Memories of Ceylon.
A personal memoir of a lost empire.
Once upon a time, when I was a child, they called it Ceylon but they call it Sri Lanka now, the Sinhalese. It is once again their island, this green and glowing jewel in the Indian Ocean and, despite armed strife and tsunami, it is still breathtakingly beautiful.
I have never been back there since I left at the age of five but I keep in touch with its loveliness, courtesy of Google and even now, nostalgia for the place can still overwhelm me.
The following are memories of a way of life that was already starting to crumble as the British Empire ceded land and gave it back to the people they had taken it from so many years before. These memories have little sense of timeline but are rather the collection of vividly coloured vignettes that most young children have ... only the setting seems exotic.
The adventures of a Navy brat.
My father was a Petty Officer in the British Royal Navy when he was sent to Ceylon and my mother and I went with him. I was two years old and I was to develop into a wild and somewhat wilful child before I returned to the civilising influence of a Yorkshire infant school.
My life should have been bounded by my parents but in truth I usually found some way to subvert their watchfulness and as we lived in a long, low white bungalow off base there were no other Forces families nearby to keep watch on me and report back.
I would like to think I was a naturally adventurous free spirit but it is probably nearer to the truth that I was just a nosey and rather naughty child.
Exploring my Sinhalese surroundings.
My most daring explorations coincided, unsurprisingly, with my parent's siesta time. The doors were locked but the window shutters were always ajar in the hope of catching any cooling breezes and from a very early age I could climb like a monkey. It was no problem for me to squat on the bungalow's window ledge and scan the garden for snakes before dropping down onto the hard-baked earth outside.
My habitual dress was a pair of thin organdie knickers and bare feet. In fact the only time I ever wore clothes was when we left the house or when I was forcibly dressed up in a pretty dress to entertain visitors with my precociousness.
Needless to say this was always an unmitigated disaster as I glowered most unbecomingly and utterly failed to enchant.
But my penchant for bare feet often caused me a problem when I decided to cross the narrow, burning hot, tarmac road outside the garden gate. If I moved fast enough the pain was fleeting though it took a few moments to pluck up the courage to move at first.
I had, however, the best of all childish reasons for my perilous mission, I wanted to visit our staff and allow them to cosset and spoil me, which they always did most lovingly.
It feels wildly uncomfortable to me now to call the people who helped us about the house ‘staff’ or even 'servants' in these politically correct times but Joseph and his wife were our servants and even today many new Sri Lankan properties boast rooms, and even separate toilets, for servants.
In the early 1950s servants were still very much an aspect of colonial life but ours became more like family members. My mother and my father were generous natured, warm-hearted people from relatively impoverished English backgrounds themselves and they seemed to attract both people and stray animals to them.
Paddy fields and dragons ...
Our bungalow had an L-shaped veranda at one end which projected out to another small building, our kitchen. The veranda was Cocky's domain, our ferocious white cockatoo, and he ruled his roost, red in beak and claw.
Although my father prudently donned huge leather gauntlets and persisted in trying to stroke him into submission, Cocky remained stubbornly resistant to all attempts at taming and lived on on his perch in total bad-tempered and malevolent freedom.
Our kitchen window overlooked a paddy field and was a favourite place from which to feed an extremely large Monitor lizard that called round occasionally hoping to relieve us of one of the cats, Tom, Dick, Harry or Tabitha, that had adopted us.
Or maybe it was the dog, Rags, who tempted him to visit. The dog was yet another animal who had decided he would prefer to live with us instead of his owner, the dhobi man, and my parents named him Rags in honour of his real owner's occupation.
Fortunately for me free-range child was definitely off the lizard's menu thanks to cook's warning that he could break your leg with a single swipe of his tail, a fact I marvelled over from the safety of the kitchen windowsill.
The paddy field itself however was much more deadly and was the source of a curiosity which nearly killed me. One memorable day, as my parents dozed, I tentatively tested what appeared to be solid ground and plunged through a fragile crust on the top of the water.
I remember looking up at the blue sky as the water closed over my face and in my peripheral vision I saw what looked like a thin black stick standing upright. The thought that it may be a snake rather than a stick also occurred to me. Even so I reached out to grab it almost automatically and hauled myself out of the swampy ground with what had luckily turned out to be a stick after all.
In a kindly, if unknowing, gesture the young woman next door had left a pristine white towel lying on the lawn after sunbathing and, whilst all the adults drowsed comfortably in the cool of their bedrooms, I sat on the towel to dry off and remove the leech that had hitched a ride on my ankle.
Knowing that I would be in for sharp, painful and totally appropriate chastisement for this little expedition meant that I kept a strangely mature sang froid about my ordeal and the fascinatingly round, bloody hole on my ankle. I was dry and back in the house before anyone woke up and the mystery of the dirty, blood-spattered towel was never ever solved.
The beauty of Sri Lanka.
Alcohol and football - then as now.
A daily alcohol intake was a way of life for most naval personnel in those constitutionally naïve times and my parents usually spent the warm evenings drinking with our neighbours, another young couple who also lived off base.
As the sun sank my father, dressed in his tropical uniform of white shirt, shorts and sandals and my mother, outrageously glamorous with her tiny waist and full skirted dresses of iridescent taffeta, chatted, glasses in hand in the darkening garden until bedtime. But it wasn't always that peaceful and the alcohol could also lead to trouble.
Every Saturday saw a football match on the base, usually men versus officers. Looking back it seems to me that this was a thinly disguised excuse to kick seven bells out of each other, the football being merely incidental.
Whatever the truth was the kicking contest was usually superseded by a drinking contest in the mess in an attempt to outdo one another and liberally anaesthetise the inevitable cuts and bruises left by the match. My father would then attempt to ride his bicycle home.
On one terrifying occasion he had safely negotiated the gateway only to crash into the wall of our outside well and fall down it. This was a whole lot more worrying for me than his usual trick of getting wedged sideways in our outside bath. My mother on these occasions was worse than useless as she would be so helpless with the giggles that she had no strength to pull him out.
Falling down the well however was a new and wholly unwelcome turn of events and she was seriously angry with him for having had the temerity to do it, so she left him down there to sober up.
It was quite some time before he did in fact manage to sober up enough to 'spider' his way out with his shoulders against one wall and his feet pushing against the opposite one. My mother was contrite however when she saw he had a long, though superficial, gash across his stomach and the doctor was immediately summoned.
The fairy and the clown save a life.
Late one night I was woken by the sound of loud and urgent-sounding voices coming from my parent's bedroom and I put my eye to the crack in the door where the light shone through into my room.
A man I did not know was lying on my parent's bed with a ... fairy ... holding a bloody pad to his neck whilst a clown hovered anxiously in the background. I appeared to be seeing something out of one of my story books but with some sort of new and macabre twist. Transfixed I stood in the dark of my bedroom watching as the scene gradually resolved itself into some sort of sense.
The fairy, in a white net dress with little shiny blue stars showing through the top layers of its full stiff skirt, was my mother and the front of her beautiful dress was covered in blood. The clown threw aside his pointed hat with the pom-poms down the front and beneath the baggy clothes and red nose I suddenly recognised my father.
The stranger bleeding onto their mattress however was still a stranger to me but I knew that they were helping him.
Soon an ambulance arrived and sped off into the dark night with him and the fairy and the clown put me back to bed and started to clean up their room. Only later did I find out that they had saved the life of the improbably named Bill Hollyhock who had crashed his car into the parapet of the bridge next to our house and had severed an artery in doing so.
Young as she was my mother had recognised this and tightly pressed a pad of cloth against it until help arrived. He owed her his life and he never forgot it.
And the reason for the costumes? A fancy dress party at the Naval Base. Entertainment was both self-organised and continual and, in the true spirit of the British Forces overseas, they were as determined as ever to party and enjoy themselves.
Although Ceylon had gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948, the British Navy did not completely withdraw until 1956.
We however were due to return home in 1954 and we started our long journey early on in that year. Having loaded up all our belongings in crates my family headed for the docks of Colombo.
Running true to my family's form our journey home too was not without drama and we lost everything we possessed when our ship, the Empire Windrush, sank in the Mediterranean.
The bizarre and unnatural calmness of the British caught up this event was recorded on a Pathe News newsreel and I have written about it here.
A long-time legacy.
Despite the fact that sixty years have passed since that time my mind is still full of the exotic place names I overheard in my early life, Columbo, Trincomalee, Ragama, Diyathalawa and one that sounded like Ellapitiwella which I have been never been able to locate on any map of Ceylon.
The memories of this place have stayed with me, sharply etched, vibrant and inexplicably precious, like a gift from the Gods, for more than half a lifetime.
For a flavour of Ceylon ...
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