By Obi Nwakanma
(And the Horn May now paw the air howling goodbye…”) -Christopher Okigbo (“Elegy for Alto”)
He carried himself with the ease of a bohemian. Torch was in fact a bohemian at heart. I think that was why he was great friends with Christopher Okigbo, the immortal poet of the very epigram of this eulogy. I do not mourn Torch, because he would have found it unnecessary. I find, the more I look for any cause to mourn, that there is none. He lived a full and satisfied life.
So, I choose to celebrate him, and to dress him in his best habit, and bear witness that he was a man who, in the words of one of his favorite poets, Felix Tchicaya U’Tamsi, chose to be present at the renewal of the world. I first met Torch Taire about twenty-five years ago, and he took me rather seriously as one of his younger friends. I was working on the biography of Christopher Okigbo, and I had been talking with Professor Ben Obumselu, who said, “there is a man you’ve got to meet, one of our best friends, Torch.”
He made a call, and I was invited very instantly to lunch. That launch began for me one of the more pleasurable associations I’ve had, because Torch was deeply, intellectually curious, and wise, and worldly.
He knew too many things, the insider politics of contemporary Nigeria; the murky and dark drama of high finance, the different textures in French cognac, the fine and dexterous ligaments of a contemporary sculpture. He once took me on a tour around his classic Roll Royce parked in the garage of his elegant home in Anthony Village, and gave me an impressive lecture on mechanics. He could, even though he tended to be occasionally sanguine about some “professional intellectuals,” put many a professor of Literature to test, with his vast knowledge and interests in books.
He was a bibliophile, and his private library, in the great suite of his bedroom at his home in Anthony Village, was evidence of this – his many collection of some quite rare books, including I came to find, now rare early and original prints of the Mbari editions of some of the most remarkable writers of his own generation, with whom he was actually close. People like J.P. Clark, whom he thought to be an intense genius. Soyinka he felt was distant and brusque. “That was the difference between him and Christopher” he once told me. “You could meet Christopher in an airport anywhere in the world and he would let out a piercing, celebratory scream and embrace you.
Not Wole.” These intimate views came from close association with the leading lights of modern Nigerian literature in the exciting years in Ibadan, during the years of the Mbari club. Torch Taire lived in those years in Ibadan too, as the Pharmaceutical Rep of Parker Davies, then one of the big Pharmaceutical companies operating in Nigeria, and lived next door neighbor and friend to the poet Christopher Okigbo, on UAC Crescent in the Onireke area of Ibadan, and next door to him, on the other side was Godwin Adokpaye, then Mobil’s Regional Manager in the Western Region, who later retired as Chief Executive of Mobil, years later – and they were all then, young, cocky men, driven by the impulse of the great nationalist spirit represented by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Torch himself was a thorough Zikist, even though his best friend was the late Segun Awolowo, first son of the great Yoruba politician, and Oluwole Awolowo, the younger of the sons, was a follower of Zik, not of his own father.
It was through Torch that I learnt all these; about the innocence and idealism of their generation, and the compelling hunger for a greater Nigeria which drove him to the very end. Torch also apparently loved the thunder of guns – he was a merchant of guns himself, a major Arms contractor, and he became wealthy as a businessman, in the great boom years of the 1970s, and did quite a bit of business with British Aerospace. As Chairman of Stanley Torch Limited, with his offices established downtown in the penthouse of one of the more elegant high rises on the Marina, Torch had a sweeping view of Lagos. He was a thorough Lagosian too, and knew anybody who ought to be known in that city full of its own mysteries. His wife, Femi Taire, was a “Lagos Girl,” a daughter of a prominent Lagos family, and at some point Secretary to the government of Lagos state. By this time, of course, Torch was already retiring, into the twilight of things. But in his more active years, Torch Taire was a great city socialite – Epicurus was more his avatar – the life of lovely ease among friends, and the hum of the open table upon which he entertained generously and sumptuously – more so than the stoical, into which he retired in his last years. He became more active as a Baptist. But it was always said, among Lagos society, that in the days when Torch Taire was active, his flats in London in the 1980s, on South Audley street, was the place to party.
Indeed, Torch told me, that Amartya Sen, the Bengalese Indian Economist, who later won the Nobel Prize in Economics with whom he had become friends and neighbours in London, inherited his Steward. He was in many ways, not unlike the wealthiest of Nigerians, drawn to excess. But Torch was equally different in one regard: he was more subtle; more sophisticated. He was a great patron of the arts, and perhaps one of the greatest collectors of Modern Nigerian Art. He had in his collection the works of the greatest Nigerian artists, from Ben Enwonwu, to the more contemporary. His collections overflowed the corridors of the private quarters of his home, down to his basement. One of the distinct pleasures for me always, on my annual visits to Nigeria, was always to make certain to drop by and see Torch Taire and Sam Amuka in Lagos, since they lived in the same neighborhood. It always annoyed Torch that I always had only one day to stay before traveling back.
“You must plan to stay at least one full day!” he said to me the last time I saw him, this past year. But alas, death has once again proved, that we are all captives to time. Torch Oritsewenyimi Taire: businessman, arts collector, socialite, and pharmacist, was a very complicated man. Educated at Hope Waddell, on whose football and cricket teams he made his mark in the 1950s, but was finished in the great boardrooms of business; he was a natural artist, and instinctive poet, and an astute businessman. He love passionately his wife Femi, and always seemed to me a little awed by her, and was a great and loyal friend to the poet Okigbo, who was the bestman at his wedding in Ibadan in 1964. He loved his children, and was especially proud of his daughter, Eyitemi, whom he had educated privately at the Roedean School, and whom he proudly told me “will be the first female managing director of NBL.” But the greatest and consoling pleasure of his later life were his grandchildren. May the angels guide him home.