I used to have no interest in either Sri Lanka or Ireland. Now I am obsessed with the bothby Charlotte Cory / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Last wednesday evening, in the middle of an exceptionally lovely week in early spring, I went into Manchester to hear Michael Ondaatje reading from his latest novel, Anil’s Ghost. In anticipation of the large audience which a writer of Ondaatje’s stature can command, the event was held in St Ann’s Church just round the corner from Waterstone’s bookshop. This church is itself just round the corner from where the IRA planted the bomb which so dramatically propelled the negotiation of a settlement to the province’s troubles to the centre of British politics. Those of us who live locally still marvel how, with such widespread damage to Manchester’s city centre, broken glass lying several feet thick along many of its main thoroughfares, no one was killed. For weeks afterwards the curious pattern of blown-out windows betrayed the strange route travelled by the blast as it careered along the streets, not in straight lines with predictable intent, but like a drunken toddler bent on purposeful, random, mayhem.
The bomb exploded in the spring of 1996 and the Good Friday agreement was signed two years later. Two years on again, I sat in the newly restored church admiring the pristine glass and paintwork, while listening to a novel set in Sri Lanka. How strange, I thought, that the oddly comparable fates of those two divided islands, Ireland and Sri Lanka, keep criss-crossing my path. This started almost exactly two years ago-during another sunny week in early spring-when I found a tatty notebook containing a handwritten Victorian diary in a secondhand bookshop in Chester. This chance find was to wreak its own purposeful mayhem on my life.
On the inside front cover of the notebook was written “Lora St Lo Elizabeth Wilkinson’s diary for the year 1860, The Fort, Colombo, Ceylon.” I had had no interest whatever in Ceylon since I stopped collecting stamps as a child, but I bought the notebook because I felt sorry for it. This unconsidered trifle, its pages lovingly filled with diligent copperplate, had once been treasured. It reminded me of a pampered lap dog which suddenly finds itself without a home when the old lady who has doted on it dies. I felt that the least I could do was look after it. On the way out of Chester, I stopped at a petrol station for fuel. I had a friend with me and we bought some magazines…