22 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (3)

When told that I was writing a book about the Ceylon tea trade, the first question many socially-aware friends asked me was ‘What are you going to say about the estate workers?’ A pertinent question: the status of Sri Lankan plantation workers and their treatment at the hands of estate owners, the general public and the State are heavily fraught and controversial subjects. My answer – that I would deal with the workers and their troubles as truthfully and fairly as I was able – was often met with a sceptical smile. Wasn’t my work being sponsored by the tea trade – the putative oppressors themselves? I could only counsel my friends to wait and see.
       This, the third in a series of extracts from Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation, begins the story of the plantation workers. The tale commences not in the age of tea but in the coffee-planting era that preceded it. From here, the story is carried through the rest of the book, becoming one of the principal strands out of which the narrative is woven.

11 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (2)

The Great Depression of 1929-39 added to the already considerable troubles of colonial Ceylon. The country’s vital tea industry was severely tested as world prices plummeted and production restrictions were imposed on estates. This second excerpt from my forthcoming book Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation deals with some of those impacts, and the impetus they gave to tea marketing in the Thirties.

An early achievement of the Tea Propaganda Board: Song of Ceylon,
directed by Basil Wright and narrated by Lionel Wendt

The Slump & The Song

07 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation

It is slightly over a year since I began work on a history of the Sri Lankan tea industry, which will be published next month as part of the celebrations being held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of that industry, which falls in 2017. The book will be titled Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation.
     The publishers of the book, the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association, have given me permission to post selected excerpts on this blog in advance of publication. Below is the first of these excerpts, taken from a chapter that describes the early maturity of the industry, around the end of the nineteenth century.

26 January 2017

Rx: Failed

The Great Degeneration
by Niall Ferguson

Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, famously pointed out that the real social contract is not between the rulers and the ruled, as Rousseau had it, but rather, ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Niall Ferguson, in this little book, explains that present-day Western governments (and others, too, including our own in Sri Lanka) are happy to commit themselves to costly but vote-catching social provisions that have to be financed by government borrowing. What governments borrow, they must sooner or later pay back. It is future generations who will do the paying.

This has been going on since about the 1950s. It was the baby-boomers who were first in breach of the social contract as Burke defined it. And it is the baby-boom generation, now grown crusty and selfish with old age, that recently snatched the future away from young voters in Europe and America by supporting such manifestations of short-term economic greed and political selfishness as climate-change denial, Brexit and Donald Trump. The contract between the generations has been torn up and tossed into the fire.

The Great Degeneration was published in 2013. The crisis of Western society of which Ferguson warns us in this short treatise on the failure of institutions was already upon us by then, but the worst had not actually happened. Now it has, and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences. Yet what we suffer will be as nothing compared to what our descendants will have to go through. The collapse of modern technological societies will be exacerbated by ruined natural environments and the exhaustion of available resources. This is the future that, through our own selfishness, we shall bequeath our children.

So it is a little bit late to be reading this book – which, you might say, was published a couple of generations too late anyway. Ferguson illustrates his thesis – that the failure of societies is due to the failure of institutions, because institutions themselves need to be perpetually renewed and adapted to prevailing conditions or they will fail – fairly convincingly. He covers political, economic, legal and civil-society institutions, though he pays little or no attention to religious ones, a serious lacuna in my view. In the end, however, he fails to convince us that anything can really be done. His prescription appears to be the restoration of classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism to its old place in the political order. But liberalism no longer means what it did in those days; the change has been so profound that old-style liberalism is more likely to be found nowadays in conservative circles than in so-called ‘liberal’ ones. There is nothing liberal – in the old-fashioned sense – about cradle-to-grave social provision, trade protectionism, the leveraging of corporate charity for political purposes, affirmative action or political correctness. What passes today for liberalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ferguson, who is married to the controversial feminist and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recognizes this. He has called himself ‘a proud Thatcherite’ and ‘a confirmed Eurosceptic’, and although he initially opposed Brexit he now says he was wrong, and in breach of his own political principles, when he did so. As for his views on Trump, he has said that liberals’ greatest fear was not a Trump presidency but ‘a successful Trump presidency’. Judging by the reactions I’ve been seeing on my Facebook wall, he is right.

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson’s argues that liberal institutions should be constructed upon the slimmest of possible frameworks, with a minimum of specified rules. They should be shaken up regularly. And they should be administered by intelligent meritocrats with lots of goodwill and common sense. Not so distant, politically and philosophically speaking, from Plato’s Guardians. Closer still to Pope’s famous couplet about forms of government. And just about as useful as a practical prescription. What use has a world of ageing, selfish gluttons, coddled and indulged by consumer capitalism and brainfucked by communications media that package even wars and natural disasters as entertainment, for leaders who can rule their passions? We’ve all become Napoleon the Pig, and we won’t be ruled by anything.

04 December 2016

Grunt Work

The Human Division
by John Scalzi

This isn’t really a novel. It’s a series of short stories held together by an overarching meta-plot and common characters. The bigger plot never resolves, leaving the reader with some unanswered questions at the end of the book and allowing for the continuation of the Old Man’s War series. Some reviewers have compared it to a TV serial, but books of this kind have a well-established history in literature – see, for instance, the Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse. As a reader, I’m comfortable with the device and welcomed it in this book.

I found the stories interesting and often funny, though some of the jokes are designed to elicit groans rather than laughter. The characters are stock – military surplus for the most part – but lovable, mostly people with jobs to do and problems to solve. If anyone reading this is old enough to have ever enjoyed Robert Sheckley, they’ll find Scalzi’s set and setting familiar: working stiffs and grunts caught up in bizarre situations, leavening their tribulations with questionable humour.

This is problem-solving SF. Some of the problems are technical and some are human (if you count sentient aliens as humans, which you should). There are whodunits and what Martin Amis once called whydunits. They’re a mixed bag but then, variety is the spice of literature. On the whole, I liked them.

What you won’t find here are marvellous passages of visual description and world-building, alien strangeness, metaphysical trippery and all that sense-of-wonder stuff. In fact, the visual depiction of characters, settings, spacecraft, etc., is kept to a minimum. This is the other kind of science-fiction: the techy, Analog kind. And none the worse for that. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I plenty enjoyed reading it the first time.

18 July 2016

Manipulative Bastards


As a child and as an adolescent, I was far too busy being tossed about in my own emotional storms to think too much about what other people were feeling. As a result, I often failed to see trouble coming.

Furthermore, I have always had very strong opinions, which, in my youth, I saw no merit in concealing.

This combination of traits took a very real and probably measurable toll on my life, making academic and professional achievement difficult and causing problems on a social and personal level also.

The problem came to a head during my early years in advertising. Helpful bosses and co-workers advised me to pay more attention to other people and their feelings – as a means of getting everybody's working day to run more smoothly, as well as improving my own career prospects. Advertising, of course, is all about manipulating consumers’ emotions, but the people who told me this were more concerned about the emotional impact I was having on colleagues and clients.

I took their advice.

Psychology has fascinated me since a very early age, when I began reading far too much of it in an effort to figure out what was wrong with me. What I had learnt trying to help myself over the long difficult years of youth gave me insight into other people’s thoughts and feelings, too. Now, with my eyes turned outward rather than inward, I found it pretty easy to understand people and – as long as I was feeling fairly calm myself – persuade them to my point of view. It took some time, but I found I could do it so well that I eventually began getting work as a facilitator for planning workshops and seminars in the international development sector, managing the conflicting agendas of aid donors, recipient government representatives, different stakeholder groups and so on. In the communications business, too, I developed a good reputation as a presenter and trainer.

I continued to be thought of as a potentially difficult and even slightly dangerous character, but this was intentional; I had no desire to lose that edge, because it was useful to me. Instead, I learned to manage it and apply it judiciously, at moments when it would have the desired impact and achieve the end in view.

In my social life, however, I didn’t bother so much with emotional management. I preferred to take my friends and loved ones as they were, and to respond to them as naturally as I felt like doing. Except (sometimes) in very difficult, confrontational situations, I put my hard-earned psychological insight to one side, speaking and acting as the impulse took me. Of course, at times, particularly in intimate relationships, a certain consideration – and judicious self-control – are essential and expected. You end up walking a fine line between honesty and ‘naturalness’ on the one hand and the need to keep your partner calm, happy and interested on the other.

The reason I did not always deploy my hard-earned emotional and psychological insight was that I felt that in doing so I was being a bit of a fake, and certainly manipulative of others. I didn't feel like an honest man doing it.

I won’t say this is why I still have a reputation for being a bit ‘difficult’, though; I have no doubt that I am still genuinely clumsy and blind to people’s real thoughts and feelings most of the time. But nowadays, if I’m being a bit provocative or insistent upon a point or even downright rude, it’s usually because I mean to. When I do lose my self-control it’s usually over some trivial but annoying incident on the street. The chances of my being murdered in a road-rage incident or some such are really far too high for me to be writing about emotional intelligence at all. But I am a very different person from the one I used to be half a lifetime ago.

The point of all this self-revelation is simply this: while everybody kept telling me to be more insightful and accommodating of others’ feelings, I always thought of emotional insight as a double-edged sword. I thought I was all alone in this regard, however, until I read this article in the Atlantic. It’s about ‘the dark side of emotional intelligence’ and in it I learned that others, too, have come to the same conclusion as myself, and have begun studying the phenomenon, too. It’s a fascinating article about something we all experience, and I urge you to read it.

Of course, it may be that the author just manipulated me into thinking it’s good...

26 February 2016

A Very Old-Fashioned Future

Imperial Earth
by Arthur C. Clarke

I just re-read this after an interval of roughly 35 years. Written to commemorate the US bicentennial in 1976, it’s basically propaganda for space travel and technological innovation, aimed at young Americans. It’s set in a future where space travel within the solar system is common, colonies have been established on (at least) Mercury, the Moon, Mars and Titan, and the American political model, tempered by a degree of enlightened authoritarianism, has been extended throughout the Solar System.

The central character is a man from Titan, locally rich and very powerful, who is travelling to Earth to clone himself an heir. He does not, however, behave as you might expect such a person to behave. Instead, he comes across as a cerebral, tentative, effete introvert – a bit like the author himself, then. The other characters are even less convincing – they’re just outlines, not even cardboard cutouts.

But the point of the book is not the characters. It’s the gee-whiz technology and the surprising science facts. As a young reader, I found these sufficiently diverting. Sadly, I no longer do. Part of the trouble is that here we have Clarke in ‘prophet of the Space Age’ mode, but his prophecies are trivial and cockeyed.

He himself once divided insufficiently radical predictions about the future into two kinds: failures of nerve and failures of imagination. In this book, he displays few failures of nerve, but several, unusually for him, of imagination. He foresees (at least implicitly) the personal computer, the mobile personal assistant, the mobile communicator and the internet, but he doesn’t put them together and completely fails (as, to be fair, everybody did) to realize the massive consequences that would result from their amalgamation.

Consequently, his vision of how information is distributed in his imagined future is very centralized, bureaucratic and in some ways almost authoritarian. And when he gets down to the details of user interfaces, menus and things like that, he visualizes a very clunky, library-catalogue-type presentation, not terribly user-friendly at all.

What seems to be missing is any appreciation of the effect of competitive consumer capitalism on the design and presentation of technologies. Its absence here may tell us something useful about the distinction between ‘constructive’ technologies (whose consequences may be foreseen) and ‘disruptive’ technologies (which change our lives in unpredictable ways). Having failed to imagine the disruption, Clarke ends up profiling a future that looks more old-fashioned than the reality of our present day. Actually, it looks a bit old-fashioned even from a 1976 perspective.

To sum up: this is an entirely disposable part of the Clarke canon, lacking any of the sense of wonder he deploys to such magnificent effect elsewhere. Avoid unless bored and seriously stuck for reading matter.