The escapade on boats and bikes in the Moluccas was the final episode in the hectic travel that I had engaged in during 2013. With much less that I could productively do in Sri Lanka, I had gone as noted previously to Karnataka and Bhutan and Brunei and Tunisia. In between I had gone to England, as I tried now to do once a year.
This time the main reason was the 70th birthday of my former Dean, who had been infinitely kind and helpful to me during my 8 years in Oxford. He had remained a fast friend, arranging for the College to give me membership of the Senior Common Room and Dining Rights when I went back for any length of time, booking me guest rooms for short stays, and when that became expensive allowing me to stay in his rooms. He had long moved out of College himself by then, but he had continued till he retired to entertain generation after generation of undergraduates with the ebullience of his twenties, when we had first met.
But early in the new millennium he decided to take early retirement, for he said the College was changing beyond recognition. He was stunned when one of the new history tutors asked what it was to do with him, when Leslie suggested he visit one of his students who was in hospital. The old pastoral system seemed to have died away, with the Chaplain abdicating responsibility so that dealing with students with problems fell on the shoulders of the former College Secretary, who had been eased out of that position when the new Senior Tutor banned morning coffee in the College Office. That was the time at which dons met informally to compare notes, under the eagle eye of the College Secretary who had run the administration practically single handed for years, with the support of very glamourous assistants. But the practice, which lasted for a decade after she went, was resented by the supposedly professional administrators the new Master had brought in, and a dull bureaucracy took over.
Ironically, the Senior Tutor who had thought Morning Office Coffee and all that frivolous, presided over the worst years the College experienced with regard to examination results. She finally had to leave when it was clear the place would not recover on her watch. She was Belgian, which perhaps explains my Dean’s determination to vote for Britain to leave the Common Market, though just before the note he did note that it was clear, from a trip he made to the North, that the country at large was completely at odds with the elite on this issue. The fact that every single region of England except for London voted to leave seemed ample proof of this.
In recognition of what Leslie had done for all of us, I had got out a book in his honour, entitled ‘Oxford’s Loudest Laughter: Leslie Mitchell and University College’. I got a number of my contemporaries to write essays about him for this, and then decided I had to get something from later generations too. Fortunately I found out that the daughter of Sri Lanka’s best friend in the European Parliament, Geoffrey van Orden, had been at Univ, and she turned up trumps and got lovely pieces from some of her contemporaries. I remembered too that Kili Mahendran’s stepson had been at Univ – and been voted the most handsome undergraduate of his day – and he kindly provided something as did someone who was still an undergraduate, whom Leslie had mentioned as being a figure from Oxford’s best days. This had led to him nearly being sent down, but Leslie and my old Senior Tutor, George Cawkwell, now well into his nineties, rescued him and he ended up with a perfectly respectable degree.
George also contributed a thoughtful piece, as did Gillian Peele, one of the founder members of the Vile Bodies, who had to our astonishment been elected a Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall shortly before I left Oxford. Her great friend Frances Lannon, made a Dame in the recent Honours List after retirement, was Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, and we had the party there, where Frances and Gillian had also hosted my 50th birthday party, almost a decade previously.
Leslie was a bit bemused at the collection of people who turned up, from several generations, but it seemed that he had no inkling of what was in store, and was duly surprised when the book was presented after several glasses of champagne. I had done such books before, for Ena de Silva’s 80th birthday, and for my father’s 90th, and it is always a joy to see people, however distinguished they are, moved at such palpable evidence of how much they are loved and admired.
The actual birthday was a few days later, and one of the contributors, who had been unable to attend the party in Oxford, hosted Leslie and me to dinner in a house he had recently bought in the country. It turned out to be a mansion, with a hundred or so rooms, with a beautiful conservatory where we had dinner. The Boy, as we still called him, for he had looked incredibly young when he first came up, and had continued the same for a decade or so longer, had contributed massive amounts to the College. It seems he had multiplied his original family fortune several times over, and his gift I think ensured that a History Fellowship was endowed in Leslie’s name. It astonished me that the new regime at the College, so keen on getting contributions from Old Members, did not realize that it was the friendships outside formal relationships that ensured willingness to help the College.
After Oxford I went off to the Baltic States which I had long wanted to visit. I flew to Vilnius in Lithuania, and had a couple of days there including an excursion to Trakai, with the remains of an old monastery beside a lovely lake. But Lithuania was the least interesting of the three former Soviet republics I went to, with Latvia, the middle one, being by far the most attractive. I found a wonderful old hotel in the heart of the city, which one could wander around for hours. But I also went far into the country to see grand palaces from the 18th century when the Austrian empire was at its height in terms of cultural domination.
In the small but splendid Turaida castle near Riga, up in a watch tower I met someone I thought was Sri Lankan, but he turned out to be Pakistani. I was more wary then of approaching the next dark person I saw, in the Rundale palace, but he approached me, having I think seen my picture somewhere. It turned out to be Sumedha Jayasena’s son, with his wife and children. He had studied there, and got married, and seemed perfectly content to stay on, though his mother told me when I got back that she was trying to persuade him to return.
Estonia was also magic, though very different, with an angular northern feel to its buildings, lovely churches but tall and remote unlike the warmth of buildings where Catholic influences had been stronger. The Dominican monastery was a ruin, though preserved as an atmospheric tourist attraction. There too I went out of the city, to a forested area where there were supposed to be several beautiful country houses, resigned to seeing just one because the bus timings were not very helpful.
But at the first house I visited I fell in with a German who lived much of the time in India. He was exploring he said, having dropped his girlfriend who was from nearby to look after her sick mother, and he was quite game to go to all the houses I wanted to see. He also took me a bit out of the way, for a drive along the Baltic Coast, and to see a palace he had found impressive, and so indeed it was.
That was a particularly good day, and so was the day I visited the cottage Peter the Great had put up on the outskirts of Tallinn. It was very near the Presidential Palace, which was also very simple, and approachable to the very entrance gates.
From Tallinn I also took a ferry to Finland, having found it was just a couple of hours away. Helsinki was a beautiful city, but with no special sights, and the country town I was assured was a splendid tourist attraction, Porvoo, quite provincial. But the ferry ride was a joy, and it was a pleasant enough two days. And of course I was getting close to my goal of 100 countries, for Finland was my 81st.
But I also saw that year parts of Sri Lanka it had not been easy to get to earlier. I was still continuing with my Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, and to complete all those in the North I went also to Delft. The navy kindly put me up, and took me all round the island, which was a treat, the ponies as well as the ruins of the fort and hospital. They also gave me an excellent dinner, with extended drinks before in the tranquil garden of their guesthouse, ratings unobtrusive in the shadows until one’s glass was almost empty, when they sprang to attention to fill it up again.
The visit confirmed my view that we should use the forces more actively for training, for the only productive employment there was in a garment factory which the navy had set up. The civil branch, elected or appointed, had done nothing about employment opportunities, though the place was crying out for motor boat mechanics. Any problems now had to be dealt with in Jaffna, whereas it would have been very simple to set up a training centre here, as I had done in Mullaitivu, where the survey my agents had undertaken made it clear that the youngsters understood the need to be able to repair the boat engines that provided the main livelihood of the area.
Even more wonderful that Delft was Fort Hammenheil, on a tiny island west of the peninsula. The jail that Wijeweera had been housed in at the time of the 1971 insurrection, used later for LTTE prisoners, was now an elegant hotel. I was the only guest there, though they let Kithsiri come over as well, after he had had dinner at the restaurant on the mainland. Before that I had been served very cold beer in the garden by the ramparts, where the obliging staff laid out tables so I could also work at my computer. Needless to say, the sunset was spectacular, and dawn next day, though the sun came up over the mainland, was also beautiful.
I knew all about the place, for before it had been turned into a prison, it was leased out to a Curator. The honour had been Herbert Keuneman’s for years, and then it had been handed over to my aunt Ena, through her batik firm. She had described the lovely holidays she had had there, with her family, though she noted that her sociable daughter had loathed the solitude, unlike herself and her artistic son, Anil Gamani.
When I told her about my visit, she said she would like to go there with me sometime. But on my next visit to Aluwihare, she said she had thought deeply about the matter, and felt there would be no point in going. She might be disappointed, and in any case the magic of the sixties would not be recaptured.
Ceylon Today 26 July 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3605