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Back to the British Council after ten posts about Oxford, that went even further back into the past.

This post looks at more activities in 1985, beginning with a tour by another musical duo, the cellist Anup Kumar Biswas and his young accompanist. But then I describe one of my most creative efforts, a One-Man Dickens show which I put together in emulation of Geraldine McEwan’s Jane Austen show. Richard de Zoysa performed brilliantly and, dare I say it, given the wonderfully dramatic nature of Dickens’ writing, this was the most exciting One-Man show I have ever seen.

The pictures are of the duo and then Eric James who was a lovely man, and then Richard followed by Rex Baker. He was wonderfully encouraging, and this meant the Council Hall was full and its reputation unrivalled, round the world I would say during those years.

Richard as Dickens

That weekend I went with Anila and her friends to Rambukkana, to the family home of Priyani Tennekoon, with sightseeing including a drive up to the top of Elephant Rock in Kurunagala, which we had had to clamber up to in childhood. Before the drive we had of course dropped in on Lakshmi at The Old Place, and been duly entertained. It was only on the Tuesday that we drove back to Colombo, and the next day I had to get ready for another musical duo, the cellist Anup Kumar Biswas and his accompanist Nigel Clayton who was small and seemed very young whereas Biswas was large and full of self confidence. He had come originally from India and I was pleased to see that in his publicity material he registered gratitude for facilitating his stay in England to Eric James, a clergyman who had been a great friend of my Uncle Lakshman and who came to visit us after he died.

I got in a piano that day for the duo and they performed in our hall, and next day I took them to the SLBC and returned the piano. That was a short visit but there was more to do that week for on the Wednesday itself I had rehearsed Richard in the One Man Dickens show I had devised for him and the next evening we put it on in the Council Hall. Rex hosted a reception for him that evening, after a performance that was rapturously received.

We had used furniture from Lakmahal for the different scenes, with potted plants from the Council garden which were lovingly cared for by the gardener, Mr Lazarus, who became a great friend and was following me on Facebook decades later. He was delighted that I made such good use of his flowers, bouquets as he called them, and we had a good time planning where to place them, to maximum effect. For the extract from Hard Times they were invaluable as Mrs Sparsit stalked Louisa in a wet garden where worms fell on her. And the furniture was fabulous for Mr Podsnap laying down the supremacy of the English.

But perhaps the best received pieces were those done just with spotlights, the death of Bill Sykes and then the death of Steerforth. I had added evocative music for the scenes, Elgar I think for the last, and there was not a dry eye in the house as David Copperfield saw the body after the storm. And meanwhile I was continuing with my talks at the Council on literature, Henry James that week, Conrad two weeks earlier. And later in February I even arranged a seminar on The Jewel in the Crown which I was avidly reading since I had decided that Scott was to be the subject of the post-doctoral research I felt I needed to embark on.

My passion for Oxford intensified when I stayed on in college for almost the whole of the 1972 Michaelmas vacation. This was because I had also much enjoyed the times I had been in Oxford during earlier vacations, and by now I was good friends with Leslie Mitchell the Dean and David Burgess the Chaplain, and knew they would make sure I had company. And so it proved, with others also chipping in. This was when I got to know the Senior Tutor Tony Firth well, for a couple of days after I got back from Charles’ in Kettering he asked me to dinner along with Leslie and the Assst. College Secretary to his cottage in the country, where I would stay with him on occasion in the years that followed. And a freshman who happened to be the son of our former Domestic Bursar, Sir Peter Gretton, who had continued as an emeritus fellow, invited me to their home in North Oxford for Christmas lunch.

I was spoiled that day for the Ancient History Tutor, George Cawkwell, who had not yet taught me but who was to teach me more than anyone else over the next few years, had me to his house for dinner on Christmas day. That became a tradition over the next five years. And Leslie, having taken me to the cathedral for the service that morning, had me home for lunch the next day, Boxing Day, after which we went to the pantomime with his parents.

Before that I had been to London with the SCR for the opening night of a play written by our Admissions Tutor John Alberry. I think I made my mark there by being drunk enough to initiate a conga in the bus, in which George also indulged.

That was on the 19th and the following day I went to Sussex for a party given by another freshman friend, Andrew Chitty. His father was Sir Thomas Chitty who wrote novels under the name of Thomas Hinde. He was a Baronet and the party was for the whole village, as well as ex-school friends. It was a very convivial event and quite a few people stayed on all night so Andrew and I stayed awake to put them on an early bus so that his mother did not have to give them breakfast, which it seemed she had had to do for the last two years. The house was a wonderful old place, with low beams so that one kept banging one’s head.

On the 29th was the Staff Party for the dons which was great fun, and then on the 31st Leslie had a party for just five others, Tony and me and the College Secretary and her Assistant and her former Assistant who was now College Secretary at Teddy Hall. That was one of the best evenings I have ever had, ending with a conga round the quads after which Tony and I drank both gin and sherry in his rooms. And the next day he commandeered the leftovers and had the two younger secretaries and me and John Alberry the Admissions Tutor who had just come back from skiing for dinner at his cottage.

The pictures are of those who hosted me and made that December so memorable, the College Secretary Gwynne Ovenstone and Sir Peter Gretton, and then Tony Firth and Leslie Mitchell and George Cawkwell, the last picture taken the last time I saw him, in January 2019.

After a wonderful week in Cornwall I got a lift from Richard to Basingstoke, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, took a train to Oxford to pick up the luggage I needed for the vacation, and then got to London so late that I had to spend the night on the Gooneratnes’ doorstep. From there I set off for Yugoslavia, and came back there in September, though I then went to Paris for the future in-laws of the elder Gooneratne daughter were staying.

But I was back to help with the fair Pam Gooneratne had arranged, which I think helped for Tilak was cutting to her about it and the younger daughter Aruna left the house two weeks before the sale since she could not stand the chaos. Pam then was happy that I was on my feet for hours for the two days of the sale, at the Tea Centre in Regent Street, which sadly the next government sold. And I enjoyed myself, meeting my old English teacher Manel Tampoe ‘as loony and nice to talk to as ever – awaiting the revolution to sweep away the privileged’.

It was wonderful to be back in Oxford for my second year, and I understood then what Maureen Berman, wife of the senior Physics don, had told me when I said how pleased I was to get back to Oxford for my second term. She said she could understand the feeling, but it was nothing like I would feel when I got back the following October when I would feel the College belonged to my year.

She was right. I loved that Michaelmas term. But I also got out of Oxford a bit more than in the previous year, including trips to London with Leslie to Covent Garden which he had promised us while we were in Lamledra.

In Oxford itself Richard of Lamledra had a car and he took me in November to Fairford to see Canon Keble, brother of the founder of S. Thomas’ Prep. He and his wife had three cats and a dog and a rabbit that chased each other under the table during an excellent lunch. We also got a guided tour of the 16th century church and a splendid tea. The pictures here are of the church and its famous stained glass, and then the book by Canon Keble and a plaque to him indicating that he had served in Africa.

This was very different from my visit the previous year to someone else my Bishop uncle had also been keen I visit, his former landlady Mrs Hills. She was now in a home and feeble, but she did register who I was after some time, and even remembered that the Colombo Cathedral was being built. And I got the impression that she was a bit disappointed that my uncle had not become Bishop of Colombo.

Then too I had been driven, by the sister of the vicar of the church she had attended, and had much enjoyed the drive, across the Berkshire downs, seen in the last picture, passing small villages and thatched cottages and isolated farmhouses which I thought didn’t exist any more. Fairford was in the other direction, west of Oxford.

In December, after term, Charles again invited me to his home in Kettering, north of Oxford, for a few days and I much enjoyed again being with his family, all of whom seemed delighted to welcome me again. But after that I was determined to stay put in Oxford, the main reason being that it seemed the best way to study for the first examination we had to take as classicists, at the end of the following Hilary Term.

The convivial joys of Lamledra

After lunch at Lamledra the communal life of the place took over. The afternoon was for walks and swimming if one felt brave, and then after tea we were supposed to read again, but this was desultorily and we talked much. David would prepare dinner with Leslie to help, and that was a more formal affair, in the dining room after drinks. But drinks were extended and often involved a walk down to the pub. After dinner we would adjourn to the sitting room for conversation and games that were supposed to be intellectual but were also most entertaining. I was introduced there to what Leslie called Botticelli, where the rest had to find out, on the basis of yes/no questions, whom one person was thinking of. And having played Consequences we also devised what we termed Literary Consequences, with totally mismatched first and last lines, and reviews by both highbrow and lowbrow papers.

I’m afraid we did not quite stick to the routine, and after the first morning we generally talked. I ended up reading very little, which is doubtless why I still recall the one novel from the Lamledra library that I read, Henry James’ What Maisy Knew. Apart from that I think I only managed a couple of books of the Iliad. But since we none of us had exams coming, this did not matter, and the exchange of ideas was fascinating. There was lots about politics, with Richard laying down the law about socialism and then being stunned when Leslie suddenly told him he didn’t know what he was talking about, whereas his parents were scouts in Oxford and represented a real working class which Richard simply could not understand.  

We went down on two or three evenings as mentioned to the local pub, the Llawnroc (it took me some time to realise it needed to be read backwards too), run by a delightful family with adorable golden retrievers and sons that looked like them with delightful Cornish accents. There was much walking, across cliffs in sun and rain, including I wrote home ‘once after three double sherries at the pub’. We played Cheat during the day and also French Cricket on the beach (at which I wrote that Burgess cheated outrageously) and built sandcastles. And we had a couple of expeditions in Richard’s car, to Mevagissey the largest town nearby on the coast, and even to St. Ives on the north coast where I had stayed the previous December, to look up someone who was supposed to have known Proust.

In the middle of the week we had an addition to the party because a Univ man who was doing postgraduate work in Russia, Julian Graffy, had been expelled so he was asked down to stay to recover from what seemed to be a state of nervous exhaustion. Perhaps to help him relax the food got even more wonderful, since David had a habit of putting lots of alcohol and cream into whatever he made.

It was a wonderful week and, as I wrote home, made me feel ‘I’d like to stay at Oxford for ever’.

The pictures start with two of the beach there, though taken a few years later. Then there are three I have just found, one of Julian Graffy looking rather as he did then, of the now tarted up Llawnroc which is nothing like the simple pub we loved, and one of Mevagissey Harbour, more built up than when we frolicked there long ago.

Lamledra, the house and the routine

For the Univ reading parties Leslie and David used a place on the southern coast of Cornwall, a house called Lamledra high on a cliff above the village of Gorran Haven. It had been built as a holiday home for his family by Sir John Fischer Williams who achieved fame as a lawyer in the early years of the 20th century. One of his daughters was Jennifer, who had married Herbert Hart who had been Professor of Jurisprudence at Univ though by the time I went up he had become Principal of Brasenose College. Jennifer who was a history don at St. Anne’s basically looked after the old family holiday home on behalf of her sisters. She was a tough lady but got on well with Leslie, who was also a historian, the relationship cemented by Herbert, who was a wonderfully gentle and friendly man, having been at Univ.

I had no idea who else was coming but on the train to St. Austell where we were to be picked up I recognized two of my fellow freshmen, Mark a lawyer and James a historian. We were surprised that there was no one else, and in fact there were only four of us apart from Leslie and David. Richard a philosopher had gone down in his car. I had known them all vaguely, for there were only about a hundred new undergraduates at Univ each year, but it was only at Lamledra that we became fast friends.

The house was massive, with five rooms upstairs plus a large dormitory, so we each had our own with James I think being in the dormitory. There were toilets up and down, but only one bathroom, which sufficed, since none of the others thought it necessary to bathe as often as I did. Downstairs the front door gave on a large passage, where the stairs were, with the dining room in front of it, giving onto a round terrace. On the left the passage opened into a comfortable sitting room where a fire could be built. Beyond that, under the dormitory, was a long library.

On the right the passage opened into a large kitchen, with beyond it a scullery and beyond that again an extension which had what had been the servants’ rooms, two tiny ones upstairs which however had wonderful views across to the promontory, Dodman’s point. We generally came into the house through the scullery, beyond which was a separate garage.

The routine as laid down when we got there was very simple. David was down early and had coffee or tea ready and also then put out breakfast which was usually just cereal and toast, at the long table at the end of the kitchen, looking out over the garden. We were then supposed to read in the sitting room, with the library available if privacy was needed. Leslie would bring in morning coffee at eleven, and then we would break for lunch around one, usually bread and cheese and cold meats, on the terrace if the weather was fine, else in the kitchen.

The pictures are of Leslie Mitchell and David Burgess from that first stay at Lamledra nearly fifty years ago.

Wales and Scotland

I started the summer vacation by going to Wales, intending to spend a week there since I was due to join a college reading party in Cornwall the following week. But having reached Colwyn Bay youth hostel on Saturday evening, on the Sunday I got a lift with a delightful German who wanted like me to see some of the Welsh castles. We saw a couple, including Caernavon which I knew about since Prince Charles’ Investiture had taken place there, and also a Roman camp, and I much enjoyed driving through the mountains. But then, the driver having told me he was going on to Scotland, I went along with him, and ended up at Aberdeen which I thought very beautiful with its grey stone which reminded me of Canada where we had lived for a couple of years when I was a child. Whether there was the slightest resemblance though I have no idea. I noted though that the harbour was rather dirty and ‘stinking of fish’.

From Aberdeen I went with the German through the Cairngorms to a place called Aviemore, and mention being fed wholesomely by a Scottish female, I assume a friend of his who joined us but I cannot remember. We stayed in the Youth Hostel, walking through the rain in the hills and then lingering in a pub so we were nearly shut out when we went back to sleep.

It would have been nice to explore further, but I had to head back so I took a bus to Edinburgh, which I had a quick look round, and then took the night bus to London and went on straight to Oxford. Some of my friends had just finished their first year public exam – we Classicists were luckier and only had ours two terms later, so we had our first three summers free of exams. That was a lovely evening for after playing croquet on the lawn we walked up Port Meadow in the late evening light with a tape recorder, interviewing people by pretending to be from Radio  Oxford.  

The next day I went to Cornwall, my first Oxford reading party. Or this there is  an enthusiastic, almost breathless account, in a letter home. I had been invited by the Dean at Univ, Leslie Mitchell, who had become a great friend in the course of my first year. A few weeks into the summer he told me that he and the Chaplain, David Burgess, were arranging what he termed a reading party for some first year undergraduates at a house in Cornwall. I had no idea what a reading party was, but gathered that it was an occasion for students to read while also enjoying stimulating company, each others’ and that of the dons who arranged the event. It seems Leslie and David had been running such a party at Lamledra for final year students in the vacation before their final exams but they had thought this year of having a more relaxed week in the summer. 

The pictures, not of course mine, are of Caernarvon Castle and Aberdeen and the Cairngorms and the Aviemore Youth Hostel. Finally there is Port Meadow, an area through which I walked just two days ago, after years.

Cambridge, Stratford and a few days in Sussex in April

While I was there we had a family outing to Cambridge for a day, about which I commented that the colleges were beautiful but I preferred the ‘Oxford atmosphere’ whatever that meant. And I was also lucky enough to see a rehearsal at Covent Garden, for the daughter or my mother’s cousin Enid worked there in the costumes section. On the 1st of January Enid’s elder son Randy got married, a wonderfully hospitable occasion. That was also the first occasion I met my mother’s second cousin, Frank, and his English wife and his ‘utterly cute kids’ as I described them.

On Monday 3rd January 1972, I set off again on my travels, and got to Stratford but found the Youth Hostel only opened at 5 in the evening and one had to wait outside in freezing cold. Fortunately the housekeeper of an old man who lived nearby gave me a cup of tea and I then found a cycle shed to shelter where two Australian girls were doing acrobatics to keep warm.

The next day I saw Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Shakespeare’s birthplace and tomb, and caught a production at the theatre, but it was ‘Toad of Toad’s Hall’. By then I was feeling ill, the cold with which I had started leading to a headache, so the next day I headed off to Oxford, to find some of my fellow students already back. They were studying for Collections, the written tests at the beginning of term which I realized then must be serious, unlike End of Term Collections when one’s dons just commented on one’s performance to a gathering of the Master and relevant fellows.

So I did some work, noting in a letter ‘how nice it was to fall ill at home and expect everyone to dance round you.  When I was homesick in India, I remember, I decided to fall ill when I got home, just to enjoy that pleasure.’ But I felt better soon and those ten days in a slowly filling Oxford I think started my love affair with the place even when hardly anyone else was there.  

I spent a couple of weeks of the Easter vacation hitch-hiking in France, ending up with the Bertolottis in Milan, all of which I have described in connection with accounts of travels in France and Italy. But I also had a week-end with the Buchanans who had befriended my father in Canada. He was head of Canadian Railways in London and was married to an upper class English lady, having divorced his first wife I think before we met him. A son by the first marriage had visited us in Sri Lanka and Bill had been most grateful for the boy had it seemed been going through a difficult period, but had reported back about having been made most welcome.

They lived in London during the week, in an elegant flat in I think Portman Square, but also had a lovely country cottage in Sussex where I stayed, enjoying being pampered for a couple of days, though all I remember is that we had Earl Grey for tea and I had to borrow a hunting jacket of Mrs Buchanan’s for church because I had not taken a coat. A few years later their son Jamie came to Keble, and my sister and I had him for dinner at Somerville, where she was for a year in the graduate building so she was able to cook a Sri Lankan meal.

Truro, St. Ives and Christmas in London

The chef and the chief waiter at the restaurant where I found work in Truro were Spanish rather than French, lovely people who pampered me as did the older ladies who worked there, allowing me as much Cornish ice cream as I wanted. And my landlady kept feeding me though I had not asked for meals except the 3 which I think were at the weekend. Sunday lunch was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, followed by rice pudding (it had been pheasant with the Dutoys the previous week). And I noted that she kept a scrupulously clean bathroom, as also that we drank tea at mealtimes, which was straight out of the books I had read about life at that level in England.

During the week I worked in Truro, I shared the room I had in a boarding house with a Sudanese student who was very nice but liked to talk, which was irritating because I was also trying to keep up with my holiday reading, two books of the Iliad every day in front of the fire, despite the TV being on. The landlady was also talkative, philosophical I noted though her husband was very quiet, had only left England to fight in the First War and didn’t even want to do that, his wife said.

I finished at the ‘Rendezvous’ on the 18th and when to St. Ives which I had wanted to see ever since reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’. I fear I decided then, having turned down the offer of another week of work, that I did not think I would want to commit to working anywhere for more than a fortnight.

St. Ives was quite beautiful, with ‘heaps of curving bays and reddish cliffs and even stretches of bright fresh green’, 5 days before Christmas. I noted too walking to a 12th century church a few miles away, but I also loved the town with its little streets along which I had wandered to find a place to stay. Very few Bed and Breakfast places operated in winter, but I found a very cheap one at 22/6 shillings a night, delighted at the mention of the old coinage which had now been abolished. The landlady was again garrulous with a son at the Westminster College of Education in Oxford, and the couple staying there educated me in the nasty social changes that had happened at St. Ives, cottagers being sent to council houses and then the condemned cottages sold at fabulous prices to summer tourists. But though I noted that presumably the place was horrible in summer, I still felt its beauty in winter, and relished even the rain through which I saw waves crashing on the cliffs beyond the pier.

But I had only a couple of days there before heading back to London where I was due to spend Christmas with my cousin Clara Abeywardene and her family. They had been wonderful when I got to England a month before Oxford started and it was good to feel amongst family for this my first Christmas in England.

The pictures are of St Ives and its beach, though some of the ungainly development can be seen in the last picture. In between are Virginia Woolf and two covers of To the Lighthouse which sum up both the vision and the visionary, an Edwardian lady, which had shaped my view of the place.

Kettering and to Cornwall

In the very last week of my first term at Univ, a fellow freshman who had been very friendly asked me home. As I put it in my letter from his house, in Kettering in Northamptonshire, ‘He had mentioned it earlier but – after Tissa Wijeratne and his remarks about the terrible expense of putting people up – I didn’t really believe in Western hospitality. But, having phoned his mother at midnight on the 2nd, he brought me here on the 4th’, the Saturday when term ended.

Charles took me on excursions, to a Norman church and a ruined Elizabethan Hall, and  a play in Northampton, but as I noted nicest of all was meeting his family, four brothers and his widowed mother, who were all very kind and hospitable.

I left Kettering on the Wednesday, December 8th, resisting an invitation to stay on a couple of extra days for Charles was starting work. I then had a night at the High Commissioner’s in London, having got very friendly with the Gooeratne family when I had a month in London before Oxford. I had as mentioned stayed with my  cousin Clara Abeywardena and her family in Wallington, but gone up to London once or twice with her sons, and then spent a few days at the High Commissioner’s Residence. After thorough rest for a few days in Wallington, I had seen museums and cricket at the oval and a play and my first opera, ‘Carmen’ at the Coliseum.

In December I did not see anything of London but after my night in Avenue Road  I took a train to Exeter, relishing the scenery on the way, at least after Reading, for my vision of England was based on Enid Blyton books and I much loved the open country. Having viewed Exeter Cathedral I then took a bus to Okehampton for I wanted to be in the country.

I stayed in a pub that I still recall cost me 5 pounds, inclusive of breakfast. I noted that the bathroom was none too clean but the couple who ran the pub were interesting, hailing from Norfolk. Then, having looked at Okehampton Castle, I started hitch-hiking and managed to get a lift to Cornwall.

I decided that I should find a job for I felt that physical work would be an interesting experience, and would help since the allowance I got from home was very limited in those days. At the Labour Exchange in Newquay they found me a job in Truro, the capital city of Cornwall, with another splendid cathedral. It was in a café, where I washed dishes and peeled sprouts for the grand sum of 1 pound 25 pence for 6 hours a day. I worked there for 7 days and got 8 pounds 75 which barely covered my costs, for the boarding place I found charged 6 pounds for 8 days. That covered only 3 meals over the stay, though there was ovaltine and cake in the night. But I was able to eat voraciously at the ‘Rendezvous des Gourmets’, where I thought the lunch the staff got was better than what the customers were served.

The pictures, not mine, are of Exeter and Truro Cathedrals with Okehampton Castle in between. But then I am on shakier ground, in showing Kirby Hall and the Church of St. John the Baptist, an Elizabethan Hall and a Norman church near Kettering, but whether those are the ones I saw I cannot be sure.

Travels from Oxford, 1971

Coincidentally, I begin this next tranche of travel in Europe in student days at Oxford, where I have come for the 50th anniversary of my arrival here. Having got to England on September 6th 1971, I came to University College a month later, for the few days of familiarization mandated before term formally began on Sunday October 10th.

I loved the place from the moment I got there, on the evening of October 6th 1971. The old college buildings were all I had hoped for, but I was also glad they had put me in a modern centrally heated block, in I think the best room there for it was on the top floor and looked out over the Master’s Lodgings and Garden to the Chapel. Now, in 2021, they have put me in what is termed the Shelley Set, a room on the main quadrangle which used to be part of the Junior Common Room, with windows that look out over that quad and also the Fellows Garden to west.

So it is that now, after ten days writing about the British Council, I go back to the end of my long transit to England. I first had a month in London, staying with my cousin Clara in Wallington, with a few days at the Gooneratnes, Tilak being our High Commissioner then, and also a night with Vernon and Rohini Aluwihare. But I also had many days simply unwinding at Clara’s, delighted to be with her children Rohan and Manoji and Amal, the first two being around my age and great friends before the family emigrated to England in the late sixties.

There is a fair description of those days in letters home, which have been published in A City of Aquatint, the bulk of which is my letters from Oxford. And what happened in Oxford is also in those letters, though it is not a systematic account because not all letters have survived, and I deal with what was of immediate interest when I wrote. So this series will be not about Oxford but rather my travels from there in student days.

My first journey within England was meant to be to Cornwall at the beginning of my first Christmas vacation for I had long wanted to see a part of England that seemed from my reading to be a place of great romance. But before that I had a few days elsewhere, with which tomorrow I will embark on those long ago journeys.

The pictures are from yesterday and today, the main quadrangle followed by the Goodhart Building, no longer red brick as it was, with the window of my old room third from the left on the top. Then there is dawn today over the main quadrangle, taken from my window which is at the corner on the left of the right hand side wall, followed by the Fellows Garden just now, with for some reason a marquee next to the old mulberry tree.

Rajiva Wijesinha


September 2021
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