Sunday, October 21, 2007

Life and Times at the Times

Life and times at The Times

By S.J. Anthony Fernando – Nation Sunday Oct 21 2007

Down Memory Lane

In the early 1960s, life was still easy-going, at a leisurely pace. It was the time I, as a raw youth straight after school and quite new to city life, joined the Times of Ceylon Group as a trainee journalist.

The imposing six-storeyed building of the Times of Ceylon in the heart of Fort, built by its British founders, was at that time the tallest building in Colombo. The Times of Ceylon, founded by the British in 1846, was the bastion of the Fourth Estate and the breeding ground for many journalists who made a name for themselves in the newspaper industry, some of whom are still active while many are no more.

My induction to journalism came quite unexpectedly, soon after I had completed my secondary education at Maris Stella College, Negombo. With the untimely death of my father, my father’s brother Rev. Fr. Arthur N. Fernando, who was then the Rector of St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, was instrumental in my taking to journalism and directed my application to the Times management.

Having received the summons for an interview, there I was, a 19-year-old, nervous and excited, sauntering into the building of the Times of Ceylon. I was ushered in before the then Managing Editor of the Times of Ceylon himself, Felix Goonawardene.
After asking me a few questions about my education and family, he soon sent for a person called Reggie Michael. Without much ado Goonewardene told Michael, “Take this young man and train him.”

I soon realised that I was to work on a newspaper that was to be newly started by The Times Group. It was the Ceylon Daily Mirror, which was to be styled on the model of the London tabloid Daily Mirror. Michael was to be first News Editor of the newspaper and I would serve under him in the News Desk.

Michael, as those in the newspaper circles will recall, in later years became the Editor of the Daily Mirror and became famous writing the Opinion Editorial Comment in his own inimitable style with pithy comments and choice words and phrases, wielding his pen with gay abandon, with telling effect.

As a pioneer member of the editorial staff of the first Ceylon Daily Mirror, it was indeed a significant coincidence, perhaps decreed by destiny, that after nearly 45 years later I found myself on the staff of another newspaper in the making. (The Nation is now in the second half of its second year).

The Nation Editor Lalith Allahakoon was the pioneer Editor of the new Daily Mirror, started by the Wijeya Group of Newspapers. After decades of public service, I was back in the familiar environment of a newspaper office at The Nation, at the invitation of my long-standing friend and CEO of Rivira Media Corporation, Krishantha Prasad Cooray, who himself is a writer on current topics.

It was The Nation’s Deputy Editor Keith Noyahr, who incidentally was the pioneer Deputy Editor of the new Daily Mirror, who broached the idea of writing my memoirs and recalling my experiences.
Before the first issue of the Daily Mirror rolled off the Times of Ceylon press in early 1961, the staff had already been recruited. Most of them were senior journalists from the Evening Times Editorial. With the absence of any schools of journalism, the newcomers to journalism had to undergo on-the-job training.

While Michael, an old Peterite, was the first News Editor of the Mirror under the Times of Ceylon Group, the first Editor of the Daily Mirror was Fred de Silva, an academic and a talented writer, a man of simple ways and few words, who was to become the Editor of the Daily News in the mid 70s.

The Features Editor was Chandra Silva, wife of former Magistrate and District Judge Robert Silva, who was himself a former journalist of Times. The Chief Sub Editor was Felician Fernando, an old boy of St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena.
There were also the likes of Victor Goonewardene, a very meticulous sub-editor and a stickler for correct usage of the English language and grammar, and Reggie Siriwardene, who was a columnist of repute. On the News Desk under the charge of Michael were two senior hands with writing ability, recruited from outside: P. Krishnaswamy and C.S. Dharmaraja.

One of the tasks I was assigned was to read through all the Sinhala newspapers and translate all good stories into English. I was surprised to see many of these translations appearing as lead stories or displayed prominently, as they had not appeared in any other English newspaper. Soon Reggie Michael coined a nickname for me, ‘Mudliyar,’ which stuck on when the entire staff called me by that name.

After serving several months, Fred de Silva retired as Editor and Felician Fernando, the Chief Sub Editor, became the Editor of the Daily Mirror. October 1961 saw the influx of new journalists. Among them was Evans Cooray, already counting some years of experience at Lake House and at Lankadeepa.

It was under Evans Cooray that I was destined to serve as Press Officer and later as Senior Assistant Secretary (Information) from 1978 till 1993. Among the others who joined the editorial staff later was Alex Jayachandra who came over from Lake House.

Joining me as newcomers were Asoka Nanayakkara, who later held an executive post at de Alwis Advertising, and Sunil Munasinghe. Around October 1961, Rita Sebastian and Karel Roberts joined the Mirror.
The Sports Editor was Lawford Martinus. He produced a popular sports column titled Bouquets and Brickbats. Assisting him were Harry Jayawardene, a senior official of the famed Athletic Club CT and FC and stocky Anton Weerasinghe, who was Sports Sub Editor.

Former Editor of the Daily News and Lanka Puwath, Geoff Wijesinghe, an old Thomian, started his career as a journalist at The Times of Ceylon. He was a Playground Instructor of the Colombo Municipality when he on a part-time basis covered sports for the Daily Mirror. He was to later gravitate towards the News Desk and gradually developed into a top level journalist.

Geoff, Sunil and I formed a happy trio. We developed a close affinity and together, we used to play pranks and jokes at the expense of the seniors. With Geoff around, the editorial was always lively. His escapades, particularly in the evenings during the period of his stint in the Mirror, could fill a book. I was often his comrade-in-arms, who would guide him home after late nights.
One of the outstanding scoops Geoff scored was the Boonwaat story, where the Burmese Ambassador in Sri Lanka had allegedly assassinated his wife for allegedly having a love affair with a Sri Lankan musician.

Under cover of diplomatic immunity Ambassador Boonwaat organised a burial for his dead wife at the Kanatte Cemetery without a police inquiry. Geoff got wind of the burial from his police contacts and the old Daily Mirror had the exclusive story splashed on the front page with pictures. Ambassador Boonwaat stood trial for the offence in Burma and was convicted.

(This article is published posthumously)

Anthony’s last post

By Krishantha Prasad Cooray – Nation, Sunday Oct 21 2007
How does one do justice to the life of a man in an appreciation with an imposed word limit? In a sense, appreciations are meaningless. The subject, after all, does not get to read it.
Appreciations tend to be more about the appreciating person than the appreciated. I know all this and still want to write about Anthony Fernando, not because he cared whether he left a mark or not during his brief sojourn on earth, but because I believe that certain examples need to be restated so those who come later can learn.

It is a way of making a fragrance linger, a little longer, even after the flower has ceased to perfume.
I met Anthony in the 1980s when he was in President Premadasa’s media team, but got to know him more intimately only after President Premadasa’s death. When Premadasa became President, Anthony was his Senior Assistant Secretary.
Anthony was a man of legendary capacities. He had the stamina and energy to work round the clock, one of the necessary preconditions to work with Premadasa, apparently.

I don’t know much about Anthony’s early life and this upsets me now. All I know is that he was a sportsman, having opened batting for Maris Stella College, Negombo. In fact he had been both News Editor and Sports Editor at the old Times.
Anthony possessed rare discipline and exuded a humility that was rarer still. Those in the inner circle of the President would confirm that Premadasa called Anthony quite often at 4 a.m. In fact, he used to call up several close trusted officials in this manner.

They were all, without exception, very efficient men. Like most of us, they too had friends, they too had enemies. Anthony was an exception. He was Mr. All Smiles. No enemies. Not even one.
As one of the ‘President’s Men,’ so to speak, someone who played a huge role in all the projects launched by Premadasa, and someone who had the President’s ear on a daily basis, he could have ‘made it’ as they say.

He didn’t. He was not into ‘big talk,’ he never bragged; he was always passing on the credit to someone else, down-playing his own contribution. And he died a humble, simple man, in modest circumstances. He took his work to heart and probably felt that the satisfaction derived from dedicated work was fringe-benefit enough.

When I was asked to start a newspaper, one of the first people I wanted to contact was Anthony. I had not spoken with him in several years and my inquiries revealed that he was not in the best of health.
I went to Ja-Ela to see him. He was, as always, cordial and helpful. Although he was working at the Interior Affairs Ministry, he promised to help in whatever way possible. That was enough strength for me, all things considered.

He surprised me a fortnight later, when he called over at my flat. He said he would join once the paper was launched and proceeded to give me a lot of invaluable advice. As promised, he joined us a month before The Nation was launched, and it was a privilege to have a man with such experience and proven capabilities on our team.
Although he was ill and growing weaker by the day, even then, being Anthony, he always reported for work, never complained and continued to offer suggestions to improve the newspaper.

He was enthusiastic and meticulously methodical; always full of ideas and bubbling with the enthusiasm of a much younger man. He never grumbled. Every Monday he would call and give a review of the previous day’s paper, pointing out errors and making suggestions for improvement.

Everyone in newspaper offices would remember Anthony as a quiet, smiling, generous man, who never interfered with others, and was ever willing to help. He obviously knew his days were numbered, but didn’t allow this fact to dampen his enthusiasm, always keeping his cool and never losing his charm.

He was a great inspiration to us at The Nation and Rivira, as he surely would have been to those who worked with him in all the places he graced with his presence.
In addition, he was a much loved father figure to the young journalists of The Nation and Rivira, they would all run to him with no hesitation whatsoever to ask for advice and ideas, or even to correct their spelling and it was always given to them with great joy and acceptance. Last Thursday, Anthony called and asked if he could do a column for The Nation. He wanted to call it ‘As It Strikes Me.’ I told him I would talk to the Editor and get back to him. The Editor said that Anthony could write it on a fortnightly basis. I will eternally regret the fact that I failed to convey this to Anthony.
I could put it down to ‘human error’ by way of absolving myself of guilt, but I am doubly ashamed because Anthony would never have done this to me had the roles been reversed.

He was always helpful and disciplined and didn’t let the fact that he had to undergo dialysis on a regular basis, leave any room for complaint. He was a friend and an exceptional human being.
He leaves behind his wife, Sriyani, son and daughter, all of whom would feel his loss more deeply than anyone else, but at the same time could be thankful for the privilege of being his wife and children.

To say ‘We will miss you at The Nation, Anthony’ would be to say nothing. Some people are like that. They leave and when they do, they rob us of words. Anthony was such a man.

Anthony Fernando:
A gentleman and journalist par excellance!

Anthony Fernando, well known Journalist, Press Officer and latterly Senior Assistant Secretary (Information) to President Ransinghe Premdasa passed away peacefully at his residence at the age of 65 years, exemplifying the non controversial and non turbulent life he led. Integrity and humility were essentially characteristic of Anthony.

Anthony was the third son of well educated and affluent parents; Dr. Luke Fernando and Mrs. Noeline Fernando of Negombo. Dr. Luke brought up his children in a culturally undiluted rural environment, principally as good Christians and secondly as dutiful responsible citizens. Anthony received his education at Maristella College, Negombo, and had a flair for languages, particularly English and Sinhala. He blossomed as a balanced, independent professional journalist beyond bribery in cash or kind.

As a sportsman, Anthony knew how to play fair and accept both victory and defeat with equanimity. Anthony joined the Times Group as a journalist and learnt his trade under the most respected Editor of the Daily Mirror, Reggie Michael. His progress as a journalist was steady and he rose to the position of News Editor of the Daily Mirror in the 1970’s.

I knew Anthony since 1979, when the then Prime Minister Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa invited Anthony to join his media team. We maintained an excellent official cum personal relationship for 28 years. It was a highly professional and disciplined relationship in his official journalistic capacity and an exemplary caring and sharing partnership in his personal life. In view of the insatiable appetite of Prime Minister Premadasa for image building, it was a challenging time for all of us at Transworks House. The Prime Minister wanted ceaseless publicity for the massive urban development, housing and village reawakening projects launched by him. The media team headed by his Press Secretary Evans Cooray and Press Officer Anthony Fernando proved equal to the challenges stipulated by Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Anthony wrote well and effortlessly in both English and Sinhala. He could also translate from English to Sinhala and vice versa. Investigative journalism was not his forte. He excelled in reporting, feature writing and interviewing dignitaries. He had a fantastic memory of people, events and sources of information which undoubtedly is a useful journalistic attribute. After his retirement from the Public Service, being an invaluable journalistic asset, he was invited by The Nation newspaper to function as a consultant.

Mr. Anthony Fernando was an unassuming, harmless and saintly character. As civil servants we were taught to comply first and complain later. In Anthony’s case he always complied and never complained. He knew how to win friends and influence people. Perseverance and application to detail were the hallmark of his success. He did not gossip nor did he denounce anyone. He was privy to state secrets, political maneuvers and even family quarrels of his bosses. Never did he breathe a word to the media or the outside world.

As members of the Prime Ministerial or Presidential entourage, we travelled on numerous official and state visits. He was a great travelling companion and reliable aide who meticulously made elaborate preparations to meet the numerous demands, high standards and time targets set out by Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa.

His only weakness was getting into office late. Anthony acquired the habit of coming late to office from his journalistic days. Whenever Prime Minister Premadasa questioned him on this, Anthony attributed it to his having to travel from Jaela by bus. So, Mr. Premadasa the shrewd strategist, immediately allocated a flat from Gunasinghapura, a stone’s throw away from Sucharitha. One day, Mr. Premadasa entrusted an urgent translation to Anthony and asked him to bring it to Sucharitha at 8.00 a.m. the following day. At 8.30 a.m. after repeated telephone calls Anthony had not arrived. So, Mr. Premadasa, in his inimitable style, went to Anthony’s flat and saw him running down the stairs. Anthony was excited. Mr. Premadasa asked him to calm down. Anthony made no excuses such as bad stomach or high fever, but it was the last time Anthony got late for his appointments.

Anthony was a loving and caring husband and father of two lovely children. If we had more of Anthony’s calibre, Sri Lanka will be a better place to live in today. May his soul rest in peace.
K.H.J. Wijayadasa
Former Secretary to the