A short bicycle trip around Negombo village - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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A short bicycle trip around Negombo village

Sri Lanka was generally known as Ceylon, certainly by ex-pats when I was there. One of the first facts I learned when I arrived there in December 1954 was that the largest group of Sri Lankan people, then roughly 75% of the population, were known either as Ceylonese or Sinhalese; the language they spoke was Sinhala and they were mainly Buddhists. A smaller group was comprised mainly of Tamils; their language was Tamil and they were mostly Hindus. There was also a much smaller group of Christians, mainly Roman Catholics, converted by British, Portuguese and Dutch missionaries in earlier colonial eras.

On our first morning Mike Harley, David Gaunt and I presented ourselves at the Station HQ and booked in. Mike and David were sent off to sign in at Air Traffic Control where they were going to be employed. I was told, to my complete surprise, that I would be posted to a remote signals unit called Gangodawila and that I would be moving there the following day. Until then I could have the day off. At a loose end early in the afternoon, I decided to visit the local village and take a few photographs. I wandered off on my own, out through the Main Gate and across the public road into Negombo village. It was cloudy, hot and very humid and I was soon sweating profusely. I was shocked at the smells and the squalor that faced me as I wandered slowly through the narrow streets – and I was alarmed by the curiosity and what seemed like some barely disguised hostility that my presence caused. I kept my camera out of sight.

At the Church of England infant and primary schools I’d attended in the 1940s, we had been taught that the British were loved as Christians and benefactors in all their overseas possessions. On that, my very first day in Sri Lanka, I had my first intimation that my early education might well have been less than 100% accurate. All the Negombo villagers stared at me curiously; they could obviously tell that I was just out of UK because my face, arms and legs were pasty white. I noticed that no-one returned my smiles and so I decided that it would be prudent to return to the RAF camp. In retrospect, I don’t think I was in any danger of being attacked: after all, most of the villagers probably worked for the RAF in one capacity or another.

Back in the safety of the camp confines, I needed a toilet but I was out of luck: all the main buildings were closed because the RAF did not routinely work after 1pm. It was a long way to the barrack blocks so I was relieved to come across a toilet, or to be precise three toilets, on the side of the main camp road. The signs outside each indicated clearly that there were different categories of males: British Officers; BORs; Natives. I had to ask a passing airman what BOR meant and was informed that it was British Other Ranks – in other words the likes of him and me. There was no provision for females, British or otherwise, as far as I could see but I decided not to enquire into that. For the second time within an hour, I was appalled by my introduction to life in what had been, until just 6 years earlier, a British Crown Colony.

That evening in the NAAFI club I mentioned my little expedition to a small group of airmen. They were astonished that I'd wandered out of the camp on my own. Apparently all new arrivals were advised not to do that, but I'd not had the benefit of the introductory lectures that all new arrivals were supposed to have. I spent the night on my own in the long transit billet because Mick and David had already moved into their permanent accommodation. Listening to the many unfamiliar jungle night sounds while trying to get to sleep, I felt rather lonely and miserable but I was OK again by morning.

After breakfast I went to Pay Accounts and was paid 110 Rupees (£7 13s). Then I handed in my bedding and got a few signatures on my Clearance Chit. I had been told to be ready at the Guardroom to leave at 0930 but my transport, a small RAF van known as a gharry and driven by Mr DeLile, didn't arrive until just after midday. The drive took about two hours and was quite picturesque; first along the coastal road as far as Colombo, then through the city centre and on to RAF Colpetty, a tiny unit on the southern outskirts of Colombo where we called to in to collect some mail. Continuing on the road south we passed through the small village of Nugegoda, then turned off to the right along what was little more than a very bumpy, winding jungle track. Soon a huge aerial farm came into view on the right and beyond that the small collection of huts which comprised RAF Gangodawila.

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