Ninth death anniversary of Mervyn de Silva today:
Mervyn and all that Jazz
All I had to do was ask him if he liked Benny Goodman or Fats Waller
or Louis Armstrong. At the time, I knew nothing of his chosen musical
confections, for that would have made the writing rather more about the
Mervyn I knew, than the one I had to get to know through distance
For, indeed, I received a large part of my education from him in
language, letters, foreign affairs and intellectual wrangling, with a
safe spatial interval between us.
About the jazz, I learned only after he was gone, and that too, from
something Dayan had written. I don’t know if I can be faulted for not
making a first approach. He seemed unapproachable, and after the
experience a friend, to whom I used to retail Mervyn’s salon style,
underwent, I decided that distance did lend enchantment.
This encounter took place in the lobby of ‘Lake House’. My friend was
there on some routine matter. He saw Mervyn, and in a mighty flush, went
quickly up to him and asked “Excuse me, but are you Mr. Mervyn de
Silva?” Mervyn gave him one of those looks reserved for the briefest of
brief encounters, said a short “No”, and turned on his heel. The poor
man was devastated, and I had to coax his savaged feelings back to
health over long days.
Those were Mervyn’s bright times. He knew of no such thing as the
retort courteous, and did get a rise out of taking down those he could
not suffer gladly. There was a weekly column in the “Daily News”
pseudonymously authored by “Adonis”.
After quite a number of these had appeared, Mervyn got out his
jousting lance, and after referring to the writer as not so much.
“A-don-is” as “A-don-was”, toppled him with his closing line. “I suppose
old dons never die, they just lose their faculties!”
He was also very good at mimicking informal speech. I still remember
bits and things of the dialogue he wrote. Thus, he specially saw the
humour in some telephone talk between two ladies discussing their
fashion choices for the evening, with one of them indicating that the
way to salvation lay in donning “...the dot, dot, dot saree.” This was
all 1960s stuff.
I read him and listened to him, as a man who needed very much to
learn, and was hardly disappointed. It was around this time, that I
first saw him at Radio Ceylon, and heard him doing his talks including
some of those penetrating book reviews, which as I sat in the continuity
studio, I listened to him deliver from the talks studio down the way.
There are two of these I remember with a staggering vividity. One was
Mervyn’s review of John Le Carre’s “Call for the Dead.”
At first, I didn’t pay particular attention, as I went about
attending to some of the clerking duties that went with the territory.
Then suddenly, my blood caught a chill. Mervyn, was reading that deadly
passage where George Smiley kills his friend and cold war adversary, the
East German intelligence operative, Dieter Frey.
The words tumble in my ears after a space of forty and more years,
and I quote now without benefit of text: “They met in the clearing of a
timeless forest, two friends rejoined and fought like beasts. Dieter had
remembered and Smiley had not.
“Mervyn paused, then he ended his review with the words Smiley kept
repeating to himself in a delirium. It was from John Webster’s dark tale
“The Duchess of Malfi”. I bade thee when I was distracted of my wits go
kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done it.”
It was worth the ticket. A while later, Mervyn appeared at the
continuity studio to have his payment voucher endorsed by me. I tried to
look in awe, but he was having none of it. Always an elegant dresser.
Mervyn anticipated third-degree brand building or whatever it is that
advertising men talk about today, long decades earlier. Clasped in his
hand was a tin of the most fashionable foreign cigarettes, with silver
lighter topping it. It was pure posh.
This takes me to the other talk of Mervyn’s, again unforgettable. Ian
Flemming had created James Bond, and Bond was brought to the big screen
in the shape of Sean Connery. Who can forget Connery saying: “Bond,
This was an irresistible character for Mervyn, who was particularly
taken by Bond’s love for the finer things in life. Apart from his
faithful Walther PPK, Bond drove fast cars and was faulties in his
choice of women. He was impeccably outfitted, and everything he owned
had the stamp of high class.
About this time, a group of local spoilers mounted an attack on Bond,
calling him a dangerous and culturally detrimental representative of the
West. Mervyn was cut to the quick, and responded with his classic piece
delivered on radio, in the form of an address to the jury, called “In
Defence of James Bond.”
I can hear him now, his mannered voice and measured style, with his
habit of sometimes sliding one word into another, making this masterful
performance. I sat riveted in the studio. This later appeared in print,
but it was no match for his original delivery.
Mervyn moved on to his later, and even greater moments. He came to be
one of the best foreign affairs analysis and political commentators of
his time. Two occasions on which I saw him outside Radio Ceylon were
when he presided over lectures delivered by Krishna Menon, the great
Indian intellectual warhorse.
And yes, there was one other, when he spoke at the Centre for Society
and Religion, with Felix Dias Bandaranaike, and a bill of speakers
including Amaradasa Fernando. This was almost immediately after the UNP
landslide in 1977.
I remember Amaradasa Fernando making some palliative remarks, and
Mervyn who followed him, started out by saying: “I don’t know if Mr.
Amaradasa Fernando is trying to make a virtue out of necessity. “But it
will be interesting to recall as an aside, that FDB himself began by
“It is not often that Satan comes to the Centre for Society and
Religion!”, in an illusion to Dr. N. M. Perera’s greatly favoured
description of him at the time of the United Front Government.
While Mervyn was comfortable with the cognoscenti, he did bring
intellectual discourse close to a wider public with his journal “Lanka
Guardian”. Some of the best minds contributed to it, and even grudging
wallets like mine gladly gave up the small sum needed to attend the
For me, Mervyn’s grand period was in the 1990s, when he wrote in a
microprocessed style. It had “everything inside.” This was his Sunday
column, full of brilliance for what he did not say. Staccato sentences,
dots, pauses, perfectly placed quotations, and of course, much mischief,
which even then he could hardly resist, as in “...the Hoo and Pee, Chee,
A brief rewind. Mervyn had a remarkable sense of time and place. The
1960s did not offer opportunities of frequent travel for most of us.
Mervyn being in journalism was more fortunate. Writing once about a
visit to Greece, he described how he stood on a particular spot, and
then in tones that were highly evocative, added “Here Homer sang.”
It’s all been said before. Mervyn, the great journalist, the
outstanding editor, the innovative publisher, the learned commentator,
the intellectual gymnast. My choice of legacy is out of another box,
This is Mervyn’s living legacy, and rarely is it known to happen. In
intellectual sweep Dayan has outdone Mervyn. Dayan brings to his daily
exercise in existence, a swathe of experience that makes him stride with
the mighty and hold the magic to touch people. We are talking fine steel
forged out of the hottest fire.
All that jazz? Second chances don’t come easy, so I’m asking Dayan
right away. Do you like Duke Ellington?