, , , , ,

If the country seemed to me to be doing better in the early nineties, the British Council was a much more depressing place. John Keleher had left in 1989, changing jobs with Clive Taylor who had administered English Language Teaching in the region from London. It was, as John put it, a silly exchange since John and his wife Chris loved Sri Lanka. They lived in the house Geoffrey Bawa had developed for Druvi de Saram in Ward Place from an old rambling family house, and they enjoyed it thoroughly, entertaining often and lavishly, for any group suggested to them, visitors, young trainees at the Council, the various English Language experts in residence, writers in English.

Clive was much more traditional and he and his wife Judith found living in the East difficult, but they did their best to cope, and he proved a delightful man to work for. Unfortunately, in 1990, Rex Baker also left, and was replaced by someone who consciously saw himself as representing the new Council. I was on the ship for the first part of 1990, and therefore not there when he arrived, but I do not know that I could have done much for Clive. Neil Kemp made his life a misery, obviously relishing the fact that he had been promoted swiftly to head a country representation while the much older Clive was his Deputy. By the time I came back Clive had resigned, from Colombo and from the Council. Not entirely surprisingly, John in London followed suit soon afterwards, finding London and the new directions the Council was taking quite unbearable.

Neil saw himself as a great initiator and administrator of projects, and indicated that he thought Rex old fashioned, but as it happened we soon lost most of the projects John and Rex had set up, and there was nothing to replace them. Things had not been helped by the fact that Neil had made a public protest when Premadasa’s Minister of Education, Mr Lokubandara, decided to downgrade the Higher Institute of English Education, which the Council had helped set up. This meant that we ceased to have much influence there, and the senior project offices we had in place dropped away one by one, having found it very difficult to deal with Neil. In 1991 I visited one of them, James Drury, in Poland, where he was running a large ELT project, and we spent many happy evenings discussing Neil’s iniquities. Most galling was the fact that he never ceased to remind everyone that he had come up the hard way, having been the son of a London bus driver. I had thought that he was milking this cynically for what it was worth, but I realized in time that he was genuinely uneasy about my having an Oxford degree. An English friend over for Christmas remarked on the fact that, when I introduced him, Neil had promptly noted that he had not been lucky enough to go to Oxford.

This was a great contrast to Rex, who had been to Cambridge himself, so was able to make use of me without any envy. His wife told me frankly soon after we first met that Rex had said I was far too qualified for the job I was doing, but instead of resenting this, he and John made space for my capacities. I have since found much envy of any good work I do amongst Sri Lankans I have worked for, but Neil taught me that this is not just a national trait, but to be guarded against whenever one deals with people who are not secure in themselves.

Our problems were compounded by the new Deputy, who was a descendant of the old Liesching family of Kandy lawyers. I suspect she had an inkling that she was Burgher, which made her all the more anxious to be British. It seemed that she had worked previously at the High Commission as a Secretary but had then managed to get the qualifications to obtain an Executive position in the Council.

We did not get on very well, though on reflection I feel that this was more Neil’s fault than either hers or mine. He evidently felt threatened by me, particularly after I stopped his plan to build a cafeteria in the garden by appealing direct to Geoffrey Bawa, and he used Gail to restrict my initiatives. I was told too by David Woolger, who also loathed Neil and disliked Gail, that one or two of the other English Language Officers had resented the influence they thought I had exercised with John and Clive, and thought that they, as Britishers, should have precedence.

The first casualty of all this was the book production programme that Rex and John had supported so enthusiastically. I was told that London had declared that it was not the job of the Council to take bread out of the mouth of British publishers. This ignored the fact that the readers we targeted could not afford British books, and did not think of buying them, but through developing the reading habit we would at least ensure greater interest in such books in the future.

Another casualty was the ASSET Course we had set up, to provide better knowledge of English as well as some pedagogical skills to school leavers. David had been most enthusiastic about this, and encouraged some of his brighter students at the Pasdunrata College of Education also to attend. We had then an interesting mix of some Colombo students and others from rural backgrounds, and the interaction was I think helpful for all. Many of these ASSETS have crossed my path in later life, one working for Save the Children, two others in the Foreign Service, a third a University administrator who has now emigrated to Australia where I met him on a recent visit.

With all these initiatives being restricted, I soon found the work dull, but I should note that this might have happened anyway, as funds were taken away from places like Sri Lanka to pay for the new initiatives in the former Communist world. The Council had also evidently decided that its cultural role was no longer to send abroad the solid troupers who had presented classics and literary adaptations in far flung places, but rather to promote modern British culture, which meant expensive avant-garde productions and music. Since these were much more expensive, it meant that instead of having several touring groups each year, we were confined to just one or two.

Long after I left, my assistant Ranmali, who had taken over, told me that she was simply marking time, with none of the enthusiasm we had brought to the job before. However, I was happy to note that, after she had endured a few years with a Director she told me she loathed – who it seemed had been envious of her social standing as Neil had been on mine – she got someone who had worked previously with John Keleher and seemed in the same mould. I watched with some affection then as Sue Maingay helped to set up a Sri Lanka English Language Teachers Association, using the talents of some of the teachers David had mentored, as well as Nirmali Hettiarachchi to run some helpful programmes. But after her departure that too lost its sense of purpose, and is now run by the universities with hardly any link with the Council.