A Time of Gifts – 29. Academic achievement at last

These letters are a microcosm of life at Oxford when academic work had to trump social life, though without allowing that too to lapse. They also refer to various themes that were to recur in my life, family relations as well as trying, whilst appreciating the efforts my father made on behalf of his children (and indeed anyone who appealed to him, for he was brilliant at focusing youngsters on useful education), to avoid any special treatment.


My sister did go to Cornell in the end, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Rutgers would not have suited, nor Carnegie Mellon which I told her sounded like a pretentious type of ice-cream. Though she disapproved of what she saw as Oxford snootiness, I think she too did better at a traditional university – and much enjoyed later working at Harvard for a couple of years after she got her doctorate.


The Film Festival was a triumph, due entirely to the genius of Phillip Bergson, who became a critic for various London papers later but never quite achieved the prominence he deserved.

14th March 1977

This letter has been long overdue, but there are good reasons – and I did get 2 off in 2 weeks last time. Since then there was the Film Festival – a hectic confused week, at the end of which champagne was running from our eyes, and celluloid through our brains.  It was, nevertheless, a great success – ie far from losing 1000 pounds as I’d thought, we made nearly 500. Franco Nero & Vanessa Redgrave arrived though no one else very famous, which didn’t inhibit celebratory parties – the Directorate grew very self- indulgent towards the end, and would sit in the balcony consuming the remains of the parties (alas, no one gave us any brandy) during the late night shows making blasé remarks about the old favourites on screen. I shall keep a programme for when you come.

Brandy would have been nice the next week, for I came down the day after the festival ended with the most appalling cold that came very near to flu. To make matters worse, I’d just got the 2 BPhil papers I have to do over the Vac. One was scheduled for completion by the end of term – and, despite the cold, and the lack of suitable questions (4000 words on George Eliots’ humour – she wasn’t at all funny) which necessitated a great deal of further research, I did finish, by dint of locking my door and not answering it, not leaving college (except to check on Festival Accounts, the cinema staff being as exhausted by the end as we were), not drinking and eating, if at all, only in college. The last paragraph was the hardest, as there were end of term events, including dinner for Anila & 2 friends as I’d promised, who came in trousers and jackets, to vie with the pseudo friends she insisted I asked as well. Poor Gaj, who had to dress them and bring them down to Corpus, was quite embarrassed but even agreed in the end to take them to Vincent’s. I nobly went and drank coke, and gave up the party they were going to, and finished my last 200 words. None too soon, because the next day, after alcoholic breakfast and tea parties, which obviated the need for lunch, we came down to Clara’s new house – a new area, near to Wallington though, a 2nd sitting room beautifully fitted on to the back of the house, lots of plate glass, and a large garden, with a railway cutting behind. A good move, I think. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 28. The family in Oxford

It was nice having my sister in Oxford, but I began to worry this year for my father seemed determined to send my brother there too, and it seemed to me that that would not be so easy. 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.


I was resident once more this year in a College, Corpus Christi, which was responsible for the E K Chambers Studentship which I had been awarded. It was for those who had read Classics to do further work in English, which I think meant I had little competition, but it was still prestigious enough to have this award.


Being in a College meant more socializing than in the previous year, but I still managed to work to schedule. One fairly large undertaking was the International Film Festival, which was almost entirely the work of Phillip Bergson, who became a film critic and is still active in the field. He set up something called the Oxford and Cambridge Festival Arts Society, and roped in several friends he hoped would help to put it socially on the map. But I was also asked to visit distributors in Paris, and was fascinated by the very small offices through which they functioned. This also allowed me to be on my own, though I did help my sister and our friend Saku Kadirgamar, as needed – and she still claims she much enjoyed that first experience of international travel

19th October 1976

I enclose the past papers as required – I believe these are the right ones, let me know if it’s not the lot Chanaka’s doing. I should think, given the PPE tutors at Univ, that General Paper III would be important. I’m not sure from your letter whether he’s already made his choice. If not, though, the type of thing he’s interested in is probably better than tutors’ preferences. Leslie said he’d do his best, but don’t be too optimistic as PPE’s quite hard to get in for.

Could you let me know at once whether any of my Byron stuff has been published by the society – notably the paper on ‘Don Juan’ Mum took back last April, which you typed and sent back?

Anila seems to have settled in very well, Margery Fry being a small and, hence, friendly place. She’s probably sent accounts of all her, and my, doings over the past few weeks, and I feel my own efforts would be slightly redundant – besides which I am trying to keep to a very tight schedule of work, hence my past silence. This doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to letters as eagerly as before – tell Mum it was the Chinese Restaurant I took her to, and Aachchi that Corpus is next to Merton and Christ Church, and looks over the meadows, so that my room has a splendid view. Ano’s probably told you already about my degree celebrations – and the Don next door she dislikes, who discovered incursions on the roof but was very understanding about the whole business.

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A Time of Gifts – 27. The Byron Conference in Greece

I have included here my long report on the Byron Conference, which I had attended at the behest of Seelia Wickremesinghe, the dynamic Secretary of the Sri Lankan Byron Society. It had been founded by Sir Arthur Ranasinghe, who had chosen Seelia as his principal support. She was the widow of a fellow Civil Servant, the brilliant scholar Hugh Wickremesinghe. He had died young, and Seelia had not only seen their two children through university, but had involved herself heavily in cultural activity. She was related to us and in fact had stayed with Aunt Esme, as she called my grandmother, when my grandfather was Government Agent in Anuradhapura and Hugh his assistant. Seelia’s father had been a Member of the Legislative Council for the area. Her daughter Shan, though she had married a fellow undergraduate at Cambridge, and now lives in Canada, still continues a close friend.


My report on the Byron Conference, the first international conference I attended, conveys I think the enthusiasm I have for such conferences since they bring people together, and also my doubts about their academic content or intellectual impact. I found both the style and the substance fascinating when I reread it after many years.


Corpus Christi College


8th September 1976

Hope this gets to you before you leave – I meant to write as I got back, but was too exhausted yesterday to do anything – even read Dickens. I moved in to a temporary room here where I shall be till the 21st – in London then till you arrive. Could you let me know soon how long you’ll be here for and where you plan to stay, or should I arrange something? I suggest we don’t come here till the 4th, as Corpus has a Gaudy over the weekend and requires rooms. I’m afraid they’ve allocated me a bed-sit – rather pleasantly situated but I’ll miss the expansiveness of a set. Must see what can be done.  I want to start entertaining again – do bring some duty–free – which means working in bed might be out for fear of untidiness!

The Byron Conference was enormous fun and I don’t think I appeared too reprehensible. I shall send a full report. I stopped in Belgrade on the way and stayed with Walter J. and had tea before with Elmo Joseph and his wife who were extremely kind (the more admirable as I must have looked exceedingly scruffy) and sent their regards. On the way back I dropped in in Milan on Tilaka Hitchcock’s sister but they were out so I left behind a bottle of Greek wine. I’m getting as bad as you are. Due to various trains being late, my last day’s journey was on an invalid ticket which had the merit of providing me with some sort of occupation in constructing an argument to justify it – despite which I was relieved at not being challenged. Met Gaji yesterday, who’s back at work as well already – he’ll be on a field trip till October 6th (and hopes you’ll stay on till then) but will come down to meet Anila on the 24th. I shall write to Jean today to find out what the situation is re staying in London. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 26. Mallard Lodge

The summer as noted was idyllic, though in fact lots of work was done. There was much business to do for home, including helping my sister who had got a Scholarship to Somerville for her Master’s degree. It was also nice to help Hope Todd, who was an old friend of the family, and had stayed at home for a few years when he started work in Colombo, before he married. His wife was my mother’s chief lieutenant in the Girl Guides, so that they have continued close over the years and in fact are amongst the few who still join me at home for Christmas lunch when we had to scale down a couple of years after my father died.


Since my letters do not cover this, I should note that, after a wonderful fortnight at Mallard Lodge on my own, I visited Tilak Gooneratne in Brussels before the rest of my trip. Pam had stayed on in London, but Tilak too was hospitable, and I am glad I continued to see him when he came back to settle down in London after the next government got rid of our best diplomats.



Mallard Lodge

20 High Street

Standlake, Oxon

12th June 1976

Happy anniversary – and congratulations on having at least one exceptional child in the family. At least, I suppose Anila wouldn’t have sent a telegram unless she thought it a good thing to be branded a 1st Class train. Anyway, it makes me feel very proud, so give her my congrats.

I did succeed in handing my ‘George Eliot on Religion’ essay in on time, despite having had to come to town every day after getting back from London. I managed to spend Thursday to Saturday with Hope (stayed the nights at Jean’s), and accompanied him on a bit of business, as well as taking him to the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Opera. There wouldn’t really have been much point, even if I could have, in staying all week since he was quite busy during the day, but I’m sorry I wasn’t around to take him to the theatre a bit more. Yasmin did a great job, including the production of a super dinner on his birthday.

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A Time of Gifts – 25. Into the country


There is much more about home in the letters from my postgraduate days, in part because I had renewed contact with the family when I went home after my first degree, and in part because more people were coming over, my mother now being on the World Committee of the Girl Guides, which meant she was over every year. What is missing is accounts of my travels, in April a whirlwind tour of some places in Europe (including Vienna which I had not been to before) before joining my mother in Copenhagen where we stayed with our Danish friends and went also to their country house in Sweden.


And that summer I moved to a little village for what I still see as an idyllic time, hard work and convivial evenings with Paul, whom I have seen very rarely since but whom I still count as one of my best Oxford friends on the strength of those two months together. His step-brother was in fact hardly there, and we both enjoyed cooking very simple meals and venturing beforehand to the nearby pubs, including one which had no bar, but just two old ladies who took orders and went into a backroom and came back with foaming mugs of beer. ‘The Speckled Cow’ at Nettleford, I think it was called, but I suppose now that I will never be able to check.


25th February 1976

I trust the excitement of the wedding has subsided by now. It sounded great fun. We had our own excitement here when David Burgess got married last Tuesday to a girl he’s known for years but whom no one thought he’d marry. She turned up on Valentine’s day and he claims what finally decided him was her saying, ‘Come on, be a sport!’ He had to phone Leslie’s cottage, where I was that night, to get a bed for her in College, and as he sounded rushed we decided that he was being an Iris Murdoch character again – but nothing would ever change. You can imagine our and everyone’s astonishment at the news. He came back on Wednesday, after a night at the Ritz, from where he telephoned his parents – the wedding had been very quiet with only 3 friends and grandchildren – and we had lots of champagne and tried to take it in.

Last Thursday was the 1st Union hack party for six months, given the fears after Vivien’s conviction in Trinity. The recovering of times past was quite wonderful – though inflation has hit students so much that I can’t foresee a non-bring-a-bottle party in the future. Not like the good old days, when one pondered whether to go. I had some people round for dinner and bridge after – my first entertainment this term, having just caught up with what I missed in 1st week – and did very well. Unfortunately, it was only a penny a point and I only made 67 pence. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 24. My own establishment


By the second term I was well into my stride with regard to work, helped by the fact that I was working this term on Byron, reading whom is one of life’s great pleasures. In these letters I refer more to friends, in part because my parents had by now met some of those I spent much time with, but also because my circle was now much smaller, since I was no longer in College with ready access to and for so many.


I did go away more often now in term, two or three times during this period to see Adrian who had been a great friend while an undergraduate, and to Leicester to see John Pike with whom I travelled recently in Cambodia and Laos and Indonesia, and to Winchester where my friend Richard was teaching (before also becoming a Civil Servant, with an A grade like Pat and others who stuck it out, though both of them left early).


I have a brief reference here to a social change at this period which was most interesting. For generations it had been thought an achievement to get into the Civil Service, and even the intake of what I term my Freshmen tried this. But in the end most of them ended up in the city, and financially have been much more successful than the more intellectually able of an earlier generation.  


31 Rectory Road

15th December (1975)

I’m not in College to check my mail regularly. It’s an interesting experience staying on when there’s hardly any reason to go into town (10 minutes walk is a long way for the lazy) and I’m very well furnished here – I live on steak or black pudding or whatever and heaps of mushrooms which I doubt not I’ll soon be sick of. I went in yesterday to meet a few people and go to Evensong at the Cathedral (which was lovely – they sang Mozart’s ‘Lachrymosa illa dies’) but between Thursday evening and then I didn’t talk to anyone, except for two people who were in the neighbourhood and dropped in but whom I sent away as I was busy, having talked to them through the window. Very good for concentration, and I’ve got quite a bit to catch up after being away.

I had intended to go to Winchester for a few days last week, but didn’t due to confusion about lifts and ended up in Leicester for a day. The car broke down on the motorway on the way up, but my friend’s father owns a garage and (a bit like Thatha) two mechanics soon drove out and so did father who took us home. We spent the evening drinking a great deal of gin and arguing about capital punishment, the family vs the two visitors – I was thought bloodthirsty enough but the other’s a female Plymouth  Brother who takes the Old Testament very literally, which upset the Pikes who are all liberals no end. They’re very nice though and I was sorry not to be able to accept an invitation to go to Turkey with them this Vac, but I had neither the time nor the money. We got back from Leicester on the Wednesday, and I slept for twenty hours, and failed to be organized in time to get to the opera on the Thursday – it was going to be ‘Salome’, in London.

I don’t know whether I mentioned last week that I served in the Cathedral last Sunday, and the Sacristan keeps introducing me as a Bishop’s nephew – mainly because he feels guilty about having me serve as I’m not a regular member of the congregation and the members of the Anglo-Catholic society are queueing up to serve. Ecclesiastics in the family do help! Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 23. Becoming Serious


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I was lucky enough to have the chance to do postgraduate work at Oxford, with funding from the university – a personal grant in my first year. I was determined to live up to this, and I think did so, as my results proved. The letters in my first term however suggest that the sybaritic socializing of my undergraduate days continued, and this is not entirely inaccurate. But as also indicated I did work hard and my tutors were generally impressed.


Sharing a flat with Pat (sitting fifth from the left in the Vile Bodies picture), who later went on to a senior position in the Civil Service (which proved most useful when I was dealing with the Overseas Development Administration while in the British Council), also I think helped, because we had different interests, which meant that I could concentrate on work when I wanted to. And the flat was perfectly situated in that, while it was easy enough to walk into town, it was far enough away for me not to make that effort unless essential – which meant I got through the vast amounts of reading the course demanded. And I hugely enjoyed this, the Victorian literature, including the non-fiction, that I still see as the greatest flowering of prose in any language in any era.


En route to England I stayed over in Russia, with the ambassador but cared for by my father’s old peon in the Attorney General’s Department. He was extremely hospitable to many students and of course did wonders for me even though his wife was in hospital, her baby having been two months premature (and being wonderfully looked after by the Soviet medical system). He had booked me a train to Georgia, for I was determined to travel through the Urals, though I had to fly back given time constraints.


36The saddest event of this term, and perhaps my whole time in England, was the death of Manoji, the daughter of my cousin Clara who had been so kind to me when I first got to England. Manoji, just a year younger than me, was a lovely girl, and was just in her second year at Manchester studying medicine when she suffered an aneurism. Oddly, she had found a boyfriend who had been in charge of the bridge club at Oxford and gone on to Manchester as a postgraduate. Clara was I think heartened that I knew him and liked him, she and Manoji having come to see me at Oxford the previous year in part to talk about it. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 22. Staying On


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The record of my last term as an undergraduate seems now bizarre, in the combination of a desperate desire to stay on at Oxford with little effort to prove myself academically. But I have no regrets at all about having had a great time till the end, much theatre and opera in addition to an intense social life. And as it happened Oxford turned up trumps without my having had to get a first.


I had been told that, if they thought you were worthwhile, they would keep you on, and this happened. As the record of my tutors’ comments over the years indicates, they did think I was extremely able. Though they despaired of my examination techniques, they worked together to find me a scholarship, since I had indicated that I did not think I could expect my father to fund me if there was no proof that I deserved to go on to postgraduate studies.


To my surprise my philosophy tutor’s wife told me that she had heard I had just missed a first class on my philosophy papers. Sadly my worst mark was on Roman history, which was my favourite subject, but after I left the hall I realized I had got something completely wrong on the first question, and that would have deprived me of any benefit of the doubt for the rest of the paper.


18th March 1975

I’m so sorry not to have written for so long – the time passes so quickly that one doesn’t notice, particularly, this last week, when getting to bed before 5 was a miracle.   Despite, this, I won my bet of 4 breakfasts a week, but spent most of the rest of the day in bed, which was useless workwise. Nevertheless my philosophy tutor said my work had improved distinctly while George called it an excellent term’s work. ‘I shall miss him,’ he said. ‘So shall we all,’ said the Master – it was very comic but very sweet.  Made up for not winning an office in the Union at my final attempt, and also for not being accepted by America despite my excellent marks – 97, 98 and 95 – it’s pleasant to know I’m as mathematically able as my sister, by American standards at least. My rejection from America was welcomed here – it’s quite touching the way even people in their present 1st year feel the place wouldn’t quite be the same without me. I am beginning to succumb, though to do a BPhil would require about a 1000 pounds more if I don’t get a Scholarship, and this just conceivably might be a waste. Meanwhile I have discovered a 1 year MA course in East Anglia which is both intellectually and financially suitable – the only trouble is it’s in East Anglia. Shall keep you informed, nevertheless. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 21. Trying to settle down

Hilary Term 1975 was when I had decided to settle down to study, and I did make an effort. I took a bet with the Senior Tutor that I would get to breakfast four days a week, which I succeeded in doing, but that proved counter-productive for I would then fall asleep in the morning. As can be seen my social life continued apace, and I also had the pleasure of being the principal confidante of the Union President.


In reading about the vacation before that, I was struck about the common friends I found during my stay at the Brentons. Renee Wickremesinghe was the wife of a brother of my grandfather, and she had left her husband after the war and gone to England where she married someone, though not I think the naval officer she had hoped to. She was alive when I got to England, but sadly died before I could meet her, though I got close to her children, two of whom were settled there.


Tony Brenton, who subsequently became British Ambassador in Moscow, turned out to have known Indrajith and Tara Coomaraswamy – the former being Gajan Pathmanathan’s cousin.


The letters have more material than I recall about my attempts to find a place to do postgraduate work, but I suspect this is because my father was very concerned about this. I cannot now understand how I could even have thought of going to East Anglia, let alone the United States.


14th December 1974

Re scholarships – regrettably, the Corpus one isn’t on offer next year; hence greater need for the other one, though I am toying with the idea of taking a year off, possibly working, and waiting to apply next year. Having gone through the American things again, the prospect appears even dimmer; occasionally I feel it would be better to return at once rather than go there. However, I shall persevere, though it might be wise to see about Foundation aid as well such as Ford and Hay. As regards the Cornell application, I’m not quite sure why ‘years of a foreign language’ got the answer Montreal 1958 – if you have any spare application forms, please send them on, else I shall make do with these. If you think the application for aid is too complicated as well, I shall send off the form to Harvard demanding $10,000 over 2 years. The whole prospect is so ghastly, I begin to feel you were right in requiring concentration upon Oxford prospects – however, it’s been an interesting experience. I can’t really see myself being awarded an American Scholarship – the Oxford system simply won’t stand up to their demands for progressive course marks et al – which would solve a great problem, as to what to do if I got an American Scholarship and not an Oxford one.

Having bored you sufficiently about my future – I’m back in Oxford, having had 4 delightful days at the H.C., punctuated by fascinating stories from Colvin about the BLPI (Bolshevik Leninist Party of India) etc. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 20. My last year – or not?


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My last year as an undergraduate was also full of joy, but I was also fitting into the avuncular role that I have since fulfilled in my dealings with the young. The Delusionists for instance, a dining club started by a group of delightful lawyers in our second year, was passed on to me to run, and I filled it with my freshmen as I called them, those who had come up when I was JCR President.


My second year friends had been those with political interests, and I believe the senior lawyers did not want them in what was supposed to be purely a fun gathering, but they approved of my younger chums, and I think we did them proud in keeping the Delusionists going for several more years. The Dean had backed down when he decided to stop being the life and soul of the College, but I managed to persuade my Classics don, the brilliant Greek scholar Martin West, to join us, and he entered into the spirit of the thing with gusto.


Another don who proved socially dynamic, though I only met him the once, was A J Ayer, whose ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ was a bible for Oxford philosophy – and was the only book I had been enjoined to read before I went up to Oxford. I had found it incomprehensible, and several readings over the years left me still feeling I had not understood it thoroughly, but both the book and the man exemplified the sheer intellectual energy of Oxford in the period between the wars.



Chalet des Anglais

Pres de l’hotel au Prarion

St. Gervais–Les-Bains

Haute Savoie


9th August 1974

Thought I’d write before I left for France – letters will be appreciated at the address above until the 30th.

I’ve discovered another scholarship for English, though not as good, which I’ve applied for the Application Form for. My money for July arrived though not the fees yet. They really are mounting, due to the increase in Grants.

Gaji must be a favourite with the College Office, as they’ve given him a room that an Etonian had last year! Centrally heated, and quite nice though not enormous – if he has any inclination tell Anila to teach him bridge, it’s very useful. I’ll be back by October to meet him.

I have finished my 5 Vac. essays though there’s still quite a lot of reading to do when I get back if I’m to keep my scholarship. I had dinner with the new Senior Tutor last week and it seems dicey though I got the impression my tutors still approve of me – had to refuse George for dinner tonight as I’m going down to London this evening after an emergency Standing Committee, preparatory to driving down to France with two friends tomorrow. Continue reading