A Time of Gifts 15 – Christmas Vacation in College


, , , ,

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


, , , , , , , , ,

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


, , , ,

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


, , , ,

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


, , , , , , ,

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

A Time of Gifts – 9. My second term


, , , , , , , , , , ,

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.


28th January

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. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 8. Stratford and back to Oxford


, , , ,

I have not registered here quite how marvelous it was to get back to Oxford after the Christmas vacation, and feel I was getting back home. I still remember telling the wife of a tutor how I relished this, and her then telling me she understood, but the feeling would be nothing like I would have when I came back at the beginning of my second year. And she was right, but all that comes later.


I have kept here the references to Manthri Samaranayake, because they exemplify a trait in my father that was amongst the nicest of his outstanding qualities. He was proud of my getting into Oxford, but he then strove might and main to ensure that others benefited from the privilege. I spent much time over the next few years finding information for his protégés, and then engaging in advocacy on their behalf.


The Wijeyadasa I mention here is the outstanding Civil Servant who was Secretary to President Premadasa. And these letters record my first meeting with the Senior Tutor, George Cawkwell, who has been a tower of strength to me over the last near half century. I was with him last October for his 97th birthday, and the mind was as incisive as ever. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 7. My first vacation

I was determined to see as much as I could of other countries while I was a student, and this included parts of Britain I had read about. Top of the list was Cornwall, which figured prominently in the books of my childhood – Enid Blyton – and also those of adolescence – Virginia Woolf, whose ‘To the Lighthouse’ is about St. Ives.


6th December

In case you’re observant and wondering about the address at the back, at the moment I’m spending a few days here at a friend’s place, having got quite a surprise at being invited. He had mentioned it earlier but – after Tissa Wijeratne and his remarks about the terrible expense of putting people up – I didn’t really believe in Western hospitality. But, having phoned his mother at midnight on the 2nd, he brought me here on the 4th. It’s the 7th now, past 12, and I have tomorrow for a day in London before going on to Devon. I am having a lovely time, including a visit to a ruined Elizabethan hall yesterday, a walk in a village with a Norman church, and a drive to Northampton for a play – but nicest of all’s meeting the family itself. Four brothers in addition to Charles who’s doing law at Univ including Mark who’s tiny and violent and very sweet – he’s thrilled at having Charles back and we played firemen in a boat with him this morning. Mrs Dutoy’s very charming and pretty marvelous because Charles’ father died a few years ago.  His father came over from Belgium and we visited him and his wife on Saturday.    He was in the hat trade at Manchester and his son was in shoes. Kettering developed due to leather. It lies between Northampton and Leicester, about 1½ hours – at a terrific speed – from Oxford.

I shan’t say much about the last week in Oxford because anytime after the 14th, Mum should be contacted by a Rev. Patrick Olivelle –, Catholic, ex-St. Mary’s Lauries’ Road, who’s at Campion Hall, whom I met through the Indian girl of my luggage. I take the momentous step of inviting a girl for tea to my room – she brings her boyfriend – a Catholic priest – fantastic story. Anyway, he’s got a letter.. Continue reading

A Time of Gifts – 6. Early involvements at Oxford


Oxford terms are only 8 weeks long, and I am bemused now at how quickly I fitted in. My greatest stroke of luck was to be selected for a role in the Experimental Theatre Club production of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus’, produced by Elijah Moshinsky, who subsequently went on to produce opera at Covent Garden (and who remembered me when I saw him there several years later, though continuing the irritating habit of calling me ‘Rajesh’). There were 9 actors all of whom had major roles except for myself. I only had to carry the sage Teiresias on, breathing heavily after we set him/her down. The other stretcher bearer was Mel Smith, who doubled as the shepherd, and later did well in television.

I think now with wonder about how I was able to hear so many whose work I had relished – Graves and Leavis and Galbraith – in so short a time. Also startling is how swiftly I moved to confidence in my own intellectual ability, a trait I fear has not diminished, and which I realize causes much irritation.



20th November


Do write to reach me before the 4th so that I can get the details of the budget and send an impassioned plea to the British Council or wherever it is for some sort of assistance. Give me the address, please and also how to put it.

Overseas students are being allowed to stay on in College, but I don’t think I will since everyone else has to go and it’ll probably be deadly dull and it’s too early a holiday to work in. I hope to travel a bit in England or maybe even in Holland, but of course I might decide it’s too cold! However, marvellous though Clara and the family have been, I won’t stay there long. The trouble about traveling is that Enid’s son is getting married on the 1st and I think I should be there, which splits the holiday up. I hope I make up my mind by the 3rd at least – it’s so much easier travelling here, or so I think now. I hope I’ll be allowed to keep my luggage here, though.

I had the most horrible cold last week and I was a bit frightened I’d get fever, so I stayed in and took disprins and it passed – or almost. I went for the play I’d missed this afternoon, though, and it was jolly good – an adaptation of ‘Hard Times’. Last week’s one was rather disappointing. I went for an audition last week and I’ve got the fascinating role of Teiresias in the ‘Oedipus’. The tests are quite ridiculous – you have to pretend being things like a magician turned into a frog or a medium for Stalin and so on, and it’s rumoured that the big parts are given out to the officials of the Drama Society even before the play is decided on! I felt an utter idiot mediumising, and I’ve only got a part since ‘contrasts of voice and appearance are essential’, according to the director, whose name’s Elijah Moshinsky which I think crowns it all. Anyway ‘Hard Times’ was a success. Continue reading