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 and sweets. It was hot, so when I got back in the car I put my feet on the dashboard, opened a can of drink and began looking something up in the Radio Times. Suddenly a figure dressed in khaki appeared beside my open car door. I shrieked in alarm, terrifying the poor soldier who had been patiently waiting to fill his truck with petrol and was now, not unreasonably, inquiring how long I intended to sit reading beside the pump. As we drove away, giggling, I remarked to my friend how extraordinary it was that, though Chester is a garrison city, this was the first time I had ever seen a soldier in uniform. It had never occurred to me before that some of the groups of close-shaven young men that I had taken to be gangs who had come down from Liverpool were in fact soldiers in mufti. Perhaps the army were easing up on security in the wake of the Good Friday agreement, we speculated. It was only much later that I thought about that soldier again.
Wilkinson is such a common name that I never expected to find out more about Lora. It transpired, though, that her father, Colonel Charles Edmund Wilkinson, was in charge of the Royal Engineers in Ceylon, strengthening the island’s garrison in the wake of the Indian Mutiny. Because of a series of deaths during the summer of 1860, Papa Wilkinson acted as Lieutenant Governor in the interregnum between the death of one governor, the famous Sir Henry Ward, and the arrival of his replacement from Britain. Lora had no interest in politics. The concerns of her diary are chiefly domestic: she records the health of her various pets, visits, invitations to dances, rides and drives along the Galle Face Green. She also has a rather touching crush on the Deputy Adjutant General. Although few of the entries are very interesting in themselves, collectively they provide a snapshot of the life of an army officer’s family in a far-flung outpost of empire. A glistening microcosm seen from the viewpoint of a lively 18-year-old girl. I had owned the notebook several months before I made the most astonishing discovery of all: Lora’s maternal grandfather had been an agent provocateur in Dublin who, in 1798, had shopped the United Irishmen to the English. Two of Edward Fitzgerald’s main associates were hanged on the strength of his evidence and he lived out the rest of his long life on a pension from Castlereagh. He actually died while his grand-daughter was in Ceylon.
Before I encountered Miss Lora St Lo Elizabeth Wilkinson I had had no particular interest in the history and politics of either Sri Lanka or Ireland. I had never visited either country. Now I am obsessed with both. Lora’s diary may have been written in 1860, but the ramifications of events she mentions are still alive today. Both islands have disputed territories and substantial minority populations in the north, both are engaged in “peace processes.” Both islands use English as an official language although they have older indigenous languages of their own. Both drive on the left and are also of similar size. Over the last two years I have crossed the Irish Channel many times-even working on a radio programme with a composer in Belfast-and when I sat in St Ann’s Church in Manchester, I had just returned from my second visit to Sri Lanka and still had the grime of Colombo ingrained in the soles of my feet.
Having written a rave review of Anil’s Ghost for the Mail on Sunday, I was intrigued to see its author in the flesh. Flesh, after all, is an important theme in the novel. The vulnerable flesh of human bodies-living and dead-caught up in the violent civil war. It was the first book I read when I got home from Sri Lanka and I read it-I confess-as fast as I could, trapped by the force of its narrative and desperate to escape its terrifying claustrophobia, the sense of disembodied evil closing in. I had been frightened enough a couple of weeks earlier, sitting in a three-wheeler on Colombo’s Galle Face, when the traffic was suddenly brought to a standstill for the president’s cavalcade to pass. Moments before, everything had been perfectly normal and noisy. Now an eerie silence descended, broken only by the occasional screeching of an army vehicle in the distance and the crackling burble of official walkie-talkies. Jittery young soldiers clutching guns peered fearfully into my tri-shaw, afraid that it might contain a suicide bomber intent on blowing them and their president to kingdom come. I thought it better to stand openly on the pavement, but well back from the barricades, so I climbed out slowly and went to join some families. It was only when I glanced up that I saw soldiers at every window on the top floor of a nearby building with machine guns trained on us. It occurred to me that if I sneezed, and dived into my handbag for a Kleenex I could get shot. My nose started to tickle. This is all your doing, Lora, I thought. If I die now, here on the Galle Face Green, it will be because of you. Why, before I found the diary, I had never even heard of the Galle Face, let alone dreamt of riding round Colombo in a tri-shaw;
I was actually in Sri Lanka to take part in a literary conference organised by the British Council. This three-day event was gloriously entitled “Towards the 21st Century: Cross Cultural Identities in Contemporary Sri Lankan and British Writing.” I was scheduled to give a talk about the book I am writing, which is based on Lora’s diary. I had called the talk “Problems of perspective in editing a colonial diary” to make it sound like the sort of talk people give at post-colonial literary conferences. This was a fraud. I have no problems of perspective-I am cheerfully adhering to my own-nor am I “editing” the diary. I am using it as a springboard for writing something more freewheeling and personal. My main purpose in attending the conference was to meet and talk to Sri Lankans and find out about contemporary Sri Lankan writing. Lora herself had no interest in the island, or in the islanders. In the whole of her diary her only reference to the Singhalese is buying some cakes from Singhalese women on the Galle Road. At one point she does mention sacking the ayah (nanny), but when you think that the house would have been full of servants attending to the Wilkinsons’ every whim, this lone mention is extraordinary. Lora’s complete lack of interest in Ceylon has aroused mine. There is a pencil scribble at the top of the inside front cover of the diary that Lora never rubbed out. It looked like Sinhala script, and I hoped it said 6d, but when I consulted someone working at the British Council it turned out just to be a scribble.
The conference took place just as the present escalation in the civil war was starting. One of the main newspapers, The Island, carried a notice on the front page: “Censorship on military news: All reports and comments on military affairs are subject to censorship under Emergency regulations that have been proclaimed.” That day The Island carried a report that all police leave had been cancelled in Colombo because of a spate of bombs in the city. There was one at Majestic City, a nearby shopping mall. Even though the newspapers are heavily censored and do not pretend to give more than a scratchy outline of what is going on, it was clear that dramatic things were happening in the north. Whisperings about fierce battles and the loss of the Elephant Pass which controls strategic access to the Jaffna peninsular were spreading through Colombo. Tension was high. A shoot-out on the streets, in which 30 bystanders had been killed only a few weeks before, was still on everyone’s lips. The Norwegians had apparently offered to mediate, and their ambassador had received death threats. Rumours that Tony Blair had offered his services turned out to be an April Fool’s Day joke. Army checkpoints made from upturned oil drums were proliferating rapidly, and large patrols of nervous soldiers were much in evidence on the streets.
Meanwhile, in the beautiful courtyard gardens of the British Council, filled with azaleas and sweetly scented frangipani, more than 100 of Sri Lanka’s literati-writers, students, lecturers-gathered along with a handful of writers and academics from Britain for a full programme of papers and readings and opportunities to discuss issues of cross-cultural identities. The Sri Lankan writers came from the various communities-Tamil, Singhalese and Burgher (of Dutch origin)-but the rest of us were equally disparate. The Welsh feminist poet, Menna Elfyn, who writes in Welsh (thankfully English, Tamil and Sinhala translations of her poems were provided) and Ali Smith, an exuberant Scottish writer who writes in an “English” that is distinctly Scots. Alastair Niven, director of literature at the British Council in London, who could not sound more English, although he is of Scottish extraction. Then there was Romesh Gunesekera, a novelist of Sri Lankan birth living in London, whose first novel, Reef, was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1994, and Shyam Selvadurai, now living in Toronto, and author of the wonderful Cinnamon Gardens.
If pushed, I would label myself a Celtic hybrid, but it has never seemed relevant. Am I English, British, part Welsh, slightly Irish? Who knows, who cares? What is this dis-United Kingdom to which we apparently belong? Most of us like to think of ourselves as representative ultimately only of our own accumulation of experiences and views. But in a country riven with ethnic conflict, matters of cross-cultural identity were far from academic. Under the guise of talking about literature, all manner of hang-ups and prejudices were aired. “If my mother is Tamil and my father is Burgher and I am married to a Singhalese, what sort of poet does that make me?” someone asked in great anguish at one point. I wanted to say, you are yourself, but an earnest public discussion immediately ensued about how many generations back you have to go in order to remain a Burgher.
From Wednesday evening through to Saturday lunchtime an extraordinary drama unfolded. The official programme of talks was interesting; the readings were splendid; the musical interludes welcome. The open discussions often veered in unpredictable directions. The real debates took place in the mumblings and mutterings among the audience, in the conversations over curry under the marquee at lunchtime, and among the genteel cups of tea, with accompanying slices of Victoria sponge, during the breaks.
“This is extraordinary, Charlotte,” one Singhalese scholar confided. “You wouldn’t know this, but there are people in the same room here who hate each other. There are people here who have written papers about each other, but have never met. They have only come because it is the British Council and they do not want to be left out.”
I must admit that I have always been a bit sceptical about the role of the British Council, taking British culture around the world like latter-day colonialists bestowing nuggets of superior learning on grateful natives, its employees living nice lives abroad as quasi-diplomats at the British taxpayers’ expense. What I experienced in Sri Lanka made me ashamed of my preconceptions. There was nothing arrogant or patronising-or indeed political-about what the British Council is doing there. Like it or not, the English language is a necessary requirement in the world today, and the British Council was making essential learning facilities available to as many people as possible. The library was large, well-stocked and crowded with people. Its shelves were full of the best thumbed books I have ever seen. I thought how my own local library frequently sells off books they consider worn out, all of which would look brand new compared to the volumes in regular use in Colombo. How we take access to information and the ready availability of printed matter completely for granted. I thought of the three-storey Waterstone’s in Manchester, and also, rather shame-facedly, of all those bundles of free books for review which are often a bit of a nuisance and which would be awaiting me on my return home.
By creating a neutral forum for discussion about literature, intelligent people who would never normally interact were opening up and airing their differences. Many of the tensions were lost on me, although I could sense undercurrents and alliances. Passions raged, old scores were settled, fierce arguments broke out but remained, nevertheless, civilised and intense. There was a dispute over whether a certain distinguished poet could be labelled as “imperialist,” and this was bravely rebutted from the audience by the poet herself. A certain sort of venom was reserved for Sri Lankans published successfully in the west, with the suggestion that they purvey an exoticised version of their national identity for western consumption. I heard nothing but respect for Michael Ondaatje, however, who used his Booker prize money to endow an annual prize for Sri Lankan writing, the Gratiaen Award. (The ceremony, held on the Monday after the conference, was disrupted by a bomb threat.)
Lora’s diary is often most interesting in what it does not say. So it was with the conference. The most memorable encounters were incidental. I sat next to lecturers from the Eastern University at Batticaloa who described the difficulty they had had in travelling across the island to the conference. As Tamils, they were stopped at every checkpoint to have their papers scrutinised and their vehicle examined. One man told me that his best friend’s sister had been raped for four hours at gunpoint by a soldier the week before. His brother had been killed when he was 13; his mother had been taken to identify the body but had not been allowed to bury it. One minute we were discussing Chaucer and the next minute, this gentle, mild-mannered man looked into my eyes and asked: “Can you wonder that I hate?” One postgraduate who had come down from Jaffna was worried about how he was going to get back. The roads were cut off and the airport had been shut down. He was hoping to hitch a lift on the Red Cross boat and promised to send an e-mail when he got home. I have not heard from him yet. Perhaps I never will.
The conference ended with a memorial reading to a writer I had never heard of. Slightly younger than me, Richard de Zoysa had been an accomplished actor, poet and journalist who had been abducted from his home ten years before, and shot. His friends and colleagues read out his poetry, much of it chillingly prescient of his untimely death. He was the ghost at the conference, a large personality who was there in spirit but whose body had been dumped out at sea, riddled with bullets.
After that, it seemed quite pleasurable to slip again into the Ceylon of 1860. The evening after the conference ended I took a friend on a tour round the Fort area of Colombo. It is as militarised today as it was in Lora’s time, and sadly there is no way of gaining access to the part where she lived or to the Queen’s House, the old governor’s residence which is now empty, where Lora went for dances. I was just starting to take a photograph of a statue of an early governor when soldiers appeared and demanded to know if I had taken a picture. “No,” I said firmly, not wanting to have my film or camera confiscated. It would have been impossible to explain that I was interested in checking whether the same sculptor had made the statue of Sir Henry Ward which has been removed from its pedestal and stands in a corner of the archaeological gardens up in Kandy. We went into the Fort church, where there are several memorials to men Lora knew, and then we ate fish and chips on the top floor of the Grand Oriental Hotel overlooking the harbour. Here, too, photography is strictly forbidden. It is a busy naval base. There was only one other person dining and when we began speculating about how such a large hotel could remain open, I turned and asked this other diner if he was staying in the hotel and if it was otherwise empty. He replied that it had been full of the military the day before. There had been quite a party. He was an Australian travelling through, he said, and had just completed a contract in Indonesia, selling cooling systems. Out of politeness now rather than curiosity, I kept up the conversation. What had he found to do in Colombo? “You’ll think me weird,” he replied, “but I spent the day out at the military hospital.”
I did think him weird. “Why ever did you do that?” I asked. You hear of people who are fascinated by other people’s injuries. I rather regretted having began our conversation. “It’s terrible what is going on at the moment, you know,” he said. “I felt I had to be there, to see for myself. I sat beside young men who have lost their arms, and both legs. There was an 18-year-old who’d been blinded. His wife-she must be all of 16-was with him. They had a small child. What will become of them? They will still be living with it in 30 years’ time.” His gazed out into the darkness, past the glaring lights of the naval base. “I was in Vietnam,” he said quietly. “When I get back to Australia I am going to do something. I don’t know what, but I will do something.”
We invited him to bring his meal over and join us. For a while then we sat in the half light, chatting about books and places to visit. I talked about Lora. Then he said good night and thanked us for the company. We all shook hands and wished each other luck.