It is many years since I read The Rising Tide, probably the best known of the novels of the not so well known Irish writer, Molly Keane. I believe she belonged to the old Anglicized ascendancy that lost its authority after Ireland became a Republic, and the novel is about an old country mansion that gradually went to seed.
I can’t be sure of the date, though I am certain of the place where I read the book, the first place I felt to be my own domain. This was the set I occupied in my second year at university, two thirds of a life ago, a large square sitting room with what was the largest undergraduate bedroom in college. I must have had about 400 square feet, large by the standards of today’s condominiums for single people, massive for a student. When I went back, twelve years later, on extended leave from the British Council to work on what I still think of as the height of my academic achievement, I asked to be given those rooms again. The college indulgently obliged. I was just in time, for a couple of years later they were divided up into two or three bedsits.
I think I read Molly Keane in my second stint there, when my sense of place was much more developed. I was more sympathetic then than I would have been as an undergraduate to the old matriarch whose house was sinking under the rising tide of the new world. And I understood why her grandson, who had seemed so radically different initially, slipped after her death into being the guardian of the spirit of the place. His long suffering mother, who had tried to persuade the matriarch to adapt to new realities, found it hard to understand his change of perspective.
But wheels come full circle. That, at least, is the message I derived from the book, though I wonder now whether I have not, memory being overtaken by desire, altered its stresses, even perhaps its content. Perhaps my memory now, longstanding though it seems, is false, born of my own awareness of how my own perspectives have changed, as I dwell more in the past myself with the advance of age.
All this is preamble, if not excuse, for the fact that I decided, some weeks back, to celebrate the 70th birthday of the house in which I live, in which I have lived for three quarters of its life, and all of mine, if you exclude the years away at university. My grandmother, who had moved there when she was 36, and who lived there for more than half a century, used to cut a cake on the date. My mother thought the practice ridiculous, and so did I, but I loved it nevertheless. Perhaps this was initially because of the cake itself, but I think greed gave way in time to sentiment.
My own celebration however will not be as private as hers were towards the end, when only she and I blew out the candle, in the large expanses that had previously resounded with multiple children and their friends. Her own children, and then my mother’s, were all apart from me extremely gregarious, but they were all far too sensible to celebrate the birthday of a house. And over the last couple of decades, while she lived in increasing solitude, and then after she died, I did not really want to initiate such a strange practice myself.
But seventy is after all seventy, the biblical span of three score years and ten, and a house that has seen so much deserves some recognition. I have asked very few people, since the evening should have some focus, and that focus has to be my mother, who served the house and what it stood for faithfully and tirelessly, while never taking any of it seriously herself. In what was I think a remarkable family, with one practically certified saint, her younger brother the Bishop, she deserves pride of place, at least for longevity as duties multiplied and the prospect of rest faded for ever and for ever as she worked.
Longevity was not a characteristic of the men in her family. Her father died at 55, just eight years after he had moved into the house he had designed for an early and anxiously awaited retirement. He had spent twenty years in the field before that, becoming the first Ceylonese Government Agent, and then finally moving to Colombo as Land Commissioner. His work, and his life, will feature first in the series of articles I plan on the house, its inhabitants, and the many who saw it as a second home.
But I should place the house first, in the heart of a rapidly growing city, quite unlike Molly Keane’s country retreat. It was built just next to the mansion known as Alfred House, where the son and heir of Edward, Prince of Wales, had been entertained on gold plate by the fabulously rich de Soysa family. Sadly Alfred, Duke of Cambridge, died long before his father ascended the throne, under suspicion of being Jack the Ripper, and his fiancé obligingly promptly got engaged to his brother, the future George V.
It took many years more for the de Soysas to sell off their land, for other great mansions to appear at the edges, one of which still survives on Thurstan Road. My grandfather was more modest, and bought a comparatively small plot next to Alfred House itself, perhaps believing that that would ensure a large garden next door for the foreseeable future.
But in the sixties that too went, and three units sprang up at the roadside on our left. Fortunately the house on the right still has the small garden with which it began, but otherwise we are surrounded by concrete, rising higher and higher on every side, blocks rejoicing in the names of British royalty. My grandfather, loyal servant though he was of the crown, would have been disappointed at this reversion. He gave his house a distinctively oriental name, Lakmahal.
But from everything I have heard, he did have a sense of humour. He would have been entertained rather than angry at that wheel too turning full circle, and the Courts of James and Alfred and the Queen returning to the streets of Kollupitiya.