The Sunday Leader

‘Agree? Disagree? Agree to Disagree?’ with ASH Smyth

by Tia Goonaratna
Pic Credits: Deshan Tennekoon, Dominic Scott Hilton, KJ Wright, Mika Tennekoon.

ASH Smyth, currently residing in England, was a former teacher at the British School in Colombo and the Colombo International School. A writer by trade, he studied Egyptology, followed by Intelligence & International Security.  When he’s not questioning the intricacies of the world, he reads, sings, and has a drink with his friends. When  asked what gets him worked up, he answered ‘Bureaucracy. The pettier the better’, – perhaps his brief time stationed in Afghanistan while serving the British Army has prepared him to take life with a pinch of salt.

For more words of wisdom, and thought triggers, please check and


1. When should people question, and when should they not?

Always, and never – under any circumstances. The late, great Christopher Hitchens (PB&J) tells the story of a sign, at the ashram of an Indian guru, instructing: ‘Shoes and minds must be left at the gate.’ Rest assured that, besides asking you to surrender the one advantage you have over the baser animals, anyone who wants you to keep your mouth shut stands to benefit directly from your complicity. So giving yourself – and those around you – an intellectual MOT every once in a while is not a bad idea, unless you want to find yourself living in a theocracy. (It goes without saying that you are free to question all of the aforegoing.)

2. Can the new slang words ever be considered great literature as Shakespeare’s work was?

Totes. Some slang words are the shiznit. Besides, they almost all end up in the OED eventually. ‘Aiyo(h)’ made the update last month! The best thing about the English language is that it can – and does – absorb practically anything, ‘slang’ or otherwise (‘moobs’ and ‘YOLO’ are both also in there). Of course, ‘literature’ (great, Shakespearean, or insert-other-adjectives-here) is more than just a matter of individual words. Assembly required!

3. ‘History is written by those who won’. Discuss.

Broadly true. I’ve recently been listening to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (the subtitle more than holds up under scrutiny), in which he argues that the Mongols, contrary to their reputation for raping and pillaging, were actually champions of the arts and keen investors in much-needed infrastructure. The only people they forgot to patronise were… the historians. You wouldn’t catch Winston Churchill making a mistake like that. He took the precaution of writing everything himself.

4. Opinion on ‘millennials’?

Don’t care, so long as they are spelled correctly (‘-ennials’ comes from ‘annus’; ‘-enials’, on the other hand…). I’m too old to really be considered one of ‘em, not that it matters. Generations have always kicked downwards. I do enjoy their memes, though. There’s a good one that’s been doing the rounds recently, to the effect that millennials are so spoiled with all their iPhones and whatnot, whereas the best our parents could hope for was to buy a house in central London on the pay of unskilled labour. [NB Rather pleasingly, my laptop is not happy with either spelling of 'millennials'.]

5. Do you judge a book by its cover?

Absolutely. Every time. People are paid tens of thousands of pounds to ensure you do exactly that. Thus the books my wife reads are immediately distinguishable from the books I read, across even an only moderately-well-lit room. (I once had a job in Waterstone’s. Same goes there.)

Life’s too short not to have some of your decision-making (consensually) guided. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule (yadda yadda): only last week an English critic pointed out that Angela Carter’s work was still very much in print despite, in his opinion, the best (non sic) efforts of her publisher’s design department. But the right books, I find, have a knack of finding one, in time.

I realise, now, I just assumed that we were talking about an actual book. If you meant people – well, that’s another issue altogether.

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