Leave aside the interminable bungling and set-in-stone ill-will which to one’s endless dismay characterise Guyana’s public space – and concentrate instead for your soul’s content on the many wonders which cross the mind on a daily basis.
- In conversation I am reminded by a friend of that great man and priest Father Michael Campbell-Johnston. He and his compelling life story come powerfully to mind.
This charismatic Jesuit priest in the period 1966 to 1975 lived and worked among the poor in Guyana. He helped found GISRA (Guyana Institute for Social Research and Action) and dedicated himself and inspired many others to assist the deprived and the downtrodden. I remember CJ, as he was always called, very well and a few times visited him in the two small rooms where he lived in a slum area of La Penitence and we would talk a long time as his ragged, and rugged, neighbours came in and out asking for favours and the blessings of his encouragement. Later he was to become celebrated as a leader in San Salvador of the Catholic “option for the poor” in South America and as Provincial of the British Province which included South Africa.
His life is an astonishing tale of the daily devotion of a man of God and wonderful human being to the task of assisting the poor, the weak, the deprived, the forgotten and the abandoned and the persecuted of the world. And something that struck me about CJ’s life-long engagements all over the world in the battles to alleviate poverty and injustice was not only his continual contributions at the cutting edge of these conflicts but just as tellingly it was simply his presence always among the impoverished and downtrodden that made a tremendous difference – bearing out the Jesuit prescription that as much value can be gained by “being with” as by “doing for” those who desperately need support.
Ah, there are supremely good people in this world, let nobody tell you different. CJ very often mentioned Nelson Mandela’s Conversations With Myself. In a letter Mandela wrote from Robben Island in 1975 he said the following: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others are qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – the foundation of one’s spiritual life.” So simply said – so supremely hard to follow.
- Three years ago I was saying to all who would listen to my voice of wisdom that I thought Roger Federer was competing beyond his sell-by date and risked tarnishing the proud and shining record of his prime. Well, who tell me to say that? As you can imagine, I feel a little shame–faced. Here the great Federer is, 36 in August, playing at his ecstatic, effortless best, after recovery from injury and taking a little rest, winner of another grand-slam, the Australian Open, climbing again toward No. 1 in the world. West Indies selectors should take note and bring back Shiv Chanderpaul for the Tests against Pakistan. He certainly still deserves a place on the team based on current results.
After my Federer mistake I am taking a very different view of sportsmen in the evening of their days. I note with complete approval what the Spanish golfer, Miguel Angel Jimenez, now in his fifties, said in reply to an interviewer who asked him if he thought it was wise to continue trying to compete at the highest level – the British Open – when he was in his sixth decade. After all what were his chances?
“You don’t worry,” he said. “If I didn’t still enjoy competing with these great rivals do you think I would waste my time moving around the world kicking my own ass?”
- I read a review of the very vivid autobiography of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones – and I remember the conversational masterclass Miles Fitzpatrick once gave me on jazz and the blues – and the same time I see a new poem by Billy Collins which I like very much.
By Billy Collins
I never put much stock in that image of the earth
resting on the backs of four elephants
who are standing on the back of a sea turtle,
who is in turn supported by an infinite regression
of turtles disappearing into a bottomless forever.
I mean how could you get them all to stay still?
Now that we are on the subject,
my substitute picture would have the earth
with its entire population of people and things
resting on the head of Keith Richards,
who is holding a Marlboro in one hand
and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the other.
As long as Keith keeps talking about
the influence of the blues on the Rolling Stones,
the earth will continue to spin merrily
and revolve in a timely manner around the sun.
But if he changes the subject or even pauses
too long, it’s pretty much curtains for us all.
Unless, of course, one person somehow survives
being hurtled into the frigidity of outer space;
then we would have a movie on our hands –
but wait, there wouldn’t be any hands
to write the script or make the movie,
and no theatres, either, no buttered popcorn, no giant Pepsi.
Putting that aside, let’s imagine Keith
standing on the other Rolling Stones,
who are standing on the shoulders of Muddy Waters,
and, were it not for that endless stack of turtles,
one on top of the other all the way down,
Muddy Waters would be standing on nothing at all.