Because of the shortage of female company, we arrange some dancing lessons - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Because of the shortage of female company, we arrange some dancing lessons

After the incident involving the 'dead' Tamil lad, Peter Patrick and I continued our round-the-island tour. One day we climbed to the highest point on Sri Lankan roads at Ramboda Pass (6,572 ft above sea level) and then spent the night at the highest town on the island, Nuwara Eliya (6,128 ft above sea level). We had barely stopped at the summit of Ramboda Pass, to let the engine cool down, when we were suddenly surrounded by a group of delightful children who all wanted to have their photographs taken. This was tea plantation country, and indeed there is a glimpse of a plantation building behind the children in my photograph (above). I assume the children came from there. I have often wondered what became of them.


Above: The highest point of the Ramboda Pass in Sri Lanka. I had bought a colour film for this tour but it was hard to come by and very expensive. Sadly few of the Agfacolor transparencies have survived.
On most nights during our tour we stayed at comfortable government rest houses which provided basic food and accommodation for travellers at very reasonable prices: in other words they were cheap. That was an important consideration because the only other acceptable option was to stay in one of the very few tourist hotels which were far from cheap. However, in Nuwara Eliya we decided to live it up and stay one night in a hotel to see for ourselves how 'the other half' lived. I can't remember the name of the hotel but I think it was the only one. I was down for breakfast, dressed in long trousers and a long sleeve shirt buttoned at the wrists, before Pete put in an appearance.

As I waited to place my breakfast order, I couldn't fail to overhear what a smartly dressed English lady was saying to a smartly suited man, presumably her husband, at the adjacent table. In fact, I'm sure she intended me to hear. I can't remember her exact words but the gist was: "What is that sort of riff raff doing here?" I couldn't resist turning to her and saying: "As a matter of fact, I am 'raff' - Royal Air Force - I can pay my bill and I have just as much right to stay here as you have." Then Peter joined me and we had our breakfast without any further comment from the woman or her husband.

Above: This was the centre of Nuwara Eliya, a truly delightful town
The social life at Gangodawila was always seriously limited and not only because we were short of money: there was no female company. We were forbidden to have any 'relationships' with the local population so we had to find other ways to occupy our leisure hours. We were permitted to make use of the Gangodawila RAF gharry, when it and Mr DeLile the driver were available, to visit Colombo for its excellent cinemas, cheap Chinese restaurants, and shopping for souvenirs. We could also use local taxis; they were very cheap as long as three or four of us shared the fare.

Above: Mount Lavinia beach with the eponymous hotel in the background
The nearest clean beach was at Mount Lavinia, just a short cycle ride away from Gango. The water was always warm and was safe for swimming - outside the monsoon months anyway. The Mount Lavinia Hotel, standing on a high promontory overlooking the beach, was used mainly by foreigners of one sort of another whom we never met because they had their own pool facilities up at the hotel and, in any case, they were almost certainly outside our pay grade. Memories of British rule were still fresh and there were many ex-pats who had 'stayed on' after Independence - presumably because they had nowhere else to go. However, it was wise to keep within your own social grade - if you didn't, you were soon put firmly in your place. Occasionally some of us would climb the path from the beach up to the hotel to see what talent was there but we were easily recognised for what we were and sooner rather than later a hotel employee would approach us and politely ask if we were residents. We took the hint.

Towards the end of 1955 I joined several others from Gangodawila to have dancing lessons at a private school in the leafy outskirts of Colombo. Don't laugh. We didn't need the lessons, or to be precise I didn't, but there were beautiful girls to dance with. We usually went for lessons in groups of four or five. The school was held in a large bungalow and run by the extended family who lived there. They were what were known in those days as Burghers, a name for those of mixed race. They were Protestant Christians and spoke English as their first language but most, through necessity, could also speak one or more of the local languages. To be honest, the Burghers I met were a rather sad group, largely ignored by ex-pat Brits and the locals.

The dancing lessons were about an hour long and were always timed for late afternoons and always ended as the tropical night suddenly descended at 6pm - you could actually set your watch by the sudden onset of darkness. I can't now remember how much each lesson cost but it can't have been much because I and my friends kept going back for more. There was an elderly, matronly lady who played the piano while the gentleman of the house did the actual teaching of the dance steps. Our partners were really beautiful young ladies - all, as far as I could tell, members of the extended family who ran the school.

Any young folk reading this now in the 21st Century, may not know that in the 1950s the main purpose of, and pleasure from, ballroom dancing was to hold your partner tightly, close to your own body. In the early lessons we learned waltzes, slow foxtrots and quicksteps; when we were more advanced we moved on to tangos and rumbas and that was much more fun. From time to time, once we were considered sufficiently competent at a particular step, we danced to pre-war 78rpm records of Victor Sylvester and his Ballroom Orchestra played on a wind-up gramophone. The whole point of the Victor Sylvester records were that they were in absolutely strict tempo - from start to finish. I can still hear our instructor intoning, "forward, side, together", "back, back, together", "one and two, and one and..." It was a little like being back at recruit training camp learning how to march, but now we had someone to cling to.

The dancing lessons ceased suddenly. I have a vague memory that we were told by the RAF that we were breaking standing orders by associating with what were still called 'natives' but there is no mention of that in my diaries, nor would I have put such a comment in my diary anyway. We knew that one fellow in our billet at Gangodawila was seriously 'courting' a Roman Catholic girl of mixed race who lived with her family in a nearby village. One Monday he proudly announced to us all that he had got engaged to be married to her. Later that same week he disappeared, never to be seen again at Gangodawila. Chiefy Owen merely told us that he had been posted to Singapore.

In 2004 I had a long email from a Ceylonese Burgher who had been reading my website. This is part of what he wrote (reproduced with his permission but I have deliberately withheld his name):

"I am a representative of a rapidly dwindling ethnic minority in Sri Lanka known as the Dutch Burghers, descended from Dutch (and even Portuguese) settlers who intermarried with the locals and put their roots down in Ceylon, so to speak. One of my distant ancestors arrived in Ceylon in the early 1700s, and promptly got the 'clan' going. Around the time you served in Ceylon, there was still a sizeable Burgher community, although their migratory trend to Australia, the UK, Canada, etc was in full swing by the early-to-mid 1950s. Main reason was their disenchantment with portents (which became reality) that English would be ditched as the official language. With English being the Burghers' first language, the prospect of such linguistic discrimination was unthinkable, so we began 'burghering off' in our droves. Most Burgher families from Ceylon can trace their ancestry via the detailed genealogical records compiled and maintained by the Dutch Burgher Union in Colombo. These documents were particularly useful for Burghers planning to emigrate to Australia during the tenure of the White Australia Policy, who had to prove a certain percentage of European blood in order to gain entry Down Under. How times have changed...or have they?"

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