A LONG WAY FROM WIND STREET

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The Independent Culture
Swansea, the epicentre of of the UK Year of Literature and Writing 1995, has finally wound down its activities. "We'll still be doing the odd event, but nothing like the same scale," says a relieved official. So we'll hear no more from the Taliesin Arts Centre, or from Ty Llen; it's farewell to Salubrious Passage and to No-Sign Inn in Wind Street. But apart from having the most enticing place-names, Swansea has had the terrible distinction of having one of its patrons judicially murdered during the year. The final events were dedicated to Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigerian author and activist. Plans are afoot to declare Swansea a City of Refuge for persecuted writers, whose numbers show no sign of diminishing: Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen were fellow festival patrons.

Penguin has brought out Saro-Wiwa's A Month and A Day: A Detention Diary (pounds 6.99), the record of the environmental activist's 1993 spell in prison. William Boyd provides a scathing introduction, both loving memorial to a friend and bitter attack on his tormentors. Saro-Wiwa, he relates, was a Renaissance man: political journalist, novelist, poet, and creator of Nigeria's most popular soap, Basi &Co, about a gang of Lagos wideboys and their get-rich schemes. Even this last was a way of needling his fellow- countrymen. "What was wrong with Basi and his chums was wrong with Nigeria: none of them wanted to work and they all acted as though the world owed them a living ... This was soap opera as a form of civic education," notes Boyd.

Saro-Wiwa's resistance could take unusual forms, as his diary makes clear.

At the beginning of his ordeal he is detained all day without food. When his activist brother Owens turns up with some "snacks", fastidious Ken turns his nose up at the offering: "It was inedible ... I am a fanatic for home-cooked food." He is driven along a bandit-haunted, pot-holed road to Lagos, clutching his money, wondering if he's in more danger from the police guard than from highwaymen. For breakfast, he is brought corn and coconut from a roadside stall: "Ordinarily I would not have touched it for reasons of hygiene, but my standards were now being lowered and I even found it tasty."

To Saro-Wiwa this patrician loftiness - along with his trademark pipe- sucking imperturbability - was an essential constituent of his self-respect and unshakable conviction: "When you are on your way to becoming a beast, courtesy of the Nigerian security system, a wretched meal becomes a feast. It is part of the dehumanisation process." Disdain and humour mingle with an unquenchable curiosity and immense courage in this harrowing record.

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