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It was a very different world to which I returned in the middle of 1990 after my round the world trip on the university ship and visits before and after to Peru and Mexico, and then a long stay in Thailand with Robert Scoble during which I went up to Chiang Mai and also visited Bangladesh.

The British Council had changed, not only because the new Representative Neil Kemp was very different from Rex Baker, a blustering sort who upset a lot of people, including all my friends at the Council such as David Woolget and Jamie Drury; but also because he was so ghastly that the Deputy Representative Clive Taylor had resigned.

There were lots of reasons for this, including a desire to move on to new things since it was clear his career in the Council would not take him further and also that the Council itself had changed. But I have no doubt that, had Neil been easier to work with, Clive would have stayed on.

Meanwhile though the blight that had hit the Ministry of Education in the form of the new Minister, Lokubandara, had been lifted, he had wrought havoc before he left and the reaction of the Council had made things worse in that Neil’s blustering set the government against us.

A new world

I was back in Colombo on July 1st 1990. Politically, Premadasa had reshuffled his cabinet, and thankfully got rid of Lokubandara from the Ministry of Education. He had appointed Lalith Athulathmudali instead, and also given him Higher Education, so it seemed there would be scope for sensible developments.

But the Lokubandara influence had not died, and just before I got back the Ministry had decided to downgrade the Higher Institute of English Education. The Council had held a press conference to protest about this, which did not go down well, and it was clear that it had lost the influence it had exercised with regard to English Education while E L Wijemanne was Secretary and D A Perera headed the National Institute of Education.

Worse for me was that Clive Taylor had resigned from his post of Deputy Representative at the Council. This may have been because of fallout from the problem with the Ministry, given that his approach was very different from that of the new Representative, Neil Kemp, and he may have disapproved of the latter’s blunderbuss approach. But in any case he found Kemp very difficult, for he did not cease to rub in the fact that he was considered a whiz kid and Clive, a much older man, could not manifest the cutting edge approach he thought he personified.

The best commentary on that is the fact that whereas we had multiple projects in English and Education under Rex Baker, by the time Neil left we had far fewer, and in time they trickled to practically nothing. And while Lokubandara’s approach may have contributed, and the departure of so many able Sri Lankans, Neil and Clive’s replacement as Deputy Gail Liesching, and his own successor Richard Jarvis, were tactless and blustering and destroyed the good relations we had had.

I describe here the last days of 1989, when we were all saddened because Rex Baker, who had done so much for both Sri Lanka and the British Council, was going to leave us after well over five years as Representative.

In addition to pictures of the Bakers, I have here a picture of Glen Perera, the only one sadly that I have, which she had given me of herself and my uncle Lakshman at university in the forties.

Rex Baker’s last days

The next few days were hectic, with Asset and EWC meetings for arrangements in my absence on the Wednesday and dinner that night with Nirmali and Janaki to talk about the next steps on the GLT Project. The HIEE Conference opened on Thursday December 14th and I had to chair a session that day and also go to the printer to finalize Channels proofs while taking delivery of Chitra Fernando’s A Garland of Stories which we had brought out in our Readers series.

That evening was the Conference party and then I had dinner at Sharya’s in honour of Prof Honore of All Souls whom she had worked with, whose son I had known. I had also had a wedding that day and had another next day, when I delivered my paper at the Conference and we then launched Kamala’s Channels at the Deva Suriya Sena Centre. That evening Shanthi had a dinner for Ena, and next day the Kandy Drama Club presented their version of ‘Everyman’ in our Hall after which Samantha who had worked for the Liberal Party gave a farewell dinner.

My nephew Ravi, who had been born in June, was christened the next day, with me as a godfather, and that evening one of the KELTs, Richard Webber, had a Christmas party. The next day I had lunch with Rex for the last time in the house where he had been so kind and hospitable to me over six long and satisfying years.

Then I had to speak at the YMCA that night and had David for drinks at home. There was a handover meeting next day, and in the evening Rex put on his final Christmas performance in the hall, after which I had to go home for my grandmother’s birthday party.

Then the next day I was told that Glen Perera had died. I had not seen as much of her in the last few years as in the first part of the decade, but I revered her as a good friend who had stood by me staunchly in difficult days. I went to condole that day, for I could not get to the funeral next day as the next morning I left for my flight to Bangkok.

But I was offloaded. It seemed best though, having said all my farewells, not to try to arrange to get back home and again to the airport next day, so I accepted the airline offer to put me up at the Airport Garden Hotel. I had a melancholy day there, relieved by the Hoopers from the Maldives also being there so we had lunch and dinner together.

And then next day I went, via Singapore, to Bangkok, where I had Christmas with Robert on a boat on the River Kwai. It was over six months later that I got back home, to a very different world, and not only at the British Council.

This post describes my last days together with Richard, when I realized how worrying his situation was following the revelation that the security forces had him in their sights.

I trace here the history of his involvement with the Royal College scholarship students he brought to our drama workshops, which led to greater involvement with the JVP. By December we knew that at least one of those students had been killed, and those who knew what was going on understood that the threat to Richard was very real, and immediate.

The pictures are of Madura then and of Prasanna Liyanage now, a distinguished architect and designer.

A growing threat

But amongst the audience at Richard’s Browning performance was a strange man who obviously had no idea what was going on, and a couple of hours after Richard had left he called to say the funny man had followed him to the Wendt and he was a bit nervous so could he come to Lakmahal for the night.

I had worried about him ever since Madura had been arrested. Some months earlier, Richard had asked if one of his proteges amongst the Royalists, Prasanna Liyanage, could be taken on as a CAT. That had worked well, and then I asked Richard, having been so impressed by Madura’s performance the ‘Twice Told Tales’, whether he would like to replace him. After a couple of days Richard told me that Madura had thought about it, but decided against because he felt he would then be cut away from his roots.

Madura was by then deeply involved with the JVP, as was another of the stars of the ‘Tales’, Nishanatha Dahanayake, whose brother had been the friend Richard had wanted me to meet when he turned 30 in March 1988. Another Thomian who had taught alongside Richard at S. Thomas’, Gamini Guneratne, told me when Madura was arrested to advise Richard to be careful. He had stopped reading the news now for Rupavahini, which was in line with the JVP call to boycott government media, but I was startled when I was told that Ravi John felt Richard was pressurizing him too to give the practice up.

Then I was told that Madura had been released, but picked up immediately which was supposed to be what happened when the authorities wanted no records. He was not seen again. So I could understand Richard’s worry and was happy he came home. That was when he indicated that he too had got involved in JVP work, for he believed the country needed radical change.

He spent the next night too at home, when K G joined us, though nothing was said overtly about Richard’s involvement. And then he came back again when he felt worried, and I urged him to go abroad for I was going away myself the following week, to teach a full semester on the SS Universe. Since he was due to leave for India before I left, I said he might as well stay away. He was supposed to be taking up a job in Lisbon, and there was no real reason for him to come back.

This post describes one of the last major tours we presented through the Council, an exciting performance of an adaptation of a Dickens novel, innovative but not quite in the league of the Cheek-by-Jowl ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which I look upon as the height of large scale theatre as Geraldine McEwan was of small shows during my eight years at the Council. 

But I describe too the last performance in our Hall of Richard, who had so ably taken up the challenge of literary performances, this a reading of Browning, which was as dramatic as his fantastic one-man shows of Dickens and Kipling following Geraldine’s Jane Austen.

The pictures are of Richard and Regi and Lakshami (who had also been at Richard’s first reading for me at the Council way back in 1984, seen here with her great friend Yasmine Gooneratne), and then artist’s portraits of Browning and Dickens and Kipling whom Richard brought to life so magnificiently.

Oddly enough I wrote about Richard yesterday on my Facebook page, about his many performances for me.

The Traverse and Richard’s last performance

Then on the Saturday the Traverse Theatre Company arrived, with its adaptation of Great Expectations. Ranmali and I gave them dinner that night at the Airport Garden Hotel, and the next day we gave them a day at the beach at the Tangerine Hotel, taking along David as well as some of the youngsters we worked with. Then the next day we took them to Kandy for a workshop and a party Rex gave, while the set was arranged at the Public Library.

I took the company to the Gardens and a couple of temples the next day while the set was finalized, and they performed that night, returning to Colombo the next day via the Elephant Orphanage. There was a press conference that day and a workshop, and they performed on the next two nights. On the 29th I had to appear before the Youth Commission Premadasa had set up to report on the reasons for the insurgency.

The next day Clive hosted the Traverse for lunch and in the afternoon I rehearsed Richard in the Browning readings we had planned for the centenary of his death the following week. I still remember the enormous fun we had rehearsing, working alone after many years, hamming things up, thinking of people we knew who resembled the splendid characters Browning created. Bishop Blougram I recall he got just right after I had suggested he was like Suresh Thambipillai, who had been a stalwart of Thomian drama in Richard’s youth.

That evening I had the Bakers for dinner, for he would be leaving in the New Year, along with Nirmali and David and a few others including Valerie Young. Then the next day there was another Traverse workshop and another performance that evening and next morning I took them to the airport. And that evening, a day before the actual centenary, Reggie Siriwardene spoke on Browning and Richard read brilliantly, a range of writing including ‘How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix’ and ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’.

There were not many people in the hall, but our few old friends who came were deeply appreciative, including Lakshmi de Silva who told us it was one of the joys to be alive to have heard Richard bring Browning to life.

There was a transition of a very different sort later in 1989 when the leaders of the JVP were killed, which also made me being to understand Richard de Zoysa’s involvement with them. Meanwhile work in music and literature continued, and my acquaintance with our consultants developed, not just David Woolger whom I had known for years now but also Jamie and Dindy Drury, who headed our support to the newly established Higher Institute of English Education.

And I was delighted to have my old Oxford friend Robert Scoble in town agan. The pictures are of Robert at a Telecommunicationg conference with D B WIjetunge who was the Minister, so this must have been earlier, before he was made a Governor; and of me with Nigel several years earlier, before he became a distinguished lawyer.

Political transitions

I seem to have had only routine work over the next two weeks, going to Aluwihare on the latter Friday with visits to the Education office and three furniture workshops en route, and then another two the next day when I went to Kandy for a classical lecture. On the Sunday I wrote up my paper for a conference Jamie was organizing through the HIEE and on the Monday, when I stayed on for more writing, we heard the news of the death of Rohana Wijeweera, head of the JVP. On the Tuesday, when I went back to Colombo, for the farewell party of Dieter Holtcaempf who had worked closely with us as head of the FNS in Colombo, we heard that Wijeweera’s deputy Upatissa Gamanayake, the brains it was held behind the recent violence, had also been killed.

The next day there was a Schubert concert at the Hilton and a party, so I assume it was arranged by us but I recall no further details, nor what the workshop performance was that I note on that Saturday. On the Monday I went to the Bolawalana Training College to talk on Macbeth, and then on the Thursday I went as I always did to Manorani’s for her birthday, to find Richard in sombre mood. I had realized that his association with the JVP was close, but how close I was only to find out the following month.

On Saturday November 25th we had a CLD seminar at the Intercontinental and Jamie had a dinner that night for David and some of the new teachers at the Council, including Gerald Yorwerth who was to stay on for the next thirty years. The next day we inaugurated the course arranged under the Cultural Triangle project, and that evening I saw Robert who was staying at the Hilton. The next day I had a dinner for him along with the Shands and a few others with Oxbridge connections, including Chanaka.

The next evening Rudi had a performance with a repeat the next day, followed by a cast party, but on the first evening I had also to go for dinner to Siran Deraniyagala’s for as Director General of Archaelogy and Gill’s patron for the project he hosted one of the experts we had brought down; and on the second I had to put Robert together with Nigel and Kaushi since he wanted Nigel’s advice on the land he had bought in Negombo.

I mention here the launch of the first volume of Channels which the English Writers Cooperative I had started managed to produce four times a year over the next couple of years. And work at the Council intensified, during these last days when Rex Baker was in charge, when he encouraged so many new initiatives. I was working in music and literature and ballet and now teacher education at a very sophisticated level. 

But it was also a period of transition, two people I associated with my uncle Lakshman dying. The pictures of them are not very good, but I was happy to find them. The others are Goolbai Gunasekara who did so much for us, in between them, and then the still remarkably active Kamala Wijeratne and the ebullient Ed Marks.


We finally formally launched Channels at the Council the following Monday, September 25th. John had a party next day for the representatives from ODA who were visiting, and the next day we had a lunch at the Oberoi for the assistant secretary in our unit who was leaving. That Saturday I went to the memorial service for Saro Knight, who had died prematurely of cancer, whom I remembered as a lovely host at the Chaplaincy in Peradeniya. That evening was yet another ballet performance, by the newest teacher, Khulsum the daughter of the distinguished educationist Goolbai Gunasekera who had written the history texts for the GELT project. And on the Sunday we had another CLD seminar, at the Oberoi.

The next Tuesday we had a writers workshop and a party for Martin Palmer who was back, though his Gilbert and Sullivan performance was the following Tuesday. Rex had him for drinks afterwards and the day before he had presented a Clarinet performance with dinner hosted afterwards by Olga de Livera, representative of the Royal College of Music.

The previous week we had begun on the second number of Channels, on which I had to do much work though formally the editor was Kamala Wijeratne. On the Friday we had a meeting with the TULF and the SLMC and the SLFP about the APC, and then next day we started the Asset Course at the Council. But that was also a sad day, for I went to the funeral of Fr Celestine Fernando, who had mentored my uncle Bishop Lakshman, and continued a socially conscious Christian to the end of his days, being a committed participant at the CLD seminars.

The Thursday following the Palmer performance the next week I did attend the APC meeting at the BMICH. On Sunday I had David Woolger for drinks and lunch, for I now found him perhaps the most congenial of companions, except for Richard who was however involved in so much else that I did not really know about.

The following week I went to Yala over an extended weekend, and the Tuesday I got back had dinner at Derrick’s with for some reason the CIDA personnel also being invited. Nirmali had lunch the next day for her GELT project and on the Friday Ed Marks had his farewell party. He was a delightful rascal and I was sorry to see him go, though many years later he was back on a brief visit, as ebullient as ever.

After ten posts about travel with Kithsiri in the nineties, I go back to earlier work, when I was still at the British Council. Towards the latter part of 1989 I started yet another exciting programme there, training that brought together youngsters who had done English for their Advanced Levels with teacher trainees from less sophisticated backgrounds. Many of our ASSETs as we called them went on to distinguished careers, in teaching and in other fields.

And the Liberals got heavily involved in the All Party Conference President Premadasa had summoned, now that the immediate threat from the JVP had passed.

The pictures are of Neville and David and Regi who taught, and four of the brightest of the first batch of ASSETs: Lalith and Sarath Ananda whom I subsequently took to the University of Sri Jayawardenepura where they went on to head, respectively, the English and the English Teaching Departments; and flanked by them Menaca Calyaneratne who has now an international position with Save the Children and Maxwell Keegel who is in our Foreign Service.

The ASSET course

I was back only on September 9th, to find that Chanaka was now heavily involved in the All Party Conference that Premadasa has summoned, to resolve constitutional issues which the 13th amendment introducing Provincial Councils had failed to do. On the Tuesday we had a meeting at the Cultural Triangle for the archaeology project which was to involve much work over the next few months, of great interest I should note.

On Wednesday we had the Council’s Director General in town, with a meeting in the Hall and lunch for him and then a party in the evening hosted by Clive and John Payne jointly. In between had been the opening of a Book Fair, which I think was ours for all the new publications, but I cannot be sure of that. It may have been for the National Library Services Board for I mention a book sale for them at the Council on the Saturday.

The following week we had interviews for yet another initiative I had proposed, a course for Advanced Secondary School English Teachers, some of the adjectives being included so that it could be called an ASSET course. This was designed to bring together those who had done Advanced Levels and would then be left hanging because of the delays in university admissions which had been exacerbated by recent strikes; and also serving English teachers who were not as familiar with the language as the Advanced Level students who had done English for the exam could be presumed to be. The hope was that the two groups would also learn from each other, language and teaching skills respectively, while also learning more about reading and analysing texts from us and also more about the world.

I had a wonderful set of teachers lined up, Regi Siriwardena for Literature, David Woolget for Reading Texts, Neville Kanakaratne for general awareness. And though we could only run the course for two batches, before the curtain came down on imaginative initiatives at the Council, those youngsters went on to have impressive careers, in the Foreign Ministry as well as in advanced English teaching.

I went to my first APC meeting that week, though I found the proceedings tedious and was content to leave this essentially to Chanaka. Maureen and Anne and I had a meeting about Channels, for we wanted to move quickly now on the next number. And on the Sunday Nirmali had a dinner for her GELT team, while on the previous day Mrinali, its livewire, had her own birthday party.

This post describes my first journey in 1994 when we went along with Dinali Fernando and Rapti de Silva who had agreed to work on project in Girandurukotte.

The pictures are of Dinali and Rapti and then St. Joseph’s Kegalle and Mrs Ratnayake, in retirement, and then Hindu College Trincomalee, schools that grew very familiar over the next few years.

New ventures

Next day, Monday December 6th, I dropped more books at the Matale and Peradeniya GELT Centres and addressed the Peace Corps, though where that was is not recorded. Then it was the Polgolla AUC, where the Wesley College Teacher Haig Karunaratne was visiting, perhaps to speak on using ballads in teaching English which he specialized in. I gave him a left to Colombo, but we dropped in on the way at the Katugastota Centre and both centres in Kandy, St. Sylvester’s and Hemamali, and then the Peradeniya and Gampola and Mawanella Centres. And we also visited the St. Joseph’s Centre in Kegalle where the Principal was Mrs. Ratnayake, a dedicated and capable educationist, whom I knew from having arranged a visit for her to England a few years earlier. I presume most of these visits were simply to drop books and check on work since there would not have been time to talk to students since I covered so many on this day.

I had one more night away on work that year, when I went to Rahangala with Nirmali, driven by Codipilly’s Sarath, and then on December 11th I flew to Bangkok for I was due to spend Christmas with my friend Robert Scoble in Kuala Lumpur. I got back to Colombo only late on the night of Wednesday January 12th and peregrination began the following week when Kithsiri took me on Monday the 17th to Aluwihare. We took with us the two youngsters who had agreed to work on a project the European Union was funding through the English Association, to teach English to the children of settlers in the areas opened up for cultivation through the Mahaweli Scheme.

These were Dinali Fernando, who had been a Cultural Affairs Trainee at the Council, and was not a colleague at USJP, and Rapti de Silva, the brightest of the students I had taught along with Richard for Advanced Levels after we had been sacked from S. Thomas’. She had then gone to America for her degree, but was now back in Sri Lanka, having come back to help with looking after her family. Since she was at a loose end, I snapped her up, and found her an indefatigable and conscientious worker.

We visied GELT Centres at Giriulla and Narammala and two in Kurunagala and Ibbagamuwa en route, and were warmly welcomed by Ena, whose hospitality overwhelmed the girls. Early next morning we went to the Trinco AUC for interviews and Examination and Study Board meetings and then had lunch with a Women’s Group at Elephant House, doubtless arranged by Siron. The Hindu College GELT was not in session when we dropped in after lunch, but I met the Coordinator at his house, and we then went to the Kantale Centre but could only speak to the Principal. I realized then that these distant Centres required more supervision, and also better training for the staff so they could cope with initially very low levels of English.

This describes one of the most exciting trips I did with Kithsiri, and that he should have stuck it so early in our time together is a mark of his dedication. Going to Mutur was not something many people would have done, in those days of grave LTTE threats, and the sound of gunfire that could be heard at night indicates how difficult things were. But the primitive conditions we experienced made clear how deprived the area was, and I was very glad I had gone, as Kithsiri was too.

I have no pictures of that long ago visit to Mutur, so this is of a later trip across Trincomalee Harbour when I had a full naval escort.

The Mutur adventure

Siron Rajaratnam was a very determined woman and told me on that evening in Trincomalee that she had arranged for me to conduct a seminar for teachers in Mutur, a very poor area which had to be reached by a ferry across Trincomalee Harbour. And since there was no way I could refuse her request that I go to Mutur, after she had explained how deprived the area was, next morning, after interviews at the AUC, we took the ferry. Siron came with me though she told me while we were on board that she could not swim and feared the journey. But she felt she could not let me go alone, and I still see her standing straight near the prow as we crossed the sea. Fortunately, though in those days Mutur was deemed a dangerous place since the LTTE operated from very near the town, Kithsiri too agreed to come with me.

Siron took me to the Divisional Secretary Mr Thangaraja whose quarters were primitive enough, but he had arranged a room for Kithsiri and me in an outhouse and I think he provided us with simple meals at night and in the mornings. After seeing us settled, Siron went back to Trincomalee while Thangaraja took me for a drive round town, and told me how near the LTTE was in the jungles around us. And Kithsiri told me he heard shooting in the night, though I had blissfully slept through it.

I conducted a seminar for a range of teachers including those on the GELT next day, with a class for GELT students in the morning and one for school students in the afternoon. Where we had these I have not recorded, though I have a dim memory of a very simple room. After the work I have recorded a visit to the public library and then it was back to the Divisional Secretary’s quarters, which seemed a very bleak place as dusk fell and we recalled the gunfire heard the previous night.

But there was nothing more that night, and next day I went to the Mahaweli School to check its hall, perhaps because Siron was determined to have another seminar. While we were there we heard shooting and took shelter with the Assistant Divisional Secretary before another seminar session. But then we got back to Trinco, picked up the car which had been left there,  dropped the DS at his home and then drove down to Nalanda where we spent the night at the Resthouse.

This account moves from a visit southward to our first trip together to Trincomalee. The pictures are of the walauwe at Getamanna, the first with Kithsiri though at a later date, along with Jinadasa who has served there for many years.

From South to North

After lunch at the old family house in Getamanna, I went to the Centres at Walasmulla and Weeraketiya and Tangalle and Ambalantota for brief meetings with students and to leave books. I realize now that the routine I fell into later, of having discussions with students at three Centres every day, was not appropriate now for what was important was to see as many Centres as possible, get books to them, and indicate that the Coordinators were deeply concerned about what was going on, which had not been the case previously.

In addition to those four Centres I also got to the one at Embilipitiya but it had closed by the time I got there. That night we stayed at a pleasant place called the Centaury Guest House which overlooked a reservoir. But exceptionally as to the places we stayed at, it provided driver’s quarters at no extra cost, so Kithsiri could not share the view and I therefore refrained from beer and worked solidly at the guide I was preparing to teaching the then secondary school textbook series, English Every Day.

Next morning  we left books at the Embilipitiya and Pelmadulla and Ratnapura Centres and had lunch at the Ratnapura Resthouse before getting to the Balangoda GELT to meet students. Then it was the Board of Study at Belihuloya after which we inaugurated a seminar for school students, which we ran over the next two days, getting back to Colombo on the Sunday afternoon.

On the following Tuesday, November 30th, after a talk on poetry at the National Institute of Education in the morning, and seeing the UGC Chairman along with Oranee, I set off up the coast with Kithsiri to the Wennappuwa and Marawila and Chilaw GELTs. At Puttalam which we also got to the GELT was on holiday, and the Resthouse was full, so we stayed instead at a place called the Ranketha Inn. I have not stayed at the Resthouse there, and though I think I have not missed much for it is a squat modern building, it would be nice to add it to my schedule.

Next morning we went to deliver books to the Puttalam Centre and those in  Anamaduwa and Nikaweratiya and Maho before going to the Anuradhapura AUC to talk to students and staff. I then visited the Anuradhapura and Vavuniya GELT Centres and then went to the Vavuniya AUC to meet the Coordinator. He had arranged for us to stay that night in the AUC Guesthouse, though it did not do meals so we had dinner at the Resthouse.

Next morning I spoke to the AUC students and then went to the Kekirawa and Hingurakgoda and Polonnaruwa GELTs in the afternoon to meet students and staff. Then it was on to the Trincomalee AUC which had its Board of Study late so I could make it, and I stayed again that night at Fr. Leo’s where Siron came to visit.

Rajiva Wijesinha


January 2022
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