A review of an event in Bristol earlier this week by JG:
Bristol Festival of Ideas advertised that Wole Soyinka would be part of their programme and that he would be at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum from 12.30-2.00, on Wednesday 9th May 2007. On-line information linked the visit with You Must Set Forth at Dawn, described as ‘an intimate chronicle of his thrilling public life, a meditation on justice and tyranny, and a testament to a ravaged yet hopeful land.’
Tickets were on sale at £6.00 (concessions £4.00) and the venue was the Board Room. (The Museum has a ‘Board Room’ that usually seats about 45/ 50 and a terminus space that can accommodate ‘thousands’.)
At 12.30, the room was packed – more than 50. The minutes ticked away, and though there was some coming and going, there was no sign of Soyinka. At about five to one, Gareth Griffiths, Director of the Museum announced with evident relief that Soyinka was in the building and that the event would start shortly. The copies of You Must Set Forth at Dawn were, we were told, en route.
Chair for the session, Andrew Kelly, Director of ‘Bristol Cultural Development’, took charge and, at about one o’clock, welcomed and introduced Soyinka. Soyinka then made a few preliminary remarks – along the lines that since he was in a museum he thought it would be appropriate to read a passage from his new book that related to a museum artefact. While saying this, he sorted out the papers he had brought in and that were clearly out of sequence. At this point a mobile phone rang. It turned out to be Soyinka’s. He dealt with it rather inexpertly, indicating that it was a new one, and eventually passed it nonchalantly to someone in the front row to cope with. He gave instructions to throw it out of the window if lights came on. From the middle of the room, one wondered if the enfant terrible was slipping, at 73, into a grand-fatherly role.
Soyinka then read, from You Must, an edited account of his visit to Brazil in search of a stolen and lost Ife bronze head, the Ori Olokun. He cut the section of the narrative that included the visit to Dakar, and rounded off with his encounter with the head in the Burlington ‘outpost of the British Museum’. Fierce editing compressed the account into about 35 minutes reading time and left some not only amused but also bemused.
When the reading ended, Andrew Kelly skipped the planned session during which he would be ‘in conversation’ with Soyinka so as to have more time for questions. The following gives, I hope, a flavour of the exchanges that then took place between Soyinka and the Bristol public. Communication, it should be said, was not always perfect, and, since some of the questions had to be repeated by the chair for Soyinka’s benefit, one must entertain the possibility that the Nobel laureate’s hearing is not as acute as it once was. The following were among the questions asked: Are you in touch with Niyi Osundare and Ken Wiwa? Ans: Yes. I went to Osundare’s 60th birthday recently and was with Ken Wiwa in New Zealand (in 1995). (All questions and answers are abbreviated and reproduced from rough notes. No claims are made for verbatim accuracy. I hope I got the gist right.) Should there be an apology for the slave trade? Not if it is an empty gesture but if there are vestiges of the after effects of the slave trade then it may be appropriate for certain office holders to apologise. Is humour necessary? Yes, without it you’d commit suicide. How should those of African descent relate to Africanist heritage? It will be felt; it is part of the shaping of personality. What about sustainable development and reparations? This was a poorly-framed question that elicited from Soyinka an answer that included the statement that he was, I think I got this down accurately, ‘Not excited by the way (reparations) are being handled.’ He asked a question of his own: Who would you give the money to? And recalled his proposal to the World Bank when he put forward the following formula: You drop the debts and we’ll stop making you feel guilty about the slave trade. How do you make your prose so rhythmical? I test it on the ear. What do you think about this ‘memorial’ to what the British did in Nigeria and elsewhere? (This was clarified as a question about the BECM – though the curator(s) would have been horrified to hear it described as a ‘memorial’.) Soyinka answered by listing British cities with imperial links in which similar museums might have been sited. The last question was: What inspired you to start writing? In his reply Soyinka spoke of the precocious pleasure he had taken in retelling stories, recounting episodes, fabricating. He introduced the word ‘liar’ into the recollection.
There had, during the 20 minute Q and A session, been one questioner who addressed the Chair. Kelly was asked why the event was so low key? Why hadn’t it been better advertised and why hadn’t it been held in a larger venue? Kelly encouraged the questioner to take up the issue with him later, but did indicate that the lunchtime slot had been at Soyinka’s request.
The minutes had ticked away and the two o’clock deadline had arrived. The audience was informed that the copies of You Must were still on the way. Soyinka expressed relief when he heard this since, as he said, it saved having to sign copies. He did not escape that task entirely since there were some of his publications that could be purchased and pushed towards him.
The short-changed public were not offered an explanation or apology for the late start, but from answer to direct questions to Museum staff it emerged that Soyinka had actually been in the vicinity of the Museum for some time before he was ushered in to the Board Room. The somewhat frazzled Museum staff did not know this, and kept meeting trains at nearby Temple Meads station. When asked ‘Didn't you have his mobile number?’ The answer came: ‘Yes, but only a Nigerian number!’
It seems, incredibly, that ‘Soyinka’s publisher’, who had actually been with the Museum staff earlier in the day and should have known the start time of the event, had gone with him ‘across the road’ for lunch! It was only by chance that someone had seen them eating and mentioned this to the Museum staff.
When You Must Set Forth becomes available it will be interesting to see whether there has been any editorial work carried out on the Random House, New York, 2006 edition. Despite acknowledging a ‘relay of editors’ and several data checkers, that edition contained errors in spelling names and in explaining the acronym MOSOP. On other questions of accuracy, I wonder whether there will have been any revision of controversial renditions of episodes. It will, once again, be fascinating to compare relevant sections of Soyinka’s book with, for example, Melvin J. Laski’s version of ‘The “Snake” in the Road Episode’, and Justice Eso’s report of ‘The Trial’ following the radio station hold-up. When all that has been sifted, one will know whether the book is best described as a chronicle of, meditation on, testament to or fabrication, or ‘all of the above’.
Friday, May 11, 2007
A review of an event in Bristol earlier this week by JG: