Life and times at The Times
By S.J. Anthony Fernando
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
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
(This article is published posthumously)
Anthony’s last post
By Krishantha Prasad Cooray
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
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
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.