It’s been more than twenty-five years since I’ve been to this hilltop authentic village and basilica. What a difference a quarter of a century makes. I take Jezzabel there to share this unique location, the views and a quant hilltop village.

Oh my god how it has changed, there are still artists happy to do your portrait and the old religious buildings are amazing in this historic village. The people in their masses look a motley crew and the place is filthy. It’s amassed with tourists and reminds me of a theme park. People eating and drinking in the streets, the brides-to-be with their fairy outfits wandering around the cobbled streets. I keep looking for the big Disney sign and the shows on the street. It’s rough. Cheap tat shops and rip of restaurants where everyone sits facing the roads eating crapes or pizza. The roads are mainly pedestrian but with taxis, small buses and Cho Cho train rides.

I think this is my last visit to this hilltop tourist trap and the masses.

Our experience of Eurostar has always been good. An earlier trip to Avignon when we ultimately slept in Napoleon’s bed was excellent. See story one of book two (The Whinging Pome – On The Road Again) and spot the only major typo in the whole book!

This latest booking has been the train to Paris from St. Pancras Station London. Well-organized process for security, passport controls and boarding. We chat up three ladies doing research on travellers, what a hoot they are. One is from Zimbabwe, another one is from South London and the third is from East London. I go through the questions and they laugh at most of my made-up answers, we chatted till boarding. They end up on the Whinging Pome Site and one day they are coming to Sri Lanka. The big-as-life Zimbabwean lady and Jezzabel share stories and contact details.

The train is on time, boarding is well organised and staff are at hand to help us with our four cases. Jezzabel has one empty case for shopping in Paris. She informs me London is more expensive than Paris. As a man I’m working on a more basic approach…. don’t think I need anything in Paris other than wine, restaurants, music, cemeteries and Jezzabel. I don’t do art galleries.

You can better the price of going to Paris from the UK by train if you want to risk low-cost airline carriers. This normally comes with add-on costs, delays, luggage restrictions and travelling in and out of the airport chaos.

Eurostar is a star product with clear processes and rules communicated well in advance. The duty-free and duty-paid shop run by Dufry looks like an afterthought. Clearly, water is the biggest seller in two meters of space, liquour is in the same space, and perfume is in two locations. I suspect there was no plan for duty-free shops pre-Brexit, so space was not planned.

Friendly, fun, down-to-earth rail staff are as efficient as the many up-end airline teams. The train staff must have been given happy tablets.

Paris is said to be one the most visited cities in the world … what a melting pot.

It’s the first day of rain in the eight days of being in Paris, it looks set for the day. The natural thought is to visit indoor places. E.g. museums. If there are queues normally, they are even bigger on rainy days.

On a website, there is an article that tells you what to do on rainy days. We are all inspired by it and the “covered passages”. These passages are basically long indoor walkways with shops selling art, stamps, postcards, walking sticks, umbrellas, sweets, stuffed animals, bags, etc. The galleries have a stylish artisan feel with numerous quirky nik-nak shops, restaurants, coffee shops and more.

We stop for coffee and are presented with the biggest and the most colourful croissants I’ve ever seen.

Above these malls with a central high glass ceiling, there are also apartments and some old-fashioned hotels.

The Galleries started in 1786 and went on in number being extended in the nineteen hundreds with a total of 183 of them. Sadly only 25 remain today. Napoleon was a major influence in their expansion. Given extreme winter weather they were a way of getting around parts of Paris without getting wet or cold. The decor is ornate as are the floors with bright colours and lots of hanging lights and signage.

So, we have a fun ninety minutes exploring and rummaging in the shops. These are the early forerunners of shopping malls, it’s a shame many have been destroyed.

I’m on a mission to seek out some old French prints. In our waterfront retreat in Victoria in each bathroom I have original and some copies of a French artist’s work. Basically, it is a row of various French dogs peeing up against a wall, whilst above them a cat watches. So funny and so French.

I found some further galleries that majored in up-end exclusive fashion and clothing. I’m writing this sitting in a coffee shop opposite Galleries Lafayette. Jezzabel is shopping and promises this fourth time here will be the last on this trip.

Let’s see.

I’m checking in at the Qatar desk for my flights to London, it’s my first economy long-haul flight in decades. I’m wearing a jacket and a big friendly smile and about to ask if I can buy an upgrade but before I do the staff member says.

“Mr. Topping, we are upgrading you free of charge on the first leg of your trip. The second leg is down to the staff at Doha.”

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 295:

“Always wear a jacket when flying economy, it’s a great move to getting a free upgrade.”

Sadly, I don’t get an upgrade on the second leg of the journey.

So, I’m sitting in economy on a Qatar flight to London. Two jumbo-size people in tracksuits sit next to me. The lady, (I think it was a lady) is obese, she sits in the seat next to me overhanging the seat by 6 inches. God steps in, they are in the wrong seats and they have to move.

More people get on the flight and I get the loud kid behind. Worse to come, it’s a kicker and batters my seat back which is getting a thumping. I’m about to turn and give the parents some parental guidance in a short sentence to regain control of the overly aggressive child. Then a slither of hope and distraction. A smartly dressed lady sits next to me and then what I assume is her teenage daughter sits next to her.

The Whinging Pomes brain kicks in and a sixth sense tells me that they must be from Nepal. So, I ask them and they are.

Three degrees of separation. Christakis and Fowler established the diverse phenomena that we are all three degrees away from being linked to a perfect stranger by someone we know. The more we chat the more we establish common people we know and places in Nepal.

The trip just improved. The kid behind has fallen asleep and the red wine arrives, it’s not Shiraz but Merlot my least favourite red grape. A pack of prawn sandwiches also arrives.

During all this time I’m watching a soppy movie, with a well-known Indian actress and lots of WhatsApp message. The stewardess comes over and welcomes me, “Mr. Topping welcome to our flight, as a frequent traveler with us and a gold card holder. blah blah blah ….”

This is it; I’m thinking, the late but much-deserved upgrade is about to take place. She continues;

“Welcome to the flight can I take your jacket?”

My jacket gets the upgrade to business but not me.

My return two flights are both full so no upgrades but lots of crew pampering (gold card) in economy. The two girls sitting next to me are on their maiden flight, at eighteen years of age. Given their chatter and naivety, they ask how much wine is from the drinks trolley and they think the snack is great.

The mischievous Whinging Pome smoothly says, “Are you ladies from Essex”

Their response is quite quick and they don’t look as if they know where Essex is.

“No Surrey actually, anyway who are you and why are you getting so much attention from the stewardess”.

I’ll give my response in the following sequence of Toppings Air Travels.

I recently booked to see a skin specialist and paid the rate in advance to an online doctor booking site. [eChannelling] They asked me for a passport copy. Why! I sent a copy anyway.

Arrival at the clinic and I’m told to take a seat the doctor has not arrived. (Standard practice in Sri Lanka) Ten minutes later the staff say I can’t see the doctor unless I pay another Rs. 1500 rupees as I’m a foreigner.

They have a copy of my passport (British) and my name (British) So when did they decide I needed to pay more, could it be when they saw I am white? Obviously, the online booking agent is going to have standard pricing. i.e. the same price for everyone. So, I suspect the doctor is discriminating against them once the foreign patients arrive at the clinic.

Blatant discrimination. So, I decided to take a video of the incident and suddenly the owner of the clinic decides to get involved. He shouts at me, “It’s illegal for you to be videoing here. I see no sign saying “No photography”.

I asked the owner if he was aware there is discrimination going on. His response is he does not control the doctors who practice in his establishment or how they charge.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule 286: “If you own it and charge people to use it, you need to take responsibility, not abdicate.”

So, if you get this sort of treatment here in Sri Lanka, blacklist the location/organization, tell your friends and report incidents to the Pricing Watchdog and Office of Fair Trading. Not sure if the last two organizations exist in Sri Lanka. I appreciate your feedback and experiences. Let’s not criticize the discrimination practice by government organizations; they don’t like it, it’s just not “cricket” old chap.

The cajón drum, described as the epitome of simplicity is the go-to option for playing the drums. Its history is quite a story in itself!

The story of my drumming goes back to Zambia. I still have the simple African toy-looking drum my parents bought me as a five-year-old. It’s more than a half-century old. At 16 I joined a band which had four guitarists, and someone had to be the drummer. “Who is the worst guitarist in the band?” One member asked. Well, it was me so I started with a simple snare drum and one cymbal. This was followed by an old five-piece Olympic drum set, and I played in working men’s clubs in the north of England.

My dad later said, “the worst instrument to give your child, is a drum, loud, bulky and annoying”.

My favourite drummers when I look back were Buddy Rich, a jazz drummer with his own orchestra, John Bonam of Led Zeppelin who died at 32, and Keith Moon of The Who, an amazing physical drummer who also died at 32.

The cajón drum is an easy way to start as a potential drummer, learning rhythm beats and playing on this box drum, and then creating or being part of a band. It’s space efficient and can be easily amplified by putting a bass mike through the hole in the back of the box.

The box-shaped percussion instrument is originally from Peru. Back in the 1800’s slaves would use crates to bang beats on. In 1977 the Spanish took up the drum and it continues to be proactively used in flamenco dancing.

This musical instrument is one you sit on and bang or tap with your hands. When you hit the front edges of the plywood it creates a snappy tight sound because you are hitting thin wood and a bunch of wires behind it, called a snare. But if you hit it in the middle of the box it creates a more bass sound. Getting a beat going is fun and you tend to use the right hand for the beat and the left for the base. This should be interchangeable however. Two hands at the same pressure (smack) can give a build-up sound. The main job of the player is to keep the beat and highlight certain parts of the song and support the singer.

Prior to my arrival in Sri Lanka, I bought a full-stage set of 5 drums and 5 cymbals. Jezzabel added a cymbal rack with a dash splash and other special cymbal sounds. I brought my kit to Colombo twenty years ago and played for a short while with the band “French Connection” which had six members at one time. We rehearsed in my home on Gregory’s Road, Colombo 7, opposite a major school. Nobody, including the neighbours ever complained about the noise as they thought we were the school band and we always stopped playing at 10 pm. My cajón started its Colombo days with me playing at the ‘Inn on the green’, parties and jamming with friends.

My two drumming highlights have been playing congas for Cyndi Lauper for a few songs in the “Biscuit and Blues club” in San Francisco. The other was playing once with the ageing band Pinkerton Assorted Colours (songs…. mirror mirror, it ain’t right) in the Wooky Hollow, a night club Liverpool.

I’m sure a drum kit is the worst instrument in many ways to buy your child. Some kids are gifted with a natural sense of rhythm and it’s better they play in a band than on the street. It’s also the start of peer discipline, e.g. practice, being a team player, good timekeeping etc.

The cajón is easy to transport, not as loud as a drum kit and if your child gets bored you maybe have only spent 80$.

World's happiness day - Happy people on the beach

I’ve read a lot about what you should be doing on this day to promote happiness. So I thought I’d look at how many people are happy. In a survey on 64 % of the world where stats were available; 14 % of those surveyed said they were very happy and 50% said they were generally happy.

I’m sure if a complete worldwide survey was done both these numbers above would drop substantially. I assume this because the ranking of adult happiness per country in those that participated puts Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel, New Zealand and Canada, as the happiest. The next tier includes India, UK and USA.

Maybe this raises questions about how the surveys were conducted but they say 64 % of the world somehow participated.

What also comes out of the survey is what makes people happy. Love, well-being, health, relationships, family and purpose.

Other surveys state that good sleep, good company, exercise, being positive and doing something special daily promote happiness. Excessive news following is a downer for many. I didn’t see wealth or financial sustainability on the list but perhaps people don’t want to be tagged. Wealth brings happiness.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 274:

“You only live once, saving too much for the rainy day is like waiting for the killer storm.”

So, all the ideas of what you should be doing on this special day of happiness, e.g. be kind, be patient, be grateful, give more gratitude and make someone happy, in my mind are humbug. Unless by doing something on this special day can change your lifestyle for the better going forward. We are who we are; how many of us can be doing new things on this one day that will change our lives?

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 275:

“Surround yourself with active and positive people, life’s too short.”

The Whinging Pome random Rule No. 276:

“Do something different/ special every day”

I start most of my days at home looking out of the window at the waterfront whilst standing on my wobbler (a shaking platform that vibrates when you stand on it.) for ten minutes pre my walk. On many days I get an incredible display of eagles to blackbirds playing in the thermals, I see the many walkers /runners on the green, the odd down and out looking for something on the pavement to brighten his day. I then recall the lines;

“Every morning in Africa the lion wakes up knowing it must be faster than the slowest antelope or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or the antelope, when the sun comes up, you’d best be running”

Today I visited the London Imperial War Museum. I was last there at the age of 15 having just emigrated to the UK from Rhodesia. I recall the imposing battleship guns in front of the entrance (from HMS Resolution and Ramillies).

Whilst the front of the building in Lambeth looks the same and the guns are still there, everything else I see has changed.

It’s free to go in at the moment if I buy a six-pound booklet on the building’s content.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 272:

“Be like an ecstatic American in a gun or sweet shop”

There is just so much I want to see on these six floors of British and Commonwealth conflict history and more. A million items to look at, collected since 1917, videos, models and military equipment and the biggest selection of British commonwealth military medals.

The good or bad news is that there are about 250 French students traipsing through the exhibits. The bad news is they are loud and doing selfies everywhere, the good news is they will hopefully understand on the next floor up the Battle of Britain and how the Brits and Americans saved the day for Europe and how quickly mainland Europe fell including France. So I’ll return to the basement and WW1 when the “frogs” have gone up to the WW2 floor.

Having visited concentration camps in Europe I’m looking forward to the big exhibit on the holocaust pre-war, during and post. It turns out to be one of the best detailed events I’ve seen, especially the post-period exhibit with lots of information I’ve never seen before.

Lord Ashcrofts collection of Victoria crosses and those owned by others is on the top floor. I should have done this first. It’s a big room with 250 plus stories of bravery and sacrifice. There are many medals, in fact, the biggest collection of its type on display in the world. On each one there is the story as to why a Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour amongst UK and commonwealth forces, was awarded.

I search for those awarded in the Zulu wars and specifically the battle of Rorkes Drift in Jan 1879. I’ve been to this location in South Africa and as a boy loved the film “Zulu” based on the battle. 150 British and colonial troops were attacked by up to 4000 Zulu warriors. Eleven VCs medals were awarded for action in this Zulu attack along with other medals. The most Victoria Crosses awarded in history in one military action. Over 400 Zulus were killed (800 could have been the final figure as many badly wounded were thrown in the grave pits.) Only 17 British and Commonwealth members died. It was in many ways one of the most amazing, well-disciplined and well-directed British military victories (other than the atrocities). The last Victoria Cross was awarded in 2015.

I have a fifteen-minute chat with the exhibit supervisor and we share stories. Then I ask her the time and she says it was 5 PM. I am meant to be meeting Jezzabel at 5 PM in Regent Street. A fast walk and a tube and I’m at the meeting point by 5.20 PM.

It’s been a great day and so amazing to go back after all these years.

There are other locations operated by the Imperial Museum, eg HMS Belfast on the Thames, and Duxford airport with a big aviation story to tell. This includes a Concorde and a collection of aircraft from all the decades after the First World War. The Churchill War Rooms are also worth visiting. I’ve done them all, but over many years.

The 80 Club

It’s been about twenty years since I’ve been to the notorious 80 Club. Now I’m returning with good friends, with one whose gran was a long-standing president of the club.

Located in the prime location of Independence Avenue and founded in 1939, this was one of the most prestigious clubs in Colombo at its peak. Initially and ironically, it was first founded in Kandy during British Colonial rule. The story goes that a group of people met in the Queens hotel in room 80, so they called their newfound club the 80.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 258:

“Sometimes a new brand name could come out of a simple situation.”

Some of my own experiences with branding have stuck with me. While working with Lord Forte, his son wanted to change the name of the group ‘Trusthouse Forte’, which was perceived in some countries to be a banking company and not a chain of hotels. He commissioned a top branding company to do a detailed survey of the business, its staff and its customers. On completion of the survey, the branding company presented their findings to the board. Their proposal was to call the business ‘Forte’. The charge for all this work, 34 years ago was 360k pounds. Some years later the son of Lord Forte sold the business but one condition made by the purchaser was that Mr Forte could not use the Forte brand, even though it was his name. Within about a year he opened his first new luxury hotel and called it 4ORTE.

So, the grand 80 Club building is on two floors of about a total of 14,200 sq feet. (One can’t use meters when talking about this place or era) It had tennis courts and a massive lawn in front and was the club to be in and to be seen at. It had many glorious decades. At some point the club started to get into debt with also falling active members. The appeal was wavering and debts mounted after the lease expired in 1978. The club carried on as the land was on a short lease from the government but they were not dealing with the drifting situation.

In 2020, the Urban Development Authority took over and had a vision of recreating the old club. Some years ago the navy started restoring many colonial properties in Colombo, the 80 Club was also added to the list. The old lady got more than a lick of paint. The exterior of the club is still sitting at the back of a massive lawn and certainly looks to be in good shape from the outside. There is the classic oversupply of lighting on the exterior of the building which is quite badly positioned, it’s impossible to take a good photo at night.

Six of us meet at 7.30 and get a great welcome from the staff and a friendly manager. He and I talk about South Africa both having lived there. One in our group has brought his large music box with a loudspeaker system. There is not a single other customer in the place so we pump up the volume on the lawn…bizarre to be the only ones there and have all the staff looking after us. So the old club gets back to its glory days as we sing and dance. The excellent “bites” arrive and we sit around the table on the lawn.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 259:

“Always pick a few words used by the locals when you travel, always nice to refer to them with others.”

I’d never heard of “bites” till I came to Sri Lanka and neither had I heard of “shape” (Which means “it’s okay”.) or even the word “thrice”. The famous song was not “your once, twice and thrice times a lady”.

In New Zealand, if you read my first book which included a story on the wine experience, a man said to us ‘if you all sit on my dick (deck) we will have some wine”. Another phrase I heard in India, “I know where your house lives”.

My opening line on this story of the 80 Club is that my last visit was about twenty years ago. I had arrived from the UK having represented my UK PLC company in the purchase of Orient Lanka, a local duty-free company with a small domestic liquor distribution arm. This company sponsored the new bar in the 80 Club. Mohan, our local manager asked me to come with him to the club. As we arrive he says to me, “Boss, you will need to make a speech at this bar opening.”

“Good way of testing a new boss” – I’m thinking.

When you are the son of a preacher man these opportunities are quite enjoyable, this was one of my many speeches in Sri Lanka.

The new interior of the club has sadly killed the old club look and the colours and the furniture is what Jezzabel calls “new rich”. The bar is still in the same place which has poor access and limited seating. The newness takes away the colonial look and feel e.g. there is a tv in the dining room, if essential hide it behind a sliding panel.

I hear there is also a chance that the UDA is considering putting in a pool and some bedrooms and converting the place into a hotel. Before they do that let’s hope they look at the current interior decor and dining experience. They could also look at some changes and additions e.g. Better location for the bar, putting an old car outside as a photo opportunity, reducing exterior lighting, conducting small weddings there, putting some old photos of the location, etc.

They may also consider how many hotels the government currently owns, one of which has not yet opened after ten years, two that need refits and the fact that governments should not own or operate such establishments. Their job is to govern the country well.

The night rolls on and I’m sure it will be in the memories of the six of us as a bizarre event in an amazing setting. Sadly, what we all want to forget is the main food courses, the meat was stringy at best and nobody enjoyed the main meal. Perhaps it’s one of those places you have drinks and ‘bites’ and then move out to a restaurant somewhere else. On that basis only would I go back.

Wolvendaal Kerk (church) Pettah

Over the last few decades, I’ve attempted access to this church about six times. On google maps, it says closing at 4 pm. This time I’ve cracked it. With my driver Lucky we visit the church and find all three gates are chained up. It’s 3.30 pm. I’m getting frustrated. After closer investigation, Lucky establishes that one entrance has a chain around its two gates. He pulls on the chain to find there is no padlock.

We are in!

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 266:

Never underestimate people around you, find out what they are good at.”

We are in the churchyard but there is nobody about, although there are lots of tombstones and bodies well decomposed no doubt.

I’m shouting “hello! hello!”

Ultimately a chap comes out of what I assume is the caretaker’s little house. Looks like he has just gotten out of the shower but has shorts on… Thank God.

This church in Pettah was built in 1757, the first Protestant church on the island. I’m told its name comes from wolfs in the dale. There were no wolfs, just wild dogs. The Dutch Reform Church was founded by the VOC, i.e the Dutch East India Company. The hill site was previously the site of a Portuguese Church but was destroyed by the Dutch.

“Thought we were all Christians”

We get into the church and the sight is quite amazing, with a dominating carved wooden pulpit, but there is no altar. Wall plaques are everywhere and 37 tombstones form part of the floor, some are ornately carved and are 4 feet by 6 feet. This is a big church shaped like a plus sign and a footprint and is 100 feet high at its highest. A thousand of people can gather in this church. The walls they say are 5 feet thick.

Plastered around the walls are numerous plaques. One section is dedicated to all the reverends who served in the church over the centuries. The elite of this city who belonged to the church back in the day are buried here as well, some being Dutch Governors of Ceylon.

It’s likely one of the oldest churches still having regular services on the island and with an active congregation. They have services in three languages.

As we finish our amazing tour we step out to check out the graves and tombstones outside, many along the church walls but no sign of a crypt.

The Whinging Pome Random Rule No. 277: 

Visit someplace you haven’t been to or do something different every day. At worst read an article on a new subject.

I’m planning to go back and participate in the 10.30 am Sunday service. Not sure I will get Jezzabel there, she says she is a free thinker, perhaps a non-believer.

This church is one of the many religious buildings in Pettah, and we managed to visit another 5 this week. More scriptures from the Pome to follow!