You may not think of Sri Lanka as a place for a literary festival but every year a festival of international standing is held in Galle. Galle, on the South Coast, is a fort town built initially by the Portuguese but much extended by the Dutch from 1659 onwards to protect the natural harbour. Within are traditional dwellings and public buildings, law courts, a hospital, barracks warehouses and churches all being restored to their traditional state. It is now a UN World Heritage site and attracts tourists from all continents.
We arrived at the train station, sticky, shaken, hot and dusty after a six-hour journey broken by one hour in Colombo which gave us time to dash to an hotel for a comfort break. We stayed in a small Dutch style guest house which provided a fantastic Sri Lankan breakfast of egg hoppers and curry followed by a fruit plate with eight fresh fruits; banana, pineapple, water melon, papaya, lime, mango, orange and passion fruit.
I began the conference with in a small writing workshop with Michael Kumpfmuller – The Glory of Life -. This book contains beautiful prose and tells of the last 11 months of Franz Kafka’s life in 1923 with Dora, a young woman he met while on holiday. He died slowly of tuberculosis or consumption. I gave it a 5 star review on Amazon.
Among the gems of Kumpfmuller’s writing advice were:-
The first sentence sets up the book. Once you have it, t may take a week to write the next paragraph but then things get faster. Create a new file each day for your writing and then you can keep track of progress.
You have to write about painful things, love lost, death, betrayal. In doing so you learn something about yourself. Writing must touch your soul.
Pankoj Mishra, – The Age of Anger – who divides his time between London and North India is acknowledged as one of the foremost political thinkers and historian of the east. We had dinner with him and I tried to draw him on the state of the arts and science in Islam. He was reluctant to engage in the discussion but had plenty to say about Trump.
Lighter relief came from Rev Malcolm Guite’s interpretation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. It seemed especially fresh as we had recently visited his house in Nether Stowey, Somerset. Of course, being a reverend, you can know in advance the broad interpretation of Guite as of God’s redemption but I would have liked the opportunity to put an alternative. He harked back to C P Snow’s Two Cultures.
A workshop of travel writing by Bruce Wannell who has lived and travelled extensively in the middle east and studied Persian poetry was a very pleasant relaxed affair. Travel, he said, refines your sense of identity. There I met an anthropologist who tipped me off about some valuable information on Sir Ivor Jennings, a man whose works I study.
Other writers I came upon for the first time were Charles Allen – Ashoka, the Search for India’s Lost Emperor – whose talk was attended by the Prime Minister. After the talk, the Prime Minister, ignored his bodyguards and made off towards the recreational area where Hot Dogs could be bought. Incidentally, the Hot Dog stand was next to the Women of Islam stand; rather insensitive I thought.
Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian whose best-known book is The Narrow Road to the North. He spoke thoughtfully and I shall read at least one of his books.
An intellectually stimulating few days rounded off by a Jazz concert, fashion show and, as darkness fell, an outdoor screening of Chariots of Fire. The scenes of Liddell and Abrahams running alongside the cold North Sea at St Andrews contrasted with the black humid tropical night.
And Home Again
Back at the railway station, early and tired, we heard of delays to the train. A conversation with a local brought up the offer of a taxi to Colombo, a new Toyota Yaris with air conditioning. We negotiated a price (£25) at about half the going rate and gave in to comfort. The driver dropped us at Galle Face Hotel, our favourite watering hole, where cold beer and a smoked salmon salad served on the shore of the Indian Ocean rounded off a perfect trip.