World of books

Of HMCyS Vijaya, London’s books by the thousands, Lieutenant-Commander Donald Victor Hunter and a friend who made it all happen

By Carl Muller
It was such a long time ago. I was born in 1935, joined the Navy in 1953, the Army in 1959 and somewhere in-between, went out to England to bring in the HMCyS Vijaya through the Suez Canal.
HMCyS? Ah yes. Her Majesty’s Ceylon Ship – and all that was a time before I had done with one wife, played a messed up serenade with another and finally settled for good and all with the third. We clinched it all in the 1970s and have over fifty years to our credit – and all I now do is remember!
Yes – remember so much of a glorious past; and I have knitted much of it in my books and have left so much more yet to be covered. Maybe I’m keeping all this for some grand exit. What the heck! Can’t live forever, can we? But there’s something I must tell of since it should be of immense worth to my readers. You see, it’s all about books! I didn’t waste my time hanging around Grimsby Docks while the ‘Vijaya’ was being rechristened for Ceylon! She was Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship ‘Flying Fish’ of the Algerian Class of Minesweepers. I wanted to see London and find out if London wished to see me.

Not to be missed
It was my skipper, Lieutenant Commander ‘Donald Victor’ who told me of London’s unrivalled reputation in the world of books. I called him Donald Victor in my book ‘Spit and Polish’ but he was Donald Victor Hunter – one of the finest sea-captains I had served under. “You must not miss it,” he said. “I know how much books mean to you. Take a coach to London. Mind you, three days only. We will be ready to sail by then.” I nodded and thought 1 should pin him for a small grant to be deducted from pay, but changed my mind. I had three days to get lost in London. Good enough. I did not bargain on what I would see. People saw me in navy signalman’s uniform and showed interest and respect.
A fair-skinned man said he was from Ceylon and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Never knew there was a Ceylon ship in dock,” he said.
I had to explain. We came over on a British merchantman. We are taking a Canadian minesweeper back with us – a gift from the Canadian government.”
He was pleased as Punch. “Come on, let’s go to Museum Street. Then we can do Great Russell Street. This is like a massive can of special gravy. I’m a teacher and my wife also teaches Montessori You can stay with us. I’ve built up a little library as well.”
I couldn’t have been luckier. My little case carried two suits of civvies and what was certainly nothing to do with the navy – and we were set to call at over 200 bookshops! “Impossible,” I exclaimed.
My friend – he was Malcolm Martenstyn – grinned. “Are you keen on buying anything?”
I shook my head. “If I can place orders...”
“No go. But you can pick up something that’s incredibly cheap at Prohsthaines or Luzac and Company. But say, I can always make a small purchase for you. Pleasure, especially meeting a sailor from Ceylon...”
As I have said, London has an unrivalled reputation in the book world. Thousands of books, dating back to William the Conqueror; regular Book Fairs and auctions; regular Book Weeks attended by over 150,000 dealers and avid book collectors from every corner of the globe.

Wide range
We found Museum Street and Brills’ Bookshop. It was a large Dutch concern established more than 300 years ago... There was everything: from Atlantis to stocks in Greek, Russian, Arabic, medieval philosophy to biology and geology. I saw a red-haired man scanning a hefty ‘Seduction of the Occult Path. ‘There were tables piled with pamphlets on Druids, Giants, folklore – even crystal balls and Tarot cards. We met Rudolph Steiner who, Malcolm said, was owner as well as a great educator, architect, philosopher and anthropologist. I found a repository of esoteric works – odd books like ‘The Masonic Thread in Mozart’ and ‘The Geometry in Art and Life.’
“Let’s keep moving,” Malcolm said. “Our best bookshops are not riding just for their stocks. There’s a tremendous atmosphere and some very eccentric owners. This was when Arthur Probsthain, the oriental specialist, hove into view. Such a confusion of a shop. There were piles of papers, pamphlets, books strews on every available table, chair, shelf: and every inch of floor space.

“This,” I said, “is chaotic!”
Mervyn smiled. “Few shops in Great Russell can rival this. It was founded in 1907. Look - you’ll like this book on Nepal. It’s part of a general stock and less than a pound. I’ll take it for you.” I couldn’t protest. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “You dig long enough and you’ll find a lot of stuff on British Ceylon too, but they are pricey. Also you’ll need time unless you can rattle off the names of authors.”
Luzac and Company was run by Knight-Smith who comes from a French Huguenot family. The shop was started in 1742 and is one of the oldest in London. In Berkeley Square we called at Maggs – dealers for the antiquarian bookshops since the 1850s. So many glass-cased cabinets, books on travel, military history, English Literature, but I found prices extremely high. In Lower John Street is Quaritch’s – a regular mausoleum of double-locked doors. Antiquarian booksellers have been in business since 1847 and their clientele included Napoleon’s brother, Gladstone, and Disraeli. But it’s no place to browse in.
It was so much nicer at Sotheran’s bookshop in Sackville Street. Henry Sotheran founded it in 1815 when the Battle of Waterloo was won. It was a pleasure walking around. There were so many specialties in Natural History, English Literature (especially Dickens who, I was told, was a regular customer in his day).

I felt so helpless. I could have spent six years pay on a book or two that stirred me! The manager, Robert Kirkman, assured me that just because books were old, didn’t mean that they were outrageously expensive. He took up an 1850 ‘David Copperfield.’ “This is with Victorian binding. Just under 100 pounds. And you see – the old books in fine condition with unsullied dust wrappers fetch a staggering price.”
As I walked along, I found that helpful, friendly service was part of the bookshop style. In Vere Street there is E. Joseph’s tastefully arranged shop. It has merged with another seller and they deal in c1assical literature.
We stopped for scones and tea. Mervyn said it was a real treat shepherding me around. “The most beautiful bookshops are off Charing Cross road,” he said. It’s a little street – bookshops everywhere. Let’s take in a few of them and then lets trot home. You’re lugging that suitcase... I’ll tell you what? Let’s go to Images.
Charming place, and I know the owner very well. My wife keeps going there, picking up lots of stuff for the nursery children.”

Sturn Dear Lord! Piles of books reach the ceiling and there sat Peter Stockham, king of the children’s books castle! He had over 20,000 books and is the world’s largest specialist on books about dolls and toys. Whether they are Rupert Annuals, early editions of A. A. Milne signed by the author; or Beatrix Potter’s early books, he will have them. Also books about rabbits, cats, dogs, even rats (‘oh rat stories are very popular!’) and he said that it’s a hot trade.
He gave Mervyn an ‘Old Time Jingle’ containing Jack and Jill, Tom the Piper’s Son, and Sam the Sportsman. “I don’t know what she’s going to do with this, but your wife wanted me to keep this for her. You take it to her. She can settle later.”
It had been quite an adventure and as I was told as I relaxed in Mervyn’s and Daphne’s well-laid-out home in Holland Park Road, the fun is in the search. After a relaxing meal, I sat in the library. Mervyn said I should take a few books he had read time and again. We exchanged addresses and sipped wine and enjoyed our Balkan Sobrani.

The next day I accompanied Mervyn to his school where I was introduced to the staff as a signalman of the Ceylon Navy and had the pleasure of addressing the school on life at sea, and what we stood for as signalmen, reading codes, ready to darken ship, meet undersea attacks, know all flag signals in port and at sea – the works. Wonderful day and I decided to get back to Grimsby. It wasn’t right to stretch out my welcome for day three as well.
I found the skipper readying for the last hurrah. He beamed. “Back early? Good. Get into number sixes. We will be cutting out in four hours. It’s looping the loop down the Suez. Deck watch all the way, then straight to Colombo”
Mervyn and I kept in touch for many years until he and Daphne moved to the USA. Suddenly correspondence became a trickle. My last letter to them in 1990 was unanswered. I couldn’t think what had happened. He may have returned to England. I asked friends there and also hit on the idea to ask Images. Nobody seemed to know.
It was another blow to learn, that my skipper, who had left the Navy, had emigrated to Australia – and died there. I met him on the day before he flew out, buying hot godamba roti in Wellawatte. “My last Sri Lankan meal” he said. How true.


A stunning sight

Jehan Aloysius’ Nutcracker

By Shabna Cader
From my childhood memories of ‘Nutcracker’ all I could conjure were the blurred images of a young boy, a bunch of soldiers and fairies. Unfortunately nothing of absolute confirmation to the story came to mind but a flash of laughter, great music, dance and liveliness. Until of course the much loved ballet came to life a month ago at the Lionel Wendt Auditorium. I have director and choreographer Jehan Aloysius to thank for, for reminding what the Nutcracker was all about.

“I picked Nutcracker, as I wanted to do a ballet that was more fun and yet challenging than ‘Swan Lake’. I wanted the performers to enjoy themselves and the roles they were creating for the show,” said Jehan commenting on why he chose ‘Nutcracker’.

Previews of the ballet denoted it as a visually stunning fantasy. In all hopes of keeping it simple, it was a stunning sight – the set and costumes, but it was also a vivacious fairytale brought to stage, with bouts of music from the great Tchaikovsky, ‘body-narrative’ moves and expression by Jehan himself and brilliant performances by a cast of hearing-impaired participants as well as injured soldiers from Ranaviru Sevana together with performers and trainers from Jehan’s CenterStage Production team. The root of the play is about discovering true ability, strength and beauty and that notion was perfectly depicted with the hearing-impaired participants and injured soldiers.

Although ‘body-narratives’ is something new to Sri Lanka, Jehan’s previous production gave way to this new form of expression and performance. It allows those who are differently able to share performance space, importance and the limelight much like everyone else and also give their characters an added touch of humility and truth. “The choreography I planned for the show included more complicated dance routines and technically challenging lifts that had not been done in ‘An Inspired Swan Lake’,” he added.

The performances are well worth a standing ovation – those who are hard in hearing and use wheelchairs or/and crutches gave stunning performances; their form of movement and dance, were ideally crafted to emanate a different sort of grace, beauty and sensuality throughout the play. It was a ballet performance nevertheless, but with the combination of body-narratives giving the play a whole unique feature.
The core essence of the story remained the same – the original play was based during Christmas Eve but the adventure in Colombo began on the night of a little girl’s (Clara) birthday. “I changed the sequence of the story in order to give the characters more scope for development and to extend the dramatic tension. In the original, the ballet is in two distinct parts - the first half is a ‘story ballet’ and the second is a ‘court ballet’ with ‘character pieces’ performed by characters that do not have anything to do with the first half of the ballet or the plot in general.

“I wanted to allow Clara and the Nutcracker to have a credible relationship that could build up before the battle scene (which is usually within the first 15 minutes of the original ballet). I am not the first choreographer to change the sequence of events and music, I must add. Nor am I the first to change or adapt the storyline. I do believe however that we are groundbreaking in re-imagining the choreography and vision of both ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Nutcracker’ with ‘special needs’ performers in mind,” explained Jehan.

The play was performed in collaboration to mark the 10th Anniversary of Jehan’s Production house. So was it a worthy production? Jehan seems to think so! “I am very proud of ‘Nutcracker’ and do think it was worthy of being one of the shows to mark the 10th Anniversary of CentreStage Productions. The performers, my team and I faced many challenges with this production, and the standing ovation on the final night made it all worth it.

“It was a pity that the ICC World Cup coinciding with the show resulted in smaller audiences, but the audiences that filled the seats have given us rave reviews. We have even been offered opportunities to take the show abroad. Moreover, in shows with a ‘special needs’ cast, the process is often as important as the show itself. I am thrilled and humbled by the level of talent displayed by the cast who continue to overcome challenges each day. These performers now stand as equally capable performers in my eyes. That makes the success of the production and the work of my troupe so much sweeter!” he said.


Senaka de Silva unwinds on ‘Celeb Chat’

Senaka de Silva is a man of many parts – craft designer, couturier, costume designer, choreographer, interior designer, etc. etc etc. all rolled into one.
Listen to him unwind and relate his many stories on ‘Celeb Chat’ from classes at Cora Abraham’s Melbourne Art School and classical ballet at the Oosha Garten of Western Ballet … to mastering the art of hand-painted batiks and tie-and-die fabrics… from drawing inspiration from the myriad colours around him and rigorously training models for the catwalk… to taking his brand of Sri Lankan ‘haute couture’ to the world.
His current passion is working with craftsmen and master weavers from all of Sri Lanka’s provinces, and this has given birth to his dream – to set up a ‘Crafts Village’ in Kalpitiya, and one day, live there in retirement.
Catch Senaka de Silva in Eastman colour at 9.30 p.m. on Monday, May 2 on CSN.


Natasha Rathnayake on Speak Easy

This week on Speak Easy catch the loveable Natasha Rathnayake along with her down-to-earth and supportive husband Damitha Rathnayake as they discuss their love life, friends, success and so much more.
We discuss what stood their way when Damitha wanted to hold Natasha’s hand in marriage and a surprise guest who ended suppressed.
Speak Easy hosted by Danu is the newest brand on Channel 1 MTV, catering to all the celeb fans out there for their weekly dish! From handbags to business deals, from new apartments to laid-back family moments, every Sunday from 9:30 p.m. tune in and discover the real divas of Sri Lanka.
Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Channel One MTV.


SAARC Film Festival – May 11-15, 2011

SAARC Cultural Centre will be hosting the SAARC Film Festival from May 11-15, 2011, in Colombo. Not only will the general public be able to view some of the best films in the region, but there will also be an award given to the best nominated Feature Film at this Festival by a panel of International Jury from Italy, Russia and Singapore. Further there will also be a special workshop specially organised by the SAARC Cultural Centre for the Directors of these Films as well as experts on the Film Industry.
The SAARC Cultural Centre is a regional centre established based on the decision made by the Heads of State /Governments of SAARC countries to promote cultural cooperation in order to bring the people of South Asia closer and to project the distinct identity of South Asia. The SAARC Cultural Centre, in keeping with its mandate of promoting culture in the region through different modes of art, will showcase films from the region as cultural expressions at its forthcoming SAARC Film Festival. The Film Festival will give all Member States an opportunity to screen some of the best films from the region. The SAARC Region has produced some films with a standard of excellence, and this Film Festival will focus on promoting some of the best films featured in 2010 from all SAARC Member States, inviting Directors of these movies for workshops as well as recognising the best feature film screened in 2010.
All Member States of the SAARC region have been asked to send in nominations of two feature films which will be shown at the Film Festival. To date, nominations of some excellent films have been received from Bhutan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.
Among the nominations received are award winning films from Bhutan, which grabbed the Winner of the Best Cultural Film at the 9th National Film Awards, 2010 (Chorten Kora) and Shada Semo Winner of the Best Film of the Year, also at the 9th National Film Awards 2010. Pakistan has nominated two films by Director Shahzad Rafique, and India has nominated a Marathi, and Bengali Film. The film Vihir, Film Directed by Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni is a much appreciated film which won laurels at many international film festivals. Vihir is indeed a good film to watch for discerning audience. Sri Lanka too has nominated two films that have won awards, Bambara Wallala – Directed by Athula Liyanage which won a Special Jury Award for Director/Best Camara Director at Houston Film Festival and Ira Handa Yata Directed by Bennet Ratnayake which won best Film at the Identities International Film Festival, and an Honourable Mention at The Los Angeles International Film Festival. All these films plus more will be screened free of charge to the general public at the National Film Corporation Theatre, equipped with its state of the art facilities.
The SAARC Film Festival is bound to be a treat to all film enthusiasts and is open to the public free of charge. The SAARC Film Festival is organised by the SAARC Cultural Centre. Screenings times will be made available soon.