Benjamin Zephaniah talks to Shelley Carter about the freedom of his thrilling childhood in Brum, how he wakes up happy every day, why he declined an OBE and the time he supported Julian Clary on stage
Try to pigeon hole Benjamin Zephaniah at your peril. Poet, writer, lyricist, musician, actor, republican, activist, campaigner, freedom fighter. It’s impossible. His achievements are too plentiful to mention, but we’ll pick a fistful.
For example, he was named in The Times list of top 50 post-war writers cementing his status as one of the most influential writers of modern times, not that he needs the accolades. In 1982 his album Rasta recorded with the Wailers as a tribute to Nelson Mandela gained international recognition and triggered a meeting with Mandela himself.
So charmed was Mandela by Zephaniah that when planning his Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996 he requested that Benjamin host the event. Famously anti-establishment, he rejected an OBE for services to literature in 2003 and has multiple honorary doctorates including one from the University of Birmingham. A far cry from humble beginnings in the shadows of Villa Park.
Now living in Lincolnshire, Benjamin’s upbringing was a world away from leafy, so what happened? One of nine children, Benjamin grew up in Aston and then later Hockley. His childhood sounds thrilling and edgy. Benjamin and his pals enjoyed the freedom of the Sixties and Seventies when children played on the streets ‘til after dark with the bomb pecks of Brum as a backdrop where they uncovered treasures left behind. He recalls: “You’d find medals and cameras, all sorts of interesting things. I loved that.” An eclectic mix of neighbours included Ozzy Osbourne. Benjamin remembers: “It was possible to jump from my garden into Ozzy’s. He definitely stood out with his cool biker jackets.”
In Hockley, community spirit was strong and everyone knew everybody. “We lived around a courtyard with shared toilets at one point and there was only one phone on the street, so when you needed to make a call you’d borrow it in exchange for tuppence.” He adds: “People would throw street parties for no reason and all the kids played out together generally with homemade toys. It was normal to have a bike made by someone else’s dad.”
Benjamin remembers an elderly couple, Frank and Margaret who lived in the flats close by. When Frank died he and his friend adopted Margaret and would visit her often for a cup of tea and a natter. “I remember getting into a lift and going up to the eighth floor. It felt so futuristic.”
Benjamin’s favourite game was to go out with his brother and get lost, literally. “We’d go to an area we didn’t know, get lost, then try to find our way home.” More often than not they’d hitch a lift with the local bobby, but they got into a few scraps too. One particular scuffle has stayed with Benjamin. “I got beaten up in Erdington and when I came home my dad told me to go back and fight him, so I did.” Benjamin was beaten up a second time and his father told him to go back and fight the boy. This happened four times until Benjamin gave the boy a pasting. He came back and told his dad the news who calmly said: “Very good.”
When the gypsies came to town which they did periodically Benjamin was in awe. “They were rough and ready and exciting. They’d have a fight then sit down and play guitar and the girls would read poetry.”
Getting into poetry seemed a natural thing to do. While listening to Jamaican music growing up quite often there’d be a B-side track of poems which whet his appetite. Benjamin’s mum was unwittingly a poetic influence too. “She had a library of poems in her head although she would never call herself a poet. I loved rhyme and rhythm in speech.” By the age of 11 Benjamin was reciting poetry in public in church halls and the like.
School wasn’t great and by the age of 13 Benjamin had been expelled with the words of his teachers ringing in his ears. “They told me I’d either end up dead or serving a life sentence. Well, we’re all going to end up dead, so that was a bit silly.” Around this time Benjamin realised he wanted to do something with poetry. “My friends thought I was weird. We’d be doing something slightly illegal and rather than rushing in and out, I’d be looking at books on the shelves and thinking about the people that owned them.”
It was around this time Benjamin started to notice racism and trying to get a paper round to earn some money was an eye opener. “A lot of white kids had paper rounds, but I tried 40 places and no one would employ me. Then a Chinese guy gave me a job doing potatoes round the back of a restaurant.”
Birmingham had limited opportunities for Benjamin to pursue poetry, so he moved to London. “I slept in a car for the first couple of days. Someone told me if you want to be a real poet you need to be published. I used to turn up and read for publishers rather than sending my work, then I heard about an alternative publisher – a co-operative, called Pen River.” They snapped Benjamin up and Pen Rhythm was published in 1980.
Soon after he moved to London he met other creative types and began an extraordinary trip. One man in particular who was bringing creatives together with his vision of alternative entertainment was Roland Muldoon who set up legendary underground political theatre group CAST. His alternative comedy circuit included Rik Mayall, French and Saunders and Paul Merton among others. Benjamin did a stint supporting the flamboyant Joan Collins Fan Club aka Julian Clary around this time. He recalled: “Everything just fell into place. Right place, right time, right skills.”
When awarded an OBE for services for literature in 2003 Benjamin’s rejection was unwavering. “I’m not interested in impressing the establishment. People would come up to me on the streets and say, ‘when you refused the OBE that was such a great moment for us’. I’ve maintained credibility at a grass roots level.” It would have felt like selling out for Benjamin and he’s been critical of other black writers in the past who have accepted honours.
In an article for the Guardian which he wrote at the time he said, “I have even heard black writers who have collected OBEs saying that it’s a ‘symbol of how far we have come’. Oh yes I say we’ve struggled so hard just to get a minute with the Queen and we are so very grateful – not.”
Martial arts has been a big influence in Benjamin’s life particularly kung fu although he’s keen to point out it’s far from the Bruce Lee brand. Every year Benjamin travels to China to train with a teacher. He’s also into tai chi which he describes as an internal martial art requiring ‘amazing strength from within. It’s all about the mind’.
When Benjamin wakes he likes to push his body to the limit and says: “When I wake I’m glad I’m alive. So many people leave me, so I never take people for granted.” (Checkout his poem Happy Everyday). Some of the old guard he grew up with in Brum have died which brings home how short life is.
BACK IN TIME
Writing his autobiography which should be due out in May has been an intriguing project for Benjamin. “It’s the first time I’ve sat down with my mum and really questioned ‘how did you feel about that?’ There were bouts of domestic violence you know. It’s interesting to hear about our life, what made her.”
Benjamin thought deeply about his large family with eight siblings and considered it linked to the fact that in African countries big families are the norm because infant mortality is still relatively high. His mum put him straight though. “She told me: ‘Oh no it wasn’t that. It was just your father wouldn’t stop!’”
Of Brum, Benjamin is still thoroughly in love with the place and the people and ‘can never say he’s home until he’s in Birmingham’, but he’d make some changes too. “I love the city so much. While Peaky Blinders has given it some pride, there are no contemporary programmes set in Birmingham. We need that.” He adds: “In other countries there are a number of cities that could be the capital, but here it’s all London. That needs to change. Also, it would be great if more of the fun bits of Birmingham were outside the city centre.”
NOT FOR SALE
Just before I caught up with Benjamin, I heard the former casting director of I’m a Celebrity being interviewed on the radio and when asked who his dream signing for the show would be, he replied: “Without a doubt Benjamin Zephaniah.” I put this to the man himself who was fairly clear. “I’ve been asked many times and they’ve offered me a lot of money, but I would never do it. I’ve asked them not to call again. If I want to humiliate myself there are better ways.” Understood.
Although on reflection I can see why he would be an intriguing signing. He has bags of charisma – of that there is no doubt – and he’s also opinionated – no bad thing, is hugely interesting, famously anti-establishment and can get a bit angry about issues important to him. A ratings winner if ever there was one, but let it go ITV. His dignity is not for sale.