02 January 2020

Nature Ramble

Discomedusae, by Ernst Haeckel
A Visit to Ceylon
by Ernst Haeckel
translated by Clara Bell

This is a delightful account of a visit to my native country by one of the greatest naturalists of the latter half of the nineteenth century, who was a fine writer and a brilliant artist to boot. His book concentrates mostly on the geography and natural history of the country, though he makes some observations about the people, too. Although his outlook and his ideas inevitably reflect his time, he brings a devotedly empirical attitude, as well as a refreshingly modern scepticism, to his observations. Haeckel was, of course, a great supporter of evolutionary theory and the man chiefly responsible for introducing Darwin’s work to the German-speaking world. Less admirably, he was also a proponent of racist and eugenicist views – which are, fortunately, present only in germinal form here.

I’d known about this book for many years and even repeated one oft-quoted passage from it in my own writings, but somehow never got round to reading the whole thing until a few weeks ago. What a treat it turned out to be. Haeckel’s breezy, confident, yet somehow unassuming style is a delight, and his descriptions of sights and scenes in Ceylon are lapidary. He gives us an island full of laughter, light and air, a far cry from the stygian forests, brooding ruins and shiftless devil-worshipping natives portrayed by Christian missionaries, who were embittered by their largely fruitless struggles to convert the Ceylonese from their native superstitions to those of Europe. Even these disappointed souls, however, never failed to testify to the natural beauty of the country – at which Haeckel never ceases, in his book, to marvel.

Ceylon: Jungle River by Ernst Haeckel. Lithograph by W. Koehler

His principal object in coming to Ceylon was to study and describe the marine life of the seas surrounding the island, as he had earlier done with that of the northern Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Having been disappointed in his hopes of visiting the natural treasure-house of Trincomalee on the east coast, he had to content himself with studies in Galle Harbour and Weligama Bay. In Weligama he lived for three weeks entirely surrounded by the local people, exploring the bay and the nearby lagoons and wetlands and making no contact with any white person. Most of his descriptions of the Sinhalese people and of village life in Ceylon are drawn from this experience. He also visited Kandy, where he was overwhelmed by the riches of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, and made a tour of the up-country plantation districts (he was impressed by the British planters’ work ethic, but laughed at their insistence on dressing for dinner every night though living in the back of beyond). In the company of an ancestor of mine, Henry Trimen, he then made an expedition to World’s End, where the southern extremity of the central hill massif terminates in an abyss. From here, he and Trimen descended by the precipitous Nagrak trail to Nonpareil Estate, 4,000 feet below, and thence to Ratnapura, where they boarded a local riverboat that carried them down the Kalu Ganga to the coast. From here Haeckel returned to Colombo by rail and caught a steamer home to Europe, breaking journey in Egypt along the way.

His account of his excursions in Ceylon made me want to travel back in time and see my native land as it used to be before modernity, money and a growing population took their inevitable toll. The land he describes is Edenic, with only the faintest marks of human habitation and industry to mar it – except in the hill country, where he laments the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of primaeval forest to the colonial plantation enterprise. Ceylon was then in truth the paradise of nature clumsily and mendaciously evoked in present-day tourist advertising. Accessible fragments of paradise still remained when I was a young man, but they are nearly all gone now. Books like these, old sketches, paintings and photographs are all that remain. Ceylon no longer exists; we are all Sri Lankans now, to our great loss.

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel

01 January 2020

Jumping the God Shark

Fields of Blood
Religion & the History of Violence

by Karen Armstrong


Theology is, of course, mostly concerned with the distortion and obfuscation of truth. The simple ‘truths’ of religion cannot bear dispassionate scrutiny, so they have to be cloaked in layers of sophisticated misdirection to protect them from the light. Such is the purpose of theology.

But I read and write history, and it is hard to do this without encountering some theology along the way. When I was younger, I found these excursions enjoyable. Over time, though, my critical faculties grew keener and I became less willing to waste good reading and thinking time on nonsense.

Such is the perspective from which I read the introduction to Karen Armstrong’s book about religion and violence, Fields of Blood. I had meant to read the whole book, but found this impossible.

Armstrong, commendably, wastes no time introducing her thesis: it is presented in the very first paragraph of the introduction, in the shape of another writer’s observation that religion has been made a scapegoat for the human predisposition to violence.

Ah, so. A history book with a theological proposition – which is to say, an attempt to hide the hairy, smelly truths of human motive and action under petticoats of elaborate fabrication. Having stated her thesis, Armstrong next constructs a straw-man definition of religion ‘as seen in the West’ that no person of faith could possibly accept for an instant. This definition deserves to be quoted in full.

A coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions and rituals, centring on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and sealed off from all ‘secular’ activities.

What rubbish. That's a description of the trees, not the wood, and a pretty bad one at that. But Armstrong tells us this is what ‘we in the West’ (I’m not from the West) think religion is, and then proceeds to tell us why we’re wrong.

Other cultures, she tells us, have different, more expansive definitions. As an example she gives us Debuisson’s description of the Sanskrit term dharma,: ‘a “total” concept, untranslatable, that covers law, justice, morals and social life.’

Oh what precious twaddle. Dharma is very easily translated as ‘applied moral philosophy’. But yes, of course, religion is Protean. It’s like money – one of those consensual illusions on which human society and culture are founded, but which elude definition. So? All this palaver with definitions is clearly a setup for sleights of hand to come, allowing the author to include and exclude facts and points of view as suits her case without alerting the reader. It was at this point that I realized there was no value in continuing with this book.

I thought I would at least finish the introduction, but three pages on I came to a digression on the chemistry of the brain in which Ms Armstrong makes a complete fool of herself, getting serotonin all wrong. I could see no reason to read further.

For what it’s worth, I agree with the thesis that religion is not to blame for the violence perpetrated in its name. No more is money the root of all evil. These things are conduits for the potential to do evil that exists, pent up, in all of us, but if we didn’t have them, we would simply find other ways to express it. It is ourselves, not our institutions, that are to blame.

But Armstrong’s approach to the proposition is simply untenable. It is not the study of history but the study of evolutionary psychology that will, perhaps, one day exonerate religion – as the common man understands it – from blame for all the atrocities perpetrated in its name.

I have enjoyed and been enlightened by Karen Armstrong’s work in the past, when she was in a more sceptical mode and had interesting things to say about, for instance, fundamentalism. That era is now long gone. She has become a book factory, reliably churning out another god-bothering tome every year, to the undoubted delight of her fans, her publishers and her bank manager, but with nothing of substance left to say. A sad if somewhat unusual case of the commercialization of religion.

19 December 2019

Fool’s Testament

by Saul Bellow

This is literature, the work of a great novelist aiming for the stars, though perhaps not quite reaching them. In an age of constant bite-sized distractions from the internet and elsewhere, though, it’s hard to give this kind of writing the attention it deserves.

Stylistically exquisite, heart-tuggingly insightful, encyclopaedically informed, Herzog is largely a rendition of its protagonist’s internal monologue, sprinkled with a light salting of action and description. Moses Herzog conducts his compulsive monologue in the form of letters to others – friends, relatives, colleagues, fellow authors, publishers, contemporary politicians, etc. – which he invariably fails to complete and never mails. Not an easy read by any means.

Herzog is a high-flown incompetent, a former academic and historian who is in the throes of a nervous breakdown – a mild psychotic episode, you might call it. He suffers, he remembers, he writes his letters; he takes trips across the country for reasons he is not quite clear about himself, only to turn round and come back home. He has a bit of sex – the one thing he seems to be good at is attracting women – but he doesn’t seem to know how to make the women happy or let them make him happy. Eventually he returns to the place where his unhappiness began and is cured of his temporary insanity, although there is no promise that his apparently lifelong run of failure will end.

I experienced a curious sensation while reading this book – that of finding myself bored and impatient with Herzog and his endless, meandering, futile ruminations, yet eager to read on and find out what happens to him – and yet again being unable to hurry because the prose is so gorgeous and dense with flavour and nutrients. This queasy, ambiguous fascination is an effect that can only be achieved by a great author – an Updike or a Nabokov, or a Bellow.

At times, though, the book I was most reminded of was Portnoy’s Complaint, which is considerably more lowbrow (groin level, in fact, most of the time). Which raises an interesting question: since we already had Saul Bellow, was it really necessary to invent Philip Roth?

17 October 2019

Little England & the ’Flu

Population trend for Sri Lanka showing population loss due to
the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919.

Some years ago, I wrote a short story called ‘Little England’, set in the tea-planting districts of Ceylon not long after Independence. These districts lie high among the central hills of Lanka; in pre-colonial times they were barely settled. The British ‘opened them up’, chopping down the ancient cloud-forests that clothed the mountains and planting coffee in their place. Later, when coffee succumbed to a blight, they turned to tea, which ended up being even more successful.

The planters lived in palatial isolation in their estate ‘bungalows’ among the hills. Although their homes were furnished with every convenience and luxury colonial civilization could provide, access was difficult; there was only one railway line, running from Kandy to Badulla, and the network of roads that connected the plantations, most of which were cut and maintained by the planters themselves, were narrow, winding and very dangerous. Since these roads were always climbing up and down steep hills, one verge was usually bordered by a cliffside while the other gave, unfenced, upon an abyss. Mist and fog often made visibility poor, even by day; by night it was worse, and the so many planters died on the way home after an evening at ‘the club’ that the fraternity had a term ofr it: ‘he went into the tea.’ Other hazards included frequent landslides (‘earthslips’) and rockfalls. A breakdown meant exposure to leeches and poisonous snakes, and some districts were home to bears or leopards. Help, if one needed it, was usually available at the nearest estate factory or bungalow – but that, more often than not, would be miles away.

This was just how the planters liked it. Up in their mountain fastness, they rarely had occasion to face up to the grubby realities of life in the populous Crown Colony of Ceylon. Their plantations were worked by indentured labourers originally imported from South India and their business dealings were entirely with other Europeans, so they had almost no occasion for intercourse with the ‘real’ natives of Ceylon – the Sinhalese, Tamils and other races who were already established on the island when the first modern Europeans arrived. Beyond the purlieus of Kandy and the Kelani Valley, where numerous Sinhalese and Muslim villages had existed since pre-colonial times, few native Ceylonese had any occasion to visit the hill country at all.

The ‘Indian Tamil’ tea-pluckers they employed, whose freedom of movement was severely curtailed and whom the native population shunned in any case – were just as isolated, and so a strange, artificially self-sufficient society grew up among the hills of Ceylon, a world that some called ‘Little England’. It had absolutely nothing in common with the rest of the island. Its tiny towns (essentially hamlets glorified by the presence of a government administrative office or kaccheri) featured European-style houses set in European-looking gardens, stone churches in Gothic Revival style and picturesque shops and post offices that might have been transported wholesale from a village high street in the Cotswolds. In contrast to the rest of Ceylon, which was populous, hot and insanitary, Little England was cool, sparsely populated and spotless. The tea-plantations were neat and trim, while the factory buildings, ‘coolie lines’ and bungalows exhibited that peculiar appearance common to colonial enterprise, an odd combination of domestic cosiness and quasi-military spit and polish.

The capital of Little England was Nuwara Eliya, a high-altitude resort with golf links, a scenic artificial lake and becks stocked with imported trout for the delectation of British anglers and gourmets. In the late nineteenth century the government would move there during the hot season, just as the Imperial Indian government would move to Simla. ‘Newralia’, together with a few isolated clubs among the tea-bushes, supplied the planters and their long-suffering wives with all the human intercourse they permitted themselves; apart from a few expeditions to Colombo during the Christmas and racing seasons, they tended to stay put on their plantations.

All this is common knowledge to all Ceylonese and even a few Sri Lankans, but few now recall just how isolated this plantocratic Elysium was in the days of its pomp. This was brought home to me afresh recently while reading a scientific paper about the spread of influenza in Ceylon during the great worldwide epidemic of the disease that followed the First World War.

In their paper The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919 in Sri Lanka: its Demographic Cost, Timing, and Propagation, S. Chandra and D. Sarathchandra note that the spread of influenza through Ceylon after its first appearance was not ‘wave-like’ and uniform as in other countries. Instead, the disease spread across the whole island except for the tea-growing districts of Little England. It was only after a second vector of infection arrived, apparently not through the Port of Colombo as the first had but via Talaimannar, the port at which indentured labourers from India were landed in Ceylon, that the epidemic reached the hill country. 
The analysis of peak mortality times also reveals a phenomenon that is distinctive for Sri Lanka. That is, while the epidemic in the north and south of the island peaked in the autumn of 1918, it was not until a few months later, in the spring of 1919, that a number of districts in the central part of the island experienced their peak mortality. This point, which is noted by Langford and Storey, suggests a relative isolation of populations in the central districts of the island from the north and the south, as well as the isolation of the north and the south from each other. This is in stark contrast with the pattern observed elsewhere, where the disease moved wavelike across entire countries.
In other words, Little England was demographically so isolated that its inhabitants were practically living in quarantine.

By the 1960s, the period in which my short story is set, this isolation was less rigid than it had been, and perhaps half the planters on the estates were Ceylonese – usually members of the Anglophone colonial elite who modelled their manners, views and attitudes on their British predecessors and looked back on national independence as on a tragedy – but the hills of Ceylon were still Little England. Travelling into the tea districts, one left behind the chaos, poverty and deprivation of independent Ceylon; it was like going back in time. Of course, that past time, the colonial era, was one of subjugation and frustration for Ceylonese and cruel exploitation and misery for the ‘Indian’ estate workers; the gentility and bucolic prettiness of the tea districts were a fa├žade behind which a great deal of ugliness lay hidden. For all that, the charms of Little England are undeniable: thousands of present-day Sri Lankans still travel 
to the hill country on holiday or excursion every year, seeking to recapture some of the atmosphere of the past. More often than not, they schedule their journeys for the same season as did the British governors of yore. 

What they encounter scarcely resembles the Little England of my own boyhood, let alone that of the days before independence. The hill country is no longer a world apart, the picture-postcard towns have been modernized and uglified, the tea factories are decrepit, the tea-bushes overgrown and unkempt. But since most people’s idea of the past comprises a fantastic collage of present-day media images and a few half-forgotten nuggets of history learned in school, they are more or less satisfied. They fit what they see into the myths they believe, and are content.

16 September 2019

Wabbling Back to the Fire

Don’t you go blaming me: Ruveka Attygalle is chiefly responsible for this great work of moral exegesis. I merely added a verse or two and did some light editing.


There was a young man, shrewd and wise,
Who was quick to realize
There’s much to gain from telling lies
And pulling wool o’er people’s eyes.
Thus he went to turn a profit
Making out he was a Prophet.

And this Prophet walked abroad,
Singing praises to the Lord,
Gathering up a charmless horde –
Rich and stupid, fat and bored.
Lonely, jaded, desperate,
We flocked to him and took his bait.

To us then the Saint proposed
That God was just like Santa Claus:
Keen to bless all girls and boys
With the most material joys –
Gold Rolexes, trophy brides –
Free to all who paid their tithes.

Furthermore, the Saint explained,
Being saved did not depend
On sin or virtue, love or hate,
But simply on how much you ate.
‘If through yonder Gates you’d pass,
Curb your appetite and fast.’

 ‘Holiness means skipping dinner;
‘Souls ascend as they grow thinner;
‘So, if truly saved you’d be,
‘Go Breatharian like me.’
Then we fasted and we prayed,
And to him our savings paid.

Feats of prestidigitation
Added to his reputation;
Cures miraculous he wrought,
Though of the reversible sort.
Pretty soon his fame was national;
When are people ever rational?

Thus the Prophet prospered, till
(You might call it Heaven’s will)
One fine day they caught him cheating:
Some apostate filmed him eating!
That was it: the legend crumbled,
Now the greedy fraud was rumbled.

Learning that he loved his meat,
How we wailed and gnashed our teeth!
Moans of loss and grief we uttered
Hearing he liked toast well buttered.
Some in anger left the church
And our Prophet in the lurch.

Then our lives seemed dull and empty;
How we starved amidst our plenty!
How we missed the highs of old
Which we’d paid him for with gold.
Hopeless husbands, helpless wives
Found the wow gone from their lives.

Wand’ring planets, one by one,
Back we wobbled to our Sun;
Though we knew he’d been deceiving,
It was better just believing.
Now we all cough up with zest,
Fools withal, but truly blest.

A Nasty Man in Africa

Remote People
by Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh was an unpleasant man with nasty political and religious ideas, but a brilliant writer when he chose to be. There are places in this book where he does so choose.

Waugh went to Africa in 1930 to cover the coronation of Ras Tafari, the emperor of Abyssinia, for the Times of London. His descriptions of the ceremony and his travels in the country are vivid and often hilarious, though anyone who has read Wilfred Thesiger’s account of Tafari’s coronation may wonder whether the two men had ended up at different parties by accident. In his autobiography Thesiger presents Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), as a heroically, splendidly barbarous land; Waugh agrees about the barbarity but gives it to us as a gimcrack shambles, populated by savages playing ineptly and absurdly at a game, civilization, to which they do not know the rules. He claims to find it all very funny, but his humorous sallies, which tend to rely for their effect on racism, religious prejudice and snobbery, often fail to amuse because they are so obviously based on a mistaken interpretation of what he sees about him.

Evidently stung at some point during the interminable coronation by the tsetse fly of perversity, Waugh decided afterwards to take in even more of a continent that he must, by then, surely have recognized as disagreeable to his own constitution. He thus commenced to travel by road, rail and steamer down the East African coast, visiting Aden, Kenya and Uganda before making a detour into the Belgian Congo in the hope of catching an aeroplane to fly him over Central Africa to an Atlantic seaport where he could catch a steamer back to England. The last part of this plan failed, leaving him to return to British East Africa and make his way by train down to South Africa, where (his funds now almost exhausted) he bought himself a third-class passage home.

His brief stay in Aden, a hellish place that he mischievously pretends to like, gives us the funniest passages in the book. These describe an outdoor ramble with a Levantine businessman and his muscular European clerks that turns out to be a kind of Outward Bound test of manhood, involving climbs up precipitous cliffs and a swim in a shark-infested bay. He professes to like Kenya, too, and gives us a sympathetic portrait of the white farmers and the decadent Happy Valley Set, who in spite of their decadence were very much his kind of people. Unfortunately he then ventures to expound for several pages on colonial and imperial politics, about which he doesn’t have a clue. It’s demented waffle, all of it, and completely ruins his picture of Kenya for us by making it plain that he traversed Africa quite blind to anything that he had not, in some sense, expected to see. This affects our vicarious experience as much as it did his direct one, because we don’t get to read about anything new, or even about anything old from a fresh perspective.

From this point onwards his travelogue becomes a litany of tedium and discomfort, taking a nosedive into genuine privation aboard a Belgian steamer on the Great Lakes. This part of Africa, I have found, does not lend itself to enjoyable travel writing, principally because it so unpleasant and ugly in every aspect, from the scenery to the souls of the people who inhabit it. Waugh only recovers his composure when he has left the Congo and is safely back in British territory.

There is not much to the book after this. The last few pages, about a visit to a London night-club, seem intended to prove that the civilized world can be quite as unpleasant as the interior of Africa. All they really do prove is that Evelyn Waugh could find something nasty to say in almost any circumstances.

12 September 2019

A Birthday Prayer

It was my birthday a few days ago. We had a discreet little celebration, which began well after dark, indoors, at the Dutch Burgher Union Bar. Everyone left obediently at closing time, save for the few who had left earlier. It was delightful, and my wife and I are most grateful to all who attended.

Later, I wrote these lines.


Now the day is over,
Night is coming on;
Sozzled lunchtime stragglers
Decorate the lawn.
Deaf to our entreaties,
Heedless of our threats –
It would take a hailstorm
To rid us of these guests.

How they quaffed and guzzled!
How they quacked and squawked!
Lovers rubbed and nuzzled,
Drunk raconteurs talked;
Fun was had in bagfuls,
Hospitality flowed;
Still the sots insist upon
One more for the road.

Through the dusk the bleary
Stars begin to peep;
Though I know it's early,
How I long for sleep.
Jesu, grant the weary
Birthday boy’s request:
Send away these Gadarene swine,
Let me get some rest.