Opinion: Adieu, Uncle Bisi Lawrence, man of garb, grit, guts – IKEDDY ISIGUZO
THE only thing immaculate about Uncle Bisi Lawrence – who passed Wednesday 11 November 2020 – was not his white attire. He was a man of garb, grit, and guts who lived a fulfilled life that flowed to others – I was one of them.
BizLaw, as many called him, after one of the most enduring of the numerous columns he wrote for Vanguard, was a man of many parts, not in the sense of all of us having many components. He knew something about almost everything. These reflected in his Vanguard columns which in the earlier days ranged from radio, television and newspaper reviews to the weather, sports, and the famous interview column ‘Conversations with Bisi Lawrence.
The conversations were with those 70 years and above. Conversations took BizLaw round Nigeria, by road. He drove himself, a comment on the state of our roads then, and safety across Nigeria. The depth of the discussions in Conversations showed the divergent tangents from Nigeria. They also displayed in huge hues the grit of BizLaw who excelled in broadcasting and the print media, exiting from broadcasting as the General Manager/Chief Executive Officer of Radio Lagos in the early 80s.
While at Radio Lagos (Alhaji Lateef Jakande was Governor of Lagos State), he midwifed Lagos Television, which pioneered 24-hour television in Nigeria, though it was initially on weekends. Lagos Television’s duel with the Nigerian Television Authority for audiences improved broadcast content until the military intervention on 31 December 1983 blunted the opportunities the competition presented. His voice on Nigeria Broadcasting Service, later Service, the forebear of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, was a delight. “We were taught to pronounce words correctly. We spent hours getting the correct pronouncement of words, even names, no matter in which language, before going on air” he once told me. “No excuses were acceptable,” said BizLaw who read English at the University of Ibadan.
“I attended CMS Grammar, Lagos, not the one in Bariga,” he told #MyLagosStory, in an April 2017 video recording for the 50th anniversary of the creation of Lagos State. He grew up in the Campos area of Lagos, “when it was one of the friendliest spots on earth”. It was a Lagos of dance and song, with the best people in sports, entertaining, politics, and professions gravitating to Lagos for the opportunities it held, he said. Lagos then, he said was crime free.
“It was like paradise,” he recounted, noting that they danced from Campos Square, on Easter Sundays, to Yaba, and danced back in the night without any incidents. “People walked a lot. There were no danfos, only one public transport service that an Italian ran.”
The first time I met BizLaw was on the pages of The Punch. He was writing a must-read column. I was concerned that a broadcast journalist was taking the place of print journalists. When I finally met him at the Vanguard in 1984, I took an instant liking to him. He wrote so much weekly that I held him in wondrous contemplation.
I found out he liked me too. He called me Ikeee, with a drawl that turned the name into a song in my ear.
He was the chairman at my wedding in 1989 and saved me professionally when I wanted to depart Vanguard in April 1986 to join a soft sell magazine.
He would not hear of it when Chris Okojie, my boss and brother, reported “the madness”, as they both deemed it, to be. We debated the matter until well past midnight when he won. He had threatened to cut relations with the magazine founder, who he had known for decades.
We downed a bottle of Seagram to seal the deal that I was staying. BizLaw’s feet were where to sit if one wanted to learn writing, speech, and loads of history of Nigeria, particularly, Lagos where he seemed to know everyone in each of the prominent, and not so prominent households. He knew who had Portuguese, Sierra Leonean, or nearby Lagos origins.
In the same way, he would dissect the ancient Benin Kingdom, where he had some roots, as if he was ever prepared to be asked those questions. It could be a casual discussion, a mention of a name or place, something about a date. He would correct kindly, educate thoroughly on the issues, with his avuncular simper moderating the settings. BizLaw would recount events with the same punctiliousness he attached to his writings. It did not matter if they took place decades ago or someone told him.
The easiest way to get into his wrong side was to correct his script wrongly. He was usually unforgiving of that. His script would arrive with all the indications of the nuances they bore. Those tonalities expressed in an italicised word, a comma, a quote, or a seemingly meaningless capitalised line, could be ruined by an Editor who aligned them to house rules. He meant what he wrote. He wrote what he meant, choosing his words without waste but weight.
His anger over a ruined script was often lost on those who thought he was too fussy about his scripts. When I gained his confidence to manage his scripts, I also made demands from him, among them that the script would get to Vanguard much earlier, for him to read the edited copy before press.
Without telephones then, it was the only way to get back to him with concerns. His was in the diminishing tribe of those with persistence about things being done well, properly, correctly. He had enough reminiscences about life to bring people to knowledge, if not conviction. “I had achieved all my set goals in broadcasting. I had received expert training at the BBC, worked for years at the VOA in Washington, headed a radio station and even founded another in Nigeria, got bored and retired. I was not even 50 years old yet, and looked forward to years of delightful indolence ahead.
I started a beer parlour – where I was my own best customer,” he wrote in a June 2015 column in Vanguard, a birthday message to Uncle Sam, Vanguard founder, who turned 80 then. Uncle Sam kept visiting BizLaw’s Ibi T’o Tutu (The Cool Place), his beer parlour, where he claimed he was the only patron, to get BizLaw to work for Vanguard. A couple of us visited the beer-hole until he shut it down. I am not sure if we paid for the quaffs.
His contributions to sports, outside his writings and committees he headed, were in the Nigeria Football Association, where at various times he was Team Manager, Publicity Secretary, and Vice Chairman. Adieu Uncle BizLaw, for whom the written and spoken words were art, act, and artistry rolled into cascading columns of communication without cant. You will be missed but you left a lot that when we turn, there are lives you impacted. Vanguard