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7 December 2023

Benjamin Zephaniah: “My first racist attack was a brick in the back of the head”

The late poet on Noam Chomsky, Bob Marley, growing his own veg, and travelling into the future.

By New Statesman

The acclaimed British poet, playwright, novelist and children’s author Benjamin Zephaniah died, aged 65, on 7 December 2023. Born in Birmingham, he was also an activist, musician and, between 2013 and 2022, an actor in “Peaky Blinders”. This interview was first published on 4 December 2017.

What’s your earliest memory?

We had just moved home, out of a very multiracial area – Indians, Jamaicans and Irish – into a purely white area. My dad sent me to buy some light bulbs. I didn’t understand that when you went to the shop, you just had to come back. I met some kids and played a bit of football. I got back about five hours later with the light bulb, but my parents were really angry.

Who are your heroes?

When I was a child, Illya Kuryakin from The Man from UNCLE. I thought he was so cool. Now, Noam Chomsky. I can’t understand how he keeps so much in his head.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Wayne Gerard Trotman’s The Kairi Chronicles. I would never have thought you could set science fiction in the Caribbean.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Angela Davis. I was young and I’d had my first racist attack: someone slapping me with a brick in the back of my head. My mum was always telling me to be quiet, that I was a guest in this country. And then there was this woman with this afro, speaking about black people. The police were after her… This was a real-life superhero.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’ve done Mastermind – a celebrity special for charity. They said you can’t do Bob Marley because someone else is doing it – and they changed my subject to the history of reggae music. I failed miserably.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to go 100 years in the future. For left-wing reasons, I think we should leave the EU but the way that we’re leaving is completely wrong. I’d like to see what comes out of this mess.

What TV show could you not live without?

Can I do a radio show? Gardeners’ Question Time. I grow my own organic vegetables.

Who would paint your portrait?

Anybody, as long as I am not there. You spend so much time sitting there and then they sell it – you don’t get nothing.

What’s your theme tune?

“We and Dem” by Bob Marley. I do really believe that there’s a class of people who don’t care about us.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Never eat anything with a face on it and don’t eat anything you’re not willing to kill. And I’ve followed it since I was 11.

What’s currently bugging you?

My back. In a minute I’m going to sit in my sauna and see if I can stretch it out a bit.

When were you happiest?

It was in 1986. I went back to Jamaica and did absolutely nothing but hang out with my grandparents.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I would teach kung fu and t’ai chi. It lowers your heart rate. You find such inner peace.

Are we all doomed?

Of course we’re all doomed. But we get over it.

[See also: Judi Dench’s Q&A: “Shakespeare’s rhythms are the beating of my heart”]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world