Perhaps the most unusual trip I did for the British Council in my first year of work was the tour with the TV company. It helped me to learn a lot about British aid programmes at the time, most notably the English training programme. There were over half a dozen trainers in residence at the time, four junior ones stationed at four teacher training colleges, and four senior ones in Colombo. Three of these in effect ran important aspects of English for the Ministry, namely curriculum development and teacher training and materials development.
The fourth was meant to work in Higher Education, but soon after I joined the Deputy Representative, John Keleher, discovered that the Ministry of Higher Education was also working with the Americans. It seemed that two parallel programmes were going on, the American one run by a wonderful eccentric called Robert Baumgartner. The British gradually withdrew then from University English work, which became more and more theoretical, with funding going largely to facilitate the English Language Teaching Units to publish learned papers which were of little use to their students.
Baumgartner himself was a spectacular if largely impractical showman, and he later organized a massive Conference in Islamabad for which the British Council in Sri Lanka sponsored several participants. I was amongst them, and had a fantastic time exploring Pakistan before and after. It was December, and freezing cold in the Northern Regions, but I managed to get a bus up to Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway, and then later stayed in the palace of the Wali of Swat, an area now in total confusion I gather, after the Americans decided to arm the fundamentalists so as to defeat Communism in Afghanistan.
I saw something of this when I went to Baluchistan and what used in the days of the British Raj to be called the North West Province Frontier Province, now Pashtun-Khyber. In Quetta grave bearded gentlemen piled cases of what I realized were weapons into buses, and Peshawar seemed to be full of people carrying guns. In fairness to the Americans however, there had been a great tradition of arms manufacture there, and Darra lived up to everything the guidebooks said, for it was full of the sound of weapons being tested. But by 1988, this was all respectable, and well funded, with General Zia, who was unusually religious for a Pakistani General, having been flavor of the decade for the West.
By 1988 however he was dead, and Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister. I glimpsed her briefly at the airport when my flight to Peshawar was delayed because she was emplaning, running up the gangway to the plane with the energy I remembered of old. There was no chance of course of seeing her then, but a few years later, when she was out of office (for the second time, the establishment having got rid of her again) we renewed our acquaintance in Colombo, and I later saw her at her house in Karachi, where she fed me chocolate cake, in memory of the old days. Her death when she was about to lead the country for the third time, much older and wiser now, is a tragedy from which that poor exploited nation, exploited even in the way it was established, will find it difficult to recover.
By then I was heavily involved in the English programme of the Council, and got on very well with my British colleagues, in particular those who had come out with the new tranche of British funding, to set up the Higher Institute of English Education at the recently established National Institute of Education. In 1984 the Council had in fact hired another officer to work with John to look after work with the Ministry of Education, but a Management Services inspection had decided to get rid of that post and get me to take on a dual responsibility. I suspect this had something to do with my qualifications, even though in theory they were supposed to look at the work and not the individuals in place at any period, and even though my interests were in literature rather than language teaching.
However I am glad that they shifted my field of action, and grateful to John Keleher who encouraged me to take up the challenge. This led in time to my return to the university system, to set up English courses that would actually produce good teachers of English, rather than the experts in literature and theoretical linguists that were previously produced.
John however also understood the importance of literature in language teaching, not only in terms of the exalted view of literature held by English teachers in Sri Lanka, but also because of the simple need to encourage practice of the language. Since opportunities to speak were not common in the areas that most needed good English education, it was necessary to develop reading skills and ensure suitable materials to rouse interest. He and Rex Baker, who had taken over as Representative shortly after I joined the Council, allowed me to also develop a programme of low cost book publications, for which we also received assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency. I was helped in this by Nirmali Hettiarachchi, whom I had helped coach for her degree, way back in the 8th Lane Days, with wonderful writers like Goolbai Gunaseakara and Sybil Wettasinghe contributing stories, and in the latter case fantastic illustrations too.
Another excellent illustrator, for the books for a higher age group, was Bandula Pieris, who I believe designed the Rupavahini logo. He had been badly treated it seemed by senior management, so he came to the Council to ask us to host an Exhibition to help his reputation. Rex was keen to encourage art, and we had a splendid event, which made Bandula ever grateful, so that he obliged whenever I needed pictures for our books.
These included an innovative text called ‘English for Us’ for a radio programme, for which we also roped in Bernie Hay, who later taught at the Kotelawala Academy. The highlight of the book was a marvelous story by Nirmali, who had a fertile imagination. We had commissioned a book from her called ‘Stories for Easy Reading’, which included adaptations to a Sri Lankan setting of classics such as ‘Eveline’. She had also used the plot of a film, to produce a short story about a princess and a handsome warrior who were turned by a wicked sorcerer, separately during day and night, into a hawk and a wolf respectively.
Nirmali was persuaded to spin this out to twenty instalments for the radio programme, which Richard read with great dramatic effects. Unfortunately she tired of the story as it dragged on, or her imagination lagged, and it became more and more eccentric and implausible. But Bandula’s illustrations were splendid (except that he produced two versions of a helpful old man whom Nirmali dragged into the story for no reason I could comprehend), and she is still proud of her city, as she calls the spectacular edifices Bandula produced. For my part I still have on a wall a set of six pictures depicting the poor haunted couple – though of course all ended up well, and the wicked sorcerer exploded I think, in a puff of smoke.