Interview: Martin Banham

A few extracts from my recent interview with Professor Martin Banham, published in the anniversary issue of Moving Worlds (20.1).

In the inaugural issue of Moving Worlds, Martin introduced an extract from Wole Soyinka’s highly satirical play, King Baabu. Martin has nurtured a lifelong passion for African theatre and performance cultures: after graduating from the University of Leeds in 1956, he taught at the University of Ibadan until 1966. While in Ibadan, Banham was involved with creating the School of Drama, setting up the student poetry magazine, The Horn, and was friends and collaborator with many writers, who have since become Nigeria’s best-known playwrights and poets, including J. P. Clark and Wole Soyinka. In 1966, Banham was appointed as Fellow in Drama at the University of Leeds, and played a central role in the development of drama at Leeds: establishing The Workshop Theatre as a laboratory for teaching and research; creating the first MA in Drama and Theatre Arts in the UK; and later integrating The Workshop Theatre with the School of English.  Many of his papers are now in Special Collections in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, and these include unpublished manuscripts of some of West Africa’s best known playwrights and poets, as well as extensive correspondence with Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark.

Rachel Bower: Before we turn to your important work in Ibadan, I wondered, firstly, if you could say a little about your memories of Leeds as a student in the early 1950s? 

Martin Banham: The University of Leeds at that time was a small university, and one of the interesting things about it for me was that it was quite a multicultural university. There were a lot of international students in the University at the time, and quite a lot of West African students in engineering, textiles, and law. These students didn’t tend to be in Humanities subjects although Wole Soyinka, who is now a good friend, arrived a bit later. I lived in the Halls of Residence, in Devonshire Hall. The centre of activity was the Students’ Union which with debates, theatre, inter-university and other social events made it a very stimulating place to be. While I was an undergraduate student, one of the Presidents of the Students’ Union was Edward Victor Charles de Graft Johnson — a Ghanaian Law student — and he opened my eyes to different cultural situations.


RB: In an article, ‘Ibadan 1960’, you describe Ibadan at this time as a place marked by ‘the politics of emancipation’, and how you remember standing in the Ibadan campus in 1957 ‘when, from every student and staff radio set, the national anthem of the newly independent Ghana was played at full volume, directly relayed from the celebrations in Accra’. There were many fierce debates at this time about how to forge a truly decolonized Nigerian literature in English. Could you comment on this in light of your experiences at the University? 

MB: The atmosphere in Ibadan when I got there – socially and academically – was wonderful. It was a delightful place to be in in a way that can’t really exist in a university like ours now. It was very much a community of students and staff together; also very international and multicultural – a very exciting place. The question of independence and decolonization was absolutely the hot topic. The academic community was hugely multinational, with a lot of South Africans, Ghanaians, various kinds of Europeans and, of course, Nigerians – so it was a very broad spectrum of cultures. Yes, indeed, I vividly remember standing on the campus in 1960 and listening to the broadcast of Kwame Nkrumah calling for the national anthem to be played in Ghana. The students at Ibadan clearly saw themselves as right on the threshold of important events and also saw this opening up new opportunities in their lives as well. 

RB: In January 1958, you set up a student poetry magazine at University College Ibadan called The Horn with J. P. Clark. The magazine was modelled on Poetry and Audience (P&A)which you knew from your time in Leeds, and, like P&AThe Horn was cyclostyled, stapled, and amateur. It was produced two or three times a term (although sometimes less regularly) until the final issue in May 1964. The magazine was edited, in your own words, ‘by a roll-call of talented Ibadan students, among them Juliet Udezue, Abiola Irele, Minji Karibo, Dapo Adelugba, F. Onyema Iheme, Tayo Morgan, and Omolara Ogundipe’. Can you tell me more about how you set up The Horn?

MB: Quite simply, Poetry and Audience was created when I was an undergraduate in English in Leeds, and I had one or two poems in it. I liked the idea, so basically I just thought – well, let’s imitate that, so we started The Horn in Ibadan. We initially started it with my money, which would have been two or three pounds, and the Department of English’s duplicator – with that, we set it up and got on with it. J.P. Clark became the first editor and it was enormously successful. It was just a little cyclostyled thing sold for a few pence to cover the costs but it took off very powerfully – it was very good!

RB: And do you think now, when you look back, that it was quite significant?

MB: Yes, I do – simply because it offered an outlet, the opportunity, even the ambition, to write. It wasn’t only J.P. Clark who had poems in it but a whole range – like the people you mentioned – Juliet Udezue, Abiola Irele, Minji Karibo, Dapo Adelugba. These were serious young writers, and they were extraordinarily good. And they weren’t hidebound, in any kind of strict sense of what was ‘proper’ for poetry – they wrote what they wanted to write – whether it was riding on a Lagos bus, or something of that kind, they didn’t feel that they had to be pompous in terms of what they were writing about. You know – they could look at everyday events and realize them poetically.

RB: In 1959 you edited a slim anthology, called Nigerian Student Verse, which contained a selection of some of the best poems from The Horn magazine. Arguably, three of the most interesting poets published in Nigerian Student Verse were women: Yetunde Esan, Minji Karibo and Juliet Udezue. During my research into the relations between poets in Northern England and Nigeria, I have been struck by the number of young female writers (British and Nigerian) who subsequently disappear from the records. Do you have any thoughts about the work of these women from The Horn

MB: This is very interesting isn’t it? Firstly, I think this has something to do with the recruitment of female students to Ibadan. I rather suspect that for women to get in was a great deal more difficult than for men to get in – and they were treated very separately, in their own Hall of Residence and so on. I think it is interesting that an awful lot of the women’s writing in The Horn was personal and very observant of their own lives and the life in their own community – perhaps more so than the men, who would often take on broader themes. It is difficult to put one’s finger on that. But if the men were selected who went to Ibadan, then the women were very much more greatly selected, so it’s not surprising that there was a great deal of brilliance among them, in all respects.

RB: In the inaugural issue of Moving Worlds, you introduced an extract from Wole Soyinka’s play King Baabu. Can you say more about your friendship with Wole and other significant people? Do you have other thoughts on the importance of transnational or transcultural links between the UK and Nigeria during this time?

MB: It is a difficult question. My years in Ibadan were so formative for my life that it has been part of me ever since. I think, as I said, that the main reason I was brought back to Leeds by Derry Jeffares was because I could contribute to Commonwealth studies through the theatre work – which we did through many productions and also by attracting students from the Commonwealth into the postgraduate course. It was almost incidental that we brought this experience and these people to Leeds. 

In terms of friends and significant people — Wole’s sister came here as a postgraduate. She is now teaching in America. As for Wole — Leeds was important to him, which is one of the reasons why he is still willing to travel here to give lectures and so forth. His plays have been staged at Leeds Playhouse and he certainly had a good time here as a very notable and noticed student. I think the British Council is relevant when we think about why people like Wole and Ngugi wa Thiong’o came to Leeds – they offered scholarships and that brought people here. As Wole tells it, he was offered places in Glasgow and maybe Durham, but chose Leeds because it was closest to London! So much of it was incidental. Leeds was important to Ngugi too. He is hoping to continue his volumes of biography with the Leeds years, which he says were very important to him. 

It is also worth noting the fact that for many African playwrights, transcultural communication doesn’t mean only making their work accessible beyond the boundaries of their own countries, but, even more crucially, within their country. Colonial borders resulted in peoples of different cultures and different tongues being artificially gathered together in one ‘nation’, and to communicate within that nation the only common tongue was often, and ironically, the language of the colonisers. You will remember what Chinua Achebe had to say about choosing to write in English when he started out as a novelist.

RB: I wonder if you might say a few words about the significance of the materials you have generously donated to Special Collections in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds in recent years? These include an extensive range of African theatre manuscripts; correspondence with Nigerian writers; and works by and about playwrights and poets including J. P. Clark Bekederemo, Olu Obafemi, Osonye Tess Onwueme, Femi Osofisan, Ola Rotimi, Soyinka and Dev Virahsawmy.  

MB: These are extremely important materials. They represent something very specific, and I very much doubt that there is any other collection anywhere in the world that brings writers like this together. When you look at this list – J.P., Olu, Wole, Femi – it is quite remarkable. For those of us with a specific interest in this area these are crucial documents. I have been delighted with the warmth of Special Collections in taking these materials in – and I know that they are used. 

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