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Very different from the Chalet was this later journey to France in 1976 when I took my sister and Saku Kadirgamar for their first taste of the continent. But while they saw the sights, I also did some work in connection with the Oxford and Cambridge Festival Arts Society Film Festival which we put on the following term, directed by the energetic Phillip Bergson.

He and Sarachchandra frame pictures of me and my sister last year, and an earlier one of Saku Kadirgamar.

Taking my sister on tour

Later in 1976 I was in Paris, during the Christmas vacation, for sightseeing but not for me. My sister had just come to Oxford and in settling her in I felt I should also take her abroad, having so much enjoyed my trips as an undergraduate.

We decided then to got to France and Holland for a week or so, after Christmas, which I spent as usual in Oxford where the dons looked after me wonderfully, and she with the family of the former Deputy British High Commissioner in Colombo. She then suggested that we also ask Saku Kadirgamar who had come to Sussex for her postgraduate work.

I was not too pleased for the idea of looking after two ladies who had not travelled abroad before on their own worried me, but then I realized this would actually help since I could send them off to places on their own and do what I wanted by myself. These were the days when I was involved in a bizarre but ultimately very successful project initiated by a friend called Philip Bergson who was an aspiring film critic. He had set up something called The Oxford and Cambridge Festival Arts Society which, Cambridge in fact having nothing to do with it, planned a Film Festival in Oxford.

When he heard I was going to Paris he suggested I drop in at various distributors and persuade them to give us their films for the Festival. I wondered about my ability to perform this task successfully, but it did not prove difficult and the companies I went to, housed usually in minuscule premises, were very obliging. I think a representative of OCFAS actually visiting them in Paris helped to convince them that we were serious, and in the end the Festival was a great triumph.

When I met Anila and Saku at the station in London from which we were departing for the ferry, it turned out that Saku had brought two large suitcases. It appeared that she had packed several sarees, assuming that the trip would be a grand social occasion. We had to disabuse her but could do nothing about the suitcases which we had to trundle round with us. Fortunately they had wheels, which were a recent innovation. And they turned in useful when we dropped in on the Sarachchandras, in the house in Neuilly where I had stayed briefly with Tissa Wijeyeratne. I think they wondered why we had come, but were delighted when they found out it was just a courtesy call.

I think Saku was also startled by the hostel at which we stayed, but it was warm enough, unlike in Amsterdam where the silk sarees came in useful to supplement the very thin blankets provided, and in the end the two girls much enjoyed the trip.

Unexpected exertion

I had been touched when Tony told me he wanted to let me know about his departure before he spoke to the others, but that of course had to happen the next day, so there was a slight sense of melancholia about the party that year.

We decided in that last year when Tony ran the Chalet that we should give him a farewell but he himself said it should not be at a hotel, either the Prarion or Annecy which we had thought of, but rather a grander dinner than usual at the Chalet itself so everyone could participate. I still cherish the picture of that event, Tony and Colin sitting on the lawn, and the rest of us clustering round.

That year I walked down to the village, or rather halfway down, for the first time ever. One of my freshmen, as I thought of them, who had come up when I was JCR President, took ill and claimed he was in unbearable pain and had to see a doctor immediately. All the others were going walking, so Tony asked me to take him.

I had assumed this would be by chairlift and train, and agreed, but after the rest had left John told me that, having come to the Chalet by car, he had parked this half way up the hill, so it would be quickest if we walked down and I could drive the rest of the distance. I told him it would be better if he drove, but he said he was in agony when he sat and would not be able to.

I had got a driving license the previous summer when I went home, but I had had hardly any practice since. He assured me it would be easy but it was nothing of the sort for the road curved endlessly, and I soon realized that I was hopeless at steering round so many bends and would either fall over the edge or else go into the ditch beside the cliff. The latter seemed the better alternative, and that is what I did, to John’s fury.

But that cured his piles, which it turned out was what ailed him. He managed to rev the car enough to extricate it and then drove down in stony silence. But having got into the doctor’s, and the piles being diagnosed and ointment provided, he was entirely happy when he emerged and would later claim that I had saved his life.

We went back in the train and the story provided much amusement when the rest came back. Leslie in particular had a wonderful time assuring John and me, though not for the rest to hear, that Jeremy would be delighted to apply the appointment, as indeed was the case.

Sadly I could not stay the full period this year at the Chalet, for I had to get to Greece for a meeting of the Byron Society. I only saw the place again over 30 years later when I went there from Geneva when I had a day off from the Human Rights Council.

The pictures are of John Pike at the Chalet that year along with Charles Wood, and then of John and me in Indonesia at the end of 2013 when we went island hopping in the Moluccas.

A third visit to the Chalet

My last visit to the Chalet until a sentimental visit on my own in 2008. The first is of Tony’s farewell dinner, and then an excursion that year by the youngsters. There is a close up of Tony and Colin Lowry who also did not go back to the Chalet, having acted for years as the cook on Tony’s reading parties, and finally a wonderful shot of Tony playing cricket on the lawn.

I had a great time at the Chalet that year too, even more immobile than in the previous year I think if that were possible. Leslie and Michael and Reggie were back, and I think Tony stayed in more than before, not going on the trek to Italy on which Jeremy Lever led small group of enthusiasts. And this time my expedition to Annecy for lunch, which Charles also joined, passed off without any untoward incident. 

The following summer I went back home, but in my first graduate year I was back at the Chalet. During my graduate years I went several times to France, but generally not for sightseeing. The first time was in the summer, on my way again to the Chalet. I had an Euro-Rail ticket this time, which allowed one unlimited travel for a month on European trains. I had used one during the Easter vacation, and much enjoyed the sense of adventure and open spaces it gave one, often spending the night on trains to save on accommodation.

I had only passed through France then, and this time too I had just an evening in Paris, to catch the night train to St. Gervais, having got there from Germany which I had gone to after starting from Belgium, where I had stayed with out Ambassador Tilak Gooneratne. He and his family had been very hospitable from my first days in England, and though he was on his own in Brussels for his wife stayed on in London, he was a lively host as ever.

On the first night we were there Tony asked me to stay back when the others were going up to bed after dinner and post-dinner drinks in the salon. He then poured us glasses of wine and told me he had decided to leave Univ. I was stunned, for he had seemed such a fixture. But he told me that he thought it was time for a change, for the undergraduates still seemed the same.

Underlying this was the fact, I realized, that he himself was changing, and now in his forties he could no longer think of himself as being of the same generation as the students. I think I was lucky to have been of the last undergraduate generation at Univ for whom the wonderful dons who lived in College could seem only a little bit older. But it was obvious that they were moving beyond that stage, and in fact that year Leslie Mitchell moved out of College and David Burgess the Chaplain and John Albery the Tutor for Admissions, also a livewire, went on to positions in Windsor and in London respectively. Tony himself was going to Goldsmith’s College in London as Vice-Principal.

But I was shocked and sad for I had thought Tony would be there for ever. I tried to dissuade him but obviously his mind was made up and he had accepted the new post.

This continues with the tale of the stay at the Chalet in 1974, with an account of why I had a different room-mate. The pictures are first of Charles Wood’s sister Lucy and then Charles himself in their extensive gardens when I stayed with them in turn in 2017. And then there are a couple of pictures of the Chalet in those undergraduate years, including of Reggie Oliver the tallest in the first picture and of the schoolmaster Stephen Graham who cooked in those early days.

A new room mate at the Chalet

Indeed the system of Single Transferable vote for Oxford Union elections was got rid of a couple of terms later, but the damage had been done. At the Trinity 1973 election the last two places went to Michael, very much a young conservative, and a strong labour club candidate. I came very close, being knocked out by a small percentage, but those who had bloc votes to begin with on right and left did better.

Some months later the President told me, when I said the change had been unnecessary, that he had done it to ensure Michael would get elected and added, when I said I thought he would have been anyway, that that would not have happened, though I would have been elected. I don’t think he bothered at all about what I must have felt. And I began to think that Michael had known what was going on for, on the night of the election, while several recounts were taking place, I heard him at the other end of the library telling someone that he thought he would be elected but felt very bad because I would be knocked out.

That seemed to affect him over the next few days for, at a dinner Tony gave at his country cottage for a society called the Peacocks, Michael suddenly collapsed over dinner and had to be taken to bed in the room we were to share. He did try I think to make it up to me over the next few months but I was not very happy.

And indeed, though I voted for him, I ended up spending the night on which he was elected President, in Hilary 1974, comforting Christine who was the girl he had defeated. Though she was a contemporary of mine I had not known her too well in previous years but that year we became good friends, and have indeed continued as such, hosting me with her Indian husband now whenever I visit Delhi. And we spent the evening in fact in Charles’ rooms opposite, along with Andrew Ferguson Smith, for we were both I think not too keen to spend the evening with Union hacks, though that of course was what the three of us were.

I was President of the Junior Common Room when Charles came up, which was why I had a room in College still in my third year, the best I thought (for I had first choice) at the top of the staircase between the College’s two main matching quadrangles. It had a large sitting room with a small bedroom off it, while opposite was an equally large sitting room with two small bedrooms on either side. This was allocated to freshmen, usually two whom the College Secretary approved of for the location was great.

I was an active JCR President and made the freshmen feel at home. When a very young one turned up to the room opposite, with a slight old gentleman with him, I was very gracious about telling him the ropes. It was only a few weeks later that I discovered that the old gentleman, his father, was a don at Christ Church, and his mother was at St. Hugh’s, and Charles knew much more about Oxford than I ever would. But we became great friends, as I did later with his sister Lucy who was up while I was a graduate.

I move on now to my second visit to the Chalet after those trips to France for lunch earlier in the summer. I refer here to a disappointment that has haunted me more than any other, which contributed too to the splintering of a friendship that had given me so much joy in my second year. But the trip to the Chalet affirmed too the strengths of the friendships of my first year, and of the third.

The pictures are of the end of finals that summer for Richard with whom I went camping along with Nick who kneels behind us, and of Michael and me the previous summer.

Camping on a drive to the Chalet

The following month I was off to France again. This time my journey to the Chalet in August was by car, along with a couple of friends who were going camping in Italy. They had finished their courses, since most degrees at Oxford take only four years though Classics and Chemistry go on for four. So this was their final long holiday before entering the world of work, Nick at the BBC, Richard with the Civil Service. The initial plan was that John Oughton, of our Calais expedition, would also join them but in the end it was just both of them which allowed space for me to tag along at the start.

I fear I was quite useless for I could neither drive nor set up a tent, but my friends were tolerant, and even got a stock of sugar for my morning coffee though they had decided to give it up themselves. I was with them however for just three nights, staying further south every day at campsites where we cooked dinner on a small stove. I think the first night was at Beaune, and the last at a small place called Paray-le-Monial which had a beautiful Romanesque church. Years afterwards, in Serbia, I was delighted to see it featured on a map at a Serbian monastery of what was termed the European Romanesque route, stretching from Spain to Serbia. The only other strong memory I have of what I think of as a very pleasant leisured trip was talking to a Britisher with a camperwagon in the site next to us, I think on the first night, and being told that he had stocked the wagon with British cereals since he did not quite trust to getting decent food on the continent.

The Chalet was now familiar ground and I felt quite proprietorial as I walked down the path from the Prarion. Tony gave me the same room this year, but he told me I would share with Charles Wood, a first year who lived opposite me in College and had become a good friend. Tony told me that he thought I would enjoy that, and I suspect he asked Charles, the only first year as Michael the previous year had been, entirely because of me. Tony had realized that Michael and I, though perfectly polite, were not as good friends as we had been previously. I think I never got over the fact that he had not minded what I felt was a shady trick to get him on the Standing Committee of the Union a year earlier, and thus prevent me from getting on though that was not the purpose.

What had happened was that the then President had at the last moment changed the Standing Orders so that the Single Transferable Voting was used. This is an ideal system to ensure equable representation for different interest groups, but it was absolutely wrong for the Union where those elected should have appealed to a range of interests.

Lunch in Toulouse

But at first there was some small unpleasantness. As we wandered along, thrilled at being in so distant a town, in search of a café to have some breakfast, it appeared that we were not to be quite a unified foursome: Andrew and Christine lagged behind holding hands. I did not think that I had any justification for minding this, for it was after all Andrew’s party. But Robert thought otherwise. I had done some careful research about the city, and made a comprehensive plan of what I wanted to see: when, after breakfast, there was some dithering about the itinerary, which evidently seemed too strenuous for Andrew, Robert declared that they should decide whether we would stick together or not.

They looked upset and Christine, as she used to do, clutched my hand for sympathy. I squeezed hers but said nothing. After all, Robert’ alternatives were very sensible: there was a lot I wanted to see and, while sentiment could always be put off for another day, the opportunity offered by this trip was unique. As it turned out, Christine thought so too. She said that of course we would stick together, and Andrew acquiesced. Naturally he was not as enthusiastic about what we saw as the rest of us, but he took it all in good spirits: as a token of our gratitude, and indeed perhaps contrition, we did not argue when we had finished about where we should eat, but made straight for the restaurant he had selected.

It was of course the most expensive in town, but it was fully worth it. We had the most magnificent cassoulet, the local specialty of various meats cooked with beans, for our main course, all of us that is except Andrew. He had a steak. Robert, irrepressibly, disapproved vocally of this, as of the egg mayonnaise with which he started, but to no very upsetting effect. At the end of the meal, and of the vast amounts of wine that had accompanied it, we were all thoroughly replete and totally satisfied with the world; so that, when we were back in the plane, even the comment of the pilot, that he had had as good if not better a meal at less than half the cost in a small eatery, inflicted scarcely a pang.

And the day was made even better because, on the way back, we had to make a detour to Paris to pick up some executives who, for some reason we did not feel it incumbent on us to find out, had gone there. We touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport and were allowed to disembark and stretch our legs round about the plane while the navigator went off in search of the other passengers. I still have the photograph Robert took of Andrew and me lying at ease under the wings of our plane, with vast jets apparent in the background and Christine caught running, for some reason, so that she seems to be aspiring up towards something hovering in the sky.  It remains amongst the most cherished souvenirs of an idyllic day, during one of the more interesting periods in my life.

The first picture is of that day in Toulouse though I cannot now trace any others. The next is of me with Andrew in 2020 in Andorra, where he now lives with his lovely Spanish wife.

I continue with our exotic day trips to France in 1974, Calais first and then Toulouse. But the pictures are from my second visit to Toulouse, only last year when I was lucky to have a last fling as it were in Europe – with Asia before and Africa after – before coronavirus struck.

And thereafter to Toulouse

We decided on the expedition to Toulouse at the end of the summer term but, since some preparation was required, it actually happened in the vacation. Robert and I however were staying on in Oxford for some weeks, so Andrew drove Christine there and picked both of us up to go to a hotel in Bristol for the night. As Robert had anticipated, Andrew drove into a modern motel in the outskirts of the city, rather than one of the cheap and cheerful hotels with which the place is littered. As we went up to the desk, underlings in uniform surrounded us. Andrew seemed very much the efficient young executive. He asked for the four single rooms he had booked. But Robert and I thought this an unnecessary waste of money and said we would share. We wondered later if Andrew might have wanted to follow our example, but doubtless that would have been embarrassing.

After lunch we were taken to the factory where the British made their components, and there the man deputed to look after us casually remarked at the end that he hoped we had our passports: they were not always checked, but one could never be sure and the French had been known to turn difficult. Andrew’s essential decency came out at this juncture. Though Robert managed to convey, as only he could, the impression that it was obviously Andrew’s fault that he had not been told a passport might be required, he was driven back to Oxford without any recriminations from anyone, except from me, for I had been looking forward to driving round the Regency quarters of Bath during the evening,

We had to be up before dawn to make our flight, but it was fully worth it. I was young enough to feel exultant as we walked out to the little plane that stood waiting only for us. There were no other passengers, and the pilot was as friendly and informative as could be desired. We got to Toulouse just after eight. Far from passports being required, Andrew’s father had arranged for us to be met on the tarmac by a hostess who read out our names as we descended, endearingly and absurdly for we were quite plainly the only passengers, and then announced herself as being at our disposal for the day. We did not however take advantage of this offer, except to get a car to take us into the town and the names of a few restaurants where we might choose to lunch.

More today about that trip to Calais in 1974, with a picture of all of us – except Robert who took the picture – outside ‘La Sole Meuniere’ where we had lunch. The other is of Philip Green in his dressing gown and me at the harbour.

Lunch in Calais

We had seven people then but only one car, that of Andrew Ferguson Smith, the Keble man. But when we were in despair I had the bright ideal of asking a contemporary from Univ, John Oughton who had always had a car, whether he would consider going to Calais for lunch, and he promptly agreed though he was due to do finals in a couple of weeks.

We met outside the Lodge, to find Philip Green sitting high up opposite on the scaffolding that had been put up All Soul’s College. He was wearing a feather boa, which he kept on right through the trip, coming down carefully when he saw us and then proceeding to goose step, which he did all day, to the amazement of the citizenry of Calais.

The Univ contingent, Leslie and Bell and I, set off in John’s car and got to Calais well in time, but the others failed to get there for the ferry we were scheduled to take. Those were the days before mobile phones and we had no idea what had happened, but we decided to go on anyway, hoping they would be on a later ferry and we would meet. I think we decided, after looking round Calais, to hang around where the cars emerged when the next ferry docked, and we did see them coming off. It turned out that they had decided to go to the Ritz in London for breakfast, and obviously had no regrets, not least because Philip in his feather boa must have commanded much attention.

We had a wonderful day in Calais, with a large lunch at which Gillian consumed what seemed a mountain of mussels. I still cherish the photographs of our promenade in Paris, and also of the ferry back as the sun set, with Philip finally collapsing and lying prone on a bench asleep with the feather boa still round his neck. It was a wonderful day and soon became a legend in Oxford.

And that trip was the inspiration to go to France again for a day, for lunch in Toulouse, to which we had to fly. This extraordinary journey took place because Andrew Ferguson Smith’s father worked for British Airways and was involved in the construction of Concorde, the supersonic airliner that the British and the French were building as a joint venture. Construction was in Toulouse, and several times a week a small plane flew over from Britain for executives to check on progress and iron out any problems.

The plane flew over quite empty on many days and Andrew told us that his father could arrange for us to go over for the day. Despite his enthusiasm for the new world into which we had introduced him Andrew knew better than to ask his father to fly over the Vile Bodies as a group. He asked just Robert and me, along with Christine Pemberton who was of my vintage but to whom he now seemed firmly attached.

My next trip to France, in the summer term of 1974, was a strange one, a day trip for lunch to Calais. The pictures are of that memorable day, beginning with seeing Philip Green high on the scaffolding outside All Souls Cottage, in an exotic dressing gown, a feather boa, and a mortarboad and with a briefcase which he carried right through the day in Calais.

The Vile Bodies

I was back at the Chalet in 1974, again for the full three weeks. But I had been to France earlier too that summer, twice, for this was the year the Vile Bodies went to Calais for lunch. And then after that a few of us actually flew for lunch to Toulouse.

The Vile Bodies was a dining club set up essentially by an Australian called Robert Scoble, who had come up in 1972 as a graduate, with a deep devotion to Oxford when it was the focus of literary activity. He was also determined to be President of the Union, an ambition in which he succeeded at the end of Michaelmas 1974, being one of the few to be elected President without having been an officer, and perhaps the only one to do this in Michaelmas when the freshmen tend to be susceptible to the appeal of the officers they see in front of them during debates.

Robert had it seemed developed in his first year the idea that I was the other main literary enthusiast in the Union and, though we did not meet that year, he had met Leslie Mitchell in the summer and said he was very keen to get to know me. So the following Michaelmas Leslie put us together, and we got on so well that over the next seven terms I probably spent more time with him than anyone else. In term this meant being surrounded by others for he never ceased winning friends and influencing people, but he was also a great companion in the vacations when there were few people around.

‘Vile Bodies’ was the title of a wonderfully funny novel by Evelyn Waugh, best known now perhaps for what is considered the quintessential Oxford novel, ‘Brideshead Revisited’, though only the first part of that is set in Oxford. Robert’s idea was that we should have a dining club for select invitees, each of whom should be named after a ‘Vile Bodies’ character. We had our first dinner in the Michaelmas on 1973, and then at least one event thereafter each term, taking photographs in costume that became Oxford icons so that once when I went back as a graduate I found them framed on the walls on a restaurant.

The novel begins with the hero returning to England on a ferry from France, and Robert conceived the idea of us going to Calais for lunch one day in the summer. We worked out that, if we took an early ferry, which we could catch if we left Oxford before dawn, we could get to Calais mid-morning, have an indulgent lunch, and then take the evening ferry back, getting to Oxford by midnight.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as we were, but Leslie agreed to come as did a graduate friend of Robert from Nuffield called Gillian Peele who was later Politics Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall. Then we had a Univ freshman called Andrew Bell,  who also became President of the Union and saw Robert as a role model in his first year, another freshman from Keble who was devoted to Robert too as well as to Christine Pemberton who was Union Secretary in his first term, and also a wonderfully eccentric man from Keble called Philip Green who was sadly sent down soon afterwards.

After ten posts on political principles, I return to my travels in France in undergraduate days. This continues with the summer of 1973 when, after my stay at the Chalet, I went after a brief stay in Italy, to another part of France, the Dordogne, for a wonderful week with my principal protege in that year, Michael Soole, now a judge.

I have a few much cherished pictures of those days which he sent me later when I had grown sentimental about the past.

The Dordogne with Michael Soole

It was sad to leave, but my summer holiday was not yet over. Michael had asked me to join him in the Dordogne, where his parents had taken a small cottage for a couple of weeks. I was his only friend from university, for the rest of the party were his friends from school, a sort of farewell I think to those with whom he realized he would have less and less in common, for none of them had got to Oxbridge. I was honoured then to have been asked, though I understood why he did not take up my suggestion that he ask Leslie too.

In England we had planned for him to join me in the week in between in Italy, where I had arranged to stay with the long-suffering Bertolottis, at their seaside flat in Arenzano. But at the Chalet he said his parents had thought they needed two cars, so he went back to England and I to Italy, taking a train the following week to the little town in the Dordogne where he had said he would meet me.

Only he and his parents were there when I arrived, and we took the two beds on either side of the fire in the sitting room, with there being only one bedroom which his parents occupied. His friends, four of them, had to stay in a tent in the garden when they arrived.

There was a primitive toilet, and a bath in a little room at the back. It had no running water but had to be filled up. My idea that one needed to bathe daily was then obviously not feasible, and I was surprised that when I did have one Michael said he could use it afterwards, a way of saving water and energy. I thought the concept strange learned later that it was not unusual in England before the plumbing in that country improved.

Michael’s schoolfriends were nice chaps but less interested in the world at large than Michael was, and had no desire to see the sights in the area. Michael’s mother however was dead keen on exploring, and his father dutifully drove her and me to lovely little churches on a couple of days while Michael stayed behind to entertain his friends.

But it was a lovely little place, with figs dropping from the trees around us, and olives, so spending time there was also great fun. And, since we needed to relieve Mrs Soole of excessive cooking, we went several times to a wonderful restaurant nearby which provided fabulous meals, seven courses if I remember aright, for a pittance. The pate and salami and cheese we could buy in the area was delicious, and of course wine too was cheap and plentiful. It was an idyllic conclusion to a wonderful and varied summer, the sea on Cape Cod and the Mediterranean, the Alps above St. Gervais, and this still markedly rural segment of France.

Rajiva Wijesinha


July 2021
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