HOME / PEOPLE / MEG WILLIAMS. LT present 10 life questions each month to a Sri Lankan (or honourary Sri Lankan) who contribute to the rich fabric of life in Sri Lanka, by their example.
Diverse, ambitious, dedicated and interesting, LT’s “People” have one thing in common: their love for Sri Lanka.
Issue 2015 October | Words by: Rajinda Jayasinghe | Photo courtesy of Philip James Baber.
Every once in a while you meet someone that is living the full length and breadth of their years. Sitting barefoot across from us on the LT couch on a breezy Friday afternoon, Meg Williams has just dropped in for a chat on the way back home to Galle before her daughters’ bed time. She is settled and secure in her weekly routine and is enthused, in a way that only a mother can be, at the thought of the kiddie chaos that will soon rain down upon her. But as her story unfurls it becomes abundantly clear that we are not speaking to a run-of-the-mill expat with a passing interest in the developing world. Sure, Meg, along with her husband Philip, are co-founders and directors of Stick No Bills, a wonderfully trendy little gallery and design studio in the center of Galle Fort that is fast reaching iconic status. Sure, she professes her unconditional love for Sri Lanka’s abundant sun and surf. Yes, she has embraced parenthood and settled comfortably into her maternal and entrepreneurial endeavors. Yet, as we come to learn more about this amazing woman, we begin to unearth the tip of a Fleming-esque novella of shadows and intrigue and action. From dodging bombs in Baghdad to build a threat reporting network to parenthood and retro art, Meg’s story, to the extent that we can know it, is bursting with life.
Tell us about the years before parenthood, before you moved to Sri Lanka.
I was a bit of a rebel in my younger years. Anti-establishment really. So it makes sense that in my early twenties, I gravitated towards a line of work that probably isn’t for everyone. Since my family had a pretty storied background in the British army and in military intelligence, this is where I found myself. In my early 20’s I began working for an international security firm founded by British former special forces. Having graduated from Edinburgh University with a first class MA in English Literature, I carved a niche as a risk analyst assessing the threats posed by armed militant groups. I became an expert in militant jihadist tactics; expertise that was in high demand post 9/11, so my firm gained funding that enabled me to travel widely, building a terrorism risk alerting and analysis capability covering Iraq and many other conflict zones. Visiting post-conflict Bosnia to work on the War Child project when I was 19 and then working in guerrilla/paramilitary warfare-torn Colombia were seminal experiences in my early career, after which I became predominantly middle-east focused but also started to visit Sri Lanka frequently to monitor and advise on the security risks during the war here.
This sounds like it was dangerous work. How did you stay safe?
In the highest risk locales I was very lucky to be working mainly with former Special Forces, with people who knew exactly what they were doing in highly sensitive and volatile situations. They were the best at what they did and by surrounding myself with them I definitely gave myself the best shot at being safe. I received basic weapons training too, so that in extremis I could defend myself.
I have to ask. Have you ever shot someone?
No, I never have. I managed a decade of travelling in and out of conflict zones without ever having to do that, unlike my Grandfather, who recounts ‘one German’ in his game book documenting his otherwise duck and jackal hunting escapades as an intelligence officer in Iraq in 1941! I’ve been very fortunate not to have been harmed but I’ve seen it happen too many times. I lost 23 of my colleagues during the six years we operated all over Iraq and I saw many locals, aid workers, contractors and journalists needlessly killed or injured. I think often of the families of those who didn’t return home.
What was it that finally made you decide to move on from this line of work?
When I met my husband Philip in 2005 he got me surfing and showed me so much of what I was missing all those years – a private life and the lighter, less hell-bent side of things. In 2008 we decided to leave the profligate, petrodollar-fuelled Arabian Gulf and spent 6 months in Brazil and a year on the north coast of Cornwall where I am from before coming back to Sri Lanka with our newborn baby girl Farrah. All that time I was doing crisis management and film script consultancy regarding terrorism and kidnapping. We went straight to Weligama where we lived in a shack by the beach for 6 months until we realised we were almost completely out of cash and needed to come up with a plan. Right before we were about to pack up and head back to Cornwall we received a random offer to run a surf hotel in Ahangama and we jumped at the chance. We’ve been in Sri Lanka permanently for 6 years now, and on and off for about 15. I can’t say we have ever had a dull moment. We love this place.
And what about ‘Stick No Bills’? How did that come about? Again, it was fortuitous. A wonderfully located property on Church Street in the Galle Fort became available and we grabbed the chance. Philip, who worked in fashion and photography, is always chock full of inspiration and had been toying with the idea of photographing, reproducing and selling an amazing collection of vintage travel and film posters. Although our plan was actually to sell originals we soon realized that these were way too rare and valuable. We felt it would be best to house these in a gallery or museum of some sort so that the history and beauty of these works could be properly celebrated. We soon realized that everyone loves vintage – from your erudite traveler to your millennial that finds ironic retro cool, there was definitely a huge demand for high quality prints of the originals. Galle definitely attracts a lot of “cool” tourists and once we started to design and reproduce postcards and posters that celebrated Ceylon’s rich heritage or had a tongue-in-cheek retro flavor they began to fly off the shelves.
Working in Sri Lanka can be difficult. Has it been a challenging journey?
Setting up a business can be extremely challenging. But it has also been really rewarding. I am so grateful that we have been able to find so many great staff and suppliers. They have made our life so much easier and they understand that for us maintaining highest standard and staying ahead of the game is paramount. Yet, challenges still do exist. Galle is developing fast but we still rely so much on Colombo to get a lot of stuff done. Overall though, we’ve been lucky that Sri Lanka has so many fast-improving resources that we can pull from.
What is your favorite place in Sri Lanka? I love the hill country. Okanda is pretty special too. But I would have to say that Weligama bay is my happy place. The waves are epic, there aren’t any rocks or crocs or sharks and it’s the perfect place to learn. When Phil and I don’t surf for a while we become irritated with life! When I am surfing and I take that bend, the spirit truly soars. The southern coast, with nothing but wild ocean between us and Antarctica, can make you feel like you are living on the edge of the world. It can be so bleak, far-flung and liberating, all at the same time. I’m even thinking about a line of cards called “Postcards From The Edge”!
What would be your perfect day?
A sunlit one when I can take my foot off the gas and relax somewhere beautiful with my husband, with our daughters happy and within arms reach.
What inspires you?
Courage. Integrity. And the human spirit. My grandparents have always inspired me, from their life’s work in military intelligence and teaching, to the way they approach life each and every day. Well into their 90s they remain more interested in everything than anyone else. My parents too, I don’t want to leave them out! Philip is an inspiration because he is so consistently creative. He has 20 ideas a day and is a real driving force. Like me, he is totally addicted to what we do. We are a strong team. In many ways, Sri Lanka is an inspiration as well. For the past several decades Sri Lanka has been so misunderstood and so reputationally scarred. I truly think that now, we can change all that. It has always been a goal of mine to promote Sri Lanka positively to the world, hence the posters. The country deserves this era of peace. I’ve traveled quite a lot and I can safely say that Sri Lanka is progressing at a meteoric rate, more so than anywhere else I have seen. The new generation of youth in their 20s is really taking off. A new politics of hope has found its way into the nation’s psyche and it really is inspiring to see so much positive change and development everywhere I look. We are lucky to be living in such times here. I guess you could call it a tropical belle epoch.
What is your favorite Sri Lankan food and drink?
At the expense of sounding like Gwyneth Paltrow, I think the avocados are amazing. As for actual dishes, I really love a Sri Lankan prawn curry. Having said that, I’ve been doing 3 curries a day for a while now so I’m starting to feel like I need to change things up a little bit.