Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Part 1 of a special 3 part feature on the historic conversation between Michelle Obama and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in London. Here: the exciting build up to the event, a vexing ticket fiasco and the global need for genuine leadership.
This could just be the cultural event of the century. Ninety minutes of conversation between a former First Lady and a global literary superstar. Michelle Obama on stage with and moderated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Southbank Centre in London.
The public response to the announcement was massive. As soon as Ted Hodgkinson (Literary supremo at the Southbank) told us he was thrilled that Michelle Obama would be making her one book tour appearance in the UK in the Royal Festival Hall, we went into a frenzy. And yet the chances of winning a golden ticket looked slim from the outset. There were only 2700 seats in the venue. Two days were allocated for ticket sales. Two hours would have been plenty. The prospect of success was tantalising. Happiness for the lucky few. Devastation for the majority who would miss out.
The tickets would have been snapped up at almost any price. Each came with a hardback copy of Michelle Obama’s book: Becoming. And perhaps the chance of an autograph. I still had an unsigned copy of Dear Ijeawele, somehow, and this would be my big chance on a big night to complete my set of personal inscriptions.
The Southbank Centre from The Thames
Easier said than done. Despite being a member, I found myself locked inside a virtual waiting room, in position 7,000 on the first day. The dreaded cut-off came all too soon. On the second day, I chanced my arm with 4 virtual presences in the queue. Plus 3 mobile phones and 1 landline call on hold for what seemed like forever. This time, I found myself in positions 31,000, 22,000, 20,000 and 8,000, give or take a few. One phone call actually got me through to the box office, but too early! None of my repeat calls made it that far. Eventually, the website said puzzlingly that “tickets are currently unavailable”. A heart-breaking euphemism for “sold-out”.
Surely one of these seats inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall would be mine?
My commission to review the event, which I had rejoiced at just a few days before, had now gone up in smoke. But worse, my chance to see and hear two brilliant women discussing matters of global importance, with a dash of light-hearted banter, in a culturally uplifting venue, up close, was gone. I had so wanted to share the experience with my family. For all of us to benefit together from the wisdom, the learning, the encouragement bound to be delivered. We were not alone. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of hopefuls missed out.
This mass level of public interest tells me several things:
1. The world is crying out for true leadership and inspiration. We go beyond appreciation and fandom. We need intelligent and thought-provoking discourse from prominent figures in society who are genuine in their concern, passionate in their delivery, thoughtful beyond measure, and encouraging in ways that can change the world. We value political and social awareness, human insight, commitment to education and social justice, and the advancement of just causes. This comes in a variety of ways, including literary brilliance, memoir, and public speaking.
Thought leaders and role models
2. Both speakers are forthright, determined and genuine. Faced with so much nonsense in contemporary politics and social commentary, we need people we can follow and rely on to spell things out in honest, valid and uplifting ways. We also want to be part of the process of change. To be recipient to, if not quite instrumental ourselves, in the advancement and sharing of culture and learning that will bring about active change in the world. To make a collective statement. That things can and must be better. To realise what we may become.
3. The world is also crazy about glamour and beauty. There will be many at the Royal Festival Hall who will want to hear about hair and fashion. This will be wonderful, but it will only be a small part of the contribution on offer from two amazing role models who inspire so many of us, male and female, in a myriad of ways.
4. The joining on stage of an African American former First Lady and a celebrated African author seems to me to be an occasion of great cultural and social significance. A chance for Michelle to voice her reactions to the historical and contemporary racial issues explored in Chimamanda’s Americanah. We need to discuss this more in Britain, too. A chance, also, for Michelle, to say whether she thought she could have made it to the White House with natural, upwardly rising hair.
5. My conviction is that the next big advances will come through female leadership. I would have Barack Obama back in charge in a flash, but he has done great service and contributed so much to society in America and beyond. My hope is that Michelle Obama will reclaim the leadership from the current incumbent, and will lead in a renewed process of positive change.
Move over Darling
Back to the Southbank. Alas, I will be missing out on this momentous occasion, but I will be there in spirit. And I will be wishing everyone who is fortunate to attend a joyful and magical experience. Especially the 10% of the audience who will be schoolchildren. Michelle Obama has made a special request to have the chance to engage with young people at the event. This is highly commendable. From previous flying visits to London, she seems to have a flair for this.
A few words on the book, a memoir which will inform the conversation on stage. I have my copy of Becoming and will be reviewing it for Connected Cultures. Try and stop me. In this way, I will be doing my bit to help share Michelle’s reflections and to disseminate her message as best I can. As for Chimamanda, I trust there will be more opportunities to hear her speak in the near future, another book launch at some point, though events with Chimamanda on her own also get sold out lightning fast these days. We will all just have to take our chances.
This event felt like an opportunity not to be missed. But in the end, the numbers were insurmountable, and many will miss out. The Southbank is a favourite cultural venue of mine. Vibrant and prestigious, yet intimate enough to enjoy conversation on the stage. A fine setting for two amazing women known for their inspirational qualities. An evening of memories, anecdotes, opinions and social convictions. But I am torturing myself again just imagining. Next time, ladies, maybe think about Wembley Stadium. Or Hyde Park in the summertime. Without losing the intimacy of the engagement.
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
See part 2 of the Connected Cultures feature on Michelle Obama in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Becoming Disconcerted
See Part 3 of the Connected Cultures feature on Michelle Obama in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Becoming Dazzled