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Budapest and Kiev

I have now completed the account of my visits to several countries in Europe on my way to Oxford in 1971. I went first to Greece and Italy, and those accounts were then combined with later visits there and to other countries around the Mediterranean.

The book about those journeys, Around and About the Mediterranean, has now gone to press, and should be out before the end of this year. I then started posting about the rest of that journey, starting however with the last stop, France. But having written about that visit, essentially only to Paris, I went on to write about other visits to France while I was a student, ending with a few days there in 1979 while waiting for the results of my doctoral thesis.

After that I wrote about the other countries I went to in 1971 after Italy, Switzerland and Germany and Denmark. From Germany I went also to Czechoslovakia and from Denmark to Sweden. But I then also described another visit to Denmark when I was doing graduate work.

I have still to describe later visits as a student to Germany, but I now move to another trip to Europe the very next year, when I spent much of the summer in Yugoslavia. That, and further visits to the Balkans, figure in the Mediterranean book. But I did mention there that I went on from Yugoslavia to the Soviet Union.

I was able to get a visa for the Soviet Union in Belgrade, with the help of our embassy there, and I think they helped me also to get a visa for Hungary for the first leg of my journey involved a train to Budapest. I thought it would be good to see the place and I had a full day before the train onward and explored the city thoroughly. I cannot remember much but I am sure I saw Buda Castle and St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and I loved seeing the Danube I still think is at its best there, dividing the two very different sections of the city, Buda and Pest.

The ticket from Budapest to Moscow was ridiculously cheap, but in fact I only bought one as far as Kiev, which was on the way, and which I thought I would also have a look at on my way. The journey too a couple of days if I remember aright, each carriage having a couple of old ladies to look after the passengers and supply tea as required, from a boiling samovar as described in so many Russian novels.

We reached Kiev early in the morning and I had a full day exploring, though I remember little of what I saw except for several churches and also a grand view over the Dnieper river. But when I got to the station to resume my journey, I found that foreigners were expected to pay much more, and the ticket seemed to me inordinately expensive. Fortunately some kindly soul told me a plane ticket was the same price, and so it proved.

I have no pictures of Kiev, and took none in Budapest in 1971 but I show here some taken in 2008 when I was back there.

This post is more about leisure than work, for it focuses on the visit of a very good friend from Oxford days. But in between two trips on which I went with them, to the Perahera in Kandy and to Yala with Ena, I had work for the Council while they explored on their own, arranging the final display of ‘Painting the Town’.

And I had a day at the beach with old school friends, and also weekends at Kurunagala to work on Acts of Faith, my novel about the ethnic violence of the previous year. 

The pictures are of Richard in our first year at Oxford and of Prithi at a reunion of shoolfriends on the last day of 2019, and then of my first novel which came out in 1985.

Excursions with friends

In the first week of August Richard Hatfield, my great friend at Oxford who had also visited in 1980, came back to Sri Lanka, this time with his wife Penny whom he had married recently. I was able to take time off to be with them, travelling to Kandy on August 9th when there was a party at the British Council, though for what reason I cannot now recall. Next day I took them to the three lovely Gampola period temples including Lankatilleke near Pilimatalawa, and the Gardens and the Maligawa, and next day after another early visit to the Maligawa we went to the Kandyan era temples to the north, Galmaduwa and Degaldoruwa. In the afternoon we went to Malwatte, which I had not thought of but Penny had studied her guidebook thoroughly and that was fascinating too. And in the evening we saw the Perahera from the Hatton National Bank building.

We went back to Colombo on Sunday and then Richard and Penny went off on their own for I had to work that week, including now setting up the ‘Painting the Town’ Exhibition on the Council premises for the Minister of Cultural Affairs to open on the Thursday. And that Sunday I had a lovely day out at the Hotel Ocean View in Wadduwa, with my friends from school, Prithi Harasgama and Shantha Hallock, and Suki Devarajan whose cousin was married to Prithi.

The following Thursday, with Richard driving my father’s car, he and Penny and my sister Anila drove went to the Tangalle Resthouse, to go to Yala the next day. That trip with Ena, after which Richard and Penny left, is described in Exploring with Ena as is another trip to Yala the following month which I had arranged for another couple from Oxford who visited, not realizing that they were leaving before the weekend and not afterwards as Richard and Penny had done.

The Saturday after that first trip to Yala, September 1st,  I went to Kurunagala where I concentrated on Acts of Faith, the novel I had begun about the 1983 riots. I worked on it intensively, and finished my draft by the end of the month, also at the Old Place during its last weekend. But I had begun it a bit earlier, though it was only in September that I worked at it solidly, despite a lot of work for the Council.

Much of this is about the new Representative at the Council, Rex Baker, the best person for whom I have ever worked. He had a high opinion too of me, though I was perhaps lucky about this for he was impressed that I had got the wife of the Prime Minister to open the principal showing of ‘Painting the Town’ in Colombo. But in fact I did not know the lady at all, and it was entirely because she was a good friend of Yolande Abeywira that she obliged when she was asked.

I mention here also Marcus Gilbert, who was another indefatigable worker, imaginative and committed. He and John and Rex embodied the golden years of the Council in Sri Lanka, when we did more work in more areas of action than ever before or since. And much as I enjoyed my own work, the educational aid John presided over, and the technical cooperation Marcus oversaw, were much more important, and implemented with full cooperation and appreciation from the Sri Lankan officials with whom they worked.

The pictures are of Rex and Maj Britt Baker.

A new Representative

I returned to Colombo on Wednesday and the next day the new Representative, Rex Baker, arrived. We were introduced to him over coffee that morning and there were drinks on the terrace at lunchtime next day and John had drinks again that evening and took us all out to supper. He looked stiff, but in fact turned out to be warm and wonderful, and is still the best person for whom I have worked – though I should note that John Keleher too was wonderful. They both gave me a free hand but were able to target my energies so that many Council imperatives were taken forward.

The following week I had arranged press interviews for Rex on the Tuesday and that evening the Assistant Representative, Marcus Gilbert, who was in charge of work in science and with the universities, and training in England, hosted drinks. The next day I briefed Rex on the work I was doing, and then I had to spend much time on the next two days at the Supermarket to make sure the Exhibition looked impressive.

On the Friday Rex hosted us for drinks in his house, and then next morning I took him for the opening of the Exhibition at the Supermarket. We had got Hema Premadasa, wife of the Prime Minister, to open it and I think Rex was deeply impressed by what he saw as my range of contacts though in fact I had only got her through Yolande who had trained her children.

One of my first interactions with Rex involved dissuading him from putting up a picture of our President at the entrance to our building. He had come from Iraq, where this was the norm, but I told him the Council was not a government organization, and government in Sri Lanka was partisan, so we needed to maintain our independence. He did not demur, and I think admired me the more for this.

This post deals mainly with my biggest task at this time which I have noted in passing previously, the ‘Painting the Town’ exhibition which we had got from London in a plethora of large crates. Fortunately our staff did the donkey work for this, but arranging the venues and suitable openings was my responsibility, and I had to act as host outside Colombo for top management was busy with the transition to the new Representative.

But I also had great fun during all this work. I took with me to Batticaloa one of the brightest of my students at S. Thomas, and in Batticaoloa I met the Peradeniya student in whom I have perhaps the greatest pride, a boy from there who became a very distinguished academic though his English was none too good when he entered university.

And I note that I was also working on a Sri Lankan agenda in that in the middle of the Exhibition I also for the first time showcased Sri Lankan poetry in English at the Council.

I have only the one picture here, a precious one for it is one of just a very few I possess from my time at the Council. Typically, when new brooms started to sweep the Council in the nineties, they discarded the archives, not bothering even to ask staff if they would like anything from the past.

Painting the Town and Poetry

Setting the ‘Painting the Town’ exhibition up was a massive undertaking, but our staff were wonderful about it and worked hard that day so we were able to have it opened the next morning. The venue was the Kandy Public Library and I developed a good working relationship with its Librarian, Mrs Ratnayake. But I then came back to Colombo, leaving Sunil the custodian of our Multi-Purpose Hall to look after the Exhibition and pack it up when it was over. I think he then went with the crates to Batticaloa which was the next venue of the Exhibition.

The afternoon I myself came back to Colombo we rehearsed readings of Sri Lankan poetry for I was determined to showcase this, and we had a very successful programme of this the following Monday. Then the following Monday I went to Batticaloa to supervise the setting up of the Exhibition. I took with me one of the brightest of my Sri Lankan students, Indaka Nanayakkara, who had only done his Ordinary Levels at the end of 1983 but was determined to follow in my footsteps. Indeed he had the initiative to write to Eton which gave him a fully funded place for his Advanced Levels and, though he did not get into Oxford for his first degree, he went there subsequently and then had a lucrative career in Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Exhibition opened on Tuesday evening, at the Town Hall where we had set it up with the support of the splendidly named Municipal Commissioner Benedict Tarsicius. That morning I had visited Batticaloa University, having entertained my former student from Peradeniya, Yuvi Thangarajah, the previous evening. He had come up in 1980 and been determined to read English and done well, though later he moved to Sociology and rose in the hierarchy to be Acting Vice Chancellor at Batticaloa before he had to flee when he was targeted by the Tigers.

This vast range of activity I was engaged in during these my initial days of working for the British Council is exemplified by this record of just a few days. There was music in the Council Hall and an exhibition, and we also had Michael Ondaatje to read from his work in our Hall, whilst I lectured at the Kandy Library, I presume on literature.

The pictures are of my cherished New Lankan Review, though of a later edition, and of Michael Ondaatje whom we snapped up to speak though he had not then achieved the fame of the Booker Prize. And then I have added Julian Bream, whom we also gave space to when he happened to be in Sri Lanka.

But I was also doing my own thing, such as the New Lankan Review, the second volume of which I brought out this year. And there were holidays too, with my family at a little place by the sea, and then by myself at Aluwihare with my aunt Ena.

Music and literature

The evening after the drama presentations at the Council, I went with the family to the little house my mother’s friend Manel Abeysekera had acquired at Bopitiya a short way up the coast. It was a lovely little place, by the sea, and provided the sort of holiday my mother loved. And the following weekend I was able to get to Aluwihare, though again that was only for a couple of nights.

In my diary for the following week I have recorded ‘Jaffna Trip postponed’ but what that was supposed to be for I cannot now recall. It may have been for ‘Painting the Town’ which I took to Batticaloa, perhaps because Jaffna was no longer possible. But I was determined that the Council should continue to work in Tamil areas. However the situation in the North was getting worse now and I believe that our KELT officer at the Palaly Training College was soon afterwards withdrawn.

The following day I have noted that I arranged an Exhibition at the Council, but I have no idea what this was. It could not have been ‘Painting the Town’ since that only arrived the following week. And in that week we had a poetry workshop, an initiative I had started since I felt lots of people wanted to write and had talent but knew little of technique, and less about the need to edit and rework.

And on the Saturday we had a Bream evening at the Council, an event we arranged for a musician who happened to be in Sri Lanka and had asked if we could host him. We were very happy to do this, for we did not pay much and it was an effective way as building the Council up as a centre of arts activity. Sadly, in looking up Julian Bream, which I recalled his name being, I found that he had died at the age of 87 a couple of months before I wrote this.

The following week I received copies of the second edition of The New Lankan Review, the first of which had been launched at the Council the year before. I could not of course have a launch for this one at the Council, but I had brisk sales and before long I had only one copy for myself. Then on the Thursday we had readings from Michael Ondaatje at the Council, and on Friday I went to Kandy with the big Exhibition, and lectured that evening at the Kandy Library, staying over at the Queen’s.

I move here to the most difficult task I had in those early days, arranging a massive exhibition sent down in several crates. It was about Urban Design, and not very suitable for us, but I think the Representative had agreed to take it on when there was a gap between two countries who had asked for it.

But I note also my continuing efforts to popularize literature, working now with contemporary texts which the Council wanted us to make better known. I was lucky to have friends like Rohan Ponniah who did a marvelous job of interpreting dramatic roles which might have seemed alien.

There was also time to relax however, and I write here about getting away to my grandmother’s home in Kurunagala, which I loved, and even more now because I knew it would soon be sold.

And I record here the first of many occasions on which John Keleher supported my initiatives, inviting the cast I had put together for dinner at the lovely Bawa house he lived in. He and his artist wife Chris were wonderfully hospitable, and the English experts whom he guided were very lucky to have such a thoughtful manager.

The pictures are of Rohan Ponniah, and Chris Keleher, not with John but greeting former Council Representative Bill McAlpine, with his wife Helen and my sister on the side. Finally a picture of the Kurunagala Cathdral, a continuing focus of sentiment.

Painting the Town and getting away

The week after the television team left, I had to prepare for another massive remit from London, an exhibition with enormous panels called ‘Painting the Town’, about urban decorative art. It did not strike me as a great crowd-puller but I did my best, visiting the Colombo Supermarket to arrange for it to be displayed there. And that same day, Tuesday May 29th, I had a rehearsal for a programme of extracts from modern British plays I had decided to put on. Rohan Ponniah had agreed to help, amongst others, and I was totally impressed by the dedication he brought to preparing for his role in Edward Bond’s ‘Lear’, by no means an easy one.

That weekend I was at last able to get away to Kurunagala for a quiet long weekend by myself at The Old Place. I did go to Bishop’s House where Andrew Kumarage had taken over from my uncle, and I had another long evening with Sam Bickersteth, son of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who had come out to work with my uncle but stayed on with his successor after he died. But essentially I just read and wrote in the house I loved.

That Friday we put on the programme of British Drama in our Hall and the Deputy Representative John Keleher gave the cast dinner afterwards, the first evening of hospitality he and his wife Chris would extend so generously to those I worked with whom I suggested they invite. They lived in a lovely Bawa House in Ward Place, but in fact moved soon after that to an even nicer house in the same road which Bawa had produced for the pianist Druvi de Saram, out of two old family houses connected by a long corridor that was ideal for exhibiting Chris’s paintings.

This post covers another heavy responsibility I had to take on, looking after a television crew which was meant to celebrate our work. They did, and covered a range of activities we were engaged in, but they also filmed a party for our Representative who had been transferred elsewhere, and that figured large in the programme, conveying  a sybaritic view of the life of Council personnel.

I note here my first meeting with David Woolger one of the best of the English Teaching experts the Council had resident in Sri Lanka, who became a great friend. He served here in three projects and did a great job in all of them, and was asked then by the Overseas Development Administration which financed aid projects to take on another, in primary education. He said he knew little about that, but they valued his immense capacity and dedication.

The pictures are of David Woolger, in his second incarnation in Sri Lanka, at the Pasdunrata College of Education along with Parvathi Nagasunderam, one of my Peradeniya pupils whose talent and commitment he appreciated and encouraged; and of John Keleher who did so much for English Education in Sri Lanka over his five and more years with us.

A television crew to look after

The next group from London I had to look after were hosted for drinks at the Galle Face on Saturday May 19th, but this was just a few members of a television production team hired by the Council to highlight its work in a few countries for a programme to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Sri Lanka had been chosen because of the range of work the Council did, and I was to accompany the team on an extensive trip to film a couple of projects in action.

On Sunday night, after a dinner for Vere by our Administration Officer, shortly to leave for Australia himself, I went to the airport to pick up the rest of the television team but they did not appear. But they did arrive on the Tuesday, and then decided the next day, before going to Anuradhapura where they were meant to film the Construction Industry Training Project which we helped admininister, that they wanted to film the farewell party for staff that Vere gave on the balcony outside his room. That was a lovely venue, and the party figured large in the film though it perhaps added to the impression that the Council’s foes in England were propagating, that it was a mechanism for sybarites to enjoy themselves drinking in a tropical setting.

We went to Anuradhapura after the party and stayed at the Nuwarawewa Resthouse and had an intense morning the next day at the Project, which helped considerably with the massive construction programme the Jayawardene government had embarked on. I felt it was a great pity that the Rajapaksa government did not start something similar in 2009 for reconstruction of the North, for often to the irritation of the people there labour had to be brought from the south for the construction that was started.

From there we went to Kandy where we stayed at the Queen’s, which I much enjoyed, and went next day to Mirigama to film David Woolger the Key officer at the training college there in action with his students. Watching him I could understand why our Deputy Representative, John Keleher, who was in charge of English and Education, had selected him for his was a very lively performance.

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I describe here the tour of the Watermill Theatre Company to Kandy and Galle, though on this first tour I did not worry too much about showing them much of the country. It was an intense trip and keeping a whole company happy was not easy, though in time I was able to give even large groups a fair idea of the attractions of Sri Lanka.

I then move on to another responsibility, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Council, which involved an exhibition of panels sent us from London. The hard work however of setting it up was efficiently done by our staff, including Sunil a youngster who was in charge of our Multi-Purpose Hall and was generally totally reliable.

But I also mention another lovely trip I had with my aunt Ena, and Nigel Hatch, with whom I had also meandered found the country a year earlier, when I first got to know her. Journeys with her are described in Exploring with Ena, which is one of the books I have produced during this coronavirus period, one of the first which Godage & Bros published, in December last year. So references to such trips will be cursory here, but they need to be noted, for they were an integral part of my life, even as I did so much with the Council.

Touring a theatre company and mounting an exhibition

After the first performance of the Watermill Company’s ‘Merchant of Venice in Colombo, we set off for Kandy early next morning. I had got copies of the papers and was pleased the review had indeed appeared, but in my determination to be balanced I had been a bit critical about Shylock who muttered darkly into his beard when he read what had been said about him.

The Kandy performance went well, with lots of students in attendance, and we came back to Colombo next day. We stopped at a Spice Garden either on the way up or the way down, but I did not for this group bother much about showing them the sights of the country. Then on the Thursday, which was the first day another review appeared, in the ‘Sun’, we went to Galle which worked well too. Back in Colombo the next day we had a final performance at Ladies that night, and then next morning the Watermill Company left. The intensity of that trip was I think common with British Council tours in those days, though in time they became easier on the performers as regulations kicked in about what could be asked of them.

The next week we had the first of several farewells for Vere who was leaving later that month and the following week I put up the panels which the Council had produced to celebrate its 50th anniversary and then set off with Nigel Hatch for a long weekend with Ena, at Aluwihare and travelling to the East. And the day after I got back I had a birthday dinner to which I had asked Vere, following an evening of ballads we put on at the Council.

I move from preparations of the visit of the Watermill Theatre Company to what became the hallmark of my time at the Council, presentations which I arranged with Sri Lankan talent to increase both understanding and enjoyment of English Literature. I was helped immensely in this by my great friendship with Richard de Zoysa, who did a great deal himself but also introduced me to others, including Yolande Abeywira who became my mainstay for female roles.

I also mention the efforts I made to ensure good publicity for the Watermill, including writing a review after its first performance to ensure it appeared before they were next on stage. But I also note a lovely holiday I had over the New Year period, with my aunt Ena and also Richard’s mother Manorani, though he himself joined us only briefly.

The pictures are of Alfred and Manik, two journalists who were immensely helpful during my time at the Council, and of Richard’s mother Manorani who was such a joy to have around.

3. My first programme at the Council

Back in Colombo I put on at the Council the first of the programmes I had devised to popularize literature. This was a collection of what I called Bird Poetry which I had put together under the title ‘Flights of Fancy’. The poems were read brilliantly by Richard and Yolande – particularly memorably Edward Lear’s ‘Pelican Chorus’ with its reverberating refrain

King and Queen of the Pelicans we;
No other Birds so grand we see!

Attendance was small which was depressing. But Zem told me not to worry, that it was a good start and we just had to keep going. And so we did, and by the end of the year we were attracting large crowds, with extra chairs sometimes having to be fitted in.

The following week I had an interview to publicize the Watermill with Alfreda de Silva who became one our best and most loyal publicists, and then later that week I went to Wilpattu for the New Year with my aunt Ena and other members of her ‘Hard Core’, and also Richard’s mother Manorani. Back in Colombo I saw Tommy at my office and then on Sunday April 22nd I picked up the Watermill Company and hosted them that evening at the Lionel Wendt Art Centre Club of which I was Treasurer at the time. Richard had asked me to take on the position to help him resurrect the place as a genuine Centre for the Arts, and this sort of event seemed a good idea to promote cultural interactions. Fortunately ir was agreed to by the Council Representative Vere Atkinson who thought it would be a good idea for the British actors to meet our own in a theatre setting.

The next day began with a press conference and was full of interviews, for the SLBC as well as both television stations we had, and that evening we had the first performance at the Ladies College Hall. This was followed by Vere’s party for the cast, and then after that I wrote a review for since Manik de Silva, who edited the Daily News then, had promised to carry it the next day and I knew no one else could be relied on to produce one so swiftly.

Preparing for the Watermill

Despite being ill early during my time at the Council, I had rehearsal for what I hoped would introduce ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to students before the full length production that was coming down from London. This was at home on both Saturday and Sunday and then on the Monday, March 19th, still at home, I prepared the text for the presentation. But then I have no record of doing anything more before we went up to Kandy on the 3rd of April for what seems to have been a very successful event for we were belaboured after that to come back for more, even without a full performance to follow. The play became the favourite text of the Peniideniya English Teacher College, and years afterwards I would come across teachers who remembered our presentations.

On Thursday 5th I went down to Galle to make arrangements for the Watermill performance there. In Kandy of course we had a branch Library so Council staff there made arrangements but there was no one to help in Galle. Zem Sally, who had been in charge of the work I took on before she reverted to the Library as its head, had therefore found someone to look after logistics. This was a lady called Indira Silva, married to a doctor but also a cousin as it turned out of Sammy Vasagam, a friend of the family whom my parents had had to mentor after his father died. We had met him and his father initially through his sister, for the man she married had been a friend previously, a youngster called Reggie Aruliah whom my father had thought promising when he met him in Batticaloa. So he had arranged for him to be taken onto the staff of S. Thomas’ and I had in fact been his pageboy when he got married in the early sixties. But then the couple had emigrated, to teach first in Sabah I think, and then they had gone on to England and settled down there, I think running a shop.

I took with me when I went to Galle a chap called Alistair Smith who had been introduced to me by Ilika Karunaratne who was trying to get her son admitted to Aberdeen University where Alistair taught. I don’t think Ilika understood that Alistair had a sexual dimension to his interest in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. She had been scathing about homosexuals in politics, being then a fervent adherent of Lalith Athulathmudali and sharing his views then about Ranil’s inclinations. But it is possible she had no illusions about Alistair but was determined to ensure her son, who was never I believe the subject of Alistair’s attentions except with regard to his education, got into Aberdeen.

But Alistair was also a model of decorum and we had a fruitful lunch with Indira, who agreed to take on full responsibility for the performance which we had decided to put on at the new Medical Faculty Auditorium. Interestingly the founder Dean of the Medical Faculty, which was based in Galle though Ruhuna University itself was in Matara, was Tommy Wikramanayake in whose lovely house at Peradeniya I had stayed some years earlier.

The pictures are of the Penideniya College, the Watermill Theatre in England, and the Karapitiya Medical Faculty Auditorium.

Rajiva Wijesinha

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