Interview: Ben Okri's green-apple, left-handed sort of day: A writer's magic journey from living rough to Trinity, Cambridge

Hunter Davies
Tuesday 23 March 1993 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


TEN YEARS ago Ben Okri was down and out, over and done with, sleeping in the Tube, sleeping in the street, being beaten up, being beaten down, hovering on the edge of darkness. Now look at him, the very model of a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, strolling through the quad, strolling in the sun, beaming his blessings on the world around him.

He left school in Nigeria at 14, yet here he is, 34 last week, being treated as a guru by our supposedly brightest and best. They queue to hear him lecture. They knock on his study door, hoping for help with their lives. They have bought 200,000 copies of the paperback of his Booker-winning book, The Famished Road. Not an easy read.

When he won the Booker, in 1991, and sat for a good minute, as in a trance, before reading out one of his poems, I thought, who is this? Pretentious or what?

'Take very great care,' he said to one of the porters, as he led the way across the quad towards lunch.

'I feel very left-handed today,' he said, as we sat at High Table. Excellent oxtail, by the way, and great rhubarb crumble; they know how to treat the tums at Trinity. Naturally, no don picked Ben up on his strange remark. They have enough to think about, living in their own weird worlds.

How do you mean, Ben, left- handed? You mean out of things, out of sync, out of place here?

'I mean what I say,' he said, moving his fork to his other hand. 'I was born left-handed, but I was made to use my other hand. When I was writing Famished Road, which was very long, I got repetitive stress syndrome. My right wrist collapsed, so I started using my left hand. The prose I wrote with my left hand came out denser, so later on I had to change it. I believe in leavening. You can't have words sticking out too much, like promontories. They disturb the density. You have to flatten them, or raise the surrounding terrain.'

After lunch we walked to his college room, popping in to see the senior tutor's clerk. 'A green-apple day to you,' he said to the clerk. He was indeed holding a green apple, taken from lunch. And it was a lovely spring-like day. And, of course, Newton was at Trinity. See, if you take it slowly, there's a lot of sense in what he says. And fun.

In his room, he picked up a book he'd been reading, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance philosopher, and asked if I'd read them. Must have missed them, I said. 'Oh, they're marvellous. Let me read some . . .'

Er, not now, Ben. Just sit down. Answer a few straight questions, if you don't mind.

He was born in Minna in the wilds of Nigeria in 1959, where his father worked for the railway. At one-and-a- half he came to London, his father having won a scholarship to study law. 'I went to primary school in Peckham and fell in love with Greek mythology and Shakespeare . . .'

Hold on. A Peckham primary teaching Greek and Shakespeare? 'Shortened forms. I also fell in love with the Dandy and the Beano.

'When I was seven my father qualified as a barrister, so my mother said we were going back to Nigeria. I told my friends at school, my mates in my gang - yes, I had a gang, we used to terrify people, letting down car tyres. Today we'd probably be young rap kids. My friends said: 'You can't go to Africa. There's lions there and people live in trees.'

'So I told my mother I wasn't going. She said, 'It's not true. People don't live in trees.'

'But I didn't believe her. I believed my friends. 'I'm not going,' I said. 'I'll stay here with my friends, I'll be OK.'

'The day came and she said: 'At least you'll come and see me off.'

'So I went with her. 'At least you'll come on board and give me a kiss,' she said.

'So I did, and the ship went off. All my comics were left behind, because I thought I wasn't going.

'I said goodbye to my childhood and was disconsolate for many years. One does not recover from disconsolation. Other things happen. I had three weeks at sea. Three weeks of horizonless days in which I meditated. Then there was the arrival. My perception had become reality because I saw people in trees - before I saw people, or trees. What is reality? Is what people tell you more real than what you see? Eventually, I saw reality - cars and streets and ships. No lions, but one day I did see a palm wine tapper, up a tree.'

Civil war broke out not long after they returned. In describing what happened, Ben walked round his room, reliving the horrors. 'It will always be in me. I know that human beings are capable of anything. Imagine London declaring war on Wales, or Cambridge against Oxford. You say it can't happen, but when it does you accept it. People would go around looking for Welsh shopkeepers, or friends of Welsh shopkeepers, to kill.

'My mother has Ibo blood in her, though she spoke my father's language. She was in danger. She had to hide.'

Ben finished school at 14 and stayed at home, reading Chinese and Greek philosophy, Dickens, Thackeray, Turgenev, and arguing with his father. 'In the evening, he would come home, put a bottle of whisky on the table, then we'd sit all night, discussing Plato, arguing about good and evil.

'He took me seriously, gave me the confidence to express my thoughts. He wanted me to be able to defend any point of view - with clarity. He told me that whatever dreadful things might happen to a country, be it war or fire or famine, there is one profession that is always wanted. And

the law is that profession. He was wrong. There is another profession. Writing.'

At 17, Ben finished his first novel. He sent it off to 10 African publishing houses, each of which said no thanks. One said he should try to write more like Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel laureate. He got a job as a clerk for ICI, in order to buy a typewriter and type out his manuscripts properly. When he'd done that, he set off for London.

'Six British publishers said no, then one day in 1978, when I was staying with an uncle in New Cross, the letter came from Longman saying yes. I ran through my uncle's house in a state of elation. An unforgettable day, which sustained me for many months afterwards. Which was just as well. Longman paid me only pounds 300 and they delayed publication for two years.'

Meanwhile, Ben's uncle's house was knocked down and he was made homeless. This was when he lived in the Tube. 'Charing Cross was my favourite, as it was so warm. The police do come at night and chuck out all the homeless, but when they see a young black man sitting reading Ulysses or Crime and Punishment, who gets up and walks away when told to, they don't think you're homeless. I knew ways of getting back in. I had a friend and together we lived a dream, a literary dream, we were romantic, Baudelairean and very foolish. I was ill and undernourished and my body was forever in a fever, but my head was full of Ezra Pound. Books blotted out the unpleasant. Books were my warm chamber. But I don't advise it. To anyone who is homeless, I say, find a home.'

Which he did, through friends, and through a grant from the Nigerian government. He went to Essex University to read comparative literature. 'After a year, the grant stopped. I lasted another year, by which time I was pounds 3,655 in debt to the university and I had to leave. I was back on the streets.

'The worst time was 1983. Love and life and everything went wrong. I reached absolute rock bottom. I saw the Minotaur at the bottom of the abyss. I learnt of the harshness of the world and its impartiality to human failure.

'Then I was set upon in the street. I'm not saying it was racial, but there was blood on my typewriter. I asked for help, but no one would stop. I can either die the romantic death - and death does seem beautiful when you are on the edge - or I can use the

energy in my rage, burn it another way, take the chaos out of my soul. I had a choice, and I chose to rebuild myself.'

He started writing some short stories, Incidents at the Shrine, in a new voice, a new style. They were accepted, making very little money, but this time there was some critical praise, which led to some reviewing work. Then came another book of short stories. 'I was still living hand to mouth, but I felt I'd joined the dancing. I hadn't actually been invited to the ball, but I could hear the music in the distance. Then came The Famished Road. Until the Booker, it had sold only 2,000 copies.

'At the banquet, I sat for a long time because I had drifted into unreality. When my name was announced, it was like being involved in an accident. I thought of Nigeria, the war, the streets. You are only 32, are you ready for this, will it confuse you, spoil you, derail you, change your dreams? Then I thought, hell no, I'll carry on as before.

'Pre-Booker, my story was better, with more purity. Now there are so many expectations. I have more nightmares. Of course I am grateful it happened, but demons feed on success, it sure does bloat them. I thought I might get cocky and arrogant, but I am surprised by my own vulnerability.'

He is, of course, thinking of his new novel, just out: Songs of Enchantment. It has the same boy hero, Azaro, the spirit child, this time against the background of an African civil war. 'I am not fighting for success, just to get more beauty out of myself and share it with more people.'

With his pounds 20,000 Booker money, he paid his debts, bought 10 black notebooks in which he does his writing, and gave some to charity. His Cambridge appointment, as a Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts, came about before the Booker, clever old Trinity.

'I was contacted by an intermediary. I think about eight were approached - poets, painters, sculptors, composers. It worried me. I believe writers should struggle, suffer, live and love and laugh, be in the streets, the pubs, never losing touch with the quick of life.

'Then there was Cambridge's daunting reputation - until I thought, no, nothing can daunt me; I can take high or low, be in gregarity or seclusion, live in silence where spiders forge their webs. All experiences are valuable, and all are the same. Once you get into an 'experience', you are in it like any other.

'The interview was in Trinity's Combination Room, huge, dark, with portraits everywhere. Then I realised there were people out there in the mist, watching me like the portraits themselves. One of the shadow faces asked why I liked the music of Pergolesi. I said it reminded me of my childhood. Another asked why I liked Handel. I said it gave me a feeling of Lagos. Another face asked if getting the fellowship would conflict with my London interests. I felt this was an invitation to pomposity, so I said there would be no conflict.

'Then one face asked me what was the most interesting comment any critic had ever made about my writing - I told him about a very close friend to whom I'd shown one of my poems. He said there was something missing between two particular words. I said the line was complete, there was nothing missing. He said no, there should be something else there. So I took apart the poem, then put it back together, very slowly, and showed it to my friend. 'Oh dear,' he said, 'I liked it better the way it was.'

' 'Well, I like it better now,' I said.

'The face in the mist said: 'Who needs friends like that?' And the interview was over. It seemed to last five hours, but was probably 30 minutes.

'They hadn't actually understood my story, those dons in the Combination Room. What my friend was saying to me was that I could go deeper. If he'd said to me it's not deep enough, I would have said go jump in a lake full of chicken piss. By picking on just two words, he was saying

to me look again at the whole poem, try harder, go deeper. That was his point.'

The fellowship lasts two years and gives a salary of pounds 12,000 a year, plus a room in college and a flat. In return, Ben has so far written and delivered a poem on Newton, addressed the union, given a lecture on creativity, and next term he's delivering a sermon entitled 'Is there Anything Beyond?' He's also finished his new novel, plus some essays.

Sounds a bit of a soft option, Ben. 'I think the college did think I might hold some creative writing classes, but I don't believe in them. You can't take someone's text and teach them how to write. You have to take their perceptions, their world view, waken their sensibilities. A simple suggestion might take nine years before that particular wax in our ears lets it into our brains.'

'So being here is enough?'

'I might be wrong, but I believe that something going in from an unusual angle is better than the direct approach. I once walked 100 miles to Lagos to learn something. Those who want a word with me are coming forward. Presence is more important than talking.'

(Photograph omitted)

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