A wonderful book bought only recently (you can just see it behind the pink and black Thirkell in the pic), but read out of order because a) I wanted to and b) I offered to submit a review to Shiny New Books. That will be published later (I’ll link to it here as usual) and will be a more distanced and serious affair. This post is more my personal reaction to this book. As Zephaniah is about a decade and a half older than me, his protest and political poetry has been with me since my own political awakening in my mid-to-late teens. He was already a hero of mine; fortunately, this book has only made him more so.

Benjamin Zephaniah, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography

(22 May 2018)

You have to love an autobiography that starts with the words, “I hate autobiographies”. For a man who has lived a life based on authenticity and rawness, the fakeness of other people’s works of memoir is an annoyance, especially those who want to tell you about their side of the story when they’ve committed bad deeds, or people who are very young and write them just for the publicity.

His attitude to authority is established early on, in what has become a famous quote from the book. When asked by “a rather intimidating moustache attached to a uniform” what he wants to be when he grows up, he only has one answer, and then one reaction to the response:

’A poet!’ shouted the moustache. ‘A poet? When was the last time you saw a poet skin a rabbit? Think of something better, and when you do you’ll be one of us.’

I knew then and there that was never going to happen. I was never going to be part of the authority culture. (p. 17)

He does speak with love and affection of his father figure, his mum’s partner Pastor Burris, who acts like more of a dad than his dad does, leading him to repay this debt at the end of the pastor’s life.

The first part of the book does detail quite a lot of criminal activity – not gory detail but there’s plenty of it and stories of people who are lost to gang warfare and other activities. He also describes taking part in a ‘gay-bashing’ episode, falling victim to peer-group pressure, and hitting a guy in a wheelchair – I personally found it OK that he’d put these in, as he’s obviously ashamed of these actions and wants to make amends, and explains how it happens, perhaps to help other people make better decisions. He also explains a lot about the martial arts practice, running and meditation that he works on every day, seeking balance and peace in his life, so I think that balance is there.

A vegan before he knows the word vegan (and beating up someone who calls him one before he realises), he gets involved in animal rights activism but is asked to stop coming along to active operations because he’s just too recognisable, what with the massive dreads and the habit of breaking into spontaneous poetry. The book is full of amusing episodes like this, certainly not put in to glorify the subject (I also loved it when he got mistaken for Bob Marley on a plane).

There were loads of little points that made me smile. He did quite a lot with the wonderful Attila the Stockbroker in the early years of stand-up poetry in the UK when he was one of the few other ‘ranting poets’ (you can read my review of Attila’s autobiography here) and he’s also friends with the linguist David Crystal, borrowing his “just a phrase I’m going through” from Crystal’s autobiography to describe his early use of a lot of biblical imagery in his work. I was also very pleased with his little rant about self-publishing – thank you!

These days I’m not that keen on self-publishing, as I think a writer always needs an editor, and a lot of self-published books are full of spelling mistakes and use terrible typefaces. (p. 144)

Having said that, he put his first pamphlets of poems together himself and advises anyone planning to publish to have their own idea of what they want to do and to rough it out at least. He’s also a feminist, reading bell hooks and Simone de Beauvoir, even though as he admits he didn’t treat women well originally. Again, he admits his error, and he points out very forcefully that when he goes to a new country, he looks for the women to ask about life there, as the men will often be more free and not give the full picture (he does also suggest that to know a country well, you should have sex in it and get arrested – preferably not at the same time …

As he gets more famous,  he has to work out his media identity, as he finds that ranting about political topics doesn’t always get him very far. But he still does it whenever he has an audience, and good for him! He has an interesting take on the recent and 1980s riots, seeing it as all part of Thatcherite greed and wondering why the bankers get away with swindling the banking system but ordinary people loot a telly and the whole of the law comes crashing down on them. The points he makes about disenfranchised youth are close enough to those put forward in the grime book I read recently to make joined-up sense.

There’s loads more than this: him discovering Nelson Mandela read his poetry in prison and meeting the great man; John Peel’s concern when he does a gig in Harlow; meeting the Wailers; and becoming friends with Tony Benn.  There’s also a lot of very interesting musing on men’s infertility. Sometimes I felt I’d really like to see him in conversation with Robert Webb about boys’ upbringings and men’s need to suppress their emotions. But if you are interested in this stuff then you’ll read the book, won’t you. But I don’t just want to think of this book preaching to the choir: even if you don’t know who Benjamin Zephaniah is, I highly recommend this excellent read.

This was not on my #20BooksOfSummer list, but was picked off the shelf to review for Shiny New Books, with a more personal review here. I have rejected my first #20Books book, as “The Accidental Apprentice” opens with someone on death row and seems to involve kidney harvesting and is Not For Me. I haven’t swapped it as such, I’ll just add another fiction book in I was going to skip over. I’m currently reading George Eliot’s “Scenes from Clerical Life” and am enjoying it now, though found it a little hard to get into. What are you up to?