London in September: A Homage to Memory – Kola Tubosun

London is dreary in September — but then when is it not? 

The weather exerts itself quickly enough. When Dami Àjàyí, a Nigerian poet, called on the morning of my birthday that he was coming over by noon, it was dry and slightly sunny. By the time I walked out an hour later to meet him by the door of the William Goodenough House, he was drenched in the day’s surprise rain. 

Put this down as one of the pleasures of living in Lagos; not ever having to consult the Google Assistant before leaving the house:

“Okay Google, will it rain today?” 

“Okay Google, What is the temperature outside?” 

“Okay Google, when will this bloody rain stop?” 

There is small solace in the fact that the voice which speaks back to me does in a Nigerian accent, a result of my earlier work in an earlier life. Hours later, when we took our walk to the British Library where I now work as a Research Fellow, I took perverse pleasure in the Nigerianized localization of the street names, curious to hear whether “Leicester” or “Gloucester” would retain their English weirdness or succumb to the Nigerian elaboration of enumerated vowels.

“Happy birthday to you,” Dami said. 

He is also in London for a fellowship of his own courtesy of the Royal College of Psychiatry. A mild celebration of Her Majesty’s largesse in this uncertain Brexit season was certainly in order.

I had expected no visitors, content to spend the day with rest and laundry. There was an evening invitation to visit Marion, the Africa Curator at the Library who had invited me, and Chantelle, the other Fellow from Jamaica, and a few colleagues, for dinner. They, too, would pull a birthday surprise for me in the form of a cake, hearty singing, food, and wine.

“Let’s play some table tennis,” I said. 

A ping pong table sits in one of the large common rooms near the reception. William Goodenough House, a part of the Goodenough College, is an educational trust and postgraduate residence on Mecklenburg Square in Central London. Though called a College, it houses people who go to school or work at other institutions nearby, providing single and family lodgings, and a socio-collegial atmosphere.

In an adjoining flat outside the college, a plaque reads “HD (Hilda Doolittle) Poet and Writer lived here 1917-1918)”. Besides the giggle-inducing quality of British names I have found (Doolittle, Goodenough, Cockfosters etc), I’m enamoured by the history visible everywhere I look. The College itself was founded in 1930, but many of the buildings, gardens, and public spaces here have been around since the First World War as witnesses to history. The Queen, herself, has visited the location about five times in total, reportedly more than any other private charity in the United Kingdom. Photos of each of her visits are placed strategically around the premises.

After a two-game tie between two Nigerian men sweating out their ego and reminiscences about a country they have just left behind — it is the nature of Nigerians meeting in a foreign land to spend the first few hours discussing relevant social, political, and in this case literary, issues — a third game was necessary for tie-breaking. 

Àjàyí had recently published a nonfiction piece, A Poet Disappears, about Kọ́ládé Àjàyí, another Nigerian writer, who had suddenly fallen off social media, without any trace. We wondered and speculated on what had happened to him. The essay had stimulated, for me and others who read it, haunting conversations about the power of memory, the importance of literature and the occasional impotence of modern social systems. 

Our third game edged towards a deuce. One point to the end of the game, the poet slammed the ball away — as a birthday gesture, he said — deliberately losing the point, and the game. “So, we have another game to look forward to at a later time,” he said. 

In my room, a half-empty bottle of Finca Flichman Malbec red I had got a few days before waited. It would suffice for libations and hospitality. My guest wanted to show off his new Huawei Matebook X-Pr0, his replacement for one lost on a previous British Airways flight, so I let him. He sat and played a few tracks from Nigerian artists he believed I should know about, that I didn’t. 

“Would you like to hear this new poet I’m obsessed about?” he asked. “His name is Ifeanyi Menkiti. He passed away a few months ago.” I did, surprised by how much fine poetry is still being produced today, and curious about the ways in which the words will need to survive, as a record of the output of our generation. The publishing industry for poetry is still very exclusive and sparse. There are more unpublished poets in Nigeria today. And even among the published ones, very few with a wide and sustained readership. A line from the deceased poet’s work read as a pithy summation of our predicaments:

“Call home all you that are troubled, you will find more trouble there.”

I am here in London as a Chevening Fellow, working with the Africa Curator at the Library in understanding its African language book collection, with some focus on Yorùbá, from the 19th Century. It is an interesting role, not just because of the irony of helping the preservation of African literary heritage in a British institution (It is a global institution as well, for sure) but having unfettered access to a treasure trove of archival materials collected from the beginning of the history of publishing is both humbling and exciting. Many books I had sought for without luck in libraries in Nigeria are here, preserved for all posterity, and many would join still while our libraries waste away at home. When, for instance, I held a hardbound copy of Ọlábísí Àjàlá’s An African Abroad (1963) in my hands for the first time— a book that can no longer be found in any online or offline bookstore — I could feel the weight of the profligacy that has bedevilled my country and our cavalier attitude to archiving and documentation. The British Library has a record of all books published in the UK and (as much as possible) books published in all the countries of the world. This is an impressive collection of the world’s thought, significant not just in its preservation of culture and history, but in the celebration of man’s obsession with understanding itself. 

“Is there a Nigerian National Library of this nature?” I had once wondered.

There apparently is one, I realized. It just isn’t as functional as it should be. It is often the case that one has to travel out of the country to find access to books published in the country just a few decades ago.

At the end of this fellowship year, I would have learnt as much about the breadth of our publishing history and as much else as I can find from other cultures, and contributed to the understanding of the archive through engagement with the publishing community in Nigeria and in the UK, and other partners of the Library. There’s also some significance there for me and the future of documentation in Nigeria, as current news from home has left so much to desire. But the challenge is one I have welcomed with open arms, over the last decade and a half, through other projects of similar relevance.

I took Dami around on a short tour of the Library’s public areas. At the bookstore downstairs, he bought a few books. I bought a pen/pencil holder shaped like a sharpener, for the pens and pencils lying around my table. Outside, we sat in the piazza, surrounded by other visitors, and a city life outside. It didn’t feel like a Sunday.

“I’d like to read you another poem,” he said. “I wrote it yesterday.” 

It was a playful meditation on city life through the body of a random black woman, a recurrent theme in Àjàyí’s work. After a warren of metaphors, the performance ended on a last line that read “Do not buy her a drink.” I laughed out loud.

When the sky cheered up a bit and we headed out towards St. Pancras, some life, some buzz, had returned to the air. “You share a birthday with King Sunny Ade,” Dami asked me. “And Michael Faraday, the electricity man” I added. “Only great men,” I said again, chuckling.

The three hours had gone by better than expected, and now we had to part. I walked him to the bus stop, and waited for the bus to arrive. With our two gruffy voices miming the riffs on King Sunny Ade’s guitars in his 1987 hit album Let Them Say as we traipsed around the streets earlier, I realized that we had made London into Lagos, if briefly, mapping the Queen’s land with restless feet, loud and unbothered by the blues of September.

____

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, Nigerian writer and linguist, is the author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry.

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