Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Literature

Writers [sic] Bureau

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


A test then:

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


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


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


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

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


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

He got my name wrong.

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Adoh! published and paid. The editor described it as “fantastic” and begged me to send her more articles.

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

She also got my name wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I currently write two articles every week for Ceylon Today and two articles every month for Echelon, a business magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above all WRITE!




Flann O’Brien and Catholicism Part 3

strabane festival


Here I continue dealing with the references to Catholicism in O’Brien’s work.

Slattery’s Sago Saga



In this short novella, Crawford MacPherson has a totalitarian philanthropic mission. She has seen the ill effects of Irish emigration on the United States:

“they bred and multiplied and infested the whole continent, saturating it with crime, drunkenness, illegal corn liquor, bank robbery, murder, prostitution, syphilis, mob rule, crooked politics and Roman Catholic Popery…Adultery, salacious dancing, blackmail, drug peddling, pimping, organising brothels, consorting with niggers and getting absolution for all their crimes from Roman Catholic priests…”

Her solution is to take over all Irish agricultural land and ban potatoes. The Irish dietary need for starch will be sated by sago.

The Hard Life

“Dedicated to Graham Greene, whose own forms of gloom I admire”.

hard life

This novel is set in the Dublin of 1890. Mr Collopy has become the guardian of his nephews, Finbarr (the narrator) and Manus. The boys attend prison-like schools run by the Christian Brothers in a regime of excessive corporal punishment. The Synge Street school attended by Finbarr was O’Brien’s own school.

Mr Collopy enjoys his drinking and talking sessions with the Jesuit, Father Fahrt, but is not averse to expressing strong opinions about the failings of the Catholic Church.  “Oh the grand old Catholic church has always had great praise for sufferers… you won’t find Quakers or swaddlers coming out with any of this guff about suffering. They treat their employees right, they have proper accommodation for them, they know how to make plenty of money honestly and they are as holy – every man-jack of them – as any blooming Jesuit or the Pope of Rome himself”.

“A humble Jesuit would be like a dog without a tail or a woman without a knickers on her”. The Dominicans of the Spanish Inquisition were “blood-stained bowsies”. “The holy friars in Spain propagated the true faith by driving red hot nails into the backs of unfortunate Jewmen…Scalding their testicles with boiling water…And ramming barbed wire or something of the kind up where-you-know. And all AMDG [to the greater glory of God], to use your own motto, Father”. “If that’s the Catholic Church for you, is it any wonder there was a reformation? Three cheers for Martin Luther!”

Is Manus another version of de Selby who appears in footnotes in The Third Policeman and in person in The Dalkey Archive? He perverts science to quackery and exploits it for commercial gain.

Mr Collopy at times appears to be a proto-feminist. One of those human institutions about which to be pessimistic is the Dublin Metropolitan Corporation. Collopy is rallying the Dublin Corporation to provide public lavatories for women, and trying to persuade Father Fahrt to enlist the support of the church. They do eventually get an audience with the Pope, who becomes angry that Collopy is involving him in such a matter and in a mixture of Italian and Latin condemns him to hell.

According to Anthony Cronin, O’Brien was hopeful that the book would be banned. I have written elsewhere about how O’Brien was a post-modernist avant la lettre, even being an inspiration for the TV series Lost.  As Keith Hopper has written:  “One consequence of Irish censorship culture was that modernism almost passed Ireland by. By 1946, over 1,700 titles were proscribed on the grounds of ‘indecency’, including most of the leading international modernists. But if modernism was disallowed, postmodernism crept in through the back door, virtually unnoticed. At the start of the Second World War a trinity of Irish novels emerged which, in retrospect, mark the moment when high modernism began to drift, almost imperceptibly, into postmodernism: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), Beckett’s Murphy (1938), and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). However, unlike Joyce or Beckett, Flann O’Brien never lived abroad. As a writer whose exile was interior, his textual strategies of silence, exile and punning are, by necessity, of a different order. In this respect, O’Brien’s particular brand of postmodernism must be read in two interrelated contexts: in an aesthetic domain (a challenge to the conceits of high modernism); and an ethical domain (a resistance to the nativist hegemony of Irish censorship culture).”

Being banned was a mark of distinction for an Irish author and O’Brien had not established himself. Often books were banned for alleged sexual obscenity (sex does not seem to have been O’Brien’s thing) but he gleefully expected that “the mere name of Father Kurt Fahrt SJ will justify the thunderclap”. He planned to challenge the ban in the high court and seek damages. He advised the publishers to make the book low-key in order to fool the “Reverend Spivs”. “Our bread and butter depends on being one jump ahead of the other crowd”.

There is an assumption in the book, says Cronin, “that the Catholic church is a very important institution, that it occupies a place of primary importance in the world, and that its existence affects life and one’s outlook on life in enormously important ways”.

The Pope’s angry reaction Mr Collopy’s campaign for a better lot for women makes the church seem, says Cronin, “ male, hierarchical and dismissive”. “A victory for Mr Collopy in the book’s terms would mean an acceptance of women as equal human beings and of their bodily needs as something of great importance. The Pope, supreme patriarch of a patriarchal world, draws back from such an acceptance. ‘Bona mulier fons gratiae’ he says. ‘Attamen ipsae in parvularum rerum suarum occupationibus verrentur. Nos de tantulis rebus consulere non decet’”. (A good woman is a fountain of grace. But it is themselves whom they should busy about their private little affairs. It is not seemly to consult us on such matters).

The Dalkey Archive

This book reworks material from the unpublished The Third Policeman and features De Selby and the constabulary’s atomic theory. The main character Mick Shaughnessy and his friend Hackett accidentally meet De Selby (philosopher, savant, mad scientist, quack?).

picador dalkey

De Selby said: “I accepted as fact the story of the awesome encounter between God and the rebel Lucifer. But I was undecided for many years as to the outcome of that encounter. I had little to corroborate the revelation that God had triumphed and banished Lucifer to hell forever. For if- I repeat if – the decision had gone the other way and God had been vanquished, who but Lucifer would be certain to put about the other and opposite story?”

De Selby arranges an encounter with St Augustine in a cave  under the sea. The Bishop of Hippo speaks with a Dublin accent and claims his father was Irish – “a proper gobshite”. He has little time for St Francis Xavier and St Ignatius Loyola. Xavier consorted with Buddhist monkeys and Loyola’s “saintliness was next to bedliness” and he led an army of “merchandisers”.

“Mick reminded himself that while he observed reasonably well the rules of the Church, he had never found himself much in rapport in the human scene with any priest. In the confessional he had often found their queries naïve , stupid, occasionally impertinent; and the feeling that they meant well and were doing their best was merely an additional exasperation. He was complete enough in himself, he thought: educated, tolerant, contemptuous of open vice or licentious language but ever careful to show charity to those who in weakness had strayed”.

When Mick meets James Joyce in Skerries, Joyce complains: “Even here, where my identity is quite unknown, I’m regarded as a humbug, a holy Mary Ann, just because I go to daily Mass. If there’s one thing scarce in Catholic Ireland, it is Christian charity”.

Mick decides he wants to give up the secular life and join the priesthood. “He said it with great sorrow, and God forgive him for saying it at all, but the great majority of Catholic curates he had met were ignorant men, possibly schooled in the mechanics of ordinary theology but quite unacquainted with the arts, not familiar with the great classical writers in Latin and Greek, immersed in a swamp of tastelessness. Still he supposed they could be discerned as the foot soldiers of the Christian army, not to be examined individually too minutely”.

Joyce himself wants to become a Jesuit: “I must be candid here, and careful. You might say that I have more than one good motive for wishing to become a Jesuit Father. I wish to reform, first the society, and then through the Society the church. Error has crept in…corrupt beliefs…certain shameless superstitions…rash presumptions which have no sanction within the word of the Scriptures…Straightforward attention to the word of God …will confound all Satanic quibble”.

Joyce dismisses the concept of the Holy Ghost and thereby the Holy Trinity: “The Holy Ghost was not officially invented until the Council of Constantinople in 381… The Father and Son were meticulously defined at the council of Nicaea, and the Holy Spirit hardly mentioned. Augustine was a severe burden on the early Church and Tertullian split it wide open. He insisted that the Holy Spirit was derived from the Father and the Son – quoque, you know. The Eastern Church would have nothing to do with such a doctrinal aberration. Schism!”

Cronin finds fault with The Dalkey Archive because the author “clearly  expected his audience to gasp with shock before becoming overwhelmed with mirth at such schoolboy jokes as the questions de Selby puts to St Augustine in the cave and the saint’s answers”. “There is a clear impression that the author was trying to have it both ways, to affirm his orthodoxy while at the same time making an uneasy suggestion that a different view of things might be nearer the truth of existence as he sees it”.


O’Brien’s sense of his own Catholicism is defined to an extent by his relationship with Joyce. O’Brien asserts that Joyce “palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic” with humour.

O’Brien’s contemporaries at UCD were divided between those who had a stake in an independent Ireland and those who did not. “Only the intellectuals  felt uncomfortable, for it was they who were most irked by the Catholic triumphalism, the pious philistinism, the Puritan morality and the peasant or petit bourgeois outlook of the new state. But they were in an ambiguous position, though one which had its compensations, for in the first place they were themselves inheritors of whatever privileges were going, and in the second they found it almost impossible to break with formal Catholicism, either in belief or practice.

The hold of Catholicism in Ireland in those years was partly parental. To disavow the faith, whether in public or private, was a gesture so extreme that most people who had doubts or reservations suppressed them because it would cause their parents too much suffering, might even ‘break their hearts’. True, Joyce had managed the business a quarter of a century or so before, but the extreme song and dance he had made of it showed how difficult he found it; and he had, after all, to refuse to kneel at his mother’s bedside and  to go into exile.

As Cronin puts it “self-interest, self deception, hypocrisy and fraud bulk large in all human affairs; and however much Myles na gCopaleen  might devote himself to exposing them, his basic assumption is that they will continue to do so; nor does he ever show any gleam of admiration or enthusiasm for the countervailing modes of human behaviour, be they gallant, generous, visionary or, come to that, rational”.

Claude Cockburn, in his 1973 introduction to an edition of O’Brien’s Stories and Plays, referred  to “two qualities of conditions which affect Irish writers not, by any means, exclusively, but with rare and particular intensity. Or you could call them two aspects of the same force. Fear of imminent hell or heaven, the sense of doom in the Irish Catholic heritage, can be seen as oppressive, constrictive”.

Cockburn suggests that the Catholic heritage was not necessarily restrictive for O’Brien. “Recognised and understood, the most rigid limitations can be transformed into productive conditions of achievement”. It is unfortunate that O’Brien’s achievements have been posthumous and that he did not transform these limitations into greater success or personal happiness in his lifetime. Nevertheless, O’Brien’s best writing is a cathartic expression of the fallen nature of humanity which bring pleasure for his readers.




Flann O’Brien and Catholicism

Part One


Life and works

The writer known as Flann O’Brien was born in 1911 in Strabane, in what is today Northern Ireland, one of twelve siblings He died of cancer in Dublin in 1966. His father, Michael Nolan, was an Irish Nationalist who worked for the British government as a Revenue officer. The family spoke Irish at home. His father changed the family name the Gaelic form, ‘O Nuallain’.

The O Nuallains lived in a pious Catholic atmosphere with Michael a weekly communicant and going to Mass every day towards the end of his life. According to Flann O’Brien’s friend and biographer, Anthony Cronin: “None of Michael’s children, including Brian, ever questioned the basic tenets of the Catholic belief, though naturally Brian’s Catholicism was coloured and modified by his own temperament and rather nihilistic outlook”.

In his early years, O’Brien was educated in the Irish language at home in Strabane and Tullamore. He first went to school at the age of eleven when his father was posted to Dublin (the Christian Brothers School at Synge Street) and he and his brothers were bullied for their strangeness. These isolating factors probably caused the shyness that contributed to his alcoholism.

Brian O Nuallain was a morose drunk who led an uneventful life as a senior civil servant in Dublin. He showed initial promise in that career but the drink gradually sapped his enthusiasm. Tim Pat Coogan describes interviewing Flann O’Brien in 1964. Apart from getting the famously reticent writer to talk, there was one other problem: keeping him away from the drink. The interview was scheduled for 8.30 on a Saturday morning before the pubs opened. He disappeared at one point and was retrieved from the toilet, stocious in extremis. He had hidden a bottle of whiskey in the cistern and finished it while the crew were eating breakfast. The interview proceeded but, in the only surviving recording of the voice of one of Ireland’s greatest literary figures, we hear a man slurring his words, obviously drunk. Praised by the producer as one of the “classics of Irish broadcasting,” it was unbroadcastable in 1960s Ireland and is hardly a fitting tribute to its subject.

duiblin diversion

John Ryan wrote in a memoir about O Nuallain’s tipsy walk : “He had the most curious way of walking. His legs seemed to be taking off on independent courses – unrelated to the desired destination of the rest of the body. In later years, when he was somewhat the worse for wear, I have seen him ‘hove-to’, that is to say, maintaining position but making slight headway in a sea of pedestrians, while apparently going astern. This complicated manoeuvre was always conducted with the special gravity that the slightly inebriated give to their ambulatory occasions.”


The first Bloomsday. Left to right John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, AJ Leventhal.

O Nuallain only left Ireland once for about three weeks. Even that brief foray to foreign parts is open to doubt because of the tall tales he told about it. He said that he visited Germany in the early thirties during Hitler’s rise to power and married a German woman who died a month later. This, to put it charitably, seems unlikely.

Under various aliases (he has been called a “serial pseudonymist” – Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Count O’Blather, George Knowall, Peter the Painter, Brother Barnabus, John James Doe, Winnie Wedge, An Broc – this disappointed and rather sad man wrote some the funniest prose ever to appear in print.

He achieved early fame if not fortune. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published in 1939, on the recommendation of Graham Greene. Some believe that it was the last novel James Joyce read. Joyce’s praise of the book has appeared on the cover of many editions. Critical success was negated when the publisher’s, Longmans’, warehouse was bombed and most of the edition lost.

An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) was published in 1941. This was a parody, written in Irish, of Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s autobiography An t-Oileánach and a satire on the fetishisation of Gaelic language and rural culture by urban nationalists. There was not a huge market for this kind of thing. An English translation was published in 1973, illustrated by gonzo artist Ralph Steadman.

poormouth steadman

His next novel, The Third Policeman, was rejected by publishers and only appeared in 1967, after his death. At Swim-Two-Birds initially sold 244 copies. More than 15,000 copies of The Third Policeman were sold in the three weeks following an episode of Lost on US TV in which the book appeared for a few seconds.

3rd policeman1

The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor was published in 1961. The novel was initially very popular, with its first print run selling out within forty-eight hours.

The Dalkey Archive was published in 1965, using some material about the policeman’s atomic theory and the nature of bicycles recycled (pun intended) from the rejected The Third Policeman.

The five novels were republished in a handsome omnibus edition in 2007 by the Everyman Library, with an introduction by Keith Donahue.

Silence, Exile and Punning: Joyce and O’Brien

It is difficult to consider O’Brien without mentioning that man, James Augustine Joyce. O’Brien often dealt with Joyce in his Irish Times columns. O’Brien’s  biographer Anthony Cronin wrote that O’Brien walked the same streets, attended the same University as Joyce. “Writers of supreme genius usually do pose problems for their immediate literary successors, but more especially so if they seem to have used up the very life material which one is destined by birth and upbringing to use oneself”.

O’Brien was a Catholic all his life, rooted in Dublin, unlike Joyce who rebelled against church and nation –“silence, exile and cunning”. However, critics like LAG Strong, Hugh Kenner and TS Eliot have argued that remnants of Catholic belief can be detected in all Joyce’s work. O’Brien himself, in his essay  for Envoy,  “A Bash in the Tunnel”,  suggests that Joyce never discarded his attachment to the Church: “He declared that he would pursue his artistic mission even if the penalty was as long as eternity itself. This seems to be an affirmation of belief in Hell, therefore of belief in Heaven and God”.

It has become something of a conventional wisdom to assert that Brian O’Nolan clung to his Catholicism throughout his life and never left Ireland, unlike Joyce who rebelled against church and nation –“silence, exile and cunning”. Re-reading O’Brien’s books, particularly The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive alongside A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I wonder if this is strictly accurate.

In A Portrait, Cranly asks Stephen if he intends to become a protestant. Stephen replies: “I said that I had lost the faith,  but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?”

Repeated comparisons with Joyce annoyed O’Nolan/O’Brien intensely. He wrote to publisher Tim O’Keefe, “If I hear that word ‘Joyce’ again I will surely froth at the gob”. In “A Bash in the Tunnel”, O’Brien wrote of Joyce: “He declared that he would pursue his artistic mission even if the penalty was as long as eternity itself. This seems to be an affirmation of belief in Hell, therefore of belief in Heaven and God”.

“Some thinkers- all Irish, all Catholic, some unlay- have confessed to discerning a resemblance between Joyce and Satan”.

“It seems to me that Joyce emerges, through curtains of salacity and blasphemy, as a truly fear-shaken Irish Catholic, rebelling, not so much against the Church but against its near-schism Irish eccentricities, its pretence that there is only one Commandment, the vulgarity of its edifices, the shallowness and stupidity of many of its ministers. His revolt, noble in itself, carried him away”.

“What is Finnegans Wake? A treatise on the incommunicable night-mind? Or merely an example of silence and punning?”

O’Brien asserts that Joyce uses humour, “in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and genuinely think that they will be in hell or heaven shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency: Rabelais is funny, but his stuff cloys. His stuff lacks tragedy”.

In The Dalkey Archive, O’Brien re-invents Joyce as a curate (in the hospitality trade rather than the parishional) who condemns Ulysses and writes pamphlets for the Catholic Truth Society.

Claude Cockburn, in his introduction to an edition of Stories and Plays, refers to “two qualities of conditions which affect Irish writers not, by any means, exclusively, but with rare and particular intensity. Or you could call them two aspects of the same force. Fear of imminent hell or heaven, the sense of doom in the Irish Catholic heritage, can be seen as oppressive, constrictive”. Cockburn suggest that the Catholic heritage was not necessarily restrictive for O’Brien. “The process is an example of Lenin’s dictum that freedom involves recognition of necessity. Recognised and understood, the most rigid limitations can be transformed into productive conditions of achievement”.

We should of course beware of attributing to an author the opinions voiced by his characters. Thomas DePietro wrote, “For all the evidence of Flann’s raucous fictional blasphemies and Myles’s cantankerous ramblings, O’Nolan remains elusive, a man who found in art and artifice a means for submerging his real identity, a writer whose unmediated voice we never hear … Flann remains further removed from his creations – he is simply the author of four wonderful novels, not a persona in them. And that’s important because O’Nolan’s larger intention seems clear: he seeks to deny the author his authority. In effect, he wants no part of Flann’s books; he wants to discourage us from finding the man in the work.”

This conjures up a similar image to Joyce’s description of God paring his fingernails as he observes his creation.

To be continued

Peter Grimsdale – Perfect Night or Perfect Fright?



A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday September 5 2010.



grimMr Grimsdale



Parachute Journalists

I wonder how many of you out there, including journalists,  get as irritated as I do when films and novels, often written by journalists taking up the trade of fiction,  glamorise the exploits of journalists.

I got myself into a rather acrimonious exchange with an editor (of a western publication) with whom, only a few days previously I had been having a friendly e-mail correspondence. I will name no names in order to protect the guilty, but this is the gist of what happened.

I was asked for my opinion about  an article on Sri Lanka by a western journalist. I am not a subscriber to the view of some Sri Lankan commentators that the crimes and hypocrisy of the west bar any westerner, politician or writer, from criticising Sri Lanka. I do however, expect some cognisance of the complexity of what is happening here. I do expect an avoidance of generalisation and stereotypes. There were many quite ludicrous factual howlers in the article. My view that the article in question provided a distorted picture of the ground reality today in Sri Lanka caused offence to the editor and the author, who was quite abusive.

The writer had visited Sri Lanka, dropped in at  the IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps (one of the charges against the Government of Sri Lanka  was that they were keeping journalists away from the camps, but never mind) and talked to a number of people. Then he flew  home and wrote his article. He had written about Sri Lanka before so his publishers may think of him as an expert on the subject. He had also written about Chile, the Tuaregs, the Kurds, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, Nepal, India, Iran, Spain, Indonesia, Afghanistan. Jacques of all trades?

Although the western editor accused me of personal point-scoring, I have no objection to this particular writer trying to make a crust writing about Sri Lanka and many other topics. What I have more concern about is the infantilising nature of delusion in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”.


I am often disappointed when I spend my hard-earned money after reading a delusional book review. Here is my own review of a book about which The Guardian misled me. Martin Lewin said:  “Peter Grimsdale can tell a convincing story with writing that is cliché-free and utterly enthralling”. I like thrillers (although I often afterwards have to clean my brain of bad writing by reading the cold heartless prose of the likes of John Banville or Samuel Beckett). The idea of a thriller based in Sri Lanka was (mildly) thrilling. When I was pottering about in Barefoot, the estimable  Laurence handed me the book and recommended it.

The author, Peter Grimsdale, worked for the BBC as a documentary producer and visited Sri Lanka in 1984.  His first novel Perfect Night, published in 2008, was based on that experience. He later worked for Channel 4, with whose works Sri Lankans will be familiar, “where I was head of History, Religion and Features and indulged my passion for cars in several programme commissions”. He admits responsibility for being “in charge of Big Brother 3, the one that gave the world Jade Goody”. I don’t know whether that came under history or religion.

Concatenation of Cliché

Before moving on to the wider implications of this kind of work let us examine Matthew Lewin’s claim that Grimsdale’s  writing is  “cliché-free”. The brilliantly strange Irish writer  Flann O’Brien produced a “Catechism of Cliché”.  “A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.”

Orwell wrote that a writer could shirk responsibility by throwing the  “mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. “

After a while I got somewhat bored with noting the clichés in Perfect Night but here are a few from the beginning of the book. Here is a dollop of stale language from page one itself. “It was like the tide coming in…I was engulfed”. “I was more of a risk-taker then.” “The opportunity I had been desperate for.” “Laid up with a stomach bug.” “Thick cloud pressed down on Colombo.” “I felt my mouth go dry.”

Excruciating Prose

It is possible to be a successful author without being a very good writer. WB Yeats was very bad speller. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe both relied heavily on the editing skills of Maxwell Perkins. Raymond Carver would have been a very different writer if Gordon Lish had not lived.

As is customary with contemporary authors, Grimsdale thanks a large number of people for their help. Judging from some of his writing without the help of friends Grimsdale is not a natural. On his website he committed solecisms like: “more than my fare share of happiness” “whatever I did next would be total emersion”.

Some of the purple prose is worthy of Barbara Cartland. “I had barely touched a man before. I had so many tears stored up and once they’d started, that was it…everything was different”. “I didn’t care about Greer and Malik anymore. All that mattered was in my arms.” “I tightened my grip on Anita and whispered,  ‘I love you’. It was something I should have said a long time ago. “

I am surprised that Grimsdale did not win a prize in The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. The rationale of the Award is “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. Grimsdale writes: ”The feel of her body under the thin fabric was thrilling. Her breast brushed my side. I held her close and she covered my hand with hers. The first cool breeze in days lifted her hair and it wafted against my cheek. I stopped and she turned. Her face glowed. I pressed her towards me. “I ‘need to kiss you.’ She touched my mouth with her fingertips. ‘Not here’.

There is a good deal more of this sort of thing  when they get indoors. “She took my hands and pressed them against her breasts…The smell of her was all around me.”

Pass the sick bucket. Do those reviewers really think that is good writing? Are they just friends of the author?

Egregious Faux Sri Lanka

I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka but it does not seem like the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.

I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks” and “the locals”. In his acknowledgements, Grimsdale  thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They must have fallen asleep on the job.

Some examples of faux Sri Lanka:

  • Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our characters).  A small girl appears at the table selling pens. I have never encountered this in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans. “A throng of children crowding round, hands outstretched, unsmiling faces engaged in the serious business of extracting cash from new arrivals too polite to shoo them away”. What hotel management would allow this?
  • There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not called the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s.
  • A boatman charges 50 rupees to take our intrepid journos out to a cruiser “almost in open sea”. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995, 50 rupees was worth less than half of a British pound.
  • Film is processed at “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address for Galle Road is Colombo 3. I have never heard the name “Witjerwarra” in Sri Lanka before and a Google search throws up nothing.
  • There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
  • Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi  is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas!
  • Greer has what seems to be meant as  harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?

There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies.

Journalist Hero Irritated by Facts

The narrator Nick Roker first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. His excuse about just wanting to rest after his flight is not convincing. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointmenrts. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.

Do you see how representative this is? Like many western journalists he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war,  not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism.

Charismatic Journalists

The reporter Roker is working with, Greer Harmon, is a cliché  – enigmatic, charismatic, (so we are told). A glamour-journo that one might expect to see in a  “major motion picture”. She is a writer but dresses like a warrior. Here is some more from the cliché cabinet: ”Her combats were caught at the waist with a wide belt, tightly fastened. A bleached shirt with epaulettes completed the dressed-for-action look. Her hair, a dusty golden blonde, cascaded over her shoulders. She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were a shade of grey-green that I didn’t think eyes came in”.

Years later Roker asks Edgington, the producer, why he had sent Harmon to Sri Lanka. “She travelled a lot. I let her. She was good at finding stories. Greer said she wanted to do something about the peace process with the Tamils. I couldn’t see it myself.” Note that this is not peace talks with the Tamil Tigers but with “the Tamils”.

Identifying with your Hero

Thriller writers sometimes use their heroes to project a more exciting version of themselves. Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books started off well but deteriorated badly as she projected onto Scarpetta and every thing in the entire universe seemed to relate to her. Kathy Reichs became even worse with the TV version of her books.

Nick’s  second visit to Sri Lanka comes a decade after the first one. In those  few days of the first visit he made a big impression on Anita and also, seemingly, on the course of Sri Lankan, and, indeed, world  history. The sinister Tanager(that would have been a good role for the late lamented Ian Richardson) tells Nick: “No government would want you loose on the streets”. Anita drools about him making a difference and “sighed. ‘Your energy. Your determination. That’s what I loved in you.’”

Does Grimsdale see himself in Nick Roker, who blushes when Greer says she imagines he could have his pick of pretty girls. Harmon is noted for not taking an interest in men but, inevitably, she hits the sack with Nick.


Perfect Night is not actually about Sri Lanka. I will not spoil the plot for you (actually I have read the book twice and can’t  explain the story). It seems to be about  international terrorism, Palestinians, Mossad, CIA, government cover-ups involving multiple murders. Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame –  I can’t  tell you why they are dying.

Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned  about  the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy.

Padraig Colman

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