A Time of Gifts Last letter from Oxford

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By 2018-01-13

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Finally in November I was told that all was well with the thesis (Mrs Bednarowska rang me up to Windsor to tell me that there was no need of another viva, provided I got rid of the typing errors that remained). I had had a lovely term, with friends I continued in regular touch with, coming up or meeting me in London. The last letter here was before Warwick's victory at the Union, which set the seal on a fantastic last term at Norham Gardens.

13th October 1979 (cont)

The last bits of preparation for the thesis were chaotic – I went down on Wednesday for the corrections, preceded by lunch with Lucy (Wood, whose mother you met here - Leslie thinks the family distinguished amongst dons for having produced three decent and splendid children), with her brother, who was my neighbour years ago at Univ. (in the room you and Thaththa shared) turning up after for a drink, after 6 months in Dubai. This was followed by a very strange film with Nick (carefully arranged as he and Lucy can't stand each other) about a brothel and a child prostitute in New Orleans in 1917 (all right if you like that sort of thing, unfortunately neither of us did), followed by supper since Victoria insisted on cooking, since I'd fed her when she'd been up to type – and then the typewriter broke down. So I had to stay the night, and she did the essential corrections the next day in the office, while I lunched with Richard having collected him from the Home Office, and then collected, finally, the thesis from Rothschild's – suitable conclusion, that, I think. Photocopied it the next day, and handed it in to be bound – the total cost of the operation, including feeding Victoria and transporting me and sometimes her, was over 200 pounds; though that includes also the 40 pounds for a resubmission. I enclose a card which you can put in an envelope and post off to Ashley at the English Faculty, University of Peradeniya.

I've been asleep all morning after pottering while it poured, but it's now turned fine, so I have no excuse not to go to the installation of the new Dean of Christ Church - the other two (Warwick is splendid – I can't resist enclosing a cutting which caused me great anguish over dinner yesterday) have gone to hear Nkomo at the Union. Hassan comes at 6 to collect this (could you please send my Oxford photo album over with him – I get sentimental, and I want to reorganize it finally before losing all chance of adding to it) and then I have to dine at my supervisor's – hence no night pottering tonight. It was most evocative last Saturday, the 6th, when a freshman who'd turned up early and was clearly lonely turned up in the Lodge to be talked to - I remembered having come up exactly eight years before, and feeling equally awed and alone. Discovered him yesterday with the last soaks in the Beer Cellar after Freshmen's Blind when I went to lock up – much more decorous than in our time, perhaps because of the women, no one sick and only one person crashed out in the Library whom I managed to remove before damage was done. It's wonderful the way the place absorbs people so quickly – sad, too, to see the third years, who seem to have been new so recently, having to cycle away to lodgings or whatever at midnight. I'm sure living out must be as traumatic as emerging from the womb etc. (I'm sure there's material for a psychological novel there).

29th October 1979

Have just got back to the Lodge after unlocking the college gates at 6:00 a.m. – it's my third night in succession night pottering so, as you can imagine, I'm pretty exhausted; also did last Monday as an emergency, when it quite pleased me to be asked, despite not feeling at all well, since I'd been quite useless the previous Friday and fallen asleep in my chair – overcome, I suspect, by too much singing: 2 church services that day, and 3 operas over the previous 3 days with the Glyndebourne Touring Group.

Bruce and Nicholas and Richard, as in Aunty, came over and stayed for an average of over a night each and I also took Christine Simmons to the last, so altogether it was a very active week. I slept for over 12 hours on Saturday, after everyone had gone, and took all afternoon to cook on Sunday, when I had some people to dinner – including Gwynne, who terrified Chris Hall's current girlfriend by her ruthless views on the entry of women into Univ. I used some of the seeni sambol powder to curry kidneys – as I had done on the Friday, for a very late and alcoholic lunch, just before evensong – and everyone had streaming noses and consumed lots of beer, but I think it was in general enjoyed. Pudding was bright red jelly with baked custard coloured a violent green with the last of Polly's colouring. She's taken to give lemon curd suppers to the freshmen now to persuade them to vote for her, and has even dragged the other Richard, who came up this weekend, into her orbit, as a guest for the Debate dinner and her little reception afterwards. Chris and I are trying to save his soul by stopping him going to the next dinner to which she's asked him.

On Thursday Andrew and Chris and I drove down in the former's car to a party given by Chris' old girlfriend in London, which was delightful except that the car began to steam on the way, which caused some suspense; Chris claimed another commitment, so I was alone with Andrew in the car when it did break down, on the way back. Luckily, the RAC having been summoned, we found we were near Chris' present girlfriend's flat, and rang her up and she drove to our rescue and put us up for the night; Chris, as anticipated, was there already! The car – it was only a lack of water in the radiator – had to be towed away to Rugby, but luckily John Pike, who was coming up for the weekend anyway, collected me on the way – as you can imagine, I was extremely exhausted in the Lodge that night though I did manage not to fall asleep.

Before the Lodge on Friday I went to the Union to hear our present tenant speak – very good, but I don't think he's going to be able to win – and tonight went again for the funny debate to hear two old friends, ex-Presidents and diplomats both, who were both very entertaining; came back immediately after, as I'm too old, I feel, to drink in the bar, and wanted too to get on with the novel – which is proceeding very slowly, as I've been either too busy or too tired to concentrate over the last fortnight. I have, however, managed to get a fair amount of reading done, though again I suspect I shan't get round to writing anything about it over the next month.

Saturday afternoon was the Memorial service for the chap who died, I told you some weeks ago, of dysentery contracted in Egypt. Keble Chapel was packed, with lots of people come up specially, as well as resident members. It was a very odd sensation, especially at tea afterwards in the Hall, and realizing what different things it meant to different people.

5th November 1979

I enclose a letter to be posted to Ashley, with my reactions to the syllabus – you still haven't sent me the dates of term. I have heard nothing further about the thesis, except officially (2 weeks after it happened!) about the appointment of examiners. Waiting isn't, I think, very good for me, and I haven't been able to get very much work done on the novel – though that may just be due to exhaustion from too much Night Pottering. The Domestic Bursary, which is, apparently, in a state of some confusion, sacked the last 2 weeks before the replacement was due to start, and I didn't have the heart to refuse to fill in; the less exhaustingly as from tonight I go off at 2, and don't have to sleep in the Lodge and get up to unlock the gates at 6. This morning, though, having done 4 nights in succession, I fell asleep and, except for a brief foray at lunch time, dozed till 6.

There are compensations, though, as a ticket to a Soderstrom (famous soprano, brought by Lord Goodman, her appearance at Covent Garden having had to be cancelled) concert in Hall yesterday so I came late on duty; and my tiredness may have been due only to a busy weekend, Christopher (who was at home in July) and his girlfriend having come up and my having Leslie etc. to lunch yesterday for the occasion – also, I had to get up early on Friday and Saturday due to other visitors.

The money, too, compensates, as - realizing how little time there is – I go down to London every week. Saw Stoppard's 'Dirty Linen' last week, and hope to see Eliot's 'Family Reunion' this – also a Post-Impressionist exhibition, to match Venice last week. Apart from that, I'm reading quite a lot, Kipling et al., to prepare for the great post-doctoral work!

I think I forgot to mention that Andrew (F.S. as in 1975) hopes to be in Ceylon again in mid-November after some business in Bombay. I said you might be away, but Mum would be around, and gave him the number to ring. Hope you have a nice time in New Zealand – also that you find some time to write.

22 Norham Gardens
26th November 1979

I have just finished correcting the typing errors that were still in the thesis – had about 40 of them: Clearly, proof–reading is not my strong point. I will drop the thesis in tomorrow to my examiner and collect it and the report on Thursday, to hand in to the Graduate Studies Committee and the Bodleian. The committee meets next Monday, and makes a report to the Board which meets on Thursday, so that I only get an official result on the 6th or 7th. I shall expect Thaththa to ring soon after he gets back – 10th morning, that is, not the 9th, as I may be out over the weekend – if he'd like to make a plan about a flight. It's a pity I've got to wait till the 7th, but I don't think I can properly approach a publisher till then – hope I feel confident enough to do so.

Got back on Friday after a lovely week at Windsor – I felt so much calmer after just a day there, that the news about the thesis, when it came on Thursday, was almost superfluous! I had originally intended to leave on that morning, particularly as David's parents were arriving, though Leslie said Kate would probably welcome having me around then, and I think this was the case. But I was having such a restful time that I stayed on; and it was absolutely the right place to get the news. I went down on Wednesday to London as planned to see a delightful musical called 'Chicago' (recommended by Leslie, same production team as did 'Cabaret') with Nick, and we had a long celebratory luncheon at Luigi's (where Leslie used to take us before the opera many years ago before inflation made it impossible); went to Westminster Abbey for evensong but, I regret to say, left because it wasn't sung (the choir at Windsor was delightful, and tempted me to 6 services in the week) and met John (as in Mary before Christopher!) for a drink before the theatre, which was salutary as I missed my last train back to Windsor and had to ring him up to cadge a bed in the Ministry of Defence!

Sandra turned up on Friday for the weekend along with her present boyfriend, having got a lift from Richard (as in Wales) who was coming up for a dinner on the Saturday with Polly. The lift was my suggestion, unfortunate, as the car broke down and they got in at midnight. Polly and I were waiting at the Union from 8, at the bar, so that around 11 I actually began to think - after what seems ages – that undergrads were interesting; a concept that prevailed throughout the weekend, probably due to Sandra's presence, her boyfriend's enthusiasm for his babies, as he calls the pupils he's had at a crammer's in London who've got into Oxford this year and who provided some entertainment over the two days, and Richard announcing on Saturday that he had doubts about Polly and on Sunday that it was all over. I think, after that, I might even vote for her in the Union this week.

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