One of the pleasures of working for the Council under Rex Baker was the leisure he allowed me. We worked on flexi-time, which meant that I could have lots of lieu leave, since much of what I did required work in the evenings and at weekends. But in addition he was quite generous about giving me unpaid leave if I wanted to travel abroad for any length of time.
I had four long stints away, three on board the American University ship on which I had begun doing inter-port lectures in 1982. Sadly they stopped coming to Sri Lanka after I had done two more such short trips, from Hong Kong in 1984 and from Bombay in 1985, but then they invited me to do the whole voyage, teaching English in 1986 and then in 1990 running the Core Course, the compulsory introduction to the world that was mandatory for all students. They also asked me to do a long inter-port stint in 1989 to cover all of Asia, so I had to fly to Istanbul and sail all the way to Penang.
On all these occasions Rex gave me leave to do some extra travel too, so I spent some time with a friend in Vietnam on the way to Hong Kong, and saw Goa and Simla when I went to Mumbai. In Turkey I had a fantastic fortnight, getting to Ankara and Cappadocia, and then all the way down through Eastern Turkey to Antakya, the old Antioch, on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. After the first long voyage, which began and ended in North America, I busted what I earned on exploring Brazil. Varig offered unlimited air travel within Brazil for three weeks for just $100, and I went to fourteen destinations, including Rio Branco, which my Brazilian friends said no one ever went to. I also had some days in Brazil with the son of an old Guide friend of my mother with whom I had stayed in Athens in 1971 on my way to Oxford. She was called Calogirou, and I had always thought she was Greek, but it seemed she was a German who had first married an American, before settling down in Athens with her second husband.
Rudolf then was American, but had settled down in Brazil after having worked for some international agency, and had a healthy scorn for anyone and anything that was not Brazilian. His mother had evidently given him glowing reports of my sense of adventure, so he had issued a standing invitation to me to visit, and was totally encouraging about my preposterous itinerary. It turned out to be a fantastic experience, extending to swimming in the Amazon on the date, Chanaka Amaratunga used to claim, when I had been appointed President of the newly formed Liberal Party.
In 1990 I was even more adventurous, so I went to Peru before embarking on the ship in the Bahamas, and to Mexico after we had landed in Seattle a hundred days later. Whereas Brazil had not really had a strong culture before colonization, the Inca and Aztec and above all the Mayan temples were overwhelming. So was the exuberance of life in Mexico – as in Brazil – and I was particularly struck by the superb dance theatres in Mexico City, which blended all sorts of traditions to showcase a vibrant living culture. I have often thought since that we should establish a National Dance Theatre in Sri Lanka, to preserve and develop and also build upon our varied excellences.
Whilst I indulged my passion for travel during these years, my first long stint away, in 1985, was a harking back, for it was to spend a summer in Oxford. I had long been impressed by the Raj Quartet of Paul Scott, after Ashley had insisted I teach it at Peradeniya, instead of the Victorian novelists I had specialized in. It seemed to me that his incisive understanding of the end of British imperialism in India had not received sufficient appreciation, and I felt this more strongly when British television anaesthetized the thrust of his analysis by producing a celebration of British colonialism, suggesting that its nasty side was owing to just a few bad eggs, whereas the majority of the rulers were kind and thoughtful. I was therefore keen to do more research on the books, and write this up, and Rex obligingly gave me a couple of months of unpaid leave.
He and John also arranged for my travel by nominating me for the annual Literature Seminar the Council conducted at Cambridge. That was a delightful experience, ten days in Trinity College, with talks by a whole range of worthies, including George Steiner and Margaret Drabble and Malcolm Bradbury, with bright academics from all over the world as one’s companions. The Brazilians put me up in a couple of places during my visit there the following year, and I found a soulmate in a Yugoslav, who also came round to Oxford for some work after the seminar, and much enjoyed climbing on my roof, the College having kindly given me the rooms in which I had been happiest and most irresponsible, in my second year.
Bogdan later hosted me twice in Sarajevo when the ship went to Yugoslavia, driving me down the second time through Montenegro, with visits to monasteries where his wife had worked in restoring frescoes so that the monks were most hospitable. He also entertained me superbly at his home, and introduced me to his father-in-law, who was a distinguished scholar. He had been a Visiting Fellow of All Souls in Oxford, and had worked on oral poetic traditions with Milman Parry, whose study of Yugoslav poets had revolutionized the study of Homer. Dinner with Prof Koljevic was a stimulating experience, as he ranged over the traditions of his country, claiming that the Serbs were the only race that celebrated defeat in its national poetry.
My two visits to Sarajevo were also illuminating, if sadly so, in another respect. In 1986 Bogdan had invited several of his fellow academics to meet me, and it mattered not a whit what their race was. By 1990 things had turned sour, and the Croats he said hardly spoke to him. All hell broke loose soon afterwards, though by then Bogdan was in America, from where he wrote asking me if I could help through my ship contacts to find him a tenured position. This was in 1994, and I hoped to contact him when I went there that year, but I hit Miami in the midst of a cyclone and all my plans were changed and I was not available at the number I had given him. I do not know if he tried to get in touch, but I have not heard from him since.
I did however hear, not of him, but of his father-in-law. One of my friends in Oxford, who had met Bogdan, said that there was a story that Prof Koljevic had been a leading figure in asserting Serb supremacy when Bosnia went through civil unrest. The story was a rumour, I was told, but a strong one, and later it seemed to be confirmed by a colleague in the Classics who knew more about the Professor’s work. I have never found out exactly what happened, but I am not sure that I want to, given the fond memories I have of the enormously civilized Professor quoting his national epic, which characterizes defeat as ‘my fine flower’.