Poundland and the African Imagination

Tolu Ogunlesi
4 min readAug 14, 2023

By Tolu Ogunlesi

(Originally published on May 22, 2009, in NEXT)

For the next few weeks I think I would like to take my attention off Nigeria, and showcase my ‘expertise’ on other matters. I want to put to shame all detractors who have been spreading vicious rumours about my person — that I have nothing to say if it’s not about Barack Obama or the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

I’ve been on self-imposed exile for a few weeks now, in the ‘Head Office’ of what used to be called ‘The Empire’. More famously known these days as Great Britain. Or the United Kingdom. Though I actually think the proper name for it, the most accurate, is Poundland. Great Poundland, if you will, where, sometimes, ‘everything’ can ‘go’ for ‘99p’.

Of London, capital city of Poundland, the late great TS Eliot declaimed decades ago:

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

If I had the patience and mental equipment for a PhD, my thesis would be on this wonderful country, and it would be titled: “England in the popular and unpopular imagination of the primitive, neo-primitive and sophisticated postcolonial populations of the once-conquered Niger Delta basin and adjoining regions.”

I would explore such concepts as:

1. “The Vivid Imagery of Enid Blyton as the Empire’s Neo-Colonizing Tool”

This would deal of course with how the famous British children’s author stole my heart and mind and soul with her realist and magical-realist stories, how ‘ginger beer’ and ‘hardboiled eggs’ and ‘Bentleys’ and ‘scones’ came to be a part of my life by imaginative assimilation, and how phrases like “Bags I …” and “Gosh” became a part of my Yoruba-dominated vocabulary.

2. “England, Nursery Rhymes & The African Child: Juvenile Poetics and the Foreign Imagination”

This would deal with how the ‘concept’ of England was introduced to me as a Child in a succession of memorable nursery rhymes: “London Bridge is falling down”; “Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been…”, “Humpty Dumpty” etc.

3. “Television as England’s Cultural Ambassador to the Heart of Darkness”

This would deal with famous English drama series like “Mind Your Language”, “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” and so on; as well as with historic broadcasts like the funeral of Lady Di, which, in those days (before the invention of reality television) was perhaps the most watched event in the history of television. I remember sitting in front of the TV at home, watching the funeral cortege roll through the streets, I remember Sir Elton John’s tear-evoking dirge, and Earl Spencer’s moving funeral oration for a departed sister.

Those scenes, piped into our living rooms, ‘conveyed’ England to the Outposts of the Empire as a fresh wound, raw, red, exposed, pleading for help.

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A few days ago, in a Charing Cross bookstore I bought a copy of a 1960s anthology The New Poetry. I started to read the introductory notes (by the editor, poet and critic A. Alvarez), and in it stumbled on the following lines:

“Primitivism is only generally acknowledged in [Britain] when it takes a peculiarly British form: the domestic sex murder. Then the gloating is public and universal. Had Freud been born in London instead of in Vienna, he would probably have finished not in psychoanalysis but in criminology.”

Did you shudder like me when you read those lines? “Domestic sex murder as a peculiarly British preoccupation?”

The journalist and style guru Tyler Brûlé is more lenient on Queen Liz’ Land. Writing in his FT column of July 18, 2008 [Band-Aids won’t save Britain], his verdict about Britain pertains majorly to trivial social lapses like slovenliness, not baffling acts of criminality. Hear him:

“…we arrived at a terminal [Heathrow, apparently] that was heaving with annoyed, bewildered passengers and had the faint odour of failure — sweat, mildew, urine and a nasty scent attempting to cover up all of the former… As we made our way into central London, we travelled along a rubbish-lined motorway and then turned on to rubbish-strewn streets. Set back from the curb were shuttered shopfronts, little street-life and patchy street lighting.”

Until you hear him mention “the wave of knife crimes and general disorder that is currently suffocating the UK” you’d have assumed he was speaking about, uhm, yes, you guessed right — Lagos!

But no.

You will agree with me that sometimes, Nigeria has to take the backseat. Sometimes, England just beats all competition hands down. If in doubt, google “thieving parliamentarians” and tell me what shows up at the top of the page: Westminster or Abuja?

Britain’s sure Got Talent! I’m a living witness!

Anyone to second that?

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Tolu Ogunlesi

Digital Communications for Nigerian Government, Journalist on Sabbatical