GREET Family #1193Features - Island Mar 18 2002
To the memory of Noel David Greet
by Gamini de Silva
25th. December, 1926 - 26th December, 2000
Old Thomians with long memories might recall a strange story that reached their ears one Monday morning in 1941: a boarder had become ill after being bitten by a rat-snake ó a garandiya.
By mid-morning the reptile had metamorphosed into a rattle-snake, a species unlikely to be found in the scrub-land behind the swimming pool at Mt. Lavinia. The victim was reportedly writhing in agony and fighting for his life.
The hordes of school-boys who rushed to get a glimpse of their hapless school-mate were in for disappointment. To their dismay, it was a smiling pyjama-clad lad that greeted them on the veranda of the sick-room. The fair-skinned, ginger-haired Noel Greet was enjoying every moment of his celebrity status, be it only for the day. However, a snake-bite specialist who had been consulted by the school doctor and Warden de Saram, had said that the victim could have lung problems in later life.
True to that prediction, in 1945 when Noel was reading for a science degree at Christian College, Madras, he developed lung abscesses. That eminent surgeon, Dr. J. H. F. Jayasuriya, the Hunterian gold-medalist, who was part of Noelís extended family, kept in touch with his Indian counterparts by phone offering them the benefits of his expertise. Noel recovered and, after graduating, came to England.
It was while playing hockey at Hertfordshire, 35 years later, that he collided with a burly goalie and broke his ribs. But serious injury to his internal chest organs was prevented by the scar tissue left by the healed abscesses!
Noel was a choral scholar at St. Thomasí, Mt. Lavinia. It was his singing of O Sacred Head Sore Wounded at the Union Church, Nuwara Eliya, on Good Friday, 1940, that ignited my own passion for the music of Bach.
Settling down in Heretofore, he joined the St. Albanís Bach Choir in 1946 and sang as a bass until his death this last Christmas. It was not only Bach that the choir sang: Rossini, Rachmaninov and Rutter were among composers in their wide repertoire.
In recent years Noel formed a successful madrigal group to sing works using smaller forces.
He had broad tastes in music and as a listener he enjoyed the baila-like cross rhythms of South America, the lyrics of Tom Lehrer and the voice of Cleo Laine.
Noel was the second in an exceptionally gifted quartet of siblings.
Elder sister Averil, a versatile instrumentalist and choir trainer, produced the first Bejamin Britten opera in Sri Lanka as well as Menottiís Amal and the Night Visitors.
Younger sister Evangeline, a mezzo-soprano who gave regular broadcasts in the late forties, premiered Brahmssí Alto Rhapsody in Colombo. One local critic termed her the "Kathleen Ferrier of Ceylon".
Although many know Noelís younger brother Chris Greet as a broadcaster and master of ceremonies, few would be aware of his claims to fame as an actor. He was the only local to get a speaking part in the multi-award-winning film Bridge over the River Kwai. More recently he has been making a name for himself on British television.
Talent runs like veins of gold right through Noelís forbears. His father Martinís humanist Credo in, couched m pristine prose, was included in an anthology of beliefs compiled from a range of writings including those of Bertrand Russell and Christmas Humphreys.
His mother, Ada, was a soloist in performances of Handelís Messiah in the early forties. She introduced me to the beautiful voice of the counter-tenor, Alfred Deller. His motherís elder brother, Rev. Arnold Paynter, a first-world-war veteran and an Oxford graduate, is reputed to have beaten chess master Prof. J. B. S. Haldane in his student days. Returning to Ceylon he established the Paynter Homes in Nuwara Eliya 80- years ago.
His motherís younger brother, actor and artist David Paynter was a Royal Academy Gold Medalist and has had 18 of his paintings hung at the R.A.ís annual exhibitions.
His motherís younger sister, Eve Darling, was a brilliant pianist and choir trainer. She produced the first performance of Rutland Boughtonís choral dramas in Sri Lanka. First, The Immortal Hour and then the entrancing Bethlehem. These performances have been referred to even in the British press.
A survey of Noelís antecedents would not be complete without a reference to his courageous maternal grand-mother, and my grand-aunt, Mrs. Agnes Paynter (nee Weerasooriya). In her 98th year (1961) she was still keeping abreast of world news through the daily press. She was outraged by the carnage in Vietnam and summoned me to her Rajagirya home to take down a letter to the press.
Foolishly, I tried to dissuade her. Like the proverbial devil quoting the scriptures I said:
" Aatchchi, Christ has said that one should give unto Caesar the things that are Caesarís, and give to God the things that are Godís."
There was a momentís silence. Then she leaned forward and, holding both my hands, said:
"But my dear young man, Christ did not say we should give to Caesar the things that are Godís! Human life belongs to God."
I felt chastened but full of admiration for my grand-aunt. At this moment, someone brought us cups of tea. And the tea triggered her memory of an event that had taken place in the early 30ís in the States.
She recounted this memory:
"My niece and I had been collecting for charity in Philadelphia. It was noon and we had gone to a cafe for a cup of tea. But the waiters seem ignore us: people who had arrived much later than ourselves were being served. I felt angry. I stood up on my chair and said to the assembled waiters and patrons of this cafe:
ĎBrothers and sisters, this is Philadelphia, which in Greek, means brotherly love. Is it brotherly love to ignore strangers? The tea is served here comes form the hills in Ceylon, where I live.í
An embarrassed manager soon put things to rights. We were served and no charge was made. We even got donations for our charitable work!"
Agnes Paynterís fatherís brother was the Venerable Piyaratne Maha Thera whose Buddhist Seminary is still in existence at Dodanduwaa. Yet her younger brother Colonel Arnolis Weerasooriya was a pioneer of the Salvation Army in Sri Lanka, as was her own husband.
This multi-national, multi-faith Weerasooriya family has excelled in various walks of life. It includes people such as Lt. General Sirilal Werasooriya, the former Army Commander, Hilda Naidu the concert pianist, Hubert Weerasooriya the novelist and lawyer, and Dr. H. S. R. Goonewardene and Merril Weerasooriya, both ace athletes, as well as Aravinda de Silva Sri Lankaís legendary cricketer.
Noel was proud of them all. His own great contribution to human progress came from his professional work as an eel-worm expert. For over thirty years he worked as a micro-biologist at the Rothamsted Agricultural Research Station as well as the Commonwealth Institute of Helminthology. His work on the life and the mating habits of nematodes enabled his fellow- researchers to develop chemical agents to control the ill effects of these parasites which ruin potato crops and tea plantations.
The high esteem in which he was held and the affection for him by so many was movingly portrayed in the wonderful memorial event held a few weeks after his death. The Bach Choir sang, so many friends and family members made difficult journeys to honour his memory in the convivial manner he would certainly have wished and which was a hall-mark of his own conduct. He leaves us with the enduring memory of a jovial, musical, genuinely warm-hearted cousin, father, brother and friend.
1 GREET + Ada Paynter (d/o Agnes Weerasooriya, sister of David Paynter and Eva Darling nee Paynter) (3088)
2 Averil Greet
2 Noel Greet, b:26-Dec-1926, d:25-Dec-2000
2 Evangeline Greet
2 Chris Greet, broadcaster, actor