts “FactCheckUK”, suggesting that it was a neutral site rather than biased propoganda. It had one of its ads banned by Facebook after using footage of BBC presenters without permission and out of context. They also doctored an interview with Labour front-bencher Keir to suggest that he was not answering questions. In fact, he did a great job.

Every time Johnson open his mouth lies come tumbling out. He cannot resist repeating things that have been convincingly rebutted. He is aware that the National Health Service is a strong point for Labour. In their TV head to head Corbyn scored a good point by displaying a redacted document showing Conservative plans to sell off the NHS piecemeal to US companies. Johnson denied this and countered with the promise to build 40 new hospitals. This cannot be true as only GBP 2.7 bn has been set aside for six ‘upgrades’ over five years. Only one hospital, Whipp’s Cross, can, by stretching the imagination, qualify as a new hospital and it will have less beds than the old hospital. Surplus land will be sold for housing.

In 2015, the Conservatives promised to make the NHS “the safest and most compassionate health service in the world”. They promised 5,000 more general practitioners. The reality is that GP numbers have fallen with senior GPS retiring early because an anomaly in the pension system means that they are paying more in tax than they earn. There are 100,000 unfilled vacancies in the NHS but somehow Johnson is trying to blame the Labour Party for this even though the Tories have been in power since 2005. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I can tell you categorically I’ve never advocated privatisation of the NHS.” Presenter Nick Robinson told the Foreign Secretary: “It’s not that long ago, is it, that you were involved in writing a pamphlet which advocated a health service where ‘two thirds of hospitals are run privately’.”

Johnson has tried to blame lefty ideas for the stabbings on London Bridge last in spite of pleas from the families of those who died in the attack not to besmirch their loved ones with political contamination.

Johnson did agree to be interviewed by an Andrew, but it was Marr not Neil. Marr allowed him to get away with four lies. He said that Labour wants to withdraw from NATO – false. He said that Jeremy Corbyn wants to disband MI5  – Labour politicians may have made off-the cuff remarks about this in the distant past but it is not Labour policy. Blatantly and shamefully he said that child poverty has fallen in the last ten years – in fact, it has risen by 400,000 since 2011. The fourth lie was that Parliament had blocked the Queen’s Speech – it was passed with a 16-vote majority. There were a number of complaints to the BBC that the prime minister was not challenged about his lies. However, the BBC seem to be encouraging viewers to complain that Marr interrupted too much.

Channel 4 is doing better than the BBC. In the past, the BBC was often accused of left-wing bias. These days, they are accused of giving too much rope to the Brexiteer right. Recently, Channel 4 broadcast a debate on climate change. The Conservative Party and the Brexit Party declined to send their leaders. Channel 4 placed blocks of ice in the shape of the planet on the empty chairs allowing them to melt during the course of the programme. The Conservatives made a complaint to Ofcom and threatened to withdraw Channel 4’s licence. (Ofcom rejected the complaint.) This is all of a piece with attacks on the judiciary and parliament. This is a conscious attempt to subvert institutions and to smear all who criticise the party.

Paul Mason wrote, “if you suddenly have a political class determined to ignore these implicit rules, and newspaper journalists willing to act as propagandists for one side, then the broadcast media has to adapt its own behaviour.”

Truth is constantly under threat. The threat will be greater if the Tories win the election. We will be trapped in what Hannah Arendt called “a defactualised world”.

War Crimes

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on November 27 2019 under the title: “Hurling War Crimes Allegations. The Western Media’s Selective Amnesia”.



The western media has predictably greeted the election of our new president with rehashed allegations of war crimes. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election was reported on Sunday November 17 2019 (over ten years since the LTTE were defeated). On that same date, one newspaper, The London Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, led with a story about horrendous crimes committed by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not all of the information is new. What is shocking is the extent of the crimes and of the tireless efforts of the British government to suppress the facts. The Insight team of the Sunday Times and the BBC Panorama programme have been carrying out a year-long investigation. The Panorama programme was broadcast on Monday November 18. They claim that two thick files have been kept under lock and key behind the barbed wire security fences of the Trenchard Lines military base near Salisbury Plain.

The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) investigated alleged war crimes committed by British troops during the occupation of Iraq starting in 2003; Operation Northmoor investigated alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The government’s excuse for calling off the investigations in 2017 was that Phil Shiner, a lawyer who had taken more than 1,000 cases to IHAT, was struck off as a solicitor following allegations that he had paid fixers in Iraq to find clients. That does not explain why the files were kept locked up.

Publicity had already been given to some of the cases featured in the Panorama programme. I have myself written about the case of Baha Mousa.

According to Sir William Gage’s report: “Baha Mousa was pronounced dead at 22.05hrs. A subsequent post mortem found that in the course of his detention… Baha Mousa had sustained 93 separate external injuries. He was also found to have internal injuries including fractured ribs.”

Baha Mousa was a receptionist at the Ibn al-Haitham Hotel in Basra who was captured in a raid by Britain’s finest on 14 September 2003 after a cache of arms and uniforms was found in his workplace. The army had found weapons including grenades, rifles, bayonets and suspected bomb-making equipment. Along with nine others, he was taken in  for “questioning”.

Corporal Donald Payne killed a man. That’s what soldiers do. Here is how Payne killed Baha Mousa. Payne violently assaulted Baha Mousa, punching and kicking. This ended with Baha Mousa lying inert on the floor. According to the Gage Report: “I find that from the outset of their incarceration in the TDF (temporary detention facility) the Detainees were subjected to assaults by those who were guarding them and, in particular, by Payne. I find that they were also assaulted from time to time by others who happened to be passing by the TDF. The assaults by the guards were instigated and orchestrated by Payne. He devised a particularly unpleasant method of assaulting the detainees, known as the “choir”. It consisted of Payne punching or kicking each detainee in sequence, causing each to emit a groan or other sign of distress. Baha’s father was a senior police officer, permitted by the British to carry a pistol and wear his blue uniform. Colonel Mousa believed the real reason his son was killed was he had seen several British troops opening the hotel safe and stuffing currency into their pockets.

At a court martial Payne was charged with manslaughter, inhumane treatment and perverting the course of justice. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison.

Panorama has re-examined the evidence in a number of alleged war crimes cases. One such case  was the shooting of an Iraqi policeman by a British soldier on patrol in Basra in 2003. Raid al-Mosaw was shot by a British soldier in an alleyway as he left his family home. Major Christopher Suss-Francksen confidently concluded that the soldier was legitimately acting in self-defence. IHAT detectives spent two years investigating the case and interviewed 80 British soldiers, including the soldier Suss-Francksen claimed had witnessed the shooting. The soldier told IHAT: “This report is inaccurate and gives the impression that I was an eyewitness. This is not true.” This soldier and many others confirmed that they only heard one shot which means that Raid al-Mosaw could not have fired first. The Sunday Times states bluntly that Suss-Francksen faked evidence.

IHAT detectives say they found evidence of widespread abuse at Camp Stephen, a British army base in Basra run by the Black Watch and used as an unofficial detention centre. One of the detectives told Panorama that the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, most of whom were innocent, was “endemic” at the base. There was nothing spontaneous about the many horrendous crimes committed Camp Stephen. The culture of abuse was sanctioned at senior levels. The open layout of the camp would have made it obvious to officers what was happening. There is a stinking fetor of complicity and cover-up.

Detectives working on Operation Northmoor investigated a night raid in Helmand province, Afghanistan on October 18, 2012 during which a special forces soldier killed four males aged 20, 17, 14 and 12 in the guest room of a family home in Loy Bagh village. ​They were merely drinking tea. Relatives had to mop up teeth, bone and brain flesh from the heavily-stained carpet. Investigators expected the soldier to be charged with four counts of murder and referred the case to the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA). They also wanted to prosecute the commanding officer, along with his superior, for falsifying a report and for perverting the course of justice. Military prosecutors decided not to bring charges.

Predictably, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab refused to be drawn on whether these claims were new to him, and said that prosecuting authorities for the British armed forces are “some of the most rigorous in the world”. It is instructive to contrast Raab’s attitude with the response of Enoch Powell to the atrocities at the Hola Camp in Kenya in 1959.

Former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald (now Warden of Wadham College, Oxford) has examined the evidence gathered by the Sunday Times and concludes: “In 2002, the International Criminal Court was set up, with Britain’s enthusiastic support, to prosecute crimes against humanity where individual nations were too cowardly, incompetent or unwilling to bring their own citizens to justice in the face of compelling evidence of the gravest international crimes. Now, as that court turns its eyes towards us, we are forced to confront the unnerving possibility that one of those derelict nations might be our own.”


Out of Control Freaks

This article was published in Ceylon Today on November 4 2019. They took a long time to fit it in so it has been rather overtaken by events. Some of it is still relevant.


I stayed up late on Saturday night, October 19, to watch the Commons debate on the ‘new deal’ that prime minister Boris Johnson had struck with the EU. There were appalling scenes as the government showed its utter contempt for parliament and the British people. Tory MPs walked out as Joanna Cherry of the SNP began to speak. At one point, the speaker was having to answer questions that ministers should be answering. The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, walked out of the chamber rather than answer questions. Instead of backing Johnson’s agreement in a “meaningful vote”, MPs passed an amendment tabled by a cross-party group of MPs led by Oliver Letwin (a senior Tory and former minister who was recently booted out of the party by Johnson) by 322 votes to 306 – a majority of 16.

Shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, (who should be leader of the Labour Party) vehemently rejected Johnson’s arguments using his skill as a lawyer to demonstrate that this new deal was worse than Theresa May’s deal, particularly because of the absence of legal guarantees on workers’ rights.

Johnson appealed to the House to respect democracy and support the deal, support the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum. He bloviates about democracy while defying the will of Parliament, breaking the law on prorogation and strongly hinting that he intends to defy the Benn Burt Act.

The will of the people was tainted by lies and dark money. There was much chicanery about ‘Taking back sovereignty’ which was a respectable cover for xenophobia.

Giving away Sovereignty

Trump had the rallying cry of “Make America Great Again”. In the UK, the Leave campaign wanted to “Take Back Control”. William Keegan writes that it took British economy to recover from the banking crisis of 2007-09, “As is being increasingly recognised, recovery was stifled by an ill-conceived austerity programme whose deleterious effects played no small role in the outcome of the 2016 referendum.” The game plan was to blame the EU for all the ills that beset the UK in June 2016. Most of those ills could be blamed on the austerity programme of the Conservative government. It is ironic that austerity has now been abandoned and a Magic Money Tree has been found by Boris Johnson which will enable him to bribe the voters and the DUP. Voters may wonder why they suffered so much for so many years if fiscal responsibility can be tossed aside so cavalierly.

Other persistent problems were caused by the madness of outsourcing and privatisation policies followed by all governments from Thatcher’s onwards. Control of the UK economy was not taken from Britain by the EU, it was handed over to foreign companies by British governments. Foreign governments are making hundreds of millions of pounds a year running British public services. Conservative and Labour governments have been selling the family silver to foreigners for decades.


The national, integrated rail system of the UK used to belong to the British state. A voodoo political philosophy led to it being broken up and sold off to the nationalized state railways of foreign nations. In 2014, The Independent calculated that 20 national train lines were run or owned by foreign state-owned or controlled companies. Huge companies like Arriva UK Trains, Abellio and Govia run several operators. There are now few purely private operators left on UK railways. Virgin Trains will lose its long-standing West Coast franchise in December. It will be replaced by First Trenitalia which has been awarded the franchise until 2031. First Trenitalia is Trenitalia (Italy’s state railway), which holds 30 per cent and First Group which holds 70 per cent.

Govia runs Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express. The firm is a joint venture between Go-Ahead group and French company Keolis, which itself is 70 per cent owned by the French National Railways Corporation. Greater Anglia, Stansted Express and Scotrail are all operated by Abellio. Abellio is run by Netherlands Rail whose only shareholder is the Dutch government. Arriva UK Trains is behind the operators, Chiltern, CrossCountry, London Overground, Grand Central, and Northern. In total it runs around a quarter of all British train operating companies, and is part of German firm Deutsche Bahn, in which the German state is the biggest shareholder.


Even though water was privatised in England and Wales in 1989, a quarter of England’s water provision is publicly-owned – it is just that, like with transport, it is owned by foreign governments in the form of public sector workers’ pension funds (mostly overseas), or foreign governments’ investment funds. In 2006, Thames Water was bought by a consortium which included the Australian investment group Macquarie and a Chinese wealth fund. Yorkshire Water, which now supplies 4.7 million people, was snapped up in 2007 by another consortium, this time made up of Citigroup, HSBC, and the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund GIC. Northumbria Water was also bought in 2011 by the Hong Kong-based company Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings.


British Gas is the oldest energy company in the UK, having been founded in 1812 as the Gas Light and Coke Company (GLCC) before taking the name British Gas in 1973. The parent company, Centrica, is a multinational. EDF is one of the largest distribution network operators in the UK after taking control of the UK nuclear generator, British Energy. It is owned by the French state. One of Germany’s leading energy companies owns npower which is one of the UK’s big six energy companies. Another big six supplier, Powergen, was purchased by German energy company E.ON in 2002 and its headquarters are in Dusseldorf. ScottishPower may have its headquarters in Glasgow but, since 2006, it has been a subsidiary of Spanish utility company Iberdrola.

Approximately 60% of the UK energy supply comes from abroad: from countries including Russia, Norway, Qatar, Sweden and the Netherlands, among many more. Around 60% of the UK’s natural gas imports come from Norway, and 30% of it comes from Qatar. Around half of the UK’s crude oil imports come from Norway, and just over 30% comes from OPEC.


An analysis done by The Independent in 2014, showed that in the previous two years, overseas taxpayers took dividends of nearly £1bn from companies which make their profits from UK households and passengers while UK customers struggle with increasing fares and bills and are powerless to improve services. Mick Cash, general secretary of the rail workers trade union, said: “The true scale of the way the railways here in Britain are being used as a cash-cow to hold down fares and improve services across the rest of Europe will shock passengers.” British firms have minimal presence in overseas utilities markets.

London is a place where world capitalism does business – no longer the city where British capitalism does the world’s business. The property market is dominated by Russian crooks and Saudi princes. Ordinary people cannot afford to rent or buy.

None of this has anything to do with membership of the EU.

Incompetent and venal ministers have been discombobulated as people who actually run successful businesses in the real world try to explain the basics of how the real-world economy works and what a disaster Brexit will be. British industry, agriculture and society are still on hold. Billions are being spent on Brexit (to make it less awful) and on unsuccessfully bribing the DUP, which could have been spent on something useful. All they have to offer is nostalgia for an empire and commonwealth that only exist in their imagination and an empty optimism. Top civil servants told business people who had appointments with former trade minister Liam Fox to give him a positive message or he will end meetings early. See how optimism works out when they try to sell their souls to Trump’s America. Look where trusting him got the Kurds.



Dirty Britain

Many detached observers have asked what the point of Brexit is. Who benefits?

Many people have asked the simple question: why is the UK going through the ghastly and costly process of leaving the EU?  Remainers are fighting to keep jobs and save businesses, are fearful about their livelihoods. The government’s own research has clearly shown that there will be major disruption to the economy and to the daily lives of ordinary people. Did anyone vote in the referendum to be worse off? Who benefits from this chaos?

The prime minister’s more attractive and brighter sister, Rachel, has some ideas on the subject, “People who have invested billions in shorting the pound or shorting the country in the expectation of a no deal Brexit”. Ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, explored the same theme, alleging that Johnson “is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit – and there is only one outcome that works for them: a crash-out no-deal Brexit that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring.” Nick Macpherson, former permanent secretary to the Treasury, said Hammond was right to question the political connections of some of the hedge funds with a financial interest in no deal.

Peter Jukes wrote in Byline Times on 23 September 2019: “according to City insiders, Boris Johnson’s push towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit is a ‘free lunch’ for hedge funds and currency traders.” Sir Jim O’Neill, the former Chairman of Goldman Sachs’ Asset Management, said “A lot of them are saying thank goodness for Boris, he’s giving us a chance to make some money”.

Byline Times determined how many donations to Johnson’s Conservative Party leadership campaign came from hedge funds, City traders or wealthy investors. This revealed that, between 24 May and 23 July 2019, £357,500 of the £552,500 came from such donors. They made up 65% of the value of the donations, and 30 out of 40 (75%) of the number of donors. “Boris Johnson remains heavily reliant on one of the few sectors hedge funds, foreign exchange and derivative trading which could actually profit from a sudden decline in share prices or the fall of sterling.”

Molly Scott Cato is a current Member of the European Parliament. She writes: “Lives may be lost and our economy destroyed, but for many of the key Brexit players a No Deal scenario and the chaos this would cause is simply an opportunity to maximise their returns.” Jacob Rees-Mogg was a thorn in the flesh of Theresa May with his clique of radicals within the Conservative Party, the ERG (Economic Research Group). Although he was strongly in favour of Brexit, he was canny enough to move his own hedge fund to Dublin to retain the advantages of being in the EU. He is no longer a rebel, but is in the government as Leader of the House of Commons. His Somerset Capital Management was managed via subsidiaries in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Singapore. Many of those who strongly support Brexit have reason to fear new EU regulations on tax havens. The EU recently tripled its list of tax havens to include fifteen countries.

Crispin Odey was a major contributor to the Leave campaign. He told the BBC on the morning of the referendum result that he had made £220m speculating that the markets would fall, saying “‘Il mattino ha l’oro in bocca’ – the morning has gold in its mouth”. He has now bet £300m against British businesses, so that he will profit when they collapse as a result of No Deal Brexit. Odey Asset Management – friend to Boris Johnson– has been actively shorting UK high street retail chains.  High street retailers are doing badly because of online shopping.  Odey is shorting their shares wholesale, which only makes matters worse.

Richard Tice co-founded the Leave campaign with Arron Banks, whose finances in relation to the Leave campaign are far from transparent. Tice is the chairman of the Brexit Party, a Eurosceptic political party which participated in the 2019 European parliamentary election. Tice has listed his property business offshore on a stock exchange in Guernsey. In 2019, Tice was elected as a Brexit Party Member of the European Parliament for the East of England. Molly Scott Cato writes that Tice describes his economic activity as “expertise in ‘distressed debt’. Others would call this vulture capitalism, and sharks like Tice are circling as the Brexit they have campaigned for destroys genuine businesses and makes their assets available for snapping up at low prices.” Tice is the lover of Isabel Oakeshott whose book on David Cameron included an allegation that Cameron, during his university days, performed a sex act involving a dead pig. The unsubstantiated story was dependent on hearsay and Oakeshott subsequently conceded her source could have been “deranged”.

Five candidates for the Brexit Party were businessmen and millionaires with links to tax havens. Nigel Farage admitted setting up a tax haven trust fund on the Isle of Man for “inheritance purposes”. Yorkshire candidate John Longworth advised the Hottinger Group, which is owned by an offshore firm named in the Panama Papers. South West candidate James Glancy is chief executive and part-owner of a security consultancy whose largest shareholder is based offshore on the Isle of Man. South East candidate Chris Ellis was chairman for a diamond mine business operating through a company in the British Virgin Islands and named in the Paradise Papers. London candidate Graham Shore is co-owner of Shore Capital Group which says it will “take advantage of Brexit uncertainty” and whose ultimate parent company is based in Guernsey. Among the City hedge fund operators backing Boris Johnson are David Lilley of RK Capital, Jon Wood of SRM Global, and Johan Christofferson of Christofferson, Robb and Co. These patriotic Brexiteers are seeking financial gain from undermining their country and its institutions.

Some people have rubbished claims of dirty dealings and told us we do not understand how hedge funds work. That may be true because they are specifically designed for us not to understand. Hedge funds are risk-takers. They invest in risky stocks or projects, in the hope of making above-average returns. George Kerevan writes: “Brexit is not a cry for help from the English underclass.  It is a carefully stage-managed campaign by global finance capital in the form of the hedge funds.  It is being orchestrated out of hedge fund self-interest and the greed of billionaires.  Boris Johnson is their front man.”

Guto Bebb, a former Conservative minister ejected from the party for opposing a no-deal Brexit, said: “The dubious financiers who supported the ‘leave’ campaign and the prime minister’s leadership campaign are betting against Britain. The PM should put the interests of the country first rather than facilitating a financial bonanza for a few.”

This Septic Isle

This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 7 2019

I am planning a trip to the UK and am somewhat trepidatious about what I might encounter there considering the increasingly tense situation arising out of the uncertainties surrounding Brexit. When I was there last year, I was pleasantly surprised by a number of things.  I was staying in a very ethnically mixed area.  One rarely saw a white face and when one did, it spoke Polish. Despite the heterogeneous nature of the population, what used to be considered as British values generally prevailed. People queued in an orderly fashion at the post office and held doors open for other people. If one held a door open one would be thanked. If one hesitated at a pedestrian crossing indicating one might be thinking of crossing, vehicles would immediately stop. They would even stop if one was not on an official crossing. People thanked bus drivers when alighting and the drivers reciprocated.

I only saw the native English in central Croydon. They were generally elderly, frail, wheelchair-bound. I was astounded at the number of grotesquely obese people – of all ethnicities. Health is a major anxiety. I have just finished reading John Bew’s excellent biography of Clement Attlee, a mild-mannered, quiet man who transformed Britain (for the better) when he was prime minister for the first years of my life. The chancers who run Britain today have destroyed the welfare state, driving poor sick people to suicide.

There were stories on the news every day of knife attacks. Children were being stabbed to death for no reason. A pregnant woman was stabbed to death in her own home near to where I was staying. Adults were attacked for the sole reason of being Muslim or for speaking a language not English. An Indian customer in Lidl (a German-based supermarket chain offering a cornucopia of culinary delights at reasonable prices – how will Brexit affect that?) was berating a rather alarming tattooed assistant possibly of Baltic origin. Soren rarely smiles but is always polite and competent. When we were walking to Lidl we passed a severely burnt-out car which made one think of downtown Damascus. I was vaguely aware of a small, middle-aged, white-haired Afro-Caribbean man veering over to our side of the pavement. He shoulder-barged my wife and then complained that we had attacked him and demanded an apology. This was humbly given but did not stop him shouting filth at us.

Encounters with homeless beggars can be problematic. Some appreciate what they are given and understand when one is unable to donate.  Some can be aggressive and abusive. There were so many hapless people shivering in the bitter cold, it was difficult to keep enough cash about one’s person to help all of them. Many of them have mental health problems and austerity policies have meant cuts in services. We are now told that austerity is over and Boris Johnson is promising jam for everyone from the Magic Money Tree. All that suffering was for nothing. It is very difficult to earn enough money to buy or rent a home in London. Not all those sleeping rough are unemployed. Many people who are not actually homeless are living in squalid conditions.

Successive governments have continued Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 policy of selling off social housing. While there may have been some merit in council tenants being able to buy their own homes, the policy has caused severe social problems. An analysis of Freedom of Information data showed that that more than 40% of council houses sold in London are now privately rented. Around 466 individuals or companies have the leasehold for at least five former council homes each. Councils have spent £22m a year on renting back properties they once owned to use as temporary accommodation.

The Leave vote in the EU referendum was, to a great extent an expression of disgruntlement. People were unhappy about many things caused by the policies of the UK government but they saw fit to blame the EU, which was pouring millions in subsidies into deprived areas like South Wales and Sunderland. A post-Brexit UK will not replace these subsidies.

Disgruntlement is exacerbated now by uncertainty and the poison encouraged by the current government. Political analyst Ian Dunt writes: “There is a genuine concern about the country, a fear for its future, and a sense that their understanding of themselves as Brits is going through an upheaval. It is political and personal. And then there is the background thrum of abuse, like a distant drumbeat, forming an awful soundtrack to a horrible process…We’re all sick of hating one another. People yearn to go back to a country that wasn’t severed in half in this way. But they can’t get back there. The map is lost.”

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve was ejected from the Conservative Party for opposing a No-Deal Brexit. He writes in the Daily Mail: “I have been astonished to hear ministers talking up the possibility of civil disorder if we do not leave the EU on October 31… The message coming from Downing Street is we have to leave by October 31 or there will be riots.”

The party of law and order is using the incitement to violence as a cynical strategy. Brexiteers seem determined now to stir up hatred and to incite violence. Nigel Farage said the civil service will be looked at: “Once Brexit’s done, we’ll take a knife to them”. Apologists for Farage claimed that he merely wanted to cut civil service numbers. However, Dominic Hornberger, from Birmingham, was charged with grievous bodily harm and possession of a knife in a public place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court after he stabbed a civil servant outside the Home Office. The 29-year-old accused was also carrying a banned CS spray and a ferret. Professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill of the Spiked organisation (funded by the Koch brothers) said there “should be riots on the streets” to get the UK out of the EU. Boris Johnson said we must not give in to the “betrayal” of the “surrender bill” which blocks No Deal.

MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death while campaigning against Brexit by a right-wing fanatic shouting “Britain First”.


In the Commons last week, many female MPs talked about the death threats they were still receiving from Leave supporters. Johnson was asked to apologise for the immoderate language he was using. Far from saying sorry, he said it was “humbug” for a Labour MP to request he temper his language, to try to protect MPs’ safety. He said the best way to honour Jo Cox, was to “get Brexit done”. MPs left the chamber in tears.





Democracy – Lame Duck or Dead Duck?

This article was published in Ceylon Today on September 26 2019

I have been reading a very depressing book called How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They go back as far as Peron’s populist subversion of Argentinian democracy beginning in the 1940s which eventually led to the horrors of rule by a military junta in which dissenters were dropped out of helicopters. In between, they cover the overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected president in a military coup sponsored by the USA. They analyse more recent examples such as Erdoğan in Turkey and Trump in the USA.

The book was published in 2018, so they do not cover the ongoing farce that is Brexit. In the UK, as I write, there is fierce contention over the meaning of “the will of the people”. This is a dispute that could lead to civil unrest and has already resulted in violent clashes and an upsurge in hate crime.

Some  contend that it would be a denial of the people’s will if the UK does not leave the EU on October 31 2019. They argue that the views of 17,410,742 people will be disrespected if the UK does not leave the EU. On the other hand, the views of 16,141,241 citizens will be disrespected if the UK does leave the EU.

The philosopher AC Grayling writes: “The ‘Eurosceptics’ in the Tory Party, soon and unexpectedly to be aided and abetted by the little rump of far-left Eurosceptics in the Labour Party, had been giving their own party leaders a great deal of trouble ever since the UK joined the then-EEC in 1973. Their power varied inversely with the number of Tory seats in the House of Commons. They succeeded in getting a Tory prime minister, David Cameron, leading a minority Tory party in the House of Commons and therefore in coalition, to commit to a referendum on continued EU membership.There was no other reason for having such a referendum; it was purely an internal Tory party affair.”

The vote in the referendum of June 2016 was a close one – 51.89% to 48.11% – too close to warrant such a major constitutional change as leaving the EU, Referendums are usually advisory rather than legally binding and should require a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50% plus one majority. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Greater London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, Greater Belfast, Brighton and Hove, Leicester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, York and Gibraltar all voted to Remain.The referendum result was simply a mandate for the principle of leaving the EU, not for the manner of doing so. The legislative branch passed legislation to stop the prime minister forcing through no-deal a few weeks ago. The judiciary has done the same.

Tony Grayling again: “One of the major scandals of the 2016 referendum is that its outcome has never been debated in parliament. The question, ‘Shall we take the advice of 37% of the electorate to take an enormous, uncosted, unplanned and unpredictable step?’ has never been debated and voted upon in our sovereign state body.”

Political commentator Ian Dunt writes: “Brexit is presented as some sort of triumph of popular will. But in actuality it has involved a relentless attempt to massively strengthen the executive and dismiss other forms of democratic legitimacy, to an extent not seen in this country since the days of absolute monarchy.”

It is now clear that the public was given false information by the Leave campaign and that there was foreign interference and electoral fraud relating to campaign contributions. The main organizer of the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, was found guilty of contempt of Parliament but is nevertheless calling the shots as Boris Johnson’s unelected special advisor.

When David Cameron, a Remainer, resigned as prime minister, he was replaced by Theresa May, also a Remainer. Despite her personal view, she felt it her duty to respect the referendum result, to trigger Article 50 and leave the EU as soon as possible. She did not have to act in haste; she did not have to set a departure date for 29 March 2019. Nevertheless, the House of Commons supported May and backed the government’s European Union Bill, supported by the Labour leadership, by 498 votes to 114. Subsequently, May’s serial misjudgments, including her refusal to reach out to Remainers and the loss of her majority in an ill-advised general election in 2017, meant that the deadline was not met.

Things have changed a great deal since then. Supporting the principle of leaving was easier than agreeing the practical means to leave. The UK hammered out a withdrawal agreement with the EU. May annoyed everyone by postponing a Commons vote on the deal because she knew she was going to lose. On January 15 2019, May sustained the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the democratic era after MPs rejected her Brexit deal by a resounding majority of 230. In all she suffered three defeats and was willing to go for a fourth but the Speaker, John Bercow, would not allow it.

She was replaced as prime minister by Boris Johnson, one of the main purveyors of lies for the Leave side in the referendum campaign. Fintan O’Toole wrote in his New York Review of Books article ‘The Ham of Fate’: “he has quite literally made a career of mendacity”. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve recently called him a “pathological  liar”. Johnson once boasted that his only conviction was one for speeding. He was not a conviction Leaver. He wrote two articles for his Daily Telegraph column (£275,000 a year, considerably more than this columnist receives), one arguing in favour of Remain, one in favour of Leave. At the last minute he told the editors to spike the article in favour of Remain. Harry Mount, one of his editors at the Telegraph, described him as a “greased albino piglet” and a “blond onion, however may layers you peeled off, you never got to the bottom of him”.

Once in power, the former possible Remainer Johnson said that he would rather die in a ditch rather than fail to get the UK out of the EU by 31 October, whether he has a deal or not. Any sensible person can see that a no-deal departure would be a disaster for the UK and the island of Ireland and also damaging to the rest of Europe. Johnson has no mandate for a no-deal departure. Nobody voted for that. Nobody voted to be worse off (although one Leaver said he would be happy to die of his diabetes if he was unable to get insulin after Brexit).

Johnson became prime minister after being voted leader of the Conservative Party by 92,153 Conservative members, a group that collectively accounts for 0.13 % of the British population – roughly the size of a decent football crowd.  On September 3, the government had a working majority of one. As Johnson addressed the House, Phillip Lee stood up and crossed the floor to defect from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats. A total of 21 Conservative MPs rebelled against their newly installed leader.  Johnson immediately moved to throw them out of the party and banned them from standing as Tory candidates at the next election. The party is now deprived of the experience and wisdom of long-serving and well-respected figures, including former ministers, such as Kenneth Clarke, Alistair Burt, and Nicholas Soames, grandson of Johnson’s supposed hero, Winston Churchill.

In giving the unanimous verdict of the eleven Supreme Court judges who decided that the Executive had acted illegally in proroguing parliament, Lady Hale said. “The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.”

If every opposition and independent member of Parliament in the 650-strong House of Commons were to oppose Johnson on any legislation, he would be defeated by 43 votes. He has already sustained seven defeats in the Commons. When Ranil Wickremesinghe became prime minister of Sri Lanka the UNF only had 60 seats. Look what happened to the country since. In the 2000 US presidential election, Gore had won the popular vote by more than half a million but the Supreme Court gave the job to Bush and after that Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded and the world economy crashed. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got three million more votes than Trump but Trump became president and went on to mess up the world order and looks as though he plans war with Iran. Johnson with a mandate of 0.13 % of the British population and a majority in the House of Commons of minus 43 might be allowed to wreck the economy of the UK, cause untold hardship to countless people and to bring violence back to Ireland. Funny old game, Democracy!

Ian Dunt writes: “Brexit is presented as some sort of triumph of popular will. But in actuality it has involved a relentless attempt to massively strengthen the executive and dismiss other forms of democratic legitimacy, to an extent not seen in this country since the days of absolute monarchy.”


Married to Alzheimer’s: A Review

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 17 2019

I was honoured to be invited by Steph Booth to the launch on March 6 2019 of her memoir Married to Alzheimer’s, which developed from a column she wrote for the Irish Times. The book is an account of her marriage to the actor Tony Booth, the father of Cherie Blair, Tony Blair’s wife. My own personal memories of Tony Booth date back to 1964 when he played Finn Brodie in a TV series called Catch Hand, about the adventures of two building workers and their efforts to find odd jobs around the country. One evening in the 80s, he sat in front of me in the Library Theatre, Manchester with his then wife Pat Phoenix. The play was Mike Stott’s Funny Peculiar, which was set in Todmorden where Booth and Steph went to live. Steph served as Mayor of Todmorden and Tony was her “Mayoress” He had appeared in a number of TV series before Catch Hand – going back to !959. He was best known for his role as the left-wing son-in-law of the racist right-winger Alf Garnett in ‘Till Death Us Do Part broadcast on BBC1 from 1965 to 1975. He appeared in many other popular TV series such as Coronation Street, East Enders, Emmerdale Farm, the Avengers, Holby City, The Bill and many feature films, with, amongst others, John Wayne and Michael Caine.


He particularly enjoyed live stage work but found it difficult to memorise his lines after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2004. As Steph puts it, Tony was: “holding on to words, still valuing their importance to him; how many thousands had he spoken and remembered through his life and career?” Booth had started smoking at the age of 11 and later suffered from heart problems. Tony Booth died of a stroke in September 2017 at the age of 85 with Cherie Blair and Steph on either side of his bed, singing to him and holding his hands.


Booth married his fourth wife, Stephanie Buckley, in 1998. She was from a Manchester Irish Catholic background; he was from a Liverpool Irish Catholic background. Steph mentions “his early, rackety lifestyle”. He nearly burned to death in November 1979 when, during a drunken attempt to get into his locked flat, he fell into a drum of paraffin.  Coronation Street actress Pat Phoenix took him in and nursed him back to health, and they lived together for six years. Phoenix’s own health subsequently declined, and the pair married a few days before her death from lung cancer in 1986. Tony Booth was married four times and had eight daughters by five women- five daughters with partners he did not marry. He had a daughter, Lucy Thomas in 1967 with Ann Gannon, who worked in radio sales, after a brief relationship; this did not become known publicly until 2002. Steph writes: “He has eight daughters that I know of. When I first met him there were seven … It was a minor concern before Tony’s funeral about what to do if any more women turned up at the church claiming to be either unknown offspring or unknown partners.”

He was not the ideal father-in-law to Tony Blair. Although he was involved in Labour Party politics from an early age he did not have much time for New Labour. He had been friends with Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. During the firefighters’ strike in 2002, he said the government had “ruthlessly” squashed their pay demands. He also accused it of being “prepared to throw away billions” on the Iraq war, rather than spending the money on pensioners. He railed against “androids” at Labour’s Millbank HQ and accused the prime minister of stuffing the House of Lords with “Tony’s Cronies”. Despite this Blair gave a moving and humorous elegy (which is reproduced in Steph’s book) at Booth’s funeral. Blair said “I certainly never met anyone like him, which at times I was thankful for! But in time, I came to know him, to like him and to admire him.” The two Tonys might not have agreed on politics but Blair respected his father-law’s views: “His politics were unashamedly on the Left, but from that progressive side of politics which embraced social liberalism and a fierce defence of human freedom.” Blair admitted to learning something from Booth: “how to make a decent cup of tea, something I have never forgotten.”


Blair recalled “a time in Downing Street when I came up to the flat for a meeting with a senior civil servant and as we both wrinkled our noses, the civil servant said, ‘If I didn’t know any better, I would think you had been smoking weed, Prime Minister,’ to which I laughed nervously.”


It is difficult to get a handle on dementia because the term covers such a varied spectrum. Steph writes: “Dementia is unique to the person who has it and does not fit neatly into medical or research boxes. All we can do is wait and watch”. We all have our senior moments and it can be easier to remember what we were doing 50 years ago than to recall what happened yesterday. As people are living longer there are more ailments affecting older people. It is a good plan for we Oldies to keep our minds active and to keep our bodies fit but that will not necessarily protect us from neurofibrillary tangles in the brain.


My cousin, Pat Saward, was a huge handsome fellow. He won an FA Cup winner’s medal in 1957 for Aston Villa and went on to be captain of the Republic of Ireland team. Despite being a superb athlete, he died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 72 – the same age I am now. Iris Murdoch had a brilliant mind and produced many books on philosophy as well as novels. She died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 79. Bernard Levin was a brilliant journalist who took an active interest in many cultural pursuits, particularly music. Arianna Stassinopoulos (later known as Arianna Huffington) said of Levin: “He wasn’t just the big love of my life; he was a mentor as a writer and a role model as a thinker”. Levin began to have difficulty with his balance as early as 1988, although Alzheimer’s disease was not diagnosed until the early 1990s. He had to give up writing and died in 2004 at the age of 75.


Steph writes that Tony refused to be labelled ‘demented’ “with all those negative connotations.” He was embarrassed to have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but it was a physical disease that showed up on his brain scan. He encouraged Steph to write about his condition. “If I’m ashamed, what about those other poor buggers? Let’s get it out in the open, it’s about time.”


“As dementia caused Tony’s world to shrink, it was good to see he could still connect with, and take pleasure in, watching beautiful, living things. His imagination had not completely shut down.”


Individuals cannot cope with the suffering of others. “For a short while after Tony was diagnosed, people we knew would cross the street to avoid us simply because they had no idea what to say.” In my article about Henry Green’s novel Blindness I wrote: “A major theme of Blindness for me is how difficult it is for people generally to cope with the misfortunes of others. Even a reviewer on GoodReads dismisses the book thus: “John is blinded by a shard of glass and proceeds to wallow. And, try as I might, I was just not that interested in hearing about it.” One of John’s schoolfriends writes, “Poor dear amusing John. I must write to him, though what there is to say I don’t know. Really, these letters of condolences are very difficult”. There is a good deal of positive advice of the ‘buck up, old chap, there are people who are much worse off than you’ variety. To spare themselves in their helplessness people sustain the delusion   that John might regain his sight – despite the fact that his nurse has his eyeballs on her mantlepiece at home.”


How often in real life do we hear people distancing themselves from the suffering of the afflicted by blaming the victim? A neighbour died recently. His mobility had long been severely restricted by a spinal injury but the immediate cause of death was a heart attack. Someone said, “I’m not surprised. He was a very heavy smoker”. Those around John want to be sympathetic but eventually he will be a bore and a nuisance.”


So many people are suffering from one form or another of dementia but public policy is undeveloped.  In 2015, there were approximately 29.8 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s. It most often begins in people over 65 years of age, although 4–5% of cases are early-onset Alzheimer’s. It affects about 6% of people 65 years and older. In 2015, dementia resulted in about 1.9 million deaths. In developed countries, Alzheimer’s is one of the most financially costly diseases, although drugs do not help.


Steph writes: “Dementia is an illness that affects the lives of an increasing number of people and their families and friends, and therefore urgently needs to be normalised. Cancer is shattering, heart disease is frightening, but as a society and as individuals we have learned to confront them.” Many countries are having to cope with an “increasingly ageing population and a shrinking work force, dementia is a critical issue facing the government”.


Steph believes that policy-makers should listen to carers who know first hand what dementia is like. It is “overdue for carers to have an opportunity to make their contribution to healthcare policy, express their views”. Government approaches the issue from the wrong angle: “rather than recognising a carer’s huge contribution to health and social wellbeing, government policy often appears to be predicated on the perverse notion that as individuals we are a drain on welfare budgets.” She describes the debilitating effect of having to wrestle with bureaucracy at the same time as bearing the physical and emotional burden of caring for her husband. “Coping with Tony was often easier than coping with the DWP, local council services, the medical profession, social services, well-meaning but uninformed bystanders and anyone else who might have an opinion about what was best for us.”



“We need to start with innovative and sustainable policies that would quickly make a positive difference to the lives of people currently living with dementia. With all my new free time, I would put myself forward to be a member of such a committee. Like so many other experienced home carers, I’ve got much I need to talk about and be involved in.”


There is a lot of sadness in the book. Tony could be violent as well as needy and there are some harrowing scenes. Steph rails “against the idea that one can ‘live well’ with dementia. This, I believe, is an advertising gimmick designed to make us feel better about dementia, while masking the reality of the lack of progress on finding the causes and dealing with outcomes.” Steph writes: “We rowed and fought, loved and laughed, were happy and sometimes sad, and generally faced up to the fact that if the relationship is worth anything then so is trying harder when the going gets tough.”

There is also a great deal of humour and vast amounts of love. I was a pleasure to meet Steph and to talk to the lovely people, friends and family, who made the journey to London from Todmorden (a place I know well) to support her.

Married to Alzheimer’s: A Life Less Ordinary with Tony Booth

By Steph Booth


Is published by Rider Books (Penguin Random House) and is also available on Kindle


Animal Welfare Bill – still waiting after all these years

This article was published in Ceylon Today on September 2 2019


As I write, we are still very much in the dark about who the next president of Sri Lanka might be. The only candidate who has declared himself is Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If he is successful, he will have less power than his predecessors but his brother will be prime minister and will have executive power. Countless previous contenders promised to abolish the executive presidency. None of them lived up to their promises. Countless contenders promised to make the Animal Welfare Bill law. It still has not happened.

As long ago as December 2007, I wrote: “another encouraging development is that an Animal Welfare Bill has been gazetted as a Private Member’s Bill by the Venerable Athureliye Ratana Thero, MP. This Bill could enable Sri Lanka to provide a model for other Asian countries to incorporate in their legislation modern standards for the way humans co-exist with other sentient beings.” One of the objectives of the bill was to raise community awareness about animal welfare and to foster kindness, compassion, and responsible behaviour towards animals.

The Law Commission of Sri Lanka prepared the new legislation after extensive consultations with the public and examination of other jurisdictions. It adopts a proactive approach to animal welfare, covering all animals, which are no longer to be regarded as the chattels of humans, with obligations and prohibitions emanating from recognition of a duty of care. A new National Animal Welfare Authority will administer the legislation, develop policies, and strengthen and expand the existing enforcement machinery.

My optimism was unfounded.

On May 21 2014, I wrote: “An Animal Welfare Bill also based on the Law Commission draft has been finalised by the authorities and will be submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers on 29th May. Let us pray!”

My prayers were not answered.

In 2015, the present Government also brought forth this Bill under its 100-day programme. However, the draft Bill has not yet been presented to Parliament.

Some years ago, Sri Lankan newspapers interviewed an English animal welfare activist. They allowed her to voice her view that as a nation Sri Lanka is particularly cruel to animals because of the number of and condition of street dogs. Driving around Sri Lanka, I have noticed that one rarely sees dead animals on the roads. Even the most maniacal bus drivers seem to avoid running over dogs, however wayward the behaviour of the dogs – or snakes, or lizards. In England, the roads are carpeted with squashed hedgehogs. In Ireland, the major roads are littered with the corpses of foxes. Drivers do not try to avoid them and possibly deliberately aim to kill them.

When I was publicizing the case of a Sri Lankan university professor who mutilated three shelter dogs for no purpose, I approached western academics who had worked with the culprit. One said: “If he is as flagrantly in breach of these laws as claimed, then his detractors in Sri Lanka have a clear legal avenue for punishing him.” The colleague eventually realised that he was mistaken. “I didn’t believe it at first, but it does seem to be the case that there are no laws in Sri Lanka about animal welfare.” Another former colleague of the rogue professor, said: “Any such action in the UK would be dealt with under criminal law with serious consequences for those involved; moreover, such actions damage the reputation of legitimate scientists and bring discredit to the profession.”

Remains of Polly


Many aspects of animal welfare in Sri Lanka need improvement. Perhaps the most important thing is for the media to help create a culture of responsible pet ownership. When I go out in the morning to feed street dogs, I am forever finding new recruits to my little gang. There have been handsome big rottweilers, German shepherds and this week an obese Labrador with a leather collar. These are not dogs who were born on the streets. Are they just lost? Have they wandered from their homes and can’t find their way back? Or have they been dumped because they became an inconvenience, an accessory that no longer fits the human life style.

The Veterinary Surgeons and Practitioners Act No 46 of 1956 established the Veterinary Council of Sri Lanka in order to regulate the conduct of veterinary practitioners in Sri Lanka. The Act states, ‘”The Council may order the name of any Veterinary Surgeon or Veterinary Practitioner to be expunged from the register if he –after an inquiry by the Council, is found guilty of infamous conduct.” The Council apparently found the two veterinarians guilty of “unethical and inhumane veterinary practices” but chose not to issue a public statement or to punish the two miscreants in any meaningful way. The unlicensed mutilation of three healthy dogs would count as ‘infamous conduct’ to most veterinary governing bodies. Professional codes of conduct and ethics committees are all very well but what is needed is a strong law that is enforced.

Rules and regulations are important because even if you cannot change the attitude of everyone, you can change behaviour. The Sri Lankan Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance enacted by the colonial government in 1907 is ineffective mainly because its sanctions have never been updated. The maximum fine is only Rs100. The authorities have tended to think it not worthwhile to pursue even cases involving heinous cruelty to animals. There is no reported case of an offender being given a sentence of imprisonment for causing cruelty to an animal. There is no lead agency to enforce the law and the police are too busy and have inadequate powers.

The current president when he was Minister for Health made a statement in Kalutara on January 6, 2012, that he had decided to revive the policy of killing street dogs “in the traditional way”. The “traditional way” is a very painful process. Dogs undergo immense suffering after the poison is injected, sometimes writhing in agony for hours, jerking with muscle spasms and frothing at the mouth.

In June 2006, President Rajapaksa’s website proudly carried a letter from Monika Kostner in Germany: “Mr President, let me congratulate you on the path that you have chosen. Please continue pursuing it. I greatly welcome your pledge to bring stringent laws against cruelty to animals. Do not give way to those political forces and vested interests, which are keen to continue the outdated, cruel treatment of animals. After all, they are living and feeling creatures.” Despite resistance from some of his underlings, President Rajapaksa continued to insist that street dogs should not be killed. Let him, if successful in the elections, please bring in the too-long-delayed law.




Ukridge and the Optimism of Fraudsters

This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 16 2019

I have been bingeing on the oeuvre of the Divine Plum, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Reading the works of PG Wodehouse usually provides an escape from the horrors of the contemporary world. Wodehouse’s world is a fantasy land populated with gormless privileged youths with unlikely names like Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright and Augustus Fink-Nottle and formidable aunts. I am not usually keen on fantasy, preferring a cold hard dose of the facts. However, mankind cannot bear too much reality; sometimes one needs to escape to recharge the batteries.

I was not so enraptured by the Wodehouse book that I most recently read – Ukridge. Stanley Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshawe) Ukridge was the longest-running of PG Wodehouse’s characters, with new stories appearing over 60 years, more than Jeeves or Lord Emsworth. To this reader Ukridge is very irritating, with his oft-repeated catchphrases “Old horse”, “Upon my Sam”, “Laddie” etc. “Ukridge was the sort of man who asks you to dinner, borrows money from you to pay the bill, and winds up the evening by embroiling you in a fight with a cabman.”

Ukridge is something of a cad and a bounder who tries the patience of his friends but they show remarkable fortitude in putting up with him. The one who suffers the most is the narrator of these stories, Corky Corcoran, who lives in a modest apartment in Ebury Street. Corky’s home is vulnerable because his landlord, Bowles, a retired butler, for some unaccountable reason, admires Ukridge. He allows Ukridge to enter the apartment at will and he rarely leaves empty-handed. Usually, the plunder is small – socks or cigars- but sometimes he takes something important such as the dress suit Corky was planning to wear that evening. Bowles lends Corky his old dress suit which has been languishing moth-balled in a trunk for decades. Corky and Ukridge attend the same function, the latter looking suave and elegant, the former repelling all because of his mouldy, smelly suit.

The things Ukridge leaves in the apartment cause more trouble than what he takes away. On one occasion it is a flock of Pekingese dogs. “I’m going to train dogs. Dog acts, you know. Pots of money in it…” This is an early indication of Ukridge’s willingness to lie, cheat and steal from those who help him. He has been enjoying the hospitality of his Aunt Julia in her luxurious house beside Wimbledon Common but repays her kindness by stealing her dogs in order to make money. (Incidentally, I used to live in that area and know the house where Robert Graves was born. He firmly believed that Wodehouse based Ukridge on his brother, Perceval). On another occasion, Corky finds a huge man with a cauliflower ear sleeping on his sofa – Battling Bilson, a former seaman whom Ukridge plans to transform unto a successful boxer. “He’ll be a prize fighter. Enormous lad. I’ll be pulling in hundreds a week…Nothing can stop me from making a colossal fortune. There’s no limit…” . Sometimes his hare-brained schemes threaten the health of his friends as well as their bank accounts. “Accident insurance. All a fellow’s got to do is break a limb and the newspaper hands over a fiver…”.

Unfortunately, for Ukridge’s friends, especially the ever-generous George Tupper, no good deed goes unpunished. He will try anything to get rich apart from working. “For Ukridge the spectacle of somebody else working always had an irresistible fascination, and, gripping my arm, he steered me up to assist him in giving the toiler moral support. About two minutes after he had started to breathe earnestly on the man’s neck, the latter, seeming to become aware that what was tickling his back hair was not some wandering June zephyr, looked up with a certain petulance.”

Wodehouse normally affords me a blissful escape from reality. Reading the Ukridge stories I got an uncomfortable feeling that these fantasies were too close to today’s reality. Ukridge’s totally irrational optimism about his grandiose schemes reminds me of the wilder shores of the Brexiteers’ empty promises. The UK is now led by Ukridge. Boris Johnson occupies 10 Downing Street thanks to the votes of an infinitesimal proportion of the British electorate. His government has a majority of one in the House of Commons and one of his own party is threatening to switch to the Lib-Dems. A majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU but the Conservatives are kept in power by the DUP, the only party in Northern Ireland to support Brexit. There is ample evidence that Brexit will have the direst consequences for the British economy and the health and welfare of its people. Never mind, says Johnson and his acolytes. Everything will turn out fine. Optimism and blind faith are all they have to offer. Those who do not agree are called whingeing Remoaners. Ukridge is quick to blame his friends for his failures. Remainers are blamed for the consequences of the lies and illegal activities of the Leavers. Ukridge gets really angry when his friend refuses to injure himself for what Ukridge describes as the common good. Ukridge usually sees himself as the victim when his plans inevitably imploded and blames fate or his friends – “It’s a bit hard…! Is a phrase that recurs often.

Battling BoJo

Remainers are accused of treachery and treason, a lack of patriotism. This is in spite of the fact that Johnson seems quite prepared to put the Queen in an embarrassing position by plunging out of the EU without a deal in defiance of the wishes of Parliament.

Ukridge treats everyone badly, but, somehow, we are expected to find him charming. Unlike Johnson, Ukridge does not seem to be interested in women as sexual beings. He is only interested in exploiting them to further his madcap schemes. He gets engaged to one innocent girl mainly because her family give him lavish meals. Like Johnson, Ukridge is thoroughly amoral and without conscience (Johnson once said his only conviction was for speeding). Johnson was once pro-EU but he saw Brexit as a means of achieving his ambition to be prime minister. Johnson has long played the buffoon and has often been mistaken for a Wodehousian silly ass. His fake buffoonery will cause real distress to millions of real people. Ukridge is fiction. Johnson is ugly fact.

Blindness by Henry Green

This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 30 2019

I have just finished reading a remarkable novel – Blindness by Henry Green. It was Green’s first novel, published in 1926 when he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Henry Green whose real name was Henry Yorke, was born near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, not far from my birthplace. His father was a wealthy aristocratic landowner and industrialist in Birmingham. At Eton College, Green became friends with fellow pupil Anthony Powell and at Oxford University he became friends with Evelyn Waugh. He did not achieve a degree and left Oxford in 1926 to work on the factory floor at the family business in Birmingham, working eight and a half hours a day and living in workmen’s lodgings. His family had historic noble connections as well as being wealthy. Green became managing director of the family business and married another aristocrat.

Blindness is somewhat more straightforward than the later experimental novels that gained Green a cult following among disparate writers and intellectuals. Sir Maurice Bowra, the Oxford classicist (who once had the privilege of shaking my hand when he presented me with a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses as my school prize at Sir Thomas Rich’s School) wrote that Green could be relied on for  “piercing insight, stripping men and ideas of their disguises and going straight to some central point”. Terry Southern called him a “writer’s writer’s writer”. John Updike wrote of Green’s “liberatingly ingenuous voice, that voice so full of other voices, its own interpolations amid the matchless dialogue twisted and tremulous with a precision that kept the softness of groping, of sensation, of living.”

There is no space here to provide a full analysis of Green’s life and work or even this one novel. Green himself once wrote that “literature is not a subject to write essays about.” However, his neutral tone, his flatness is, in itself, a studied effect. I will focus on a particular aspect of this novel that struck me as having general application.

The beginning of the novel consists of diary entries by the 17-year-old John Haye about his time at a public school called Noat. The diaries show him reveling in the pose of the dandy aesthete, somewhat pretentious, as all adolescent males have a right to be, with hopes of an artistic career of some sort. He seems somewhat solitary and sensitive. His life changes dramatically when he is travelling home from Noat for the holidays. He is on a train somewhere between Stroud and Gloucester when a small boy throws a rock through the train window. John is badly scarred and blinded. Let me take a short cut by copying the plot summary from the NYRB Books edition: “Forced to live with his high-handed, horsey stepmother in the country, John begins a weird dalliance with a girl named Joan, leading to a new determination. Blindness is the curse of youth and inexperience and love and ambition, but blindness, John will discover, can also be the source of vision.”

Green does not fall prey to that cliché of blind people developing extra keen compensatory senses.  He does, however, produce many fine passages about John remembering visual stimuli from the past, appreciating sights that may not have been in the forefront of his mind when he experienced them. There are also wonderful passages about his adjustment to the loss of that one sense. “He was in the summer house.  Light rain crackled as it fell on the wooden roof, and winds swept up, one after the other, to rustle the trees.  A pigeon hurried rather through his phrase that was no longer now a call.  Cries of rooks came down to him from where they would be floating, whirling in the air like dead leaves, over the lawn.  The winds kept coming back, growing out of each other and when a stronger one had gone by there would be left cool eddies slipping by his cheek, while a tree further on would thunder softly.”

Here is what I took from the novel which I think has a resonance for all of us. “Blundering about in the dark yet knowing about everything really… You see, no one cares enough, about the war and everything. No one really cared about my going blind.”

A major theme of Blindness for me is how difficult it is for people generally to cope with the misfortunes of others. Even a reviewer on GoodReads dismisses the book thus: “John is blinded by a shard of glass and proceeds to wallow. And, try as I might, I was just not that interested in hearing about it.” One of his schoolfriends writes, “Poor dear amusing John. I must write to him, though what there is to say I don’t know. Really, these letters of condolences are very difficult”. There is a good deal of positive advice of the “buck up, old chap, there are people who are much worse off than you” variety. To spare themselves in their helplessness people sustain the delusion   that John might regain his sight – despite the fact that his nurse has his eyeballs on her mantlepiece at home.

“But he was blind, everyone would be sorry for him, everyone would try to help him, and everyone would be at his beck and call; it was very nice, it was comfortable.  He would take full advantage, after all he deserved it in a conscience.  He would enjoy life.  Why not?  But he was blind.”

A reader called Julie on GoodReads movingly describes the blindness suffered by several members of her family. “The loss of freedom was the worst of all: always to rely on someone else’s eyes, someone else’s timing. There was no ‘I’ anymore, without the ‘we’. We’ll go for a walk. We’ll go to the store soon. We’ll go to the bank. We’ll go to the doctor.”

How often in real life do we hear people distancing themselves from the suffering of the afflicted by blaming the victim? A neighbour died recently. His mobility had long been severely restricted by a spinal injury but the immediate cause of death was a heart attack. Someone said, “I’m not surprised. He was a very heavy smoker”. Those around John want to be sympathetic but eventually he will be a bore and a nuisance

Julie continues: “The state of not having a choice results, usually, in some very bad choices ultimately. Henry Green understood that very well too for John makes some rather silly choices, early on, grasping at the straws of existence-without-sight.”

Daniel Mendelson writes in his introduction to the NYRB Books edition: “The novel ends with John preparing himself for a new life, reconnecting with his schoolfriends (although one suspects that they will be distancing themselves from him. “I am going to write, yes, to write. Such books…such amazing tales, rich with intricate plot. Life will be clotted and I will dissect it, choosing little bits to analyse. I shall be a great writer. I am sure of it.”


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