However, getting back on track on Life abroad experiences in the UK, Barrister Sepala Munasinghe’s encounters are equally interesting with a completely different twist to the stories, going back to the good old fifties.
Student arrivals to UK
‘Ceylonese’ community in the UK towards the end of the fifties, beginning sixties, comprised mainly of students engaged in under-graduate studies or more mature students, on scholarships reading for post graduate qualifications. The ‘Ceylon’ Armed Forces also had sent certain personnel for officer cadet training to Defence Institutions such as Sandhurst, Dartmouth, and Cranwell under a ‘Defence Agreement’ concluded by Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake, with the British when Ceylon attained Independence.
There were of course other Ceylonese expatriates, being somewhat disillusioned with ‘Ceylonisation’ of society back home after gaining Independence from the UK, living mainly in London, who had arrived in the UK looking for greener pastures. These ‘ex-pats’ were mainly females living affluently on allowances sent from home.
When Sepala Munasinghe arrived in the UK in 1958, one such person he came across was the sister of the Bishop of Kurunegala, Rev. Lakdasa de Mel, attached to The Metropolitan Church of India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Burma. The Bishop, being a friend of Sepala’s father, had asked his sister, Mrs. Amabel de Mel Gunasekera to be his minder.
‘Aunty Amabel’, as Sepala was asked to call her, lived in very affluent circumstances in Brook Street, London West 1, behind the world famous Selfridges Stores at Oxford Street where no foreign tourist arriving in London dared to miss! Her residence was in a very smart thoroughfare with neat rows of Georgian Houses within easy reach of the West End of London. On various social visits to 'Aunty Amabel's' apartment he soon realised that it was the meeting place in London for the ‘Colombo 7’ category of affluent people! Once a year, there was a large well attended party for her birthday. His friend to this day, Lajpat W, was there too as well as Lalith K. At the end of the party the three of them were each given a bottle of Champagne to take home!
High calibre at High Commission
The Ceylon government, unlike now, had been represented at the Court of St. James by fine gentlemen of the highest calibre; one such person was Sir Claude Corea. The Ceylon High Commission also took great pains to look after the interests and welfare of the Ceylonese student population in liaison with the British Council. In fact, at the High Commission office there was an Education Officer who assisted students with advice on various, and appropriate courses, to follow at British Universities and also stretched a helping hand to seek their admissions to such universities. The Education Officer himself was invariably someone who had full knowledge of these matters from his own personal experience been educated in England during his youth. One such person was Prof. J.L.C. Rodrigo, a Classics Scholar, from Peradeniya, formerly of Balliol College, Oxford.
Sepala Munasinghe remembers a meeting with Prof. Rodrigo vividly. When Sepala informed him about his aspiration to read law and be ‘Called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn’, he had promptly told Sepala that Lincoln's Inn was the wrong Inn to join at the time. The reason was that traditionally students joined the Inn at which the incumbent Lord Chancellor was Called (it should have been Gray's Inn, and Viscount Kilmuir a Gray's Inn Barrister was then the Lord Chancellor). Barrister Sepala Munasinghe says Now he knows why his friend, and J.L.C. Rodrigo’s son, Lalith was Called at Gray's Inn!
The Ceylon High Commissioner’s official car at that time was a black Cadillac bearing the registration number 'CEY 1'. Sepala Munasinghe remembers how some of them (students) had a ride in it without displaying the Sri Lankan flag to the Dorchester Hotel in the West End because of a close connection they had with the High Commissioner. Those were the days when the Ceylon delegation to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference came to London and stayed at the famous Dorchester Hotel, Dorchester bar had a stock of Ceylon Arrack. ‘Such was life for the few Sri Lankan students who were in London at the time,’ reminisces Sepala Munasinghe.
Home away from Home
In addition to all the assistance and support that the High Commission office gave students at the time, one should also mention about the Ceylon Students Centre, Sepala says, which was like ‘home away from home' for the Ceylonese residents in the UK. ‘It had a common room with Ceylon newspapers, a small library and the all important restaurant serving rice and curry for two Shillings six Pence! This was all subsidised by the Ceylon Government which, on Independence from Britain, then had enormous sterling reserves - to the envy of other Colonies such as the City State of Singapore when it attained Independence’. It was also there that the Ceylon Students Association had its meetings and became the breeding place for budding politicians, like Ratnasiri Wickramanayake!
Long before a Sri Lankan Cricket team was sent to England, there existed a squad of Ceylon cricketers calling themselves the Ceylon Cricket Team in London captained by no less person than Gamini Goonasena, who went first to Cranwell, as an officer cadet from the Royal Ceylon Air Force later joined the Cambridge University where he captained the University team in 1957.
Fresh from defeating Oxford convincingly in the annual varsity match,knocking a record breaking individual score of 211 runs, he formed a Ceylon cricket team in London. Such was his enthusiasm for the game, and for the love of his country of birth, he even went an extra mile to the extent of using his name at Lillywhites, the famous sports goods shop in London's Regent Street, and opened an account in his name for Sri Lankans to buy their cricket gear with the understanding that each Sri Lankan player had to pay for what he bought into that account. Some guys had done so, but there were few others who did not pay any heed to such a generous offer but left Gamini out of pocket!
Sepala and his fellow cricketers had played a few games, mostly with Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, until Gamini decided to leave London altogether to go to Australia to take up an appointment with the Ceylon Tea Board there. “ Gamini Goonasena was a thorough gentleman; so was his brother, Karl, who used to frequent the Students Centre and give free Dharma lessons to anyone who cared to listen”, recollects Sepala Munasinghe.
Delving into a bit of activities that went on within the drawing rooms of ladies like ‘Aunty Amabel’, Clodgha Jayasuriya, Mrs. Cassinader etc, Sepala Munasinghe says “any account of the Ceylon Community in London at that time cannot ignore the subtle match making activities that took place”.
‘There were many young daughters of the Colombo 7 socialites attending finishing schools either in Geneva or Rome who visited London for the summer. Due, mainly to the fact that most of them are alive, and out of sheer respect for them, names cannot be mentioned’,
However one couple, Lalith K and Cecil F, may be mentioned only because they have had such public exposure lately, for other reasons, that to mention their match was made in London at this time could not cause them too much embarrassment’, expresses Sepala Munasinghe.