More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 55

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

I once had cause to call Gardiner the Basil Fawlty of South Asia. Back in April 1996, the Galle Face was going through, let’s just say, a difficult patch. In the course of one week’s stay, you couldn’t help but notice that the aged roof was leaking copiously on the stairs.

The staff of a lunchtime grabbed placards and demonstrated at the main entrance over Gardiner’s conservative view of staff remuneration, before returning to work in the afternoon.

The terrace dining area resembled a shower cubicle in heavy rain and as I tucked into my damp curry and rice I could not help but observe a trio of half-drowned rats emerge from a drain cover.

The water ran brown from the taps. The electricity regularly failed several times a day as the aged generators vainly attempted to cope with the vagaries of the Sri Lankan national grid. And, in the heat of the night, the insects came out to play.

About 1.30 one morning, my sang froid snapped as the cockroaches, having knocked themselves out by flying into the walls at high speed, tumbled around me on the bed. As a phalanx of room boys attacked the incursors with their shoes, beating them to death on the carpet, I summoned Cyril to the telephone.

He appeared to listen patiently to my complaint. Nobody had warned me, however, that he was particularly protective of his cockroach population. “Mr Harris, you must understand,” he began with an ominously wearisome tone to his voice, “that these cockroaches have been here since before man was on this planet. They tell me that they will be here even after a nuclear war. What can you really expect me to do about them? If you don’t like my cockroaches then I suggest you move to the Hilton Hotel.”

I did. After all, this was hardly the mollifying response of the remorseful hotelier. At least, when I checked out, the cashier told me: “Mr Gardiner says there is no bill for you, Mr Harris.”

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