Book review of his autobiography
“The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah” is a remarkably frank account of the actions and opinions of this highly regarded Rasta poet who has just died of brain cancer.
The early chapters of this autobiography of Benjamin Zephaniah tell the story of his early years in Birmingham. Born in 1957, the first child, with a twin, of a Jamaican nurse and a Barbadian GPO worker, he states: “The story of my poetry can be traced to my mother. It was she who gave me words, she gave me rhythm, and it was she who gave me my appetite for verse.”
But the early chapters are also more about the hardships of his childhood, and the racism he experienced growing up at that time (the 1960s-70s) in the Midlands, in the era of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech (1968). Young Benjamin seems to have experienced unsympathetic teachers conforming to racist/imperial norms of the time, and in the playground was left alone in the corner talking to other creatures (frogs, birds etc). He learned to fight hard to defend himself from bullies and gangs.
At home, now in a large household of nine, his father started to hit his mother, who eventually fled, taking her son with her. This resulted in some peripatetic teenage years as they had to move address frequently, so the boy changed schools frequently and barely learned to read. He used to go with his mother to church, and it was there that he was first applauded for reciting by heart, rhythmically, all the books of the Bible, and was given the name of Zephaniah. His mother then moved in with another man, Pastor Burris, so Zephaniah now had another large family, including Trevor who was his age. Together they explored the streets around them and started to hustle. They needed money for eye-catching clothes and the new vinyls of the latest Reggae music.
“We were starting to grow up. Some of it was positive. Some of it was negative. We would imitate the boys around us, and I soon found myself in court…we were doing burglaries.”
By the time he was 15, he was appearing in court for burglary and receiving stolen goods.
Discharged from school at 15
Eventually, he was sent to an approved school (Boreatton Park) where he was given the opportunity to strip and rebuild a Ford Corsair engine, thereby gaining a hobby for life. When discharged from school at 15, he moved out of home and continued hustling, this time getting a borstal sentence, incarcerated at Winson Green prison, “Like going straight to university, a really bad university…where bullies can kill you.” But Zephaniah was already a competent kung-fu fighter, enough to defend himself, and also enjoyed secret night fights with one of the wardens who liked karate.
Unfortunately, in his late teens, he once mocked the police at the trial of Trevor, and one policeman in revenge framed him, with a false witness who eventually backed out, but this court record came back to hinder him later. Meanwhile, as he grew up, he enlarged his “business” activities by paying runners to steal tools and equipment which he would then shift on the market. But when he was showing a recruit how to steal tools, they opened a boot to see a corpse in there. The shock of this made Zephaniah re-plan his life, and he decided to move to London.
Vegan and campaigner
The next chapters of the book are about his growing activities as a performance poet, as already covered in the earlier article. His performances were part of campaigns, for instance, “Rock against Racism”. What is interesting to see is how his poetry grew from his lifestyle. The first people who published his poems were the Whole Thing Co-operative of Stratford. He was already a Rasta, with startling long braids. He was already a vegan, having decided in his early teens that to eat meat was the same as eating his playground friends.
Anti-racism was a powerful message when youth of the time were fighting racist gangs in East London (and other UK cities). At the time he first took his performances to Jamaica, the Free Nelson Mandela message was reverberating around the world. He eventually met the free Mandela a decade later.
As his fame grew, he was also invited to be a poet in residence. For instance, he spent two years in Liverpool, always responding to community invitations. Increasingly he performed in schools. The poem he is most famous for is called Talking Turkeys which is really a cry from a vegan for the freedom of turkeys!
He married Amina, a young woman of an Urdu-speaking family, who was an excellent organiser, and also a theatre administrator. But they were childless because, as he courageously admitted in public, he was spermless. They were not allowed to adopt because of the unresolved court case referred to earlier. Eventually, they divorced. In later years, after many visits to China to pursue his interest in martial arts, he married a Chinese woman.
From the 1990s, his earnings increased enormously, and he was able to buy his own house and invite his Mum to join him in London. But he was often away because by this time the British Council gave him contracts to tour overseas. This is how I was able to first hear him perform at the Durban Poetry Festival.
He continued to publicise campaigns allied to the experiences of black people in Britain. His cousin Michael Powell died in police custody in 2003. He followed up that case and continued to donate to causes to free people unjustly accused, an experience he had had several times. In 2009 he was commissioned by a health charity to write a play about prostate cancer to get the message out that more black men should get tested for it.
The last 10 years
In the last 10 years of his life, he moved to a rural village in Lincolnshire. He started organic gardening to feed himself. As he points out, this is not so at odds with his Caribbean origins – his grandmother, he had discovered on a visit, lived by subsistence farming, bartering and with the help of neighbours, hardly using money at all.
The final chapter of this autobiography is more reflective of his life. When asked what he is most proud about, he states that he is proud to have moved away from a life of crime; proud to have helped free Mandela and proud to have taken a lead in performance poetry.
“Poetry has wrapped my heart when my heart was naked; it helped me to represent my age and my ageing; it is part of me but, in the end, it is about knowledge of self. Peace. I’m out of here.”