A J Ranasinghe, Accelerated Mahaweli Programme, Bellagio, British Council, Charlie Gamage, Construction Industry Training Project, David Woolger, Edward Wijemanne, English, Galkulama, Gam Udawa, Gill Juleff, Jeritza Macarter, John Keleher, John Payne, Marina Anandappa, Mirigama, Molina Jayaratne, Padmini Ratnam, Paru Nagasunderam, Pasdunrata College of Education, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Richard de Zoysa, Rudi Corens, Servants, Sue Maingay, Vocational Training Centres
The political situation then was sad enough when I got back from Bellagio in the June of 1993. But I also faced a sad personal loss, in the sudden death of David Woolger. Since the death of Richard de Zoysa in 1990, he had been I think my favourite companion and, in the last couple of years before he died, we had travelled frequently together outside Colombo, in addition to meeting regularly for work as well as food and drink at his house in Stratford Avenue.
I had first met him in 1984 soon after I had joined the British Council. One of my first big jobs was to take a film crew round the country, since Sri Lanka had been selected as one of the countries to feature in the anniversary programme the Council had commissioned for its I think 50th anniversary. I learnt a lot then about the development work of the Council, including the massive Construction Industry Training Project it administered up in Galkulama. The Jayewardene government had sensibly started this when it embarked on its massive construction programme round the country, both Premadsa’s Housing Programme and Gamini Dissanayake’s Accelerated Mahaweli Programme.
It was a great pity the Rajapaksa government did not do something similar when it started its construction programme in the North, for one constant complaint at my Reconciliation Committee meetings at Divisional Secretariats was that outsiders were brought in for all the jobs. I found indeed that the Vocational Training Centres in the North had very few students, so that now I have sought, as Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, to get special aid for the poorer Districts there to recruit more young people into the sector.
Way back in 1984 I found out more too about the other area in which the Council was heavily involved, namely English Education. In addition to three consultants based at the Ministry in Colombo, it had junior consultants in the form of what were termed Key English Language Trainers at four teacher training colleges. The Council’s Deputy Representative, John Keleher, had chosen David Woolger, who worked at Mirigama, to be filmed.
I thought David rather theatrical in his approach, and he told me later that he had thought me snooty. But we became great friends when he came back a couple of years later as the resident trainer at the Pasdunrata College of Education, one of the new pre-service Teacher Training Colleges instituted while Ranil Wickremesinghe was Minister of Education. It was a great initiative, and Ranil’s experienced Secretary, Edward Wijemanne, had picked excellent Presidents for each College.
Pasdunrata had a delightful character called Charlie Gamage, and the institution flourished for a few years. David was inspirational, and he had on his staff two of my former students from Peradeniya, Paru Nagasunderam and Padmini Ratnam, who were deeply dedicated. David also got me to come down to talk to the students, and arranged a special performance for them of Richard’s brilliant production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
It was around that time that I realized that David was also an actor of great talent, and we used him then in a number of productions at the Council. I used to arrange many such in those days, and I remember in particular David’s performance in ‘The Birthday Party’, directed by an ebullient short term consultant called Ray Tongue. The heavies there were played by Council Representative Rex Baker, and his Deputy John Keleher, and it seemed a good time was had by all.
David also worked well with the Belgian artist and director Rudi Corens, for whom we had provided a sort of professional home at the Council, since the original project for which the Belgian government had sent him, support for the Tower Hall Foundation, had collapsed because of the sheer idiocy of A J Ranasinghe, to whom the Tower Hall had been entrusted. David performed in several plays Rudi put on, memorably in a evening of Pinter, when he created an awful chill in portraying the interrogator in ‘One for the Road’. He also worked often under Rudi’s direction with Jeritza Macarter, a marvelous American who entertained us sometimes at the lovely house she and her husband lived in on the coast just south of Negombo. But they were threatened by a local politician and left Sri Lanka, to settle down in Mexico, thinking it was safer, which struck me as an appalling indictment of this country.
David loved the country, not least because he had a solid relationship with a young man, whom he would refer to as the Child, but whom he was clearly much in love with. As we grew closer, he told me too about his first boyfriend in Sri Lanka, someone called Aubrey, whom he had met while at Mirigama. He had given him a motorbike, and Aubrey had crashed while riding it and died.
When David finished at Pasdunrata, he applied for another post, and was appointed to look after the Regional English Support Centres. They had been in the charge previously of another Consultant who was not quite so active, though I am not sure David was right in claiming that she spent all her time at the Galle Face Swimming Pool. But it is true that I did see her emerging from the steps leading down to it one morning when I met someone there.
David of course threw himself into the work, and visited the centres frequently, and often got me to go with him to help with the literature courses he had started. He was a firm believer in the importance of literature in language teaching, but he had to be careful about this because the prevailing practice in Sri Lanka was to teach what was termed appreciation. This included what was respectfully described as hidden meanings, which meant that teachers were required to explicate them. That in turn meant that essentially students were expected to take down and regurgitate notes, rather than actually read texts and respond to them.
I remember going up with David to Nuwara Eliya, where we stayed at both the Grand and the St. Andrew’s Hotel, and – despite his great romance – he commented at length on the looks of the waiters and went off in the evening to try to find a policeman he said had entertained him royally on a previous visit. That particular expedition did not succeed, but his enthusiasm was delightful. Then there was also a trip to Aluwihare, where he charmed my Aunt Ena, who often asked after him, and I think realized how much I missed him after he died.
The RESC staff adored him, and entertained him at their homes, and I remember joining him once for dinner at the home of one of the Bandarawela RESC teachers. She was a diminutive lady called Marina Anandappa, and an excellent teacher David would tell me, though she sticks in the memory I think because she soon afterwards fell ill and died tragically young. And I remember too David’s great friend the English Director in Ratnapura, Mr Rajapaksa, who was enormously helpful when I had to run my own training programmes there, giving me use of the spacious Embilipitiya RESC. There was picture of David prominent there, even a decade after he had died. Mr Rajapakas too died while in harness, and I am glad I was able to see him while he was in hospital, smiling bravely despite a catheter.
David and I were deeply worried in the early nineties about the direction the British Council was taking, after Rex Baker and John Keleher had left. But though the new Director, Neil Kemp was appalling, the Education Adviser to the Overseas Development Administration that provided funds had great faith in David. Though he had decided to move into primary education – you have to remember I serve a Minister who is keen on that, he told me, when I suggested that he should build instead on what had gone before – he told David that he wanted him to run the project.
This much David told me on the phone, having come back to Sri Lanka a few weeks after I had returned from Bellagio. We arranged to meet then at the NIE, where he was based, and I got there to be told something of what Michael Francis had said, before he suddenly collapsed. ‘This is serious,’ was about the last thing he said.
We called an ambulance, and he was taken to hospital, but it was a bad aneurism, and I am not sure the Council made sure he got the best doctor available. The aneurism was dealt with, but then he had another, and a couple of days later, July 20th 1993, he died.
His legacy was soon forgotten as far as the Council was concerned. The RESCs were left largely to themselves, though David would have involved them more actively in the new Primary Project. That was run by a rather boring person who did not travel much, but stuck to Colombo, and produced rather dull material. It was not surprising then that, when ODA moved into mathematics a few years later, the British Council did not get the contract. It took a new Director in the John Keleher mold, Sue Maingay, to start active cooperation without any contracts with the education sector, which in time led to the Council again becoming the natural agent for any aid programmes the British government embarked upon.
Forgotten too was the Child. Though David had taken him to stay with his parents in England, and had told them he was going to provide for him, he had not made a will. One of his close friends, Molina Jayaratne, who had also met his parents, told me that they had expressed a desire to fall in at least to some extent with David’s wishes, but she also told me that they had a neighbour hovering around who was not very encouraging. Sure enough, when I managed to see them, they were less than committed, and in the end they did nothing despite David’s wishes.
I have written much about David over the years, trying to recall his achievements every few years on his birthday, September 20th. He has also featured in some of my fiction, as a confidante in the chapter in my novel ‘Servants’ that deals with the British Council. And he also provided material for a chapter there about a fictional older brother of my brother-in-law, who looked after the old family plantation in the Mirigama area. David assured me that there was a ring of planters there who, unmarried or with wives in Colombo, took solace in a group of young men they passed on to each other. I was not sure whether to credit all this, which seemed rather the stuff of an Angus Wilson novel – ‘As if by Magic’ indeed describes something of the sort, though in Malaysia, before moving on to an even less probably encounter in Colombo. But long after I had published ‘Servants’, I was told that my account of the older brother was not entirely at odds with reality.
But I had realized by then that the imagination has a logic of its own. In 1991 a short story in my collection ‘The Lady Hippopotamus’, had drawn criticism from the then Assistant Director at the Council, John Payne, the only nice Britisher left, on the grounds that I had written about a JVP activist who had worked on a British Project, when I should have kept quiet about that. He was amazed when I told him that I knew nothing whatsoever about that factor, but had made up completely the terrorist actions in my story. I think John believed me, not least because I did not conceal the fact that the young lady he rather fancied at the time, Gill Juleff, was indeed the inspiration for my main character – whom I had married to the British Council Director, a Neil Kemp figure about whom John obviously shared my views.
Ceylon Today 6 August 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3897