Affiliated University Colleges, Aluvihare Heritage Centre, Aluwihare, British Council, British High Commissioner, British Overseas Development Administration, David Gladstone, Ena de Silva, English Language Training, GELT programme, Geoffrey Bawa, Neil Kemp, Samanalawewa Dam, University Grants Commission, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Vere Atkinson
I could never really reciprocate Ena’s hospitality by hosting her myself, but I did try in various ways on various occasions. The first was vicarious, in that I arranged an Exhibition for her at the British Council, and obtained the use of the former Representative’s house for not only the display but also as a place to stay for some of the vast brood she brought down.
The house had been built by Geoffrey Bawa near the entrance to the premises that he had constructed in 1982 by joining two old bank houses together. These colonial style buildings had been embellished by a colonnaded corridor, and looked splendid. The much lower two storied house on the other side had a matching façade, and the downstairs looked very elegant, but it was not an easy place in which to live. The Representative who had supervised the buildings, Vere Atkinson, loved it, but his successor, the boss I have most enjoyed working for, loathed the place. Vere said it was because he had a Swedish style wife who could not cope with a Bawa style house, but when I saw the poky upstairs, after they had left, I realized how difficult it must have been to survive there, with several children too.
Rex was a dignified old style Representative, but his brash successor insisted on moving, so the house was empty through much of 1990. He had offered the upstairs to me to house the Cultural Affairs Unit, doubtless because we did not get on at all, and he wanted me out of the main building, but in accepting I had suggested that we first hold Ena’s Exhibition there. Neil had agreed, in some awe I think of Ena since she got on very well with the British High Commissioner, the eccentric David Gladstone, and we had a glorious time arranging the building with all the lavish decorations Ena had brought in addition to her wonderful creations.
I remember in particular three bizarre multi-coloured birds that were placed in the different rooms, and masses of artificial flowers, which had no trace of nature in them. Ena’s philosophy was that, if you wanted real flowers, nothing could beat nature. Her flowers were for those who relished extravagance and riotous colour. They certainly went down very well, with Gladstone and the Canadian High Commissioner actually jousting to get the last lot.
The Exhibition was a great success, and helped put Ena and her creations on the map again. In the preceding decade, after she had settled down in Alu and revived the workshop there – unable to rebuild the whole business which her nephew had run into the ground while she was away – she had been at the mercy of buyers, who would take her goods on consignment, and pay very late. After the Exhibition she was able to demand cash on delivery, and also to market a much wider range of goods, including the carpentry and brass she had started for the boys, on top of the batik and traditional embroidery that the girls did.
We had a glorious time during the week of the Exhibition, though I think it put paid to my work at the Council. Neil by himself would I think have been overawed by the enthusiasm of the High Commissioner, but he had a new Deputy who was made of sterner stuff. Neil had driven away her predecessor, another gentle old school type, by ruthlessly rubbing in his own elevation as a much younger and more dynamic individual, and Gail felt obliged to live up to Neil’s vision of his cutting edge modernity. She kept muttering darkly about fire hazards, as Ena’s crew coped valiantly with making the tea they required at constant intervals – meals were brought in from outside, her elite supporters having rallied round – and clearly assumed that the Exhibition was my own act of personal indulgence towards an eccentric relation. Ena’s artistry was I think totally beyond her.
I stuck on for another year, and managed in that time to stop Neil building a cafeteria in the garden. He claimed that Geoffrey had approved of the idea, but I insisted at a staff meeting that we speak to Geoffrey, and I did so, and found him furious at the idea. He was not keen to put anything down in writing, but I told him that Neil would fib unless he did, and he finally wrote, with a grand flourish, ‘Can nothing be done to stop this monstrosity?’ That halted Neil in his tracks, and soon afterwards he moved to London, to be replaced by a much more decent though quite impossible man. He was required to consult Geoffrey about building plans, but Geoffrey, who was irritated, passed the buck to his former student Ismeth, who finally produced a reasonable looking addition to the library. The grandeur of the old Bawa building however seemed to me to have gone forever, and soon after work commenced on the addition I left the Council and went back to university teaching.
This was officially at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, but my main work was looking after the English programmes at the newly started Affiliated University Colleges. This involved a lot of travel, which allowed for many stays at Alu, compounded when I was also asked to look after the pre-University General English Language Training course. This peripatetic existence had to cease however when the University Grants Commission decided to decentralize the GELT programme, while the Affiliated University Colleges had been turned into separate universities so I had to choose one to settle at.
I plumped for Sabaragamuwa, the only campus not in a town, based at the camp set up for its workers by the Japanese firm that built the Samanalawewa Dam. I had visited the place once with Gill, when I was plotting with her to persuade the British Overseas Development Administration to fund a project on old iron smelting techniques in the region. They succumbed, and Gill I think became quite famous for her work in that field, though this was long after I had left the Council. We were sadly not on the best of terms by then, though recently we were in touch when she visited, and I found her as cheerful as ever. In 1993 however I had published a story based on the project, which related it to some JVP activity. What I wrote was wholly fictional, but it turned out that there had been some incident, which it was assumed I had known about, and not kept confidential as I should have done. I had in fact known nothing of this, which again confirms my view of the prophetic nature of good fiction – if I might characterize my own writing as such.
That was not however the main reason Gill was cross. The Assistant Director at the Council, who had been a beacon of sanity when Neil and Gail were driving me mad – and who had a soft spot for Gill, I think – told me what really irritated her was that in the story I had her married to Neil, whom she like the rest of the sensible people in the Council loathed.