Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Morning in Wapping and an Evening with Chinua Achebe

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The weather gods must feel particularly benevolent for they've graced us with a whole weekend of bliss! On another amazingly lovely day, I set out at 11 am with my next door neighbors Barbara and Tim "for a walk past the Tower of London and into Wapping for a Chinese lunch by the riverside", they said.

Never one to pass up a chance to explore another part of London, I was more than happy to accompany them. Only it turned out that we walked for a whole hour and a half at a stretch past some of the most marvelous parts of London along the Thames Path. With the weather cooperating so beautifully, every step of the way was sheer pleasure. They knew every hidden nook and cranny of the Path, darting into a cobbled courtyard here, zipping into an alleyway there, past the Old and New Stairs that flank the banks of the Thames and pointing out to me as we passed so many sights of interest--the famous former offices of newspaper barons on Fleet Street; the alcoves tucked away behind St. Paul's Cathedral; Dickens Inn where the novelist often downed a swift half with his buddies; Canary Wharf where the financial establishment now lies shrouded under a pall of gloom. I saw the Tower of London and Tower Bridge from angles I had never seen before and, of course, my camera worked overtime trying to capture the essence of it all. All the while, we followed the course of the river in the wake of so many other walkers all out to enjoy the glorious day.

We finally reached the River View Chinese Restaurant in Wapping, a small area of London that was once a self-contained village. We chose a table by the window where the river glimmered only a few yards in front of us. Opposite us, we could see the golden sands that turn the river bank into a beach. There were 'locks' galore, those curious contraptions that regulate the ebb and flow of the river's waters, that make a fascinating study in themselves.

Barbara and I left food decisions to Tim who made a fine selection with an emphasis on seafood. We had squid and prawns and monkfish in sweet and sour sauce (delicious!), crispy noodles with chicken and stir fried vegetables. Everything was washed down by beer--cold and refreshing after our long walk. They told me about restaurants close to home that are worth sampling and I hope to try them out when Llew is here at the end of the month.

During our walk and over lunch, I got to know my neighbors a little better. Tim, a former West End chef, who studied at St. Andrew's in Scotland, now runs a software business from out of his flat. Barbara is a Cambridge-educated attorney who water skis for fun. The couple have traveled widely around the world and shared with me some wonderful stories of their global adventures. I found them deeply interesting to talk to. They have traveled widely in the States as well and know a great deal of American history.

On the way back, we took a cab--one of those lovely London cabs with the drop-down seats that allow passengers to face each other. Have you ever seen anything more civilized? I realized on the way back what a long way we had walked. No wonder I was ready for a nap when I got home, except that I had to get ready for my evening's appointment with Annalisa at the Brunei Gallery of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

For the concluding session of the conference on "Things Fall Apart at Fifty" was its highlight--a conversation between the great Nigerian novelist himself, Chinua Achebe and Simon Akandi of Princeton University. The auditorium of full of his admirers and, undoubtedly, most of the members of the audience have either written on or have taught Things Fall Apart. It was a very interesting exchange indeed and though we were disappointed that Achebe declined the signing of books, he did permit photographs to be taken with him. He spoke thoughtfully and quietly and rather slowly, weighing, as it were, every word before it left his mouth. A motor accident, many years ago, confined him to a wheelchair added to which he is now almost 80 years old. Despite all these factors, his aura was so powerful that he received a standing ovation at the end of the presentation and left everyone in the audience feeling so pleased to have attended what was surely a unique public appearance by a very special writer.

Then it was time to say goodbye to the many people who had met over the past two days. I singled out Russel McDougal, the Australian novelist whom I had last met in Venice in March this year. Annalisa had many more people to say goodbye to but we managed to get away finally with the hope of finding tickets to a play at the West End. However, we made up our minds too late and a walk through the crowds of Leicester Square made it clear to me that we would get no tickets at that late hour.

Instead, we adjourned to my flat at Holborn, where we sat down to a lovely leisurely evening of chatter. As I pottered around in the kitchen getting our meal ready, we sipped red wine and nibbled at some cheese then got down to a typically English dinner of bangers and mash and salad with profiteroles for dessert. We had so much to discuss that before we knew it, it was 11. 30 and after sipping some herb tea, Annalisa and her friend Claudia who had joined us for the evening, had to leave to return to their hotel.

I was sorry to see them go but I hold on to the thought of the invitation that Annalisa has extended to me to come to the University of Padua, Italy, to give a lecture while I am still in London. All I have to do now is find a weekend when I can fit it in. It doesn't look as if this might happen until early next year...but you never can tell.

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