The story I am about to relate is about a man I once knew when I was very young. He is the father of a friend of mine. I knew him when I was between the ages twelve and about 25, and though I met him infrequently thereafter, in those dozen years he left with me certain memories - memories that should I pass through this world and not commit to paper an account of, I would be remiss in a duty to my generation of friends, and in particular to my countrymen.
It'll be obvious to the reader that it is for this reason, and moreover my fondness of him and admiration for his inimitable style that also causes me to write. Some may perhaps find the line blurred between my being nostalgic and being (possibly) obsequious, so for that I apologize at the onset. I attribute that blur to the deference one is usually wont to attach to a unique personality, and my story is indeed such an example.
Brian Lourensz, my friend Simon's father died a few months ago. Every adventure has a cupboard, a keyhole, a borough but in this one, a parapet wall through which you passed into another world. My dear late friend Harith’s home at 292, Bullers Road was one such escape. It was accessed via approximately 100 metres of parapet wall guarded by four German Shepherd dogs owned by four separate owners, whose houses I had to cross and, who were never pleased with my travels along their undulating Kabok.
It was on one of those adventures that I met Uncle Brian. My first recollection of him was his charming smile, firm handshake and crystal clear diction that made his very presence 'foreign'. Something struck you about him which I understood only many years later to be that which is defined as ‘charisma’. On that first meeting, I was given a turn to ride pillion on his motorcycle and was taken on his steed towards Kanatte- it was the first time I had ever travelled at over 100 mph. The thought of death doesn't enter the adolescent mind, and I returned sans helmet with inverted eyelids. In this day and age, the act of travelling on a motorcycle without a helmet would be illegal. In that day though, it was thought of as fearless, so those must have been reckless times.
One evening Simon invited me to the screening of a movie of an aircraft - a sea plane of sorts - that Uncle Brian was about to import. After the screening of what was a promotional movie, Uncle Brian told me I should let my Papa know that this aircraft would get him to his hotel in Trincomalee and home by the sea, and return him to the city the same day. Thinking this was a splendid idea and in the spell of the ‘Late Buccaneer’, I marketed the ‘brilliant’ idea of acquiring a plane to my father who was dismissive of my flight of fancy.
Not prepared to take no for an answer, at my next meeting with Uncle Brian, we conspired that he would fly over my home at 11.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, which was about the time my father would have returned from St. John's fish market and would be in the kitchen cooking his famous crab curry. So come 11.30 a.m. on a Sunday in Colombo, a young boy paces up and down the kitchen of his home taking an unusual interest in cooking, and conveying to a disbelieving father that an aircraft was about to descend from the heavens and fly past our front door. True to his word, Brian affected a fly past.
There was the scream of a turbine. The whole house shook. A crab bit my father's thumb. Radio Ceylon complained of low-flying aircraft. The Ratmalana control tower censured Brian, and the lunch guests at 292 Bullers Road applauded the ‘Lake Buccaneer’. And I, together with the mad man who flew past, was berated for the rest of that Sunday.
Brian bought not one, but two aircraft. I recall flying with him and Simon and landing on the Kalu Ganga. I enviously witnessed 12-year-old Simon take the controls under the watchful eye of a beaming father. Brian was the agent for Yamaha motorcycles in Sri Lanka and on one occasion, I was invited to Katukurunda, where he commanded the Yamaha pit. Brian had imported a Yamaha TZ 750 which was a copy of a motorcycle raced by Kenny Roberts in the USA, and it was to be ridden here by famed racer U.D. Jinadasa. Jinadasa, a policeman, known for racing a Norton Manx in the good old days, took to the task with alacrity, but the bike proved to be a tad overwhelming for him so he sputtered around the track as though he had lost second gear somewhere between pit and start line. It was as unsightly as seeing Sherga being ridden by Billy Bunter on a school trip to the pyramids.
But the day was not all lost, for the ‘Lake Buccaneer’ repeated its fly past - this time over the Katukurunda race track - and dropped thousands of Yamaha promotional brochures on the track, much to the chagrin of the Jinasena brothers and the Ceylon Motor Sports Club officials who were aghast at this blatant commercialism. The villagers ran all over the track to claim their prize which was the distant dream of a motorcycle. We hip hip hoorayed and incurred the wrath of a few raised Colombo seven eyebrows. The races were temporarily suspended as punctilious officials of the Motor Sport Club, who bereft of their ayahs' and kollas', had to bend in two and three and pick up the remaining leaflets scattered over the tracks.
Many were the frowns that joined eyebrows that day. Brian seemed oblivious to the furore he'd caused. He was an outsider you see, and considered by most an upstart. The trick, of course, was that he could carry such things off. And carry them off in style did he. I might add here that most who considered him in this way suffered from a combination of social ineptness and envy, and it might not surprise the reader that the author has a particular affinity for those with a penchant for thumbing a nose at stuffed shirts!
My family spent their holidays on the East coast in Trincomalee and this gave me another opportunity to meet with Simon, Brian and his wife Aunty Heather. Brian was often at the Sea Anglers Club and I'd meet him there for a chat. I rode a motorcycle when I was 13 and I would wonder from Uppuvelli waving at Policemen and Air Force personnel and arrive at Brian’s boatyard. I was awestruck by some of the world’s most luxurious sailing craft he built in China Bay. I'd investigate the boats and he'd quip in his exquisite accent “Big Cadi, did you know that timber from two dozen teak trees was used to build the deck and trimmings on this boat?.” I am not therefore, as a result of these encounters, the environmentalist I might have been!
To be taken to Marble Bay and the coves of Trincomalee by boat by Brian is to have lived life. The hidden bays, tales of ship wrecks, the reason the water changed colour at certain points, the species of fish that lived here and there, and why all those oil tanks were built and left to rust in one of the deepest natural harbours on the planet. He once landed the Buccaneer and alighted from the cockpit into knee deep salt water of the Nillaveli surf, linen-suited and briefcase in hand.
He then 'squished' his way to the bar and in a style reminiscent of Bond, asked the barman for a whisky, utterly unperturbed by his soggy footwear. He had the gait of a Greek ship owner walking out to his Island on the Aegean, but please dismiss any natural visualization of Stavros Nicharos or Onassis. This man was STATELY!
It was on one of those trips that I learned that Uncle Brian had invented, yes invented, the kerosene outboard motor. This patent, which he later sold to Yamaha, enabled fisherman the world over to upgrade themselves from outrigger canoes to motorized fishing at very little cost. This is perhaps his most significant contribution to mankind. Every fisherman in the third world from Kota Kinabalu to Mombasa to Oluvil, has a kerosene outboard motor thanks to Uncle Brian, and though he did not attach much value to his invention, he ensured its widespread benefits through his relationship with his Japanese friends at Yamaha.
Always the inventor, there were many projects he was constantly involved in - projects often researched and experimented at great cost to his core businesses. A dreamer if there ever was one, he also built the shallow water Naval craft using Hamilton ets from New Zealand. In the early eighties, this gave the Navy considerable advantage in their Northern operations. I guess because Brian was not cut from that all too common cloth that makes sycophants of men, he never got the contracts he ought to have, and for those he did, he was often not paid on time ... situations he accepted with equanimity and characteristic good humour.
All this brings me to the reason I wrote this note. In today’s world, it is who you know, who you kow tow to, and the quantum of money you have to get ahead of everyone else, that matters. What did you create? How industrious were you? And how generous were you to those who needed your assistance? These are questions that seem, sadly, to matter very little nowadays.
In absolute contrast, the men of my childhood were true MEN. They dared to dream. It was anathema to them to simply eke out an existence through pelf or bribery. They were bold Men. Great Men whose magnificence illuminated their ideas.
I leave you with a poem by T.E. Lawrence that reminds me of Uncle Brian. "All men dream but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible".