Obituary: Vernon Donnison
Monday 02 August 1993
Vernon Donnison's long life - he was a few weeks short of 95 when he died - encompassed a distinguished career as a colonial administrator, 17 years as an official historian in the Cabinet Office, and another two and a half decades devoted to family, friends, and music.
Donnison came from a musical family (his second name was Siegfried). His father, who organised some of the great Handel festivals of the last century, wanted his son to study the piano; but the boy found the keyboard uncongenial, and preferred playing a tin whistle surreptitiously in his bedroom. By the time he entered his teens he had his first flute.
In 1916 he went straight from Marlborough into the Army where he was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards. He was twice mentioned in despatches, but rarely spoke of his wartime experiences. When peace returned he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. After graduation, and a further year spent preparing for the Indian Civil Service, he went to Burma in 1922, to be followed by Ruth Singer, who had just graduated from Cambridge. Their marriage in Rangoon was the beginning of a devoted partnership that lasted more than 40 years until her death in 1968.
She shared his love of music, and between them they founded the Rangoon Symphony Orchestra, which gave its first concert in November 1940. Recruitment of instrumentalists was effected by driving around the city - where, because of the heat, windows were rarely closed - listening to people practising.
Donnison was Judicial Secretary in Rangoon when the Japanese attacked. During the retreat up country he was variously employed disbanding the administration in successive centres liaising with a Chinese general and running steam railway engines into a convenient river. That done he walked over the Chin hills the remaining distance to India, a journey that took him two and a half weeks, taking as his only possession his precious flute, wrapped in a sock. He became the representative in Delhi of the Government of Burma, and when the Fourteenth Army started the fight back he assumed responsibility for Military Administration in Four Corps, with the rank of Brigadier.
As early as 1944, at a time when the British authorities were reluctant to deal with U Aung San and his Anti- Fascist Peoples' Freedom League because of their earlier collaboration with the invaders, and when most of the officials who had served with him in Burma wished to postpone independence until the country could be restored to its orderly pro-war prosperity, Donnison argued - in a memorandum to the Supreme Commander, south-east Asia - that there was no realistic alternative to accepting Aung San as the future ruler, and to arming his forces. Donnison regarded this memorandum as the single most significant contribution he made to British colonial policy.
After the Japanese surrender Donnison became Chief Secretary and a member of the Executive Council. But, although his excellent relations with the Burmese meant that he was welcome to stay longer, he decided to retire before independence. He returned to England in 1946 and settled near Didcot. He had no firm plans; but an invitation came in 1949 to join the historical section of the Cabinet Office, for which he produced four substantial volumes before retiring for the second time in 1966. A fifth book, an account of Burma and its peoples, was published in 1970.
Apart from his work as a historian, the four and a half decades that he lived in East Hagbourne were remarkable for the way in which he maintained his contacts with a wide circle of friends from many countries, including especially Burma. Even after his wife's death he continued to entertain with polished and mellow generosity. The cooking skills he had learnt from her were never more valuable than during the many musical evenings, when up to two dozen friends crowded into his house to make music.
The nature of these musical activities changed as the years passed. In the 1960s the emphasis was on choral music. He was one of the moving spirits behind the Sabrina Singers who gave polished performances of Renaissance church music. But gradually, as voices aged, it became simpler to concentrate an chamber and orchestral music. For 20 years there was an annual 'musikfest' at his home, during the autumn weekends when summer time ended. The 18 or so musicians who could be fitted into his music room produced an annual offering of chamber music, concerti grossi, Brandenburgs - with the host as flautist - orchestral suites, and audacious assaults on more than a dozen symphonies. This Donnison Festival ended only when, at the, age of 91, he felt unable to handle the load of administration and entertainment.
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