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Soyinka’s early romance with England 1954-1959: A cold chapter for an anti-form rebel – Part 1

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Wole Soyinka

(July has come to be known as Wole Soyinka’s month in celebration of his birthday. This two-part essay explores a significant moment in Soyinka’s life. Read on)

Wole left University College, Ibadan, for the University of Leeds in 1954 in quest of the full honours in English.

The decision to pursue the honours programme, which was not available at Ibadan at the time, must have been considered at once visionary and courageous, especially given Wole’s strong interests in creative writing.

Joyce M. Green, a young English woman who had come to UCI fresh from Cambridge in 1950, and who had been one of Wole’s teachers, had been on hand to provide him with a well-worded reference to Leeds. She had been sufficiently impressed by the early expressions of Wole’s prodigious imagination across genres that she was convinced that going to the United Kingdom (and Leeds particularly) would provide very strong motivation for the development of her gifted young ward’s artistic and intellectual capabilities.

Many years later, after Wole had completed his emergence as a writer of global acclaim, she would remember her transactions with the future Nobelist, especially the circumstances of his transfer to Leeds. She recalls, for instance, strongly admonishing Wole to hold fast to his roots as core material for his creativity, in spite of his apparent cultural ‘dislocation’: “if you are going to write, then you should write about life in Nigeria as it actually is.” Miss Green, (later to be ‘Garnier’ upon her marriage), also remembers the manner in which Wole showed instant gratitude for the reference and the invaluable advice – “within a couple of hours he was all the way round to my flat to deliver a note to thank me. Not every student, anywhere in the world, will do that.”

The other testimonial for Leeds University had come from Professor James Welch, a missionary who had been Chaplain to the King of England, who had headed the religious service of the British Broadcasting Corporation and who now taught Christian Religious Studies at UCI.

Both Miss Green and Professor Welch emphasized in their reports, “Soyinka’s academic achievements” and “the contributions he made to student life.” They particularly drew attention to his remarkable creative talents, both in writing and in stage performance, and cited Wole’s involvement in the productions of The Devil’s Disciple and Tobias and the Angel in which “he had clearly been outstanding,” and which provided him the opportunity to taste “the excitement of performing heroic roles before an absorbed and responsive audience.”

But on deeper reflection, Wole’s sojourn to the United Kingdom seems one other occasion on which his famous spirit of adventure had run restless. The central point about an English degree, for one, does not convince so much in the light of the fact that just about a month after Wole left for England, Professor Molly Mahood arrived to start a full-fledged English Department at Ibadan, a development everyone, including Wole, must have anticipated.

In other words, whatever academic ambition that Wole chose to chase to the United Kingdom would have been available at Ibadan, and in near equal measures.

In view of the above, the “small window of opportunity” (to quote James Gibbs) that Wole exploited to transfer himself to the United Kingdom appears even smaller, because if he had waited just a few months more, Ibadan would have been too delighted to hand him a full degree in English.

Perhaps, there was also the defining stroke of good fortune. Wole had received the Leeds application form from a close friend for whom it was originally meant, but who, on account of a fundamental inhibition, had to relinquish his intention. This ‘friend’ was Ikpeghare Aig-Imokhuede, a ‘pyratical’ brother, who would go on to become one of Nigeria’s most celebrated journalists.

Nwakanma’s account is as follows: “Aig-Imokhuede wanted to take a full honours degree in English. Leeds University had offered him a place with a scholarship guaranteed by the new government in the Western region. But he found he was enjoying journalism, and so he chose to forgo his scholarship to Wole Soyinka, his best friend at University College, Ibadan, to do his English honors at Leeds.”

Imoukhuede had by this time secured appointment as Features Editor of the Daily Times and was doing so well that he could afford to place on hold lofty dreams of high academic qualification. Even though he would formally leave journalism in 1958 for the civil service (rising to the rank of Assistant Director in the Federal Information Service) and eventually the corporate world (with the Nigerian Tobacco Company, joining as a public relations officer and rising to become Deputy Managing Director), his romance with journalism remained intact. Until his death on January 2007 at the age of 74, he was a regular columnist with Vanguard, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers.

It could be said then that the Wole that the world came to know was constructed out of the somewhat complicated social, cultural and political connections between home and abroad which the early Ibadan-Leeds narrative inaugurated.

The Nigeria Wole left in 1954 was a society in gross social and political flux, especially with the anti-colonial struggle approaching such an apogee that the atmospheres were charged thick with expectation. He had been both a keen observer of and an inspired participant in the Nigerian political terrain, and had, until his transfer to Leeds in 1954, played his part, at least in the campus version of what was transpiring in the larger Nigerian political space. The British society that he met was equally undergoing its own mutation.

At this time, the world had not yet fully recovered from the calamitous impact of World War II, which finally brought the Empire crumbling to its knees. This was indeed a very fitting platform for Wole to thrive, not only as a highly motivated student of cultures but also an artistic ambassador of his dear country in his own right, for he had come not merely to receive but to also give to a cultural industry that was rebuilding itself. Even though Wole would have loved to plunge head-first into this stimulating cultural arena, armed with his modest credentials as a decent actor, even of English plays (as he proved at UCI), he still had to bid his time, to settle into this fulminating environment, absorb as much intellectual fortification in readiness for when he would be unleashed onto the British artistic scene.

Wole would have the good fortune of coming across – in both formal and informal contexts – some of the most famous teachers of literature in the history of Leeds University. The interesting thing about Bonamy Dobree, Arnold Kettle and G. Wilson Knight was not that they were good teachers, formidable scholars respected all over the country and beyond for their solid intellectual capabilities. It was rather that each of them invented and perfected ways of radiating his brilliant unconventionalism.

Wole, already structured for the infectiously unusual, therefore delightfully found kindred spirits as mentors. If the Leeds of the 1950s and 1960s was the place to be for a budding, strong-willed intellectual and cultural advocate with an indefatigable social vision, it was because of the somewhat fortuitous convergence of some of the most persuaded patrons and interpreters of the scribal arts. The stimulating ambience at Leeds in this period ensured that the likes of Wole received the kind of impartation that more than empowered them to radically affect the political and cultural constitution of their world.

Describing the Leeds English Department in “a period of considerable excitement,” James Gibbs writes: “the staff…was particularly stimulating, the presence of Bonamy Dobree, Arnold Kettle and George Wilson Knight ensuring lively controversy rather than comfortable orthodoxy.”

Wole himself, responding to questions about the influence of the triumvirate of Dobree, Kettle and Knight, makes references to teachers who “open new perspectives of the mind and new approaches to literature which are slightly different from one’s own.”

Although all three shared the element of an evocative extraordinariness, the environment of lively conversation that they created was that of sufficient impression of diversity, which opened the student’s mind to what Michael Echeruo calls “the many possibilities of meaning.”

Leading this collection of great minds was the incomparable Dobree (1891-1974), a Cambridge-trained expert in Restoration drama, who had served in the British military in both World Wars. Descending from a lineage of financial experts – his grandfather of the same name had been Governor of the Bank of England between 1859 and 1961, and had been mentioned by Victorian novelist, William Thackeray in one of his novels – Dobree had enjoyed a comfortable upbringing which reflected positively on his intellectual development.

His enterprise as “an independent scholar-critic from 1921 until the mid-1930s, specializing in 18th-century literature” illustrates his relaxed attitude to intellectual development.

Before he came to Leeds to assume appointment as Professor of English in 1936, he had, principally out of classical curiosity, served a stint as Professor of English at the Egyptian University, Cairo. By the time Wole arrived in Leeds in 1954, Dobree had served for many years as Head of the English Department.

During this time, he assembled a formidable academic cast, including G. Wilson Knight – whose employment “was one of Bonamy Dobree’s very happy strokes, none the less characteristic in that it gave the Department an outstanding personality strikingly different from his own” – and Arnold Kettle, the Marx romanticist who revolutionized university-based materialist dialecticism.

Beyond what has been described as Dobree’s “profound effect on the university’s cultural life” especially “by creating an outstanding School of English where his influence is still felt today,” his profile as a teacher and literary critic was quite redoubtable.

A man of elevated intellectual consciousness, his irritation at “scholarly pedantry or solemnity,” what he called “pribbles and prabbles,” was a possible outcome of cultivated, upper-class refinement. Although he secured sufficient distinction for his work on Restoration Drama, and his critical attention to English poet and prose writer Joseph Rudyard Kipling, it was in his term as contributor to The Criterion, the quarterly literary journal created by poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot in October 1922, that Dobree announced himself as a literary interpreter of the highest order.

Dobree was not by any means shy of controversy, even though he did not always set out to invent one. One of those occasions, when he could not avoid heated disagreement, was when his pagan ideals conflicted with T.S. Eliot’s Catholic fanaticism in the business of critical reading and analysis.

In spite of his deep friendship with Eliot, he could not properly rationalize the latter’s “eternal search for assurance in religious doctrine,” and would go on to condemn the extant tendency propagated by die-hard ‘Christian’ critics like Eliot to take criticism away from an engagement in the pursuit “of pure aesthetics towards one of values.”

He lamented a situation where on Eliot’s editorial direction, The Criterion was being “weighed down with eschatological baggage,” where “it is even stated that the critic of literature, however much he may desire to stick to art, is bound sooner or later to find himself stepping over his fence into the domain of ethics.”

Wole’s non-conformist composition was unarguably impressed by virtually all facets of the Dobree mystique – the “unusual combination of brisk military efficiency with an artistic temperament,” his sophisticated independent-mindedness, his confident ‘amorality,’ the vast expanse of his intellectualism, which largely emerges from the relaxed, passionate platform of an unfolding, elegant hobby.

But by far, it was Dobree’s paganism, and for good reasons too, that drew the young Nigerian, who had never been a Christian, who detested the many pretentions of organised religion, and whose ‘queer’ spiritual orientations were already set to be hardened in a ‘strange’ land, far away from his high church backgrounds, to him.

No doubt, the camaraderie that Wole received from Dobree, which reassured him that one could be a humanist intellectual and at the same time practically and vocally disdainful of popular faith, concretized the unconventional structures of his being and confirmed him a ‘rebel’ for life. Through Dobree, Wole must have come to appreciate the pagan codes and spirit of literature, that which elevated the Yoruba pantheon to heights of expressive signification for him as an artist.

As Wole once put it: “Dobree – I always refer to him as a pagan – sort of enriched my own, shall I say instinctive paganism as I had already rejected the Christian religion, all orthodox established religions. But I hadn’t reached the point of really seeing literature as embodying, as being able to embody that very structural paganistic approach. It was an insight into the literature of the world as being very often the expression of very basic paganistic instincts and relationships with Nature, with the matter, with reality more than I ever suspected at that stage of my development.”

Thus, an encounter that began in the simple note of a conversation about the state of religion in Africa, in which Dobree was reassured by Wole about the persistence of paganism in spite of the bulldozing effects of the Christian evangelical project, commenced a transaction which altered in advance a considerable degree of Wole’s impact on his world as an artist of rare conviction and commitment.

With Arnold Kettle (1916-1986), Wole became aware of the full dynamics of the Marxist spirit, not only as an idiom of an artistic statement but more critically as a consuming personal ideology which manifests in the individual’s practical involvement in the politics of the materialist revolution.

If there was any trace of uncertainty concerning the source of Wole’s fabled inclination to taking what Biodun Jeyifo calls ‘political risks,’ the tendency to take the battle against the bourgeois oppressor out of the pages of the creative work and onto the concreteness of the streets and the real human world, then his allegiance to Kettle definitively erases it once and for all.

The contributions of Kettle, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party to the entrenchment of the deep Marxist ideals for which the University of Leeds became acclaimed in the 1950s and 1960s have been widely documented.

A veteran of the Second World War, Kettle joined the Communist Party as a Cambridge student, and remained an unrepentant apologist throughout his adult life, promoting its gospel in the Universities where he taught – Cambridge, Leeds, Dar es Salam, British Open University – and making a long list of disciples in colleagues and students across continents. Among Kettle’s protégés, outside Wole, is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the great Kenyan intellectual and cultural activist of immense global significance.

Although Wole’s literary criticism does not seem to have proceeded in the strict exactitude of Kettle’s prescriptions – for instance, in the latter’s “advocacy” of a “quasi-Leavisite, socialist humanism” – the lesson of the individual’s positioning as an agent of change seems to have been largely well-taken, as his prominent role in postcolonial African politics overwhelmingly bears witness to. For Wole, Kettle’s insistence on the factor of personal involvement, as complimentary, if not superior, to cultural production, has been a most influential life instruction.

Part of Kettle’s requirement for the attainment of the status of a potent crusader of change is progressive partisanship, membership of a communist-oriented political party. Victor N. Paanen affirms that “Kettle’s rejection of a primary revolutionary role for cultural work is consistent with his firmly-held belief that political activity through the Communist Party is the only means by which actually to change society.”

For Kettle, therefore, it is an easier option for intellectuals to hide under elitist entitlement to legislate over a lopsided social order, an escapist alternative he, as a member of the privileged class, tries to subvert in his agitation for a “historical agency that unites intellectuals and workers.”

For Kettle, therefore, “a Marxist commitment is not possible without party membership because Marxism does involve taking action. Only when they are party members can the humanism of the intellectuals help to create a human world.” Wole’s quite dramatic romance with party politics in Nigeria in particular, and the entirety of his oeuvre of political risks, in general, pays tribute to Kettle’s indoctrination.

Even though Wole’s insistence on the supreme sanctity of art would tend to water down his own subsequent literary Marxism – the major reason for which he would brawl protractedly with the temperamental Ibadan-Ife Positive Review Group led by Biodun Jeyifo in the late 1970s and early 1980s – his indebtedness to Kettle would be profound in his art, and to a satisfactory extent, his literary scholarship. He would also constantly acknowledge Kettle for opening up his literary perspective “towards a Marxist – but a critical Marxist – the potential of Literature, interpretation of Literature… specific directions which he did not possess before.”

In much of Wole’s literary production ever since, one memorable exchange with Kettle, looms directly or indirectly in the background: “I first encountered Marx (apart from name) through Dr Arnold Kettle, an avowed communist who taught the novel at the University of Leeds. The year was 1955.

In response to a remark in which I called attention to the threats posed to individual freedom by any form of a totalitarian state, Dr Kettle quietly reminded me of the far more devastating encroachment on individual self-fulfilment by the private exploiter of others’ labour… it… took the remark of Arnold Kettle to make me begin to conceive society in such fundamental terms as a community founded on human labour.”

Wole would, therefore, register a strong impression on Kettle as a young man of immense potential and strong conviction, necessitating a mentor-mentee relationship that served the young Nigerian the most exotic of Marxist treatises, and included spirited debates which sometimes brought in the African perspective into the relationship between literature and society.

But it has to be arch-Shakespearean critic, G. Wilson Knight (1897-1985) that would have the farthest-reaching influence on the young Nigerian scholar as far as the University of Leeds was concerned. Knight’s standing as a genius of various enchanting tributaries may have been such that Wole would not have very successfully resisted the urge of modelling his intellectual life after the enigmatic Englishman.

The cultural and scholarly effervescence which he so effortlessly injected into the Leeds atmosphere, and the extraordinary reach of his intellectual versatility, has spurned volumes of book-length reflections. Wole would say about his admiration of Knight: “Generally his mind had such a maverick quality which I found corresponding with mine even in its undeveloped stage. I found that I had this habit of thinking slightly out of the normal routine. So you could say that Wilson Knight gave me the confidence not to over-suspect my own intellectual inclinations.” From Knight, therefore, Wole would acquire a most cherished psychological endorsement for his unconventionality and also perfect the audacious mannerisms of conveying the unusual with dramatic finesse.

Knight performed everything he did. Even his simple discussions carried the element of passionate importance that startled everyone into life. As one of Knight’s colleagues, D.W. Jefferson, recalls in a festschrift presented to the former, “freshness was of the essence of his personality and thought,” and for this, he dazzled his audience on end.

Gifted with an amazing spontaneity in the generation of ideas, Jefferson notes, Knight was virtually incapable of simplistic or trite commentary about literature: “profoundly convinced though he was of the values and patterns of meaning that he saw in the works before him, these insights had to be lived through again every time he shared his thoughts with an audience.” His lectures were also spaces for the enactment of the pedagogically sublime. A former student gives an insight into the average Knight lecture: “He drew full houses, his qualities as an actor having something to do with this… In the lecture room, after a brief reference to his text on the lecture, he moved into open space. And his movements and gestures became complimentary to his words. He had great presence despite the lack of any great physical stature.”

Many times, Knight needed the intervention of the alarm clock, which he precautionarily carried with him into class to draw him out of the charming spectacle of robust, full-blooded exchange with his students. Some other of his students recall occasions in which Knight would momentarily lapse into silence “before lecturing on Shakespeare in order to discover whether the spirit of the Elizabethan dramatist had any ‘messages.’”

Even before Leeds beckoned, Knight had made his name as a Shakespearean actor and producer, engagements that he would delightfully return to on-campus when he felt inspired, and when his other enterprises permitted. His production of Shakespeare’s Agamemnon and Racine’s Athalie in 1946 and 1947 respectively and his lead role performance in Timon of Athens in 1948 underline Knight’s unbreakable link with the stage. When not producing or acting, he served as super-motivator to the students’ theatre group who struck a most significant chord in the heart of his wards, always living up to his reputation “as the generous, sympathetic supporter of innumerable dramatic ventures.”

One testimonial reads: “He would attend the rehearsals of productions that were sick into death (For Leeds could achieve the very bad as well as the very good) and would frequently find the opportunity to inspire some actors with fresh confidence, by taking a generous view of his possibilities, in addition to making suggestions of bedrock usefulness.” Wole arrived to find Knight still actively engaged with theatre, and as a young man with lofty ambitions of theatrical greatness of his own, he could not be more impressed.


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