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William Somerset Maugham (25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965)

Having decided, in describing 20th Century Classics of English Literature, to write about writers whose output as a whole was not very distinguished, but who produced individual works of brilliance, I realize that I should deal with the other side of the coin too. Certainly there come to mind many writers of the inter war period who are memorable for their entire output even though one would be hard pressed to identify any particularly outstanding work.

The best known of these is probably Somerset Maugham, perhaps the most popular writer ever of short stories. And, even though most literary critics look down on his work, as being simplistic and superficial, it could certainly be argued that he deals with life and character in an interesting and illuminating way, instead of just aiming at thrilling or entertaining us. This is evident not only in his novels, of which he produced some that go well beyond being pot boilers, but also in many of his short stories.

I first came across him in one of the compendiums I bought one year for my prize books, in an attempt to get lots of value for the money given. This was a collection of stories of horror and mystery, and included Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, which has I think rightly been described as one of the most chilling of its sort. I believe there was also a Sherlock Holmes story about a snake, but I can remember nothing else about the book except the story by Somerset Maugham.

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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP on ‘Preparing for Power and Forming Governments’at the Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats seminar on  ‘Asian Liberal Parties in Power: Getting there, Remaining there’ . Manila, June 2010 on the occasion of the inauguration of President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III.

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I am not sure that I am quite the right person to speak at this session. Indeed, when the topic of the seminar was first proposed, I suggested that the word ‘power’ was inappropriate, and that we should instead discuss the idea of Asian Liberal Parties in government. The liberal ideal should, after all, be that governments divest themselves of power as much as possible, and allow individuals to get on with their lives and their businesses, subject only to rules, not to decisions by those in authority.

However it was pointed out that the concept of power was inextricably tied up with electoral practice in our societies – and perhaps in all societies – and so I accepted that the word ‘power’ was a magnet that attracted the sort of support that parties need if they are to take office. A consequence of this, unfortunate but inevitable, is that those who contribute to electoral success need not just recognition but also rewards. This often takes the form of positions in government, and indeed as Mr Rudd found to his cost just last week in Australia, it also requires constant attention to personal as well as political relationships.

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Aldous Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963)

Perhaps the most forgotten of the novelists who seemed important between the wars is Aldous Huxley. He had a most distinguished pedigree, being descended from the T H Huxley who had been the companion in arms of Charles Darwin when he battled the Creationists to establish the principle of evolution. Huxley’s father was the editor of the ‘Cornhill Magazine’, when such commentaries on literature and life were influential, and his brother was the famous scientist Julian.

In the twenties however Aldous Huxley seemed destined to outstrip them all. David Cecil, in comparing his own contemporaries to the great Victorian novelists, noted that those earlier prodigies had to cover every aspect of fiction, whereas in modern times individuals specialized in particular areas. Thus, if I remember right, Galsworthy dealt with social change while Virginia Woolf created a dazzling tapestry of words. But most important as it seemed to me at the time was Aldous Huxley, who was said to be the great exponent of the novel of ideas.

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The Daily Mirror published a not quite complete version of the following article, which first appeared some years back. It is published here in full.

(Text of an article published in June 2004)

Felix Dias Bandaranaike (1930 - 1985)

Felix Dias Bandaranaike died 19 years ago, on June 26th. He was not yet 55 at the time, which seems astonishing since he had loomed large on the political stage for as long as I could remember.

I first saw him in action in 1965, and it is difficult to think now that that enormously impressive figure was not yet 35 at the time. The occasion was my avid attendance at the debate on the first Throne Speech presented by the Dudley Senanayake Coalition government elected that year. My father had recently become Secretary General of Parliament, and I found the whole process of politics quite fascinating. Though my family claimed that I was more interested in the teas that were served to guests, my continuing interest in politics, and more importantly personalities in politics, assures me that greed alone was not the motivating factor.

The personal element was indeed glorious in those long ago days. I had been moved the previous year by the clarion calls for press freedom that had brought down Mrs Bandaranaike’s first government. It was only later that I realized that bribery had had much more to do with what had happened, as was the case nearly four decades later, in 2001. But in 1964, as in 2001, I had naively assumed that the end result was better for the country, not understanding that perverting democracy produces an inevitable reaction.

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Wedding of former LTTE combatants, Vavuniya June 2010.

 

Having spoken last month in the Emergency Debate, I feel it makes more sense this time round to reflect not on the Emergency Regulations that have still to be continued, but rather on the changes that we have been able to achieve over the last couple of years. In particular I think we should rejoice that the difficulties under which we all had to live during the last few decades have vanished away, and we are able to move freely, without fear of terrorist activity. 

Of course that needs to be qualified, since we must recognize that terrorism is still on the agenda of a few, which is why sadly we need to continue with some of the Regulations. However by and large I would say that there are very few people still committed to terrorism in this country. Sadly, there are still many abroad of that tragic mindset. Even more sadly, they have the capacity to offer incentives and make threats that could turn a few people away from the path of peace and prosperity. We need therefore to be careful. That is why we must recognize that, though the special measures that were in place have been reduced, and will be reduced further, we cannot assume complacently that all danger has passed.  

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With David Cameron PM - June 2010

It was depressing, on my first morning in England this time round, to attend a debate at the House of Commons on Sri Lanka in which the usual suspects revived their attacks on Sri Lanka and its government. However, since unlike them one should look at what is in a half full glass, rather than concentrate on what is missing, it seemed to me that there was also reason for optimism.

In the first place, there were fewer of the suspects than previously. Dismal Andrew Dismore had been defeated, as Joan Ryan had been. It was the latter who thought education in the Vanni was finished when Save the Children withdrew, only to be roundly rebuked by Save the Children itself. Andrew Pelling was gone, and so was Susan Kramer, who had been heavily involved with the hunger striker of MacDonalds fame last year. And even those who remained seemed more subdued, as though they no longer believed in their exaggerations.

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Christopher Isherwood (1904 - 1986)

Having decided to include in this series individual works of lasting interest, if not always importance, I find irresistible the temptation to explore a great many novels that I raced through in my distant teens. Unable now to concentrate as intensely, and with less time anyway, I read much less than I should.  With the hope of going through all those books again seeming a distant dream, it has been a pleasure to at least look through them again, those Penguins I used to buy in profusion and then bind together in bright covers embossed with names such as Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood.

The last of these was one of a trio of Young Turks, as it were, who introduced a radical thrust to literature in the twenties and thirties. The other two were poets, one of them Auden, probably the best English poet of the 20th century (apart from T S Eliot, if that is one considers Eliot to be English). Just too young for the First World War, they were much less nostalgic about what had been lost than the writers I have mentioned thus far, in part because they were more cosmopolitan in their outlook.

In fact Auden and Isherwood left England when the Second World War broke out, and settled down in America. Isherwood died there half a century later, though Auden came back to Europe, and finally to Oxford for his dying years. He made time for undergraduates to come and talk to him, and I took advantage of this, and persuaded some of my friends to join me for a memorable hour, though we found his craggy heavily lined face as fascinating as the conversation. 

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(Based on an intervention at the discussion on the Resolution on the recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, proposed by the British Liberal Democrats and passed overwhelmingly in a reconciled version by the  Executive Committee of Liberal International)

The Gaza Strip

I am always touched when I hear Europeans respond to criticism of Israel. Even when, as today, they know Israel has done something naughty, they bend over backwards to make it clear that their criticism of any action is not a criticism of Israel itself.

This is perfectly understandable, given the appalling treatment by many European countries of Jews, not only during the Second World War, but over hundreds of years previously. It is necessary to remember all that, and we should not discourage the sense of guilt European nations feel and their determination to keep alive their memory of the horrors they once perpetrated.

However, what is immensely sad is that, in remembering this, they seem determined to forget other horrors they perpetrated against other peoples. They appear to have wiped out of their collective memory the fact that much of the suffering the Middle East is going through now arose from the arbitrary divisions made after the First World by some European countries determined to uphold their own selfish interests.

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Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (1780 - 1832)

(This simplified version of the fifth chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, presents the constitutional history of Sri Lanka in light of the principles discussed in the earlier chapters)

In common with most countries, Sri Lanka had an autocratic form of government for much of its history. Kings (or sometimes queens) ruled in Sri Lanka from well before the Christian era, and changing the government meant the king had to be changed, often through violence or invasions. Sometimes the country was divided into several small kingdoms, with different kings who were independent of each other. More often it was unified, with one king dominating other rulers who were characterized in different periods as sub-kings or as governors.

Of course these kings needed the advice and assistance of others to rule, and there were Councils with various responsibilities at the Centre. There were also systems of local government, with Councils of elders in villagers, or Councils of various sorts to advise governors of regions. However, all such Councils existed at the pleasure of the King, as did the Courts. They, and governors, were chosen or appointed on the sole authority of the King. Though obviously good rulers took into account the wishes or preferences of their people, there was no accepted principle that the people had a right to have whom they wanted in authority over them. The only occasions on which the will of the King was not absolute was with regard to the succession or to sub-kings, where heredity was crucial.

In short, democracy was unheard of as a principle, and a doctrine that may be characterized as the Divine Right of Kings held sway in Sri Lanka, based on heredity or conquest, as it did in much of the world for much of its history. Thus when the Europeans arrived, they simply took over the rule of the King. Don Juan Dharmapala willed his kingdom to the King of Portugal, a succession facilitated by the fact that there were no direct heirs in his line. Conversely, when a rival kingdom was set up in Kandy, though it was by virtue of military skill and superiority, Vimaladharmasuriya legitimized his position by marriage to Dona Catherina who had a claim to the throne based on birth.  Read the rest of this entry »

Lord Saville, who chaired the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

I am writing in response to the blog entry by Banyan entitled, in the weblink url, as ‘Sri Lanka and Reconciliation’. Sadly, but I suppose not unexpectedly when the British deal with Sri Lanka, the entry dealt with British concerns, not with what the title promised.

The entry was based on a conversation at a dinner party, but took no account of the healthy input there by both Tamil and Sinhala local Councillors in Britain who advanced ideas on how reconciliation could be taken forward. Instead it concentrated on a discussion about the Savile Report, based on mention of criticism in 2009 (by our Ambassador in Geneva) of the then British Government’s insistence on a swift international war crimes inquiry even while the second internal report on Bloody Sunday was still in preparation.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2010
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