Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: samuel beckett

Language Is a Virus from Outer Space

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 6 2011

What did William S Burroughs mean when he wrote that language is a virus from outer space? He  argued  that language is infectious and exerts limitations and controls over people’s minds and  that the ability to think and create is  limited by the conventions of grammar and usage. Language is public behaviour which can be criticised. It can label and identify and categorise an individual. Linguistic factors influence our judgement of a person with serious consequences for identity and social survival.

Language can be divisive. India has (according to the 1961 Census) 1,652 languages, so it is not surprising that there have been language riots. Belgium with only two languages has also had language riots.

Language can be used to unite. Language is often an important part of nationalist struggle. In Ireland, the founding fathers of the Republic believed that language was intrinsic to the identity of the nation. Padraic Pearse believed the Irish school system raised Ireland’s youth to be good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen. Incidentally, Pearse’s father was a Brit  from Birmingham. The English put him before a firing squad for his part in the Easter Rising. Sean Mac Stíofáin, leader of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s, spoke fluent Irish with a cockney accent – his real name was John Stephenson and he was born in Leytonstone.

Brian Friel’s brilliant play Translations  deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication, to Irish history and cultural imperialism. A party from the Royal Engineers is working on new ordinance survey maps which involves turning Irish place names into English. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an unsure and questionable outcome.

There is no doubt that English as spoken in Ireland has a distinctive character. As Robert McCrum wrote in The Story of English,  “In England , the Anglo Saxons and the Celts hardly mixed. In Ireland the strange, and sometimes tragic, fusion of their two languages has made a culture, spoken and written, that is one of the glories of the English language. Irish English is the language of Edmund Spenser, Jonathan Swift, RB Sheridan, William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, JM Synge, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett (I know he wrote in French but he still sounds Irish when translated into English!).

My impression is that, in Sri Lanka,  Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims do mix. I was surprised that someone sent to do some work for us could not speak Sinhala, only Tamil. This was surprising because he had always lived in a Sinhala-speaking area and relied for his livelihood on working for Sinhala or English speakers. I was even more surprised and mightily impressed that others of a similar background were fluently tri-lingual, even though their formal education was limited. My optimism about his usefulness was soon deflated when he spent most afternoons reading my English papers and throwing bidis all over the garden. I also found that his polyglotism allowed him to lie to me in three languages and the English dried up when he was posed with a direct verbal challenge.

It is a truism that language has been a divisive issue in Sri Lanka. Perceived discrimination against the Tamil tongue was a contributory factor to 30 years of war. In 1956, the Sinhala-Only Act enshrined Sinhala as the language of administration and placed the majority Sinhalese speakers in a dominant position. This was not merely a cultural matter but  had a serious economic impact because, in a polity where government jobs were highly prized,  it  reduced the opportunities for Tamils to succeed in the administrative services or academia.

Sinhala linguistic nationalism was directed as much against English as Tamil, but the Brits were not going to fight back. In the 1950s, the marginalised underprivileged classes saw the primacy of Sinhala as a blow against the privileges of the elite urban English-educated classes.

During the colonial period, Tamil as well as Sinhala politicians espoused the idea of swabasha (or ‘native languages’).  The pressure  for swabasha was not about inter-ethnic conflict but to a certain extent reflected class connotations and  was a protest against the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, but denied  to the masses educated in the local languages. According to Prof Sasanka Perera, politicians and senior civil servants in the 1940s discussed the establishment of local languages as Official Languages replacing English

Language had not become a divisive ethnic issue even at this stage. Even SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP stated  in its manifesto: “it is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as Official Languages immediately so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land….”.

The divisive nature of language has been countered by the invention of artificial (or auxiliary, as many enthusiasts prefer) languages (ALs as they are known in the linguistic trade). Several hundred ALs have been recorded (including Klingon). Esperanto is the best known and has been used by people as different as Pope John Paul and Michael Jackson. Although proponents  of invented languages see them as a key to a brave new world of mutual understanding, clear thinking and peaceful-co-existence, their fervent advocacy in iteslef can cause antagonism. Esperanto has been frequently persecuted. In the 1930s the organisation was suppressed and many members arrstrd and shot.

Why invent a new language when there are existing languages used globally? In David Crystals magisterial Encyclopaedia of Language (1987, revised 1997), in the top 40 languages, English came in at number two, behind Mandarin Chinese. Since then English has been overtaken by Hindi and Spanish. Tamil was at number 20 and has gone up to number 17, with 77 million speakers worldwide. Sinhala and Irish do not make it to the charts.

Back in the mists of history, Latin was the global language, first because it was the language of the Roman Empire, then because it was the language of the universal church. Today the English language dominates (whatever the numbers of speakers recorded in the charts). First because it was the language of the British Empire, then because it was the language of the American (and Hollywood Empire) and now because it is the language of the internet. Irish is moribund in the sense that, although it is kept alive by governments and cultural enthusiasts, the Gaeltacht areas are shrinking museums or holiday destinations. Irish, like Sinhalese, is not an international language. Unlike Sinhalese, Irish is not used as part of daily commerce or social intercourse.

Chelva Kanaganayakam writes in the Nethra Review, that in Sri Lanka: “The idea that the adoption of English would eventually erase ‘ethnic thinking’ is clearly simplistic”. One practical problem would be finding enough competent English teachers. Reggie Siriwardene wrote back in 1992: “Catholics and Protestants have been fighting each other in Ulster for a long time although they have no linguistic difficulty talking to each other”. Up to a point, Reggie. That very use of the word “Ulster” is a good example of linguistic problems in Ireland. Irish nationalists would froth at the mouth at the use of “Ulster” to designate the six counties that from the statelet of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Ulster is an ancient province of the island of Ireland and includes counties that are today part of the Republic. Even the use of the term “Northern Ireland” is avoided by some because it implies recognition of British rule. Also the northernmost county in the island is Donegal which is in the Republic. A government official I did business with in Dublin studiously used the term “the north eastern counties”. I once had dinner in Belfast with Chris Patten when he was minister for Northern Ireland. Patten (a Catholic) told how he had irked the Reverend Ian Paisley by using the term “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”.


Can we dream? In SRWD Bandaranaike’s time, English seemed to be the problem – part of the oppressive British imperial machinery. These days could English be the solution? Could English contribute to unifying Sri Lanka and helping it to better establish itsef in the global marketplace?




Rambling Ruminations on Cricket


A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday July 24 2011

One major thing prevents me from being fully accepted into Sri Lankan society. It is not my pink face and red nose or my meagre Sinhala/Tamil language skills. It is my lack of interest in cricket. I’m sorry if that is a shocking admission. Before you set in train my deportation let me, like a News of the World reporter, make my excuses.

Kumar Sangakarra spoke about cricket in Sri Lanka being part of the colonial legacy. The game did not take on in Ireland because nationalists regarded it as a symbol of imperial oppression and cultivated Hurley and Gaelic football as means of building a national identity.

wg grace

My Irish name and passport are not excuses because I was born and brought up in Gloucestershire, the county of WG Grace, Wally Hammond, Tom Graveney, Arthur Milton and Tom Goddard and not forgetting the “sound but not spectacular” Jack Crapp.


There was a furniture shop opposite our doctor’s surgery run by Tom Goddard. Goddard was an imposing figure over six foot three with massive hands. At one time he was the fifth highest wicket taker in first-class cricket. In 1951, he retired at the age of 51 because of pneumonia and pleurisy. He returned to try to reach his target of 3,000 wickets but injury forced him to give up on 2,979.


My father took me to the Wagon Works ground, where the star attraction was Arthur Milton. Milton was the first Gloucestershire player since WG Grace to score a century on his England Test debut. Jack Crapp was one of Milton’s early mentors. Only Hammond and Alf Dipper completed more centuries for Gloucestershire, and Milton passed 1,000 runs in a season 16 times. In 1959 he was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. The boyish, slender, fair-haired Milton also played football for Arsenal and England. At his best, he was a spectacular outside right, possessed of fine acceleration, a classical body swerve and neat control.

milton cricket


milton soccer

Denis Compton also played football for Arsenal and England (as did his brother Leslie) while being best-known as a cricketer.

compton arsenal

compton cricket



Compton was one of the first sportsmen to go into media. His handsome features helped to sell a rather greasy hair preparation called Brylcreem.

compton brylcream

In pre-Murdoch days, the debonair Compton joined the BBC’s commentating team for test matches. For some reason my father took a dislike to him. “Compton’s drunk again”, he would solemnly intone.

I don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. In the 50s and 60s I did. For cricket I would do both at the same time. I would prepare my own scorecards and sit intently in front of the TV with the sound turned down and the BBC Radio Third Programme turned up listening to the ball-by-ball commentary. Even when rain had stopped play. The banter between the commentators was entertaining. Brian Johnston was the catalyst. An Old Etonian and Oxford graduate, Johnston had won the Military Cross for his bravery during the war, when he took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy. My father was also there burying the bodies. Legend has it that traffic on Britain’s motorways ground to a halt as motorists listening to the Test Match Special had to pull over to the hard shoulder to control their mirth when Johnston said: “The batsman’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey”. Johnston dissolved into giggles when he said Botham was out because he couldn’t get his leg over. On another occasion he said: “There’s Neil Harvey standing at leg slip with his legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle”.


In those days cricket seemed to me a meditative kind of endeavour. Test Matches lasted five days and there could be stretches of deadly boredom. An Observer account of the batsman Chris Tavare noted that watching him bat was “a bit like waiting to die”. That was part of the experience, part of the pleasure even. One could relish small parts of the ritual, the way the batsman patted the wicket, or the bowler polished the ball. The players, dressed in plain white, without helmets, could almost be priests of some ancient cult.

Harold Pinter once wrote: “I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing God ever created on earth, certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.” He has also said it is a “very violent game, however friendly it may seem.” Pinter’s plays have been compared to cricket: people standing around, apparently unrelated, in situations of excruciating tedium, occasionally uttering gnomic remarks before making inexplicable exits. Beckett’s plays also spring to mind. Samuel Beckett actually gets a mention in Wisden. He was a left arm seamer and opening batsmen who played two first class matches. Beckett once worked as James Joyce’s secretary. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a passage of about 400 words in which references to 32 players appear.






Sponsorship in cricket is not a new phenomenon- even before Denis Compton became a Brylcreem Boy. In 1861, a Melbourne catering company, Spiers & Pond invited Charles Dickens to perform in Australia. But Dickens declined., Spiers & Pond moved smoothly from literature to cricket, and asked an English team on tour. Some senior players accepted an offer of £150 apiece to travel to Australia and play a state-wide series of matches. The Spiers & Pond tournament was a great success. In 1863 the Melbourne Cricket Club invited more players. Eventually, the English cricketing establishment reciprocated, with ultimately humiliating consequences for the home team.

While I join with most Sri Lankans in applauding Kumar Sangakarra’s Cowdrey speech, I must confess that I had been getting rather irritated at seeing his face everywhere that I go. I appreciate that the man has to make a living, This commercial overkill seems to me to be part of the deterioration of the sporting ideal that he himself spoke about. If I am in front of a TV set when cricket is on, I will watch it and probably become addicted to it. However, the zapzapazap style of presentation and the truncated time-span is a long way from the meditative experience I used to love. Tom Stoppard once said: “I don’t think I could take seriously any game which takes less than three days to reach its conclusion”.


Once, against Colin Cowdrey’s Kent at Bristol, home spectators were getting anxious at Arthur Milton’s phlegmatic approach. He stepped out of character and won the match with a theatrical flourish that was usually alien to him, Milton drove a boundary for his second hundred. In private moments he would admit how much he would have liked to go to university to pursue his love of mathematics. He meticulously paced his 56 centuries and always kept an eye on the pavilion clock. He received an honorary MA from Bristol University in 2002. After his sporting career ended, he was coach at Oxford University in the days of Imran Khan, Chris Tavare and Vic Marks. Milton then chose to work as a postman and later to deliver papers. “I loved the quiet of the early morning, looking at the stars. People used to say I’d missed the big money of present-day sport. I told them I was still a millionaire, out on my bike as life stirred so excitingly.” He died in 2007.

The Road I Wish I Had not Taken

I actually sat through a movie about a post-apocalyptic world. The characters were called Man, Boy, Woman. There was no explanation, that I could hear, of what brought about the apocalypse. I could not hear very much of the dialogue at all. I could not understand why they were endlessly moving about. They found a survival shelter with an abundance of food and creature comforts but rather than staying there and eating themselves to death, Man decides to go on the road again because he thought he heard a dog.

Plot spoiler. Man dies.

Why would anyone want to live in such a world? We all have to die some time. Most of the people in this world have died, it seems. Many of those left alive are eating other survivors. What is the point in delaying inevitable death when there is so little to live for? There does not appear to be any beer or Facebook or McVities plain chocolate digestives. Who would want to live such a life? Man has gun with two bullets in it. Many people seem to have taken the sensible option as we see a few dangling feet. If I had a gun, I might be tempted to use it if I was forced to watch this film again.

There were quite a few major players involved in this enterprise. Cormac McCarthy wrote the book. Award winning playwright Joe Penhall wrote the screenplay. Nick Cave wrote the music. The cast includes such reliable and not under-employed actors as Viggo Mortenson, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall ,Michael K Williams (Omar from The Wire) and Guy Pearce.

After writing this, I sampled a few reviews from people I trust, like Roger Ebert, J Hoberman and Peter Bradshaw. They are kinder than I am and someone even (I knew someone would) mentions Samuel Beckett. I am left wondering who would want to watch such a film. I did not pay for it,

This was The Road directed by John Hillcoat.

John Berryman Part Three:Berryman’s Irish Sojourn

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 24 2014.


In the 1960s, Berryman started receiving a great deal of national attention from the press, from arts organizations, and even from the White House, which sent him an invitation to dine with President Lyndon B Johnson at a dinner in honour of General and Mrs Ne Win of Burma.

Berryman wrote to tell LBJ that he had not boycotted the event. The invitation arrived after the event and he could not have gone because he was living in Ireland on a Guggenheim Fellowship. With his wife Kate, who was of Irish origin, Berryman arrived at Cobh, my father’s birthplace, on September 1, 1966. He quickly adapted to Dublin life and pub culture. Ronnie Drew (whose singing voice has been described as sounding like coke being pushed under a door) of the Dubliners folk group became one of Berryman’s drinking buddies.

Dream Song 366

Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves

well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,

seven or so in number,

I forgive my enemies, especially two,

races his heart, as so much magnanimity,

can it all be true?

Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.

Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,

a testament & such.

Is you going? —Oh, I suffer from a strike

& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,

Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,

I took it in my stride & out I struck,

lonesome Henry.

These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand

They are only meant to terrify & comfort

Lilac was found in his hand.

 John Berryman

Berryman wrote many Dream Songs during his Irish sojourn. He also managed to upset some Irishmen with his condescending manner and boorishness when drunk, which he often was. The Irish poet John Montague remembers Berryman in his book of essays The Figure in the Cave and describes a comic scene at a Dublin reading by Berryman when Patrick Kavanagh took offence at Berryman and went off in a huff.


Montague had met Berryman in 1954 when the Irish poet enrolled in Berryman’s workshop at the University of Iowa. Montague remembered seeing Berryman eating alone at the Jefferson Hotel, a copy of The Caine Mutiny open before him, “nervous, taut, arrogant, uneasy.” Berryman was offended at Montague mentioning Iowa, which he regarded as a territory of limbo.


Kavanagh was offended when Berryman mentioned Liam Miller of the Dolmen Press, whom he considered an enemy.

ronnie drew

Ronnie Drew objected to a member of the audience expressing his admiration too loudly and kept saying, “Shut up, John”. This confused John Berryman and John Montague.


During his Irish sojourn, Berryman was introduced to the actor John Hurt and was star-struck. Hurt, in turn was impressed by Berryman’s bravura recitations of his poems. Hurt commented: “That man has genius and it’s burning him up”.


Berryman was not impressed with the local poetic talent and some have accused Montague of inflating his own relationship with him.

All these poets!  Holy God!

Many are drunk & some are odd.  

What am I myself here doing

when I could be off & doing?


My near namesake, Philip Coleman, is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also Director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas programme His book John Berryman’s Public Vision: Re-locating the ‘scene of disorder will be published in 2014.

 dream songs

In Dream Song 312 Berryman claimed he went to Ireland “have it out” with Yeats:

I have moved to Dublin to have it out with you,

majestic Shade.

Whatever about the impression Berryman made on Dublin, or the impression Dublin made on him, Berryman will be celebrated in Ireland on the centenary of his birth. A John Berryman Centenary Symposium is being organised by the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies in October 2014 at the Mater Dei Institute, Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra. Academics from all over the world will speak on topics such as The Metabolization of Tradition, Berryman, Boredom and Identity, Berryman’s Schwartz, Satanic pride: Berryman, Schwartz, and the Genesis of Love & Fame, The Pornography of Grief: John Berryman and the Language of Suffering. There will be a walk to Berryman’s lodgings in Ballsbridge. A symposium was held at Trinity College Dublin, in January 2002, to mark the 30th anniversary of Berryman’s death. The event was marked by the publication of a book of essays titled After Thirty Falls.

Perhaps he did want to exorcise the influence of Yeats. Despite the immense influence of Yeats on Berryman’s early work, he now believed that Yeats’s overweening ego had made him turn everything he came in contact with into a symbol and he understood “nothing about life”. He made a pilgrimage to Yeats’s grave in Sligo.

Yeats on Cemetery Ridge

Would not have been scared, like you& me,

He would have been, before the bullet that was his,

Studying the movements of the birds


However, he wrote in his diary Dublin was “CHEAP; English spoken, [and it was] n[ea]r London & [the] continent”.


On New Year’s Day 1967, Berryman resolved to go through, at a rate of five a day, the 300 Dream Songs he had collected. Unfortunately, he fell and hurt his back so badly that Kate thought he had broken his spine. He denied that alcohol was the cause of the fall but he was particularly accident-prone, which must have been related to his drinking. He stuck to his schedule and hoped to finish the project by March. At the end of January, Kate had him committed to Grange Gorman, a gothic mental hospital. After a week, he begged her to get him out.


He placed his alter ego, Henry, in the hospital for some Dream Songs.


I love my doctor, I love too my nurse,

But I am glad to leave them, as now I do.

Too long it’s been

out of the world, away fr. whisk’, the curse

of Henry’s particular life, who has pulled thro’

too & again makes the scene…


At one point, he had nearly set fire to the place:

Henry walked the corridor in dark, drug-drunk, smoking

And dropt it & near-sighted cannot find.

Nurses will deal hell if the ward wakes, croaking

To smoke antic with flame…


A Alvarez (Berryman’s biographer Paul Mariani repeatedly calls him “Tony Alvarez” even though most people know the poet and critic as Al Alvarez) came to Dublin to film Berryman reading his Songs and talking at the Ballsbridge house and Ryan’s pub. The BBC broadcast the programme on March 11 and Berryman was back in New York on April 24 when Sonnets was published.

Although he had become bored with Ireland, he told a friend that the Irish had received him “like Sam Johnson at the court of the Dauphin”. Ireland was a place, he said, “right on the edge of Europe…crawling with delicious people who all speak English and are blazing with self-respect”.

Critic Kenneth Connelly saw in the Dream Songs the influence of two celebrated Dubliners: “Henry, the catalytic character of his poem—as well as the way his story is told—are greatly beholden to James Joyce, probably by way of Samuel Beckett…. [However] diluted, the presiding concepts and techniques of Joyce and Beckett structure his entire vision and method.” Like Joyce, Berryman mingles high verbal sonority and childish humor, literary high style with dialect and colloquialisms.

The use of dialect can go horribly wrong.

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.

How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,

terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety.

Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,

what could happen bad to Mr Bones?

—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father

who dared so long agone leave me.


Kevin Young is a Black American poet who has produced an edition of John Berryman’s verse for the Library of America’s American Poets Project. Young wrote that Berryman’s “use of ‘black dialect’ is frustrating and even offensive at times, as many have noted, and deserves examination at length. Nonetheless, the poems are, in part, about an American light that is not as pure as we may wish; or whose purity may rely not just on success (the dream) but on failure (the song). Berryman allows us to admit our obsessions, both as writers and as Americans.“

Next week a summation of Berryman’s life and achievements.

Lucia Joyce

This article was published in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 15 2014.


On June 16 every year, aficionados of James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrate Bloomsday, named for Leopold Bloom, the main character, reliving the events of the novel, which is set on 16 June 1904. That was the date of Joyce’s first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle (Joyce’s father said, “Well, she’ll stick to him, anyway”).

I made my own preparations for Bloomsday by re-reading To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss, a biography of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. Lucia was the light giver, the “wonder wild,” Joyce wrote. She was the “Rainbow girl” in Finnegans Wake, Issy the temptress, who magically breaks up into the colours of the rainbow. Lucia had a mind “as clear and as unsparing as the lightning,” Joyce once wrote in a letter. “She is a fantastic being.”


Lucia studied dance with Isadora Duncan’s brother, Raymond, and did lively impressions of Charlie Chaplin. In 1927, she had a part in Jean Renoir’s film The Little Match Girl. She danced with Les Six (a name given to a group of French composers – Auric, Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Tailleferre and Durey). A French journalist wrote in 1928, “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.” In 1929, Lucia Joyce was one of six finalists in the first international festival of dance in Paris. She wore the costume shown on the cover of the book – a slithery-scaled mermaid costume of blue, green and silver that she designed and made. The audience booed when first prize was awarded to a Frenchwoman, and demanded it be given to “the Irish girl.”


Today, Lucia Joyce, if she thought of at all, is regarded as the mad daughter of a famous father. She spent the last 45 years of her life in institutions, incarcerated and medicated, until she died in 1982, at the age of 75. Was she mad? What was the nature of her illness? How did it manifest itself? When did it start? What caused it?

Joyce 1924 J,N,L,G

It seems that Lucia’s relationship with her famous father might have been a big factor. Being treated by another famous man, Carl Gustav Jung, did not help. “To think that such a big, fat materialistic Swiss man should try to get hold of my soul,” she said. Jung thought her so bound up with her father’s psychic system, that analysis could not be successful. Jung himself seemed to be obsessed with his own loathing of Joyce.


At her father’s 50th birthday, on February 2 1932, she threw a chair at her mother, Nora. The immediate reason for the tantrum was that her parents had invited Samuel Beckett to the party. Lucia and Beckett had been lovers. Beckett worked as a secretary for Joyce and had many friends in his circle. It would have been odd not to invite Beckett but Lucia saw it as a personal betrayal. Her brother, Giorgio, took her to a medical clinic and checked her in.


Lucia started to show signs of mental illness in 1930, around the time she began her relationship with Beckett. Beckett told her that he was more interested in James Joyce than in her.Around the same time, three other men rejected her.

0 R

The artist Alexander Calder, bedded her, but soon went back to his fiancée; and another artist, Albert Hubbell, had an affair with her and also went back to his wife. In 1932, she was contemplating marriage to Alec Ponisovsky, who gave Joyce Russian lessons. Ponisovsky was in love with another woman and Lucia still pined for Beckett. She collapsed, lying for days in a catatonic state.


It was difficult to treat her because no one could decide what was wrong with her. Psychiatry may not inspire much confidence even in 2014, but in the 1930s, it was scrabbling around to make its mind up. One doctor said she was “hebephrenic,” a word used to describe patients who showed antic behavior. Another said she was “not lunatic but markedly neurotic.” A third thought the problem was “cyclothymia,” akin to manic-depressive illness. Others guessed at a range of possibilities from schizophrenia to syphilis to barbiturate addiction to simple moodiness. Her treatments included injections with seawater and animal serum, barbiturates and solitary confinement.

In 1933, when friends called Joyce to congratulate him on winning his obscenity trial in the United States, enabling the publication of Ulysses, Lucia cut the phone wire, saying, “I am the artist!” In 1935, she visited some cousins in Bray, near Dublin. She started a fire in the living room, and when her cousins’ boyfriends came to call, she tried to unbutton their trousers. She sent telegrams to dead people. She also, night after night, turned on the gas tap. Then she disappeared to Dublin, where she tramped the streets for six days, sleeping in doorways.

Lucia did not have a normal childhood. She was born in 1907 in a Trieste pauper’s ward, after her father had exiled himself from Dublin. By the age of seven, she had lived at five different addresses. Their parents often left Lucia and her brother Giorgio home alone. ”You are locking us up like pigs in a sty,” the children shouted to their departing parents. By the age of thirteen, she had lived in three different countries. She shared her parents’ bedroom until well into her teens, and was expected to observe outdated social codes that shocked her friends.

The First World War forced the family to move to Zurich; after the war, they settled in Paris. Stuart Gilbert was a friend of Joyce for many years. He published James Joyce’s Ulysses: a Study in 1930, and published a collection of Joyce’s letters in 1957. He did not much like Lucia and described her, in her twenties, as “illiterate in three languages.” She knew four languages: German, French, English, and Triestine Italian. The last was the language that her family used at home, not just in Trieste but forever after. It was not, however, what people spoke in most of the places where she lived. This held her back in her education. Joyce saw no call to educate her – “He said it was enough if a woman could write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully.”


The Joyces’ civil marriage in 1931, 26 years after they started living together, was a traumatic shock to Lucia. ”If I am a bastard,” Lucia screamed at Nora in one of their rows, ”who made me one?” Lucia’s relationship with her mother was fraught and there is little doubt that Nora favoured Giorgio, who was two years older than his sister. Lucia inherited strabismus from her mother but it was more noticeable in the daughter. The father seemed besotted with the daughter, but spoiled her and sang to her only when he could find the time. He worked all day and got blind drunk most evenings.

Joyce persuaded Lucia to take up book illustration—she drew lettrines, ornamental capitals—and he secretly gave publishers the money to pay her for illustrating his book, Pomes Pennyeach. The publishers lost her work. Joyce thought his daughter was special—“a fantastic being”. He grieved over her incessantly, but he was in the middle of writing Finnegans Wake, and he was going blind. He was desperate to keep her at home but Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia and who was the target of her fury—insisted that she be put away. When Lucia was twenty-eight, the Joyces put her in an asylum in Ivry, outside Paris and she never lived on the outside again. She changed hospitals a few times, but her condition remained the same. She was quiet for the most part, though periodically she would break windows and attack people.

In 1935, three-quarters of Joyce’s income was going to Lucia’s care. When the Germans invaded France, in 1940, and the family had to flee to Switzerland, Joyce made a vain effort to arrange for Lucia to go with them. A month after the family arrived in Zurich, he died of a perforated ulcer. After Joyce’s death, Nora and Giorgio abandoned Lucia, and Harriet Weaver, Joyce’s patron, became her guardian. In 1951, after Nora’s death, Lucia was moved for the last time, to St. Andrew’s, in Northampton, England. In the 1950s, drugs replaced the straitjacket and she was calm and tractable. She might have lived outside an institution, had there been anywhere for her to go. She died in 1982.


Hermione Lee described Shloss’s prose style as “fervid glop”. Sean O’Hagan wrote in the London Observer that Shloss’s claims for Lucia were “ambitious and at times extravagantly overreaching”. In The Independent, Brian Dillon wrote: “Lucia sometimes fails to bear the strain of this athletic academicism”.

There is some justice in the criticism. There is a daunting amount of speculation, surmise and unconvincingly supported supposition in the book. Shloss can overwrite in her attempt to prove that Lucia was an artist of high calibre and a muse who contributed to her father’s work. Nonetheless, I found the book moving for the picture it paints of a pretty, talented woman succumbing to a life of incarceration. Shloss gives us a sympathetic new angle on James Joyce – the great writer who subordinated everyone around him to the service of his art was also a desperate, doting father who died trying to save the daughter he would never admit was insane.



Irish Cricket

Samuel Beckett second from left.

I was recently invited to a reception at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo to meet the Irish cricket team participating in the T20 tournament. Our boys in green were rather glum at the Galadari, following a defeat by Australia (in a joust truncated to ten overs each). Captain William Porterfield had been dismissed with the first ball (he had suffered the same fate against England in Bangalore last year and he repeated the same trick against the West Indies in Ireland’s next and final game 2012 T20 game). I had heard rumours about a stomach bug but that did not stop the glum players tucking enthusiastically into the spicy buffet.

William Porterfield

It was quite a quirk of fate that Ireland’s cricket team should depart from a tournament in Sri Lanka partly because torrential rain prematurely ended their match against the West Indies. When I first came from Ireland to live in Sri Lanka ten years ago, a friend asked me if I missed the Cork rain. I said that I missed its moderation. Up in the mountains where we live, the monsoon season generally seems to last for 13 months each year. Hiding indoors, it seems as if we have been living underwater. However, this year there has been a prolonged drought even at our mountain retreat.

Dr Johnson famously remarked, “Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Some might think that an Irishman playing cricket would be a similar phenomenon. But no!

For some time, I had been aware of one celebrated Irish cricketer. One of the strange facts fairly commonly known about Samuel Beckett is that he was the only Nobel Literature laureate mentioned in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the cricket bible. Beckett played for Trinity College, Dublin in two first-class games against Northamptonshire and apparently acquitted himself well.

In his 2011 MCC Lecture, Kumara Sangakarra spoke about cricket in Sri Lanka being part of the colonial legacy. It was colonialism that prevented cricket catching on in Ireland. Irish nationalists regarded cricket as a symbol of imperial oppression and cultivated the essentially Irish sports of Hurley and Gaelic football as means of building a national identity.

A ban on playing “foreign” (i.e. English) games by the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), which was an integral element of the push for Irish independence, limited the spread of cricket in Ireland. The ban was not lifted until 1970.

Despite the tinge of treason, cricket began to spread soon after it was introduced to Ireland by the English in the early 19th century. Many of the clubs which were founded then are still in existence today. The first match played by a national Irish team was as long ago as 1855. This was against The Gentlemen of England in Dublin. The Irish Cricket Union (ICU) – the governing body of Irish cricket – was officially founded in 1923, although its predecessor had been active since 1890. In common with a number of other Irish sporting governing bodies, the Union was formed to represent cricket throughout the island of Ireland, rather than just the Republic.

So the Irish cricket team is one of those cross-border institutions dismissed by Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, hunger striker Bobby Sands’s sister, wife of Real IRA leader, Michael McKevitt. “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state”.

At the Galadari reception, I committed a social faux pas. I was in conversation with Arun Narayan, Vice President of the Irish Investment and Development Agency (IDA) in India. I spotted a ginger cricketer heading towards us. I extended my hand and said “Pleased to meet you, Kevin”. He muttered: “I’m Niall. That’s Kevin over there”. Brothers Niall and Kevin O’Brien have been the backbone of the current team. I blundered on by asking if he played English county cricket for Somerset. No, he played for Northamptonshire. Kevin plays for Somerset. My prior research had clearly left my brain. My study of team photographs had been in vain. Luckily, I did not get the chance to ask where Eion Morgan was. I later discovered that he was playing for England.

Kevin O’Brien

Niall O’Brien

Current batsman Ed Joyce had also joined the imperial project and played for Sussex and Middlesex in county cricket and in 2005 became the first batsman to hit 1,000 runs. Joyce was born in Dublin and like Beckett was educated at Trinity College. Despite that he played for England. On February 2, 2007, Joyce scored a match-winning 107 from 142 balls, helping England amass 292-7. He got a special dispensation from the ICC to play later for Ireland. Joyce said in 2010: “When I made the decision in 2001 to try and play for England, it was with a view to trying to play Test cricket which is the pinnacle of the game and which of course Ireland doesn’t play.”

Ed Joyce in England gear

Easily noticeable at the Galadari reception was Boyd Rankin who is six foot seven. The T20 tournament in Sri Lanka will be his last outing for Ireland as he hopes to play for England. He has signed a three-year contract with Warwickshire.

Boyd Rankin with Kieran Kennedy of sponsors O’Neills

Paul Stirling is a quality batsman with several four-day centuries for Ireland, but he has still to make his first-class debut for Middlesex after three years at Lord’s.

Paul Stirling

When Jack Charlton was manager of the Irish football team he became a hero to the Irish. His success depended on him finding effective players with often tenuous claims to Irish nationality. Wits dubbed the FAI (Football Association of Ireland) Find an Irishman. Irish cricket stalwart Trent Johnson was born in Wollongong, Australia. An unusually jovial presence at the Galadari reception among the morose players was coach Phil Simmons, a large Trinidadian, whose nephew Lendl plays for the West Indies.

Phil and Jayce Simmons

In the 2011 World Cup, Ireland scored a historic victory against England. Ireland beat England by three wickets on 2 March 2011 with Kevin O’Brien hitting the fastest World Cup century off only 50 balls. It was the highest successful run chase (329 in 49.1 overs) in World Cup history.

Wicket-keeper Gary Wilson with a  nine-year-old Hiberno-Lankan charmer called Luca. I must ask his father, Hemantha and mother Linda who the boy would support if Sri Lanka were playing Ireland.

Irish ambassador Feilim McLaughlin with Irish cricket manager Roy Torrens OBE

At the Galadari reception, the Irish ambassador Feilim McLaughlin, praised the Irish team for the great PR job they were doing for Ireland in the cricket-crazy world of the rest of the ex-British Empire. That may be true but the individuals did not seem very comfortable with their PR role. Niall O’Brien made a good effort at putting himself about but seemed ill-at-ease. Niall had once said of Kevin “in the field he was grumpy, he was moping around … when he’s like that, he tends to kinda take the bull by the horns” Most of the players seemed grumpy, clustered together muttering among themselves or stayed close to their WAGS (William Porterfield’s girl friend Natalie, resplendent in a leopard-skin patterned blouse).

I found crassness of the commercialism on Star TV quite astounding. The same ads showing smug middle-class Indian families were repeated endlessly and squeezed in between balls and even as a ball was being bowled ads appeared at the side and bottom of the screen. Occasionally, there was something a little different as Kevin O’Brien popped up to advertise the attractions of his homeland. Sometimes Kevin was extolling the beauties of the Irish landscape. In another ad he was trying to persuade foreign students to go to Ireland and pay for a great education. A third ad had Kevin working for the IDA, trying to persuade foreign investors to put their money into the Irish economy.

It was a disappointing exit by the Irish. Ireland did not even get to play two entire games. Playing the West Indies, eventual winners of the tournament, Ireland made 129-6 in 19 overs after being asked to bat first at R. Premadasa Stadium, and persistent rain prevented any further play. According to the peculiar rules of this tournament, Ireland were out although they scored 129 runs and West Indies scored none. Something to do with an abstruse calculation of average run-rates apparently.

Despite years of being “promising” Ireland’s cricket faces a bleak future. ICU CEO Warren Deutrom doggedly fights for Test status but Trent Johnston believes other Associate nations are begrudgers. “Why don’t Bangladesh and Zimbabwe want to play us? I know why, because they’re scared that we’ll beat them and that we’ll go above them in the rankings. I know that for a fact.”

Trent Johnston strutting his funky chicken

Phil Simmons rarely gets his full squad together in the Irish summer because of the players’ commitments to English county cricket. Many of his seasoned players will no longer be available to him at all. There are no fixtures on the horizon to test the new team he has to develop, first to qualify for and then to compete in the 2013 World Twenty20 and 2015 World Cup.

Perfect Fright

Michael Roberts’s discussion of “Niromy de Soyza’s” book reminded me of  a book I read in which the author also tried to make money out of the Sri Lankan situation while displaying a tin ear for matters Sri Lankan –  Peter Grimsdale’s Perfect Night.

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

The author, Peter Grimsdale, worked for the BBC as a documentary producer and visited Sri Lanka in?  His first novel Perfect Night was based on that experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples of faux Sri Lanka:

  • Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our hero or our author).  A small girl appears at table the selling ball points. I have encountered this on the trekking trails of Nepal but not in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans. “A throng of children crowding round, hands outstretched, unsmiling faces engaged in the serious business of extracting cash from new arrivals too polite to shoo them away”. I have encountered this kind of thing in many countries but never in Colombo.
  • There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s.It is the High commission today.
  • A boatman charges 50 rupees to take them out to a cruiser almost in open sea. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995 50 rupees was worth half a British pound.
  • There is a photographic business whose address is “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” Galle Road is very long but none of it goes near Colombo 7. According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address is Colombo 3.
  • Greer has what seems to be meant as  harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?
  • There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
  • Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi  is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas! Bidis are smoked by Tamil estate labourers but it is unlikely that a Tamil doctor would smoke them.
  • I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks” and “the locals”.

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

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

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

Thriller writers sometimes use their heroes to project a more exciting version of themselves. Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books started off well but deteriorated badly as she projected onto Scarpetta and every thing in the entire universe seemed to relate to her. Does Grimsdale see himself in Nick Roker, who blushes when Greer says she imagines he could have his pick of pretty girls. Harmon is noted for not taking an interest in men but, inevitably, she hits the sack with Nick. Does Grimsdale see himself doing this? Look at his photograph.

It is possible to be a successful author without being a very good writer. There is a certain style of best-selleritis. On a blog Grimsdale writes this: “More than my fare share of happiness”.  “Whatever I did next would be total emersion”. Spelling is obviously not his forte but editors can deal with that.

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

They should be able to deal with fact-checking also. In his acknowledgements Grimsdale  thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They have failed you badly Mr Grimsdale.

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

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