The lagoon flowed listlessly, below the azure sky. The harbour was febrile. Tears mixed with eulogies, midweek, as old boys of Government College, Ugheli, Delta State, converged on Harbour Point Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, for an evening of tributes. Reliving good times shared with him was too much to bear for his children, Elaye and Emma, that unbidden tears came to their eyes like a thief in the night.
An iconic writer and literary scholar, who was born on December 6, 1933, Clark passed away on October 13, 2020, and was laid to rest three days later in his hometown, in keeping with his instructions. At Harbour Point Hotel, his wife, Professor Ebun Clark, looked on with nostalgia as speaker after speaker took to the podium to eulogise the deceased scribbler and what he stood for Nigerian letters and morality.
The President of Government College, Ugheli, Old Boys Association, Lagos, Sam Omatseye, in his tribute, admitted that he would remain pained for not writing a review of Clark’s long awaited new collection, More Remains, which only arrived shortly days before he died.
“Not writing the review for him will be an eternal ache, the sort that will visit me each time I remember his voice. Each time his poems are recited, poetry levitated, when night rains and I touch Ibadan, have dialogues with people with the philosophical excitement of a streamside exchange, I will meet Clark. It is a non-corporeal engagement, a guarantee without flesh and blood,” said the frontline journalist.
Omatseye was also heartbroken that Clark didn’t have the time to read his ongoing poetry project on Leah Shaibu — “short beauties about a girl in captivity as mirror of a nation in the dark glow of self-immolation” — having expressed his interest to go through it earlier, due to health challenges and other commitments. He was also disappointed he couldn’t pull through his interview proposal on The Raft, one of his classic plays.
The Editorial Chairman of The Nation also wondered why the preeminent poet and playwright didn’t get the recognition he deserved while alive. “Maybe he was just not lucky. He was never marketed well outside, like Soyinka and Achebe, or Chimamanda today. He probably never needed it. He was such a contented man. He once told me poems are not popular but poets have small but spectacular audiences,” he noted.
Professor Wole Soyinka, Clark’s contemporary, wasn’t present, but his voice echoed through the hall, as his tribute, “Song of a Goat Pepper-Soup —For J. P. “, was presented by Charles Uwensuyi-Edosomwan (SAN), former Edo State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice. Soyinka relived the good old days with Clark, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, at the Lagos Boat Club, where “lulled by the emptiness of that sedate, yet bustling space, we consumed our grilled fish and calamari, fried yam with tepid pepper sauce, in utter tranquility, quaffed our beer and wine, caressed by silence and the generous lagoon breeze, unpolluted by petrol fumes, while we debated and solved all the problems of the world.”
Soyinka admitted that JP Clark’s fascination with theatre led him to found PEC Repertory Theatre at Onikan, “with a hands-on involvement with management and creative production — on a sustainable level that I did not achieve with my own 1960 Masks or Orisun Theatre.”
A colleague of Clark at Government College, Ughelli, Mr Frank Longe, tripped memory lane to recall pleasant memories: “The JP Clark I knew was a very simple and forthright person who was also very personal… It seems to me that JP and I were born at Government College, Ughelli, where we bonded together like brothers. Our social discourse was almost always about our life in Ughelli and in particular our set of students who were the first to be threatened with rustication for poor behaviour. Somehow we got out of Ughelli as some of the best behaved students after all….
“Did you know that JP was a lover of flowers? One of his last passions was to set up a garden in Kiagbodo after he saw a little home garden in Abraka. Alas, JP, you only started building your garden as the first rose bush laid out of it. I hope Ebun and the children will surround your resting place with flowers you dreamt of.
Clark’s daughter, Emma, recalled her father’s loving nature, amid tears: “He was a very loving person, very sensitive. That sensitivity lasted till he died,” adding that, even in the throes of death, he was strong, and encouraged her to be strong, too.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t want to see your weakness. I want to see your strength,” she recalled, while thanking God “for using him to make us all strong.”
Elaye, Clark’s son and eldest child, recalled, with nostalgia and tears, his visit to Nigeria: “Around 2008, when I visited my father in our hometown, he took me to his school. He showed me around. We walked for about an hour. That was when I found out my dad loved cricket. He said he played cricket when he was younger. He was extremely proud of his school.”
He thanked all present for honouring his father, whom the family never expected to bury this year.
He restated that Clark wasn’t a difficult man as being held but highly principled: “My father cared so much for people…he didn’t pretend that he knew it all, but, whatever he felt was right, he defended it. “
That principled lifestyle was echoed by Lady Maiden Alex-Ibru, the Chairman and CEO of The Guardian Newspapers, who said: “He would always speak the truth”. In the same, Princess Juliana Edewor lionised the iconic writer as a caring, father figure, who “stood as my father when I got married again after the death of my husband.”
A little later, before nightfall, all the tributes rose like flakes across the harbour to Kiagbodo to meet the nestling Clark. Perhaps there was no reed in the tide at the silent streamside exchange. For sure, the river bird’s songs will live on.
Former Delta State Governor, James Ibori, and former PDP governorship aspirant in Lagos, Jimi Agbaje, were among dignitaries at the event. The evening of tributes was also attended by Professor Hope Eghagha of the Department of English, University of Lagos.
The publisher of Vanguard, Sam Amuka-Pemu; legendary haematologist and clinical geneticist, Prof Olu Akinyanju (both from the GCUOBA 1949 set), were among the ancient mariners present at the event.