Those who remember the old villa “Steuart Lodge” in Kollupitiya in front of “Temple Trees” nestled among old Casuarina trees, may remember what the British Council meant in the old days. To me, it was a place to collect my bi-weekly ration of books, periodicals and long play records. To others much older, it was a quiet space to study or make notes from expensive books - where children were expected to behave like adults – not talk, only whisper, if one bumped into a friend.
The newspaper stands with the British newspapers greeted the visitor on the verandah. The soft white printed paper rustling in the humid sea breeze were always ready to welcome you with fresh news. Even before one entered the library through the glass door, one could see the photograph of the Queen. The air conditioner not only provided a rare comfort those days, but also cooled the surface of the book covers, a special feeling when hugging “British Council books” home.
|Steuart Lodge that housed the British Council of yesteryear
We had been told that we must only speak in English at the library. There was a peculiar “lump in the throat”, when I had to deliver that much practised sentence “May I have an extension?” or “I am sorry the books are overdue” at the counter. I can still remember the librarian’s suppressed smile when the articulation and intonation of the elocution teacher slipped into these small sentences: Of course, we were made to believe that all people in Britain spoke that “funny English”.
Returning books and records was to me an eternal ordeal. Was a book overdue? The fine was five cents a day. Scratches on the long play records were marked on a cardboard circle in the size of the record. The examination of scratches on returning records was indeed traumatic.
Another attraction of the British Council Library was the regular film shows screened inside the library. Tickets were given out free of charge, which meant an additional trot to the British Council on the very day when they were issued. It is within these walls lined with books that we were first introduced to “Mrs. Havisham”, Laurence Olivier as “Hamlet” or Margot Fonteyn as “Juliet”. Later, when the British High Commission was built just next door, films were screened in the new auditorium. Here the “Servant” made his appearance and “Sister George” was killed and much Shakespeare was shown.
The regular arrival of theatre companies performing Shakespearean plays was the greatest annual event organized by the British Council. At one of these festivals “Hamlet” was alternated with Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at the newly built Navarangahala. I did not understand it all but it just felt good, to listen to the English spoken on stage, which of course was quite different to the English drilled into us at the elocution class.
After having moved to more prestigious and spacious premises in 1981, now at the age of 60, the BC’s appeal has changed. To many young people, going to the British Council means attending an English class, being polished for the exams like the IELTS and ESOL which will enable them to “get out of here”. Parents too are offered sitting space. New net-works with other chaperone mothers take place here.
The “Young Learners Section” offers space to lounge and read books “just like at home”. Some parents use the British Council as a “care centre” to keep the child “gainfully occupied” for a few hours, when visiting Colombo. The café, garden and facebook offer the kids a variety of “other” activities.
Sandwiched between the section for “Young Learners” and the lending library is the “English Language Learning Zone”, geared to increase the member’s language competency with support material. Here the candidates and trainers for British exams may find material. Looking through the reading rooms, one notices different groups of readers: Reading for fun, browsing to find some new reading material or referring or working out with the support material to improve language skills.
I was very surprised to meet a friend at a recent visit to the library, who spends most of her time visiting her children and grandchildren out of Sri Lanka. She admitted that in spite of the fact that most books in the lending section were “dirty” (she meant their physical appearance), she always dropped in to pick up a book she would have read many years ago, or discover another unknown book by her favourite author.