A Time of Gifts – 19. The End of my Third Year


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I sense a valedictory note in these letters and those that follow, even though I still had well over a year to finish my course (and though this was not certain till the very end of my final undergraduate terms, I did stay on for further degrees). I am sorry that I have not generally mentioned individuals in these letters, because reading them brings back memories of the truly wonderful friends I had. I should note that the character disliked by the distinguished diplomats I mention was Tissa Wijeyeratne, who transformed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, very much for the worse, since he disliked the more sophisticated ethos of the individuals I mention such as Shirley Amerasinghe, who was internationally acclaimed – and then suffered from another extremist, when J R Jayawardene stopped him chairing the Law of the Sea Conference.


The one who produced champagne when I won the Junior Common Room Presidency of the College was the one I spent a week with on Hayling Island in the summer of this year, and with whom I probably had deeper and more wide-ranging conversations than with anyone else in my undergraduate days. I went about every fortnight to the opera in London with one who did not mix with my other friends, and became a Catholic Priest, and has just retired. He studied at the English College at Rome where I spent a memorable night in 1976. Then there was Benazir Bhutto, with whom there were long sessions of Monopoly, most memorably when I put her brother up in my rooms. And the mad Australian who was the livewire behind the Vile Bodies, and with whom I explored much of South East Asia in the years that followed.


One memorable day that is not recorded in my letters was the day the Vile Bodies went to Calais for lunch. We left before dawn, one of our number having stayed up all night on the top of All Souls Tower to which he had climbed, dressed in a Chinese silk dressing gown which astonished the citizens of Calais. The second car stopped for breakfast at the Ritz and so missed the ferry we caught, but we met up for a wonderful lunch where the only lady brave enough to join us – who later became a fellow of Lady Margaret Hall – consumed massive quantities of moules marinieres, with the champagne she seemed to live on (and to which in time she converted me, after the initial distaste born of my first taste of the stuff at Rheims, so very long ago).



4th March 1974

The love cake arrived two months late, half stale, to be wholly consumed a week before he fled Oxford to find peace in the foothills of the Himalayas by the Editor of ‘Cherwell’ – the Chitty whose friends you met last year.   This, unfortunately, in addition to making all those who persuaded him to take on the job feel guilty, deprives one of my incognito post of Cherwell’s political correspondent – too soon, alas, since I hadn’t succeeded in publicizing myself sufficiently to be assured of winning this week’s Union elections. Still, 4 mentions in 4 weeks wasn’t too bad, most of them in letters to the Editor who obligingly published.

Anila seems to have told you I intend to return overland – which was only suggested – and have organized a ball, the future prospect of which was all I was deputed to consider. Despite the hopeful figures I made up, the Union thinks it too risky.

If I haven’t written since, my XI won the football match against the Dean’s XI very handsomely, which is a slight disaster as it’s traditionally a draw. Also the Ref., who’s meant to send the Dean off, got confused and sent us both off – of course, we were nearly the worst players on the field. I slept for about 12 hours after the match and spent last week in a state of complete exhaustion as we went to London on Monday and missed the last train back and had to spend the night in Reading, and then there was a spare ticket to the Opera on Tuesday as well, and the termly Chapel party was on Wednesday after the Ash Wednesday service, and I fell fast asleep at the party I went to on Thursday to watch the election results – just as well, probably, since I found it all very interesting to the indignation of the tight–lipped Conservatives round about. I shall probably collapse of exhaustion at the end of term and shall go away for a week to recover, but as I’m fairly ahead with my work as well, life’s relatively satisfactory. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 18. Moving to Maturity


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Pic5 - CopyThe first term of my third year saw the last set of student demonstrations to really rock Oxford. The Examination Schools next door to Univ were occupied, in pursuit of a demand to establish a University Students’ Union (previously the University had worked only in terms of Colleges) and there was much high drama though it all fizzled out in the end. OUSU was finally established, but just when student radicalism was dying out, with greater concentration on obtaining well paid jobs. I should note that, whereas the brightest in my year sought Civil Service appointments, and the brightest in the next thought of the bar, the intake of 1973 was the first in which a job in the city became the preferred occupation.


A constant factor during my time at Oxford was my father’s efforts to help others too to get in. It is a mark of his unparalleled generosity, as well as his deep commitment to promoting education for all he came across (notably the children of staff in Parliament and at home) that he devoted time and energy to finding youngsters places at good educational institutions. In the case of our neighbor, Gajan Pathmanathan, after a place had been secured and his father died suddenly, my father financed his studies at Oxford – though he was helped by my getting a British Council scholarship for fees in my final year, and Gaji getting the same from I think his second year onward.


These letters also include the first mention of the Vile Bodies, a dining club based on the Evelyn Waugh novel, which became quite a cult, so that in time our photographs, in sepia, were displayed in period decorated cafes. It was the precursor to two other clubs in which, started in my graduate days, I served as Senior Member, the Keats Society, and the Piers Gaveston Society which I believe still flourishes.



12th November 1973

Life’s been excessively exhausting, and I’m only writing now because the Proctor’s party for Presidents has had to be postponed due to sit-ins and demonstrations and other lunacies – opposing all of which, as well as organizing  an election for JCR Secretary (the right man won) as the old one resigned, has taken up quite a bit of time.

The JCR unfortunately approved of the demonstrations, but luckily I succeeded in falling asleep whenever any were on, or worked, and avoided them. In addition, what with bi-weekly freshmen entertainments, solid Union hacking as I’ve decided I want to be President, ludicrous committees and endless and endless dinners – in addition to being told by Cawkwell that my work’s improving, – I have succeeded in sleeping solidly for 14 hours twice last week. Also my philosophy essays are getting shorter and shorter and might soon melt into nothing. The noises of the sit-in finally dissipating are floating up to my room, none of the issues resolved, and everyone as uninformed as ever.

Sorry for some sort of non sequitur – I’ve just had a neurotic friend round who doesn’t trust the Dean or the Chaplain and talks to me for hours about his problems – this in addition to arguing on behalf of someone who’s being rusticated, for not even pretending to work over the last 4 weeks.  I’m hopeful he’ll be kept on but it’s rather in the balance.

For the rest, I’ve dined on Trinity High Table with Ravi Tennakoon, discussed ‘The Waves’ with Helen Gardener, Clive James & the Warden of all Souls – part of Union hackery – had to refuse a play with Claire due to a Society Dinner, set up the Vile Bodies society in memory of Evelyn Waugh – Secretary, Mr Chatterbox, the gossip columnist whose identity changes weekly should be suitable? – already had my one completely drunk evening for the term at a rather seedy party, and not yet had a game of bridge. No more letters probably till term ends and I start unwinding. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 17. Another Summer


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This was another idyllic term, with little pressure of work. But I also record my first disillusionment with politics, as well as the difficulties of unreserved devotion to one cause or another. And it notes again the fact that, though I relished the hectic social life, I was also extremely happy on my own.


4th April 1973

I must confess my own determination to come back has weakened slightly and, my results having just come out today, with a 2nd, I’ve decided in any case to do a postgraduate somewhere, before returning, though unfortunately I probably shan’t be able to do it here. Five of us here got 2nds, though the sixth failed completely, which is a bit upsetting.

Having spent days at Clara’s, I came here last week partly to finish my work as I shall have to be free in London for Thatha, partly because I can’t bear to be away from here. I had various people around last week, including Aruna, and this week the Opera twice, once with the only Don left in College, and yesterday I found myself next to the Junior Dean and his wife who’ve asked me for dinner tomorrow. But even the weekend, when I was practically alone in College except for the barman in the Beer Cellar, was marvelous – I hope I have the energy to escape from Oxford next summer.

The Dean and Chaplain return tonight from the Schools’ men reading party to Cornwall, and I hope to get them to lunch to meet Thatha at Pam’s – I hope they’ll be satisfied with the 2nd – my tutor seemed delighted.

This morning I spent at the Union and, being now trusted by the Higher Echelons, witnessed the opening of the President’s correspondence, and subsequent resealing – done at Balliol, of course – which was fascinating, but quite disillusioning, as there were the Senior Members of our side, which considers the other dishonest. I think I shall find the Union elections fun next term, but I can’t quite see myself fitting into one side or the other sufficiently dedicatedly enough to get very high. Besides, the complete unmasking of left–wing intentions in the Labour Club was quite upsetting. I shall try to write more often, and it wasn’t only politics that prevented frequent writing. I did do some work, as the results show. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 16. Triumph and Tragedy


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All other Oxford courses had an examination in the course of the first year, and then finals at the end of one’s third year (with Chemistry then having a fourth year too). The exception is Classics, which is a four year course with just two examinations, in the second term of one’s second year, and then at the end.


We were then out of kilter as it were with our peer group, since when they were fully relishing Oxford with no examination pressures, we had to study, for what was also the longest exam in the system. This was Honour Moderations in Literae Humaniores, as it was called, with eleven papers.


As the letters indicate, I did not study as I should have, and continued to enjoy an intense social life. I also had much to do, because I had been elected President of the Junior Common Room, the College student body. I was half surprised at this myself, since I was an unusual candidate, not playing any games or running any societies – the other contestants were the rugby captain and the conductor of the college choir. But I won by a fairly large margin, largely I think because I had been very hospitable to the first years when they came in.


Other political ventures were not successful, as noted here, and the term ended in tragedy with the death of the husband of Clara, my cousin, with whom I had stayed when I first came to England. I got the news of his heart attack just when Mods started, so I could not go down, and he suffered another and was dead by the time I got there. I think I was of use, despite my recording a detachment that I regretted.  




28th January (1973)

Life’s been terribly busy, and looks likely to be so for the rest of the term, though one problem has been solved, by the Balliol and Univ machines reaching agreement – we gave in, I regret to say, though perhaps wisely – on Labour Club officials for next term and, as part of the agreement, the following term. It’s all terribly involved, but I should be Secretary next term.

At the moment, we’re having a violent campaign on for the Univ JCR, where I’m the underdog candidate for President – though I do have the stronger ticket. My opponent happens to be Captain of Rugger, which doesn’t help. Unfortunately, the elections being next Monday, I’ve got to give up the Dean’s trip to Covent Garden, to see Sibley and Dowell, which is all very annoying. Still, I’ve got enough to keep me occupied – I’ve been offered my 1st paper speech at the Union, in favour of Euthanasia, along with Trevor Huddleston and other worthies, and though I don’t know whether I quite approve of Euthanasia, I accepted; having bought my dinner jacket last week for 28 pounds from my Bursary, which left 12 which will be swallowed up by the Union Anniversary Dinner and the Labour Club dinner, with Harold McMillan and Harold Wilson respectively. I should be on High Table for the latter, being the editor of the Club Magazine and so on – which I’m modelling blatantly on the New Statesman, with Competition and Diary – tomorrow, having a very Conservative and Social Chairman, we have Lord David Cecil speaking to us, with dinner beforehand. Most of the party regulars considered it anti-social to attend, so there’ll just be 3 of us, the Librarian of the Union, and Cecil – should be fun. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts 15 – Christmas Vacation in College


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After the intensity of term, I had a month of a very different sort of Oxford experience, namely the College to myself – except for the extraordinary kindness of the dons who remained, the Dean of course but also the Chaplain and the most senior don who had been an undergraduate at Univ, Tony Firth. On Christmas day itself, in addition to dinner at George Cawkwell’s – a tradition over five years – I was invited to lunch by a first year I had befriended, whose father had been our Domestic Bursar (before David Burgess, the Chaplain, was roped in to do that job too).

 I knew my time at Oxford had been special, but rereading these letters makes me realize how utterly unique it was.




17th December 1972

Life’s been great fun, this last week – term ended with throwing popping balloons down from the battlements, and I went off on Sunday for 3 days with Charlie, one of which consisted of a trip to London for the universities Rugger match, which I regret to say we lost, and lunch at the HC’s where Tilak beat poor Charles at table-tennis despite him being the College Captain. Charles’ family was just as delightful as ever, except one year older. Just before I left, I found out his father died in an accident – his mother must be a marvellous person.

I returned on the Wednesday to find interviews in full swing – one of this year’s freshers had to spend the night on my sofa as they’d taken his room for candidates and he should have left, but he produced some candidates from his school and we played bridge  – on the bus from Charles’ I met 3 candidates, all looking very nervous!

I’ve still managed to get quite a bit of work done, despite being taken advantage of for being one of the few with a room still in College – which led to a 3rd year boring me to death on Friday evening for 5 hours, just as I was about to start on a novel, having finished my quota of work – to be followed luckily by a friend, who spent the rest of the night reading poetry, all of which led to great depression when the College finally shut yesterday, in the beer cellar. Luckily the other History Tutor invited me for dinner, with the Dean and the Asst. College Secretary, in his cottage in the country, which was great fun and quite alcoholic – he kept pouring out, or threatening to, that strange Polish drink called Avocat, while consuming chocolates and conducting a Violin Concerto – he was the Tutor who organized carols round the College. Leslie suggested evensong at the Cathedral today and actually came to take me along – it was a beautiful service, with a marvelous choir and a sonorous Dean of Christ Church, about to be a Bishop, about to be Archbishop. Afterwards we tried to gallop back to the Junior Dean’s for drinks, and actually got one before they had to go for dinner in the SCR and the annual fight about who gets in, and I worked in the Library, all by myself, which is a beautiful experience. I’m certainly enjoying the vac. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 14. The beginning of my second year

I noted before the wife of a tutor telling me the joy of coming back to Oxford for one’s second year, and she was certainly correct. The letters of this period record an almost ecstatic joy in the experience. This includes much that seems absurd, forty years later, but at the time nothing else in the world seemed of consequence. Even the very real turmoil in Ireland at the time, for instance, is seen through the prism of how it affected the Oxford Union.

But the range covered suggests why one might be forgiven for thinking all this was world enough. Politics and philosophy, music and literature explain why I was more sociable then than at any other time in my life.


6th November 1972

Very sorry again for the lengthy delay – life is just too complicated to communicate effectively. In fact, due to an essay crisis for tomorrow morning, I’m forced to abandon College bridge tonight after nearly falling asleep at a lecture in the morning and a class this afternoon – should, however, have some sort of freedom from work after tomorrow – for essentials like playing bridge and carpet bowls on the quad at 3 am and climbing on the roof and watching the lunacies of Labour Club Elections. I’m safe on Committee for another term, and encouraging freshmen at the Union so as to build up an effective Univ machine. I have a tellership on Thursday and I’ve already got my borrowed Dinner Jacket and am contemplating wearing a frog instead of a rose like my tutor at the dinner.. Incidentally, I start serving in Chapel in a few weeks time, while telling this time in favour of  ‘Christianity is a Myth’ – my conscience salved by the fact that I was going to abstain if I spoke from the floor, instead of against. Auden was at dinner on Tuesday and we’re organizing an expedition to see him on Friday – I keep seeing him all over Oxford. Last Tuesday I fell asleep during a special lecture of Dr Popper – a famous German Philosopher who’s quite loony – yesterday the Dean tried to teach me squash and I kept missing the ball.

This week I had only one essay and I finished it yesterday – even though I am writing during a lecture I ought to have gone to, especially as I’d arranged to play someone at chess afterwards, but I only got to bed at 5, due to an importunate 3rd year consuming my coffee – and mangoes – having lost the key of his bicycle and preferring  to work all night rather than walk back in the cold. Since we’ve taken to playing  hide–and-seek through the college after 2 am, I’m not getting much sleep at all. Also, this morning I’d left all my essentials in the laundry so it was too late to get them in time for the lecture anyway – so I excuse myself, guiltily since it’s the only real one I go to now anyway. Incidentally, before the hide and seek, certain lunatics were pouring water from my windows onto passers-by in the High Street, only male students to salve our consciences. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 13. Summer travels


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Sadly there are no letters from the longest segment of the vacation, which was in Yugoslavia where I was hoted by Milan and Helga Kovac, who had worked in Ceylon and suggested I join them. Milan was I think surprised when I turned up at his house in Celje, not least because he was due to go abroad, but he duly took me to where Helga was, by the seaside, with the Ceylonese girl Ayra whom they had adopted (and named after my cousin, Ayra Perera, who later married Derrick Nugawela).


In addition to a lovely week with her in Ljubljana, and a climbing expedition arranged for me by Milan’s sister (soon abandoned when it was clear I could not cope), I did much exploring on my own, down the coast and to Sarajevo and later to Belgrade where I stayed at the house of our ambassador, Walter ‘Jew’ Jayawardene, who had been Co-Secretary with my father to the Constitutional Assembly. I went from there to Rumania and Bulgaria, and also got a visa for the Soviet Union since my father had suggested I join him on a Parliamentary delegation there.


But there are notes on the highlights of that long summer in a letter from Russia, where I was treated very well, by the government as well as by our ambassador there and his immensely hospitable and caring wife. I do not think my father had expected me to turn up, and was astonished to see me walk in to his hotel in Leningrad, but he and the delegation and the Russians coped admirably. Oddly enough, it was this year, when finally these letters are seeing the light of day again, that I have travelled again in the countries of the former Yugoslavia that I so enjoyed 45 years ago.


The vacation ended with a few days at our High Commission in London, where Pam Gooneratne organized a sale which I was roped in to help at, at the beautiful Tea Centre which sadly the next government sold.


1st September

I’m still quite depressed about having wasted 6 pounds by stopping over in Kiev instead of buying a direct train ticket to Moscow from Budapest, which was charming, as is Moscow, particularly in the company of the Ambassador’s family – father himself having gone off on a tour (he did phone).

I hope to join him in Leningrad tomorrow. On the 30th, we went to the Kremlin, and yesterday Tchaikovsky’s house and one art museum and ‘Swan Lake’ in a smaller theatre – the Bolshoi beginning next week – which was still super .




8th September

Due to a surfeit of stamped envelopes supplied to State Guests by the Soviet Government, I feel compelled to overcome my inhibitions about writing. I have installed myself in Thatha’s hotel room here too, as MVP is at the Embassy and Mrs Siriwardena was tying herself into knots trying not to upset me, due to their having only 3 bedrooms, the daughter going into the parents’ room, instead of the brother’s, where I was, and not telling me – besides it’s more interesting here. How our father survives is beyond my powers of comprehension – incidentally, with all the food, all our stomachs are in a chaotic condition.

Due to nearly 2 months having passed – to my regret – a detailed exposition of my travels will be most difficult. Suffice it to say that the Adriatic seacoast was magnificient and I’d like to go back, the mountains were exciting, but I wouldn’t – can you imagine the emotions of a lazy coward in a hailstorm with lightening jolting him, after 6 hours of steep climbing? Ljubljana with Helga and puddings was quite pleasant only I’d have liked more books. Venice was delightful, so was Belgrade in Jew’s quiet house, with abstruse Catholic philosophy, Bucharest and Sofia weren’t worth the money, though now I can always say – disgusting reason, but practical! – that I’ve been there. Budapest was charming, Kiev was a waste of money. Moscow was an experience – it’s enormous – Leningrad was beautiful. To that cursory list, I can only add a few things that ought to be remembered always – unless I become even more blasé, which is quite possible – my paying-guest place at Dubrovnik, with the girl who looked somewhat like you if not for her lameness and squint and slight mental deficiency? – with a beautiful sister who bullied her; walking through the rain along the battlements; searching through Split for 2 hours for a room with a Dutch girl and an excitable old Croat who adored Mrs B and finally let me sleep on his floor; the long walk up to the castle in Ljubljana on a beautifully meandering day; deer on a glacier in the Logarska Dolina valley; the Oxford graduate in Bucharest who took me round his monastery and dilated upon the ‘Trout’ – he knew our worthy chaplain; Sofia in pouring rain and a Russian church service – and so on and so forth – probably, particularly the mountain views, enjoyed more in retrospect.

10th September

Had to vanish again – for the Bolshoi “Swan Lake’ – it really does things to one’s heart. I’ve seen it thrice here so far – at the Stanislavski here, which was quite thrilling too, at Leningrad, which was disappointing and this, which was magnificient; also the circus, a breathtaking experience –  being known before only through Enid Blyton’s loony books. In addition to my official programme!! – which is the best way of seeing things, since one doesn’t stand in queues or pay, while attentive guides are provided – I went to Tolstoy’s house and Chekhow’s and Stanislavsky’s graves, and a few minor museums. Also, as I wrote, the Siriwardenas took me to Tchaikovsky’s house, and the Puskin Arts Museum which has a super collection of itself, though nothing compared to the Leningrad Hermitage – where, though, we could only have 2 hours, officially planned, which meant missing the Impressionists and most of the painting – though they did give us da Vinci, Rembrandt – the best collection in the world – and Rubens. Unfortunately, the Museum shut on the Monday, when I was free due to hyper-official functions.

I nearly forgot – talking of ‘Swan Lake’ – sunrise in St Mark’s Square in Venice, and evening with a gypsy orchestra – or, at least, a haunting violin – the beer, though, less than a pint, cost 8 rupees. I think it was worth it though.

After this incoherent and interminable massive, I think you’ll welcome post-cards hereafter. Best of luck for your GSQ but do write – to my absolute horror, I dreamt of you last night – eating too much, I suppose. I leave for Warsaw and Berlin tonight by train while the delegation flies.


24th September

After the super Russian trip, I took the train to Warsaw, the night Thatha left, and had a rather interesting day in dripping rain, persuading custodians to open museums and palaces that were shut – it was, unfortunately, a Monday – and visiting  heaps of churches – the most per street in the world, notwithstanding Italy. Got to East Berlin next morning and discovered Thatha after quite some trouble – and a fantastic museum with reconstructions of Babylonian, Greek and Roman temples.  However, father and I were routed by East German officialdom, and ordinary tourists have to spend 1 pound 50 a day, so, despite having to miss Dresden, I left next day, had a few hours in West Berlin (which is extraordinarily colourful after the East, which is colourful enough after Moscow and Warsaw) but hasn’t museums and so on – and then left for Hamburg where I woke up my poor cousin at midnight, and left for England to get here on the Friday, straight into Aunty Pam’s fair.

However, due to Janaki’s in-laws arriving and a general feeling that I’d dodged touristic obligations in Germany, I went to Paris on Monday, found the Samarasinghes missing – which meant a hotel room – and an attack of conscience as I’d let the friend who came with me down – broke my spectacles and rushed back, to be overwhelmed with work for the fair.  However, I did have to go down to Oxford one afternoon for my spare specs – and Leslie has fulfilled his promise of last Saturday when I went down for some books and to show my schoolfriends the place, to have Thatha for the feast – a big Univ do – with guests like Marghanita Laski, Tom Stoppard – best playwright in England at the moment, if you’re an ignoramus – and Constance Cummings.

Got my spare specs, which aren’t too good but have to do since getting new ones on the NHS is a process so I’ll wait to get back to Oxford, and survived two mad days which meant being on my feet for 16 hours yesterday and an equivalent amount, I felt, the day before. Everyone was getting quite neurotic – but it seems to have been quite a success –  I’m quite glad, since I’m getting to be very protective about the Gooneratnes.

For the 2 weeks before the sale Aruna left the house since she couldn’t live in chaos! –  and she and Tilak consoled each other. Superb. I met heaps of people yesterday, including Manel Tampoe, as loony and nice to talk to as ever – awaiting the revolution to sweep away the privileged – there was a small demonstration outside, which was conquered by Carmini and orange juice, and the lamprais were stolen at the end and the Tea Centre is in a mess which means clearing it at dawn tomorrow, but I quite enjoyed myself.

A Time of Gifts – 12. The End of my First Year


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The end of my first year was a whirl of activity, including a visit from my mother who was a bit startled at the intensity of the celebrations. There followed a whirlwind tour of Wales and Scotland, and then what I still see as one of the best weeks in my life, a reading party down in Cornwall, at Lamledra, the house built at the turn of the century by John Fisher Williams the eminent jurist. His daughters owned it jointly, but it was run to all intents and purposes by Jenifer, who was married to Herbert Hart, Professor of Jurisprudence.


The Dean and the Chaplain used to take reading parties down there in the April vacation before finals, but in 1972 they decided to take a group of freshmen down. In the end there were only four of us, and we had a marvelous time, reading much, talking more, eating and drinking far too well (the Chaplain was a fantastic cook, not least because he put lots of wine and cream into everything).


Electra, I should note, was the play I had written as a schoolboy, which Ernest Macintyre, then the doyen of English theatre in Sri Lanka, admired and produced, first as a radio play which was supposed to be broadcast in April 1971. It was cancelled because the SLBC got nervous after the JVP insurrection, and thought this ancient Greek tragedy was really a call to arms, to kill Mrs Bandaranaike on the grounds that she had killed her husband – as had been the case with Clytemnestra, whose daughter avenged the murder of Agamemnon her father.

Pam Gooneratne, the wife of our High Commissioner Tilak, was a great friend along with the rest of the family.


13th June 1972

Electra’s just returned from Ben Levy – look him up in Who’s Who – the judge of the ETC new plays competition – he’s missed the point completely, though he was slightly better to this than to some of the others. To quote, ‘I am not quarrelling with his colloquialism but his approach is often more suitable to a comedy of manners than to a tale of doom and bloodshed. If he had gone the whole hog and sent it up unambiguously from beginning to end, I would be with him’ – the penalties of being subtle. The high point, though, was ‘But it may be a bit reckless, to choose old masterpieces and, inevitably, challenge comparison.’ I should have thought it was obvious the relevant verb was ‘invite’. Anyway, looks as if Mr Levy’s not my road to fame and fortune.

It was super seeing Mum last week even if it was only for two days, one of which consisted wholly of rain. The programme consisted of a very queer play, in the fullest sense of the word, and a wine party in which everyone got tipsy, though Mum claims she was only sleepy, and a gallop round the Meadows and 2 colleges on the Sunday morning – she, very nobly, going to chapel.

Lots of fascinating news this week, namely being elected (unopposed with 7 others) to Treasurer’s Committee at the Oxford Union, and also the Executive Committee of the Labour Club, after a strenuous election which included being put on a ticket, opposing my college rep. who subsequently put me on his, mysterious caucuses including one to which I dragged poor Aruna Goneratne who was up for the day – anyway, she had the punting to make up – and wandering through the warrens of St Edmund’s Hall the night before. Also, I voted for myself – but everyone does that.

I hope your University isn’t too bad at the moment, despite the ragging, I am glad we didn’t have any of that here – I suppose it’s due to a need to assert oneself. I can’t quite understand why you go in the first place, unless you’re not quite certain of leaving for America – I don’t think at this stage you should hesitate in making up your mind – if you’ll pardon my little bits of advice.


19th June

Sorry for the writing – I’m afraid I cut my finger yesterday, and eating salted chips doesn’t help. As you can see, I’m at Aberdeen probably for the simple reason that I planned to spend a week in Wales before the reading- party in Cornwall. Having arrived at Colwyn Bay on the Saturday evening, I got a lift yesterday through the castles – Caernavon etc (Charles’ Investiture) – and a Roman camp and the mountains – and since the car was moving on to Scotland, I couldn’t resist coming along, though it’ll probably be somewhat expensive as I don’t have the energy to hitch-hike back.

Aberdeen itself is quite beautiful, with grey stone and wide streets. – I thought of Canada, whether relevantly or not I have no idea – but a rather dirty harbour too, stinking of fish. It started raining, though, and my attempt to read Homer in the public library was hindered by my continuously falling asleep, due to sleeping only in the car on the way up – which also, I fear, ruined a proper appreciation of the view though, having not passed the highlands, what I did see was not extraordinary. The Welsh mountains certainly were

Last week was devoted mainly to consuming all the magnificent food, and feeling sorry that term was finishing – though most people do have exams this week.   Despite the strenuous efforts of the extreme left and right and yours truly the Union decided to go ahead with a building in the garden, commercial exploitation of the site apparently being essential for its solvency. However, the Senior Treasurer – a Univ don – did resign, due to left-wing pressures!

Collections weren’t too bad, though they’ve started to call me eccentric now, while our eccentric scholar’s moved on to bizarre. One character said my ingenuity and cleverness weren’t usually combined with factual accuracy, while another remarked that my theories were not usually acceptable – Martin, of course, commiserated with my unseens and too short essays, while the Philosophy guy said they were elegant!  Lord Maud, having nothing else to say, announced that he enjoyed meeting my mother! Meanwhile I’ve heard the exciting news that Martin once hid behind the sofa during a boring tutorial, eccentricities being essential in addition to scholarship for professorships. He also goes about shooting people in the High, while on his bicycle.

St. John’s Wood)

July 7th 1972

Aunty Pam wants you to contact Janaki for the purpose of transporting to England through MPs various objects for a sale to be held in early September. She’s prepared to collect from anywhere if contacted. The strange process is due to a desire to avoid the H.C.’s cognizance, as he disapproves. Also, any small local objects or foodstuffs that are saleable as being typically Ceylonese, which friends or relations would be willing to send on my behalf would be welcome – such as tins of mangoes. For herself, she would like pani, brought by yourself when you come.  I, myself, shall probably be leaving for Yugoslavia sometime this month, and my address should be, Kovac, Jenkova 32, 63 0001 Celje, Yugoslavia.

A fascinating week since my last epistle from Aberdeen, involving a ride through the Cairngorms to Aviemore, with the German student of the last episode, and a Scottish female who fed us wholesomely,  before which we walked through the rain in the hills, after which we nearly were shut out of the Youth Hostel, due to lingering at a Pub. Next day I bussed back to Edinburgh and, having inspected the place, tried hitching back next day but gave up after 15 minutes, and read the ‘Iliad’ in the Library and took the night bus back to London and went straight to Oxford to play croquet with the Physicists who were recovering from Exams, and walk up Port Meadow pretending we were from Radio Oxford, interviewing people and tracking fish with radar, which was idiotic but amusing, though we got back too late to play croquet by candlelight.

Next morning I took the train to Cornwall, meeting one historian and one lawyer on the way, with a philosopher and the Chaplain and Dean already at Gorran Haven, whereupon we settled down to a week of sheer lunacy which has almost convinced me that I’d like to stay at Oxford for ever. The sole reading I accomplished were two books of the ‘Iliad’ and ‘What Maisie Knew’, the rest of the time being spent in playing Cheat and ridiculous games invented by Leslie with names like Botticelli, and taking pictures of him asleep in the sun while supposed to be working, and having a séance and being frightened of going to bed, and walking on the cliffs in the rain, once after three double sherries at the pub. We built sandcastles and played French cricket on the beach, with Burgess jumping six feet in the air and cheating outrageously, and once we went off to St. Ives to visit an acquaintance of Proust who sells camelias with Leslie imitating a ga-ga French duchess in a bathchair throughout the journey. Only we didn’t find her and had to buy a camelia instead. There were many other such absurd things which sound very boring but were magnificent at the time. A Univ man expelled from Russia the previous week also turned up, in a state of nervous exhaustion, so we played Consequences, with George Cawkwell and the College Librarian in a rose and barrel respectively, and other strange things. The food was magnificent since Burgess puts gallons of alcohol into everything he makes – the puddings were as good as Lakshmi’s – and we were excessively tipsy every night. Leslie cut his finger and fussed outrageously so we did the washing up, putrid puns abounded, and we finished the Times crossword nearly every day at lunch.

Leaving was miserable. I got a lift to Eastleigh, took the train to Oxford to change my baggage round, and got the last train to London and arrived here so late that I camped on the doorstep and watched the dawn and staggered in and slept all morning. A friend of mine from Ireland turned up at midnight on his way to France – he did have somewhere else to stay, though. Afterwards, just as we were going to bed, Uncle Tilak saw a thief climbing in through a window so we called the police and searched the house and felt quite nervous, but have survived the night safely.

Ceylon Today 10 June 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=22928

A Time of Gifts – 11. My first summer


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Sadly there are no letters from the second vacation, in which I hitchhiked in France, ending up in Milan after seeing Illers (in pursuit of Proust, whom I had devoured the previous term)on the North Coast and Marseilles in the South, with in between the Chateux of the Loire Valley, and the Cathedral at Chartres which was also heart-stopping as Milan had been.


Fortunately my first summer term is reasonably well documented, with my first proper account of the longest standing friendship of my life. The Dean, Leslie Mitchell, was only just over a decade older than us, and proved a great friend to many. But I had the privilege of his companionship and hospitality also over vacations. The friendship formed over eight years in Oxford has continued now for nearly 40 more, and I try now each year to spend time with him.


These letters also record my first tentative forays into politics, both the Union and the Labour Club, plus the fun drama that takes over Oxford Colleges in summer, garden productions that are perhaps more enjoyable for the cast than the audience, even despite occasional showers.   





2nd May

The high spot of a quite fascinating week was dinner on Saturday with the Dean, there being 8 of us of various descriptions – it’s part of his duty, I believe, but he does like performing and he does so extremely well, sprawled on the hearthrug with all of us sitting round filled with sherry and mulled claret and madeira – and some quite good food too sent up to his rooms from the kitchens. He held forth for ages and ultimately had to throw us all out since we couldn’t bear to leave. There was a super English scholar too with an array of atrocious puns which were hilarious at that time of night – even though all his imitations did sound alike.

Leslie and he ended up doing Barbara Cartland and/or Ralph Richardson – fully worth missing ‘West Side Story’ for. Luckily I’d arranged for someone to wake me up next morning for church, which made me quite woolly though the whole of the next day – in the course of which, after discussing gaskets and other meaningless things at Communicants’ breakfast, I wrote, or rather translated into doggerel, 50 lines of Ovid, due to having attended a class on translation by an eccentric Jesuit due to an excessive flood of enthusiasm. I’ve subsequently discovered that quite a lot of those who came to the first class have backed out!

I don’t think I’d recovered from Leslie’s liquor by evening, so, since I decided to wake up for May morning, I borrowed an alarm clock and slept early instead of staying up all night. That was what most did, including the mathematicians downstairs, who’ve all decided to get depressed and go and see the doctor, and have been falling asleep in lectures and libraries since. Besides which May morning turned out to be highly over-rated and my bridge partner’s pancakes didn’t materialize due to too many people and too little flour – also, not having sugar, he put icing sugar in our tea – it was all very depressing. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 10. Increasing Intensity


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The rest of the record of my second term – the Hilary Term in Oxford parlance, the others being Michaelmas and Trinity – introduces many aspects of the whole experience, though reflections on these are perhaps excessively personal. I was glad though to find that I could be modest about my own intellect in comparison with better ones. 


The production of Oedipus was of course the high point of the term, and even now I marvel at my luck in having taken part in the top university production of the term (and the year, given the success we enjoyed) in my second term. I was also moved by the references to the brigades of old ladies, the sharp ones at the bridge club who still I gather go on, the gentle ones who tried to make students feel at home, a practice less in evidence now.


Eric was my scout, a lovely man who looked after me with care and affection, producing as I have noted an extra blanket when I needed it. Many years later I went to see him in retirement, which he spent mainly in bed, surrounded by cats. Even in those days the old Oxford scout system was dying, and over the years that followed my rooms were done by women. All, with one exception, were extremely kind and helpful, but I am sorry that the old tradition of male college personal servants, immortalized in so many novels, has died. 



26th February 1972

I’m at the 11th volume of Proust at the moment, unfortunately in English – I’ve been told the translation’s terrible, but the whole effect is marvelous except that at times I wish he’d contain himself. Albertine’s just died and there’s a hundred pages of melancholy reflections. Anyway he’s also helped me to meet someone whom I can look up to intellectually – the first of my own age for I don’t know how long – though it does involve things like wondering helplessly for hours whether heterologic is heterologic if you define it as not heterologic – sheer fascination.  I suppose the reason why I’ve found talking till all hours of the morning before this, if interesting, not quite as fascinating as it sounds in Virginia Woolf, was simply this horrible feeling of superiority which, while I know it’s quite unjustified, I can’t help having – considering that on any given essay topic, due to sheer ignorance, I can only think of half as much to say as the other scholars.

‘Oedipus’ has got into the costume stage now and – surprise,surprise – I’m still in it.  It’s marvelous watching Oedipus being splattered with blood, Creon swathed in what looks like a bath towel, waiting to take over Oedipus’ velvet cloak, the trim and  dainty Jewish Jocasta stamping excitedly on the Chorus’ costume to get it dirty, and the messenger  in ancient costume with dark glasses carefully placing sweat, in the form of coffee, on the shepherd’s costume. Unfortunately Teiresias and her carriage together are somewhat heavy but so far I’ve managed to survive till the end of the scene. I’m not going to be balded though, luckily, unlike the other two parts of Teiresias. Continue reading