A woman of countless talents, a woman who loved life and lived it to the fullest, a woman whose heart belonged to the country of her birth – this is how I would describe Christine Wilson.
Our first meeting was at a Wadiya Writers’ meeting in the late 1990s (Christine would later become a member of the English Writers Cooperative of Sri Lanka as well).
Christine and her husband Alistair had just returned from Kenya, where they had lived the past 20 years, to settle down in Sri Lanka. The common bond of writing drew us together. Christine always encouraged me in my work, going over my stories with a sharp critical eye. As we started to talk about books and writers, my visits to No. 9 Coniston Place became more frequent.
We discovered that we shared a number of interests – animals, plants, painting, cooking, travelling, to name a few. She was a well-known writer, gourmet cook (she published a cookbook as well), fashion designer, and artist. She had also travelled widely. She delighted in simple everyday things and happenings – the plants in her garden, the birds that swooped down on her lawn, the squirrels that built their homes in her house curtains, the dogs she raised.
She spoke fondly and with emotion about her mother, Dr. Claribel (van Dort) Spittel, who was among the first women doctors in this country; her father, Dr. Richard Lionel Spittel, who was famous as a surgeon and an expert on the Veddhas of Ceylon; her sister Yvonne, who died as a child. Her daughter Anne (Andersen) and her granddaughter Pia-Christina and their families were a great source of comfort and support to Christine.
Christine Wilson had an impish sense of humour, and this gave her stories a sense of liveliness and colour. I was always impressed by her perceptive powers in gauging people and situations. I never tired of listening to her talking about her experiences at Wycherley (her home), Rodean (her school), and Scotland and Kenya.
Over the years, Simon would often join me in visiting Christine. We were enthralled by her tales from the past. She recalled the time when Colombo was mostly scrub jungle, and how she and Alistair would watch the fireflies at dusk. She told us stories of the Veddhas and her trips with her father into the jungles of Sri Lanka, where there were no roadways, as there are today. They had to “hack” their way through the scrub. With the help of a compass and keeping an eye on the sun, her father would know what direction to take.
Wild animals were all around them, but that never dulled their sense of adventure. Christine described in detail how a Veddha would climb a sheer rock face to gather honey from a honeycomb at the top of the rock. Those watching at the bottom knew that if he made one slip, the Veddha would fall to his death. I remember talking about Horton Plains, and how horrified Christine was to learn that roads had been built through the grasslands. She told me how years ago she would ride a horse across Horton Plains, with the wind sweeping through her hair, and how she would venture alone into the jungles to observe the animals and birds.
Alistair’s death in 2007 was a great blow to Christine, for he was her friend and partner in life. But her courage and positive attitude spurred her on to do the things she wanted to. In 2008, she held an exhibition of her paintings (oils, water colours and porcelain) at the Dutch Burgher Union hall. It was a huge success. In fact, she was so excited about the event that she created an additional painting just two days before the exhibition opened.
About eight months ago, Christine and her daughter Anne gifted a large and valuable collection of her books and the library of the late Dr. R. L. Spittel to the Jaffna Library and also to the Dutch Burgher Union in Colombo.About two years ago a delegation of Veddhas made a special trip to Colombo to call on Christine Wilson at her residence. She said the visit was a great honour to her and the memory of her father.
Christine was the author of many books – “I am the Wings”, “The Bitter Berry”, “The Mountain Road” and “Surgeon of the Wilderness”, to name but a few. She also published “Christine”, a memoir, a few years ago. She was also the author of a cookery book, “Secrets of Eastern Cooking”, which was published in 1966.
Christine loved having people over for parties and get-togethers. Her birthday celebrations were something to remember. Unfortunately, over the past year, declining health made it difficult for her to get about, and she was often confined to bed. Even at this stage, she was always impeccably dressed and well groomed whenever we visited.
To say that Simon and I will miss Christine is an understatement. I will miss visiting No 9, and shall always treasure her words of advice, her wonderful stories and, most of all, her loving and caring friendship. The memories of this beloved friend will remain in our hearts forever.
May her spirit rest in peace and may her wishes be fulfilled.
“This is my aim:
To leave some lasting tribute to this land I love, Changes of mood and scene, Remembered scent of wood-smoke rising on an evening breeze.”
(from ‘Christine – A Memoir’)