Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: JVP

Richard Murphy (long version)

murphy-collectedpoems52-00

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

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

Richard Murphy

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

MurphyDunnLarkinHughes

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

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

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

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

Cork library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murphy-Patrick-McGee-c1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Murphy80

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

Richard Murphy

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 19 2014

Colman's Column3

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

murphy-collectedpoems52-00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work – Blessing or Curse

 A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 12 2014.

Colman's Column3

Work is the curse of the drinking classes. ― Oscar Wilde         

I have a t-shirt, which bears the legend on the front: “Work has ruined my life”. The label that would normally give washing and ironing instructions says: “When this garment is dirty give it to your Mum to wash”.

In his poem “Toads” Philip Larkin asked

 

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

 

Six days of the week it soils

With its sickening poison –

Just for paying a few bills!

That’s out of proportion.

 

 

Ah, were I courageous enough

To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

That dreams are made on.

What Does “Work” Mean?

It is quite difficult to define the word “work”, which has come down from the Old English noun weorc and the verb wyrċan. The large Oxford English Dictionary has 34 meanings for the noun and 39 for the verb. The modern word is a general term for doing something, or the product of that action. Contemporary usage has tended to modify the idea of activity, effort or achievement to a narrower concept of doing something for money.

Sometimes the concept is narrower still and confined to physical labour for a wage. Basil Bunting has The Chairman telling Tom that writing poetry is not work:

It’s not work

You don’t sweat

Nobody pays for it…

 

What you write is rot.

 

Bunting neatly combines the idea that real work has to be unpleasant as well as remunerative.

 

Travail, Labour, Pain

 

The word “labour” has connotations of pain, as in the pain of giving birth. “Toil” came from a Latin word meaning crushing, and first came into English as a synonym for trouble,  before it acquired the meaning of arduous labour in the 14th Century. Similarly, the French for work is travail, which has come to mean trials, tribulations and torment.

 

The specialisation of the word work to mean mainly paid employment is a consequence of capitalist productive relations. To be in work came to mean being in a relationship with an entity that controlled the means and financing of productive work and paid the worker’s wages. The meaning of the word then shifted again to mean not the physical or mental activity itself but the relationship between employee and employer. So the “Mum” who is expected to wash t-shirts is not considered to be in work until she leaves the home to work for an employer for a wage.

 

Religion and Capitalism

Work has long been thought a curse- humankind’s punishment for Adam and Eve’s crime in the Garden of Eden. Work is a sacred duty and a remedy for vice. During the Reformation, Protestants denounced monks as idle parasites because the elect did not consider contemplative life as proper work.

In his book, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904), German sociologist Max Weber wrote that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant work ethic persuaded many to engage in work in the secular world, and accumulate wealth for investment.  RH Tawney (whose ideas contributed to the welfare state in Britain) explored the relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Tawney “bemoaned the division between commerce and social morality brought about by the Protestant Reformation, leading as it did to the subordination of Christian teaching to the pursuit of material wealth”.

In Victorian times, commentators as different as Ruskin and Samuel Smiles extolled the virtue of work and saw it as man’s highest earthly calling. “One more day’s work for Jesus!” A popular book of Victorian sermons was called Blessed be Drudgery.

Leisure and Idleness

The other dimension is what happens when one is not working. The positive word is “leisure”; the negative word is “idleness”. However, even the word “leisure” is morally tainted as it comes from the Latin word licere, which means “permit”. The root is the same as it is for “licence”. Leisure is freedom to put aside rules and obligations. The devil finds work for idle hands.

Rabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda (c780-856), wrote: “The idle man grows dull in carnal desires, is cheerless in spiritual works, has no joy in the salvation of his soul, and does not become cheerful in helping his brother, but only craves and desires and performs everything in an idle fashion. Acedia corrupts the miserable mind which it inhabits with many misfortunes, which teach it many evil things…May the servant of god never be found idle! For the devil has greater difficulty in finding a spot or temptations in the man whom he finds employed in some good work, than in him whom he encounters idler and practising no good”.

The development of capitalism makes possible a clear distinction between work and “free time”. Working for an employer enables or even compels one to have a structure to one’s life, the rhythm of weekends off and an annual holiday. The word “holiday” comes from the old word for a religious festival.

Others have seen something positive in idleness. Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired.” “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what

Busyness can even be pernicious. Bertrand Russell:”I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached”.

 Precariat

 sEven in the 19th Century, the most usual contract in Britain was terminable at a week’s notice or less. In the 1870s, hiring fairs gave way to employment bureaux but the commonest way to find work was through family or personal connections. The distinction between skilled and unskilled workers was blurred and came to rest upon lack of organisation rather than lack of skill. Wharfingers and stevedores who were organised into unions were seen as skilled while unaffiliated dock labourers whose work was irregular were seen as unskilled casual labour.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the 20th Century, technology would have advanced sufficiently to cut the working week to 15 hours. What has happened is that many are living in poverty because of unemployment; others are complaining about being stressed out by overwork. Huge armies of people in Europe and North America, spend their lives performing pointless tasks for unseen and unknown employers.

David Weil explains in his book, The Fissured Workplace that corporations have used “subcontracting, franchising, third-party management, outsourcing” to fragment employment. They have maintained the quality of their brands and products (and their enormous profits) at the same time as shedding the cost of maintaining an expensive workforce. Workers have seen their remuneration stagnate and have lost benefits.

Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Whereas in the past, one might have hoped for (often vainly) some reciprocal loyalty between employer and employee, that is no longer the case. There is little chance these days of working for the same employer for forty years and getting a gold clock at the end of it. Today, there is no single, easily identifiable employer but a web of intermediaries. The outside contractor demands high performance, at the same time as driving down wages, job security, and benefits.

In these circumstances, there is scant opportunity to organize or join a union. These are the conditions that the EU deems helpful to “ease of doing business”. The entire structure of worker protections and benefits legislated beginning in the New Deal in the US , and the social contract of the post-war UK, is predicated on the assumption that the employee is on the payroll of the company that makes the product. “The modern employment relationship,” Weil writes, “bears little resemblance to that assumed in our core workplace regulations.”

As the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution no longer provided employment, investors and traders gained power over managers in the era of financial deregulation that began around 1980. New technologies made it easier to outsource work while retaining control over worker performance. Fissuring became the new employment norm, because capital markets, the new masters, demanded it.

Disaffected Youth

Alice Goffman was raised by professional parents in one of white Philadelphia’s upper-middle-class neighbourhoods. She wrote a book called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City based on her first-hand experience of spending years associating with black families in Philadelphia. She started off tutoring some black children while she was at Penn State, became friends of the families and then lived in the 6th Street area for another four years. She took notes on everything she saw while pursuing a doctorate at Princeton. The book has been hailed as a potential ethnographic classic.

Goffman describes the world of young jobless blacks who had almost all served time in prison. The police constantly harass these black young men. Older residents want violent crime and drug use to be reduced but do not believe standard police methods can achieve this. While Goffman accepts that the police are doing what they were hired to do she also recognises that the young men are doing what they have to do in order to eat.  They are usually short of money Their womenfolk support them up to a point.

Economic dependency humiliates them, fuelling anger and resentment that easily turns to violence. Crime, in particular drug dealing, is their job. Even the men who spend months looking for work seldom find even part-time or short-term work. A prison record does not help them to find work.

When I lived in Bandarawela, I sometimes felt uncomfortable to see groups of Sinhalese youths hanging around looking menacing and seemingly without gainful occupation. One remembers that youth unemployment was one of the factors leading to the JVP uprisings. Where I live now, I have similar anxieties about Tamil youths. I have given many of them employment with generous pay when I could and they are friendly and respectful to me, in general. However, one of the most respectful and skilled of them robbed me and seems to have gone off the rails with drink and drugs. I do feel insecure sometimes in this remote spot and one does hear tales of burglary and violence.

RECESSIONAL

 

In Mayhew’s time, purefinders hunted dogturds

For the Thames tanneries. In London’s interstices

Today, lurk practitioners of queer trades.

Some sell flesh to serve obscure perversions.

Others lease their souls to corporate perversities.

                                                               

Grimy-nailed commuter, feet a foot above the floor.

Seething under his warty dome, recondite arcana,

Incunabula of redundant costings-lore,

Depreciation value of cabinets, the best deal on staplers.

Good and faithful servant homeward,

To supper alone on  a cold pork pie.

                    

In Whitehall, mandarins pander to ministers

In the morning, dissipate afternoons

Restructuring, rightsizing, diminishing.               

Producing no good, only paper and ‘policy’.

 

In Sofia’s streets, old men with scales,

Wait for citizens willing to pay to be measured.

Be-suited men in Lima  with open-air typewriters,

On park benches, type legalities for the illiterate.

 

Raped Congo women succumb to heavy sacks of cassava

Or squat to sell single tomatoes. Vicious  commodity wars,

Fragmenting nations, flotsam of refugees.

Globalisation drowns Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay.

 

Kipling’s “Lesser breeds” shrewdly subsist

Under imperial global mammon’s awful hand.

In the city of dreadful night, deformities displayed for cash.

At ancient Vijaynagara, the guide’s right-hand man

Demonstrates the pillars’ musical properties.

Con brio, he smites the columns to achieve a melody.

Confident to smugness, he has status.

His hand is bent, swollen and covered in calluses.

 

In concert with worms, I prepare soil for sowing.

The ponies tame the meadow and give manure for hoeing.

The wounded earth affirms the atavistic cycle still.

In the indigo sky, a double rainbow joins hill to hill.

Under every rock toils a society of ants.

Oregano quivers Gregorian with bees’ monkish chants.

 

 

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