Two octogenarians

Last Friday I went to hear Chinua Achebe give the first Annual Lecture in African Studies at the Law Faculty here in the Unreal City. On Monday I went to hear Russell Hoban speak about his novel Riddley Walker, which is thirty years old this year.

The Law Faculty was packed for Achebe (eighty years old). I got there forty minutes before Achebe was due to speak, and found myself at the end of a queue of several hundred people, with more arriving. We were directed to an overflow room that had been arranged with a video link, but I sneaked past the stewards and grabbed a sole empty chair at the back of the room. Achebe began speaking a little after 5pm. Softly spoken, he read at first from a prepared lecture, but soon became less formal, more discursive. Well worn stories, well told. He masterfully took us in a split second from the companionable humour of the Society of Nigerian Authors to the tragedies of the coups of the late 1960s. The lecture, in part, took the form of an address to Nigerian politicians in advance of the presidential election happening next year, and asked why, fifty years after independence, its promise had not been fulfilled. He was dry, brilliant; it was a real occasion and a privilege to be there.

Ah putcha putcha putcha! Mr Punch came out within moments of Hoban (eighty-five years old) sitting down for his interview. The man himself is sharp, witty, not missing a trick, but the careful pace with which he formulated his answers seemed to unnerve the interviewer, John Mullan. Mullan then filled in too many of these gaps with chat about himself. I wish he’d been confident (or self-effacing?) enough to let Hoban take the time that he wanted to answer. As Hoban himself says, part of the function of the language in Riddley Walker is to slow the reader down to the speed of Riddley’s thinking. I’d have happily slowed down with Hoban: what he thought was worth hearing, because he had taken time to formulate his words in order fully to express his meaning. However, to the tweeter who asked whether, in the cut-throat world of today’s publishing, a writer like Hoban would have the freedom to publish the variety of books which he has published, Hoban responded quite promptly, “Talent will out.”

Two very old men, each speaking slowly and with care. I wonder how time feels at this age?

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