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Hotel California with an Indian Ocean View

The place we’re in now is not the worst hotel in the world. It has a pool, wifi and air conditioning, as advertised. The breakfast is hearty, the sunset views are spectacular and the staff are (mostly) pleasant. But it is not a place for the lily-livered and shy and retiring, of which I am one.
Even before we arrived, our former host and driver Ananda suggested that Deutcsch Lanka might not be the best place for us. He spoke darkly of rowdy all-night weddings and the likelihood of being whisked away to tourist traps with alluring names such as Spice Garden and Moonstone Mines. Better, he suggested to cut our visit short and go
elsewhere.

 

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Dissimilar to the brochure

 
When we arrived, my first impressions lent credence to Ananda’s forebodings. The exterior suggested an establishment gone somewhat to seed. There was a nice looking pool, but a stray dog was drinking from it and I worried that it would get a stomach ache from the chlorine. Then I worried that the pool was not chlorinated. Near the entrance was a fish tank filled with murky green water containing a few cramped fish, including a small shark. There was a table still set for breakfast, but the tablecloth was sprinkled with mildew, as if it was never changed.

 

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Holiday cheer

We ventured into an empty office and sat down on some chairs by the wall. Eventually a woman wandered in. We mentioned we’d made a booking online and she said the first thing we had to do was to cancel it.

‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry.’ She smiled.
‘But won’t we be charged a cancellation fee?’
‘Oh no,’ she laughed.

So, puzzled, I got my laptop out and cancelled the booking. Another employee entered, a young man with a long beard and fingernails. He smiled and calculated the price. When I handed over the credit card, he baulked.

‘Ah, you can pay some in credit card but this much you must pay in cash.’
I gaped at the large sum.
‘Oh, but we don’t have that much cash right now. Do we have to pay it today?’
‘Yes, today,’ he said.
‘Well, is there an ATM around here?’
‘Yes, I will take you in my car. Come.’

So, bemused, John and I followed him to his car and we all went to Hikkaduwa.
‘Is there a reason we can’t pay the whole amount on credit card?’ John asked.
‘Yes,’ said the serene young man. ‘It’s because the banks charge very high tax on all credit card purchases. All around Sri Lanka, you will find this.’
On consideration, Randoni Villa had also required payment in cash. I started to relax slightly—maybe this wasn’t a shakedown. Finally, we got to the Bank of Ceylon and the man led us into the ATM atrium. Luckily, we managed to withdraw enough in spite of the fact I’d already had to withdraw a lot to pay for our last hotel and for the drive south.

When we got back to Deutsch Lanka, the man quietly insisted that we give him the cash right there in the car.

‘Not in the office?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said pleasantly.

I handed it over, he counted it carefully, then put it in his pocket. Then we all got out of the car and walked to the office, where we paid the rest with the credit card. I noticed that he did not give us a receipt for the cash.

 

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Mermaid and Mermister

 

Taking our luggage to the room, I took in more of the surroundings. There was a very odd statue by the pool. There were a few hibiscus plants with flaming flowers. The dog that had been drinking from the pool was now lying sprawled in the shade.

 

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Our room was basic but big and the bed, as we soon discovered, was comfortable. After our big drive and the confusing reception, we were tired enough to sleep for a couple of hours. When I woke up, though, I found that my arms and half my face had been eaten off. The bites weren’t itchy but they looked terminal. John mused that it reminded him of one of his favorite lines by Dryden, from ‘Upon the Death of Lord Hastings’, who’d died of the smallpox:

Blisters with pride swell’d, which thr’row’s flesh did sprout
Like Rose-buds, stuck i’ th’ Lilly-skin about.
Each little Pimple had a Tear in it,
To wail the fault its rising did commit

John’s ankles were similarly afflicted and, on investigation, I discovered there was a big gap in the bathroom between the ceiling and wall, along winged creatures free and easy entry into our apartment. A winged cockroach was lying upside-down in the shower stall, trying to right itself as a little gecko watched. On the wall I noticed a strange shape that, on inspection, turned out to be a large breadcrumb being transported up by a group of ants. A couple of scout ants were going on ahead, to determine the best way forward.

 

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We decided to leave this insect paradise for a while to go and look at the beach. This was not as easy as it sounds. Between us and the beach was a busy highway. Huge buses hurtled past, honking at tuk-tuks. Cars sped up to pass long lines of tuk-tuks, and seemed just about to crash with oncoming traffic when they tucked ahead of the queue. Then some tuk-tuks slowed down, thinking we wanted them to pick us up, when we actually wanted them to get out of the way so we could cross without dying. By the time we managed to get to the other side, we saw that the so-called beach was a long wall of big rocks, acting as a buffer to some pretty powerful surf.

 

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Dismayed, we trudged back to the hotel and decided to try the restaurant. This was a vast area, clearly designed to accommodate wedding banquets as the tables and chairs were decorated with white coverings. The pillars seemed to be made of plastic and were molded and painted brown to look like fake tree trunks. There was no one there. The places were set, though, so we sat at the table for ten minutes. We were just about to give up when a waiter came.
‘You want to eat?’
‘Yes,’ we nodded.
He smiled and brought us menus. We looked over the list and I decided I really wanted a curry. John wanted fried rice. At that point, the owner of the hotel came out. He was a man in his sixties, bald, dressed in a red shirt, with the authoritative air of a Roman senator.
‘Hello sir, hello madam,’ he said. ‘You want dinner? I recommend the
prawns. Big prawns. You will like.’
‘Um, I want curry,’ I said feebly.
‘Yes, prawns, very fresh,’ the man said, rubbed his hands together and went back into the kitchen to cook the prawns or to supervise them being cooked.
 About ten minutes later he came out with the drinks and poured them out carefully for us. I noticed there was something a bit wrong with one of his hands, it looked all twisted. Then he insisted on putting my napkin on for me, slightly brushing me on my hip, which I didn’t appreciate. Then he leaned into John’s face.

‘You like Sri Lanka sir?’
‘Yes, yes, we like Sri Lanka,’  John nodded politely.
‘You want to buy a house here?’ he asked.
We laughed.
‘Yes, nice house,’ the man continued. ‘Live six months here, six months in America. Very good.’
‘Oh,’ John said, realizing this was a serious offer. ‘Ah, well…’
‘My brother has very nice place. I take you there, tomorrow. He has a nice pool. Nicer than here.’

The waiter brought along bowls of water with slices of lime in them and then placed different napkins down.

 

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Fingerbowl of Dread

 

The boss guy yelled at the waiter guy for some reason, then he turned to us with a smile.
‘This is to wash fingers. You wash fingers.’
He watched to make sure we did as we were told, then nodded and disappeared.
A family appeared at the table next to us, utterly silent, even though there were two small children there.
The boss man came out again with a huge plate of lobsterine prawns. Eating them, I thought dully, would be like fighting the Bugs in Starship Troopers.
‘First you clean fingers, then you take the prawn and clean it,’ said the man, hovering.
‘And put the shell on the plate, here,’ he said, pointing and monitoring everything as we ate, nodding and simpering, desperately wishing he would leave.
‘You want come see the house tomorrow?’ he asked John again, patting him on the shoulder. ‘I take you in my truck.’
‘Uh? Oh. Well, no, we have to…tomorrow we are going to the beach.’
‘Pool much better than the beach.’
‘Oh,’ John smiled. ‘We want to snorkel, you know, see the fish.’
‘Ah,’ the man nodded but was dissatisfied. ‘Next day then,’ he said as if to himself.
‘Um, can I have some wine please?’ I asked, but he pretended not to hear.
After this ordeal, we decided not to eat at the restaurant anymore because we both left the place strung out and hyperventilating, unclear about whether or not we had agreed to buy a house in Sri Lanka.  Instead, we would have big lunches in town and get snacks at the little shop nearby to eat at night.

 

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Dinner from now on

At night, as we lay staring at the ceiling, we noticed the bright light outside our room stayed on all night. Furthermore, our neighbors were four Dutch people who were having a tropical holiday that involved falling down the stairs in the middle of the night. And then, at two o’clock, someone, somewhere–maybe another guest, or maybe the Universe, started playing, quite loudly, ‘Hotel California’. 

 

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Lankania: Kings and Birds

On Thursday it was time to head south for the beach town of Hikkaduwa. We decided against getting the train, because we would have had to go north into Colombo and rumor had it that it was often hard to get a seat. A taxi sounded like a less exhausting option so we hired Ananda, the owner of Randoni Villa, as a driver and headed out at 10 in the morning.

 

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Hikkaduwa is in the Southern province, between Ambalangoda and Galle

 

He said he’d been in the tourist business for thirty years. For the last ten years he’d been working for a company that specialized in luxury tourism—many of his clients were the kind of traveler willing to pay $1000 a night for a hotel room, bypassing all the tourist traps and making a beeline for secluded jungle palaces offering exclusive spa treatments, personal safaris and helicopter rides to cloud-kissed mountain peaks. It was just recently that he’d started running the hotel, with the indispensable help of his family.

Learning that we liked wildlife, snorkeling and historical sites, he started giving us tentative recommendations.

“Sri Lanka has a lot of history, you know,” he said, blowing out his cheeks. “More than 4,000 years. The country has had no less than nine capitals.” At which point he listed them all, in mellifluous but incomprehensible recitation.

“The first capital, for many centuries, maybe a thousand years, was Anuradhapura. This was a very beautiful city, one of the wonders of the world. It was a center for Theravada Buddhism after the king Devanampiya Tissa (307-267 BCE) converted. He did that because he was friends with the Indian Emperor Ashoka (268-232 BCE), who helped spread Buddhism through all Asia.”

 

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A mural illustration from Bangkok’s Wat Pho shows a scene from the Mahavamsa–the Sri Lankan king enthrones a part of the Bodhi tree and dedicates his kingdom to it. Image and explanation taken from this site.

 

“Ah,” John said, “He’s mentioned in the epic, Mahavamsa isn’t he?”

“Yes, exactly, the Mahavamsa. Actually, the site of Tissa’s conversion, Mihintale, is still one of the country’s most sacred Buddhist sites. You can visit it these days. Though Anuradhapura is not so good now. In 993, the city was captured and destroyed by the Chola Empire. Chola were Tamil, from Southern India and they ruined everything. Actually they had tried to attack many times before but didn’t succeed. This time they succeeded because the king wasn’t very good in Anuradhapura just then.

 

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Greatest extent of the Tamil Chola Empire c.1030 BCE.

 

“In the eleventh century, Vijayabahu I took back the island from the Tamils and made Polonnaruwa the new capital—capital number two. But this capital didn’t last for even one hundred years because there was a lot of infighting and another invasion, also from south India, and Polonnaruwa was burned down. But even so, it is better preserved than Anuradhapura.”

“After that, the capital under the Tamil, Hindu, Jaffna Kingdom was Nallur, up in the far north. And it went on like this—kingdoms warring against each other–until the Portuguese came in the 16th century. The Portuguese gradually took the coastal towns and the Sinhalese moved their capital then to Kandy, high in the mountains, from where they couldn’t be moved. By the way, the Portuguese converted many people to Catholicism, but only on the coast where their ports were. And even today, most of Sri Lanka’s Christian population—about 7%–lives on the coast or in Colombo.”

 

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Aerial view of the Dutch Galle fort in 2011. First built by Portuguese and extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century from 1649 onwards. Image Credit: Wikimedia

 

“Then there were the Dutch. When the Dutch come, first everyone was glad and the king made a deal with them to kick out the Portuguese. But then afterwards they felt like they’d given a ginger and got a chilli. The Dutch built many forts all around the island, but the one that still looks good—almost like new—is at Galle. It’s very big. They had a whole town inside the fort, with a hospital and everything. You should go, it’s not far from Hikkaduwa. The Dutch managed to take everywhere in the island except for the capital, Kandy. It was very strong. Another thing about the Dutch is that they married local people and their descendants are now called Dutch Burghers. They have their own language, their own customs, but a lot of them left. Many now live in Australia.

“As soon as Britain took over in 1804, straight away they tried to attack Kandy, but they couldn’t. They only took it in 1815 because some local people were not happy with the king and they sided with the British. That’s the only reason, because the town is very well defended. The king was taken and put in jail in Southern India, and he died there.

 

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Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Image taken from this site.

 

“By the way, in Kandy there is the Temple of the Tooth, you know?”

“Yes, we want to go there,” I said.

“Well, you know that it is a temple made to keep a tooth of the Buddha. It is very sacred to Buddists. In fact, in every capital in history, there was a temple of the tooth. The king was its guardian and the centre of power was wherever the tooth was.”

After this crash course in history, Ananda went on to describe some of the nature parks and activities. He said that it was not really the best time for snorkeling—that started in April—but that there were some great whale-watching boat rides. In the middle of this, he suddenly stopped the car and started to reverse. When the car stopped, he pointed up into the sky and said, “Green bee eater!”

 

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Birb image taken from this site

 

Craning our necks, we saw a bird on a wire over a field. Suddenly, it fluttered up and did a little aerial dance.

“Now he is catching an insect. Soon you will see, he will return to his place to eat.”

Sure enough, that’s what it did. And a few more times after that.

“I’m interested in birds too,” he said. “I love watching out for them. You have to know where to look. I once had an American stay at the villa and he said to me, ‘In your garden alone, I counted 62 birds. Sixty-two!’”

 

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crested hawk eagle

 

He certainly did seem to have a good eye for our feathered friends. He pointed out a hawk eagle, a serpent eagle, two kinds of egret, a kingfisher and, as we neared the beaches of Hikkaduwa, a pair of red-wattled lapwings. In Colombo we’d already seen pelicans, skinny crows, terns and ibises. Maybe not 62, but enough to keep our interest.

All in all, it was a very informative ride and an intriguing introduction to some of the mysteries that awaited us on this island. As we pulled into our hotel, we thanked Ananda and made sure that we got his email address, as he clearly knows the island like the back of his hand. 

 

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white-throated kingfisher

Sri Lanka’s Sensory Shocks

“It’s funny–it always strikes me how amazing it is–that in less than half a day you can be on the other side of the planet,” Lee, our fellow guest muses as the hostess carefully places dishes in front of him—dahl, rice, fried eggplant with mango chutney, bitter greens and chicken curry.

Lee has spent a few weeks in the country, a large part of it at an Ayurdevic spa doing nothing but meditating and having hot oil massaged into him, and he could easily be an advertisement for the practice. He must be in his sixties, but looks as healthy and lithe as a twenty-year-old and emanates perfect health and supreme calm. Pressed by us for an account of his travels, he obliges and gives some recommendations: especially the retreat in Bentota and the Bomburu falls at Ella.

 

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By Buddhika Mawella – Own work, CC BY 3.0, 

 

Aside from me and John, Lee is the only guest at Randoni Villa, a secluded little place just 15 minutes’ drive from the airport. It sits at the end of a country lane, surrounded by greenery on the bank of Attangalu Oya river. Ananda, the father, is away doing his other job as a tour guide, so we are attended to by his wife, who is the talented cook, and his daughters, the eldest of whom, Huruni, speaks excellent English and acts as interpreter and travel advisor. The younger daughters don’t speak much but stand to one side smiling and looking on with interest, holding one of the three resident Persian cats.

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Randoni Villa’s pool

 

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Dining room

 

Our first night there John sleeps well but I’m kept awake by jetlag and scary noises. At first, there is something like a katydid but more metallic, emitting a sound like rhythmic audible sparks. Then there are the chirps of geckos. Later in the night comes the ghostly loon-like whipperings of waterbirds from the river, then scamperings and scritchings on the roof, and a tuneful singing that might or might not be a nightjar perched in a tree in the surrounding garden. I finally manage to drift off when I am wrenched awake by the terrifying roar of an airplane that seems on the verge of crashing into our hotel room. Stifling a scream, I lie very still and wait for the fireball that never comes. During the silent aftermath, a gentle scraping sound starts swishing on the far wall, somehow reminiscent of a garden hose and I start imagining a giant octopus made of vines that goes forth in the night to devour what it may. No sooner does that calm down than something lands on the roof, does a little dance and starts to hammer like a woodpecker drumming up grubs. This manages to wake John, and after a few drumming sessions, he yells at it to go away, which it does. I manage to sleep a couple of hours but around five in the morning, I have to get up to the bathroom, which is a sort of roofed shack with gaps in the walls so you can hear everything. Looking down into the toilet and noticing that a colony of ants has inexplicably decided that it’s a fantastic place to congregate, I hear something that chills my blood—a very low and tuneful chanting that sounds like the Red Army Choir about to perform a ritual sacrifice. And over this, suddenly, is the shrill, jingling tune of an icecream truck playing ”It’s a Small World After All”.

At breakfast I’m a little strung out after my night of sound effects. Even so, I manage to polish off the feast of dhosas and green chilli coconut sambol along with toast, butter, jam, fresh pineapple and coffee. As we munch away, I see movement in the trees behind John and realize it’s a kind of palm squirrel, with a stripe that reminds me of a chipmunk.

 

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Indian Palm Squirrel

 

Hiruni tells us that our taxi has arrived—we are going into Colombo for a day—so we gulp the rest of our coffee and jump in. The ride takes about an hour and the contrast between the green peace of the countryside and the frenetic activity of the city is marked. There are motorized tuk-tuks everywhere, each one decorated in a distinctive way, though not as elaborately as the trucks, some of which are mobile works of art. I gaze with interest at the people: businessmen in white shirts and black trousers, workmen in hi-viz vests, women in dresses and heels, school children in formal uniforms, mechanics in oil-stained T-shirts, tuk-tuk drivers in T-shirts and jeans, policemen in meticulously ironed uniforms and very skinny elderly people in long batik sarongs.

 

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Looming over the whole city is the Lotus Tower, which our driver points out on the way past, though he really doesn’t need to—you can see it from anywhere. As we reach the coast, looking out to the Indian Ocean, he pulls to a stop and points to an enormous mall surrounded by fences and policemen.

 

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“Brand new,” he explains. We realize that this is what he understands as ‘the shopping district’ we requested as our destination. John explains that we are actually looking for a big street with lots of shops on it, where the locals go. The driver shrugs, which seems to mean there isn’t really anywhere like that. We get out and go through the entrance, which is manned by security guards and x-ray machines for bags. Just outside, cars are checked by a Malinois shepherd in a police vest. It has only been eight months since the Easter bombings that killed 259 people, so presumably the dog is sniffing for explosives. On this occasion, luckily, nothing is detected and the car is allowed to go on.

At 10 in the morning, the mall is only very slowly coming to life. John and I find a bookstore that is one of the few shops open, buy a few tomes on Sri Lankan history but are disappointed that there are no city maps available. Waiting for other shops to open, we wander around the mall. Already, a big crowd is gathering around an enormous Christmas tree and young couples and friends are taking each other’s pictures in front of it. As we learn later from our host, Sri Lanka has quite a small Christian population (about 7%) and almost all of it is concentrated in Colombo and on the west coast. This, he explains, is due to the fact that the Portuguese stuck to port towns and converted people in those towns to Catholicism. This perhaps explains why we saw so many trees and nativity scenes around the city.

 

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The main reason we’ve come to the city is that John needs a foreign-legion hat, the other one is lost somewhere in Italy. But a quick reconnaissance mission on all five floors of the complex shows that foreign-legion hats are as rare as Sumatran rhinos. These are high-end fashion shops where the only hats available are baseball caps or those little short-brimmed hats favored by Justin Timberlake. So we go outside and get into a tuk-tuk asking the driver for a shopping street.

“You mean the city centre?” he asks.

“Yes!” We nod enthusiastically.

“OK!” he zips around town and deposits us outside another big mall, called ‘City Center Shopping Centre’. Resigned to our fate, knowing there will not be a hat here either, we trudge in and go through another security check. Sure enough, this place has all the same hat-less shops. We decide to make the best of it by getting John some linen trousers. Pants shopping is one of his least favorite activities but he does it quickly and efficiently with only a hint of anguished groaning.

To celebrate this achievement, we go downstairs to have lunch at the supermarket foodcourt, where businessmen are grabbing a bite to eat before going back to work. I order beef and noodles for John and tuna curry, which are filling but nothing extraordinary. Before going upstairs we decide to look at all the weird food: dozens of varieties of locally grown rice; wood apples; rambutan; headless sprats that locals chew like peanuts; egg hopper flour and aisles of spice. It gives me a nostalgic feeling to find Commonwealthy food familiar from my childhood such as Marmite (which you can use on noodles apparently), Milo and tins of golden syrup.

 

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wood apples

 

At this point we are ready to head back to the hotel and venture outside in search of taxis. A man responds to our request, but when we realize he is leading us to a line of tuk-tuks, we stop and said we want a car—the mere thought of travelling the distance back to the hotel in a little open-air jalopy makes my bum hurt.

“OK, OK,” says the head guy, “I call car now. You wait 15 minutes, inside. I call you.”

We duly go back inside and sit down at ‘Il Caffe’ where I order a gelato.

“What flavor madam?”

“Um, rum and raisin.”

“Ahh,” he said knowingly. “Alcohol.”

“Yes, haha.”

“I no like this,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

Soon enough, the taxi impresario returns, leads us outside and introduces us to a man with a moustache whose car is parked across the road.

“You know madam,” the driver says to me, sweating, “I need to drive by my shop, just ten minutes madam. There you go sit in shop. No need to buy, but if you want to buy OK. I need to pick up petrol vouchers there, two, three vouchers.”

He is avoiding looking at or addressing John, perhaps because John is glaring.

Sure enough, the guy drives us in the wrong direction across the city and decants us into a gem shop. The sofa by the door is taken, so we go and sit on a couple of chairs in front of a display case full of rings and necklaces. No sooner have we taken a seat than a guy drifts over and starts the hard sell, urging me to try on various rings and necklaces.

“Actually,” I say finally, with some apology, “We’re just waiting for our driver.”

He nods briefly and then just launches into the same spiel. John and I stand up and walk away, pretending to look at other stuff. The guy follows us.

“You like gemstones? We have many fine gemstones.”

“No thanks,” we say and sit down on the sofa, which is now free. We both start to read books intently. Coincidentally, just at this time our taxi driver returns to shepherd us back to the car. He has the Greatest Hits of Boney-M playing. They are very cheering, especially “Rasputin”  (there was a cat who really was gone) and “Rivers of Babylon”, which includes an illusion to Psalm 137:4, “Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?”, which is used in a lot of songs and which I always find moving. However, even Boney M palls a bit as it takes us ages to get out of the city even though the driver takes plenty of short cuts through side alleys. By the time we near the airport, the driver starts periodically stopping the car and asking people where our hotel is. We’ve given him the hotel phone number, but his phone has run out of credit or something. Inch by inch we near our oasis. Finally, he makes it.

We get in and sleep for three hours, exhausted by the whole experience.

 

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Opera Nite: Carmen at the Teatro Regio

In an era when you can listen to practically anything practically anywhere, it’s a wonder anyone still bothers going to the opera. It’s an archaic, elaborate spectacle that requires an army of artists and wheelbarrows full of money to stage. The plots are flimsy and familiar, the music old fashioned and the acting stilted. And–what should be the nail in the coffin—you have to pay to sit still for hours.

But, as we discovered last night, lots of people still do go, at least in Turin, and with pleasure. As we arrived at the Teatro Regio to see Carmen, the place was rapidly filling up with flocks of elegant culture vultures, leaving their coats at the vast guardaroba, poring over the program and chatting with friends.

 

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The old theater, a few hours before it burned down

 

Turin has had a ‘Royal Theater’ since the eighteenth century, with distinct phases involving restorations, Napoleon and the Restoration. In 1936, a great fire destroyed it completely and it lay disused for thirty years as the country’s finances were occupied with war and its costly consequences. In 1967, the work of raising the phoenix was finally entrusted to the architect Carlo Mollino (1905-1973) and the theater was inaugurated 10 April 1973. Some attribute to Mollino the quote, “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic”. Whether or not it is true, it seems an good summary of his modus operandi because the theater is full of quirky design features. The stage is designed to look like a television set; the color scheme is reminiscent of a lava lamp with reds and purples; chandeliers are in space-aged globular clusters or stalactite pipes. As you enter the theater, there are circular holes in the walls of each entrance that allow you to glimpse another person moving in the same direction—giving the fleeting impression of a mirror image.

 

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In order to enter the theater, you must first pass through the ‘Musical Odyssey’ (‘Odissea Musicale’) gate, sculpted in bronze by Umberto Mastroianni (1910-1998). This, like everything else in the theater, has the feeling of a ritual designed to enhance the sense of entering an alternative, fantasy world.

 

Cancellata

 

Carmen is an opera based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée about a beautiful Roma woman who robs a soldier then falls in love with him. His corresponding love for her leads him to kill a man so becoming an outlaw, and then to kill her husband out of jealousy. She then falls for a matador and the ex-soldier kills her. The opera composed by Georges Bizet in 1875 is a bit different in that Carmen is not married and the soldier doesn’t kill anyone, with the result that the whole thing makes no sense.

 

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shameless hussy

 

One critic present at the opera’s premiere described the singer Célestine Galli-Marie’s Carmen as “the very incarnation of vice” (as if that would deter anyone) and it’s true, she’s a lot less inhibited than most operatic heroines. She works in a cigarette factory, has brigands for friends, tries to carve a cross in a colleague’s forehead in a cat fight, uses sexual favors to get out of trouble and abruptly ditches her besotted beau for a hotter prospect. Somehow, the mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan played the voluptuary with a violent streak in a way that also makes you think she is a noble, if sensuous, spirit simply obeying Nature’s imperatives. At the same time, though, I was reminded of a girl in my high school named Jackie, who was a holy terror, tore through boyfriends, had three kids by the age of 18 and had a feud with the town policeman. I vividly remember her punching a guy’s broken arm and stabbing rabbit fetuses during high school dissection class. Right up until fifth form, when she dropped out, I avoided her as I would a human volcano, but now I realize she was the perfect Bizet heroine.

The doomed lover Don Jose by comparison comes off as a wet noodle, who should obviously have married the nice girl Micaëla and saved everyone a lot of trouble. Just to clarify, by wet noodle, I am talking about the character, not the singer, because the tenor Andrea Caré (who is from Turin and has sung at the Met, the Royal Opera House and pretty much everywhere else) managed to fill the auditorium very nicely.

 

andrea care
Andrea Caré

 

The director set this opera in the Spanish Civil War and I’m not sure that really worked. At the opening of Act III a large propeller airplane inched closer and closer to the edge of the stage until I was worried it would fall into the orchestra pit and kill the brass section. John, ever the war nerd, was busy thinking that they must have been very successful brigands to afford what would then have been a brand-new plane.

In terms of stage craft, the whole spectacle was amazing. Each Act opened with a tableau vivant that looked like a beautifully lit photograph. The chorus of children singing Les Voici! was very beautiful, though they all looked like the cherished prodigies they are rather than scruffy orphans. The choreography was nice too, especially in Act II, which is set in a bar and people are dancing the flamenco.

That’s all I really have to say, except that it was enjoyable, even for John, who has been humming Carmen tunes all day. Not me, though. For some reason, the tune that got stuck in my head was “Jingle Bells,” which is what the taxi driver was whistling on the way to the theater.

 

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Clive James’s Ape-Call

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my brothers and I were occasionally allowed to stay up late to watch Saturday Night Clive. This was The Daily Show before The Daily Show existed, where the host offered comedic commentary on current events. Although the humor was often relatively adult, my parents’ morality policing was relaxed for once because Clive James had a quality that my parents prized highly: Wit. In that unmistakable nasal sing-song drawl, he cast off crafty one-liners and launched into metaphorical flights of fancy. His sarcastic references to Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev and the Royals piqued my interest in world news by revealing that important adults could be devious, ridiculous and weak – i.e. human.

 

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“On the world scene, President of the United States Mr. Ronald Reagan has reacted angrily to suggestions that he might not really have forgotten being told about the Iran affair. ‘I can clearly remember forgetting,’ he says. ‘I’ve even forgotten whose finger this is.’” (bit from The Clive James Show in 1987)

 

What I didn’t know then was that Clive James wrote poetry. When he retired from show business, he gradually shifted to full-time versifying. The first I knew of his interest was when I also started writing poetry as a teenager and saw one of his poems in an anthology, a kind of obituary titled “Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco”. Despite scoffing at the idea that a TV celebrity had what it took to be a poet, I had to admit that this one wasn’t all bad, especially the final stanza:

 

There was a chimpanzee at his funeral,

Which must have been someone’s idea of a smart promotion,

And you might say that dignity had fled,

But when Tarzan dropped from the tall tree and swam out of the splash

Like an otter with an outboard to save Boy from the waterfall

It looked like poetry to me,

And at home in the bath I would surface giving the ape-call.

 

So news of Clive James’s death, though long anticipated, was unsettling. I felt I’d neglected him, as if he were a great-uncle or an old teacher. I looked back at clips from those TV shows of the 1980s, but they only increased my unease. The jokes seemed stale, naturally enough, because humor doesn’t travel very well in time or across borders. But even allowing for inevitable verdigris, his witticisms seemed labored and his face alarmingly unexpressive: eyes so deep-set they were like two black holes over a spuddy nose and a slightly off-kilter smirk.

 

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Knowing he was a poetry enthusiast, I wondered if he’d be more appealing on the page and decided to mark the occasion of his death by buying his Collected Poems. In a 2003 interview with Michael Parkinson, Clive James warbled about why poetry is different to other forms of writing for him:

 

…[It] is a way of staying in childhood, it’s a way of staying obsessed with language, as children are. There’s a beautiful couple of lines by Dylan Thomas in one of the poems he wrote towards the end of his troubled and confused life, and he was talking about being a kid and playing in the park in Swansea, and he said, “the ball I threw when playing in the park/has not yet reached the ground.” I think it’s wonderful, that’s the way he felt about his life. And when I read that, I thought, “I’ll never forget that,” and I never have. It’s one of the things that made me want to be a poet, to try and say something memorable and I think that is really what poets do, they try to put it together out of this tremendous sense of everything coming apart, which I’ve always felt.

 

As plausible as all this sounds, it’s not the whole story. Poetry for him was, at least partly, a way of getting hot women to pay attention to him, especially once his TV airtime had dried up. The reason I venture to say this is that he frequently says so in his poems (“Obscurity, in my view, is rarely a tolerable aim in the arts” he pontificates in a footnote to “Funnelweb”). “Publisher’s Party”, for example, is an admirably clear poem about a beautiful woman at a publisher’s party who chooses to seduce someone other than Clive James:

 

Lacking in social skills, licensed to bore,

He was the kind of bloke

A girl like her would normally ignore,

Unless, of course, he’d won the Booker Prize.

Alas, he had. I can’t think of a joke –

Only of how she lingered there until

He woke up to the full force of her looks;

Of how we rippled with a jealous thrill,

All those of us who’d also written books

Out of an inner need;

And now a panel-game of hacks and crooks

Had staked him out for her to stalk and kill –

As if the man could write, and she could read.

 

In “Literary Lunch” from Angels Over Elsinore, he delivers an old man’s gentle lament. No longer can he take the lithe young would-be in his arms; all he can do is pay humble homage to her beauty through sophisticated academic whiffling:

 

Reciting poetry by those you prize—

Auden, MacNiece, Yeats, Stevens, Charlotte Mew –

I trust my memory and watch your eyes

To see if you know I am wooing you

With all these stolen goods. Of course you do.

 

Of course she knew he was trying to get into her pants; she probably needed a publishing connection and had heard he’d shag a fire-hydrant if it wore a dress. This old-man shtick is, of course, disingenuous too. In an obsequious obituary to James in the Financial Post, Luke Slatterly recalls that at age 62 Clive danced the night away at a Sydney dance club, and boasted about making a bee-line for tango wherever he jetted to. Even when this Casanova of Kogarah ends up cadging a ride with ‘an attractive middle-aged blonde,’ Slatterly refuses to admit that James was a horny old goat, but rather a Higher Being whose nature was best expressed in the artistic medium of Dance:

 

James’s passion for the tango speaks, I think, to some of the qualities of the man. Not only the tango intense, languid, sexy, and intoxicating, it is also tragic, poetic, lyrical, abstruse, elegiac and melancholy, and has been described as a “sad thought that dances”.

 

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At 64, this Sad Thought That Dances embarked on a torrid affair with ‘Ex-Model’ Leanne Edelsten (also an attractive middle-aged blonde), ‘ravishing’ her periodically until he was 71, leaving her breathlessly declaring, ‘The guy’s a legend…he’d leave men half his age for dead’. Edelsten may not be Emily Dickinson, but her evocative account of their trysts on Australia’s A Current Affair was arguably more memorable than Clive’s poetic oeuvre:

 

Edelston: We would always drink tea with a Cherry Ripe, so…

Martin King: A cup of tea? Before?

Edelston: Yes, always. With a Cherry Ripe. And after

 

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Similarly indelible, like a diesel-stain on a doily, was the Daily Mail’s reference to a 2005 affair with opera singer Ann Howell:

 

She claimed that when he first ‘seduced’ her, he had been eating shortbread and invited her to ‘suck the crumbs from between my teeth’.

 

I’m sorry, but if I have to know about this, then you do too. Besides, it’s clear he wanted everyone to think about him doing such things. In his poem “The Nymph Calypso”, there’s a horrifying but all-too probable chance that he is casting himself as Odysseus, with Edelston, or some ringer, being Calypso begging him to stay on just one more night:

 

Old studs like you need youth to love. I’m it.

I’m always eager, and you’re still quite fit:

A last adventure to light up the sky.

I’ll tell my tale forever, don’t forget:

The greatest lover that I ever met.’

As for Penelope, he could depend

On her care for the time he had to live.

 

If Clive is Odysseus here, then ol’ dependable must be his wife, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, who did indeed accord him a humane measure of care and companionship in his decade of dying–but only after throwing him out of her house. I imagine, even more than the incessant sexual boasting and humiliating tabloid stories, she was more offended by the sight of him daily tapping away at pretentious doggerel convinced he was writing himself into some sort of Celestial Syllabus. After 40 years of marriage to a giant literary ego, she can hardly have expected much, but that must have grated. He may be a fine essayist, I wouldn’t know, but his output in the poetry department resembles less that of Dante Alighieri than that of the hero of his poem “The Eternity Man”:

 

Before he died in 1967

At the age of eighty-eight

He had managed to write it five hundred thousand times,

And always in copperplate script.

Few streets or public places in the city of Sydney

Remained unmarked by the man with a single obsession—

Writing Eternity

 

One of James’s favorite tricks is to write about other more famous writers in order to siphon off a little of their fame, to derive some glory by association, like a dog covering up the pee of other poets with his own much smellier pee. One of his chosen dedicatees is Philip Larkin, and you can see him going through all the bullet-points: Things we all know about Larkin: stay-at-home, morose, vernacular, officially great. As a springboard into it, James describes the moment he heard of Larkin’s death, when he was touching down in Nairobi seeing all the wonderful sights. There are many, many stanzas about all the exotic things James sees and the implication seems to be that travel assists the imagination, so in this respect he definitely has the leg-up on Larkin, who was a sadsack who considered Hull the World:

 

In point of fact I swallowed Kenya whole,

A mill choked by a plenitude of grist.

Like anabolic steroids for the soul,

Every reagent was a catalyst –

So much to take in sent me round the twist.

 

He also mentions that he was filming a TV show, flying first-class and getting invited into the cockpit by the pilots. And yet, in spite of these obvious advantages, James is prepared to acknowledge that Larkin was a good poet. He magnanimously concedes defeat, though it’s a close call:

 

Yet even with your last great work ‘Aubade’

(To see death clearly, did you pull it close?)

The commentator must be on his guard

Lest he should overlook the virtuose

Technique which makes majestic the morose.

The truth is that you revelled in your craft.

Profound glee charged your sentences with wit.

You beat them into stanza form and laughed:

They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,

Except for being absolutely it.

 

The whole thing sounds like the sort of poem the town wag would read out at the local rugby club at a special anniversary piss-up. Archaic diction like ‘lest’ and ‘glee’, clunky thesaurus options like ‘virtuose’, the oxymorons like ‘profound glee’ and ‘majestic the morose’ – these signal Poetry with a Capital ‘P’, declamatory, public, pompous and amateur. It’s possible to argue that James was deliberately writing this way to emphasize his disadvantage, but I doubt it. I think he just didn’t notice details unless they wore high heels. Larkin deliberately spoke only for himself and did so as naturally as possible, saving any special effects not to say ‘Hey, look at me, I’m writing Poetry!’ but to draw attention to what he wanted to emphasize. You can see this in any of his poems, for example the first stanza of “Poetry of Departures”:

 

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph:

He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.

 

Larkin noticed the world around him all the time, James didn’t (unless she wore lipstick) …until he started dying. The poems he wrote after being diagnosed with cancer are different. They are slightly better, probably because he had more time to devote to writing them. They are also painful because they convey the physical and emotional suffering of someone completely unprepared for it. You can see a man used to having an adoring live audience having to deal with loneliness. You can see him floundering around trying to regain love, trying to appreciate little things and to show his family he cares about them. The poems are not very attractive–there is quite a lot of whinging and self-importance–but they are honest. 

 

The grand old man. Do I dare play that part?

Perhaps I am too frail. I don’t know how

To say exactly what is in my heart, 

Except I feel that I am nowhere now. 

But I have tempted providence too long:

It gives me life enough, and little pain. 

I should be grateful for this simple song,

No matter how it goes against the grain

To spend the best part of a winter’s day

Filing away at some reluctant rhyme

And go to bed with so much still to say

On how I came to have so little time. 

 

It turned out that he had more time than he thought he did, and he said a lot more than he thought he would. And as much as his poems get on my tits, I am glad about that. 

 

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