A few days after my initial arrival in Sri Lanka in January 1973, I met the renowned diver and film-maker, Mike Wilson. A close friend of Arthur C. Clarke, Mike had accompanied the science fiction writer to Ceylon and, as is generally known, they settled in the island in 1956.
Soon after meeting Mike I accompanied him to Hikkaduwa where he was to meet a friend, Mim Scala, who, I was informed, was an important figure in London’s Swinging Sixties (www.mimscala.co.uk). I must admit Mim’s name meant nothing to me then, even though I was a product of the Sixties, but I was itching to make my first foray from Colombo, and a visit to what I heard was a vibrant hippie resort full of surfers seemed an opportunity not to miss.
The manner in which Mim and Mike met is described in Mim’s Diary of a Teddy Boy: A Memoir of the Long Sixties (2000), a book recognized as a vital evocation of the period – the somehow elongated decade as the title suggests. One reviewer wrote: “There are shades of Hunter S Thompson in Scala’s helter-skelter journey . . . and hints of Kerouac in its wide-eyed abandon . . . Scala is utterly irreverent in his treatment of the pillars of 1960s London - Wealth, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” (www.mimscala.co.uk/reviews.html)
Mim relates that in London one day: “I received a strange call from a man called Michael Wilson. To this day I do not know how it came about. He told me that he had heard I was a very good agent.”
Mim met Mike at the Park Lane Hilton: “The lift opened into the penthouse suite. There was a bearded figure with a ponytail and pirate thigh-high boots, standing in the semi-darkness.” Mike walked Mim through to the reception room and introduced him to the Indian film director Satyajit Ray and Arthur C. Clarke. “Much to my surprise, Michael introduced me as his agent.”
Mike told Mim of his daring science fiction film project, The Alien, to be directed by Satyajit Ray, and possibly starring Peter Sellers. Mim’s task was to raise some pre-production finance. Later he heard the project was cancelled. He called Mike in Hollywood. “‘It’s too far out, man.’ They’re not ready for this kind of movie. But thanks for your help. If you ever want a beautiful holiday, come and visit us in Ceylon.’”
|Sketch of Mim Scala by Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones
As it happened, Mim and his girlfriend flew to Ceylon on their way to India. Fortuitously, they ran into Mike at the British High Commission prior to a screening of his underwater films.
“The next day he drove us down to Hikkaduwa, a pristine little fishing village built on a coral reef where Arthur (C. Clarke) had his house and scuba-diving business. There were four or five copra-built structures on the beach, which included a three-roomed hotel called the Coral Sands.” How modest, and no doubt much more pleasant to the eye, was Hikkaduwa of this era.
From this point in his narrative, Mim provides some wonderful descriptions of Hikkaduwa life, aspects of which are now extinct:
“The water in the Hikkaduwa reef was perfect, crystal clear, with thousands of fish, from sea-snakes to schools of yellow-fin tuna, myriad tiny reef-dwellers, multi-coloured moray eels and waving octopi, all living together in a coral cathedral whose golden columns of sunlight appeared to support the surface film. I would sometimes swim out beyond the reef into the deep water of the Indian Ocean and encounter mantas, barracuda, sharks, and the occasional big tuna that would run along the deep edge of the reef.
“The sunset was always honoured, not just by us but by the whole community. Nobody was so busy or blasé that they could fail to appear for the evening ritual. The smoke of the copra fires from the beach and the tantalizing smell of frying chillies and Ragi’s secret curry spices would float around after sunset. As we would make our way from the reef top the verandah, a meeting-place at this time of day, Arthur would stroll down from his house to join the surfers and travellers attracted by the spices in the air. We would all eat and hang out until the early hours, perhaps make a fire on the beach, or go for a night-time swim in the reef. We were often visited by a mother turtle struggling up the beach in the warm sand. And we’d watch her as she patiently dug her nest and laid her burden of dozens of soft white eggs.
“The Sri Lankan people were full of grace and had exquisite manners. The influence of British colonization, subtly adapted to a native culture and climate, was evident everywhere. The train station in Hikkaduwa had a signal-box that could have been from West Sussex; the station master, 35 years in service, was straight out of the Railway Children.”
I hail from West Sussex and in the distant past, when I commuted by train to London, I knew all the small stations en route and I agree with Mim about the signal box. However, as he rightly observes, “Similarities with England ended there, with groves of coconut trees, snakes in the water-butts, monkeys screaming from the tree tops, and lithe women in wrap-around sarongs padding barefoot along the hot silver tracks.”
The book features several fascinating sketches of Sri Lankan ritual and superstition. One day two geckoes fell from the ceiling, one on Mims’s head. (He thought falling geckoes an unusual occurrence, but most Sri Lankans know the splat sound associated with a gecko landing upright, somehow unscathed, on the floor.) When he inquired whether there was any folklore on such matters, he was urged to visit “the lizard lady”.
Mim relates: “She invited me inside where plants grew by the door and copra and charcoal burned in a clay pot.” She asked many questions about the experience. “Then she took a ball of coloured yarn, and tied several loops of it around my index finger. Finally she tied a knot and burned off the loose ends. ‘You must be very careful,’ she said. ‘You are in grave danger. You must not go in the sea until this ring falls off your finger.’
Mim, his thread firmly in place, resisted swimming, but one day, while sitting on the beach, a surfer fell off his board and started shouting “Cramp!” Mim ran down the beach, swum to the surfer and supported him. “The problem was that the water looked weird. It was shimmering and the waves were more like vibrating than rolling.”
They had hit a rip tide, which can be a problem for swimmers at Hikkaduwa (and of course elsewhere on the west coast).
“Suddenly I had a flashback to the old lady. Oh s--t! I raised my hand to look at my finger. No yarn. I can’t say how relieved I was.” They clung together and were eventually taken by the tide back to shore. “We walked back down the beach to retrieve our things. Lying in the sand among my possessions was the tiny piece of coloured thread.”
On another occasion, Mim found his radio missing. He went to the “old lizard lady” who sat him in front of her hut while she brought out her pot of fire. “She sat in front of me and burned incense and assorted dry leaves. A small crowd gathered to watch. After about half an hour she told me to go home and wait for my radio.”
On returning to the hotel he found the radio in his verandah. Although superstitious Sri Lankans would view this as an affirmation of the woman’s magical powers, the hotel owner explained more rationally: “The old lady can cast terrible spells. When word reached the thief’s ears that she was putting a spell on whoever stole your radio, the culprit couldn’t put it back fast enough. Who needs the police when we have superstition and wisdom?”
During his 1973 visit, Mike and I met Mim at the Starfish Inn. Sitting under the coconut palms of the beachside garden, they started to talk in earnest, so I went for my first tropical swim in Hikkaduwa bay. I never saw Mim again after that day, but I tracked him down on the web a few years ago and he was kind enough to gift me a copy of his book.
Incidentally, the first description of Hikkaduwa was by Maria Graham in Journal of a Residence in India (1812). It was, even then, a “considerable village, near which there is a broad river which we crossed on a stage erected on three boats, with a canopy of white cotton ornamented with leaves and flowers. We spent the rest of the day under the shade of the coco-nut wood on the beach.”
Here’s proof that Hikkaduwa held an attraction for travellers a century and a half before Australian surfers recognized the virtues of its waves.