By Dulue Mbachu and Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
He was better known by his initials JP. His full name was John Pepper Clarke-Bekederemo. One of the pioneers of modern Nigerian literature, who started out at the University College (later University of Ibadan) in the 1950s, with the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo. All were friends from way back then, that is, until the civil war struck.
But that will be running ahead of the story. Let’s start from the beginning.
John Pepper Clarke was born on 6 December 1933, in Kiagbodo, a community by a river among the Ijaw people of the Burutu district of the Niger River Delta. (Some previous accounts gave his birth date as 6 April 1935, which he subsequently corrected.) His father was a prominent trader, who revered British education and made sure all his children got the best that was available. Later, when JP initially dropped out of Ibadan after making some ‘stupid mistakes’ in his first paper of his final set of exams, his father travelled all the way to the newspaper house he had joined in Lagos and ‘sat in front of my editor and refused to leave until I was sacked and returned to school’.
At the university itself, he was active in student politics, in the process of which he once got hit over the head with a bottle by a female fellow student for objecting to a motion that the vice-presidency of the student union be reserved for a woman. He had to have stitches and for the rest of his life carried a scar over his left eye but by his own admission called himself ‘the awkward customer telling it like it was. He also became editor of The Horn, the hugely influential magazine which published all those who would later emerge into prominence.
In 1961, he was also one of the co-founders of the Mbari Club for Writers and Artists in Ibadan, whose aims were to be ‘a centre where people could come and watch an art exhibition, listen to music, see an open-air drama performance, and use an Africana reference library. In the eight year of its existence, it published JP’s own Song of a Goat, his first play, Three Plays by Soyinka and Okigbo’s Heavensgate and Limits, all of which are now collectors’ items.
The January 1966 coup was to be a turning point for all. One of the key actors, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, had been a contemporary in the university. And when the coup failed, Ifeajuna fled to Ghana. It was JP Clark and Christopher Okigbo who went to Accra and persuaded him to return.
But at the time, events were still unfolding. There was then the counter-coup and the events that followed, including the massive pogroms against southeasterners, leading up to the civil war in 1967. The violence tore the nation asunder and affected its leading writers in different ways.
Achebe, aggrieved by the horrendous slaughter of Igbos and other southeasterners in the months preceding the war, threw in his lot with the secessionist Biafra. Okigbo, also an Igbo, became a Biafran soldier and one of the early casualties of the war. Soyinka, feeling his humanity affronted by the bloody events, tried a middle path, including aiding a “Third Force” to neutralize the warring parties. He landed in jail for it.
JP took a different line: he sided with the Federal government. Of course, the discomfort and concern of the ethnic minorities of the oil-rich Delta about potentially losing out in an Igbo-dominated Biafra couldn’t be discounted. Besides, his two influential elder brothers (Edwin Clark, the politician, and Ambassador Akporode Clark, the diplomat) were already senior members of the Yakubu Gowon government that was prosecuting the war.
At the end of the war the war, three of the four key literary figures that came out of Ibadan in the 1950s survived. The poet Okigbo was gone. JP and Achebe, meanwhile, had almost come to blows when they met up in London at their publishers’ office during the war itself; according to one of those present: ‘Never in my life have I heard people say such terrible things… so terrible. So terrible’. Achebe also removed Clark’s name from the dedication page to A Man of the People.
Soyinka on his part alleged in his prison memoirs that JP, as an agent of the government, was traveling around the world justifying his (Soyinka’s) imprisonment. Even to the extent of reporting JP as telling people that Soyinka was suffering from “chronic syphilis”, a ‘clever’ ailment to choose, according to Soyinka’s doctor, since ‘it would be natural for [him] to disintegrate suddenly both mentally and physically’ should they have wanted to kill him.
JP vehemently denied the allegations and actually instituted a libel suit against Soyinka and his publisher before later relenting. Perhaps, his best answers were in his first post-war poetry collection titled: The Casualties, where he declared, among other things, that “The casualties are not only those who are dead. The may be well out of it.” In another poem he said he could look the sun in the face but couldn’t do the same anymore to friends with whom he once shared wine and women.
Well, the verdict of many connoisseurs is that JP’s poetry lost its élan, its magic, the vibrant potency of his early years, from then onwards. This very idea features in the unauthorized biography of JP by the Nigerian writer Adewale Maja-Pearce.
Titled A Peculiar Tragedy and published in 2011, JP disputed some information included in the book and sued the author for libel. The case dragged through the courts for years until JP’s death in 2020. Backing JP in his war against Maja-Pearce was the Nobel Laureate Soyinka, who had taken umbrage at an unfavourable review of his book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, that Maja-Pearce wrote in the London Review of Books.
The single source of dispute between JP and Maja-Pearce was whether information in one of his private letters should be cited. JP had made his private papers available to the biographer, asking that he should see and approve any documents the writer wanted to cite. Maja-Pearce had included a letter JP had written to his lawyer to request that he discontinue the case against Soyinka, saying that some things were better left for time to take care of them. In the same letter, he offers the British lawyer an opportunity to make money by lifting crude oil or making some sugar shipments.
Maja-Pearce concluded in his book that JP’s civil war support for the federal government had yielded him political connections and enrichment opportunities, which he took advantage of. Having compromised politically with the authorities and benefitted from that, JP was too morally weakened to energize his works as in his early days, according to Maja-Pearce.
It remains a subject of speculation though, because, even Achebe, after Girls at War, didn’t produce any other work comparable in quality to his prewar novels. Soyinka himself has relied more on his memoirs to boost his literary standing than on his poems, plays or novels.
Nevertheless, JP took offense at the biographer’s interpretation and started a legal dispute. Meanwhile, at every opportunity, Soyinka poured invective on Maja-Pearce on behalf of JP, sounding quite louder than the aggrieved man. For some people it called to mind what Soyinka wrote in The Man Died that JP said about him. That he, Soyinka, is a perpetual dramatist who insists on playing the starring role in every drama of his own manufacture!
Maja-Pearce thinks they belong to an entitled generation. Among the first set of Nigerians to attend modern-style universities, they were a pampered lot whether in academics, the army or the civil service. Such treatment only helped to reinforce that sense of importance to feel oneself as beyond reproach.
Many see JP as a talent that never fully realized the promise of his early days. Yet he leaves a big literary legacy. For many he was Nigeria’s unofficial poet laureate, defined as he was by his lyrical depth.
Clark’s first collection of poems entitled Poems was published by Mbari in 1961. His next collection of poems, A Reed in the Tide, was published by Longmans in 1965. He published The Casualties after the war, in 1970. His other collection of poetry are: A Decade of Tongues (1981), State of the Union (1981), Mandela and Other Poems (1988), A Lot from Paradise (1999), Of Sleep and Old Age (2003) and Once Again A Child (2004).
His first play, Song of a Goat, was premiered at Mbari Club in 1961. Clark’s Three Plays (Song of a Goat, The Masquerade and The Raft) was published in 1964. His next play, Ozidi, was published in 1966. His other plays are The Bikoroa Plays (The Boat, The Return Home, Full Circle (1985), The Wives’ Revolt (1991), All For Oil (2000).
Remarkably, a Parvin Fellowship to Princeton in the United States offered Clark the afflatus to publish America, Their America, an unflattering treatise on the country’s contradictions. His collection of essays, The Example of Shakespeare, was published in 1970.
Sometimes overlooked were his activities in the theatre after he took early retirement as Professor of English at the University of Lagos. PEC Repertory Theatre, which he founded with his wife, Ebun, and ran from 1982 to 1990, was the only one of its kind in the country. It averaged between five and nine plays annually and staged plays from all over the world.
Then there was that grand reunion in 1986, though in morbid circumstances, when Clark rallied Soyinka and Achebe together for the trio to make an urgent visit to the then military ruler Ibrahim Babangida to plead for the life of soldier-poet Mamman Vatsa, who was about to face the firing squad for allegedly plotting to overthrow of his regime. Babangida, reportedly, welcomed the three writers warmly and assured them he would look into their demands. After they left the seat of power they heard that Vatsa and his fellow unfortunates were executed a while ago.
Clark died on October 13, 2020, throwing to the fore his poem (and will, sort of) entitled “My Last Testament” from his collection Full Tide:
This to my family
Do not take me to a mortuary,
Do not take me to a church,
Whether I die in or out of town,
But take me to my own, and
To lines and tunes, tasted on the waves
Of time, let me lie in my place
On the Kiagbodo River.
If Moslems do it in a day,
You certainly can do it in three,
Avoiding blood and waste,
And whatever you do after,
My three daughters and my son
By the only wife I have,
Do not fight over anything
I may be pleased to leave behind.