A Time of Gifts 4 Oxford at Last

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By 2017-04-18

Rajiva Wijesinha

After a few weeks in Northern Europe too, I got to England where I collapsed for a few weeks, exhausted after my 10 week travels, at the home of my cousin. But I did enjoy something of London, before finally getting to Oxford on 6th October, 1971. I fell in love with the place almost immediately, and have stayed enchanted since. The Hjalsteds were friends my parents had made in Canada, and the friendship has continued over the generations for nearly 70 years. I had hoped to meet my father at a parliamentary conference in Paris, but he could not make it. However his deputy, and his great friend Mr. V. Navaratnam of Chavakachcheri, got me to some of the events. I was very glad, forty years later, that I was able to help the latter's widow recover her house in Jaffna after peace was restored.

Copenhagen
13 August

I'm having a lovely time here, doing hardly anything except enjoying the company of the Hjalsteds. I'd sort of looked on Copenhagen as an oasis in the midst of my odyssey – brilliant mixture of metaphor – and except for a short walk in the city and two long drives outside, I only roused myself to see Copenhagen today. To my horror, I discovered that my passport and all were missing, this morning, and I wasn't quite sure whether I'd brought it when I came, while the maid said she'd seen it here, and Lene rang up the airport and the taxi firm and was getting quite upset, and I even went to the Ceylon consulate to see what should be done in case it was really missing, and they had a message there from the airport police, and I went and got everything. Lene was already getting ready to buy my ticket to London. Incidentally, I unluckily admitted that I had a bit of a cold and that I hadn't slept well on the first night and I've already been given Finn's sweater and I've had to refuse Lenes brother's old trousers and I'm still trying to pay for a pair of Bally shoes pressed on me. I'm in very good hands and you need not bother at all. I'll tell you when you must!

I went to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek today and, in addition to the Classical collection, there was a marvellous selection of French Impressionists and heaps of Gaugins. We go to Sweden for the weekend, but I must see a few more of the museums before I leave. The city itself and the countryside roundabout I think beautiful, with the little houses after the mainly flat monoliths of the rest of Europe.

Paris
27th August

I've arrived here safe and started being energetic again. Mrs. Murugesu was here and this morning I took her for her train to Lourdes, missed it, spent the morning walking in a slight drizzle to Etienne du Mont and the Pantheon where Voltaire and Rousseau and Hugo and Zola are buried, got her into the next train and waited till it left – we got on very well and I felt rather sad when she left - and walked back with a visit to Notre Dame, along the Seine where I couldn't resist buying one of the pictures from the book stalls, through the Arc de Triomphe and the Bois de Boulogne. I was horrified at the modern monoliths near the airport, but Paris itself is so beautiful and none of the buildings are vulgar though they are on such a large scale.

Denmark and Sweden were both lovely and it was so nice having people to rely on for everything. My clothes came out cleaner than since I left Cunji's – I'd been washing them myself, since. We had beautiful walks in Sweden and beautiful drives in Denmark and all the houses are lovely, not least the new one and Lene's parents' one, though they sold 6 acres of garden a few years ago on which 30 houses have now come up. I thought of Harold Pieris, who has suddenly turned up here.

London
10th September

I arrived here on the 6th, quite thrilled with Paris in the end. I couldn't go to Versailles for the opening but Nihal worked a miracle that very day and next morning, armed with a pass and a badge, I went for the sessions at the Bourbon Palace. It was even less dignified than our parliamentarians. I stayed the whole day and remembered how I'd listened to the Throne Speech debate in 1965 all through the day and felt quite sad that one has to grow up. I haven't changed much, though – I enjoyed much more the party given in the evening by the President of the Senate in the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace – the whole Ceylon delegation fell single- mindedly upon the food that was marvellous and plentiful. Champagne was flowing too, but after one glass I switched to orange juice. I wasn't so strong-minded, though during the excursion to Champagne on Sunday. At first it seemed as though I wouldn't make it because invitations had to be personally picked up, but Mr Navaratnam decided to stay on in Paris, solely for my benefit. My conscience pricked, but I accepted his card. After a reception with champagne at Rheims, and the cathedral, we went to a cellar and the owners gave us dinner with 3 kinds of champagne and brandy.

I am having a marvellous time here now. Looking back now, I find my trip delightful on the whole but it's a relief to be settled again. I went to London on the 8th and saw the Changing of the Guard and then went on a vast walk through the city. We went to Mme Toussaud's which seemed somehow smaller – and less frightening – than I could vaguely remember – Henry VIII I remembered quite clearly – and up the Post Office Tower – a fabulous view and we found a broken telescope so that we saw all the important things in detail at leisure – and saw St Paul's and the Old Bailey and Trafalgar Square and so on. We also went on to St Martin's, and today I went to the Oval to see Surrey nearly win the County Championship. It was quite exciting because Glamorgan had just 1 wicket left at the end.

I was in a good enough mood to go by myself to Versailles last Saturday, and I rather enjoyed it though I have seen enough by now not to rave over lovely buildings and scenery for another six months at least, which is a pity since I enjoy exultation. The great lake however, was unusual and delightful. The fountains, unfortunately, though are hardly ever on.

20th September

I'm still being delightfully lazy, going along to the Wallington Library – where a girl suddenly informed me that I was 'damned handsome' and then added that she took psychiatric treatment – depressing! – and trying to read something mildly serious in between watching TV and wallowing in Amal's Billy Bunters.

Last Sunday we went to the Windsor Safari Park, a glorified zoo, but I decided that the English countryside is very beautiful. I have also been twice more to London, once to the Houses of Parliament where James Batten took Rohan and me around – he knows the building quite thoroughly, which made it most interesting. Before that we went to one of the galleries - Portraits. I'm just beginning to be interested in minor museums again though still not as effusively as in Greece and Rome.

In the evening we went to a play, a bedroom farce which was quite hilarious. I wanted the ballet, but Rohan doesn't like ballet and he chose this, and I'd already dragged him to the gallery. It was only on the next day that I discovered the ballet took a holiday between that day and mid-October, so I'll have to wait a few months at least - not that it matters, with 4 years to go. I'm just wondering whether to undergo opera, just for the experience. They're having 'Carmen' on Wednesday, when I'm due to go to Parliament to hear the debate on Ireland.

9th October

I think Cambridge will have to go a long way to be nicer than Oxford. It doesn't seem industrialized at all, despite Lord Nuffield or whatever his name was. The buildings are lovely – though I'm glad, in a way, that my rooms are in a relatively modern block with central heating – the others are supposed to be terribly cold, though the weather's been quite good so far, no rain at all and very sunny except today. I shall end up as preoccupied as the English with the weather soon, if I'm not careful.
I have got a bedroom and a sitting room - with a window seat! – to myself and the bathroom's just outside. The rooms are a bit bare still as my luggage is only due tomorrow. I arrived by train on the 6th with 1½ bags and I've managed quite well, except for books. There are only five others doing Classics here this year, and we met our tutor yesterday. He's quite young like most of the fellows, which rather startled me. Lectures begin on Monday and my first Tutorial is on Tuesday, once a week and a joint class once a week also.

They had something called a freshers' fair yesterday where all the societies engaged in enormous propaganda to enrol new members. I joined 5 – bridge, chess, drama, the Labour Party and the Union – which cost me 18 pounds. However, that includes Life Membership of the Union, 13.50 – terrible, but better than 2.50 for 9 terms. I've also paid my battels for the term – or year – it's a very confusing calculation and I seem to have quite a lot of money left in the bank – wrote my 1st cheque yesterday – which seems quite important! I also bought a gown today, for they are compulsory at dinner and recommended at tutorials – the Tutor informed us that he likes tradition and every Tutor must be the same because everyone's going about in gowns today.
I was going to describe at length in this letter how disappointed I was with Paris, but I seem to be running out of space. Anyway, I'd always considered Paris as the cultural centre of the world and that, beautiful as the Seine and Montmartre are, it isn't. All those palaces and things are so very artificial in the middle of the simply lovely boulevards – it's as though the French, without realizing that their strength lies in the ordinary life - of Hugo and Zola and the Impressionists and the Left Bank – try to show how prosperous and great they are. I suppose that's why Napoleon made himself Emperor after the revolution and why Pompidou's banking accompanied de Gaulle's grandeur. Somehow I wish the revolution of May '68 had succeeded.

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