In the beginning was Remi. I was the fifth of five, then Remi the sixth of six. A younger brother for me, finally.
I adored him. Pure, like few since. We seemed especially related. Both August, both Caesarean births and very similar-looking at that age. I was billed a precocious one, with a brain, says Big Auntie, like a computer, but everything I had done Remi was doing earlier. Quicker to crawl, quicker to arrange the letters rightly and this facility for solving elementary maths problems, little sums, even at eighteen months, that Yinka, our eldest brother and so first tutor, in particular recalls.
He was, Yinka maintains, closest to him and would clamber into his bed, of a night, of a day, in the backroom at Vale Terrace, just as I sandwiched between our parents in their bedroom alongside.
Well, we all had our special relationship. Crawling, chasing, was our thing. Between the back of the sofa and the wall in the squarish sitting-room was a little space, just big enough for a baby on all fours to tunnel through. It formed pretty much a right angled-triangle, with the sofa playing the hypoteneuse as it sloped away, top to bottom, from the wall, and this gave it a semi- enclosed feel if you sat there in the middle - the only entrances the ends of the sofa that seemed far away to a toddler. I do like to feel hemmed in. I’m someone who prefers the tightness of blankets and sheets rather than the loose, feet-sticking out- the-bottom of our modern duvet days, so I guess even then that was in me. It was my private piece of the world and when Remi came I brought him to it. The white of his padded little bottom, the gurgles of fearful delight as he looked back at his pursuer, the someway uncoordinated accelerations, his determination to reach the big light of the exit, these I see, I hear clearly....
The morning of it, Remi was out of sorts. Stubborn. He wouldn’t eat his food, he wouldn’t leave Yinka’s room for the childminder - this one who was always ready for whatever was next. He began crying, strangely, but nothing so strange, and eventually our mother, now late, persuaded and dropped him at the ‘aunty’s’ as she hurried to her bus and her work at Victoria.
I would have spent the day at the local nursery, my older brothers at their schools and after we were all sitting watching the Birmingham-set TV soap ‘Crossroads’ with its periodic exotic accents. 5 -5:30pm but dark outside so winter when, above the accents, the truly curdling wails and screams of a woman on the road, gathering. ‘Til now the most terrible human sounds I’ve heard. We went to the window, and others too, on the other side of our narrow cul de sac - so near you felt you could almost leap across - were doing the same, opening their windows and peering out. Everybody likes madness.
It took a little while to realise, for she was still some distance up the main, Green Lanes, that it was our mother. There must have been Yoruba – her native and usual language at times of heightened emotion. But I remember the English as she approached. Something like, ‘My baby. They will not give me/ let me take my baby...’
For many years I thought it was pneumonia. But one brother maintains that he choked over an apple peel, an apple that had been given to him by my mother that morning. Another that, despite Remi’s relatively advanced age, it was a kind of cot death. He was put to sleep, at some point, in a cot, and just did not wake up again. Not at the minder’s, not at Doctor Porter’s surgery where she took him and not when my mother arrived after he called her. Still, we are all agreed in our swift understanding that our mother was the one who was perceived as having been at fault.
Our uncle, my father’s junior brother, was summoned from Herne Hill, south London.The first thing that needed doing was contacting my father, who was away studying in Aberystwyth, but, for some speculated-on reason, the elders could not locate him. They kept on trying as Yinka ran out of the house and around the block and disappeared for a while.
They eventually sent him a telegram. Can you imagine, the writing of that? Enough to bring him back but not to say exactly. And the next day, at the expected time of arrival, we all had to stand in a line on the pavement in age order - my mother and then, left to right, Yinka, Dotun, Folarin, Tayo and myself. I remember him looking across us and his eye lingering, almost puzzled, half-way down on Fola for Fola, the one with sickle-cell anaemia - recently diagnosed following his arrival here - was the one to be afraid for. And then, a moment later, him realising who wasn’t there.
We were not a family big on photos, a non-habit I have kept even unto this smart phone age. But a decade ago, when I was unpacking after moving home, from my previous to current, I came across this picture of him. A yellowing Oxford Street studio capture: on all fours, face familiarly bright towards the camera, the familar padded white, bare baby legs and shoes. God knows when or how it came. Perhaps a sibling thought it was me and passed it on. I perched it, I perch it - even before its back fell off, and necessity dictated – on this desk facing me, slanted against the wall, sofa-style.
I remember when /
I was two and you were ten, boy/
Ah dar-dee, dah-dah-dah
Ah dar-dee, dah-dah-dahhhhhh
The tune I’m singing is the beginning of Diana Ross’ ‘I’m Still Waiting’, from 1971. And ‘ten’ is months.
This, and how our father would throw his two youngest up. An image of him and another man in the sitting-room, standing, his friend to the left of where I’m chest-cradled, and Remi, in front, on all fours, gurgling for he had just been tossed so I knew it was me now. The whoosh as you ascend and it’s a teeny bit scary, the dizzy and the dazzle , up there by the light, but no fear, for the last in the longest time, no fear of Him at all.
So when I think of sport from its start through all the functions it’s fulfilled for me, its barometric tendancy, I think of Remi, and Daddy, and intimacy.
2) David Copperfield
‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap...’
JD Salinger, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
The playing fields of Igbobi College, Yaba, Lagos, provided the backdrop to the occasion. This was the fifties, the golden age of Igbobi, a public school modelled after England’s elite establishments and their expansive fields, boasted to be the largest in all west Africa, was the proof of it. A roomy suburb, Yaba, enough to accommodate the expanding Methodist Girls High School which relocated there from its base on the Marina on Lagos Island in 1951 to share fields and a Sports Day with Igbobi.
Of all the sports that jostled in this grand arena, Ibobi was, above all, a cricket school, something I have only just discovered and, although I knew about these colonial-era schools, with their London and Cambridge Examining Boards’ School Certificates, their boaters and their blazers - in my father’s case Gaberdene khaki - and their numerous expatriate teachers from Europe – a tradtion that continued even unto M’s time at a similar institution, Christ’s School, Ekiti, in the seventies, though less so now – the fact they took it as far as cricket surprised me. This news is almost too fit to print.
It’s easier to picture my mother there that day than my father, partly because I’ve known quite a few African girls, including M, a once middle-distance runner, who did something in athletics at school. But my Dad never seemed a sportsman. From what little we saw of him in this area, which was largely confined to the tennis court, he did not appear to have that good level of hand-eye coordination that most, perhaps all of his children possessed, and that age does not wither, nor, if we were all watching sport on TV, did he come with the “Should have passed on the inside,” “Should have hit cross-court,”-type of remark that speak to youthful expertise or passion.
Far easier to see them at some inter-school Debating Society moot where my father, the Ibobi scholar, with the confidence gained from some winning, someway hectoring speech approaches this junior and you’d imagine - for she was as much the star student as he - worthy opponent, not least because if, as my father is fond of saying, ‘There is nothing in you that is not in me,’ to signify how he knows me better and the impossibility of children’s escape from their maker, then, knowing how my own ‘pride’ works, I doubt my father would have spent too much time doing things at which he wasn’t some good. But no doubt there was a level of compulsory sports activity and sports-watching in these schools, these totems to muscular Christianity.
There was a covered hut, a marquee-type place in the fields, with seats, for honoured guests, and spectators, in case it rained, and this was where they met. I see him, in gaberdene, spotting her doing something, running, jumping, hockey, initially. Or perhaps, if it’s a Sports-cum-Commemoration Day, as they often are, the showcase social occasion of the year, with patrons and bigwigs in attendance, then he’s a begrudging attendee to the big cricket game playing out in front of them - the annual Ibobi vs Government College encounter, a la Eton vs Harrow at Lord’s - the victim of a three line whip, when in troop a group from the girls’ school to lend its support. I could prise more details from him for we are on terms currently but I shall not press: partly because I do not wish to trouble this cricket scenario but also because I wish to make even the writing of this something of a sport, a ‘clean’ game whose rules are no further recourse to family or friends or sporting records and documents – nothing beyond what I know now. Such an approach has its virtues for a man who’s been labouring on a novel for an era.
As for the wider educational setting, well, it could hardly be other. The first thing, apart from the ‘F’ word, that us preteens would have said to you about the Adebayos, the Yorubas, Nigerians, was Education. For M, growing up at the same time in the Yoruba heartland of Ibadan, life ‘was school upon school’. She worked harder at home than at school, and it was similar for us, the main difference that in England by then you didn’t get flogged at school-school for getting stuff wrong.
Education was there in the lore he imparted to us of the independence generation. How Chief Awolowo, leader of the Yorubas, when Premier of Western Nigeria in 1957, was the first to introduce free primary education (to west Africa, to Africa?), and in the nickname bestowed on the home state of my mother’s side - Ekiti - ‘the fountain of knowledge’. It was there in the first thing a relative or family friend asked you when they entered the house, ‘How is your education?’ and there lurking in the money they gave, after some declamation in Latin or some showing of general knowdge, to an older brother for general distribution. Educational prowess had been key in ensuring my father had stayed at the pricey Ibobi: the school did not have entrance scholarships but his headmaster Reginald Parker (Oundle, Cantab) had been so impressed by my father topping the First Year Examinations despite missing a potential 300 marks because his Seventh-Day Adventist father forbade him to sit exams on the Sabbath Saturday that Parker prevailed upon his alma mater to come up with some funds for the boy, so making my father the first in a line of Ibobi ‘Oundle Scholars’. The education of the grandchildren was the way my grandfather’s children might assert bragging rights, over siblings and others, and the provision of and attention to it was the biggest get out of jail card for a husband and his wider behaviour. There seemed rarely a ‘wide’ attitude to education in the culture, more about subjects learnt to their practical end. The main reason, I am sure, that we British-born did not learn Yoruba at home was because there wasn’t an ‘O’ level in it in those days, certainly not one offered by the major Examination boards, and the main reason why we children were spared the weekly church attendance that was the fate of all my cousins was because my father correctly surmised that one could gain an ‘A’ in Scripture without it while freeing up more time for study. M, a theatre director who has just returned from a stint in Nigeria, struggled to persuade pupils to attend her after school theatre classes because their parents were loathe to have their children spending energy on matters that would not bring them qualifications.
The almost sole, legitimate business of a child was to get to university. ‘The only people on your level in this country are Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, and when you get to Oxford you will meet them, ‘ was my father’s memorable, early refrain. Arguable, not least because they were going (in Edward’s case), or had gone to Cambridge, but my father, despite Reginald Parker, was slightly underwhelmed by Cambridge. He saw it as a tad nouveau, a step below; like solicitors compared to barristers.
His saying was a nod to our antecedents. My family on both sides were part of local chieftaincies. No money in these things any more, there didn’t seem, if there ever was, but nice and strong-helping to know that still. Perhaps some of that inherited status helped in making my parents’ marriage a matter for the newspaper society pages, but my father was a high flyer in his own right. At 24, he had been the youngest features editor on a national newspaper before landing a prestigious job at the newly formed Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, in charge of their Publications division. As well as his NBC gig, he also broadcast on the BBC’s External Services, alongside the already feted novelist Chinua Achebe, to whom he had sent a cache of poetry when a seventeen year-old (He was not the first Adebayo to show a writerly bent. His father, an accountant by profession, had held senior positions at the independence-minded newspaper ‘The Comet’ in the thirties, and the tradition continues into our generation, where four of us, two brothers and my first cousin Mojisola, are published authors, and two of us have been journalists and broadcasters).
It seemed the good life for the family then. He had stewards just to polish his two children’s shoes before they were chauffeur driven to Lagos’ Corona school , a school they shared with the then Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa’s young sons, in a flashy red and Alabaster Opel Record, its roof’s long, high aerial as noisy as a peacock’s feathers.
It was a cause of some wonder to us that our father, a man with such a nuanced attitude to status, part of this culture that was clearly devoted to status ( you saw it in the letters he received from home, the top thirds of their first pages devoted to the sender’s titles and qualifications and positions, before you reached ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Layi’; in the great store our older cousins set on their Oxford Street clothing bags when they visited from the old country; one sees it, hilariously, until today in the newspapers M has brought back, where the main verb of every other article is lost , battered by the weight of the resume of the subject at hand that precedes it: ‘When acclaimed billionaire and American media proprietor, talkshow host and philanthropist, Oprah Gail Winfrey said…’), should leave the glories he was enjoying in Nigeria for these lower north London levels. Education, it will not surprise, was the reason given.
Notwithstanding his ‘arts’ successes, it was Science, Chemistry in particular, that had for a long time been his supreme passion and this what he wished to pursue, at a time when this was practically difficult, to any high level, in Nigeria. And so he came over to join a senior brother that was already here, for further study. He persuaded my mother, who had spent a period attending Pitmans Secretarial College in London in 1963 on a Nigeria Civil Service scholarship, and was now pregnant with Folarin back home, to return with a view to staying here. They had to pay off the Nigerian government, for the deal in giving her the scholarship had been that she would return to work in the new, post-independence Civil Service there, and she also paid for Yinka and Dotun, my father’s children by his first wife. to join him. The pair spent their first period in this new land, before my mother’s return, leading a kind of latchkey existence, padding the streets through the day, for there were no children officially allowed in London’s International Students House where my father was residing, before the new family rented relatively costly places in Wimbledon then Golders Green until what extra money they had ran out.
This early career change feels one of the more fateful examples of a quixotic tendancy, a making life harder than it needs to be, often for intellectual reasons, that seems to run through the line. My Herne Hill uncle, an accountant too like his father and now in his late sixties, has just done a law degree and qualified as a barrister despite the doubtful utility at this point of that qualification.
A kindly scholarly aired man, Uncle Wole, whose height, stoop, visage and bucket hands brought to this child’s mind the then West Indies cricket captain Clive Lloyd, and who, more latterly bears comparison with the dear, late comedian Felix Dexter’s African characters, particularly his Traffic Warden – that same slightly hesitant tripping in his manner of speech. He accosted me at a recent family child-naming ceremony with a theory of Everything. He had come to the conclusion that there were only two real subjects in the world: mathematics and language; that all things hinged around the notion of balance , its disturbance and its return, around the conditions needed for convergence and divergence. Take the Law for example, and the growth of equitable remedies to the common law. This was about the Lord Chancellor’s department asking “what is fair, what is right in this situation? How do we restore balance?” Sounded pretty good to me.
He’d talk with my father through the night, on the phone, when we were children . They didn’t talk often but they talked long. Most often about the Bible - my father, at that time the teasing scientific rationalist, my uncle who thinks the world has only been around for six thousand years, words like ‘Genesis’, ‘Evolution’ and Verse such and such amongst the Yoruba. You’d go to bed at ten in the evening and wake up at seven in the morning and they’d still be at it.
We seem to like our our theories, our disputes, our intellectual jousting. Our grandfather, the original Christian convert who switched his first name, Adebayo, to a surname to rid him of his ‘heathen’ one, was one of the first Nigerians to take the British government to court, in the thirties, twenty years after colonial rule properly began, over a contract that would have required him to work on the Sabbath Saturday. It sounds another quixotic, and possibly culturally mischievous enterprise. Perhaps it is the Ileysha thing. He hailed from Ilyesha, then in Oyo, now Oshun state, Like Igbos, Ileyshans have a business reputation, and you detect that stubborn aspect, also an element of the quixotic, in what they say of them. How, if you owe them money , they won’t leave your house until they have it. They are the Oshomalo men (Oshomalo gbowo mi: I will wait in this spot until I get my money.)
We youngest children thought that maybe issues over my father’s transference from his first wife to his second had been at least part of the cause of their departure. My mother and father had been teen-twined, as I say, for a time but then for some reason lost touch until one day, shortly before my mother was due to leave for her period at London’s Pitman’s, my father had popped into an office where Big Auntie, my mother’s older and dearest sister, was working. He was looking for someone else but spotted Auntie, recognised the resemblance and asked if she knew a woman called ‘Funke.’
M, privy to our conversation, believes that Big Auntie, who is not, it’s fair to say, my father’s biggest fan, meant ‘someone else ‘ pointedly. That on this day that triggered the reunion, he was actually meeting another woman in that office. I cannot bring myself to enquire further of her. Certainly, she didn’t wholeheartedly approve of the re-igniting of this two-time father’s relationship with her sister. There were other, never-married suitors – Nigeria’s then ambassador to Ghana and another equally eligible man from their church.
My mother’s people had been based in Lagos for a generation since their move from Ekiti, further south in Yourubaland. Her mother was a textiles trader and her father a mechanical engineer who owned a car spares shop. ‘Doctor Motor’ was the song the locals sung for him: ‘Doctor Motor/ please help me attend to my car….’ Their family name, Agbetomiloye, means ‘What you have you are contented with,’ and, unlike my father’s side (and later generations on their side), there seemed no disputatious aspect to them at all. Indeed, they were famous locally for being the couple that never rowed or fought. If trouble was beginning to brew, my grandfather would just get up and leave the house. This, most of all of this, I like.
‘Peaceful house,’ Big Auntie repeats, and shakes her head: ‘ Happy, happy childhood’.
Auntie’s proper name is Mrs Bickersteth. We used to wonder too about the mysterious Mr. Bickersteth. Having sired a couple, done that marital duty, he was ejected from the scene and never, whilst we were growing, got a mention.
Her face is quite severe. My mother’s sweeter, fuller, more trusting perhaps. But you
can see those traces of hers in the younger Bickersteth’s grins in the slim celebratory
pamphlet produced for my aunt’s eightieth birthday recently, and in the countenances
of others of their kin pictured there. Searching for my mother’s face among these now,
and in other sentimental moods, it is hard not to think of her as a lamb that fell among