Updated: Jan 22
I admire the health-conscious runners who encircle the Queen's Park Savannah (QPS), and envy their self-discipline. Sadly, that's beyond my capacity. To get from one side to the other I plough through it, which I persuade myself is actually more salutary, because at least once upon a time it was beautiful, when horses galloped, men and boys played sports or flew kites, families picnicked in the Hollows (and still do, albeit leaving considerably more garbage behind).
The bleachers that sprung up at Carnival opposite the Grand Stand, and the roti-vendor stalls that lined the southern perimeter for race meets, all looked like refugee camps of old board and rotting zinc, but at least they were temporary: quickly erected and a few days later removed.
In Cities (1963), a collection of James Morris's essays about places he visited as a travelling correspondent in the 1950s, he described the QPS as it once was:
"As you wander on through the Savannah...,you may sense some of the gusto and exuberance of this heterogeneous society...Wherever you look, from the hills to the city, they are playing cricket... Some of these sportsmen are grand and mannered, with spotless whites and rolled wickets; but they trail away through immeasurable gradations of clubmanship to the raggety small boys on the edge of the field, with an old bit of wood for a bat, and a stone for a ball, and the wicket-keeper peering with breathless expectancy over a petrol can. Whatever the style, the game is pursued with panache..."
"And finally, a climax to your wanderings, you may find youself embroiled in the counter-marchings of an embryo steel band, twenty boys in home-made uniforms beating on cans and tin plates and chanting rhythmically..."
To the west QRC has always been maintained, as have the Anglican Bishop's and the Catholic Archbishop's residences, and recently Whitehall and Stollmeyer's Castle have been renovated. To the south the keep-off signs and barbed wire that turned Knowlsley into a concentration camp, have been removed.
Even so, compared with what it was 30 years ago, the Savannah is now a Labasse. Overgrown with weeds, the unpaved, un-tented portion is crisscrossed with dirt roads where cars park illegally and with impunity. The cemetery is almost hidden behind mounds of refuse.
The old Grand Stand has been replaced by a steel-and-zinc structure that would be more at home in a ghetto, while around it has been paved and sprinkled with random lamposts, as in the old Joni Mitchell song: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
Beastliness and beauty are not just skin deep. No one who has lived in a society of racist value systems, and who has experienced the liberation of discovering that Black is Beautiful, can consider beauty and ugliness as merely a surface matters.
And as we become surrounded and inured to the unsightliness of our built landscape, which includes the 10-foot walls around our mansions, we no longer see beauty. Sometimes our sunsets are so glorious, like the full moon a few days ago, they can fill your heart with a joy of being alive, even amidst the surrounding desolation. But who takes the time to look?
Once we become accustomed to the horridness around us we more easily accept the ugly aspects of character: greed, selfishness, dishonesty, cruelty, destructivemess. We accept it in ourselves, in others, in our leaders. If you don't, they try to force it down your throat anyway.
As I plod through the Savannah I land in a huge patch of ti-marie weeds whose thorns were once the bane of barefoot footballers. Now properly shod I can look closely at them with fondness, and discover their tiny, beautifully delicate flowers.
When we grow more insensitive, like drunk men we require stronger sensations to penetrate our dulled senses. Colours must be brighter, music louder, rhythm more pounding, language more coarse, sexual allure more vulgar, political discussion more vituperative. Then our ideas of beauty become little different from just another form of ugliness.
If we are to keep the encroaching odiousness at bay, we must focus on the beauty that still exists around an in us. It can be a tiny wildflower growing in a crack of the pavement, or an act of startling generosity and grace. Twenty years ago the writer Michael Ventura offered the best and most salutary therapy in the form of a question:
"What is beautiful in your life? And that question leads to questions that would make any of us squirm, so they need to be asked all the more, such as: Your children, your friends - do you find them beautiful? But what, exactly, is beautiful about them, and do you contemplate it much, does it shine in your behavior? In theirs? Your wife, husband, lover, what is their beauty in your eyes? But how does it play in your life, how does it nourish or inspire or challenge you? How do you acknowledge, salute, and cherish their beauty? And if you don't, why don't you? Your home, your city, your town, are they beautiful? How do you enter and celebrate and preserve their beauty, or do you? And if your surroundings are not beautiful; or, more to the point, if you can find no beauty in them -- what to do? What is the beauty in your work? And if this question stops you in your tracks, what does that say about your work -- and about what your work gives to you and to others? And: What is your beauty? And does that question embarrass, frighten, annoy, or depress you? Why?"
"When you face these questions and take them to their conclusions, you find out something discomforting and essential: that in an ugly world, beauty is a revolutionary idea."