ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 16, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 42

He flew high, roared fast but had his feet firmly on the ground

Dr. Michael Abeyratne remembers his friend the late James Peter Obeyesekere III

The appellation of 'Gentleman' has unfortunately been overused in recent years and has tended to lose its value. However, everybody who has had even the briefest contact with Deshamanya J.P. Obeyesekere will agree that here indeed was a gentleman in the highest possible sense.

Born into and raised in a life of wealth and privilege, yet here indeed was a man with the common touch. Deshamanya James moved freely with his tenant farmers to whom he like his predecessors donated his lands with the introduction of land reform, and with his workforce as he did indeed with the people of Attanagalla, who twice elected him as their M.P. with a massive majority. He was appointed Junior Minister of Health and Junior Minister of Finance and threw himself into his job with great dedication and vigour. But, people who knew him soon realized that this was not his métier and he 'retired' to the Senate.

The aircraft that made history- VP-CAO- with its solo flyer

His idea of politics was entirely one-sided asking nothing for himself except to be of service to the people of this, his country. He put all his weight behind his charming wife Siva, who is herself a Deshamanya, and served as possibly the best Minister of Health that this country has ever had, being instrumental in introducing positive concepts of Maternal and Child Health, reduction in under-nutrition and its effects on both mothers and babies and an excellent family planning service, all of which put our country at the top in indices of health in all of Asia.

James used to walk across the road to Royal where he had his primary and secondary education before going to Trinity College in Cambridge. A little known fact was that the Rev. W.S. Senior, 'Poet Laureate' of Sri Lanka and later Vice Principal of Trinity College, lived with the Obeyesekeres at the Maligawa and was James' personal tutor while teaching at the Colombo University. James' stay in Cambridge was interrupted by World War II but he soon joined the Cambridge University Air Squadron and went on to fly for the Royal Observer Corps delivering new and repaired aircraft of all types to their operational bases. This did not prevent him from gaining an M.A. (Cantab), election to the Cambridge Union and a half blue in athletics. He bought and ran several interesting cars of which his favourite was a chain driven Fraser-Nash and a 4 ½ litre blower Bentley and a 3 litre Bentley. In severely rationed Britain, petrol for running these came from the allowance he received as a pilot in the RAF. He joined the Bentley Drivers’ Club BDC and the British Automobile Racing Club BARC and was keenly active in their affairs until his last days. He was the only Asian to be elected an Honorary Life Member of the prestigious Bentley Drivers’ Club of England.

After the war, two of the major interests in his life surfaced. Through the Cambridge University Automobile Club (CUAC) he helped to organize and competed in the very first post war race meet in the UK at Gransden Lodge. Through his connections at A.T.A. he was able to discover that many brand new aircraft were up for sale very cheap, so this became his second consuming hobby. To put it briefly, he bought a single-engined Taylor craft Auster and flew it solo from Cambridge to Ratmalana. The account of this epic journey was published some year ago, and will still be available in bookshops.

He was Chairman of the Colombo Flying Club until its takeover by the government. He gifted his Auster to the Air Academy to train young pilots. His plane was unfortunately wrecked in an accident but he still had the engine from it. It is currently being restored by the Sri Lanka Air Force to be a permanent exhibit at the Sri Lanka Air Force Museum at Ratmalana to commemorate his historic solo flight. In the 1960s he toyed with the idea of setting up an internal air service using Dornier STOL aircraft.

After his marriage to Sivagamie Dassenaike, a union of Royal and Ladies' Colleges and of two leading families in Siyane Korale, he settled down to raise a family and care for his estates. His motor sporting interests centred on the various Hill Climbs of which Mahagastota was paramount. He acquired the ex Roger Davies Riley 1 ½ litre designed specifically for hill climbing by Commander Dobbs of Bristol and competed with this and later with a fiendish device concocted by Ing. Piersche at Car Mart. As he was unable to have much success with these, Mana Jayawardena designed and built for him a single seater mid engined Volkswagen special which was the forerunner by many years of the international Formula Vee – called the J.P.O. Sprint.

But James had other plans. While in England James invited me to join him in a trip. This was to the Lotus Factory in Cheshunt, North London where I was privileged to meet not only the boss Colin Chapman but also his drivers Jim Clark and Trevor Taylor and to see the prototype Lotus Cortina on test. Lotus' Seven was then only available in kit form to avoid British Taxes and J.P.O. bought the Super version with Coventry Climax engine. And this began to arrive in various boxes giving James, Mana, A.A. mechanic Sirisena and myself many happy hours putting what looked like very flimsy bits together. This car acquitted itself very creditably at Mahagastota. It was taken to India where for immigration and exchange control purposes, James was greatly amused to become a native called Mr. Shekar.

James in his Lotus 4 shri 7062 which he got in parts and assembled here himself and raced in Sri Lanka and India, winning both Grand Prix’s.

He was successful at the car races in India. The greatest triumph was a win in the GP de Lanka at Katukurunda. It was realized that the Lotus' pathetic fuel tank would have required many refuelling stops so Mana rigged up a VW tank which allowed James a non-stop ride to victory. It was, however, in the Monsoon Reliability Trials that James was able to show his real skills and style as a driver. He used to borrow VW No. 01 from Clarence Amerasinghe and with this underpowered car he gave the newer cars a real run for their money. It was a thrill to sit by him as navigator as he delicately swept this car through narrow estate roads in pouring rain, never once putting a wheel wrong and keeping to the time schedules until he was beaten by the sheer power of his competitors.

James was a classic example of a sportsman. He competed because it gave him pleasure to do so and victory would have pleased him but was not something that he wanted at any cost.

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