but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done
By August I felt we had achieved enough to justify some time off, so I took a few days off as noted to further explore Orissa after the Aide-et-Action meeting in Puri. Then in September, after the workshops for Centre Managers had been set in motion, I had a week in Thailand, where my old friend Peter Rowe had property. He was perhaps the sharpest intellectually of friends I made in middle age, and though we argued ferociously, given his hardline right wing views, conversation with him was always stimulating.
I should note that he had been unswerving in his opposition to Tiger terrorism, with nothing of the appalling hypocrisy displayed by Americans and British, the British in general, the ostensibly liberal amongst the Americans who were ruthless when it came to their enemies but indulged terror when it seemed to benefit them. In that regard the American right was less sanctimonious, though there was no doubt that they too would abandon any pretence at principle when it came to a question of their own preferred client states.
These however were very short trips, and it was only in October that I decided I could take a long break. I try to get back to Oxford whenever possible, and I had been mulling over going there for my old tutor’s 97th birthday when an old friend, who had told me a couple of years previously that she thought she was in love, invited me to her wedding. I thought it unlikely that I would ever again be asked to the wedding of a contemporary, or nearly so – she was in fact a couple of years younger, the sister of an even older friend, and had been a great companion during my days of graduate study when my own generation had gone down. So I decided I would make it, though then I had to decide how to spend the fortnight between the wedding and the birthday.
I solved the problem by going to Germany, which Mahinda Samarasinghe had wanted me to do much earlier, in connection with the links we had been developing. I had found our German consultant, Markus Boehner, a tremendous resource, and it transpired that he had been trying to develop a joint programme for Centre Managers which seemed to have been forgotten. The link was to be between our University of Vocational Technology and Kaiserslautern Technical University, but there had been no follow up after an initial visit to Germany by a group led by the Vice-Chancellor.
The reason the Minister had wanted me to go with him was different, involving a proposal to bring down volunteers to teach English at the new German Technical Training Institute that was being set up in Kilinochchi. This had been facilitated by a lady at Mainz University which ran a teacher training programme, and was of particular interest to me since I was thinking of starting teacher training in Vocational Training Centres – and indeed we now have courses in Education for both English and Technology.
Unfortunately the appointment at Mainz was fixed for the 12th of October and that in Kaiserslautern for the 20th, which still left a week free. Our Consul General in Frankfort, the erudite Ranjith Gooneratne who had helped me when I visited Lebanon where he was Ambassador, offered to put me up but I thought a week too long to spend in Germany (though I did enjoy exploring Mainz, where I had not been before, not only the Cathedral but also the church with the Chagall stained glass which my uncle the Bishop had given me a picture of in childhood).
A better way of filling up the time was found when I found that most of the Balkan countries allowed one to visit if one had a multiple entry Schengen visa. So I went off to Albania, which proved delightful. The capital Tirana was not very exciting, but after a brief exploration I set off by bus to Berat, a UNESCO Heritage Centre for its Ottoman remains. The mosques were charming, and in the morning I explored the citadel with a marvelous museum of icons. From there I went to Gjirokastra, yet another UNESCO heritage centre high on a hill, with another castle and also exquisite old Ottoman houses.
From there, another long bus journey through spectacular countryside, I went to Saranda, a lovely little seaside resort, with the Roman ruins at Butrint nearby. But then I found that Corfu was a short ferry ride away, and with my Schengen visa I had no problems about heading there for a day. The place had attracted me from childhood, first because it was the setting for ‘My Family and Other Animals’ Gerald Durrell’s account of an idyllic childhood, and then because it was the old Corcyra where the Peloponnesian war had broken out.
Corfu was more expensive than Albania, but my hotel, overlooking the sea, was worth the price, as was the cab that took me to the Achilleion, and then helped me find one of the Durrell houses on the way back. That was a bow to sentiment, but equally satisfying was the Achilleon though I had not heard of it before I got to Corfu. It had been the retreat of the Austrian Empress Elizabeth after the tragic death of her son Rudolf (which was how Franz Ferdinand became the heir to the throne, and the First World War was precipitated by his assassination in Sarajevo).
I knew about Elizabeth because of a highly romantic film about her and her husband the Emperor Franz Josef which I had seen as a child. It was called ‘Forever My Love’, and the imperial couple were incredibly beautiful, and I had no recollection of her having virtually abandoned him in later life after their son had died. But it seems she had done so and ensconced herself in Corfu where she indulged in a passion for the Greek hero Achilles, commissioning lots of statues of him in various stages of undress. Later the palace had passed into the hands of the German Kaiser, who evidently thought of himself as a German Achilles and commissioned statues of himself, though thankfully these were less in evidence now.
Corfu also has the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, built by Sir Thomas Maitland of Mt Lavinia fame. He had governed what were known as the Ionian Isles while also being Governor of Malta, both acquired during the Napoleonic wars. The palace, built in classical style, was grand enough, but even more impressive was the museum of oriental art that it housed, created round the collection of a Greek diplomat. This was touted as one of the best collections of oriental art in Europe, and it certainly had a number of beautiful items.
As the shadows lengthened, I went to the old citadel and climbed up to the lighthouse. The powerful fortifications had been fought over by Turks and Venetians before the British took over, finally ceding the Ionian Isles to Greece in the middle of the 19th century.
After that serendipitous day, I went back to Albania for more classical remains, at Apollonia, where Octavius had been studying when news of his uncle Julius Caesar’s assassination reached him and he decided to head back and compete for the succession. He won against all odds, and as Augustus Caesar laid the foundations for perhaps the most powerful in its impact of all empires. That same day I went on to Durres for yet another amphitheatre, this in the middle of the city unlike the pastoral sites of Butrint and Apollonia.
I had one day more, so next morning I went north, to Shkodra for a wonderfully bleak castle, and then ended up at Krije, which involved a step drive up from New Krije where the bus had dropped me. This was the hometown of Albania’s hero Skanderburg, who had served the Ottomans and then set up an independent state. Again I had a hotel with magnificient views across the hills, and up to the castle which had been restored but was an impressive monument to the national hero. The fortifications also contained a charming little mosque, with lovely if fading frescoes.
After a day in Germany, when I also saw Frankfurt Cathedral for the first time after my visit to Kaiserslautern, I was back in Oxford which always seems to me like coming home. I stayed with my former Dean, in a guest room in the retirement home to which he moved early, on the grounds that he could then create a new life for himself, as opposed to taking up residence when he was verging on helplessness. I was there for six days, but that hardly seemed enough, a couple of friends coming up to see me, with one of whom I went to the Ashmolean Museum which I had not visited since my undergraduate days. It has been splendidly revitalized, and I marveled again at the marvelous collection, though I did feel that Corfu did better on Asiatic art.
I dropped in on my supervisor, who had cheerfully told me a couple of years ago that he was dying, but who still survived though in a wheelchair. He had lost his wife earlier in the year, and was still tearful when he spoke of her, but otherwise carried on as best he could, his mind still as wide-ranging as when he taught me. The same was true of my undergraduate tutor, older still at 97. We had a lovely lunch together, which he dished up himself, allowing me to help only marginally more than on previous occasions.
And I had a great time with my Dean, who has changed very little since we first met in the quadrangle 45 years ago. There are few people now with whom I can spend any length of time without feeling bored, and he is perhaps the chief of them. Six days had seemed a long time when I first planned the trip, and I had suggested a day or two in a guest room in College in between, but he had dismissed the idea, and the days passed blissfully.
In College though, things had changed. He took me in to formal hall on the Sunday, but to my surprise I found that undergraduates now brought their parents in. There were hardly any fellows dining in, as opposed to young research fellows. Conversation was limited, though I was lucky to have on my other side another retired history fellow, grandson of the legendary Gilbert Murray.
My great friends at Lady Margaret Hall, who had hosted my 50th birthday party, had retired, but we had dinner and bridge, as we had done so often over the years in the delightful house they had moved to, some miles north of Oxford. I had thought that, with their leaving, my ties with College life had ended, but the month before a contemporary had become Warden of New College, and he had me to dinner in the Lodgings. It was a wonderfully quirky house, including the bridge that spans New College Lane, and as we explored the place after dinner I thought again how fortunate I have been to have such continuing closeness to that city of acquatint.
Ceylon Today 11 Feb 2017- http://ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=14964