Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Ben Okri

Oration given on 11 July 2002

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon BEN OKRI.

Stretching over a number of years, as many of you will recall, there has been a BBC television series entitled Great Railway Journeys, in which chosen celebrities travel by interesting routes to intriguing destinations. Towards the end of his particular 1996 presentation in the series - a journey to the literal region of Arcadia in Greece, which had taken him through the metaphoric Arcadias of the Kentish countryside, of France including Paris, and of Italy including Venice – the internationally acclaimed author Ben Okri was to be found in the last carriage of a small Greek mountain train, entering Arcadia backwards, and philosophising as follows:

‘You’re sitting in this train at the back of it here, and you’re not seeing a landscape that you’re approaching, but a landscape that is receding from you.... You don’t greet things, you say goodbye to things, you look back on things, you think back on things, you think about bridges that you’ve just crossed.  I actually quite like this backward looking.  I rather like it, because always one lives through life with one’s eyes facing forward, so things come at you and then they go behind you. And when they go behind you it’s as if they disappear and they vanish, and they don’t exist any more, whereas like this, they always exist, they always exist.  This is one thing this journey has taught me, that there is a sort of chain, (isn’t there?), a link, a kind of relay system, whereby each one of us, just passes on the baton of our lives to the next generation - and that way, we keep something alive that is greater than us.’

I begin with these inspired and unscripted musings from a television program because they seem to me to represent something wonderfully lyrical and philosophical in Ben Okri’s most everyday acts of thinking and speaking.  Just as importantly, in that notion of a relay system whereby we pass on something greater than ourselves down through the generations, such lyric musings possibly hold many messages for us here today, with members of senior and junior generations of our culture - parents, teachers and pupils - all gathered together, in some real senses looking backwards at the bridges we’ve just crossed, and, especially if we happen to be parents or teachers, at our actions of passing the baton of our lives on to the next generation.

Ben Okri himself has crossed many bridges, and a time of looking back such as the present ceremony allows us to review some of them.  Most of you will at least recall his winning the Booker Prize for Fiction with his intense novel about pre-Independence Nigeria, the land of his birth and much of his upbringing, entitled The Famished Road.  That award was in 1991.  But Ben Okri had already more than a decade of novel writing behind him by then, having published his first novel in 1980, written and completed by the age of nineteen.  In the 1980’s he had also found time to pursue undergraduate studies here at Essex in our Literature Department, along with spells as a poetry editor of West African writings and as a broadcaster and writer for the BBC.  Indeed the Booker was not his first, nor even his second major literary prize.  He had already in 1987 won both the Commonwealth Prize for Africa and the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for fiction for an earlier novel, Incidents at the Shrine.

We should and we do feel great pride in Ben Okri as a former student.  In his letter of acceptance of this award he stresses how mutual this feeling is, by writing to our Vice- Chancellor:  ‘Naturally this means more to me than one can say:  firstly because the University of Essex had a great impact on my life;  and secondly because most of the work I was to compose later on had its seed-birth in my University of Essex days.’   I hope that that generous tribute on his part to us licences me to tell one genial anecdote about his time here.  It comes from one of Ben Okri’s former tutors, himself a well-published novelist – so there may be some playing of fast and loose with the truth in it.  Essentially it is a story which suggests that Ben was well in need of some of what we could teach him about literature – not for long, I would hasten to add.  Anyway, apparently in those far-off days several years before Ben Okri was awarded the Booker Prize, we in the Literature Department sometimes began the teaching year with John Milton’s great English epic poem Paradise Lost.  Having arrived breathlessly in the middle of Week 1, Ben then passed by my colleague’s office to ask if there was a translation available of Milton he could lay his hands on! 

Come to think of it, I’m not sure whether that little anecdote doesn’t tell us at least as much about the difficulties of Miltonic English as it does about Ben Okri at the start of his university years.  Howsoever, one of the many wonderful things about Ben Okri’s own writing is how often it turns experience into the fruits of wisdom.  Just consider the impact of a few sentences that form part of a larger meditation on creativity, from his book of essays of 1997 entitled A Way of Being Free:  ‘The universe will always be greater than us.  Our mind therefore should be like Keats’ thoroughfare, through which all thoughts can wander.  It should also be a great cunning net that can catch the fishes of possibility.... Creativity makes us part of it all.  There is no genuine creative or human problem that cannot be solved if you are serene enough, humble enough, hard-working enough, and if you have learnt the gentle arts of concentration, visualisation, and meditation.... That is the beauty of it all.  The full potential of human creativity has not yet been tapped.’  In such sentences, we surely recognise that a person whom we once had the honour to teach here has become someone with a great capacity to teach us in his turn, if we care to attend.  For new graduates, the uplifting lesson concerning creative endeavour in those sentences by our distinguished honorary graduand is, hopefully, a life-long one.

Not everything Ben Okri has written is full of such serenity combined with creative cunning.  In works such as The Famished Road he has been responsive to the often terrible historical conditions of our epoch. The prize-wining novel purveys a very different, circular rather than ‘progressive’ sense of time, through its contrasts of modern phenomena such as corrupt political scams, electricity, gramophones, photography and motor cars, with a residual West African oral culture of old witches, wild forests, spirits, monsters and ghost presences.

He has been one of the most prominent writers to decry depredation and exploitation of Africa by our First World nations.  In a poem ‘Lament of the Images’, for instance, which leads his collection of poetry of 1997, An African Elegy, Okri begins with a bitterly satirical description of how sacred images were stolen by white colonisers:  ‘They took some images/ And brought them across/ The whitening seas/ And stored them in/ Basements/ For the later study/ Of the African’s/ Dark and impenetrable/ Mind./ They called them/ ‘Primitive objects’/ And subjected them/ To the milk/ Of scientific/ Scrutiny’.  How different that writing is from the passage from his essays previously quoted;  unsettling, where the former was uplifting.  And yet, only by means of such widely varying passages, from the different genres in which Ben Okri writes, can we hope to focus some portion of both the range and depth of his creative talent.

Ben Okri finished his television program on train-travelling to Arcadia with the words.  ‘I’m very ill at ease with arrivals.  Or if you do arrive you should contrive it such that you keep postponing your destination, keep extending your dream.... So, before I leave this engine driver’s seat I’d like to say that you will see me get off in Arcadia, but you wouldn’t see me arrive there, because I’ve just postponed my Arcadia to somewhere else and I’m going to keep doing that to the end of my days.’   What a wonderful message to us all:  ‘keep postponing your destination, keep extending your dream.’

Chancellor, I present to you BEN OKRI.

Orator:  Dr Jonathan White