Plus - Letter to the editor

Remembering the 'Grand Old Lady' - the British Council Library - when she was just a 'Young Girl'

What a joy it was to read Asoka de Zoysa's article, "The British Council Colombo is a Grand Old Lady of Sixty' (Sunday Times, January 24), especially because at the time, when the "Lady" was only a young slip of a girl of 20, I was the British Council's Librarian in Ceylon, managing the British Council Library in Kollupitiya and the British Council Library in Kandy (by the Clock Tower).

I have recently looked back with nostalgia and much love to that time in my professional career in Ceylon (as it then was).

The old British Council building in Colombo

De Zoysa paints accurately enough the Council's face, as seen by the public. But in those earlier days what a "face" it was - forever in the news with, as the writer correctly points out, VIP visitors from the UK, such as the film director Basil Wright, director of the documentary film "Song of Ceylon"; Belinda Wright and Jelcoe Yuresha dancing (or trying to remain standing) on a stage as highly polished as one would have expected at the Ladies College; Angus Wilson delighting audiences with his high-camp lecture and his subsequent holiday here, during which he met many people, some of whom appeared in his later novel "As If By Magic"; Eithne Dunne and David Dodimead as Mrs. Patrick Campbell and George Bernard Shaw at the Lionel Wendt Theatre, and later Max Adrian, whom we took to Batticaloa, where he enthralled the local audience (he was the first British actor ever to perform in that town).

Let me lift, just a little, a corner of the veil that covered what one might call the back stage of the British Council in those days - the aspects the public did not see, such as the fact that our Libraries' books went all over the island - to up-country planters, educational officers in remote rural areas, the Jaffna islands. I still possess a photograph visiting Jaffna with boxes of books and the then Government Agent, Vernon Abeysekera, arriving at Kayts, where flags were flying and dignitaries on the jetty were waiting to welcome us.

In those days, travelling anywhere around the island and mentioning the "British Council" was to be assured of a welcome. The Council was known, respected and loved for its work everywhere.

Less known was the fact that my Kollupitiya library must have been the only one out of the hundreds of British Council libraries around the world to be regularly inundated by the seas during the monsoon. That made not a jot of difference to the crowds of students queuing to use it - many, today, "personalities" in government, commerce, industry and academia.

On two memorable occasions, library users stood in respect when Rukmani Devi and the famous "German Swami", Gauribala, passed through to visit my office.

Badly housed and ill-looking though the library in Steuart Lodge was (particularly in comparison with the architect-designed Alfred House Gardens library of today), it was well-stocked with what users wanted, although few knew that annually it vied with the library in Bombay as the second busiest British Council library in the world. (I had come directly from being deputy to the then 16 British Council libraries in India, where Bombay was the flagship - one that we never were able to beat! - so I knew!)

British Council work in those days was not all work and no play. With only four British London-based staff (magnificently supported, as everywhere in the British Council worldwide, by local staff), we accomplished much: Steuart Smith, with the film societies and shows; Raymond Adlam conducting, with its founder Earle de Fonseka, the Ceylon Symphony Orchestra; myself (with an earlier background in theatre) directing Dhamma Jagoda, Winston Serasinghe, Ernest MacIntyre and Raymond Adlam in a dramatization of E. M. Forster's 'A Passage to India' at the Lionel Wendt Theatre; the Representative (as the chief's post was then more appropriately titled) Bill McAlpine with Peradeniya colleagues translating Sinhala literature into English.

These reminiscences could go on and on. What I hope I've managed to convey is the sheer joy we all shared in the British Council, working in the Ceylon of that period. These are indelibly printed in my memory and cannot be erased. They represent some of the happiest working years of my life and provide the reason, on retirement in the UK, that I came back to live and research and be happy in today's Sri Lanka.

Thank you, British Council - but, even more, thank you Sri Lanka.

Russell Bowden, Kottawa

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