Inspiring Older Readers
The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah by Benjamin Zephaniah
This poet is well known for his charismatic personality and for a long time he has even been included on TV programmes like ‘Question Time’ as an approved ‘radical’ voice. This provides him with the chance to present his beliefs to an unusually wide audience and to shake people up a bit with his uncompromising stance on many important political issues. He seems comfortable and relaxed in extraordinary situations like when I saw him give a formal presentation at Birmingham Cathedral a few years ago. Then he wryly observed how strange it was to be talking to a predominantly white middle class audience in the city where he was born, and where he grew up to be a very troubled young man with little formal education and links to serious criminal activities. Against all these difficulties, he defined himself as a creative artist from a very young age and now ranks highly in literary circles as well as with ordinary people of all ages. I really enjoyed reading ‘Refugee Boy’, his second YA novel, and I already knew bits and pieces about his life and activism and so I was looking forward to reading his autobiography.
The first thing to say is that this was a very easy read - almost like chatting with someone who loves telling the story of his life. He explains that he had to be nagged considerably by his publisher before embarking on what he knew would be a very complicated and often painful attempt to organise his memories. I particularly liked his reminiscences of his childhood growing up as the eldest of seven mischievous children in a noisy household. He attributes his ear for the beauty of language to his Jamaican mother who used rhyme and rhythm unselfconsciously in her everyday language. His recollections of starting at a school where there were no other black children in the early 1970s tell a familiar story of pupils and teachers who were both ignorant and racially abusive. For example, as the only black child at a new school he was expected to be able to captain the school cricket team! And why did the teachers decide to ask all the children to bring in their golliwogs from home? The theme of fighting racism based on his own and others experience is threaded through the book. This is by no means just about the focus of his writing, because he has always been an activist, and continues to be involved in international causes around social injustice of all kinds.
Apart from the influence of his mother, he describes how he was busy soaking up musical and poetic influences, like the music and lyrics of Bob Marley, from a young age and soon became aware that he had a real knack for performance. Life at home became harder and harder to take as his dad was increasingly violent so that he and his mum went on the run for a long time. He gives a very frank synopsis of this time of his itinerant life which meant that he was living in lots of different places and going to many schools.
As he grew to be a young teenager, he lived up to his growing reputation as a ‘naughty‘ boy with constant warnings about ‘fighting, misbehaving, truanting and not paying attention in class’. He has since realised that he was dyslexic, a term which was unrecognised when he was at school, which certainly didn’t help with his experience. He was expelled several times and ended up spending time at an approved school. There he learnt about car mechanics, which proved to be a very useful future skill and when he was released, he soon became well known performing as a ‘toaster’ at the many blues dances in the community:
‘The toaster’s job was to be a social commentator – to use wit and verbal dexterity to talk about one’s roots and culture, or to lampoon politicians or the police.’
This proved to be the perfect opportunity for him to hone a distinctive popular style, but unfortunately at the same time he was lured by the excitement of pick-pocketing, because he was also very good at doing that. This eventually led to a borstal sentence for which he spent time in Winson Green Prison:
‘Going from approved school to prison was like leaving junior school and going straight to university – a really bad university where bullies that could kill you or rape you.’
I realise that it is rather difficult to review this book because he has led such an eventful and interesting life. All that I have described so far is packed into the first third of the story and the pace continues to be relentless. After leaving the prison system he becomes increasingly interested in Rastafarianism, squats in a Handsworth house with other Rastafarians and works as a painter and decorator. He then has another spell of living a life of crime dominated by a taste for cars, money and girls. Eventually he decides to leaves Birmingham to live in London where he reinvents himself and focuses on becoming a poet.
I found it fascinating to read about how he became involved with the emerging interest in performance poetry with people such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke and the part he played in the Rock Against Racism movement in the 1970s. He gradually became more well- known, and even performed with his band in communist Yugoslavia where he was a huge success as their first reggae gig. He had always travelled regularly to the Caribbean where he connected with family in Jamaica and Barbados, and toured all over the world. He developed a life-long passion for travelling and learning about how other ordinary people live. Along the way he met Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Toni Morrison in Brazil plus many more celebrities. He also explains how he fell in love with China where he is trained to improve his kung fu skills by master teachers and then to pursue another obsession, t’ai chi.
‘Along with poetry, the discipline of martial arts has been instrumental in turning my life around. It is a fantastic way of teaching you how to control anger and converts that anger into something positive.’
He ends up living half his year in China and the other half in rural Lincolnshire where he takes pleasure in pottering about in the garden and proudly growing vegetables. He has had an exhausting life so far but the book is packed with funny anecdotes, desperate stories and cultural references that I really enjoyed. This man lives life to the full but recognises the value of taking time out to meditate and to write;
‘Poetry has wrapped my heart when my heart was naked. Poetry has eased much of the pain I have experienced. I have dedicated my life to poetry and to ‘the struggle’, but ultimately I have been on a life – long quest to find inner peace’.
I can’t wait to read about the next phase of his life.