Friday 8 December 2023

Benjamin Zephaniah RIP

 Yesterday, I was listening to the Eddie Nestor show on BBC Radio London. I was getting rather fed up with Eddie, because all of the news seemed a bit grim. Talk was all about Rwanda, ministers quitting, Covid enquiries. I sent an email to him asking for a bit of light relief. Almost immediately after pressing send, Eddie announced that Benjamin Zephaniah had passed away. I was absolutely devastated. There are people who you sort of expect might pass away. Although the passing of Shane MacGowan was really sad for me, it was not unexpected and I was not shocked. Benjamin was different. He seemed to be at the height of his career. Eddie Nestor, who knew Benjamin was clearly shaken to the core. He got fellow presenter and friend of Benjamin, Dotun Adebayor on the show and they had a chat about him. It may be the finest piece of radio I've heard for a long time. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Eddie, I think the BBC London management force him to do a show that does not play to his strengths, but when he can throw the shackles off, he shines. He was the perfect presenter to break this news. He summed this up with his incredulity at the Daily Mirror's summing up of Benjamin in the Headline "Peaky Blinders star dies".  Sadly for many, that really was what he was. For Eddie and for me, he was far more, that was just a string on his bow, perhaps for us a not very important one. 

I felt a strong affinity with Benjamins work. Like me, he was a dyslexic. His rise was enabled by the punk explosion of the late 1970's. There was a period where "punk poetry" was rather fashionable. John Cooper Clarke, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah emerged from this. I'd always previously thought of poets as Keates and Shelley, nice flowery words, not really for me. These poets, with their gritty language and relevant themes opened my eyes. As an artists they opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you can do with words. As a direct result of their work,  and at the urging of my Dad, who was a wartime veteran, I started to read the poems of the first world war poets. It inspired me to write a string of songs, including Action Shock, which my band still performs. 

Benjamin initially couldn't write, so he'd dictate his poems and they'd be transcribed. He realised that this was not feasable if he really wanted to succeed. He took himslef to college, learned to read and write, ending up winning 16 honoury doctorates. His work also ended up on the national curriculum. He was a regular panellist on BBC Question Time. His contributions were full of compassion, common sense and wisdom. He also regularly featured on the BBC Radio London Robert Elms show. When he was on, I'd make sure I listened to it. 

One of the strange things about Benjamin is that whenever I heard his poetry, I was inspired. I didn't want to copy his words, any such thing would end laughably, but he spoke in his own voice and about things he cared about. He made me think about the things that really matter to me and how I can address them. This may sound terribly po-faced, but the opposite is true. The things that really matter to us can be funny, tragic, despairing, sexy and sometimes all at the same time. He'd make me revisit my own work, where I'd been lazy, I'd improve the work. That is what a true genius does. 

RIP Benjamin and thank you. I struggled long and hard to work out what to end with. This seemed appropriate

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