Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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Trans Wars Part One

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on October 5, 2021.

The death of debate

For an elderly gentleman such as my good self, naïve in the ways of the world, current controversies about transgenderism are somewhat bewildering. Why does the topic arouse such viciousness today when we are supposed to be more tolerant? Transsexualism was discussed in the mass media as long ago as the 1930s. Time magazine in 1936 devoted an article to what it called “hermaphrodites”, treating the subject with sensitivity not sensationalism.

Today’s Wars

What is causing so much conflict today is not the small number of people who were wrongly described and classified at birth, but the much larger numbers who self-identify as a different gender from the one on their birth certificate. The number of trans people in the UK has rocketed and it is unlikely that the number of what Time called “hermaphrodites” has so dramatically increased. According to the LGBT charity Stonewall, their ‘best estimate’ of the number of trans people in the UK is ‘about 600,000’. Kathleen Stock writes in her book Material Girls: “something called ‘gender identity’ gripped public consciousness, strongly influencing UK and international institutions, and causing protests and even violence.”

According to Stock, “In 2004, it was estimated there were about 2,000–5,000 trans people in the UK. Back then, the popular image of a trans person was mainly of a ‘medically transitioned’ adult trans woman, or ‘male-to-female transsexual’: an adult person of the male sex who had taken hormones over a long period of time to change many aspects of appearance, and who had also had ‘sex reassignment’ surgery to refashion natal genitalia.” That is not the case today.

Trans Pioneers

I am old enough to remember the case of George Jorgenson who, in 1951, obtained special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations in that country. On September 24, 1951, surgeons at Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen performed an orchiectomy (remember that word) on Jorgensen, who took the name Christine. Jorgenson was 27. Glen or Glenda, a 1953 American exploitation film written by, directed by and starring Ed Wood, was based on the Jorgenson case. It is widely considered to be the worst film ever made. Johnny Depp played Wood in a biopic directed by Tim Burton.

This type of surgery had previously been performed by German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Artist Einar Wegener who, identifying as a woman called Lili Elbe, underwent a series of five experimental operations between 1930 and 1931 which led to her death soon after the final procedure.

There was a film, The Danish Girl, based on this case too, starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili. This too was considered a bit of a stinker.

Roger Moore with Christine Jorgenson

George Jamieson served in the merchant navy and claimed to have shared digs with John Prescott, who later became Tony Blair’s deputy. At the age of 25, George became April Ashley. Having saved £3,000, Ashley had a seven-hour-long sex reassignment operation on 12 May 1960, performed in Casablanca, Morocco, by Georges Burou. All her hair fell out, and she endured significant pain, but the operation was deemed successful.

Walter Carlos came to prominence with Switched-On Bach (1968), an album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer. Carlos composed the scores to two Stanley Kubrick films – A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) – and Tron (1982) for Walt Disney Productions. Carlos discovered transgender studies in 1962. In 1967 Harry Benjamin’s book, The Transsexual Phenomenon, was published and Carlos went into counselling with Benjamin who provided hormone replacement treatment. In 1972, after reassignment surgery, Walter became Wendy. Carlos was 33 when the surgery took place.

Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos at work in her New York City recording studio, 9th October 1979. (Photo by Leonard M. DeLessio/Corbis via Getty Images)

I remember Wally Stott as the musical director of radio shows such as The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour. He worked with Noel Coward, Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield. He worked with Scott Walker on his masterpiece Scott 4. He also provided the music for the films The Looking Glass War and When Eight Bells Toll. He stepped back from music in 1970 to undergo gender transition. Wally Stott became Angela Morley at the age of 46 after gender reassignment surgery in Casablanca in June 1970. Before the reassignment there were two marriages and two children.

James Morris served in the British Army in World War II and was a member of the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition, which made the first ascent of the mountain and was the only journalist to accompany the expedition, climbing with the team to a camp at 22,000 feet. I have read some wonderful books by Morris – The Pax Britannica trilogy and a guide to Venice. In 1949, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter and they had five children together. Morris began transitioning to life as a woman in 1964, at the age of 38. Morris travelled to Casablanca to undergo sex reassignment surgery, performed by surgeon Georges Burou and became Jan Morris.

Today’s War

These cases were generally regarded with tolerance and sympathy. How did we get to this state of war? Why have the number of cases increased so much? How did we get to this “psychic epidemic”? Sometimes, a new condition is born – and sometimes it gains sudden popularity. “The history of medicine is scattered with psychosomatic diseases that appeared, spread like wildfire and then disappeared”. In Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, published in 1999, journalist Joan Acocella described how a disease so rare that most doctors never came across it turned into an epidemic. I had dealings with the Tavistock Clinic in the 1990s when they were promoting the idea of Satanic Child Abuse. Who believes in that now?

The real problem today is that transactivists are trying to close down the debate about self-identification – people who insist that they must have access to women’s facilities even though they have not undergone chemical or surgical procedures to transition from male to female.

What Self-Identification Means

Initially I found it hilarious to see people on YouTube with stubbly chins, square jaws, big hands and feet and deep voices insisting aggressively that they be called girls. It is not so funny when the authorities give in to them. Ireland, long a bastion of puritanical Catholicism and sexual repression, delighted the world when it made same sex marriage legal and at last ended the ban on abortion. Ireland even had an openly gay mixed race prime minister. Unfortunately, the push to do what is supposedly the right thing has led to a terrible distortion.

At the recent Labour Party conference Patricia Hannah-Woods claimed they had endured transphobic abuse in a ladies toilet at the conference.

In Ireland, in 1997, a post-operative trans-sexual Lydia Foy took action against the Irish government for not allowing her to change her birth certificate. When Ireland adopted European human rights law they had to look at the issue again. The parliamentary committee only heard evidence from transactivist groups. Irish transactivists had directly lobbied individual politicians and tried to keep press coverage to a minimum. No mention was made of women’s safety or privacy at any point.

Men in Women’s Prisons

Helen Joyce, in her book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, writes that in her country, Ireland, “Until 2019, not a single woman had ever been imprisoned for a sex crime against an adult. Since then, Irish prisons have experienced a sudden influx of ‘female’ sex offenders… As you will have guessed, the perpetrators are in fact male.”

Helen Joyce gives a number of horrific examples of the consequences of allowing self-identification. The convicted sex offender and trans woman Karen White sexually assaulted fellow inmates after being transferred to a female prison. In 2020, a prisoner Joyce calls Kandi was charged on two counts of sexual assault and four counts of threatening to murder women. Aged seventeen, he attacked a woman, trying to gouge out her eyes, ripping her eyelids and pulling out clumps of her hair. When he reached the age of 18 the police advised his mother to go into hiding. He changed his name to a female one and used the provisions of self-ID to become legally female.

Joyce describes how a trans woman called “Tara Desousa (Adam Laboucan), whose crimes included the rape of a three-month old baby so brutal that the victim required reconstructive surgery… is now held in a prison with a mother-and-baby unit.”  Madeline (Matthew) Harks, who committed at least two hundred sexual crimes against at least sixty victims, including girls of four and five, was housed in a women’s prison and after that admitted to a women’s halfway house which also contained a mother-and-baby-unit – despite Harks being described by psychiatrists as having an “all-encompassing preoccupation in sexually abusing young girls.”

In England, a previously convicted pedophile, in jail on suspicion of having stabbed a neighbor, sexually assaulted several female inmates. Craig Hudson was sentenced in 2004 for murder. Over the two years of his marriage, he and several relatives tortured his wife, Rachel, to death. The autopsy found eleven fractured ribs, a detached lower lip and dozens of bruises, burns and scalds. She died of a blood clot on her brain. ‘I see a lot of people who have been beaten,’ the Home Office pathologist said. ‘I have to say, I have never seen anything like this before.’

The High Court ruled on July 2 that it is lawful for transgender women to be housed in female jails in England and Wales. A female prisoner, known as FDJ, had challenged the Ministry of Justice. She claimed she had been sexually assaulted in 2017 by a trans woman with a gender recognition certificate (GRC), who had convictions for serious sexual offences. The judge ruled (by email!) that barring all trans women from female prisons would ignore their right to live as their chosen gender. Women’s prisons can house inmates who were born male but identify as female, regardless of whether they have gone through any physical transformation or have obtained a gender recognition certificate.

Cancel Culture

Women have been censored for “saying that ‘only women get cervical cancer’; for saying that ‘we need to talk about male violence’; for placing the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ on a billboard; for quoting verbatim from the parliamentary debate in 2004 on the UK’s Gender Recognition Act; for stating the definition of rape in British law; and for saying, correctly, that the limited statistics available suggest that transwomen in the UK are more likely to commit murder than to be murdered. An Australian senator, Claire Chandler, faced a human-rights inquiry after a transactivist complained about a speech in which she argued for female-only spaces and sports. In 2019 Selina Todd, the Oxford historian of women, had to be escorted by security guards during lectures because of death threats. Meghan Murphy, who, as a feminist, opposed the establishment of transgender rights legislation, needs a police guard when she speaks publicly, and venues hosting her routinely receive bomb threats.

It is easy to agree with Helen Joyce’s assertion that “intimidation and harassment are carried out openly and proudly” by those who use the bully pulpit to propagate the notion of self-ID. JK Rowling has been subjected to horrific onslaughts because she voiced her support for a researcher who was sacked after tweeting that transgender people cannot change their biological sex. Rowling wrote, “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?” She said, “Hundreds of trans activists have threatened to beat, rape, assassinate and bomb me.” People like Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Eddie Redmayne who should be supporting her are, instead, agreeing with her critics.Rowling defended herself thus: “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.” Joyce comments, “The idea that a children’s author known for her liberal politics and donating most of her vast fortune to charity had somehow morphed into a bigot was wildly implausible. And anyone who actually read what she said would have found only compassion and good sense.”

Kathleen Stock has been pilloried for her allegedly “trans exclusionary position.” Stock has argued that trans women who still have male genitalia should be excluded from women’s changing rooms. She has denied opposing trans rights, saying, “I gladly and vocally assert the rights of trans people to live their lives free from fear, violence, harassment or any discrimination” and “I think that discussing female rights is compatible with defending these trans rights” Germaine Greer sensibly points out that by expressing her own views she is exercising “opinion not prohibition.”

Helen Joyce writes: “Your opponents’ speech reinforces injustice, and silencing them is moral, even if that takes violence or the threat of it. Control the discourse, and you control reality.”

More on these issues in my next column.

Time Is Tight Part Two

A version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on September 17, 2021.

I am returning in this week’s column to Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, which I discussed in my previous column.

Haruki Murakami wrote: “Time expands, then contracts, and in tune with the stirrings of the heart”. Lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic have played tricks with people’s perceptions of time. Many people reported feeling that time was disintegrating completely. Time is notoriously tricky and elastic. I used to be able to remember what happened to me and the rest of the world in a particular year, sometimes a particular day. On November 22, 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated and I went to see Tony Hancock at the ABC Regal in the film The Punch and Judy Man. In June 1958, I saw Tony Hancock perform live on the stage of the same venue. 

1983 was Peru; 1987 was Turkey (bears coming to the beach and an armed soldier eating an ice-cream cone) and back in England, the great hurricane. 1976 was punk and a long London drought. 1953 was the coronation and Everest. 1966 was Pet Sounds and England winning the World Cup.  The years are now blurred. As I get older it is difficult to distinguish one year from another. In Solomon Gursky Was Here, Mordecai Richler wrote something like: “the minutes go so slowly, the years go by so fast.” Most of my days are consumed with routine tasks done on automatic pilot so it is hard to remember what one did on a specific day. I am trying to keep a diary to see if that helps. William James wrote: “As each passing year converts … experience into automatic routine, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse”.


German philosopher Martin Heidegger gets a bad press these days. As well as being beastly to his lover, Hannah Arendt, he was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party. Burkeman finds something in Heidegger’s philosophy to stimulate thoughts about time. Burkeman writes,” Heidegger wants to slide his fingernails under the most basic elements of existence – the things we barely notice because they’re so familiar…”

Heidegger published his magnum opus, Being and Time, in 1927. He introduced the concept of Dasein, which has been translated as “being there” or “being in the world”.

Being a human is being totally bound up with our finite time, knowing that our end will come but not knowing when. Burkeman writes, “every moment of a human existence is completely shot through with the fact of what Heidegger calls our ‘finitude’. We tend to speak about our having a limited amount of time. But it might make more sense, from Heidegger’s strange perspective, to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.”

Accepting One’s Finitude

From an early age I was aware of death. When I was ten years old, Sister Theresa intoned doomily to her hapless pupils nearly every day, “the only thing certain in this life is that you are going to die”. It has only just struck me that when I had my photograph taken while in her class, the backdrop was a graveyard.

The general culture tries to hide this unavoidable truth. Death happens to other people. There is something rather pornographic about death in modern western culture. Burkeman quotes Sociologist Hartmut Rosa who says modernity changes the way people think about life. People who believe in progress feel more acutely the pain of their own limited lifespan. They try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience, whether it be work or pleasure.

This brings Dukkha, suffering, pain, anxiety. It is a vital element of Buddhism that one understand and accept that suffering exists. We are caught in samsara, the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. Buddhists must also strive to end suffering by understanding why people suffer. Suffering comes from craving things and also from events in a person’s life, such as birth, old age and death. Burkeman writes: “Indeed, like William James, Buddha was a profound psychologist and philosopher whose insights grew out of a dark personal epiphany: no matter who you are, you and everyone you love must endure pain, sickness, aging, and death.”

Dukkha has afflicted humankind forever but the current economic system is designed to exacerbate it. ‘Pleonexia’ means pathological greed that can cause stress, addictions and compulsions, ‘affluenza’ and loss of moral grounding. Artificial needs are created. Zygmunt Bauman wrote that capitalism has made consumers immune to satisfaction. Desire no longer desires satisfaction. ‘Desire desires desire’, which is the basis for our new ‘constant greed’.

Capitalism has always operated like this but in its contemporary iteration it is designed to sap your will and steal your attention.

What To Do

We sense that there are important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, yet we systematically spend our days doing other things instead that actually make us feel bad. What practical steps can we take to exist in time in such a way as to be less anxious, to suffer less and to manage our suffering? How do we work constructively with “the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks?”

Here are some things I have picked up from my own experience and some things that Burkeman suggests in his book. The book has a useful Appendix entitled “Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude”.

Proust wrote: “Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have of them.” It is more likely that people have totally forgotten your image after a very brief period of time. An overarching principle for a less anxious life should be an awareness that no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. In this age of social media, we are striving to present an image of ourselves to strangers who really don’t care. Stop living for other people except in the sense of living your life in an empathetic, altruistic, ethical and compassionate way.

There seems to be a consensus that multitasking is “a bad thing”. Remember the strategy of Alcoholics Anonymous. One step at a time. You may have to write a to do list or your day might lack structure. However, be careful what you put on it or you might end up feeling guilty for avoiding doing something that did not need doing anyway. “We plan compulsively because the alternative is to confront how little control we have over the future”.

Doing nothing is not easy. Bill Watterson, creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, said, “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” Don’t be afraid of doing nothing. Carl Jung’s advice was: “Quietly do the next and most necessary thing”.  The next and most necessary might actually be nothing. Sit down in a chair; and then stop trying to do anything. “Every time you notice you’re doing something – including thinking, or focusing on your breathing, or anything else – stop doing it. (If you notice you’re criticising yourself inwardly for doing things, well, that’s a thought, too, so stop doing that.)”

“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” remarks the author and artist Jenny Odell. But to get better at it is to begin to regain your autonomy – to stop being motivated by the attempt to evade how reality feels here and now, to calm down, and to make better choices with your brief allotment of life.

Do you have to check in to social media every day? Try to abstain for a while or set times when you can engage. I don’t do social media on my phone. If you can’t avoid checking in every day, work on your most important project for the first hour of each day. Fix a strict upper limit on the projects you allow yourself to work on at any given time. Don’t feel guilty about failures and acknowledge what you have accomplished and reward yourself.

Anxiety is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again – as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. Beckett: “try again, fail again, fail better.”

Burkeman writes: “because in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice – the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time. If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it.”

Stay calm. Live in the present. Live with empathy but live for yourself rather than worrying what others think of you. Do not be overwhelmed by how much there is to do in such a short time Do one thing at a time, mindfully. Congratulate yourself for what you have completed rather than punishing for what is left undone.

I will end with this advice from Burkeman: “Cultivate instantaneous generosity.” Everyone is suffering.

A Tale of Two Armies Part One

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 31, 2021.

The British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance.

The Sri Lankan armed forces won a remarkable victory over the LTTE in 2009 ending 30 years of suffering for Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim alike. The “international community” did its best to prevent this victory at the time. The Sri Lankan Army has never invaded another country, although Sri Lanka has often been occupied by western powers. The army that won its famous victory served a democratically elected government of a sovereign independent nation which was trying to re-establish control of its legitimate jurisdiction against the brutal and criminal efforts of an evil terrorist organisation.

In a speech in Chicago in April 1999, Tony Blair proposed a “doctrine of the international community”, criteria for deciding when to go to war to protect another country’s own inhabitants. My Irish compatriot, Samantha Power (who is now back in the US government) developed the doctrine of R2P, Responsibility to Protect. In 2003, the UK army invaded Iraq. The enterprise did not turn out well. Despite their own part in invading and attempting to occupy foreign states, the UK is still, twelve years after the SLA comprehensively and convincingly trounced the Tamil Tigers, calling into question the manner of that victory. To add insult to injury, they are also telling the present-day Sri Lankan government, which has a resounding mandate from free and fair elections, how to conduct its business, reduce its use of the military which has been an essential part of its Covid strategy. The UK is part of the UNHRC claque that has the galle face to tell the Sri Lankan government how it should use the military today.

A recently published book shed a harsh light on the shortcomings of the British military. The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam was published by Scribe on February 11, 2021. Akam takes 704 pages to destroy the reputation and credibility of the British Army. Akam conducted 260 interviews covering a wide range of military ranks. He also spoke to soldiers’ families, journalists, Iraqis and sex workers from a bordello near Fallingbostel in Germany.

Peace and War

Akam writes that peace is not good for armies. They can ossify and become obsessed with matters that are trivial and incidental to their real purpose.” It is not just that they go a bit soft or out of practice: “As with all armies in peacetime, form and function have blurred”. Ways of doing things become archaic and no longer quite suited to the real world of violence.

Violence is a major theme in Akam’s book. There are structural and systemic factors which promote violence. One might argue that it is a soldier’s job to be violent; he is paid to kill people and his government gives him permission to do so, although this is not allowed for Sri Lankan soldiers.  However, armies are also supposed to be disciplined.

Akam describes the Black Watch on R&R. “Alcohol is pivotal to the existence of the regiment, and to the army as a whole, in particular in Germany. It has been this way for a long time, but it still sits very awkwardly with the institution’s notion of itself as thoroughly professional and speaks to the British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance. The army has managed to distil an already problematic British — and in this case explicitly Scottish — turbodrinking culture into a wildly dysfunctional spirit that treats alcohol not as an ancillary to any social situation but rather as its own entity: alcohol is something to do, not to drink.” There are orgiastic scenes at a German brothel called the Pink House. “The atmosphere is mad, a collective release.” The Germans are sympathetic. “Poor boys. Our heroes”. One worker, Nadine, sees one soldier bend over another. Blood spurts. “She realises, with horror, that the man has bitten a section of his compatriot’s nose clean away. They summon an ambulance.” Akam comments: “endless boozing only works as preparation for war when there is no real war that needs to be attended to.”

Theories of Counterinsurgency

According to Akam, the British army’s primary objective was to impress the Americans. Unfortunately, they were also condescending to the Americans, holding the deluded belief that their experience in Northern Ireland made them experts in counterinsurgency, particularly in urban settings. Remember Bloody Sunday when the Paras killed 13 unarmed civilians in Derry. Forty-nine years on, only one man, Soldier F, remains the sole individual facing court and there is a public campaign supporting him.

In Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal came in and spoke about counterinsurgency, “courageous restraint”, winning the hearts and minds of the local population (as General Westmoreland said in Vietnam, “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”.) — COIN, in military jargon. Because of the tiny numbers of troops, and outposts in remote areas that could survive only through lavish use of airpower, the consent of the local people would be helpful. McChrystal continued in the background to run the kind of kill-or-capture operations he had led in Iraq, with problematic results. In Rolling Stone magazine, Michael Hastings described McChrystal’s staff as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs”.

The confusion on the ground about the correct approach was exemplified by the different behaviour of two groups of the Royal Marines. 42 Commando (pronounced as Four-Two Commando) is a subordinate unit within the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade, the principal Commando formation, under the Operational Command of Fleet Commander.45 Commando Royal Marines (pronounced “four-five commando”) is a battalion sized unit of the British Royal Marines.

Members of 42 Commando, ‘J’ Company in particular, had become victim to “otherisation” or “dehumanisation” — a key factor that history has proven time and again will, left unchecked, lead to atrocities. By contrast, 45 Commando tried to prepare itself to wage a campaign in line with courageous restraint. The philosophy was that “kinetic action” resulted in Afghan funerals which generate brothers and cousins bent on revenge. 45 Commando saw an 86 per cent reduction in the number of violent actions in the south compared to the previous deployment.

 A senior development officer with experience of Afghanistan remarked, that when considering Muslim countries, “lots of soldiers talk about what is culturally unacceptable. What is culturally unacceptable is dropping 5,000lb bombs on their towns and raiding their houses, pulling wives and daughters out of bed. Same as in Britain, really.”  Patrick Cockburn notes, “Four years after the British arrived in Sangin, a local farmer was quoted as saying ‘the Taliban do not even have a bakery that they can give bread, but still most people support the Taliban – that’s because people are sick of night raids and being treated badly by the foreigners’ “.

The aggressive approach that 42 Commando was encouraged to take by its officers was dramatically out of kilter with the conduct of the rest of the brigade. “They did not want to do finessed counter-insurgency. They wanted to go toe-to-toe with the Taliban, to be aggressive, to see who blinked first”. In 2011, one of two insurgents was seriously injured by gunfire from an Apache helicopter sent to provide air support, and the marines from 42 Commando found him in a field. Sergeant Alexander Blackman, from Taunton, Somerset, shot him and killed him. His action was recorded on a helmet camera. Blackman received a life sentence for murder in 2013. This was reduced to manslaughter after a high-profile campaign, and he was released in 2017. Blackman was left to carry sole responsibility for his actions, as if he were a single bad apple.

In this video many people excuse Blackman by saying we can never understand the trauma affecting soldiers in the situation in which he found himself. His wife seems a decent and intelligent person. Can the UK government not extend the same empathy to the Sri Lankan soldiers who were fighting to save their own country? Blackman was in a foreign country where he was not welcome. So many Sri Lankan soldiers died or lost limbs. Do they not count?


On March 23, 2021, the House of Commons passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill by 345 votes to 260. This law is designed to prevent British soldiers accused of war crimes being brought to justice. In June, an independent British investigator looking into allegations of misconduct by British troops in Iraq said that all but one of thousands of complaints – which ranged from rape and torture to mock executions and other atrocities – had been dropped.

More about this next week.

Nostalgia and Melancholy

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 12, 2021


More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.

I have been reading yet another book about the internet and social media. This one was a little different, quirky and fragmentary, perhaps because the author is a philosopher and a poet. Maël Renouard has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, of which he is a graduate. The book is called Fragments Of An Infinite Memory: My Life With The Internet

Among other things, M Renouard served as a speechwriter for François Fillon when he was prime minister. Spell-check suggests “felon” as the correct spelling, which is quite apt as in 2020, Fillon was convicted of fraud and misuse of funds, and sentenced to five years in prison (three of them suspended). Only this week, Fillon’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was sentenced to three years for corruption.

This fairly short book is divided into eleven chapters, in which the author offers vignettes which show how sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people organise their lives and store their memories. Smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have to be sent to a lab for processing costing money and time and also inhibited one in what one chose to photograph. The internet allows people who have the inclination to display their genitals to the world to do so from the comfort of their own home rather than going to a cold park in a dirty old raincoat.


The internet is a repository for knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self but you can choose your self. Some people have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. Renouard describes how even dead people can continue to live on social media.

Renouard writes, “Social networks have already created the experience of a new moral landscape, in which self-exhibition has become the norm and therefore cannot be blamed in itself. This change of atmosphere is so universal that we aren’t necessarily aware of it, or else we very quickly forget it. Judgment has not been abolished, but it rests on other nuances.”


Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain),  and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Sometimes nostalgia is thought of as a good thing, at other times a bad thing. For centuries nostalgia was considered a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal medical condition. In 1985, the psychotherapist Roderick Peters concluded that nostalgia “persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances”.  The modern view is that nostalgia can be a positive emotion that many people experience often, improving mood, increasing social connectedness, enhancing positive self-regard, and providing existential meaning. Nostalgia has also been associated with learning and memory consolidation. On the other hand, too much wallowing in the past, can lead to a chronic disposition or personality trait of “nostalgia proneness.” It is one thing to respect one’s own past and to delight in sharing fond memories, but it is not healthy to strongly desire to be in the past (it cannot happen) and to despise the present.

The psychologist Kyrstine Batcho writes. “To the extent that old photos make us feel good, nostalgic reminders of our past can increase our attachment to our devices.” Amy Bucher, a design expert and author of Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change writes, “Leveraging personal memories fulfils both parts of the equation for tech companies. People have an investment in seeing their memories now, but that feeling of longing can drive them to continue to interact with Apple or Facebook so that they refresh the supply of memories.”  


Renouard discovers a great deal of nostalgia on the internet, nostalgia that has morphed into melancholy. In one of the vignettes in the book, he ploughs through a number of music postings on YouTube and compiles a series of comments from viewers. This amounts to a bizarre and quite depressing collage of extreme misery, worthy of illustration by Gustave Doré or Henry Fuseli.

“When , in the dead of night we go searching on YouTube for the music of ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, we find that we have joined a community of lonely individuals leaving the trace of an intense, ambiguous feeling, born of a reunion with time past that can take place only because these moments have been utterly lost…The internet shows that recollection has charted the path of technology -infinite distancing and preservation – and melancholy is the future of emotion.”

Stammering Greatness

“Funes the Memorious” is a story, by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, of one Ireneo Funes, who, after falling off his horse and receiving a bad head injury, acquired the amazing talent—or curse—of remembering absolutely everything.  Funes is incapable of real understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal “a certain stammering greatness”. Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him”. There is a term for this condition: “hyperthymestic syndrome”.

Renouard writes: “With the internet—which fulfills to a supreme degree the externalization of memory first initiated by writing—we might get the feeling that we have simultaneously become capable of forgetting nothing and incapable of remembering anything at all.”


Kyrstine Batcho warns: “The more we rely upon our devices to store, organise, and retrieve greater portions of our lives, the more likely it is that the devices become extensions of ourselves. Many people are already very stressed if they are separated from their tech. We feel as if we need to have our device near us at all times.”

I will let Renouard have the last word. “A day will therefore arrive when everything has been said, when it will no longer be possible to say anything that hasn’t already been said. Then, by virtue of the correspondence between deeds and words, no event will be able to take place that hasn’t already occurred as well. The world will have exhausted its stock of events. It will end and begin again.”

Of Saris and Grapefruit by Rukmini Attygalle


A review

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on January 21 2021

Rukmini Attygalle writes in her acknowledgements in her debut collection of short stories entitled Of Saris and Grapefruit, “To all those who, in one way or another helped me to: See clearly; Feel deeply; Laugh heartily.”

The first story in the collection is “The Setting Sun”. The story hints at the dark side of tourism. Wimal impressed his contemporaries with his relative wealth. He was fifteen but “seemed older and was the richest young man in our village. Although, most of the time he walked around barefoot, like the rest of us, he did actually possess a pair of shoes.” One can guess how Wimal makes his money and the narrator is soon following the same path. “’You will work for this gentleman today. Do as you are told, and he will give you a good tip.’ Mr. Jinasena nodded at the man, smiled at me, and walked away. “

In “Dawn of Birth and Death”, we see life in the midst of death. From the terrors of tourism, we turn to the terror of the Tigers. “Kusuma, the eldest daughter now heavy with child, sat on a low stool watching her father busying himself with wood, hammer and nails, making a cradle for his soon to be born grandchild. …No one in the family nor anyone in the village, for that matter, possessed a cradle. Somapala had wanted to make something special for the expected child. Although a farmer, he had inherited his father’s love of carpentry. “

The family’s peace is soon disturbed and their modest expectations thwarted. Nearby Kumbukpitiya village had been attacked by the LTTE. Kusuma “instinctively picked up the child, cut the umbilical cord and separated it from the afterbirth. She ripped her underskirt, wrapped the child in it to keep it warm and nestled it against her.” Kusuma knew that Somapala was never going to come back. “As she cradled the child in her arms, Kusuma’s eyes rested on the legacy left to her son by her father – the cradle which was ‘almost finished’ and needed ‘only a bit of sand papering.’ “

We are in a lighter mood with “Money Lender” and “Let-Down”; both stories deal with the narrator’s encounters with a shrewd beggar called Andoris, who plied his trade mainly in and around Colpetty market. He was double-jointed and had the ability to contort his limbs to such an extent that, when it suited him, he could appear horribly deformed. “He never ever verbally claimed that he was in any way disabled. If others thought so – well that was their prerogative! Their undoing too!”

In the afternoons, he went into the market-square to work as a porter and hailer of taxis. “He seemed to change miraculously from the pathetic deformed figure prone to breathing difficulties to a man-of-action. The agility with which he pranced about on his thin stick-like legs never failed to amaze me. Veins bulged out of his upper arms as he lifted heavy shopping bags, and he seemed very much happier doing this than his morning work.”

The narrator’s eccentric relationship with Andoris begins when she is on her way by taxi to a social function and is horrified to find she has not brought any money. She borrows money from the beggar, which, of course, she repays. “What I had given him was much more, very much more than what money could buy. To him, the entire transaction between us was like an exchange of gifts between two friends. Momentarily, he had been the benefactor and I the beggar. And I? I was so glad. Grateful too.”

Her friends and family disapprove of her friendship with a beggar and she allows them to dissuade her from accepting an invitation to the wedding of Andoris’s daughter.  “He probably accepted that socially I was considered his superior, but he knew, that we both knew, that on a basic human level we were equal.”

Leela, the central character in the title story, “Of Saris and Grapefruit” is happily settled in London working in a government office. She gets on with her colleagues but does not want to abandon her Sri Lankan identity and is aware that some people might struggle to accept immigrants. “Leela was proud of her national heritage and no amount of pressure subtle or otherwise would change her decision to continue wearing sari. She stood out like a parrot among a flock of grey pigeons.”

There was an initial British froideur but soon the people she worked with became friends as well as colleagues. Mary, however, still exhibited some reserve and continued to hold back. After an embarrassing incident when Leela’s sari fell off in the street at Elephant and Castle, Mary revealed more about her life and character and displayed her true worth as a friend. “She slowly left the room and returned with the British panacea for all stressful situations, a ‘nice-cup-of-tea’, and shyly placed it on Leela’s desk. Leela noticed a motherly gentleness in Mary’s face, that she had not seen before.”

My favourite story in the collection is “Shared Bench”. This is the longest story in the book and it has subtleties and nuances and twists of plot worthy of a novella. Swarnamali was sixteen when her mother died. She stepped into her mother’s role and took on the responsibility of caring for her siblings. Despite her eligibility to go to university, she joined the local Teacher Training College in Kegalle, so she could stay at home and help her father. Later Swarna went to live in London but made frequent holiday visits. This was the first time she had come to Sri Lanka since her husband Mahinda passed away.

Swarna had taught at the village primary school before she married and left Kegalle and memories come back as she now visits the school. She visits the Teacher Training College and thinks about Mr Raymond, her English lecturer, who showed great concern when she tripped and injured her knee. “He was tall, fair and good looking and also approachable with an easy manner and a good sense of humour.”

She was happy to see today that her favourite bench was still there under the kottang tree. “Again, a sharp memory came vividly to mind. She saw herself, of course slim and girlish and different from how she looked now, seated on the bench sketching when Mr. Raymond happened to pass by. He stops and says ‘Hello’. Swarna’s heart misses several beats; she drops her pencil and turns red with embarrassment, or was it pleasure, she now asks herself? He bends down, picks the pencil and hands it to her. Did her fingers touch his?”

Today, the seventy-year-old Swarna saw a figure of an old man shuffling along the sandy path waving a white stick in front of him. He was obviously blind.” As the blind man approached, she noticed his hunch; his balding head sparsely covered with downy white hair, not scraggy but neatly trimmed. His face was almost completely covered with a thick grey beard. His eyes and upper face plus the bridge of his nose were encased in a pair of outsize extra dark sunglasses that ran across from ear to ear.” The blind man, whom Swarna guesses is about ninety, introduces himself as Andaré (after the blind jester) and the two are soon enjoying a good conversation about culture and philosophy. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the twists and turns of the story by saying any more. Please read it.

This collection of eleven short stories displays many clear insights, much deep feeling and also an engaging sense of humour. Some of the stories are bleak, dealing with the horrors of terrorism and tourism. Some stories deal compassionately with marriage, aging, fading memory and mortality. There is also a lighter note of social comedy and acute observation of human interactions. The stories lead the reader on gently with simple, lucid prose that creates a subtle air of mystery.

Of Saris and Grapefruit is published by Bay Owl Press and is available in all good bookshops at Rs 850.

Crony Virus UK

This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 8 2020.

I have written in these pages before how the Sri Lankan government’s success in dealing with the Coronavirus compares with the abysmal failure of the UK government. Comparing the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with that of Boris Johnson is embarrassing to the latter. The disgusting thing about Johnson’s performance is that his cronies are being allowed, nay encouraged, to make huge profits out of the death and suffering caused by the pandemic. The NHS is being undermined by outsourcing and creeping privatisation and the NHS brand is being tainted by forced association with profiteering incompetents.

Outsource from the Experts

The usual suspects who have already messed up so many aspects of British life are being given reserved seats on the new gravy train. These are corporate disaster zones with less expertise than the public sector with fewer resources and less accountability.

Government documents reveal that huge public sector contracts have been granted to firms with little health experience. This includes a dormant firm given contracts worth more than £52 million.

The online news magazine Byline Times (“What the papers don’t say”) has done invaluable reporting on how private companies are being handed huge sums of money by the government to do work of which they are not capable. During the first wave, the Government doled out £5 billion to private companies. Most of these contracts were awarded without competitive tendering. £180 million worth of PPE contracts went to people with links to the Conservative Party.

On June 25 2020, the government gave PPE Medpro Limited a £122 million contract to supply gowns. The company claims to be “a specialist manufacturer of personal protective equipment”. However, there is no evidence to back this up. The firm was set up only 44 days previously by Anthony Page and Voirrey Coole, both of whom work for Knox House Trust, a corporate wealth and investment management firm that is based on the Isle of Man, an offshore tax haven. Spivs!

£150 million worth of the masks supplied by Ayanda Capital were not fit for use in the NHS. The Government paid £364 million for full-body ‘coveralls’, which works out at £840 per bodysuit. One of the companies given a contract was Kau Media Group which specialises in social media, search engine optimisation, online advertising and e-commerce – not supplying PPE.


Instead of putting local public health experts and NHS services in charge of contact tracing, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, gave the job to private companies with no experience except experience of failure in other fields.

A Serco official has admitted that one in five contacts reported to the coronavirus test and trace programme by individuals who have tested positive are untraceable. Serco is one of the outsourcing firms benefiting hugely from the pandemic. A £432m Serco contract for COVID contact tracing has a clause which allows Serco to effectively rewrite key terms on service provision. The company does not have a good track record and no experience of the health sector. Serco has previously been fined for deaths of workers and members of the public that could have been prevented. A report called “Impact of liberalisation on public safety in the transport, water and health care sectors” said, “These deaths show the wide range of ways in which public safety can be affected by contractors’ failings. There are some recurring themes in the inquests and official reports into these deaths.”

The scale of Serco’s involvement in the government’s approach to COVID has attracted controversy because of the firm’s close ties to senior Conservatives. Health minister Edward Argar was formerly head of public affairs at Serco, while the company’s chief executive Rupert Soames is another Old Etonian, the brother of former Tory MP and party grandee Nicholas Soames and grandson of Winston Churchill.

Hays Travel, the holidays agency that took over Thomas Cook last year, has been given additional contract work as a subcontractor for Serco. Staff have been banned from speaking about it publicly, but one said that they had been given insufficient training. “We are not medically trained and I believe members of the public believed they were ringing medically trained people. The system we used constantly changed, wasn’t always communicated correctly so there were times we were following the wrong procedures.”

Anti-privatisation campaigners WeOwnIt have demanded that “not a single penny more” should now go to Serco, and that the money should be redirected to local councils.

Nepotism and Bribery

Meller Designs was awarded new contracts for the supply of hand sanitiser and face masks worth £81.8 million. This added to the PPE deals given to the company in May worth £66.9 million. David Meller is the former chair of the infamous President’s Club (there was a scandal when waitresses at one of their events – including Financial Times journalists- alleged that attendees sexually assaulted them). David Meller has donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservatives since 2009. 

Globus (Shetland) UK won a contract £93.8 million contract in July for the supply of FFP3 respirators.  This is equivalent to the total revenue of the company over the past two years. The company claims on its website that it has 25 years’ experience in supplying “industry and healthcare”. This includes experience in manufacturing respirators. The firm also made a series of donations worth £400,000 to the Conservative Party since 2016.

Another Old Etonian and Oxford graduate is Max Johnson, half- brother of the prime minister. Max has joined the advisory board of health company REVIV, which has branched out into coronavirus testing. Dr Michael Barnish, Medical Director for REVIV Global, said Max would “help them open doors with the government”. The firm’s CEO, Sarah Lomas, said Mr Johnson’s appointment would be a “critical point” in the firm’s “aggressive growth”.

Motes and Beams

Sam Bright of Byline Times comments: “It is interesting to consider how the press would report on the government of a less developed country awarding millions in state contracts – without scrutiny or competition – to insiders of the regime.” I have found it impossible to get any hearing in the western media for the Covid success story of Sri Lanka. All they are interested in is what happened eleven years ago (another Sri Lankan success story distorted by western media).

Sam Bright again: “For a party that has been historically and fervently opposed to wasteful public spending, it is now deeply ironic that the Conservatives are shelling out billions in taxpayer cash without proper scrutiny or competition. Crisis or not, the public deserves to know how its money has been spent.”

Move On. Nothing to See

Fuss about Nowt

There is a particularly creepy kind of commenter on Facebook. They will insidiously try to gain your trust by pretending that they are just like you. One of the good guys. The opening gambit goes something like this: “I am just as liberal and progressive as you are, probably more so, and I detest Brexit/Boris Johnson/Donald Trump/Dominic Cummings/Harvey Weinstein/Jimmy Savile/Adolf Hitler/Vlad the Impaler/Attila the Hun/Caligula (insert to taste) even more than you do, but, come on, in the interests of common sense isn’t the lefty press going overboard and stirring things up when really nobody cares so why don’t we  just move on and deal with the really important issues”. There will be talk of “moral panic”, “mass hysteria”, “witch hunts” “lynch mobs”. You will see these terms used often on Spiked by Brendan O’Neill and his merry band of contrarians.

Fintan O’Toole

The peregrinations of Dominic Cummings to the north-east have brought the “what’s all the fuss about? Nothing to see here.” brigade out in force. Veteran Times journalist Walter Ellis writes: “Not for the first time in recent months, the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole has seriously overestimated the extent of the outrage felt by the British people over the actions and behaviour of Boris Johnson and his cronies.” Ellis claims to dislike Cummings but asserts that he  has suffered more than is reasonable. Speaking as an Irish citizen brought up in England who is currently watching Johnson’s Britain from the jaundiced perceptive of my Sri Lankan sojourn, I would say that O’Toole has hit many nails on their heads. I am a regular reader of his articles in the Irish Times, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. I always find them stimulating and would differ vociferously from the elegant view expressed about O’Toole by Rod Liddle (I almost wrote Rod Hull).  Recent articles about the disintegrating status of Britain under Johnson’s incompetent and mendacious rule were particularly effective. O’Toole is good on the dire consequences for Ireland of contamination by its neighbour.

Anger, What Anger?

Ellis asks the question: “Are ‘the people’ really baying for Cummings’s blood?”. Let us deconstruct that short question. Ellis puts ‘the people’ in scare quotes which nudges us towards thinking that it is not a concept to be taken seriously. Is anyone baying for Cummings’s blood? There have been some mild scenes of people expressing their discontent but very few would advocate causing him physical harm. This does not mean that we can hire the Eddie Stobart van and move on. Henry Mance wrote in the Financial Times (lefty rag), “The government wants us to move on so Dominic Cummings doesn’t have to”.

Maybe not ‘the people’, but some people, many people are angry. An Opinium poll on May 31 shows that 81% of all voters think Cummings broke the rules, and that 52% of Tory supporters think he should resign. Almost half of 2019 Tory voters say their respect for the government they voted in has been reduced. Many more people are sad. Many are tired and fed up. Many are insulted. I think O’Toole puts well how I feel watching Matt Hancock laughing uproariously on Sky News, Helen Whately giggling at Piers Morgan’s questions (and disintegrating on Question Time), Priti Patel smirking on the Andrew Marr Show, Johnson burbling vacuously and betraying his ignorance of the benefit system and just about everything else at the Liaison Committee. O’Toole writes about “the soundtrack to the images stored from these months in the mind and the heart, an unpardonable snigger of elite condescension.”

Ellis does not feel the way I do. “I don’t agree. O’Toole is mistaken.” Then he trundles out ‘the technique’. “There are certainly many out there who think Cummings was wrong to do what he did and that he is a nasty piece of work anyway. I am one of them.” Although Ellis claims to be one of the good guys in detesting Cummings, he asserts that there are not enough people who care about the issue to justify “serial blood-letting or a scene from opera bouffe.” Again, a jokey exaggerated language of violence is used to deflect us from the main point. He does the same again later: “The mob senses blood, and a hue and cry, based around revenge for Brexit, has been unleashed.” “It won’t be the mob, with torches and pitchforks that restores decency and competence to Downing Street”.

There is no mob. This is not about mob rule; it is about decent people who have been trying to follow the government’s own guidelines angered at being treated as imbeciles. A woman in rural Durham said: “If there were stocks in the village, Dominic Cummings would be in them. There is not one single person around here who is not disgusted. Everyone is furious because we have all played fair. People haven’t been able to go to funerals, they haven’t been able to go to weddings, they haven’t been able to look after people who are dying. I can’t go to see my friend in Barnard Castle who is dying and yet that four-letter word goes out for a trip. I was born in this county. I have never come across ill-feeling like this about anything. Everyone feels it is one law for us and one law for them. That is so unfair.”

Bloody Liberal Hypocrites

Blood came up again the next day when Ellis returned to the topic. “My post yesterday on the public’s reaction to the Dominic Cummings affair has brought home to me how easy it is to get on the wrong side of liberal opinion when its blood is up.” As if an experienced journalist like Ellis would be surprised at the reaction.  Note the casual contemptuous sideswipe at “liberal opinion”. Elsewhere, he described the “liberals” who disagreed with him as “hypocrites”. He is calling me a hypocrite for disagreeing with him. We are hypocrites because (Ellis knows this for a fact) we are picking on poor Dom because of his role in Brexit not because we care about the undermining of the strategy to deal with the pandemic. Ellis sees himself as a victim of the same “hue and cry” raised against Cummings.

Remember that Ellis said, “how easy it is to get on the wrong side of liberal opinion when its blood is up?” One might expect the leftie press to froth up on the subject but the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Financial Times, the Spectator and even the Daily Star have been highly critical of Cummings and Johnson.

Baying Tory MPs

The baying mob included many Tory MPs. Now Ellis says, “I clearly underestimated the extent of public disquiet over what Cummings did.”  He had said few people cared. He was wrong. A Guardian analysis covering 117 MPs found they received a total of 31,738 emails since the story broke. Across all 650 MPs, it would suggest the revelations may have sparked as many as 180,000 items of correspondence. More than 100 Tory MPs, many saying they were motivated by their constituents’ anger, criticised Cummings. In a statement to her constituents Theresa May said she could “well understand the [public’s] anger”. She said, “I do not feel that Mr Cummings followed the spirit of the guidance”. Another Tory, Bob Stewart, MP for Beckenham, said Cummings’s position was ‘untenable’ and that he certainly broke the rules.

Tory MPs Sir Roger Gale and Richard Fuller reported a sharp increase in their mail and stressed that these were all individual, sometimes emotional, communications and not computer-generated or cut-and-paste. Several Conservative MPs in marginal seats said they had received more than 1,000 emails about Cummings, Alex Chalk, MP for Cheltenham, has a majority of 981; Stephen Hammond, MP for Wimbledon, whose majority is 628; and Andrew Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, with a majority of 843. Elliot Colburn, 27, the Conservative MP representing the marginal Carshalton and Wallington seat, wrote to Johnson to say he had received more emails on this issue than any other. He said “many hundreds of messages from concerned constituents” had called on Cummings to resign. Many MPs said their mailbox was overwhelmingly weighted towards criticism of Cummings.

Tory hardline Brexiter Peter Bone dismisses the idea that it is Remainers stirring trouble. “Every announcement on changes to the lockdown rules, track and trace, and government support, is bogged down with questions about Mr Cummings. I believe that Mr Cummings did break the rules. Now, if he had accepted that he had done something wrong, and apologised for it, as a fair-minded person, I would have thought that that would be the end of it. It is the insistence that he did not break the rules and the refusal to apologise that has outraged so many.”

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, has already relayed the extent of anger on the Conservative benches to Downing Street.

According to the Guardian, “Other Conservatives vainly try to claim the fuss is being whipped up by bitter and twisted leftwing and liberal Remainers who want revenge on Cummings for delivering Brexit for Johnson.” That is exactly the line taken by Walter Ellis.

Baying Bishops

Senior Anglican bishops criticised Cummings’s actions and his refusal to apologise.  Many of them received death threats as a result. The Bishop of Worcester said “the whole Cummings drama is not about politics but life and death”.

Baying Experts

The government’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam went out of his way at the daily coronavirus briefing to make clear that people in positions of authority had a duty to lead by example and obey lockdown rules.

Senior UK academics and health administrators wrote to number 10 to warn that public faith in the government is essential if the Covid-19 crisis is to be tackled effectively. They say that trust has been “badly damaged by Dominic Cummings. “The public mood is fragile and unlikely to cope with another over-optimistic target-based strategy that goes on to fail.”

At Least Cummings Isn’t a Butcher

Ellis is aware of all this but he is insouciant. Still he says, “I would hazard a guess that a majority of people will have other things on their mind today than the fate of one 48-year-old political apparatchik.” Of course they do, but that is not the point. Cummings “is not Jack the Ripper or one of the Shankill Butchers. He is a political apparatchik who made a poor decision and has suffered for it more than is reasonable because he is who he is, the Butcher of Brexit.” Jack the Ripper killed five people, the Shankill Butchers 23 – the virus has killed a possible 60,000 in Britain. Chris Bryant, Labour MP for the Rhondda, said he received 20 messages a day all angry with Cummings and has had a constituent tell him he now has no intention of abiding by the lockdown rules.

Consequences and Condescension

Fintan O’Toole does not speak for the Irish people or the British people but I doubt if many people would call him “naive to think that ‘the people’ are working themselves into a frenzy over this.” Ellis is using a variation of the straw man trope. If we all agree that not everybody is worked up to a frenzy we can move on. The issue is not about how many people Ellis thinks are angry. The issue is not about punishment. It is about the disastrous effect on the public psyche and indeed public safety of the actions of this arrogant man and the clown who is supposed to be prime minister.

Where does Ellis now stand on his assertion that “Fintan O’Toole has seriously overestimated the extent of the outrage felt by the British people”?

Enough people are disturbed about this whole business to mean that moving on is not possible. James Butler wrote in the Guardian, “consequences are for little people and, in any case, anyone who really matters is in on the act”. The little people ARE angry. They may not be clear what they are angry about or what to do about it. There is a general feeling of being disrespected. Politicians are taking the piss. To add insult to injury those politicians are making a complete bollocks of everything.

Blame the Media

Because of Cummings and Johnson things will never be the same again. What is the main thrust of Ellis’s argument now that he admits underestimating the extent of public disquiet? In the rose garden Cummings went for the Trump line of blaming the media.  “A lot of that anger is based on reports in the media that have not been true,” Cummings said. It was the media’s fault. Is that what Walter Ellis is doing? In spite of all the evidence, is he still saying this is a non-story puffed up by the media? Ellis says Cummings has suffered more than is reasonable.

I watched Johnson’s performance at the Liaison Committee several times. I couldn’t believe how awful it was the first time. Bernard Jenkin was not as bad as expected but bad enough. He did ask one fairly challenging question but then did not control the proceedings. He allowed Johnson to take the Walter Ellis line. We’ve heard enough about this. Move on. Jenkin chastised Yvette Cooper for over-running her time and for repeating questions. She had to do this because she was not getting answers. Johnson was batting away questions by saying he had dealt with that already. However, the previous answers also only consisted of “I have been quite clear about that before” and “We mustn’t let petty politics divert us from the task ahead”.

It is clear that government decisions are not motivated by concerns of public good. They are rushing out new wheezes and devising apps that crash to distract our attention.  Johnson is facing new criticism for easing the lockdown too soon and risking a second wave of infections. There is a perception that this is being done to distract attention from the Cummings affair. Why is Walter Ellis, posing as the representative of common sense, trying to distract our attention?

Letter from Colombo

This appeared in Private Eye number 1516, dated March 3 2020. It is somewhat different from what I originally drafted.


Letter from Sri Lanka

from Our Own Correspondent


THE Rajapaksas are back! Just four years after Mahinda was ousted from the Sri Lankan presidency by an opposition plan of Baldrickian cunning, he’s once more in the hot seat, now as prime minister – with his younger brother Gotabhaya as president.


Gota polled 52 percent in November’s elections, but his victory was as much his rivals’ defeat: the previous faction-riddled and mediocre government had promised yahapalanaya (‘good governance’) but failed abysmally to deliver.


Gota is not short of critics. Civil society groups link him to what we call the ‘white van culture’, a nod towards impunity for anonymous violence against dissenters. Members of the Tamil diaspora accuse him of war crimes during the brutal civil war and its even more brutal conclusion a decade ago and bandy the word ‘genocide’. Other accuse him of supporting militant Buddhist monks who persecute minority Muslims during more recent spasms of violence.


The members of Gota’s interim cabinet do not inspire much hope. There are numerous old lags from Mahinda’s past (including another brother) as well as a few crooks and thugs. During the October 2000 general election, Lohan Ratwatte (son of a former defence minister) was accused of voter intimidation and ballot rigging and was alleged to be in control of a death squad that killed ten members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Conference on December 5th, 2001. He is now a minister. A policeman who had been investigating claims of impropriety against the Rajapaksas made a speedy exit to Switzerland.

But Gota is also widely admired and even hero-worshipped, the saviour of a nation that gave women the vote in 1931 and has kept faith with democracy since independence in 1948 but has been fatally weakened by corruption and sectarianism.


The new President  likes to present himself as a cut above the normal (and widely disliked) party political careerist – efficient, competent. Many who were not among the victims thank Gota for winning the war and for modernising Colombo. The previous government let Gota’s improvements slip and demonstrated a lethal incompetence in security matters. There is the little matter of the Easter bombings. Gota managed to create the impression that it would not have happened if he had been in charge, and it’s certainly the case that senior officials’ reckless incompetence and personal vendettas in the government at the time played a big part in 300 needless deaths and the ruination of the tourist trade.

It seems Gota has been listening to good advice, distancing himself from his older brother’s stock-in-trade personality cult. So far, there are no statues or ten-foot high posters. He dresses simply. He cut down drastically on his security detail and travels in a convoy of fewer than five vehicles which stops at traffic lights. He ordered that his portrait not be hung in government offices. He turned up unannounced at the airport to talk informally with staff and tourists and made similar surprise visits to government offices, asking members of the public how long they have been waiting. Human rights campaigner Jehan Perera was a strong critic of the previous Rajapaksa regime. He has said of the new president: “He has made executive directions by himself that show him as a leader who is different.”

Gota is well aware that Muslims and Tamils distrust him. He told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he intends to focus on development of the Northern and Eastern regions and not on political issues. “Judge me by my record on development of the North and East after five years.” Gota announced, “I am the president of all Lankans – those who voted for me and those who did not”.












The Quality of Musil

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 14 2019.


During 2018, I often quoted the words of Fintan O’Toole, the Irish journalist and literary critic. He made many trenchant and perceptive comments on Britain’s folly over Brexit. He has published a book on Brexit (Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain) which swiftly became a best-seller. In an interview with the London Observer on Sunday December 30 he was asked “Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?” His reply gave me some encouragement. He saidRobert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I’ve tried about five times. The problem is with me. It’s obviously a great book, but I just get bogged down.” I bought a three-volume Panther paperback edition of an English translation of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften in 1969 and started reading it in February 1970 in a freezing bed and breakfast in Rusholme Manchester. I have just finished it and it only took me 50 years. It was worth it.

I think that what I then held in my chilblained fingers was the first English translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser published in 1953. I am now reading a Kindle version which is in more modern (sometimes anachronistic) English. The translation is by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. The work is well over a thousand pages long in its unfinished form. Some have asserted that the intended length of the work was twice as long as the text that survives. Musil never decided how to end the novel and left a large section of drafts, notes, false-starts. In the German edition, there is even a CD-ROM that holds thousands of pages of alternative versions and drafts. Musil started writing the book in 1921, spent more than twenty years on it and died before he finished writing the book. I am happy to report that I have finished reading it before I die. Musil died in Switzerland on April 15 1942 and his remains lie in an unmarked grave in Geneva.

Kakaesque Futility

The novel is set in 1913 in Vienna. Musil refers to Austro-Hungary as ‘Kakania’, a name derived from the German abbreviation K und K (pronounced “ka oond ka”) for kaiserlich und königlich or “Imperial and Royal”, but ‘kaka’ is also a child’s word for faeces.  Musil uses the adjective Kakanien to convey the lack of political, administrative and cultural coherence in Austria-Hungary. In the novel, a committee is established to prepare for the 70th anniversary of Franz Joseph becoming Emperor. The year of the anniversary, 1918, would also have marked 30 years of the rule of the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Many bright ideas are discussed, for example, The Austrian Year 1918, The World Year 1918, The Austrian Peace Year 1918 or The Austrian World Peace Year 1918. The novel provides an analysis of all the political and cultural processes that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Musil’s cruel joke is that what was planned as a celebration of peace and imperial cohesion collapses into chauvinism, two world wars and the destruction of Austro-Hungary and Prussia.

Three Volumes

The main character, introduced in the first volume, A Sort of Introduction, is a 32-year-old mathematician named Ulrich. Although he is described as a man without qualities, he is intelligent and witty and successful with women. Musil said that Ulrich’s main principal characteristics were indifference and ambiguity towards life and society and a kind of passive analytical mind. Novelist Jane Smiley puts it nicely: “As an idle pastime, he gets to know the leading lights of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who, somewhat like their counterparts in the American south of the 1850s, have no idea they are passing into history.” Ulrich lacks hope as well as qualities. “He is always right, but never productive, never happy, and never, except momentarily, engaged. The reader may enjoy his talents and his state of mind, but Ulrich is building to something that may not be pleasant.” A man for today.

In the second book, Pseudoreality Prevails, (The earlier translation renders ““Seinesgleichen geschieht,” as “The Like of It Now Happens.”) Ulrich is persuaded to serve on a committee making preparations for a celebration in honour of 70 years of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign. Ulrich’s participation in the committee introduces him to many interesting characters. The voluptuous Ermelinda Tuzzi, called Diotima, is Ulrich’s cousin as well as the wife of a senior civil servant. Arnheim, a Prussian business magnate and prolific, if superficial, writer whose character is based on the figure of Walter Rathenau (with perhaps a soupcon of Thomas Mann). Count Leinsdorf, an elderly conservative nobleman, chairs the committee and has been described as being “incapable of deciding or even of not-deciding”. General Stumm von Bordwehr of the Imperial and Royal Army, is initially tiresome but becomes more sympathetic to this reader at least and becomes friends with Ulrich. He makes himself unpopular by attempting to introduce a methodical approach to the mystical atmosphere.

The last volume, entitled Into the Millennium (The Criminals), focuses on Ulrich’s relationship with his sister Agathe. There is a hint of a mystically incestuous stirring and the twins become soulmates when they meet after their father’s death.

Now I feel a little superior to Fintan O’Toole. Like those other forbidding mammoths (Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu) this book is often funny. Musil called himself Monsieur le Vivisecteur” “that’s who I am! My life: the wanderings and adventures of a vivisectionist of souls at the beginning of the twentieth century!” and I am sure that he would have had some cutting things to write about 21st politicians.

Kindle is an excellent format in which to read The Man Without Qualities. Because the book is so long it is handy to have the thousand pages in one’s pocket, to dip into it while stuck in Colombo traffic. Kindle allows one to highlight passages and cut and paste. That facility allows me to bring to you examples of Musil’s wit and wisdom. I will do that next week.

Poverty in the UK

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 292018


In the UK, the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions changes its name every few years to protect the guilty. When I worked for it, it was called the SS) is more unloved than it ever was – and that is saying something.

A combination of austerity measures and a deluded faith in outsourcing has caused a great deal of extra suffering to already vulnerable people. The National Audit Office (NAO) has reported that 70,000 benefit claimants were underpaid by an average of £5,000 each since 2011. 20,000 people could be owed around £11,500 each and “a small number of people” could have been underpaid by £20,000.

There are many people who desperately need that money. Poverty is not just a problem for people who cannot find jobs. Even people in full-time work struggle to exist. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of children growing up in poverty, live in a family where at least one person works. A family might move into poverty because of a rise in living costs, a drop in earnings through job loss or benefit changes.

Data released by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that in 2015, some 4.6 million (7.3 per cent) people were enduring “persistent” poverty. The technical meaning of ‘persistent poverty’ is living in relative income poverty in the current year and at least two of the three preceding years. The figure marks a 700,000 rise in people who are persistently poor since 2014, affecting 6.5 per cent of the population.

It is generally agreed that the effects of experiencing relative low income for long periods of time are more detrimental than experiencing low income for short periods. The proportion of women who were persistently poor in 2015 stood at 8.2 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent of men – marking the biggest gender gap since data began in 2008. Such levels of poverty are having effects on people’s mental health.  Almost a third of the population was recorded as being at risk of poverty for at least one year between 2012 and 2015.The figures do not compare badly with other EU countries but things have got worse since 2015.

Poverty affects one in four children in the UK. There were 4 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2015-16 – look at it as 9 in a classroom of 30. That wonderful cosmopolitan city London has the highest rates of child poverty in the country. By GCSE, there is a 28 per cent gap between children receiving free school meals and their wealthier peers in terms of the number achieving at least 5 A*-C GCSE grade Men in the most deprived areas of England have a life expectancy 9.2 year shorter than men in the least deprived areas. They also spend 14% less of their life in good health.

According to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report in 2011, in the year to 2009/10, the child poverty rate fell to 29%, the second fall in two years. Child poverty fell by around one-seventh under the previous Labour Government. More recently, Campbell Robb, the current chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, warned of “signs we could be at the beginning of a sharp rise in poverty, with forecasts suggesting child poverty could rise further by 2021.”Government figures now show that 300,000 more people are now in poverty compared to last year

This suffering is not due to irresistible natural forces or even the spurious laws of economics. This is the result of boneheaded government policy. It has been government policy to impose austerity measures and cuts in public services and to entrust the administration of benefits to those more interested in profit than welfare. Many cuts have not yet worked their way through the system. Many of the most significant reductions to working age benefits will not be reflected in the 2016/17 figures but will bite harshly later on. Robb urged the government, “to restore the Work Allowances in Universal Credit to their original level.

By doing so, lower earners could keep more of their earnings ensuring they could reach a decent standard of living, benefiting over three million low income working households and protecting 340,000 people from being pushed into poverty by 2020 – 21.”

In a press release dated only a few days before I wrote this, 22 March 2018, Robb, said: “We share a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to build a better life. The government must act to right the wrong of in-work poverty.”
We will see.



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