Early in 1984 I began working for the British Council. Zem Sally had asked me if I would take her position, and indicated that the then British Council Representative, Vere Atkinson, had thought this a good idea. I was sorry that Zem was giving up a position in which she had done so much, but it transpired that she had only moved there until the post of Council Librarian became vacant. She had been second in seniority, but had not got on too well with the incumbent, the first Sri Lankan to be appointed to the position. Vere, who had a high regard for her, had suggested then that she take up the newly created post of Public Relations Officer, to set the ball rolling as he hoped for enhanced cultural activity in the new hall that had been constructed when the Council moved to its new premises at Alfred House Road. It had always been understood however that she would revert to the position of Librarian when it became vacant.
That time had now come, and she indicated that we could continue to work together as previously, with additional support from the Library for cultural activities. I was also touched that Vere wanted me, because he had had to put up with complaints over the launch of the Review. I had included ‘Slippery Pantaloons’ in it, my account of what had happened at S. Thomas’, and it seemed that Duleep or one of his supporters had protested. Vere had sent me a letter saying that he did not think the Thomian article should have been included, but that done he made it clear that it was business as usual.
Though I had enjoyed my freedom over the last year and a half, I realized that it was time I led a more formalized existence, and in fact the position would allow me to continue to do what I enjoyed. I therefore took up the position of Public Relations Office at the British Council in February 1984. I then promptly fell ill, my back having given way after helping to pull up fishing boats while on holiday in Negombo, and I wondered whether I had a constitutional aversion to work, but I soon recovered – helped by a holiday in Yala which Ena had arranged, the first of many. I had felt awful, but my mother persuaded me to forget my back and go, and the sheer joy of that first trip, elephants and leopards and bears, and Ena’s extraordinary food, cured me completely.
In addition to liaison with the press, for the general work of the Council as well as the special cultural events we brought down from Britain, I also arranged several cultural events myself. The first was called ‘Flights of Fancy’, a collation of poetry about birds, with Richard and Yolande kindly consenting to perform. Hardly anyone turned up, which was most depressing, but I was encouraged to persevere, and soon the Council Hall became a centre of cultural activity, lectures, readings, concerts.
The new image the Council had decided to cultivate, with a hall of its own in the lavish new buildings adapted by Geoffrey Bawa, included several inputs from London. In that first year we had a ‘Merchant of Venice’, a couple of musicians, a TV crew which had selected Sri Lanka as one of the places to highlight for a British Council Anniversary Programme, a large touring Exhibition about urban decoration, and most wonderful of all, Geraldine McEwan in a one-woman Jane Austen show.
I was expected to tour these all over the country, which gave me lots of much relished opportunities to travel. Unfortunately we could no longer go to Jaffna, but I was determined to get to Batticaloa instead, and I took Geraldine there, in addition to displaying ‘Painting the Town’ in the Municipal premises. We also tried out Negombo, for which I got Gwen Herath to help. When we were seeking out a venue, I had proposed we meet at the Resthouse, but she suggested somewhere else. After a few minutes, during which we got on very well, she asked me how long I had been back in Sri Lanka, and was surprised it had been a few years. She thought I should surely have known that a gentleman never arranged to meet a lady at a Resthouse.
She was enormously helpful, and we performed in Maris Stella, though I realized then how low levels of English were, since the schoolchildren clearly did not know what was going on, and talked loudly through Jane Austen’s immortal prose. Geraldine McEwan however did not seem to mind too much, and much enjoyed the appreciative audiences in Colombo and Kandy, and also in Batticaloa, where a small but enthusiastic set of literary ladies were extremely hospitable. One of my great regrets about the depths to which our education system has sunk is that such small groups of cosmopolitan minds hardly exist now in the provinces.
Geraldine was also quite whimsical about the bats who shared the hall with her, and has constantly reminded me of them in the quarter century since, for we continued great friends and I saw her regularly in London. That tour was certainly full of high adventure, for there were cyclone warnings when we got to Batticaloa. We decided to stay on however after the performance, in one of the Pasekudah hotels, though we left early to be safe. In Kandy Richard joined us at the Citadel, and held Geraldine and her politically conscious stage manager, Cathy Bennet, in thrall to his bouncing varied personality. By then, in addition to his other exploits, he had also begun to do some work for Lalith Athulathmudali, who had been appointed Minister of National Security. This work took him regularly to Jaffna, and to close involvement with the military which he found fascinating as well as rewarding, something I experienced myself nearly two decades later when I began to coordinate the academic programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy.
For ‘Painting the Town’ I stayed nearly a week in Batticaloa, along with a student from S. Thomas’ who managed to get a scholarship to Eton after his ‘O’ Levels. I made many friends there, and over the next couple of years took Richard to perform there in the one-man shows based on Dickens and then Kipling that I had devised in emulation of what Geraldine had achieved.
The most difficult exercise was the Shakespeare Company, to make sure a whole group were happy, and props transported and in place, while also ensuring that the lighting and sound people (the always obliging Mahinda Dias and Ralph Sellar and their dedicated children) did all that was expected. After an exhausting first night, I had also to write a review immediately, since that was the only way to make sure that it appeared before the next performance. I thought I should try to be balanced, and made one or two criticisms in addition to many compliments, and was amused to find Shylock in the bus to Kandy complaining about what had been said of his performance. All the other reviews were much more indiscriminatingly complimentary, a trait I found disappointing, though better than what occasionally happened, unremitting criticism, usually based on general hostility rather than on actual performance.