A clear bright light flooded into my room. It was a warm sunny day in Cambridge with the soft sounds of people gently chatting outside. I looked outside my window. Another day beckoned, and I quickly skirted about my rooms in College, avoiding the piles of books and papers strewn across the floor. Philosophy books and papers cluttered my rooms in Clare College like so much litter. Ever since I was a child I had been in love with philosophy and with writing and here I was – in heaven, doing the only thing I cared about in all the world – studying and writing philosophy. My parents who had wanted me to do something useful that might earn a living (at that time there was no philosophy department in Nigeria) had given up the struggle for a lost cause. I picked up a large volume on Kantian metaphysics, removed my notes and filed them away, and placed the book next to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. This was just another day in heaven – or so I thought.
I walked out into the hallway and suddenly noticed that everyone was avoiding me. I walked towards the Philosophy Dept and no one spoke to me. It was usual to pass a compliment . A mere greeting, “Hi, Dapo” was a low point. A Professor might enquire whether I was coming to a seminar, my tutors about whether I would complete certain papers on time or had read this or that article. My fellow students would enquire as to my views on ‘Prof X’s paper I mentioned to you last week – have you read it yet? Yes? Did you share my opinion?’ Moral Sciences as Philosophy was called in those days was a small intimate department. Everybody knew everybody. Life was your interaction with others. Suddenly I found myself cut adrift. Not only was no one talking to me, but Professors were crossing the street to avoid coming close to me. Yes I had washed recently, and it could not be my aftershave as people were avoiding me at a hundred paces. I was stunned and hurt. I examined my conscience – there was nothing there. It was empty. The next day I hastened to the University Library to avoid the shame of exclusion. I kept my head down and stayed away from public spaces. As I walked back to my rooms Albert Weale, a friend and fellow student, (later Professor Weale) shouted ‘You must be thinking a bit of yourself’, smiled and disappeared.
Later that afternoon there was a message from the porter, ‘Call Skip Gates, urgently’. Perhaps Skip could shed some light on this issue. “Have you seen the papers?” Skip’s voice was excited. He is American, they are so excitable I thought. “No”. My deadpan answer took him back. “You’re famous,” he exaggerated. “A Nobel prize-winner has written praising your work! You must get hold of a copy!”
In many ways these events became a perfect metaphor for my relationship with Cambridge University.
* * * *
As a child I had a voracious appetite for reading and writing. I had been born in Nigeria in 1951 and came to Britain when I was 5. Among my earliest memories is of importuning my father for reams of blank paper. When I was 7 I was asked what I wanted for my birthday. I answered a ‘typewriter’. My parents bought me a bike to my disappointment.
At 7 I was sent to a private boarding prep school. In retrospect I believe it was one of the best prep schools in England and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. By the end of my career I had a Centenary scholarship to my public school and I had been captain of cricket of an unbeaten side. There is a photo of me on Sports Day. I could barely hold all my prizes. Someone once said that nothing in later life compares to the adulation a child can receive at a prep school as a successful sports warrior. He may be correct.
Intellectually I had to fight against the English stereotype that if you were good at games you would not be interested in the Arts. At Holmewood House this was never a major issue, just an irritant. My interest in the arts was nurtured and flourished.
one of my frequent visits to my parents in Nigeria, at the age of 11 I came across the works of Bertrand Russell in the library of Mr Asabia (later Chief Asabia and Head of Nigeria’s largest bank). I devoured the works of Russell like a famished sailor. My interest in philosophy was established. Having read everything by Russell that I could lay my hands on I began reading existentialists. I started with books on Existentialism and then went on to Kierkegaard and Sartre. This was followed by Socrates and Plato. My father had arranged for me to have an account at Poole & Sons, the Charing Cross bookshop (later made famous in a film 84 Charing Cross Rd). I seriously sought to bankrupt my father with my demands until the account was closed. One year I kept a record of all the non-school work books I read – it came to over a hundred. At one time my eyes hurt and I stopped reading in my spare time for a year and restarted on the anniversary. I visited an elder cousin in Edinburgh when I was 12. He was studying for a PhD in entomology at Edinburgh University and his home was full of science books. He was later Professor of Entomology at University of Ife. I devoured these science books like candy. My eyes were opened to experimental psychology, anatomy and the medical sciences.
I also discovered detailed explanations of sexual reproduction – a matter of keen interest to pre-teens. So much so that at my public school I would give lectures after lights out regaling my fellow students with detailed scientific facts that I had gleaned from the medical text books. Needless to say I was rarely interrupted in my lectures. Anyone familiar with a boys boarding school will acknowledge the rareness of this event.
My father was deeply interested in science and sent me books on science from wherever he travelled. These books were often ‘borrowed’ by my teachers. I also had special coaching in the holidays from post-graduate students.
* * * *
When it came time to choose a university I chose Cambridge. I wanted to study philosophy and all my research pointed to Cambridge as having the greatest reputation. Russell and Wittgenstein. I had toyed with Harvard, but when I asked a white American teacher how to get in she said “That is an Ivy League university, you can’t go there.’
My first application to Cambridge was turned down. My second was accepted on condition that I did not study philosophy. I accepted and then applied to change course to philosophy. This caused an outrage. In response I appealed to several academics who had come to know me – Prof David Wiggins and Dr Wilfred Hodges, who put pressure on Dr Smiley, the College tutor in philosophy. He relented resentfully.
When I arrived at Cambridge together with a personal testimonial from Prof Basil Bernstein, I was nevertheless treated as some sort of lay novice. Dr Smiley recommended that I attend lectures on many different subjects. This was music to my ears as I had always had broad interests. At the end of the first term he politely asked if I had found another subject of greater interest than philosophy to study. I had believed his advice was genuine academic advice and had not realized that it was a ploy to get me out of the department. This was to me a breach of trust. From then on I could never trust his advice – with negative results for both of us.
Anthony Appiah arrived at Clare College in my second year. He was originally studying medicine but would stay in my rooms talking philosophy till the small hours. Within a couple of weeks I persuaded him to give up medicine and to study philosophy. I remember the puzzled look on Dr Smiley’s face when I stated that there was a new student being wasted on medicine! Professor Dorothy Emmett also importuned on Anthony’s behalf and soon he was in the Philosophy dept. This contrasts with the experience of Skip Gates. Skip was a Mellon scholar from Yale. He had applied to study philosophy and Dr Smiley had turned him down sight unseen. I remonstrated with Skip that he should resurrect his plans but Skip had no stomach for this fight.
Why did Skip and I have such difficulty and Anthony find it so easy? Anthony was the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, a well known British politician. He was light skinned, and this did seem to matter to Cambridge, and he was decidedly unthreatening. In fact Anthony was a very pretty boy at the time and I may have misconstrued his motivation. His fellow Ghanaians never felt he was one of them and he never considered himself African at all at that time. He said he hated Africans and Africa. Nevertheless I was very fond of Anthony. Self hatred was not his unique preserve. Many friends suggested that I should try and rescue Anthony from the English boys he was hanging out with. I tried to interest Anthony in giving some lectures on African history in London. At one meeting Anthony suddenly turned to me and stated that as he could trace his English ancestry to the 16th Century he did not need to associate with Africans. Without a further word I rose up and left the room. Skip rushed down to try and make amends, but Anthony and I have never really spoken since.
The general assumption, by faculty at Cambridge, that I knew nothing about philosophy (or anything else) until the day after I arrived at Cambridge irked me continuously. Dorothy Emmett at a later date even misremembered the facts and recalled how Anthony persuaded me to change course and study philosophy. It obviously did not fit in with her stereotype view of the world that the dark skinned Dapo should introduce the light skinned Anthony to the wonders of philosophy. Ironically, Anthony arrived at Cambridge with a pretty thorough grounding in philosophy through his own efforts.
It was obvious to me, but not apparently to many others, that the arrival of Anthony, Skip and myself at the same small Cambridge College at the same time was a meeting of truly historic dimensions. I knew this was the workings of destiny.
* * * *
One of the kindest persons in my first year in Cambridge was Jenny Teichmann. She avoided the traps others rushed into. During one tutorial she asked me about Nigeria. I responded with a short vituperative and acidic outburst against the Nigerian elite. I assumed she would think my comments were motivated by jealousy and rejection. However she paused, looked at me with deep suspicion and then asked, “What does your father do?” Sheepishly, I answered “He is a Permanent Secretary,”(one of the highest offices in the country).
My view of Oxbridge philosophy had been highly influenced by W E Abram’s and his “Mind of Africa”. Here was an African who had studied philosophy at Oxford and had been made a fellow of All Soul’s, one of the highest accolades in British Academy. When I read “Mind of Africa” I considered it asinine and puerile. I bought the book but would not allow it in my library. I believed it failed of its primary purpose. As toilet paper it was painful to use. If this was what Oxbridge philosophy produced and valued (the book was well reviewed) when trusted, then they had an agenda entirely alien to mine and needed to be treated with caution and scepticism.
One of the lessons I had learnt from my prep school was that once you had mastered the key techniques and have showed excellence in their use, you should then be allowed to break the rules and discover your own style. This however never applied at Cambridge. No matter what skill I displayed every effort was expended to keep me on the ‘straight and narrow’ of Cambridge orthodoxy. It appeared to me that what they expected of me was to learn the orthodoxy parrot fashion and return to Nigeria to spread ‘the Word’. Frankly, I would rather die. My own aspirations to change the face of modern philosophy were of course absurd and needed to be rooted out and some sense put back into my thick skull.
* * * *
My adolescent intellectual trajectory involved a kaleidoscope of different interests. Between 13 and 17 I delved deeply into Kierkegaard and Sartre. To this day I retain a fond affection for Kierkegaard. I read Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’. I introduced myself to Marxism courtesy of the United States Information Service where I found the works of Sydney Hook. This led me on to Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt school. My father had always reminded me that there were other great cultures than the West, so I studied Buddhism. For many months I carried with me the Penguin Buddhist scriptures, I also delved into Indian Yoga and later Zen Buddhism courtesy of Dr Suzuki.
Islamic philosophers were not ignored either. At one point I emptied the University of Ibadan library of Husserl, Heidegger, and Bergson even though I was a teenage student at a secondary school and not a member of the university. Driven by a thirst for knowledge I knocked on doors and found almost invariably that all the rules were broken to allow me access to these treasured books.
I was not however a Millsian maladjust. I could have been found walking around the playing fields in Brighton with a copy of Dylan Thomas’ or T S Eliot’ collected poems, reciting them in the Spring air. I played sports, wrote poetry, played classical guitar and enjoyed the company of girls.
My belief that there was a ‘secret community of scholars’ probably dated from this period where my love of learning opened all sorts of doors. In London I applied for a ticket to the British Museum Reading Room. The same place Karl Marx had researched in. I was 17 years old and filled in the application on the basis that I was researching early medieval philosophy (the game was to prove the books were otherwise unavailable). I still remember the smile on the Librarian’s face as he approved my ticket. We were both party to the conspiracy!
In a sense this was my dream world. A community of scholars who loved the craft of scholarship, who admired beauty and creativity, who could as much appreciate a subtle manoeuvre by their opponent as by their supporters. A world beyond politics and racism. A world where one immediately recognised in each other a love of books, of the craft of scholarship.
My greatest scorn has always been reserved for those who on reading my works assumed that I had not checked out my references and my sources. This to me only proved the shallowness of their own knowledge.
I still recall with some astonishment a seminar on science and religion in Clare College. The then Professor of Astronomy gave a short talk. During question time I raised my hand and suggested a novel point of view that I had been trying to develop. My fellow students collapsed in laughter and began to howl me down. Just then the Professor told them to shut up and asked me to repeat what I had said. For the next five minutes a swift discussion followed between him and myself that I found liberating. Before I had finished my sentence he knew where I was going next and interjected a suggestion. Before he had finished his suggestion I countered with a problematic, some downside or possible objection to which he responded with some alternative. Here I was mind to mind with one of the world’s leading astronomers. This was my dream come true – a community of scholars in pursuit of truth or creativity, with no consideration for rank or other irrelevancies. Unfortunately that was the exception not the rule.
* * * *
Friends have often told me that my life would have been easier if I could have toned myself down a little. But this was as useful as telling a stallion to canter gently. I simply was not that sort of person. Not only that there were many positive experiences. Once when I was fifteen I was taken to see Maurice Bowra in his rooms at Oxford. Bowra was a dominant figure in British academia at that time. My father was attending Oxford University. The family had been rushed out of Nigeria when threats against our lives were made because my father would not help rig the next elections. That Sunday afternoon we had come from listening to Billy Graham on his tour of Oxford.
Bowra turned to me and asked my opinion of Billy Graham. To my father’s horror I launched into an unrestrained assault. I accused Graham of distorting the theories of the existentialists, of giving a false reading of the Bible and of not appreciating Kierkegaard’s deep religious conviction. By the end of my diatribe my father was open-mouthed. Bowra paused, looked up at the ceiling for a long while it seemed. Then he said, “…and when would you like to come up to Oxford?”
* * * *
The other side to all this is the pain felt at rejection. I was 18 or so and invited to join P F Strawson at a dinner after he had given a talk. Discussion was in the English manner amiable and as Hideko Ishiguro was present turned to Buddhism. Hideko was in fact a Catholic. Someone asked why was a branch of Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism? Nobody knew. Gently, I volunteered that Mahayana meant Great Wheel or Circle. Then surprised, someone – not Strawson or Hideko – shot back harshly – ‘What do you know about Buddhism?’ A mere teenager in front of these famous scholars I sulked into silence. But this assumption that I could have no knowledge other than what I was taught by my department was a consistent theme of my university days. I was regularly rebuked if I ever quoted a piece of knowledge the lecturer was not aware of himself.
One part of me was filled with the stories of my heroes such as the Chinese sages, Zen Buddhists, the Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and Rousseau etc and the Impressionists and Cubists. Small bands of dedicated persons who with pen or brush would change the world. Another part was filled with fear and hostility towards racism, political oppression and imperialism.
One day Skip turned to me after we had had a long discussion on our usual topics and said agitatedly: ‘You want to blow away the racists, but you want to do it, not with a gun, but with a pen.’