Plus - Appreciation

A privileged friendship with a remarkable lady

Christine Spittel -Wilson

Christine Wilson was a woman’s icon. To those of us who knew her, she seemed a perfect blend of the East and the West. Sent to England for most of her schooling, she yet knew more about her country than did many who have lived here all their lives, and she always proudly felt a Sri Lankan.

But this is not a salute to her undoubted genius in many fields - notably in that of literature. This is a personal account of a friendship I was privileged to have with this remarkable lady – an acquaintance at first which stretched back many years and which then developed into a warm friendship as time went on.
I first got to know Christine when her daughter, Anne, and I were schoolmates for a brief time, during the war years, at a little school up in Bandarawela, the Froebel School. After the war, Anne was sent to a school in England. Christine touched my life again as wife of the chairman of the Colombo Commercial Company, where my husband was a young executive.

As the chairman’s wife, Christine could not have been more popular. She had mastered the difficult art of making each young wife seem special. Or maybe she never had to master the art at all. It came to her naturally, for she was basically a kind person who hated to wound anyone’s feelings. Her unfailing courtesy always amazed me. I was constantly reminded of that saying that the test of a true gentleman (or lady) is courtesy to those who can be of no possible use to them.

Whatever the secret of her charm, Christine gathered around her a group of young wives who remained her friends long after the Colombo Commercial Company was acquired by the Government and Christine and husband, Alistair relocated to Kenya, Africa. Upon their return to Colombo, my friendship with Christine deepened. “Call me Christine now, my dear,” she told me, something I did gladly. But my husband, Bunchy, could never get used to calling his former boss anything other than “Sir”. “You may drop the SIR now, Bunchy,” Alistair would say genially. “I’ll try,” responded an unhappy Bunchy, adding the “Sir” from force of habit. He never managed to call him anything else.

Christine was an avid reader, and she would discuss books with me. Although my little scribbles were hardly in her class as a writer, she always paid me the compliment of pretending they were, and to listening to my views closely. The implied compliment did not escape me and I always felt so flattered. I liked to know personal details about people’s lives since I often changed names and wrote up amusing skits in my own stories. Thus it was that I asked Alistair about his romance with Christine.
“Well,” he said. “I did not have too easy a time. Lots of young men were callers at Wycherley [the family mansion] and they seemed to be always underfoot, but I managed.”

He chuckled, recalling one incident.

Apparently one smitten young Englishman – an army officer - had been at Cambridge and had a degree in English Literature. He was the first one that needed to be cut out. Entering the gate of Wycherley one evening,Alistair found the young officer standing nervously on the verandah with a pile of books in his hand. “And why are you here, young man?” asked Alistair in lordly fashion (although the young officer had every right to be there). “Er, I am just returning Christine’s books,” stammered the nervous one. “I’ll see she gets them,” said Alistair, peremptorily relieving him of the books. “You may run along back to your quarters now.”

The young man vanished, never to be heard of again. “So that’s what happened,” said Christine, who had been listening amusedly to the story. “I always wondered why I heard no more of poor David.”
Christine and Alistair had a wonderful marriage. They were devoted to each other, and when Alistair passed away a few years ago Christine was devastated. Of course, she had an equally devoted daughter in Anne, but Anne and her family live in Denmark and in spite of frequent visits to help her mother, Christine was left to fend for herself.

Of course, she had other very good friends and family, but naturally I can write only of what I know.
This was where her Colombo Commercial Company group came in.

Mitabi Gunawardene and Joan Atukorale, wives of former engineers, and I, wife of an estate department executive, leapt to do her bidding. Probably Mitabi helped her the most with her day-to-day life. I helped by sending Christine temporary clerical and secretarial assistants and acting as her go-between in little matters. For instance: “What does one pay a driver these days?” Christine would ask. She always added, “I am so very sorry to trouble you, but Alistair saw to these details, and I am learning as I go along.”

She was never any trouble. All of us were honoured to feel she ever needed us. On one occasion I had friends from the US visiting. I knew they would love to meet one of our foremost writers, and so I invited Christine and Alistair to dinner, along with Tom and Linda Sloan. Linda recalls that meeting with nostalgia and vividly remembers the fascinating woman she met in Sri Lanka.

After Alistair’s death Christine undertook the enormous task of cataloguing Alistair’s library. Through the years, the books had together built up into an imposing array of tomes, many of which were immensely valuable. A few them were sold to collectors, but the bulk of the library posed a problem. At my suggestion, Christine decided to donate the books to the Jaffna Library. The civil war had just ended and Christine thought the idea was excellent. Accordingly, I made the arrangements and the books were handed over to the librarian of the Jaffna Library during one of Anne’s visits to the island.

From a personal point of view, I have to mention Christine’s unfailingly meticulous appearance. Up to the very last, Christine was always correctly and perfectly turned out, her hair coiffed and – as writer Ameena Hussein commented – her pearls in place. In Sri Lanka, too many housewives don “dressing gowns” as they get older and forget about looking good. Christine was a lesson to us all.

Nothing I can say is an adequate tribute to this great lady. With her passing, our island has lost a true daughter of Lanka. I loved her, and this little tribute has not even touched upon her many gifts as an artist (whose paintings sold for quite a price), as a patron of the Dutch Burgher Union, as a novelist whose books have been published both here and abroad, or as an autobiographer. I will leave these and other facets of her life to be treated by more skilled hands than mine.

From my intensely personal view, all I can say is: “While Sri Lanka has lost a unique daughter, I have lost a valued friend.”

Goolbai Gunasekara

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