If aid to English was what interested me most, more spectacular was what the British in the early eighties saw as the flagship of their training programmes, a Construction Industry Training Project that was obviously intended to help with the large infrastructure development programmes that Jayewardene and Premadasa had initiated. I suppose it is a sign of comparative poverty now, as much as of hostility to the current government, that the British provide us with no such assistance for the much more comprehensive, if less grandiose, programme of infrastructural development in which this government is engaged. Fortunately the Japanese have continued as helpful now as they were earlier, and there are lots of others to contribute largesse now, who in the eighties were still far behind the West with regard to political and economic influence.
I took the TV crew up to Galkulama near Anuradahapura, where they got some splendid shots of youngsters learning masonry and welding and also driving massive machinery around. This provided an entertaining contrast to David Woolger, the most dynamic of the KELTS (Key English Language Trainers) who was stationed at the Mirigama Training College. I thought his antics in front of the camera over dramatic, and he told me later that he thought I was snooty, but we became great friends in time, and he served three stints altogether in Sri Lanka. After a couple of years away, he returned as the resident trainer at the new Pasdunrata College of Education, which the government started for Pre-Service training, essentially an unknown concept earlier, and then he was kept on to take charge of the Regional English Support Centres that were being established islandwide.
Unfortunately by that stage he was receiving little support from the Council in the form of the tender loving care that John and Rex had lavished on their staff, which had helped to build up the largest programme of educational aid that the Council had administered in Sri Lanka. Rex’s successor unfortunately belonged to the new breed of Council officers who saw their task as commercial rather than cultural, bidding for aid contracts against other more efficient agencies in the new system the British Overseas Development Agency had set up. After I had left, David felt there was no one he could really talk to in the Council, and no one realized he was working too hard. He had a sudden aneurism, while I was talking to him at the NIE, and he died a few days later.
I lost a great friend, and someone who had been a brilliant sounding board both for the books I published and for the new programmes I was devising for university level English. The Council lost its best worker, and its educational work went downhill after that, though there was a slight resurrection when Sue Maingay took over as Director, and revived something of the older system of personal relations, with government counterparts as well as colleagues.
Sri Lanka also lost, because instead of David Woolger the Council brought in an expert who cared nothing for the country to run its newest English programme. The British had decided to go into Primary Education, which David and I had advised against, but the ODA Adviser, Michael Francis, told us ruefully that he had to serve a political master, and it seemed that Lynda Chalker was obsessed with Primary Education, even though that was not where Sri Lanka needed assistance. Francis had however decided that David should run the programme, insisting when David said he knew nothing about primary education that he was clever enough to learn, and his expertise within the country would be invaluable.
But he died before he could start on the job, and the result was a desiccated set of books, with unimaginative training of teachers. Consequently the Council lost the bid for the Primary Maths assistance programme, which was a pity because, though the Consultants who were employed did a great job, they did not have the influence to ensure conformity with the rest of the Maths programme. I found chaos then, in the short period in which I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the NIE, and indeed its head, Lakshman Jayatilleke, admitted when I brought up the problem at a meeting chaired by the then President, that there had been some problems about coordination.
All this however was in the future, and in 1984 I was still finding my feet in dealing with the various counterparts I had to work with over the next few years. The Council itself had a delightful working atmosphere, and the transition from Vere Atkinson to Rex Baker was smooth and created no disruption. They were very different personalities, the former mercurial, the latter seemingly solid, though with a delightfully mischievous sense of humour; but both belonged firmly in the tradition of commitment to the country in which they served, which had been established by Bill McAlpine, who had served as Representative for ages, and then enjoyed his retirement here.
Rex did have one problem he inherited from Vere, which was never resolved. When Geoffrey Bawa had thrown two houses together to produce an elegant office, he had also built a house for the Representative in the garden. Vere had lived there happily, but Rex, and more particularly his wife Maj-Britt, found it difficult – for the simple reason, Vere told me, when me met once in London, that the Representative had been given a Bawa style house, whereas Rex had a Swedish style wife. I myself thought their discomfort exaggerated, until much later, after they had left, I saw the living quarters upstairs and realized how cramped they must have been for a family with four growing children.
Still, the Bakers stayed on manfully, for six years. Neil Kemp, the Representative who arrived after Rex, promptly moved into a large and expensive mansion down the road, and the upstairs of the house was then offered to me to run the Cultural section, though after I left, and cultural activity diminished, it was used for the burgeoning examination business. Before I moved in however, I had a fantastic exhibition there, for Ena de Silva, the first she had held after closing down her operations in Colombo, and retreating to her ancestral village in Aluwihare.
Kemp I suspect thought that I had arranged the Exhibition simply to help a relation, but in fact I thought I was doing the Council a favour by having it there. Ena was a great favourite with the then British High Commissioner, David Gladstone, and also with the Canadians, and the exhibition was well attended and brought lots of welcome publicity to the Council as well as for the Aluwihare Heritage Centre. It also inspired memorable scenes, as when Gladstone and his Canadian counterpart, Nancy Stiles tussled for possession of the last of the extravagant artificial flowers Ena had produced, for decoration as well as for sale.
It was the last time I think that the premises attracted aesthetic interest. Shortly afterwards Kemp decided to build a cafeteria in the garden. I managed to put a stop to that, with the help of Geoffrey Bawa, but I could not prevent a library extension, though Kemp was advised to consult Bawa as to the design (Bawa characteristically refused to get involved, but insisted that Kemp use his former associates, Ismeth Raheem and Feroze Choksy, which he decided would be punishment enough for Kemp). By then the balcony outside the Representative’s office was no longer in commission. In 1984 it had been the scene of Vere Atkinson’s farewill party for the staff, and that it seemed had been the high point of the Anniversary TV programme coverage of Sri Lanka. A friend who was a film and TV critic informed me that he had been impressed by what seemed a green gin party, suggesting that my life had not changed from Oxford days.