After my stoush with Graham Richardson on Sky News last month I haven’t been invited back onto the show where we clashed. I’m not as hot to handle as a Blair Cottrell or a David Leyonhjelm but after I’ve been on air, it feels like the station needs a Bex and a good lie down. Still, it’s been good for business. Extra invitations for corporate speaking events arrived in my inbox, one of which has taken me to Sri Lanka.
In this era of political correctness, with commentators living in fear of the offenderati, outspokenness has become the new gold standard. Why would a company pay for a conference speaker unless he had something to say and was willing to say it? Away from the absurdity of Twitter outrage, the brutal truth is back in fashion. But perhaps I’m too honest. I told my hosts they might have made a mistake in paying me a few bob to speak in Colombo. Emma Husar would have done it for free, if they had been willing to look after her dog.
Colonialism cops a bagging these days but our venue, the Galle Face Hotel, shows it wasn’t all bad. It’s the most elegant place I’ve stayed in, living up to its PR-blurb of ‘a timeless grandeur’. Originally it was a Dutch villa built as a gathering place for ‘gentlemen seeking dignified company’. Goodness, what am I doing here?
After four British entrepreneurs turned it into a hotel, reopening in 1864, the Galle Face became know as ‘the best accommodation East of Suez’.
Not many hotels have their own museum. This one pays homage to its star guest list, including the actors Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, Harrison Ford and director Steven Spielberg. In rooming in the hotel’s Presidential Suite, apparently I’m sleeping in a bed also occupied by Scarlett Johansson, Bo Derek and Ursula Andress – but years ago. It’s another example of bad timing in my life.
Cricketers are also honoured, with Don Bradman, Gary Sobers, Len Hutton and Clive Lloyd having stayed at the Galle Face, plus two newcomers, ‘Alice Bedser’ and ‘Keeth Miller’. The hotel has timeless grandeur but not necessarily timeless spelling.
It was said of Richard Nixon and his powers of perseverance that after a nuclear war only he and the cockroaches would survive. As his speechwriter Bryce Harlow quipped, ‘If Nixon ever had a heart attack, he would breathe into his own mouth to resuscitate himself.’
Nixon was here. He visited Sri Lanka in 1953 as Eisenhower’s Vice President. Having been through the travails of World War II, Ike had had enough of travelling. He sent his young Californian deputy across the world, to help with American Cold War diplomacy but also to get him out of Washington. The two didn’t get along.
The other political figures displayed in the museum are a mixed bag, from Che Guevara and Emperor Hirohito of Japan to Nehru, Lloyd George and Clement Atlee. The biographical notes on Attlee describe him as an ‘unassuming’ character, someone who was ‘ineffective at public relations and lacked charisma’. This matches Churchill’s view of his Labour rival as ‘a modest man with much to be modest about.’ He also called him ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. Churchill would have loved this place – a true outpost of Empire.
Prince Philip of Greece (later the Duke of Edinburgh) stayed here in 1942, having been assigned to serve as a mid shipman with the Royal Navy in Ceylon. He purchased his first car in Colombo, a 1935 Standard Nine which is now on display in the museum. It’s an unusual artefact, as one doesn’t normally associate Phil the Greek with kindness in the colonies. Upon meeting the President of Nigeria in 2003 he told him, ‘You look like you’re ready for bed.’ The President was wearing traditional tribal robes.
I continue my walk through the museum, reliving the presence of Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Pope John Paul II and Yuri Gagarin, the Russian who was the first man in space. Twain wrote of ‘the tropical splendor of bloom and blossom’ on this island, but during my three days here it has barely stopped raining.
Forced indoors, I made the same bet I rely on back home: turn on CNN at any random time and it will be a rolling telecast of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Anderson Cooper didn’t disappoint. He was interviewing Stephen Miller’s uncle about the sins of Donald Trump’s immigration policy. Miller is a 33-year-old White House advisor, often portrayed as the President’s right-hand man. The uncle was worked up about border protection but didn’t seem to have any particular insight into his nephew. Cooper then made the mistake of asking him how well he knew Miller. ‘I don’t know him that well’, he replied, ‘I’ve probably met him 10 times in my life.’
What next for these clowns? Interviewing someone who lives next door to the second cousin, twice removed, of a White House cleaner?
Wherever you go, the Fake News Media are being dispatched to the dustbin of history. It’s unlikely they will trouble the curator of the Galle Face museum any time soon.