B. Willy turns 70

Prof. Adebayo Williams: hits 70

By Sam Omatseye

Soyinka was the subject, the lecturer was also the subject. The work of art was teaching a work of art. At play was a play titled: Mad Men and Specialists.

After it was taught in the main class, we the students had to bivouac into cells or what was known as tutorials. In every session, lecturers and students turned over the top soil of the text. The work was confronting orthodoxy and political straitjacket in an age of flux. So, Adebayo Williams asked, “What if As is.”

It was a conundrum. AS was like a cant, sometimes a populist rant but certainly a chant of the despot, a rallying cry of the totalitarian. Soyinka, in his inventive brio, had coined it. Even in the play, it was cryptic. Adebayo Williams broke it down, though, and we understood the play in the context of Marx, Stalin, socialism, and all forms of ideas that made humans servile to the impunity of systems.

But what I remember most about that class was another phrasing in the form of an assignment. “The triumph of Mad Men and Specialists,” he wrote, “is the triumph of art over the chaos and malady of human existence. It is, therefore, a hollow triumph.”

Fast forward to my sojourn in the United States. I was with some American friends of mine, some journalists and others in academia, and I recited the assignment. They asked me to say it again. They loved the poetry of it. But months later I saw one of them, and he asked me to recite it and he could not live it down since I first sang it. I entertained him.

“Please, could you write it on a piece of paper?” he begged.

I couldn’t find one. We were in a party. He scrambled about and he conjured one. I wrote it down, partly suspecting he was condescending.

He hosted us close to Christmas, and it was months after the scribbling, and he asked me to come to his kitchen. I thought he wanted me to see his delicacy. But the vision on the wall was my imperfect hand writing with the assignment that now Professor Williams wrote in his thirties.

Professor Williams, who we students called B Willy, just turned 70, and I say congratulations as I look back at these decades in which with both chalk and pen he had impacted a generation.

Not many understood the assignment. Like the play, it was a work of art. I tried my hands at the essay and I had a choice to pick simpler alternatives. He handed us four questions, and this was the most challenging. After giving me a high score, he wrote: “A well-written piece devoid of the inanity of the artist as the Mr. Fix-it of man’s deformed psyche. Nevertheless, the debate over role of the writer in society certainly continues.”

But Williams had the misfortune of having his tutorials filled above capacity. He was a sort of rock-star lecturer in the department. Yet when he walked into the class, you saw a shy, often retired demeanour. But beneath it was a storm of ideas and a gritty, subversive defiance.

He prepared for his classes with rigour and delivered them like a crooner, sometimes like a coroner of texts and orthodoxies. When you took down notes you wanted the ideas as well as the phrasing. He loved paradox, metaphors in his delivery. He acted as though he was not aware of the effect of his words. Take this about the novel, The Old Man and the Medal, a work of burlesque fury. He wrote of a character, “He is, at once, a radical conservative and conservative radical.” Chew it.

When he was to engage Nigeria’s most popular novel, he wrote on the blackboard: “The archaeology of madness in Things Fall Apart.” We forced ourselves to believe at times as students that we were actually being taught, and not being intoxicated.

At one time, the Literature In English department introduced a weekly seminar, and he only attended once. He did not again because of his subversive incandescence. The presenter was a Marxist, and glowing in his magisterial power. Williams, in his shy but insistent way, pointed out what seemed a contradiction. Marxism was placing Marxism on its head. Kaboom! Heresy. What became heresy was as much about what he said as that he said it. It was an audacity of an ideological coup.

He had earlier in a class taken a swipe at Ngugi’s big novel, Petals of Blood, which he described as wooden and a bully, and it turned some of our fellow students raising their hands in fits of rebellion. But Tive Denedo, Babafemi Ojudu (now senator) and yours truly hailed him on. Ngugi, he posited, turned the novel into an ideological fisticuff rather than a work of art. On Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright was guilty of “fictionalised rhetoric.”

Another quality was his open arms to contention from students who made a mecca of his office. He embraced it. He loved to exchange ideas. I recall Femi Macaulay, a classmate and member of editorial board and columnist, had told me when the idea of art for art’s sake was being discussed in the department. Macaulay said he asked Williams about it, and the teacher wondered like a playful cynic, “You mean the demonology of language?”

Just as his irreverence sparked in the department seminar, he brought that virtue to the national stage. The Guardian newspaper was the intellectual war house of the early 1980’s, and everyone praised it as the liberal paper of the age. Then Williams wrote a piece, “The Guardian and the State of the Nation.” Hell hugged ideas. He ripped apart the pharisaic snarl of the paper and its self-important writers. It was deluding itself as a liberal paper in a military era while appropriating the glories of the open society. He had placed his fingers on the tiger’s ears. Tomes of responses and apoplexy from around the academia and columnists stormed the Op-ed pages of the newspaper. Those famished for debate fed on the ferment of the hour.

The great Stanley Macebuh stood out in the crowd of responders. Always cerebral and hardly miffed, you could see through the ruffled pundit in his counterstrike titled: “The Open Society and its Enemies.” It was an evocation of Karl Popper. Williams who had acted as though unaware, like a tiger in repose, of the rumpus he wrought, could not avoid Macebuh. He put paid to all controversy with another cheeky output. He growled with a piece that evoked another giant of liberal ideas who had just died. He titled it: “Raymond Aron: 1905-1983.”

The great Dele Giwa snatched him as a columnist, where he thundered every other week. During the June 12 imbroglio, he was at the barricades in Tempo magazine while the streets burned.

He has kept firing since, and he does that in this paper to applause. When he sits at our editorial board, we still see his sparks of rigour, art and humour. As a young septuagenarian, he will do well to occasionally go to the classroom, and wake up the lethargic generation of today. I wish him a great 70th.

*Sam Omatseye, journalist and public affairs analyst, wrote this originally for The Nation