The letters home in my second term make clear how I so rapidly absorbed, and was absorbed by, Oxford. But I have also included references to some changes at home, because they indicate the shifts in perspective on someone both deeply sentimental about the past and understanding the need to move on. These start with reflections on the death of my great aunt Ida, elder sister of my grandmother. I had left out my feelings on the death of her brother Leo, which I had heard about while in Denmark the previous August, but this coming so soon marked a decisive break with my childhood. Alone of my family I had spent many happy holidays at the Old Place, the house in Kurunegala where these two stayed, while my grandmother herself had moved to Colombo and its very different perspectives. I should note though that my assumption that the place would be sold was wrong, and Leo’s daughter Lakshmi stayed on there on her own till the late eighties. I was thus able to spend many happy days there even after I came home from Oxford.
Aruna Gooneratne, a great friend in those days, was daughter of our High Commissioner in London, Tilak who with his wife Pam proved most hospitable over the years.
As a footnote, the Russian grandmaster I mention here was Karpov, who soon enough became world champion. My contemporary who defeated him was a chap called Nick Lloyd, who also played bridge brilliantly. But he suffered from depression and commited suicide subsequently.
A new craze seems to have struck Oxford and everyone goes running at all times of day in the freezing cold, and night too – needless to say, I shall never succumb to the infection – in fact due to a constitutional inability to run, I’m reducing the number of lectures to manageable proportions – 6 from next week, including 3 with 1 rather interesting character – doing Juvenal, if you know what that means. If not, you’re missing a lot and there’s a translation in my library which is at your disposal.
I did much better in my Greek Collections than I thought – ask if you don’t know what I’m talking about – B++, A—, B+, AB – whatever that means – and also AB for my essay which was, however, called little – not that I mind. Anyway I spend at least 3 hours a day in the library which is very creditable, I think, though I have developed a tendency to drop off repeatedly, though altogether I don’t sleep for more than 10 minutes. However, I have succeeded in getting up by 9 every morning, except, of course, on the morning after the bridge dinner which is an occasion when everyone including the Dean and the Admissions Tutor get drunk and play bridge. I believe I was since I didn’t stop talking from dinner except when weaving precariously to the bathroom but since that was occupied by people being sick – those who made it there, that is – I think I did rather well. Of course, I did go down 1400 one hand and we lost – though, true to form, we did beat the winning team, Dean and all – they weren’t as drunk as they should have been. Besides my partner, who doesn’t get drunk, went down 1700 subsequently, so I don’t feel guilty.
Incidentally, the dinner was very good, though the sweet came before the last course and I didn’t know what it was and didn’t take enough – the wine at dinner wasn’t too strong, it was 6 glasses of sherry before that did the trick – also ale afterwards. We went on till 4 ultimately, after the match finished, and I woke at 12 next day with a splitting headache, wandered out in a fruitless search for mail and collapsed into bed again and slept till 3 when I even felt well enough to work, though bed was essential after dinner too anyway, I did make it to Chapel next morning. Anyway, it was a fascinating experience and I don’t really mind the 3 pounds. I have persuaded myself to buy an electric kettle and for the first time yesterday I believed someone who said my tea was good. It does make a difference, it better, being 4 pounds.
The other fascinating news of the week is that at last I plucked up the courage to make a speech at the Union – mainly to prove to myself that I am not a coward. It was on the Rhodesian settlement, and it lasted half the time it should have and was rather ridiculous but most floor speeches are so I don’t feel too stupid. I have joined a Debating Society which meets at Merton once a week and consumes port but it only charges 5 pence a meeting. It’s a bit silly really, but when I first went they gave me half the weekly award so I had to go this week, and this week they didn’t, so I have to go next week.
I saw a grandmaster* – Russian, chess – on Monday, playing about 20 boards simultaneously with the University players – it cost 1 pound 25 and I didn’t think it worth that to lose – and he won everything except two draws and one loss – it goes without saying, to a Univ Freshman** – which, as you can imagine, was pretty thrilling. He hasn’t stopped talking about it yet, which is understandable.
Oedipus rehearsals go on apace, and I’m learning to snort and go into trances, and it’s all rather exciting! I hope I survive. The only trouble is, this Sunday they might prevent me seeing Cliff Richard ‘who will sing and answer questions’ – quote – see the advantages of going to church!
It was sad reading about Aunty Ida’s death, and that because I just can’t feel the reality of it penetrate into me, not because it did. I keep looking at things on a vast background, which ends up in all emotions being terribly hollow. For instance, I wanted to commiserate with Aachchi, and then I realized I was thinking in terms of the last survivor of a large family – horribly theatrical. The point of course, is that in writing this I feel, not quite insincere, but simply unreal. It is inhuman to think of things in terms of their literary value but that’s all I’m capable of – maybe a simple defence mechanism though. In a sense, also, I think, everyone has this rather sublimatory tendency, but guilt lies only in so flippantly analyzing it and admitting, as it were, one’s pride in its existence.
Claire Dias suddenly turned up on my doorstep this morning with a friend, over for the day from Reading – rather nice of her I thought. Aruna turned up later with Rohan de Saram, and spent the day here with periods at St. Hugh’s and, as she’d wanted to meet him, I had Dr Gombrich who was meditating in Ceylon a few years back for tea. It turned out it was Rohan who wanted him but we did keep going – he’d been to school with Martin West, whose ambition was to be Regius Professor of Greek – and then Gombrich enlarged on Harvard Hippy Habits, quite startling, in the calmest tones. Fascinating. .
A Ceylon Society was convened yesterday, though I couldn’t go due to a bridge date – we came 5th at the University out of 15. Wijeyadasa was elected President and Avril Treasurer, though she doesn’t sound too keen. Neither am I really – it’s a bit ridiculous clinging to people just because of things like country – or family for that matter – when you probably wouldn’t otherwise. However, I did go and congratulate Wijeyedasa whom I approve of..
To carry on from last week – I met Fr. Ernst who’s a marvelous character. I don’t think he’s quite sure of the connections, but we got on rather well. I’ve also met a super chap at Univ whose grandfather wrote a book with Robert Graves. I nearly collapsed to hear it said, not quite naturally, but almost – did I mention Lloyd George’s grandson’s presence, though I’ve not seen him yet? I’ve been reading the Grace this week, with beer twice from the Dean, though it’s usually given just once a week when it’s well read, for the whole spell. I’ve also got an invitation to bridge in his rooms with I think 3 fellows – who don’t bite, I was assured. Cuppers in bridge start this week and we have the distinction of being Univ 4. I’m afraid I haven’t finished my quota of work this week, for the first time, due to the difficulties of Herodotus and sleeping in the Bodleian, and Aruna’s visit, but I should fill up tomorrow despite going to listen to the Archbishop of C, as there’s no ‘Oedipus’ rehearsal. My prose this week for Hollis was a bit disastrous – ‘Very nice but there’s absolutely no style’ – and I’ve almost decided – again – to give up proses.
19th February 1972
For the last three days I’ve been lunching on bread and peanut-butter and maple-syrup, which tastes super, followed by cheese biscuits. The maple-syrup was a present from my bridge partner, in exchange for a pair of elephants. Unfortunately he chose the nicest pair of the ones I brought with me.
It was a bit horrifying to realize that Old Place would probably have to be sold. I suppose it is absurd keeping it on for no fixed purpose and it would be a bit much trying to keep even the annexe. Incidentally, is Lakshmi very anxious for a house of her own? I’m not quite sure – in a purely selfish sense – whether to be glad Old Place survived while I was there or to be sad I missed – and I have been, however interestingly melancholy I get about my lost childhood (the effect, presumably, of reading Proust) – its decline and fall. Did I get all I could out of it? – and more important, did I give what I could? I feel quite ashamed now that I was so anxious to leave last April – I hope Uncle Leo didn’t notice, but perhaps it was a sign that Old Place had outlived its usefulness. I flatter myself, of course, but I was the only ‘living’ person to whom it was even remotely necessary – which makes the reason why I left even funnier, except that people died so soon afterwards. Such being the thoughts that oppress me in the morning when I struggle to get out of bed, along with regret for various idiocies at bridge.
As you can gather from all that waffle, the week’s been very uneventful in a hectic sense, due principally to practically daily rehearsals of ‘Oedipus’ which change their venue hourly due to the efforts of various authorities to confuse everyone as to the timing of power cuts and – what rather helps to pass the time of power cuts – practising for cuppers and discovering we get worse daily. Our first and last match is tomorrow, being the last possible day for playing, due to the lunatic activities of the other half of our four who set up a Computer Dating programme, just before the power-cuts put the computer out of action. They have been inundated with applications for boys with cars from girls from the Sarah Churchill College of Education, 6 miles out and looked down upon by all Oxonians. One has refused to take part in the programme, the other was abandoned by all his choices – despite which the propaganda continues.
I was just beginning to bewail the lack of literary people in the College – I’d just discovered only one person who could explain to me the relation between Proust’s life and his book – with the exception of the Dean who now thinks he’s Humphrey Bogart – when my scout began to comment on my bedside literature! He’s decided to turn a blind eye to my oversleeping as I did twice, missing a lecture and church, despite falling asleep immediately after dinner on the latter night before, I haven’t fallen asleep in the Bod. this week, but I did at a lecture on the ‘Waste Land’ yesterday by Dame Helen Gardener who, I’m assured, is famous. Anyway, I’ve finished my work for the week, despite the Bod. closing early on Saturdays, which I discovered only today. Also I went to Church at 9.00 pm on Ash Wednesday – though virtue was not predominant there since there was supposed to be a party afterwards – unfortunately there was only white wine and squash and the Dean standing in for the Chaplain and being wicked about Parker’s false teeth. He gave a sermon last Sunday, on whether ‘ayape’ should be translated love or charity – it was exciting.
Ceylon Today 20 May 17 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=21379