Looking back now at my time at S. Thomas’, I find it hard to believe that everything could have moved so swiftly. In January 1982 I was still very much flavor of the day, with a few parents whose children had been sent to Prep asking that they be transferred because at last College seemed to be getting back to what they had known and loved.
Unfortunately I was doing so well that Lyn Weerasekera, the Labour expert whom we had consulted about dealing with recalcitrant staff, began openly to say that College had at last found the Warden it needed. I still recall Alex Wijesinha, the long-serving Secretary of the Board, asking me at the Old Boys Celebrations that year, whether I would consider staying on for ever.
I think I upset him by my answer. I said that I would be happy to serve one term, or perhaps two, as Warden, but then I thought I should go away, because the Headship of a school was a task for younger people. I knew the History of the College extremely well, having won the prize in the subject year after year when I was young; and I had done a paper on the development of the public schools in England, and realized that the really innovative Headmasters, Arnold at Rugby, Thring at Uppingham, were young men when they took over, not the retired old men Sri Lanka had been hiring in recent years. Indeed, while I much admired the work of Wardens Buck and Stone, I felt that de Saram, a bright innovator when he first took over, had stayed on far too long, and thus contributed to what I saw as essentially stultification since then. What I did not know was that Alex Wijesinha had himself been a candidate for Warden when close to retirement.
Illangakoon, who had finally achieved a position of importance that he felt commensurate with his distinguished ancestry, after a mediocre career in public service, was not however going to yield so easily. I think he was genuinely hurt that people saw me as a potential successor so soon, when he had probably assumed that I would be willing to serve a long apprenticeship to him, while doing all the work. He began then to stymie me at what seemed to me every turn, and also managed to spread rude stories about me. Later, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, a relation of his by marriage, whom I consulted when I was on the verge of being sacked, told me in his splendidly insouciant style that he thought I had been a victim of Kandyan cunning – which was perhaps unfair, given that Lyn Illangakoon hailed from the South, but I suspect Felix knew more than I did about his wife and their domestic arrangements.
Illangakoon’s principal weapon was the claim that I was opposed to sports. This was unfair, but certainly I had tried to curtail what seemed excessive privileges for the cricketers – while at the same time trying to give those who played other games, principally the rugby team, at least a modicum of those privileges, ie special meals. The cricketers however lived a life of pure indulgence, including much time off school to attend a coaching camp.
All this and more had been instituted by Colonel F C de Saram, a kinsman whom Illangakoon had brought in as Cricket Coach even though he was a Royalist. I had known F C for a long time, for way back in 1970 he had insisted on seeing me, when he heard I had got an Exhibition to Oxford. He told me all about his own time at Oxford, where if I recollect aright he got a boxing blue but not a respectable degree, and then launched into a passionate description of what he loved about his wife.
He was however a lonely old man, and took pains to get in touch with me after I had returned to Sri Lanka. He would regularly take me out for a drink to one of his clubs, and I found his stories fascinating. Once I remember, after I had resigned because of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, and he said he thought I had reacted excessively, I upbraided him about the attempted coup which he had been instrumental in planning, in 1962. I told him, since he used to go on and on about the need to treat women chivalrously, that I thought he had been extremely ungallant in plotting against a female Prime Minister.
I still remember that exchange. ‘We would not have harmed a hair of her head,’ he said grandly. He was driving his car at the time, a delightful old mini-moke and, when he got excited, the experience was even more worrying. ‘I had detailed a couple of my trusted men to take good care of her.’
‘I’m sure you would have tried,’ I said drily, ‘But I’m not so sure your fellow conspirators would have been so scrupulous.’
He turned to me, which was unusual. ‘You mean Sidney?’ he said. I had in fact been thinking of Sidney de Zoysa, Richard’s uncle, who had a reputation for ruthlessness. ‘I had taken measures to deal with Sidney.’
I did not pursue the topic. From what I knew, Sidney would have made mincemeat of the amiable old duffers from the armed forces who had joined him in the coup. But that was typical of FC, a well meaning chap with a charisma that could take in the young, but easily used by those sharper and less decent than him.
I later wrote a story based on his character, and was delighted when Shelagh Gunawardena rang me up as she read it to say that she felt it explained certain things about what had happened to her first husband. He had been one of the bright young officers who had followed F C during the coup, and had spent some years in jail as a result, to the detriment of the marriage.
So, twenty years later, F C allowed himself to be used again, and insisted on his cricket coaching camp, which he claimed was essential so that the boys could practice taking catches against the rising sun and the setting sun. My own view was that the boys lazed all day and stole his whiskey at night while he nodded off, and this was confirmed by some of them later – when indeed one was to write that, much as they resented me at the time, they had realized what I had tried to do for them.
But by then it was too late. Blocked at every turn, with Illangakoon welshing on compromises that the then Treasurer of the Board tried to arrange, I resigned. I was persuaded by Lyn Weerasekera and Derek Samarinha, over many beers at the SSC, to withdraw the resignation, and I did so, but added to Lyn that I would continue in the style that had been so successful at the start, and which I had toned down for fear of upsetting susceptibilities that I had initially thought were genuine.
But by then the knives were out with a vengeance.