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I describe here active involvement in Oxford Union politics after a long time, when a group of us managed to promote the election of Daniel Moylan, now Lord Moylan, as President even though the previous term he had almost unprecedentedly been defeated when as Secretary he had stood for the post of Librarian.

And I go on then to describe a most sentimental summer, including what I think of as the last grand appearance of the Mauds at a Univ occasion.

The pictures are of Daniel as President, when Richard Nixon visited. Marie Louise can be seen behind his shoulder, and in the next picture with me.

A wonderful summer

In the summer of 1978 we had the second OCFAS Film Festival, which involved a launch in London sponsored by Martini, which was fun. I had also been involved that term in trying to get Daniel Moylan elected President of the Union. He was a good friend, immensely clever, but insufferable when he was successful. The previous term, having been Secretary, he had been defeated for the post of Librarian by an ordinary member of Standing Committee, something that almost never happened.

But we thought we would try to have him elected as an Ex-Secretary, and astonishingly he won. One ploy we used was a film I showed when I spoke that term, after many years, John Harrison who was President having given me a speech at the funny Eights Week debate. We had made the film in the garden at Norham Gardens, and it also promoted Marie Louise Rossi, who was elected Treasurer at the end of that term, when Chanaka was elected Secretary. Philip May who was Secretary that term was elected Librarian. 

I went punting that summer for the first time in ages, and even took along my sister-in-law Chitra, thinking I had to do what I could to help her experience Oxford properly. Being cooped up in the Churchill Hospital did not seem to me life, but she and my brother seemed happy enough.

That was a very sentimental summer, with lots of old friends coming to stay for Eights Week, and the former Master and his wife Lady Redcliffe Maud performing a grand walkabout on the Saturday at the River, perhaps conscious that this would be the last batch of undergraduates who would have known him as Master. He had gone at the end of Trinity Term 1976 and been replaced by Lord Goodman, which led other dons I knew to say that Univ had been quite blatant about electing someone with no connection with the University simply because he could raise money. And I also recall Sir Kenneth Dover, who had arrived as President of Corpus the same term I moved there, wondering at his drinks party for new graduates how Lord Goodman would manage. He himself had come from St. Andrew’s University where he had been Professor of Greek, but said it as someone born to have become an Oxford Head of House. But Goodman had done well, relying a lot on David who saw him settled before moving on himself, ensuring he entertained if not quite as much as the Mauds and sometimes having to stand in as host when Goodman was held up in London where he continued with his law practice.

This post describes tragedies, including the third blow my cousin Clara suffered, when her older son Rohan died, following on the deaths of her husband in 1973 and her daughter Manoji in 1975. And at the same time someone else who had been incredibly good to me when I first got to England, Pam Gooneratne, also died.

But I go on then to describe a lovely visit to Angus Wilson, when he also had Stephen Spender for lunch, and told me a tale that was later confirmed in Bill McAlpine’s garden in Colombo.

The pictures are related to that happy occasion, of Angus and Tony at Felsham Woodside, of Stephen Spender in his youth and then with his wife, of the garden at Felsham Woodside and then of Bill McAlpine.

A double tragedy

But in the Trinity Term of 1978, tragedy struck. In May Clara’s older son Rohan died, and soon afterwards Pam Gooneratne, both assumed to have been suicides. They had both in their different ways been very good to me when I arrived in England, and we had remained close, so I was deeply upset. The two deaths happened just before my birthday which was a melancholy occasion. Sanjiva and Chitra, who had arrived by now, were expecting a celebration though, so I took them to see ‘Iolanthe’, having been every year since my first to see the summer show the Oxford Gilbert and Sullivan Society put on. Two days later I avoided the Keats dinner, and listened to Beethoven alone in Norham Gardens.

From June onward however I had a great time before I left Oxford, for what I thought would be the last time four months later. It began with a couple of nights at Angus Wilson’s house in East Anglia, Felsham Woodside. Having had a good time in Sri Lanka, and enjoyed meeting those to whom I had provided introductions, he was determined to host me. And while this by itself would have been wonderful, he thought I needed entertainment so he had Stephen Spender and his wife for lunch. He had been at Univ, but I had not met him before, though I did manage to see his Oxford contemporary and literary chum W H Auden when he came back to Oxford to hold court for students before he died.

I got to the house in Suffolk on Thursday June 1st, and had a lovely evening with Angus and Tony in that very sylvan setting, listening for nightingales at night. And next day Spender and his wife arrived, he shambling and shy even, she a very definite personality. Both held forth, which Angus clearly wanted them to do for me, and it was great fun listening though they also encourage me to talk. And after they left Angus  spiced things up by telling me that the real love of Spender’s life, after all the boys in Berlin before the war, had been a Japanese he had met on a British Council tour after the war. 

Oddly enough the story was confirmed to me a few years later, back in Colombo, when I was having dinner with the former British Council Rep Bill McAlpine, who had served in Tokyo. Over drinks in his beautiful garden he told me of Spender’s intense affair with a young Japanese there, to whom he had introduced him.

Early in 1978,, in the Hilary Term, my brother arrived in Oxford, my father having had his way as usual. He had, seeing my face when he initially broached the subject, asked me whether I really did not want him at Oxford, and I could not disappoint him, so I said no but asked that he go to another College. He duly applied to Christ Church but when he was turned down my father asked me in desperation to get him into Univ, and the College immediately obliged. And I managed to be very kind, even very virtuously giving him the heavy coat I had bought five years earlier when I went to Twickenham with Tony Firth and he expressed horror when he saw I only had a light jacket.

My brother had got a Commonwealth Scholarship, which infuriated the professional associations, and their anger was exacerbated when his wife did not do her compulsory service and instead joined him in England. Worse, he and his wife were curt with my mother who had tried to stop this, and her letters to me were increasingly plaintive and she was almost in tears when I met her that summer. That confirmed my decision to go back at the end of the academic year.

Though I avoided going into town much, Gillian Peele had now become a Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall next door practically, and I saw lots of her, including with Leslie with whom we would play bridge if we could find a fourth. The Vile Bodies and the Keats Society provided for wider gatherings, but I also spent more time relaxing from work at screenings of old films and listening to opera with Bruce who had a wonderful collection. Visits to the opera and the theatre did continue, as also to see friends in London, and I also kept my oar in at the Union, largely to help Chanaka Amaratunga who got onto Standing Committee at the end of his second term, a very unusual achievement.

Meanwhile the College was changing for, following Tony’s departure, David Burgess got a post as a Canon at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, a plum job, while the Tutor for Admissions, John Alberry, took up a Chair in Chemistry in London. I helped David move to the lovely flat he was given in Windsor Castle, and was invited to the installation, and then stayed with him and Kate, now proud parents, a couple of times this year and the next.

In Oxford one gets an MA automatically a few years after one graduates. I took mine on the first degree date I was eligible, in April, and since I was the only person from Univ taking a degree that day was given the most lavish lunch by George Cawkwell who was Dean of Degrees. He asked Leslie too, and we spent so much time reminiscing that George and I had to dash down to the Sheldonian Theatre to be in time for the ceremony.

The pictures are of the five dons who made Univ what it was in the seventies, Mitchell and Cawkwell and Burgess and Firth and Albery, and then of my other great friend in a Senior Common Room, Gillian, but on the excursion to Calais.

This post ends with a description of the Michaelmas vacation, when for the first time, and the last for several decades, I cooked Christmas lunch, for a lovely collection of friends including Sandra Barwick and Indrajith Coomaraswamy. And the year ended with a party on the roof of the Ministry of Defence.

The pictures are of Sandra in the seventies and then last month in Oxford, of the 1996 society Pope in a mitre in the Radcliffe Quadrangle in 1973, of Lady Maud down on the river, and of John Oughton in 1974 in Calais, standing on the extreme right.

A very different Christmas

When they were over for my degree, my cousin Shan and her husband David stayed in the flat, in my room, with their two little children, while I moved in with Bruce. David and Shan were most entertained by the party I gave there after the ceremony, and also their younger daughter Anjulie who sat on top of our big table and observed everything, though her elder sister Sara stayed firmly in their bedroom. 

Before they came to me I had gone to Cambridge to stay with them for a weekend. The Pope of the very eccentric 1996 Society I had been invited to in my first year was now Chaplain at Emmanuel College, which David and Hugh had been at, and they kindly had him to dinner while I was there, and of course I saw a good deal of Adrian.

During the Christmas vacation Bruce and I had a mulled wine party for those who stayed on a bit. We invited Lady Maud for this, the wife of the Master of Univ during my time there. I still remember Ian leaning through the bay window as we waited for the guests who were as usual late. He commented that only a tramp seemed to be coming up the road, and then exclaimed that the clothes were too shabby for a tramp, it had to be Lady Maud. And so it was. She mixed as energetically as when she was Mistress, urging everyone to circulate, and I was very pleased that I was able in a tiny way to repay some of her overwhelming hospitality.

Over the Christmas vacation, after our reading party in Cornwall, I had the flat to myself and had Indrajith and Tara Coomaraswamy over to stay, as well as my good friend Sandra Barwick, whom I continued to adore though she had sensibly ignored my suggestion that she marry me. Indrajith was the cousin of Gajan Pathmanathan, who was now in his final year, and he too joined us for Christmas lunch which I cooked, to general acclamation, mixed with astonishment which I thought rude. That year George had gone away, after five years over which he had had me for Christmas dinner.

But I abandoned them the next day for Boxing Day with Leslie, and then after they left I went for New Year’s Eve to the Ministry of Defence where John Oughton, who had come with us to Calais, was now a Resident Clerk. Four of them had a wonderful large flat on the top floor, with a wonderful view over London, in exchange for being on duty in turn every night. Fortunately no crisis occurred on the 31st when all the clerks and their guests were not at all sober.

After my stay at David’s I went to Sicily with Richard Weatherill, and then on getting back to Oxford, with a few days in a Corpus Guestroom, I moved to the flat in Norham Gardens I had been lucky enough to get the lease of earlier in the summer. When I answered an advertisement, I was told it had been let for the summer, but I said I only wanted it in October and to my joy the owners, a Dental Practice that had the Ground Floor and the Basement, agreed. It was managed by the Secretary to the practice, a lovely lady called Mrs Dent, who became a great friend, as did the nurses. I was thrilled when, as I was finally leaving, one of them sent me a note to say we were the nicest tenants they could possibly have had.

The pictures are of Bruce and me at Norham Gardens, and then of Shan, as a baby with her mother Seelia, at her wedding, with her family and then a recent one. Oddly enough she figures too on my facebook page today.

The House in Norham Gardens

Living in Norham Gardens was a joy. A couple of months after we moved in, Penelope Lively published a book called ‘The House in Norham Gardens’ which I gave Bruce for a Christmas present, trumping him since he had intended to do the same for me. It has in it the splendid line ‘By the time they have moved into Norham Gardens they have toppled over the edge into madness’. This was a reference to the wonderfully dotty architecture of North Oxford, but we had no doubt it applied to people too.

Soon after we moved into the flat there we set the tone for what would happen over the next two years by having the most enormous party. It was for Bruce’s 21st, and we piled in about 80 people in two rooms and the landing, with all the beds and chests of drawers stored in my room. A carton of cream collapsed on the floor just before we were due to start, to the horror of the caterers. And after it ended, just as I had sat down with a large glass of brandy and a book, 20 people returned with fireworks they insisted on setting off. But all six people who stayed the night helped clean up so there were no traces of damage for the dentists to see, except I fear a bit of broken glass.

After that party, and a trip to Stratford for ‘As you like it’, I settled down to intensive work, turning down all invitations and resigning from the Piers Gaveston Society. Anila took her degree at the end of October, and then left for America, and I took mine in November, with my cousin Shan Radcliffe and her family in attendance.

She was the daughter of Seelia Wicremesinghe, who had taught me French when I was a boy, and had followed her father Hugh to Cambridge. She married David Radcliffe whom she met there, and they lived and worked abroad after that, being now in Canada. But David had got a fellowship for a year back in Cambridge and I was delighted to have them over.

Oxford had proved a joy for me at Corpus, my second College too. And it continued thus over the summer, which I spent there until well into August. I did have three breaks over the summer, going to Germany and to France and to Sicily, but they were only for a week or two at most. Again it was a summer of much sunshine, and I spent much of it reading in the Fellows Garden. Many friends were still around in July and there was no pressure to work for exams were over, so I was delighted when people dropped in. The Corpus Middle Common Room had a wine cupboard from which one could help oneself, and my bill mounted, but with my Studentship renewed I did not worry at all.

The incident I remember most vividly is Alistair Harrison marching in one morning, announcing triumphantly that ‘The Mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small’. As a solid supporter of Vivien Dinham who had lost the Oxford Presidency to Benazir Bhutto the previous Michaelmas, this was how he thought of the coup in Pakistan. I should note that his anger against Benazir was fuelled about the fact that, having been furious when Vivien defeated her for the position of Treasurer that she had been expected to win, the conspiracy to strip Vivien of the Presidency she went on to win the following year was hatched in her rooms, the three defeated candidates getting together to set up a prejudiced tribunal.

I think Vivien remains the only person elected President of the Union who never served in the position. And she too suffered, collapsing into lethargy. It is easy to say it was her own fault not to pull herself together, and it was perhaps unfortunate that she had enough money to survive. But the manner in which she was treated was appalling and, though Benazir was not primarily responsible, I can understand Alistair’s fury in those days of undergraduate passions.

In August I moved from Corpus to spend a week in the flat David Burgess and his wife Kate had near the vast residential complex the College had built in Staverton Road, to which my contemporaries had moved in our third year. David had agreed, after Tony Firth left, to run a Reading Party at the Chalet, though his was a more sybaritic affair than Tony’s, with excellent food. He asked Ian Kramer, who had a wonderful time, and actually did some walking.

I was no longer at Univ, but I suspect that was not the only reason I was not asked, for this was very much an undergraduate party on which David set his mark, though sadly he did not repeat the exercise for at the end of this academic year he too left us. Instead I had a delightful time in his flat, where he had told me I could have guests too. I recall someone staying over, though who it was I cannot remember, and Kate told me later that their neighbours, the Staceys, said I seemed to have had a very jolly time indeed.  

The pictures are of Corpus Garden and of Alistair when he saw me while I was there last month, and of Kate Burgess. But before that last is the 1975 Oxford Union Standing Committee picture, when Vivien was Treasurer, seated second from right, while Benazir, a member only of the Committee, stands behind Ted Heath.

This post deals with the summer of 1977, which involved much hard work for both my sister and me, but also some delightful social occasions. The party I gave for my mother at Univ was a triumph, and I had lunch afterwards with Angus Wilson with whom and his friend Tony Garret I was now good friends.

The pictures are of Angus and Adrian.

Activity in a term of examinations

We both had to work hard the following term but had a delightful few days when our mother came to stay, I presume before her World Committee meeting. We hosted a party for her in one of Univ’s pretty function rooms, Bostar Hall, served by John and Ethel May, long-serving scouts. He had started work at Univ as a boy, and when women were taken on she had been allotted No. XI staircase where I lived in my second year while John did the other three staircases in the Radcliffe Quadrangle. It was Mrs May I asked to give me coffee in bed, by filling hot water in the cup I would leave out in the sitting room. My friends were most jealous of this privilege, which got better next year for Mrs. Roberts, my scout in my Main Quadrangle rooms, thought the powdered mill I added in unpalatable and provided me with milk from her own carton.

The party went very well, fuelled by the patties Anila and my mother made. George and David and their wives came, as did Leslie, and also Angus Wilson, still planning his trip to Sri Lanka. He had been keen to host me and took me to lunch after the party to the Elizabeth, Oxford’s poshest restaurant at the time.

He came with his partner Tony Garrett, which I was very pleased about, and he seemed to enjoy the occasion, though Kate Burgess told me she had blundered by asking him what he did. Many years later, after Angus had died, I invited Tony to my 50th birthday party in Oxford, hosted by the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Frances Lannon, who was a great friend of Gillian Peele and by then of mine too. Tony drove all the way to the party, staying overnight at the Old Parsonage nearby. He had come early and got on very well with Frances and, though he left early, she arranged for him to come up later so she could show him more of the College. I was very pleased by that, for he and Angus had been wonderful to me.

After the exams were all done I went to Cambridge for the weekend, to stay again with Adrian. I wrote that that stay ‘passed in a haze of compensatory gin, interspersed with lunch with extremely traditionalist clergymen, and totally dotty Jubilee Communion services (‘God save the Queen’, most unChristian of hymns, being belted out by an excessively patriotic congregation), and also a party which, uncharacteristically, I crashed and spent telling the wife of the master of Emmanuel (a Swede called Lady Sutherland) how much better than Cambridge Oxford was.’

This post has much about a very active social life in this my 6th year, the highlight being the Oxford and Cambridge Arts Society (OCFAS) Film Festival, the brainchild of Phillip Bergson. I note too a new society that was set up, the Piers Gaveston, which was not for dining but rather for extravagant parties.

The pictures are of the Shakespeare, the Wreckers and the first Gaveston party, in Oriel College.

A plethora of public events

The Film Festival the following term was a triumph. Far from losing money as we had anticipated we made nearly 500 pounds. Phillip had got lots of donations, and by the end of the week, as I wrote home, ‘champagne was running from our eyes, and celluloid through our brains’.  Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave, whom I had remembered as stunning from ‘Camelot’ in my childhood, turned up and though no one else very famous came we had lots of celebratory parties. The six of us that made up the Directorate grew very self-indulgent towards the end and would sit in the balcony consuming the remains of the parties.

Despite this my work went well, and also in the following term though there was even more social activity since I was trying, as I put it, ‘to imbibe the air of an Oxford summer (properly after three years due to Standlake and finals over the last two).’ It was in the Hilary Term that we set up the Piers Gaveston Society, though I suspect the very extravagant group that had thought it up only asked me to be a member because they wanted someone with the required terms of residence in Oxford to be its Senior Member.

The Vile Bodies of course continued, as did the Keats Society, though I no longer had the Univ Dining Clubs I had belonged to, the Delusionists and the Shakespeare, and the idiosyncratic Peacocks which Tony had briefly revived. The 1996 Society of my first year at Univ had gone long ago and the Rectory Road Wreckers, as Peter’s little gatherings were termed, also died away when he was sent down that year. This seemed the fate of the eccentric men from Trinity we had known, the first being Philip Green who came to Calais for lunch in a silk dressing gown. Peter did however stay on in Oxford and continued very hospitable with his friend Peter Hodson in the rooms they had above the Taj Mahal Restaurant in the Turl, and continued with the Keats Society though his panache and appeal were gradually fading.

At the  end of the Hilary Term Anila and I went down for a couple of days to the new house Clara had moved into, at Carshalton Beaches, near to Wallington but upmarket, the place where Richard of my first year came from. And then Anila and I went to Spain, for a wonderful holiday though we had the usual arguments. She won the one about places to stay when we were on our own, which was just as well for we had delightful hotels in the end in both Cordova and Granada.

I look here at the entertaining my sister and I did together, and then the hospitality I received over the Christmas vacation. The pictures are of the Corpus houses in Magpie Lane and then the Wood house in Charlbury Road, with another of Leslie and Susan Wood when she too was in his retirement home. Then there is Tony Firth plus the Margery Fry House and George Cawkwell seated next to a portrait of him by Daphne Todd.


Anila and I also had people for dinner occasionally at the Margery Fry Graduate block she had a room in, for it had a kitchen and dining room that could be used for the purpose, and my old tutor George Cawkwell took her in to dinner on High Table. Leslie, whom I had asked first, and still talks about the parsnip curry I created, reciprocated by having me instead of her, but I suspect George was the better host for such an experience.

She was away for a traditional Christmas with Jenny Ward, the daughter of the former Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo, who was also at Somerville. It made sense for her to have a family Christmas, while I stayed on as usual at Oxford. But of course things were changing and I had to say goodbye to Tony Firth, who had been such a good friend in term and out, for he was going off to be Deputy Head of Goldsmiths College in London. We had a last drink together in the Eastgate Hotel near College, where we had often had a drink or dinner together in the past. I did see him later on, for the opera and then in the flat he had in London which was decorated with multiple copies of the Warhol picture of Andy Warhol. He said rather apologetically that they were his flatmate’s, and I realized that leaving Oxford was an effort at liberation, though in fact it did not work out and he took early retirement after he had taken to drinking too much.

I had to move out of my rooms in College over the actual Christmas period, just as in Univ I had to move into a centrally heated section from my old quadrangle rooms, for the water was shut off. But I loved too the room high up in Magpie Lane they gave me, which had a great view of the Oxford skyline. I was practically solitary there for three days, but on Christmas day I went to the Cathedral with Leslie and had dinner with George as usual, and the next day I had dinner with Charles and his family at their house in Charlbury Road. And that year it snowed considerably, so I much enjoyed my last walk round with Leslie round the meadows, on the 29th before I left for Paris.

I got back to England on January 8th, to stay with friends for a party. Though I had   turned down other parties over the vacation I thought it was time to see my contemporaries again. I went that day to the house in Avenue Road I had stayed in with the Gooneratnes as a courtesy call on Vernon Mendis and his wife, and then thoroughly enjoyed the party which, as I wrote ‘trailed off into extraordinary bridge and people dropping off in the sitting room and vanishing at intervals in the early morning (so I was told – I had the sofa and a most comfortable night)’. The next day I went to lunch with Aruna Gooneratne at the small flat Tilak had got for her and her mother when he moved to Brussels, and then headed back to Oxford.

After ten posts about travels in Sri Lanka when I worked for the British Council, I go back a decade to look again at my time in Oxford. Here I move to my time at Corpus Christi College, to which I moved in September 1978 as E K Chambers Student. My sister joined me in Oxford this year, as I have noted previously, and I begin here with a party on the balcony outside my room at the very top of the Corpus Fellows Building.

A resumption of social life

Her first social event was a party I had when I took my degree, which I had postponed doing till someone in the family was around. Oxford does not have one massive ceremony but rather several scattered through the year, and one can choose when to go. Mine was the first of this academic year, and I invited friends back to my balcony afterwards, and also the students who lived along my corridor plus the don in the set at the corner. They were all freshmen and I remember one getting drunk and telling me he thought it was wonderful to be at Oxford and get drunk with the much older and more sophisticated friends I had invited. Anila meanwhile decided she disliked the don, James Howard Johnston, because he had assumed that she was doing another first degree, as many Americans did, since they were not deemed upto graduate work at Oxford.

I had looked forward to her arrival and in general we had a good time together. Far otherwise was it with my brother, whom my father wanted to send to Oxford the following year. His results had not been as good as hers or mine, and I thought it unlikely that he would be accepted for graduate work without personal inputs. However my father was determined and though, as my mother later put it, it caused enormous problems for all of us, my father to the end of his days rejoiced in the fact that all his three children had been to Oxford. And to give him his due he was also generous with others, having financed Gajan Pathmanathan to come to Univ in 1974 and this year sponsoring Chanaka Amaratunga to apply to Univ. I had no qualms recommending him for, from the little I knew of him, he was certainly intellectually outstanding, and he duly came up in 1977.

Being in a College meant more socializing than in the previous year, but I still managed to work to schedule. My largest undertaking that year was the Film Festival organized by the Oxford and Cambridge Festival Arts Society, which was set up by a good friend called Phillip Bergson and consisted only of himself and five others, Ian and Bruce and me and Peter Hayden of Trinity along with his boyfriend.

Phillip did all the work really but I helped him when I was in Paris and Amsterdam over Christmas and also to arrange the OCFAS party in the Examination Schools, the first occasion on which it was given for a private event, and I think the last,  understandably for one of the guests was sick. There had been far too much drink, and too little food, mainly if I recollect aright patties that Anila made which went down very well and finished in a flash.

The pictures are of that outer corridor at the top of the Fellows Building at Corpus, a picture I took on my recent visit, as I did the next of the main quadrangle. The others are not mine, of Phillip Bergson and the old ABC Cinema in George Street where we had our Film Festival, and then the Examination Schools.

Rajiva Wijesinha


November 2021
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