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.

Continue reading


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

A Time of Gifts – 19. The End of my Third Year


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I sense a valedictory note in these letters and those that follow, even though I still had well over a year to finish my course (and though this was not certain till the very end of my final undergraduate terms, I did stay on for further degrees). I am sorry that I have not generally mentioned individuals in these letters, because reading them brings back memories of the truly wonderful friends I had. I should note that the character disliked by the distinguished diplomats I mention was Tissa Wijeyeratne, who transformed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, very much for the worse, since he disliked the more sophisticated ethos of the individuals I mention such as Shirley Amerasinghe, who was internationally acclaimed – and then suffered from another extremist, when J R Jayawardene stopped him chairing the Law of the Sea Conference.


The one who produced champagne when I won the Junior Common Room Presidency of the College was the one I spent a week with on Hayling Island in the summer of this year, and with whom I probably had deeper and more wide-ranging conversations than with anyone else in my undergraduate days. I went about every fortnight to the opera in London with one who did not mix with my other friends, and became a Catholic Priest, and has just retired. He studied at the English College at Rome where I spent a memorable night in 1976. Then there was Benazir Bhutto, with whom there were long sessions of Monopoly, most memorably when I put her brother up in my rooms. And the mad Australian who was the livewire behind the Vile Bodies, and with whom I explored much of South East Asia in the years that followed.


One memorable day that is not recorded in my letters was the day the Vile Bodies went to Calais for lunch. We left before dawn, one of our number having stayed up all night on the top of All Souls Tower to which he had climbed, dressed in a Chinese silk dressing gown which astonished the citizens of Calais. The second car stopped for breakfast at the Ritz and so missed the ferry we caught, but we met up for a wonderful lunch where the only lady brave enough to join us – who later became a fellow of Lady Margaret Hall – consumed massive quantities of moules marinieres, with the champagne she seemed to live on (and to which in time she converted me, after the initial distaste born of my first taste of the stuff at Rheims, so very long ago).



4th March 1974

The love cake arrived two months late, half stale, to be wholly consumed a week before he fled Oxford to find peace in the foothills of the Himalayas by the Editor of ‘Cherwell’ – the Chitty whose friends you met last year.   This, unfortunately, in addition to making all those who persuaded him to take on the job feel guilty, deprives one of my incognito post of Cherwell’s political correspondent – too soon, alas, since I hadn’t succeeded in publicizing myself sufficiently to be assured of winning this week’s Union elections. Still, 4 mentions in 4 weeks wasn’t too bad, most of them in letters to the Editor who obligingly published.

Anila seems to have told you I intend to return overland – which was only suggested – and have organized a ball, the future prospect of which was all I was deputed to consider. Despite the hopeful figures I made up, the Union thinks it too risky.

If I haven’t written since, my XI won the football match against the Dean’s XI very handsomely, which is a slight disaster as it’s traditionally a draw. Also the Ref., who’s meant to send the Dean off, got confused and sent us both off – of course, we were nearly the worst players on the field. I slept for about 12 hours after the match and spent last week in a state of complete exhaustion as we went to London on Monday and missed the last train back and had to spend the night in Reading, and then there was a spare ticket to the Opera on Tuesday as well, and the termly Chapel party was on Wednesday after the Ash Wednesday service, and I fell fast asleep at the party I went to on Thursday to watch the election results – just as well, probably, since I found it all very interesting to the indignation of the tight–lipped Conservatives round about. I shall probably collapse of exhaustion at the end of term and shall go away for a week to recover, but as I’m fairly ahead with my work as well, life’s relatively satisfactory. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 18. Moving to Maturity


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Pic5 - CopyThe first term of my third year saw the last set of student demonstrations to really rock Oxford. The Examination Schools next door to Univ were occupied, in pursuit of a demand to establish a University Students’ Union (previously the University had worked only in terms of Colleges) and there was much high drama though it all fizzled out in the end. OUSU was finally established, but just when student radicalism was dying out, with greater concentration on obtaining well paid jobs. I should note that, whereas the brightest in my year sought Civil Service appointments, and the brightest in the next thought of the bar, the intake of 1973 was the first in which a job in the city became the preferred occupation.


A constant factor during my time at Oxford was my father’s efforts to help others too to get in. It is a mark of his unparalleled generosity, as well as his deep commitment to promoting education for all he came across (notably the children of staff in Parliament and at home) that he devoted time and energy to finding youngsters places at good educational institutions. In the case of our neighbor, Gajan Pathmanathan, after a place had been secured and his father died suddenly, my father financed his studies at Oxford – though he was helped by my getting a British Council scholarship for fees in my final year, and Gaji getting the same from I think his second year onward.


These letters also include the first mention of the Vile Bodies, a dining club based on the Evelyn Waugh novel, which became quite a cult, so that in time our photographs, in sepia, were displayed in period decorated cafes. It was the precursor to two other clubs in which, started in my graduate days, I served as Senior Member, the Keats Society, and the Piers Gaveston Society which I believe still flourishes.



12th November 1973

Life’s been excessively exhausting, and I’m only writing now because the Proctor’s party for Presidents has had to be postponed due to sit-ins and demonstrations and other lunacies – opposing all of which, as well as organizing  an election for JCR Secretary (the right man won) as the old one resigned, has taken up quite a bit of time.

The JCR unfortunately approved of the demonstrations, but luckily I succeeded in falling asleep whenever any were on, or worked, and avoided them. In addition, what with bi-weekly freshmen entertainments, solid Union hacking as I’ve decided I want to be President, ludicrous committees and endless and endless dinners – in addition to being told by Cawkwell that my work’s improving, – I have succeeded in sleeping solidly for 14 hours twice last week. Also my philosophy essays are getting shorter and shorter and might soon melt into nothing. The noises of the sit-in finally dissipating are floating up to my room, none of the issues resolved, and everyone as uninformed as ever.

Sorry for some sort of non sequitur – I’ve just had a neurotic friend round who doesn’t trust the Dean or the Chaplain and talks to me for hours about his problems – this in addition to arguing on behalf of someone who’s being rusticated, for not even pretending to work over the last 4 weeks.  I’m hopeful he’ll be kept on but it’s rather in the balance.

For the rest, I’ve dined on Trinity High Table with Ravi Tennakoon, discussed ‘The Waves’ with Helen Gardener, Clive James & the Warden of all Souls – part of Union hackery – had to refuse a play with Claire due to a Society Dinner, set up the Vile Bodies society in memory of Evelyn Waugh – Secretary, Mr Chatterbox, the gossip columnist whose identity changes weekly should be suitable? – already had my one completely drunk evening for the term at a rather seedy party, and not yet had a game of bridge. No more letters probably till term ends and I start unwinding. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 17. Another Summer


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This was another idyllic term, with little pressure of work. But I also record my first disillusionment with politics, as well as the difficulties of unreserved devotion to one cause or another. And it notes again the fact that, though I relished the hectic social life, I was also extremely happy on my own.


4th April 1973

I must confess my own determination to come back has weakened slightly and, my results having just come out today, with a 2nd, I’ve decided in any case to do a postgraduate somewhere, before returning, though unfortunately I probably shan’t be able to do it here. Five of us here got 2nds, though the sixth failed completely, which is a bit upsetting.

Having spent days at Clara’s, I came here last week partly to finish my work as I shall have to be free in London for Thatha, partly because I can’t bear to be away from here. I had various people around last week, including Aruna, and this week the Opera twice, once with the only Don left in College, and yesterday I found myself next to the Junior Dean and his wife who’ve asked me for dinner tomorrow. But even the weekend, when I was practically alone in College except for the barman in the Beer Cellar, was marvelous – I hope I have the energy to escape from Oxford next summer.

The Dean and Chaplain return tonight from the Schools’ men reading party to Cornwall, and I hope to get them to lunch to meet Thatha at Pam’s – I hope they’ll be satisfied with the 2nd – my tutor seemed delighted.

This morning I spent at the Union and, being now trusted by the Higher Echelons, witnessed the opening of the President’s correspondence, and subsequent resealing – done at Balliol, of course – which was fascinating, but quite disillusioning, as there were the Senior Members of our side, which considers the other dishonest. I think I shall find the Union elections fun next term, but I can’t quite see myself fitting into one side or the other sufficiently dedicatedly enough to get very high. Besides, the complete unmasking of left–wing intentions in the Labour Club was quite upsetting. I shall try to write more often, and it wasn’t only politics that prevented frequent writing. I did do some work, as the results show. Continue reading