A Time of Gifts – 3. First Adventures in Europe


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I went straight on to England from India after my Advanced Levels in June. In those days one could enjoy almost unlimited stopovers, so I visited a number of European capitals, where my friends had arranged for me to stay with friends. But of course I went exploring, and managed to see much of Greece, and several places in Italy, plus much else before I landed in England, in September.



9th July 1971


I meant to write as I arrived but I went for a vast walk through the city and I was too tired when I got back to do anything but sleep.  And then, next morning, I left on a trip and returned only last night.

I went first to Corinth, by bus, saw the ruins of ancient Corinth and also climbed up the citadel where there’s a fort used in turn by all the people who have ruled Greece, including the Venetians  and the Turks. There I met a German who was on a tour too, and we went together to Mycenae, stayed the night there, and next morning, with a German couple from Munich, went to the excavations there, which include the Lion Gate before which Electra performed and the Tombs of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. From there I went on to Argos where there’s another fortress on a rock up which I climbed, without following the road, so that I was worn out and very homesick by the time I reached the top.  The view however, was lovely, and I managed to get a lift down to the town.  From there I went to Navplion, stopping on the way at Tiryns, the ruined palace of Hercules. I stayed the night at Navplion and next morning climbed up that citadel too, which was very nice, though there were 999 steps.  I also went to a Byzantine Monastery a little way from the town where an old nun showed me around, both of us talking bad French.  In the evening I had a swim and went up the smaller mount of the citadel.

Next morning I went to Epidaurus, went round in the morning and slept under the pine trees in the afternoon.  In the evening, in the theatre, I saw one of the old tragedies put on by the National Theatre of Greece. It was translated into modern Greek but I managed to get hold of an English version just before so that I understood what was happening when. It was a super performance. Afterwards, just as I was getting desperate because all the buses had been booked, I managed to get a lift back to Navplion, in the uncovered back of a car, which was very nice.

On the 5th I went to Sparta and Mystras, where there is another citadel, with monasteries and churches on the way up, full of frescoes and icons and chandeliers and things. It was quite tiring going up and I missed the bus back but I managed to get a lift. However, I had to spend the night in Sparta. Next morning I went to Kalamata along a lovely road through high mountains, sheer grey stone at times about you and then huge pine trees. From Kalamata I went straight up along the coast to Pirgos and from there to Olympia. The ruins there are wonderful and so is the museum.  It’s the same at Delphi, to which I went on the next day, getting there only at night after a trip by ferry across the Corinthian gulf so that I really saw everything yesterday morning. I returned to Athens in the evening and went around a little more, ending up at the Acropolis for it was a full moon night. I felt a bit bad because I returned only at midnight, and Mrs Calogirou was already in bed.

I stayed in Youth Hostels throughout except at Sparta, and ate very little but traveling is expensive and I’ve already spent over 10 pounds.  I am hoping to go to the islands of Mykonos and Delos tomorrow but perhaps it will be too expensive. Today I’m staying  here because my feet are really sore and I’m lazy to walk much more. It’s a bit difficult managing without a car after having got used to being driven around.

Could you please tell Thatha that Mrs Calogirou will write to him about the monkey after she consults her son. She intends to be away from Greece till the end of October so she doesn’t want it till then. Also tell Mum that Mrs Bhatkhal was very ill in Bombay, hadn’t been able to leave her bed for 15 days. I forgot to tell you that Mohan looked after me very well, and took me for dinner to the Taj, where I heard the Jetliners play and felt quite patriotic.




25th July


I’ve had a marvelous time here, as you know already. I’ve been rather lazy though, since I could easily have left a day or two ago, but it all turned out for the best, as a letter arrived from Shirley Amerasinghe asking me, if possible, to postpone for a day or two. As it is, I’d already arranged to fly through Florence and Milan, for just $1 more, with a train trip to Venice, only getting to Geneva on the 31st.  Andrew said Geneva had hardly anything and I’d be happier doing nothing here than there, so I’ve had quite a few afternoons and the whole of today lying down and devouring Billy Bunter and Enid Blyton, with two conscientious dips into Lawrence Durrell.

To resume – on the 20th, I went to the Vatican, the museum from which they threw everyone out at 1.45, and St Peter’s – they were both much better even than I’d expected – the Sistine Chapel is so clear, even though the pictures are so high up – and the Museum, with all the things the Popes stole through the years. Incidentally that old fox Pius XII managed to get himself buried opposite St Peter!

Unfortunately they don’t let you into the Vatican Gardens without special permission and St. Anglo’s castle was shut, so I went on, with a few peeks into churches by the way where occasionally you find something lovely, to the Coliseum again, and climbed right to the top this time. I thought it wasn’t worth 150 Lira the 1st time, but I’d got a card from the Youth Hostels that gave me free entrance by now!

On the 21st I went to Ostia, and met an archaeologist who knew Maranzi and Sigiriya and Ceylon, and showed me some of the locked rooms, which was very interesting. Then, on the 22nd, after getting my ticket changed and seeing the baths of Diocletian, I stayed at home during the afternoon, as I did on the next day, after a vast walk through this neighbourhood, which was Mussolini’s showpiece.   Yesterday I went to Tivoli, which was super, with all the fountains in the garden, and a little gorge some way off with grottoes and a huge waterfall and the ruins of villas and tiny temples, and also to the Villa Adriana with heaps of beautiful ruins, groves and ponds with passages under them and so on.




11th August

I shall write from Denmark to someone to reach Ceylon before this so I’ll only tell you about a rather exciting incident. As you know, I went to Czechoslovakia from Munich.  They make one change $5 a day, but the Trade Commissioner with whom I stayed said that, as I’d stayed with a diplomat, I could get back my hard currency and also that I could buy my return ticket with the Czech money.  However, they wanted German marks on the bus and, though I had enough dollars and pounds, I asked them to wait till I’d changed my money back at the border. However, at the border, despite the diplomat, the man said I couldn’t exchange the money and that I could – he used the German ‘kann’ as far as I remember, though I can’t be sure – either buy something with it or deposit it in the bank for heaven knows what. What mattered to me was changing it back to hard currency and since I couldn’t, being determined not to cash my traveler’s cheques, I decided to get a lift – there were heaps of German cars there. I’d  just got into one, with my passport stamped, with the now useless Czech money in my pocket – I’d decided against buying wine or something since I didn’t want to drink it and it would have been silly carrying it about and trying to send it home – when the policeman jumped out and accused me of trying to smuggle it out.  Then, for 15 minutes, he pretended to be very busy and made me wait, in the course of which I realized I had to leave the money in the country and it was illegal to take it out – having been concerned about getting back the original hard currency I’d exchanged,  I’d quite ignored the importance of the money they had made me buy to the Czechs.

Anyway, at last I was asked to sign a statement that I’d tried to smuggle their money which I refused to do, being quite convinced that I was quite innocent and that it was their fault for not having had anyone who spoke English. I was certain by now that I’d thought he was only trying to be helpful with his ‘kanns’ since I didn’t know what to do with the useless money – though probably I was too concerned about not being allowed to exchange to think at all about the Czech money itself !  Im not sure myself, it seemed so unimportant at the time.

When I refused to sign he grabbed my passport and told me I should go to prison. I’d been quite alarmed at first but by now I was righteously indignant so I went on insisting to the big boss who also said he didn’t know English – I’m sure he did. In the end they returned my passport without the signature but kept hold of the money and I decided to give in since it was getting late. I’d already decided to hitch and, as that had been my passage money, I wasn’t really down, but I rather regret losing it, it comes to over 5 pounds – 218 crowns. If you don’t think it’s too silly, draft a letter from me to the Czech Embassy in Ceylon placing a claim for the money, just so I can feel I didn’t let the matter drop. Sign for me so that you’re not involved!

I walked over the border to Germany and the guard there asked me where  and how I was going and I said I was hitching to Frankfurt upon which he arranged a lift for me in a tour bus of a small village near Cologne that was also on its way back from Prague. It was delightful and I began to love the Germans even more. They dropped me off near the airport, and Mr Handy picked me up from there, though I spent ½ an hour walking in the wrong direction, although there had been a signpost just in front of me.

Ceylon Today 8 April 2017 –  http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=18790

A Time of Gifts – 2. In India for Advanced Levels


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In June 1971 I set off for Oxford via India (to do my A/Levels) and Europe. Exit permits were needed to leave Ceylon after the April 1971 Youth Insurgency and, having obtained one, it was thought that asking for a second would be an unnecessary risk. Apart from my age, I had had a radio play banned on suspicion that it was political. It was not, being based on the Greek story of Electra, but it was assumed that I had intended to cast aspersions on the Bandaranaikes.



60/21 Edward Elliots Road


7th June 1970


I had my first paper today, Ancient History 1, which I dreaded most of all, and it was quite nice, though I had to con my way through a fourth question.

I am very comfortable here, with a room and bathroom to myself and everyone is very nice – so much so that, at the exam today, with all the frantic Indian red tape, I began thinking of them as the last vestiges of civilization to which I could cling – the same feeling I had with the Weeramans last year. India frightens me, it’s so large and also so trivial, if you know what I mean.  I don’t suppose you do and it’ll take too long to explain – if I could. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 22. Continuing Dysfunctionality


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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

Though we had achieved much with regard to structural reforms, I began to realize towards the end of 2016 that ensuring they were entrenched was another question. There was much resistance to change, and it became clear that the various institutions in the Ministry which had to implement the reforms were either unwilling, or unable, to take things forward.

This was most obvious with regard to the problem of English. As noted, I had found when I started work that the Department of Technical Education and Training had fewer than 50 permanent staff for the 39 colleges, in all of which English was supposed to be taught to most if not all students. I was assured that 18 more had been recruited, and would be in place in January, and that there would be 14 more in July. The 18 did turn up and were generally good, but the 14 did not appear and various excuses were offered as to why they could not be recruited. Instead the DTET managed with Visiting Instructors, some of whom were not at all willing to use the new books or the new methods prescribed. Instead they were quite happy to continue to inculcate the different tenses in all their forms, the traditional method of teaching grammar and thus destroying any interest in the language. Encouraging speech was quite beyond them.

The Vocational Training Authority was worse. To begin with they had only about 20 permanent staff, in their 245 centres, and half of these knew very little English, having earlier taught stenography, which does not really require a command of the language (incidentally, other stenographers, when that course was stopped, had been turned into cookery instructors, it obviously being assumed that, since they cooked at home, they would be able to train youngsters to work in the hospitality industry). Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 1. Indian Adventures after Ordinary Levels


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In April 1970 I set off by myself for a tour of India. I was supposed to join my father at a Conference in Nepal, and there were friends of the family in all the big cities, but I was supposed to travel and tour all by myself. I was keen on the plan, since I had had some experience of travel previously, in Madras in 1968 and in 1969 in Malaysia. In both cases I did much on my own though I stayed each night with friends of my parents.  On this occasion I was still 15, and now cannot understand how my parents were persuaded to agree to the plan, since it involved long journeys and many nights on my own.  But they did, for which I remain eternally grateful.  Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 21. Transitions


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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

If 2016 saw the end of Lakmahal as it had been known and loved for near 80 years, ‘ a home to so many’ as my cousin Nirmali described it recently, that year had also seen the deaths of many who had been part and parcel of my life, and the life of my parents. In fact the period since my father’s death, at the end of August 2014, had seen the departure of many of those who had been integral to our lives.

In November that year I heard from Anne Ranasinghe that Dr Vimala Navaratnam had died in England, having gone there to look after her daughter during some surgery. She had looked after all of us with enormous dedication over nearly half a century, and had kept me going, along with my cousin Theja, in that last week when I was alone at home with my father as he faded.

Anne was as appreciative of Vimala as we were, stating matter of factly a couple of years earlier that she was still alive only because Vimala had insisted she go to hospital when she had suffered a heart attack. Anne had been determined to stay at home, which she later realized would have meant death. But Vimala, ably assisted by the admirable equally kindly and impeccably professional Dr Sheriffdeen, had got her to hospital. I interviewed Anne shortly after she returned home, and was admitted for I think the first time to her bedroom upstairs, where she held forth admirably for the series called ‘The Past is Another Country’.  This was devised by the brilliant Croatian television producer Daniel Ridicki, who  has now set it up on vimeo, as what he sees as a seminal aspect of Sri Lankan cultural history. The series, which includes interviews with Iranganie Serasinghe and Laki Senanayake, can be seen on http://www.ridicki.net/the_past_is_another_country.html

My aunt Ena refused to be interviewed, which I was sad about, but perhaps she knew she would not have done herself justice. She was fading by then, and in October 2015 she passed away, having memorably told me  the week before, when I had gone up to Aluwihare for her 93rd birthday, that I should not be sad, for we had had such good times. When I spent the night of 31st December with her the previous year, on my way back from electioneering for Maithripala Sirisena in Jaffna, she had told me she was ready to go. I told her this was unthinkable for, citing my grandmother and my father, I told her that our family lasted until they were 93. She was only 92 then, and she asked me whether I thought she had to go on for another year. She died, in fact, a week after her 93rd birthday. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 20. Consolidation


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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done


December 2016 saw the consolidation of the new work we had initiated from the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission. The English and Soft Skills programme was going well, and this month saw the publication of Developing Career Skills, the text for the second level courses, both the dedicated NVQ Level 2 course and the supplementary module on all NVQ Level 4 courses. The energetic Australian Volunteer Beatrice Johnson had also produced a guide, which we published in the same month.

The enthusiastic staff in our Curriculum Division had, with solid support from the Sector Skills Councils, developed new three month Level 3 curricula in a range of subjects, and we managed to have a number of these finalized and approved by the Commission at meetings in December. We had been charged with producing a Job Outlook manual, but we decided instead to produce Handbooks setting out the new curricula while incorporating the career paths available in each sector. Handbooks for the Construction and the Hospitality sectors were accordingly finalized in December.

This last subject area had not benefited from the Sector Skills Council since that had taken a long time to get off the ground. But we had great support from Chandra Mohotti , who had vast experience of hotels and who was therefore asked to chair the Council. Previously the Sector Skills Development Programme, which had been in charge of the Councils before I was compelled to take over, had failed to include any hoteliers. But the World University Service of Canada, which was helping in the sector, put me and the Minister in touch with Mr Mohotti, and he kindly chaired the Committee I set up to expedite action.

tourism-sector-frontIn addition we began working together with the Hotel School, the Sri Lanka Institute of Hospitality and Tourism Management, headed now by someone who had been in school with me. He was incredibly busy however since he also had to look after the BMICH, but he put me in touch with excellent colleagues, and we were able to build up a relationship that it seemed had gone sour a couple of years back. Though the TVEC had collaborated with SLIHTM on curricula then, problems of hierarchy had it seemed caused problems.

I set out as clearly as I could the formal position, which was that TVEC was the authority with regard to curricula and assessment. But TVEC also had to acknowledge that its expertise in the fields in which it operated was limited, and therefore it should rely on professional bodies such as SLIHTM – or for instance the National Child Protection Authority when it came to care of children. We needed therefore basically to work in terms of the competencies the Hotel School prescribed, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel on our own, or to work with individuals we chose. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 19. A House Divided


but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

Soon after my return from Macedonia we signed the documents which passed on half of Lakmahal to my niece. Although this was the legal position, I think my sister and her family had decided the space would in fact be used by my nephew, who had made it clear that he had very different ideas about what should be done. Earlier I had thought my sister sentimental about its structure, for she had accused me, when I put up two new bathrooms to replace those that had to be demolished, of destroying the structure of our parents’ house. I think nothing of the sort took place, and all the old habitues of the place thought my design had worked out particularly well. But I was glad that my sister, who had at the beginning said she was not sentimental, had evinced some feelings for the place.

I was reminded then of Mrs Wilcox in Howard’s End, and her passion for the house which bore that name. Reading the book in my younger days, I had not understood her feelings, and indeed I suggested in a critique that Forster could not have subscribed to them, because he would have thought attachments to people more important. But being older and wiser now, I realize that attachment to place is also a deeply human quality, because it carries with it too the spirit of the people who have lived their lives in a particular place and in a particular fashion. That understanding is what prompted me, when Lakmahal was 75 years old in 2012, to write about the place and those that had lived there. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 18. Workshops and the Balkans again


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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I  had an intense programme when I got back in Colombo at the end of October, for we were hastening to finalize several curricula, in the different areas in which Sector Skills Councils had been set up, Construction and Manufacturing and Computer Technology and Tourism. Then we were also trying to do more in the Service Sector, with health care and logistics being priorities. In addition, since I found that nothing had moved with regard to the Teacher Development programme Mahinda Samarasinghe had wanted expedited for those who had qualified in the Technological Stream at the Advanced Levels, I had to take charge of that too. And we had decided to have workshops to train teachers in the new curricula, which involved pushing things though I was happy that the new Industrial Liaison Division we had set up was able to handle these.

20161113_094441We had also decided on residential workshops for the English teachers, since it seemed essential to develop a high powered group who could take things forward in later years. By now I had a superb set of support staff at the TVEC, the daughter of one of my best GELT Coordinators of the nineties to look after the English programme, a former Coordinating Secretary from my days in Parliament to follow up on training since previously Ministry programmes had not been concerned with follow up, and then an Editor for all the new material we were producing, a bright youngster proposed and paid for by the World University of Canada, with whom we were working closely.

Interestingly enough Jeevan Thiagarajah, who has been a tower of strength in many areas I have worked in when these overlapped with his own humanitarian concerns, had recommended the young man earlier, as having been involved with the establishment of the Sector Councils. But early on in my time at the TVEC I had tried to avoid responsibility for the Councils, and it was only towards the middle of the year that I realized Mahinda Samarasinghe was right, and I had to take over if they were to achieve anything.

20161112_093719My team found a great hotel in Negombo, which turned out to be the old Sunflower, where I had put up Geraldine McEwan when she toured Sri Lanka for the British Council with a One-Woman show based on the works of Jane Austen. That had been the inspiration for the One-Man Dickens show I had later devised for Richard de Zoysa, and we had toured almost the same places. But I avoided Negombo for Dickens, because the audience at Geraldine’s performance at Maris Stella had made it clear that Negombo no longer had a an audience for English language performances (quite unlike Batticaloa where the small crowd had been marvelously appreciative). Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 17. Albania, Corfu and Oxford


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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

20161013_104737By August I felt we had achieved enough to justify some time off, so I took a few days off as noted to further explore Orissa after the Aide-et-Action meeting in Puri. Then in September, after the workshops for Centre Managers had been set in motion, I had a week in Thailand, where my old friend Peter Rowe had property. He was perhaps the sharpest intellectually of friends I made in middle age, and though we argued ferociously, given his hardline right wing views, conversation with him was always stimulating.

I should note that he had been unswerving in his opposition to Tiger terrorism, with nothing of the appalling hypocrisy displayed by Americans and British, the British in general, the ostensibly liberal amongst the Americans who were ruthless when it came to their enemies but indulged terror when it seemed to benefit them. In that regard the American right was less sanctimonious, though there was no doubt that they too would abandon any pretence at principle when it came to a question of their own preferred client states. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 16. Concentrating on new initiatives


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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I got  back from Armenia on May 2nd, and began a period of intense work for nearly three months. We finalized a new Tertiary and Vocational Education and Training policy, something that was long overdue; we revised the National Vocational Qualifications Operational Manual and introduced several new ideas, including a section on teacher development; and we launched the first book for English and Career Skills Training, and sent two more to press.

These I had known I would have to do, but in addition I started working closely with the Sector Skills Councils, and found three of them remarkably efficient. We had decided that we should streamline the manner in which curricula were formulated, and that, instead of having compendiums which included competencies at several levels, each level should have its own curriculum. It also seemed desirable to have short courses, of three months duration with On the Job Training on top of that, for the Level 3 qualification. The Councils took the idea on board, and by August the Construction Skills Council had formulated curricula for Plumbing and for Carpentry for Building. By the end of the year they had produced curricula also for Masonry (both for Foundation work and for Walls) while the Manufacturing and Light Engineering Council had produced one for Welding. At the end of the year we put together these five in a handbook, which was designed to show the range of possible occupations with regard to Construction.

The Manufacturing Council also produced curricula for Tractor and Harvestor Operators, but its deep thinking Chairman said they would hold back for a while on Production curricula, since they had no idea about career paths in the absence of a coherent industrial policy. I brought this matter up at the Committee set up by the Prime Minister to look into the field of Vocational Training, and it was agreed that something should be done about this. But I fear belling the cat (Ranil used to be called Poos by his family when he was young) was not something those who chaired or administered that Committee were able to do. Despite promises they also dodged telling the Prime Minister that it was desirable that the University Grants Commission and the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission should be represented on the Board of the National Institute of Education. In that area it was clear that reforms would be piecemeal, without the conceptual input that no one in authority at that Ministry seemed capable of (though thankfully a few months later it got a new Secretary who seemed comparatively capable).

The Computer Council very professionally staked out the whole field, and agreed that there should be one simple 3 month curriculum to introduce students to the field. That was produced soon enough, and by the end of the year they had produced also a Level 4 curriculum, having decided that there should not be specialization at that Level either. Continue reading