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The Idea of Excellence

By Ian McDonald

How do we acquire it? How do we live it?

So much begins with parents. Their daily, persevering, unending love and interest and example teach lessons which reach deep into us; we are nurtured and our minds and souls are formed into shapes and disciplines that last all our lives. I am well into my seventies now, and the work and love my father and mother devoted to their children, of whom I was the first-born, remain in my memory to this day; I recall vividly the distinction and the joy of my days as their son. They lived the standards we learned to expect of ourselves.

Deep respect was owed to people. Ram the gardener, drunk on Monday always, was treated kindly and was an important human being in the family. We cherished great-aunt Anna who sat in her chair and protected all our lives with her prayers. We saw that the good in people must be found out and brought forward for inspection and for praise. So much in a person begins with parents, and so much in a nation depends on the family. Sun and rain are not more important to growing things. It is sixty years ago: I am returning with my father from playing my first competitive tennis matches, and my mother, who could never bear to come to watch, greets me with her shining smile and a hug of utmost love. I was a lord of the universe, win or lose. Confidence grows. The world cannot undo you.

So much begins with fathers. When I was about fifteen and listed my ambitions – which included winning the Island scholarship, winning the national tennis title and going on to win Wimbledon – my father approved. But he pointed out that another list came first: what work and disciplines I had to pursue to make these dreams become reality. When I came home fainting from pounding a tennis ball for hours against a wall in the mid-morning sun, my mother scolded and pampered me, my father took me aside and gave me a wide-brimmed hat and sun-burn cream and told me always to bring a big pitcher of glucose-laced lime juice and some salt. Once I petulantly smashed my racket on the court in a game, and to this day I feel the steady, grey eyes of my father lock on mine afterwards, and I hear his quiet words: “My son, if you have to behave like that, I do not believe you should play this game.”

My father was very old and very sick in Antigua and I was in London when a phone call came to say he was dying and wanted to speak to me. I spoke to him a while, unburdening my heart, and he spoke to me and said he was proud of me, I had been a joy to him all his life, and thanked me. No honour or praise has ever, can ever, come near. So much continues in the training grounds. At the great school on the Savannah there were Pilgrim, Mitchell, Daunt, Farrell, Mastelloni, Hodge, Gocking. Being less than excellent was not an option. Mitchell, Pilgrim, and Gocking separately told us, when Barbados was visiting for the inter-colonial cricket, that if we wanted to see something surpassingly well done, go to see Worrell batting at the Oval. “Oh, the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” When a bold boy asked “Ghost” Farrell why he took such care in writing perfectly on the blackboard when it would so soon be erased, he was serious and intent in his reply. I used it in a poem later in my life:

There are creatures that live half a day.
Princes of the world, do you not think
They also strive to perfect their lives?

Such unsyllabused lessons last a lifetime.

John Hodge, peering behind thick glasses, neck rose-red with pimples, taught me to love poetry, taught me the satisfaction and value of writing well, the Flaubertian sentence, the ringing lines of Hopkins, the extraordinary images of the poetry just emerging from the very young Derek Walcott. Do not think of inspiration, he said: think of a God-given gift honed by very hard work, first attempts constantly re-drafted. I brought him a poem I had written. He sat next to me a good long time and took me through it carefully, line by feeble line. I saw what he meant. I did a little better next time. It was Charles Vernon Gocking, who seemed to know every author in the libraries of the world and who did not at all like clichéd thinking, who instructed me once in some after-hours tutoring not to be content with the commonplace and the simple, worthy success. He quoted Dryden: “And he, who servilely creeps after sense, / Is safe, but ne’er will reach an excellence.”

That was against my cautious nature, but taught me a counsel which I could understand and admire and with trepidation sometimes try to act upon. And when I entered the sugar industry there was from the beginning Jock Campbell, Chairman of Bookers, mentor, life-long friend. From the start he made the absolutely vital connection between purpose and performance in achieving excellence in a life, in a company. Dynamic performance not linked to life-enhancing purpose was selfish and could very easily turn evil. Think of Nazi Germany’s super-efficient panzer divisions. Divine purpose without effective performance was a complete waste of concept and goodwill.

Declarations of glorious intent were worthless. Practical good must be done in the world. Creating profit was a good purpose but subsidiary to the greater purpose of making the lives of men and women better, more fulfilled. I made the mistake once of reporting to him that a group of workers on an estate were redundant. He sternly corrected me: no persons are ever redundant, only jobs. These people must be found work. No doubt there are models of attainment which teach, exhilarate and inspire in a way singularly Caribbean. But we are measured by universal and ageless standards of excellence. Whether we are scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, poets, sportsmen or political leaders, we must set great goals, cultivate an iron inner resolve not to be diverted and do what we are doing with a dominant concern surely, to improve the lot and loft the pride and confidence of others. And if we are very fortunate in life, a sense of what is excellent is bestowed on us. We are given access to the nourishing taproots and are forever blessed.

Born in Trinidad but living in Guyana for close to 50 years, Ian McDonald is one of the leading West Indian writers of his generation, author of the classic novel The Hummingbird Tree and several collections of poems. He is the editor of the literary journal Kyk-over-Al and writes frequently on cricket. He also has a parallel career in the sugar industry, including many years as an administrator at Guysuco; he is now CEO of the Sugar Association of the Caribbean.

The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.

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