…this is not intended as a solemn piece, of which there has been more than a befitting deluge. My turn is personal, reminiscent, and I know J.P. would relish the brief paddle through memory creeks. The trajectory of my relationship with our griot of Ozidi, commencing in the sixties, is what glows most luminously in the mind, igniting lamps along the strange byways of closure in human ruptures.
Tempestuous, querulous, petulant, unpredictable….yet I’ve also heard him called ejaaro, that fish which always thrashes back to its turbid depths – and so on and on. All these may hold in parts but, of course, there is that contributory side of J.P. Clark that is closed to many: An unresolved mix of a deep poetic sensibility with an intense political discontent, frustrations from a nation that constantly short-changes itself. Such companion unease tends to manifest itself in inner turbulence that takes vengeance on justly bewildered heads, even without apparent provocation. Those who wish to delve deeper into, or dispute this, should simply remind themselves of his role in the saga of the first military coup in Nigeria, his intimate association with Christopher Okigbo – one of our pioneer ‘literary quartet’ who perished on the war front – constantly punctuated by interspersed lyrics of a compulsive testifier. J.P. never gave up – check on the series of poems he published in The Guardian during his final years!
It manifested itself in multiple ways – trivial to profound, direct and indirect. For instance, J.P. would not let me rest, until I showed up for one of our lunches in an Amotekun jacket. Only then would he accept that we were “serious” in Ogun State and were not just “talkers” regarding the latest threat to Nigerian existence, the unchecked, marauding herdsmen, about which he raged incessantly. Not forgetting his initiating the visit to the military – Chinua Achebe and myself in tow – in a doomed effort to save the lives of Mamman Vatsa and other condemned coup plotters. Or his obsessive pursuit of the recommendations of the Nobel visitation to the Delta during the outbreak of hostilities by MEND and other militants….few know of this raging commitment of the poet as citizen.
I had to get all that out of the way – this is not intended as a solemn piece, of which there has been more than a befitting deluge. My turn is personal, reminiscent, and I know J.P. would relish the brief paddle through memory creeks. The trajectory of my relationship with our griot of Ozidi, commencing in the sixties, is what glows most luminously in the mind, igniting lamps along the strange byways of closure in human ruptures. That cycle closed on recaptured effervescent accents on which it had begun six decades earlier, a spontaneous soldering of willful temperaments, now laced with self-mockery, comfortable in self-fulfillment, warm, communing, argumentative, totally devoid of pretence or masks. It even developed into an informal ‘Diners’ Club’ of three, with Sesan Dipeolu, the ex-Librarian of Ife university as the third leg of the ‘pepper-soup troika’. Dipeolu was the first to go AWOL. Thereafter we placed a glass for him at the table, and an empty chair. Occasionally we did permit the odd stripling to join – usually when one or the other needed to kill more than one bird with one stone. After spreading our patronage round various restaurants in turn – from Victoria Island to Ikeja – J.P. somehow manipulated us to accept his The Boat Club as permanent venue, thus installing himself as undisputed host, since the club despised payment by non-members. The ambiance of The Boat Club was of course most congenial, and we became part of the recognised furniture.
I refuse to compromise the innocent. In any case, how could they fail to identify with the truancy of two geriatrics, accept that certain ‘bending of rules’ sometimes makes the norm tolerable, even piquant. This, after all, was their club poet, migrated from the Delta creeks of the Ijaw to their own Five-Cowrie Creek of the Lagos estuary.
Unbeknownst to all three, this would play a significant role in the coming tide of COVID-19 pandemic – by which time, Dipeolu had departed, leaving just the duo. During lockdowns, the Spirit of the Sixties re-asserted itself. The Boat Club was under closure but its restaurant was open for the usual delivery and takeaway services. There was no need for any discussion – it took no more than a nod of understanding and the spring season of maverick youth was revived. J.P. was locked down in Lagos, teasing out his final poetic bequest, I in Abeokuta, enduring torments from a new work – prose fiction. For several weeks, there was no contact but, finally, the call came through. My only interruptions during those months, I now manfully ‘fess up’, took the form of the occasional drive to Lagos, the roads blissfully empty. (I am a classified, chronic ‘essential services’ exemption – in case anyone tries to call me a lawbreaker – go and check where it matters!) And so, our assignation resumed. I arrived, dutifully masked – with my shoulder bag of selected wines. We collected our takeaway packs, then – sneaked through a side door to the balcony upstairs. The vast space more than matched protocols of ‘social distancing’. There, lulled by the emptiness of that sedate, yet bustling space, we consumed our grilled fish and calamari, fried yam with tepid pepper sauce, in utter tranquility, quaffed our beer and wine, caressed by silence and the generous, lagoon breeze, unpolluted by petroleum fumes, while we debated and solved all the problems of the world. Did the skeleton staff detect our presence? I refuse to compromise the innocent. In any case, how could they fail to identify with the truancy of two geriatrics, accept that certain ‘bending of rules’ sometimes makes the norm tolerable, even piquant. This, after all, was their club poet, migrated from the Delta creeks of the Ijaw to their own Five-Cowrie Creek of the Lagos estuary.
In so many ways the mood was reminiscent of the sixties, far less rumbustious, yes, but nonetheless a reprise of that phase when we were steady props and last departing patrons of the live-music night clubs of Ibadan and Lagos. At the end of each night session, J.P., to whom anything mechanical was enemy territory anyway, was usually in no condition to drive. Even in broad daylight, J.P. had a habit of attempting to leap across broad gutters or navigate roads where none existed. So, I would often pick him up in his apartment at Oke Bola, then drive him home afterwards. Such was his attachment to that car however, perhaps the sole Kharman Ghia – a now defunct model – in all of Nigeria, that he would insist I leave my beat-up Land Rover in his place, while we invaded the night in that German sports car. I had no objection – it was an exotic car to drive – rapid acceleration and a left-hand drive, while the nation was still operating the British traffic code of driving on the right side of the road. That arrangement worked until, not far from my own chalet on campus, the sports car decided to behave just like its owner and attempt to climb up a palm tree – I distinctly recall that it was after late rehearsals of Song of a Goat at Mbari – I must have dozed off at the wheel.
It took weeks to get that frisky vehicle back on its wheels but, during that interlude, I became J.P.’s driver, night and day, in my Land Rover. That resulted in even closer interaction, but of course this had its own difficulties. Once his Karman was once more serviceable, I left him to do his own wreckage, which he did with gusto, sozzled or sober. I slaughtered several goats on stage during performances, specifically to appease the demons that appeared to make J.P. – even outside his Karman Ghia – so notoriously prone to accidents. Nothing worked. Finally, I believe he simply gave up on any form of driving altogether and engaged a driver. J.P. was simply not meant for an era more mechanical than the phase of the canoe with outboard motor!
When I began to direct his plays – Song of a Goat was an instant hit of course – J.P. gave them over to me completely. He refused to interfere in the directing. He would come into rehearsals, watch, sometimes commenting on how words became motion on stage. He enjoyed just sitting in, never offering even one suggestion that I recall…
When I began to direct his plays – Song of a Goat was an instant hit of course – J.P. gave them over to me completely. He refused to interfere in the directing. He would come into rehearsals, watch, sometimes commenting on how words became motion on stage. He enjoyed just sitting in, never offering even one suggestion that I recall – ‘it’s your headache’ he would shrug, ‘I don’t know how you do it’ – and off he went to enjoy himself with friends at the nearest bar. J.P.’s fascination with theatre led him – inevitably – to found PEC Repertory Theatre at Onikan, with a hands-on involvement with management and creative production – on a sustained level that I did not achieve with my own 1960 MASKS or ORISUN THEATRE. Mind you, what the artistes and other collaborators endured under his regimen was probably another tale, but then, he also had Ebun, his wife, as full partner-in-crime. I strongly suspect that it was the trusted formula of ‘tactical alternation’ – Good Cop, Bad Cop’. Ebun will probably open up on this more authoritatively. What matters is that is worked, lasted years, inaugurated the subscription tradition, enjoyed a stand-alone success. J.P. was visibly upset when the property was acquired by the Lagos government and torn down for an emerging multi-purpose complex. No, he did not oppose development, J.P. simply felt – and in very strong, unforgiving language – that PEC should have been left standing, integrated into whatever became of that historic site. I totally empathised with him!
We made plans – twice – to resurrect one of his plays during the editions of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. Such effort collapsed from the usual logistical problems and, of course – budget. However, one of the solid products of the Heritage series would come from the special edition tagged – The Black in the Mediterranean Blue where the poetry section settled for the theme of Migration. Italy was the first landfall on the ‘Blue Mediterranean’ shores, and a volume emerged from a collaboration between Italian and Nigerian poets, a bi-lingual product. J.P. was my first port of call, and I shall end this act of indulgent recollection with his contribution to that volume.
Now, that poem! I think all the foregoing revelations would remain incomplete if I did not comment on its dedication. It proved a tug-of-war! A minor episode, yet I found it awkward, personally, since this was my project. I was the Chief Editor of the anthology, so I removed it. J.P. proved to be at his most stubborn. He had delivered it hand-written – it was either the dedication remained or he would withdraw the poem altogether. Nothing I could say would make him shift his position, and my collaborators took his side. Now of course, I am glad that I let him have his way. So, here it is, a substitute for the now moribund Diners’ Club, whose moving spirit has migrated terminally, far beyond Five-Cowrie Creek and Kiagbodo creeks, leaving us however entrancing lines in lyric consolation:
Migration Poem (for Wole)
Visitors from waters far away
Dolphins, on occasion
Came up for air;
In estuaries of the Niger Delta.
That is, before the crude surge;
And men, along the shore
Drawn to them at play
Saw designs, deep-etched as
Among their women.
How many there in the brood
Did not make it back to sea?
‘Wole SOYINKA , the first Black Nobel Laureate in Literature, writes from A.R.I, Abeokuta.
This article was specifically written for and published by TheNEWS magazine as a special tribute editon commemorating the life and times of the recently deceased poet, Professor J.P. Clark-Bekederemo. It is reproduced with the kind permission of TheNEWS.