The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

“I hate autobiographies. They’re so fake”.

That’s an astounding opening sentence but one that doesn’t really surprise, given that it’s written by a man who’s spent his life so far pushing against fakeness and politics, ploughing his own furrow, choosing to do things before he even knows the name for them and generally being that much-overused word, ‘authentic’.

For those who don’t know him, Zephaniah is a Birmingham-born 60-something of mixed Caribbean heritage. He’s a spoken word performer, dub poet, political activist, playwright, poet and author, a vegan and animal rights activist. He’s had what one might call a chequered past, of which he is by no means proud (he’s most proud that he left a life of crime through sheer force of will and didn’t get shot by the time he was 30) and he now lives a quiet life in an East Anglian village, learning about gardening. However, he’s not stopped talking and writing about politics and being active in various struggles. For him, and he stresses this throughout the book, words are not enough: action is vital.

Unlike certain ‘celebrity’ autobiographies, we get the whole of his life so far in the one volume, with a balance of detail about his childhood, youth running around and getting into trouble and his developing activism and writing. It’s all told simply and chronologically, making it a deceptively easy read (there’s plenty to think about). The flavour of his relationship with authority and organisations is established early on, when he is encouraged to join the Boy’s Brigade. 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.

We wend our way through Zephaniah’s life, meeting important figures such as his mum and Pastor Burris, his effective step-dad, the opposite of his dad, who always makes time for him, becoming a real father figure. Zephaniah pays back these good deeds at the end of the pastor’s life, even though he’s long gone from his mum’s life by then.

In this first section on his youth, there is a lot of discussion of crime, pickpocketing and burglary expertise honed and trained, and talk of guns and knives, with Zephaniah doing various activities, owning a gun for a while, hitting a disabled boy and other people, and ending up running a gang of car tool thieves. This is explained dispassionately and not glorified at all. He makes it clear that it was actually quite a lot of boring admin at times, and does not justify it short of showing how it was a path that was all too easy to fall into, especially with him moving around a lot with his mum and not doing well at school (as an undiagnosed dyslexic, for a start). When he decides to go straight, he makes that decision and sticks with it, even though he runs into a few temptations when he moves to London and stays with a few dodgy ladies. He runs around with women as well, although a lot of them seem to have just as much agency and bad behaviour as he does, and he treats prostitutes as equals and has a good relationship with them, acting as a brothel painter and decorator for a while. I feel he pulls off the balance between describing his life of crime but not going into unpleasant details or making it seem glamorous although I appreciate it will put some people off. He’s at pains to describe a lifetime habit of martial arts, running and meditation as a way of calming himself and working out his place in the world, which again balances this part in my view.

One aspect of law-breaking which is quite funny is his animal rights activism. He becomes a vegan before he knows the word, and indeed, when he gets called one, threatens to thump the guy before having it explained. But he has to be banned from going on activist activities because with his mass of dreads and habit of breaking into poetry at the slightest provocation, he’s just too noticeable, even in disguise:

At one point, when I held a liberated rabbit in my arms, I almost burst into poetry, but the other people on the operation kept telling me to shut up. We were successful but afterwards I was advised to stick to my normal mode of struggle and not go on another operation.

As we move into the poetry years we find plenty of information about how he puts together his first books, advising people wanting to do similar to always have an idea of what their book will be like. He’s also got some good tips about retaining copyright and ownership of your material, again useful for anyone coming up. He puts together a band and records some dub poetry records with them, but struggles with media appearances because he always wants to bring the political in (good for him!). Looking at the political, his take on the riots of both the 1980s and more recently is very interesting, contrasting the castigation of the looting with the elites: “I think it’s all part of the legacy of Thatcherite greed – the privileged class will do their tax swindles and shady banking but the people on the streets, that’s their version of it”. Food for thought, and I love that he hasn’t knocked his corners off or changed his politics in all these decades of fighting for various causes.

There is lots more in the book: I haven’t covered his relationships with Nelson Mandela, John Peel, Tony Benn and the ranting poets, for a start. But I recommend you pick up a copy of this excellent book – and maybe a book of his poetry too. A man who I already admired only went up in my estimation as a result of reading this book: there’s a recommendation.

Liz Dexter blogs about books and running and running books at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Benjamin Zephaniah, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 2018). 9781471168925,  333 pp., ill. hardback

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