Nigeria: Tribute - John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (1935-2020)

20 October 2020

There is the story of John Pepper Clark and his best friend, Kayode Jibowu at the University College Ibadan. One evening in 1956, in the common room of Tedder Hall, they had engaged in what must still be the longest, fiercest, and most passionate debate at the university to date.

It went on and on till so very late into the night, and ended only when both of them exhausted by dispute, broke down weeping from the very intensely aroused emotions. Even the point of the dispute, viewed against the light of hindsight, would be very amusing, even possibly light, to contemporary scrutiny. It was about which musical interpretation of a classical composer by two different performers was better than the other. The point of this is of course, to situate J.P. Clark - brash, short-fused, and eminently choleric.

It is often said that his elder brother, Blessing, gave him the name "Pepper" because he was, even as a child, hot-tempered, and as spicy as the Capsicum. But that brash exterior was a mask; a cover for a very soft and aesthetic core; the deeply sensitive and passionate side that comes only slightly out to the fore in his plays and in his poetry.

Born approximately in 1935 (he would years later revise this date, claiming that newer light places his birth to around 1930) in Kiagbodo, to the famous Ambakederemo family of the westward Ijaw, Johnson Pepper Clark's father, Fuludu Clark Ambakederemo, was a potentate of the delta and a great factor in the era of the Niger Delta trade who was also shaped by his shrewd politics of the colonial agent or "native informer".

Child of the Creeks

His mother, Poro, daughter of Amakashe Adomi,was Urhobo. J.P. Clark was thus a child of the Creeks; an identity he deeply embraced, and which he preserved in the marine imagery that made his writing distinct. His earliest memories were shaped when he and his brothers were sent off to school by their father to Burutu and then Jeremi on the Eastern Ijaw side of the creeks. He was admitted to the prestigious Government College Ughelli in January 1948.

At Ughelli, he was no all-rounder, but he was bookish and brash, and it was therefore no surprises that he would join his Ughelli classmate Mike Okwechime with Arthur Unegbe, Alex Madiebo and Patrick Anwuna from the Umuahia Government College, at the military depot in 1954 for officer selections at the Enugu military training depot. While the rest were sent off to Teshie, J.P. Clark was rejected for officer training on account of his height. He was however employed as a third class clerk at the Cabinet secretariat of the colonial administration in Lagos from 1954-1955.

That is the equivalent today of working in the Presidency, but under the colonial regime with a Governor-General. It was in a most exciting period of transition towards decolonisation. Sir John Stuart Macpherson was the Governor-General; and the Macpherson constitution was a boilerplate issue in Nigerian politics.

This brief but crucial experience in administration in the Nigerian government secretariat would shape J.P. Clark's nationalist politics and self-awareness in ways that most scholars of his writing have yet to fully grasp or explore. But undoubtedly, proximity to certain facts of Nigerian politics and history at that foundational stage offered Clark insight, and acumen that would guide his imaginative response in very unique ways.

He was admitted to the University College in 1955, in the same English class as Obi Wali, but deferred it to 1956, when he joined the likes of Michael J.C. Echeruo, Abiola Irele, Bridget Akwada, Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, and such like in the Ibadan English department of the 1950s. At Ibadan, Clark was visible, opinionated and intellectually active.

He had intellectual weight. He had arrived Ibadan in the year Christopher Okigbo returned to repeat his degree in the classics. J.P.'s elder brother, Blessing Akporede Clark who later distinguish himself in Nigeria's Foreign Service was already studying the Classics, and although two years behind Okigbo, knew him quite well.

It was he who had introduced his younger brother to Christopher, and they would later become great friends. Wole Soyinka had left for Leeds the previous year after only two years in Ibadan, to study for an English honours degree which was not yet on offer in Ibadan. The University College was still only offering the General degrees. Ben Obumselu would be the first Ibadan graduate of English to earn the English honours in 1957.

Meanwhile, J.P. Clark made great friends at Ibadan - Obi Wali, Kayode Jibowu, Tony Ukpabi Asika, Sam Agbams, Mike Echeruo, Abiola Irele, and perhaps the closest of them, Emma Ifeajuna. Many of them the so-called "Kuti Hall renegades". These were colourful "boys" and they made colourful splashes with their lives in modern Nigerian life. But that early,Clark was distinguishing himself. In 1956, a young English lecturer, Martin Banham came from Leeds to teach in the English department at Ibadan. He brought with him ideas for a literary magazine and theatrical life which soon changed the course of literary life and cultural production in Ibadan.

He and J.P. Clark became especially close, and in 1957, founded the Horn, a student literary magazine of which J.P. Clark became founding editor. The Horn soon became the site of the first sallying of that generation's literary pioneers, and was especially striking, for its time, for publishing those who would emerge as the leading poets of their era in Nigeria. It was there on the Horn that J.P. Clark's groundbreaking poem, "Ivbie" first appeared. "Ivbie" was epic, both in proportion and in subject. The poem in six movements accounts for three tropological moments or themes: the celebration of the essential beauty of precolonial Africa, a critique of the colonial encounter, and the exploration of the anguished self in that matrix of history.

"Ivbie" is imitative and derivative, and lacks a certain structural coherence which its main critics have suggested to be the evidence of the work of a poet at the apprenticeship stage of his craft, but when it appeared at Ibadan, it had a startling effect, largely because there was nothing quite like it yet at that stage of the development of modern Nigerian poetry.

It established J.P. Clark's reputation and status as a leading poet of his generation, and this while still a student at the university. Clark's involvements as a student at Ibadan was intense and involved. Although acknowledged as brilliant, and much more than a capable scholar, in 1959, J.P. Clark suffered a mental breakdown at Ibadan and failed his finals.

This was a most difficult and confusing moment of his life. It led him to Christopher Okigbo who had himself also failed his own finals in the classics and had returned to repeat his degree exams at Ibadan in the year that J.P. Clark was admitted into the university. In 1958, Okigbo also had suffered a string of personal losses that tested his human spirit: he had been fired for insubordination from his Senior Service job as Assistant Under-Secretary in the newly created Federal Ministry of Information and Research; his love life was in crisis; and his business had failed.

He was bankrupt and had nowhere to go. He was rescued from suicide by his friend Alex Olu Ajayi, who came to Lagos, and offered him a new lease of life - a job as Vice Principal at the Fiditi Grammar School, where he also taught Greek, Latin, History and English. In much the same way, Okigbo rescued Clark. His classmate and close friend at the Government College Ughelli, Peter Enahoro who was already making a name for himself in journalism in the Daily Times, introduced him to journalism, and Clark tried his stringing for the papers in Lagos. But J.P.Clark also came frequently to visit, and stayed in long stretches with Okigbo at Fiditi in this period. It was in that circumstance that great friendship developed between them.

Okigbo and Clark

Okigbo and Clark shared the same intense and passionate personality. They also discovered each other's poetic interests and strength, and as Clark would later put it: "Chris introduced me to the great Classics - the Greek tragedies and the Augustan poets - and I introduced him to the modern greats - Eliot and Pound." It was indeed Clark who got Okigbo's "Four Canzones" to be published first in the Horn magazine in 1959. In 1960, Clark graduated in English from the University College Ibadan. He worked as Information Officer in the Western Region's Ministry of Information in Ibadan. In 1961, he moved to Lagos, to join the Daily Service newspaper, on the invitation of Mr. Victor Olabisi Onabanjo who was its editorial director.

Clark was Features Editor of the Daily Service until 1962, when he spent a year on the Parvin fellowship at Princeton. He did not have much of a good time in the United States generally, nor at Princeton specifically, largely because he did not submit to the routine programmes and demands of the fellowship; basically he rejected it all because he refused to be "recruited" to the cold war politics behind the fellowship, and the guiding, chaperoning hands of the "old Colonel" of whom he had much to say in his very polemical memoir or travelogue that accounts for that period, America, Their America. It is still a refreshing read since it was published in 1964 to a spectacular din of literary controversy which Clark enjoyed enormously.

As I've noted in my forthcoming book on the Mbari movement, literary scholars might do well to contextualize Clark's memoir with the context of a nationalist narrative; its background might be in response to an earlier controversy, the American Peace Corps letter controversy that had roused very deep nationalist feelings among that generation of Nigerian intellectuals and only shortly after decolonisation.

On October 14, 1961,shortly after arriving Nigeria on the pioneer batch of Peace Corps volunteers from the United States, Margery Michelmore, from Exeter, New Hampshire, who had graduated from Smith College in 1960, the same year Clark graduated from Ibadan, had written a postcard from Ibadan home to a friend in America describing what she called " the squalor and the absolutely primitive living conditions" in Ibadan. Somehow, Margery Michelmore's postcard fell on her way to the post office, and it was found by a student who soon made photocopies of it on campus.

It led to a riot in Ibadan and a press ruckus for which the young American Peace Corps volunteer was quickly smuggled out of Nigeria for her safety. Clark, who was in Ibadan in this very period, and close to the events, was clearly among the scandalised for what was felt to be an imperialist narrative. When he left Princeton, after his own one year of fellowship in the United States, America, Their America was his own way of writing back to America, and responding to Margery Michelmore's postcard description of Nigeria.

But it wasn't all so bad in America: he found time to reconnect with his old friends: Lawrence B. Ekpebu, who was pulling his weight at Harvard to which he returned for his doctorate after his Masters degree at Princeton where J,P. had come; and with his friend and Ibadan classmate, the poet and critic Michael J.C. Echeruo at Ithaca, New York, doing his doctoral work under the famed Romanticist, M.H. Abram, at Cornel. J.P. Clark's elder brother, B.A. Clark, was also then at the Nigerian Consulate in New York where he had just been posted as a Foreign Service officer. J.P. Clark had a roaring time at a personal level. But the dark view of America in his memoir was a political stance. In very significant ways, as a consequence, it also closed doors for Clark at the epicenter of America's literary market.

Mbari movement

Of the four canonical figures of the Mbari movement - including himself, Achebe, Okigbo and Soyinka, Clark was the most decidedly nationalist; his ideological investment in the Nigerian idea was the least ambiguous. Nothing makes this clearer in the tone and utterance of the two versions of the poem, "Abiku", published in the same issue of the Black Orpheus magazine edited by Ulli Beier; one by Clark and the other by Wole Soyinka in 1961.

The address of the Abiku, synecdochal of the new nation, Nigeria, registers each poet's attitude to the new nation: where Soyinka's "Abiku" is skeptical and desultory, Clark's "Abiku" is hopeful - even if it is feeble hope. Soyinka take's the stance of the churlish, slippery indeterminacy of the self-repeating child embracing its cyclical fragility and death as an inexorable or ordained condition, Clark's "Abiku" is a plea by an exhausted mother - that gaunt, suffering image of modern Africa - to the marked child, to "stay" and thrive. These differences also cast some insight into Clark's politics. He was not always given to open political assertions. He expressed his politics on stage and in his plays and poems.

This was especially so after he was burnt out by the active and intense political involvements of the 1960s in which he took critical parts. They were all very active political and cultural figures in the early postcolonial years of the 1960s. On his return from Princeton, Kenneth Dike appointed him as a Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies.

The Mbari artists and writers club had been formed in 1961, and Clark was a leading figure of the Mbari movement. His first poetry collection, Poems, had been published by the Mbari press. His tragic play Song of a Goat, had been performed to devastating effect and wide reception at the Mbari Courtyard theater in Ibadan, with Soyinka playing the lead role of Zifa.

His slaughtering of the scape goat on the stage had such an electric effect that it set the cultured tongues wagging for weeks among Ibadan's educated theater-going classes. It was shocking and Clark liked to shock. Ibadan - vast and languid over the seven rolling hill was a well-nit community; but it was also split between the old and the new; a fact captured powerfully in Clark's now famous epigrammatic poem, "Ibadan." Social life was intense. Clark's writing thrived.

Marriage to Ebun Odutola

He married Ebun Odutola, the daughter of one of Western Nigeria's moneyed men, and he lived in the cultured ambience of the university community, and the convivial circles of the Mbari writers and artists. Then in 1965, he and Wole Soyinka moved to the University of Lagos, to join the faculty of the new English department of the University. By this period the dark clouds had gathered over Nigeria's First Republic. Political conflict and disenchantment had risen to the fore particularly over disputes on the national census results, and the results of the Federal elections of December 1964.

The rigged regional elections in Western Nigeria in 1965 capped the upheaval. Dire auguries of conflict and disintegration rippled through the social fabric of the nation. Clark's play, The Raft, published in 1964, made a play of this, in much the same as Okigbo's "Lament of the Silent Sisters" written in the same period, with its powerful image of ship wrecks and drifting voices. In The Raft, Clark employs the same imagery of the turbulent sea. The Four lumbermen on the raft, signifying the four regions are adrift, drawn fatefully and almost irrevocably to the disintegration of the raft - that symbol of nation - mid sea. The Raft marks the acme of Clark's political theater. The Wives Revolt, written years later seem only like an appendage of that early political engagement. What is however clear is that J.P. Clark's work is set like the work of the other Ijaw poet, Gabriel Okara, on the backdrop of the Delta; a world he clearly loved, and whose pristine essence or intimacy provided him the mysteries; the unction; the imagery; the idiom, and the tapestry on which to weave his powerful works sometimes fed by nostalgia; whether it is in the grand epic, the Ozidi Saga of the Ijaw, or in the poems in A Reed in the Tide.

Tragedy and the isolation he felt with the deep losses of his friends, Christopher Okigbo and Emma Ifeajuna, leader of the January 1966 military coup, as well as the position he took in defence of the federal position in that conflict possibly forced J.P. Clark to a condition of detachment. It was not amused detachment. It was anguished detachment. He captured that tragedy in his collection of poem, first that epic of war and nation, Casualties, and later, in The State of the Union.

In his later works, Clark had lost his edge. It felt prolix and unconvincing. It was without doubt measured, and imposed upon, by the effluxion of time. After he left his position as Professor of English at the University of Benin in 1980, he tried to write full time, and produce his plays on his own terms. With his wife, Professor Ebun Clark, he started the PEC Repertory Theater in Onikan, Lagos. He got bored with it. Spent much of his time in equable dissipation at the Lagos Boat club. And retired into near-anonymity.

His last most engaged public action was when he, with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, in 1986, sought futilely to rescue Mamman Vatsa from the executioner's hand. They went pleading to the tyrant, General Ibrahim Babangida, who received them with bonhomie at Dodan Barracks, and assured them that Vatsa - a poet and a soldier - would not be killed. They left Dodan Barracks high-fiving. But by the time they sat down to dinner, it was announced on national radio that Vatsa had been executed. Perhaps these were the kinds of events in post-colonial Nigeria, that drove him to ponderous and anguished silence.

Indeed, today, just as he wrote in his poem, "Streamside Exchange": "tide and market come and go," and so has Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Poet, Playwright, journalist, Literary critic, and recipient of Nigeria's National Order of Merit. His death was announced on October 13, and he was buried on October 16 in a simple, quiet, private ceremony at his house, in his ancestral home, Kiagbodo. A true star indeed has departed.

Vanguard

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