Bevis Bawa on Bevis Bawa’s ‘Brief’

Book facts : ‘Bevis Bawa’s ‘Brief’– The Sometime Irreverent Memoirs of a Gentleman in 20th century Sri Lanka’ - reviewed by Russell Bowden

This is definitely not an autobiography nor a biography – but then its very title ‘Bevis Bawa’s ‘Brief’– The Sometime Irreverent Memoirs of a Gentleman in 20th century Sri Lanka’ makes that clear. Nevertheless anyone approaching the book – almost a coffee table-size publication – will not be disappointed if their purpose is to understand the man – Bevis Bawa – that they are seeking.

The reminiscences, the observations and the judgments that Bevis dictated into an apparently less than useful dictating machine that was not easy to decipher because of background noises - chirping birds, barking dogs etc - clearly reveal the man himself. What are lacking [although not in all cases] are the situations in which some of them were delivered and the background of events into which Bevis’ own life was anchored.

In an excellently revealing Introduction Neville Weereratne makes clear “These recollections are scattered. They do not follow any chronology but because of their variety do not require to be too strictly regimented.” Such an approach has in no way limited the contents’ usefulness in helping us not only to recollect the wonders that made Bevis the man that he was but also to re-create the general background in which Bevis grew up and lived especially for those concerned to understand the way in which well-heeled and connected families lived in the last days of the British Raj in Ceylon as Bevis insisted on calling it (and thereby making very clear the differences between that era with the Sri Lanka of today).

For those who had the fortune to know Bevis as a friend (and I did, on and off, for over 30 years) Neville Weeraratne’s editing and Bevis’ selection of anecdotes, gossip, trivia etc provide informative observations, amusing judgments and anecdotes that reveal fully the man – warts and all. He himself made the stricture, when the book was first being created more than thirty years ago, that he “wished to hurt no-one . . . but that he himself was to be the butt of his own fun.” Admirably does the book stick with that stipulation.

Everyone who knew him, or read in the 1960's 'Briefly by Bevis' in the Sunday Observer, will have their favourite anecdotes and stories: mine was to have been about how I had lost my two front teeth in his Mini Moke in an accident at Thunmulla but I can't find it! Instead there are so many others that I would challenge any future reader to try to select from amongst them a 'favourite'! Another, not in the book, but distilling so well what the book is about - was his answer, when he had become blind and I had asked him how he now spent his days: his reply 'with my memories' of which he had so many. It is these memories that make the book what it so superbly is - 'the sometime irreverent memoirs of a gentleman'.

Nevertheless it is worth pointing out that there remains something missing, even though it must be made clear that it had not been the intentions of those involved with this publication to include it. Bevis Bawa’s life deserves what this book does not set out to be: the life deserves a biography. The contents of this book, the recently-published diaries of the Australian artist, Donald Friend, who contributed so much to making what the house ‘Brief’ and its gardens are today, the many books on the acting duo Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and references in others’ works clearly indicate that much exists beyond the brief of this ‘Brief’s authors’ to justify the research required to produce it.

It is sometimes forgotten, or it may not be that too well known, that often on Poya week-ends Bevis hosted house-parties of Lankan theatre-people that bridged the language divide between the Sinhala- and English- language theatres that then existed and in which the greatly-to-be-missed Arts Centre Club played such a major role. Such a biography could incidentally refer to significant relationships to people who themselves deserve perhaps more recognition than they have so far been given – for instance Arthur van Langenberg, the Sansoni’s etc – so speed is essential so as not to lose memories that reside with those friends who are still alive: they need to be recollected before they pass on.

These are memoirs well-remembered, scrupulously fairly assembled and adorned with witty and pointed drawings – usually by way of caricatures by Bevis himself but also such cartoonists as Collette. The publication by friends and Brief people today is a joy to handle, well and sturdily bound, clear typeface on white paper with broad and spacious margins. The book is a pleasure to hold, handle and read and its contents to enjoy.

Available from: ‘Brief’, Kalawila Village, Beruwala 12078 or at Rs 4,500.

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