Respect our heritage!
by Baba Elombe Mottley
My first encounter with Queen’s Park was in 1946. I left Eagle Hall Primary School and entered the Barbados Academy, better known as the Rudder School, with my older brother Calley. It was one of several private schools that developed to meet the need of those students who could not get into the traditional secondary schools: Harrison College, Combermere, Queen’s College, St Michael’s Girls, Lodge, Foundation Boys, Foundations Girls, Alleyne, Alexandra, Parry, Coleridge or the so-called non-grammar schools — St. Leonard’s Boys and St. Leonard’s Girls.
Rudder School was located near the corner of Constitution Road and Hall’s Road. It was an upstairs triple gable wooden house with a small yard at the back similar to the Fields house on the right painted by Jill Walker.
On both sides of the house were two narrow corridors fenced in by a cluster of small chattel houses. As boys, we played hopping ball or marble cricket in those two corridors during lunch break until one day, one of the occupants of the houses get vex and throw a po of stale pee on some of the boys. This forced Mr. Rudder to let us walk the short distance to Queen’s Park and play on the pasture where Spartan Club played.
As a small boy, our role was to do most of the fielding while the big boys did the batting and bowling. On one particular day, Calley and some of the older boys were playing marble cricket. Calley was bowling or maybe pelting the small tar ball to a fellow called Blackett.
Blackett’s father was a seaman and Blackett was always well dressed in imported fancy clothes, not tailor- or needle-worker made like the rest of us. He also wore a fancy gold watch his father had given him. Calley’s delivery never touched the ground and hit the watch full in its face and scattered it in all direction. A fight brek out!
Blackett pick-up the two rocks that made up the wicket and pelt them at Calley who side step both with a couple of Joe Louis side steps and a bob and weave. This led to a wholesale battle. It was then that I learnt how many rocks were in the grass around the cricket ground as it was my job to keep Calley and his cronies supplied with this ammunition.
Christmas morning promenade in the Park was a must after 5 o’clock morning service with the family. Even today, the aroma of English apples still remind me of Christmas morning in de park and my first encounter with that fruit as they were stacked neatly on hawkers trays around the Park while listening to the Police Band.
Soon after that we reached the age where we could attend the Annual Agricultural Exhibition by ourselves and where that same pasture hosted the gymkhana and the large animal displays. We also attended Civic Day, New Year’s Day, to a massive fair organised by the directors of the 40,000 strong Civic Friendly Society. All of the directors’ children were confined to Queen’s Park House where we played hide and seek from the basement to the roof-top where we were able to observe all the carrying-ons below.
As I got older and was able to ride my bicycle all over the place, it was an imperative to go to the Park when Spartan hosted Empire. There was no difference in the attendance when compared to the Exhibition, Christmas Morning and Civic Day. This time people were in the trees occupying every nook and cranny to view the greatest of Bajan cricketers in combat.
In 1983, as Acting Director of Culture, I was mandated to establish the National Cultural Foundation on behalf of the Government of Barbados. Among the responsibilities of the NCF was the operation and use of Queen’s Park House, The Steel Shed and the Queen’s Park Stables, the facilities at West Terrace and the network of community centres island wide.
Queen’s Park House consisted of a small theatre upstairs, now known as the Daphne Joseph-Hackett Theatre, named after the long serving drama teacher at Queen’s College and recipient of the 1973 Bussa Award. The theatre was created in the mid to late 1950s by Freddie Miller, the Barbadian entrepreneur and impresario and the first Minister of Social Development.
The theatre along with the Drill Hall at the Garrison were the two most prestigious secular performing spaces in Barbados, especially for concerts of Euro-classical music; secular in the sense that the major Anglican churches, their choirs and their harvest festivals were the main platforms for much of the Euro-centric music that permeated the consciousness of most Bajans.
Violinist James Millington and his daughter Janice, Will Clairmonte, Willis Cummins and Gus Brathwaite, pianists Muriel Hinds-Payne and Jeanette Layne-Clarke, singers Nell Hall, Bruce St. John, Festus Thompson, and Rudolph Hinds, were some of the persons who performed there in the 1940s to 1960s.
The Queen’s Park Theatre was renovated on several occasions and became the home of the Barbados Arts Council when that was established more formally in the late 1950s. In mid 1966, it also became the home of the Barbados National Theatre Workshop which I helped to establish after returning home from studying in Canada and the United States.
Downstairs of the Park House was a multipurpose space with a small stage. It was used for social events — dances, brams, social-hops and concerts. It was also used as an exhibition space for furniture and crafts during the Annual Agricultural Exhibition, which was held for two days, Wednesday and Thursday, in the park two weeks before Christmas and which in itself was the largest and most important social event for all Bajans.
It was there that I first heard the great Percy Green Band with Harry (Blackett) Beckett, Pearson Tudor, Ernie Small, Daddy Gill, Maggie Goodridge, Sydney Willock, Prince Cave et al. Beckett migrated to UK in 1954 and became one of the leading trumpeters in Europe. Pearson migrated to Canada and Daddy Gill disappeared in Germany.
At the back of the Queen’s Park House was the Stables which became a junk room with the closing of the Annual Exhibition. The Stables was used to display works of art by Barbados’ fledgling artists — Ivan Payne, Karl Broodhagen, Briggs Clarke, Kathleen Hawkins, among others.
The Steel Shed was exactly that before renovations for CARIFESTA 1981. It was a multi-purpose facility great for housing feathered stock, rabbits, guinea pigs during the Exhibition. It also hosted all types of gatherings from political meetings to religious services to Marcus Garvey when he visited Barbados in the 1930s. It was where Bob, The Sweets Man, Lizard Tweed, and P.I.G the Cat, made the galvanised roof shake, rattle and roll from Hi Fi’s by Wren Babb or Lance Bynoe or Blue Rhythm Combo with their fetes, with bars solid as a rock and pork chops in the nude.
It was also the location of the very critical Emancipation Lectures 1984 – 1988 that I initiated with the help of the History Department of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. It also became the locale for recording the calypso tents audio and video as part of the development of the annual Crop-Over Festival.
The other large low building, The Soup Kitchen, reflected its function. It served as a soup kitchen providing the poor with daily meals from the mid 1940s until around Independence, before being leased out as a commercial restaurant and bar. The soup kitchen was operated by the St. Michael’s Vestry and many can attest that this function was considered more important than any of the other functions in the park.
The NCF was responsible for renting out and maintaining the facilities in Queen’s Park. Downstairs of the Park House was converted into the major gallery to display the works of Bajan artists. These exhibitions represented the best in Barbados and were by invitation only and were accompanied by formal catalogues, with photographs, articles and a biography of the artist. Over 200 catalogues have been produced. The Stables was also developed as an exhibition hall and was available for general rental.
But back to the catalogues. Within these catalogues, is a body of knowledge stemming from the creative imagination of our sons and daughters. The NCF by producing these catalogues have documented for the future their aspect of the arts. These are important documents that can be used by students for CXC.
The NCF, and by this I mean the Government, the minister and management, have not seen it fit to even produce a website to make this information available to all and sundry. Instead, we have seen the deliberate neglect and indifference of keeping the Park House in decent repair. Artists now have to exhibit their work in a space at Pelican Village that is not even as big as the toilets at Ilaro Court.
The NCF was also responsible for maintaining the equipment as well as the physical plant. This also applied to all the community centres. When the NCF was established, it had a maintenance crew under the leadership of Mr. Cumberbatch who had regular procedures for the day-to-day maintenance of the buildings at every level.
It is therefore very difficult for me to understand how the governments of both the Barbados Labour Party and the Democratic Labour Party could allow Queen’s Park House to fall into such disrepair that the theatre was unusable for over a decade and has now affected the Gallery.
We hear nuff, nuff talk about cultural development, cultural heritage and UNESCO listings and cultural industries. Yet all we get instead is callous lying lip-service. The present government should be ashamed for dismantling the theatre at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Conference Centre. Such facilities can take two to three decades to complete and to remove it to establish a car park demonstrates a gross insensitivity to the needs of national cultural development, in particular the performing arts, both for the artistes and the audience who attend such performances.
It was also a facility that could attract different kinds of international artistes. This political class should be selling cloth behind a counter in Swan Street, as one prominent writer once wrote, instead of pretending to lead.
Both the Democratic Labour Party and the Barbados Labour Party abolished the in-house preventative maintenance department at the NCF and replaced it with ad hoc pork-barrel contractors who were only required when things got really bad. So Queen’s Park House, the location of two of the premier facilities for the arts, was callously allowed to descend into the ignominy of total disrepair. Unbelievable!
But it is also clear that Bajan artistes have also lost their own sense of pride and perspective and have failed to establish a permanent lobby to demand what is due to them and the country. Government has denied actors in Barbados the opportunity to be able to practise their craft and interact with others from across the Caribbean. The same applies to the audience that supports them.
Without the creativity of the artistes and without the support of their audiences, there cannot be any creative industries. If the artiste cannot practise his/her craft, we have no art and we, the collective we, will wallow in the mire of a burgeoning disenchantment and discontent. But all the blame cannot be placed on the public sector alone, but that is for another discussion in another place.
Enough is enough and you dear reader must demand that your political parties deal with these issues as a fundamental right and priority.
Stop the neglect now! Respect our heritage!