I’m This column was five years old last week, but you could never have guessed it.
Not the vaguest hint of the event was to be found anywhere. There were no newspaper supplements, not advertised, or for that matter unadvertised – congratulatory messages by committees of friends and former schoolmates, no goodwill messages, no solidarity rallies, no special ecumenical service and no Merit Award.
Even at Rutam House, it was business as usual.
A friend to whom I complained was not in the least impressed. “What makes you think that you are such a hot shot?” he queried. “After all, as far as I know, you have never been arrested, given the Television Treatment (like Tai Solarin) or letter-bombed (like Dele Giwa). And if you were to be dismissed, retired or disengaged today, I am sure that you will never (like Admiral Augustus Aikhomu) earn a promotion thereafter.”
He is right, of course. And he could have added that no policy or programme has been started, modified or terminated on account of anything that has appeared in this column since its debut on October 6. 1985. Nor has any public officer been removed, rebuked or otherwise disciplined for any act or utterance that has earned the censure of the column, however indecorous the act.
Still, if my mail and my usually unreliable sources are any indication, the column is read and even preserved not only by those who treasure the newspaper as a marketplace of ideas and as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism, but also by the agents of law and order and national security.
My social interactions point in that direction, too. From time to time, I meet people who tell me how much the column has meant to them. At a reception outside Lagos the other day, a gentleman I was meeting for the first time seized my hand and said that I must meet his wife, an adoring fan.
She was adoring indeed. She fussed over me so much that if her husband had not been secure in his affection, he would have seized her by her necklace and dragged her out of the room under a torrent of foul abuse.
I have no illusion that I will always be received in the manner the woman received me. Thus whenever someone accosts me and says, “So you are the Olatunji Dare?” I measure the distance between us and watch his arms and his legs and quickly figure out how I would block, deflect or sidestep a punch to the nose or a kick to the groin.
So far, no such attack has occurred. I do not even think such a thing is warranted. But you never can tell.
Of course, in a situation of clear and present danger, I can always take a cue from Paul the Apostle and stoutly deny my identity. That should be quite easy, since The Guardian does not publish pictures of its contributors. The African Guardian for which I do an occasional column does publish my picture, but it is a poor guide, having been taken well before large grey patches appeared on my head and my hairline commenced a furious retreat
I seize every opportunity to declare that I am only a commentator, not a critic. Just being a journalist is dangerous enough.
On the intellectual front, the column has, to my greatest astonishment, attracted some scholarly attention and even critical acclaim. I do it primarily to earn a living, but some discerning minds have invested it with fine attributes that I never thought I possessed.
A young woman at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, is completing a Master’s thesis on the column. English majors at the University of Ilorin have written term papers on it for a class taught by Dr Olu Obafemi. It was the subject of a learned essay by Dr Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju of the same university for The Guardian Literary Series.
At the University of Ibadan, I gather that the column has figured in a course on something called Stylistics. A publisher has even urged me to put together some of the better installments for a book. I told him I was not sure of its success, but he said I should leave him to do he worrying.
It is all very flattering, indeed. I do the column, I insist, primarily to earn a living. Under my terms of employment. I am required to produce 1,000 words every Tuesday, all things being equal, to fill a space reserved for that purpose on his page. The whole thing is journalism pure and simple. To regard it as art or literature is to engage in unnecessary dignification.
Once in a while, however, the attention does get into one’s head. But not for long. Every other day or so, my SAP relief snack of epa and guguru or boli comes wrapped in a recent installment of the column. I think of all the effort that went into composing it, shake my head and sigh. Surely, this cannot be art or literature?
And every other week or so, I am humbled when I find chunks of the column in Sunday Concord as excellent examples of errors in English usage, courtesy of the estimable Bayo Oguntuase.
In the five years that it has been a staple of this page on Tuesdays, the column has been concerned with everything under the sun and even beyond, Politics, economics, religion, education, sport, language, sex, justice the men and women and institutions in the news – the entire spectrum of human activity has been its purview.
Its mood has swayed between the serious and the satirical, and its tone has ranged from the caustic to the compassionate, from the combative to the conciliatory, and from incandescent rage to clinical detachment. Its judgments have sometimes proved hasty or even mistaken, and it has been known to contain an occasional error of fact.
If it is one day counted among the many voices that helped shape the standards of sense and sensibility in a turbulent era, I would of course be flattered. But I would contend that it achieved the distinction more by default than by design.
First published in “The Guardian” on August 13, 1992, and subsequently in 1993 collection, Matters Arising.
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