Michael Roberts, courtesy of the Sunday Times, 1 April 2018, where the title is “Snapshots of a life lived to the full”
My sister Audrey Roberts passed away in Oxford in February, a little before her 84th birthday. A divorcee, bearing the name of her second husband as Audrey Maxwell, she had no issue, but can claim to have lived a full life marked by remarkable energy, wide-ranging friendships and a camaraderie that has etched her memory in many minds.
Audrey was one of eleven surviving children from the two marriages of T. W. Roberts, a Barbadian who was an Oxford scholar and cricketer before he entered the service of the British raj as a Ceylon Civil Servant, and whose first English spouse passed away in Ceylon – leading to a second marriage with a Ceylonese lady who bore four more children. “TW’ ended his Ceylon Civil Service career as District Judge in Galle on the south-western tip of Ceylon, and it was at the imposing Judges’ Bungalow beside the ramparts that Audrey was born. Her father retired when she was a child, but the family continued to live in Galle, and that was where Audrey grew up.
As her younger brother, I present this account of Audrey’s early life with help from our nephew, Guy Sirimanne (in Canada now) and niece Ann Abeywardene (Colombo). Guy has contributed the following account: “This whole Roberts thing goes back pretty far. I remember playing ring-a-ring roses in the sea at the Girls Bathing Place when I was about 4 or 5. I was absolutely terrified of the water going up my nose, yes, and the four of you doing the honours. Fast forward to a later stage to a ramble on the ramparts where some boys made a comment. Audrey led the charge for them with dried cow-dung as ammunition.
“Later Audrey joined Ladies’ College, Colombo and was a boarder. She would come to De Fonseka Road (the Sirimanne household) for some week-ends. Her exploits were myriad and we would hang onto every word. Midnight feasts in the dorm with roast chicken from a friend’s home and mango slices eaten out of soap dishes and bets to see who would call Miss Simon (the head mistress) “Sweetie-pie”. And Audrey’s version of Swiss Family Robinson was better than any current day soap.”
Ann writes from Kirulapona: “When I think back on her life I can only say she lived a full and most varied and exciting life! We looked at her in awe wondering what she was going to do next! We ran behind her but never quite could keep up.”
I vividly recall our juvenile days in the Fort. She was four years older and I benefited substantially from her tomboy leadership. As a late-developer in cycling ability, I was initially carted around double on a men’s bike by Audrey when we went on jaunts with friends. We had an energetic circle of friends from a range of ethnic backgrounds: among them the Wickremasinghe brothers from Lighthouse Street, the Roosmale-Cocqs from Hirimbure, Elmo de Alwis from Kalahe, the Conderlags, et cetera. We swam and surfed often at Closenburg Bay (alas no more in the interest of harbour development). We went on cycling trips to Unawatuna beach, Buona Vista and even further afield to the abandoned wartime airport at Koggala where we climbed the control tower and swam in the “seaside ‘swimming pool’ which had been blasted out from the shoreline-reef by RAF explosives.
Audrey acted in plays at Southlands College before moving to Ladies’ College in Colombo for the University-Entrance classes. When she entered Peradeniya University and pursued a General Degree in Arts in the mid-1950s, she appears to have sustained her reputation for unorthodoxy while establishing deep friendships. She was a live wire among the theatre set at Peradeniya working under the renowned tutelage of Professor Lyn Ludowyk, who also happened to be a family friend from the Fort of Galle.
Back in Galle as a teacher at Southlands, she fell in love with Tony Obeyesekere, a neighbour at Middle Street in Galle. They moved to England in 1957 to carve out new careers. The tasks of earning bread in this unfamiliar environment meant that any efflorescence of her acting capacities was cut off. But their house in Maley Street at Tulse Hill became a thriving hub of camaraderie for numerous Sri Lankans, several Germans and the odd Scot or Englander. Several marriages were forged there. Her home was my home during my postgraduate degree stint in the years 1962-66 and my research work at the Public Record Office in London would not have been possible without this fundamental support from Audrey and Tony.
When her bonds with Tony deteriorated and she married one Maxwell, she moved to Wolfson College with him. New chapters in her life story developed. Following their divorce in 1978, her flat in Bardwell Road became a pied a terre for her brother and other visitors ranging from Iceland and Scotland to Mexico, Sri Lanka and Australia.
At this point perhaps the most far-reaching and fruitful pathways in her life commenced through her ardent embracing of the Anglican faith and, above all, from her several activities in the local church of St. Andrews. These steps also led her to engage in humanitarian work in the Sudan and teaching service in the Honduras.
She assisted numerous students from Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere during the last 30 years of her life and there have been Danes, Icelanders, Ghanians and Trinidadians who have expressed their admiration for her during the past few weeks. Her aging infirmity was severe during the last few years and it was the profound reach of her good works that ensured conscientious and caring support for her, and her affairs, from several St. Andrews’ church people – as sturdy, kind-hearted British folk as one can find. Amen.
I cry, I cry: my sister Audrey has passed away………Michael Roberts
The Judges Bungalow in the Fort, Galle as it is today
AUDREY MAXWELL: “Footprints in the Dust ,,,.” Wolfson College Magazine, 1986
An EMAIL NOTE from Professor CYNTHIA VANDENDRIESEN in Perth, 11 July 2019: “Hi Michael, ….. Thanks for sending on these reminders of your famed sister Audrey. She had left Uni by the time I arrived -but stories of her exploits were still told on Campus. Ian knew her well apparently and he often spoke of her.I remember he spoke of her wonderful performance of Antigone in the Sophocles drama. – I think he thought it was better than mine – but being the kindly man he was -did not actually say so!”
An EMAIL NOTE from JOE SIMPSON in Canada, 12 July 2019: Hello Michael,……..Deepest sympathies on the loss of your sister (and Norah’s much younger sibling) Audrey. Your written commemoration of her is beautiful. And well do I remember visiting the derelict old Koggala airport by car with Nesta Brohier and a couple of Swiss guests at the NOH back in 1973-4. A solitary watchman came out of his shed to warn us of “many rogues” around – it was approaching the short-lived Lankan twilight, the gloaming time. And when I knew Norah, Audrey was only in her thirties, the prime of life. And now I am 67. Tempus fugit. ….Again, please accept my sincerest sympathies about losing a loved family member – and so talented and unique a personality too…….Joe S.