With grandiosity, the Diamond Jubilee of the University of Ceylon was celebrated at the premises of University of Peradeniya throughout last year. This yearlong jubilation was orchestrated as a chain of miniature jubilations, by each faculty at a time. Amidst the grand celebration, the quote “more open than usual” remained omnipresent yet not seemed fully understood by anyone.
This quote has made periodic appearances on several occasions during the past 75 years and the latest occasion was in last year and as usual its limelight is rapidly fading away. This article examines what HRH the Duke of Edinburgh really meant by his words “I can declare this place to be more open than usual” spoken at the opening ceremony of the University of Ceylon on 20th April 1954 at Peradeniya.
The quote “more open than usual” has been widely accepted by both scholars and alumni as the ‘byword’ in the literature native to the University of Peradeniya, ever since it came into existence. The plaque fixed at the entrance of the Senate building bears this quote and states that it was pronounced by H.R.H the Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Philip) in his speech of declaration on the 20th April 1954 at the opening ceremony of the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya. Many believe that this quote holds a deep philosophical meaning etched to it.
However, for unknown reason, without any meticulous research but only on speculations there have been efforts to rationalize this riddling quote. The speculation which is accepted by the majority interprets that by pronouncing “more open than usual”, the Prince Philip has had stressed the intellectual openness of the university. Less significant speculation interprets the quote to establish the notion that the University does and should operate sans fences and gates and sometimes without walls like the basement of the Senate building. It is certain that the above interpretations are based entirely on the quote etched on to the plaque while disregarding the rest of the declaration speech. The plaque which appears to have been erected much later generates a fair amount of doubt as it has mismatch with the content of the original speech.
University of Ceylon has undergone a series of unveilings and establishments throughout its first 13 years; first, its establishment in Colombo on 1st July 1942 by Sir Ivor Jennings; second, laying foundation stone at Peradeniya on 31st August 1946 by Sir John Kotelawala; third, laying foundation stone of the proposed Convocation Hall on 12th February 1948 by HRH the Duke of Gloucester; fourth, the official establishment on 6th October 1952 by Sir Ivor Jennings; and finally the grand opening on 20th April 1954 by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh in the presence of the HM the Queen Elizabeth II.
Due to demise of King George VI, the Royal House decided not to attend the opening ceremony in 1952. The successor, H.M. the Queen Elizabeth II, soon after the coronation, made a series of official visits to several commonwealth nations along with her consort Prince Philip. Ceylon too was on the list. During their 10 day stay in Ceylon, the Royal House had paid visits to a few other places in addition to the University of Ceylon. The Trinity College Kandy was one such place.
In a circumstance that the University of Ceylon had already been ‘opened’ 12 years ago in Colombo and 2 years ago in Peradeniya, Prince Philip might have had realized the possible humiliation which could arise in opening an institution which is once established and operating. Thus he well accentuated in his speech by acknowledging the words of the Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, Lord Soulbury, by saying “You have remarked Mr. Chancellor, that it is not easy to open a University because once established it is always open”. In an occasion of most anticipated presence of the Royal House and their most awaited declaration, His Royal Highness continued “However, like the shopkeepers of London during the ‘bombing’, I can declare this place to be more open than usual”. These two sentences bridge the historical and the pragmatic aspects of the most sought after proverb in the literature of the University of Peradeniya.
It is now certain that the quote “more open than usual” has been in existence even prior to the establishment of University of Ceylon. Upon investigation on HRH’s specific citation of the London Shopkeepers, it was revealed that this was a common saying among the British shopkeepers during the World War II, particularly during ‘the Blitz’ (Lightning in German). Coined by the British Press, ‘The Blitz’ was a series of mass air attacks conducted by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) from September 1940 to May 1941, to achieve air superiority over RAF (Royal Air Force). The persistent attacks devastated the streets of Britain, and shops of the commoner were not an exception.
However, to quite the surprise, the British venders were not agitated even at the slightest. Their resilience, marketing spirit, and the sense of humor were portrayed even at dire straits as they kept their shops open. Doors, windows, roofs and even walls were blown out by the bombing. And thus there was no means for them to open and close their shops as the German bombers had already opened them from every side. As such, they had often put up notices of mockery, reading “We are still open – more open than usual!”, “Sorry we’ve got no front door, don’t trouble to knock come straight in”, “Inspect our bargains in blasted goods”, “If you think this is bad, you should see our Berlin branch!” etc. Further, in a famous British Propaganda Documentary (London Can Take It!), the narrator Quentin Reynolds describes a footage of a shop with its windows blown off in all directions as “In the center of the city, the shops are open as usual. In fact many of them are more open than usual.” Thus, by examining these examples, it can be inferred that these quotes are not mere dicta of wisdom, but mere trivial punch lines.
In addition, yet in support, it is fact that Prince Philip is well known in making witty but sometimes offensive statements at official congregations; this has rendered a long list of faux pas in his account. Most known among them includes: “I declare this thing open, whatever it is” (Canada 1969, at an opening ceremony); “It’s a vast waste of space” (Berlin 2000, opening of the new British Embassy). At a ceremony of Hertfordshire University in 2003, he has paraphrased what he had pronounced 50 years ago in Ceylon, i.e. “During the Blitz, a lot of shops had their windows blown in and put up notices saying, ‘More open than usual’. I now declare this place more open than usual.”
The quote engraved on the plaque fixed at the entrance of the Senate building contains different version of what has reportedly been said by Prince Philip at the opening ceremony. It has been reported (Golden Jubilee Souvenir – 1992) that Prince Philip has said “I can declare this place to be more open than usual.” However, on the plaque the words ‘can’ and ‘place’ are omitted but a phrase ‘The university buildings in Peradeniya’ has been inserted arbitrarily distorting the very meaning of the original message. Ironically, if the buildings were declared “more open than usual” it could have been an act like the Nazis did to open buildings in London during the war time by bombing! Therefore the Prince Philip was so witty to have mentioned that he declared ‘this place’ -rather than buildings- more open than usual.
1. Jennings, W.I. (1993). The Kandy Road.(pp. ix-xxvi)
2. Golden Jubilee Editorial Board (1992). University of Ceylon/ University of Peradeniya: Golden Jubilee Souvenir.
3. Jennings, W.I. (1948). University Education in Ceylon.
4. Connelly, Mark (2014). We Can Take it! (p.145).
5. Birmingham Blitz. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/87/a3540287.shtml
6. Brook, Henry. (2012). True Stories of The Blitz: Usborne True Stories.
7. Prince Philip: 90 of the Duke of Edinburgh’s most excruciating gaffes and jokes. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/prince-philip-90-of-the-duke-of-edinburghs-most-excruciating-gaffes-and-jokes-10395716.html