Benjamin Zephaniah started out reciting poems at punk gigs. Now he's one of our best-loved poets, and will guest edit Radio 4's Today next week. Brace yourselves, he's got plenty to say
When Benjamin Zephaniah was a teenager, he sprinted for England. The 100m was his thing, and he always won. But his promising athletics career ended one day when, on the way to the home internationals in Germany, "I had this big debate about – it wasn't called Britishness then – [could I] really be English? And then, when I won, they gave me the flag to carry, and I wouldn't carry it. I was, 'OK, on the way here, you were telling me that I can't be English, and now you're telling me that I've got to take it and do my lap of honour?' I just walked out. And that was that."
Now 54, he still runs, setting off in the early morning, when "the night animals are going home and the day animals are waking up", loping through the flat, dyke-scored fields that surround his bungalow in a Lincolnshire village, past cows, a favourite horse, herons and flocks of migrating birds. He always used to come to places like this for the silence, in order to write, then, about six years ago, he thought, why don't I just live here? He knows he stands out, a Rastafarian in the countryside, and is wryly funny about it, making jokes about being "the only black in the village" or how, for the first couple of months, he thought he was being shot at by local farmers, when it was just the bird-scarers going off.
But at the same time, he is keen to point out that he knows his is a specific case: his neighbours seem to him to like having someone well-known about the place; the local teachers knock on his door to ask him to speak to their classes (things like this happen so often that the day we speak he takes delivery of a set of electronic gates) – if he was unemployed, on benefits, he says, it would be very different. It becomes a bit of a theme, this awareness of his own success being a kind of armour, and a skew to generalisation: he was stopped by the police a few weeks ago, for instance, while driving through London. When he rolled down the window, the officer said, "Bloody 'ell, it's the poet!" His accent, when speaking, is pure Birmingham, where he grew up; when he's performing it changes, to lyrical, savoury Jamaican. "It was about two o'clock in the morning. And I said, 'What do you want?' And he said, 'Oh, it's all right, carry on.' But if I hadn't been the poet, and I'd been unemployed, a Rasta in the middle of the night – I think it would have been different. But this cop was, 'Hey, and my kid's got one of your books!'"
These are some of the things he wants to touch on, when he becomes guest editor of Radio 4's Today programme on Monday. Not his own celebrity, that is, but on "issues I think are important within the black community that are completely ignored by the mainstream". So: stop and search, institutional racism – he was poet in residence at the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC when they were working on the Stephen Lawrence case, an experience that yielded the poem What Has Stephen Lawrence Taught Us? ("We know who the killers are,/ We have watched them strut before us") – and, especially, deaths in custody. One night, about 10 years ago, Zephaniah's cousin Mikey Powell "was being rowdy, and it was his mother who called – my mother's sister – she called the police. He wasn't drunk. Actually, he had some mental problems, and he was having a kind of mental episode. Now, he'd done that before, and the police sent a woman round who just talked to him, and it all calmed down. But you know – that was the daytime. This time it was about one o'clock in the morning, and a van came. And the first thing they did was knock him over. They admitted it in court. They said they couldn't see his hands. The judge said, 'Why, if you couldn't see his hands, would you knock him over?' 'Well, we thought he may have been armed.' They arrested him, took him in the van, drove away, and then he died." The inquest found that he died in police custody, of asphyxiation, but – "conveniently" – the cameras weren't working. The policemen involved were cleared of charges relating to his death. Zephaniah doesn't think things have changed much since. Only a couple of months ago, he points out, a police officer was cleared of racial abuse – even though the man he arrested taped the conversation. "That depresses me a lot. What do you want to do – bring the jury to the actual event?"
Does he think things like this are getting worse under the coalition? He pauses for a moment. (In interviews – as opposed to on stage or on camera – he is wary, thoughtful: an odd mixture of confident in his public standing and hesitant about speaking.) "The thing I've noticed most is how the cuts are affecting people. That's the thing people write to me about. Can you do a benefit for us, can you sign this petition, can you come on this rally. Can you talk to this MP. Can we use your name on this letter because we're facing closures." Just in the last week he's had nine or 10. "And those are the ones that come to me."
He remembers, during the riots last year, arguing with kids who had been involved. "Because I wanted to make them more political, more aware. One of the things they will say to people like me is: 'You're so political, man, I don't deal with politics.' And I was saying, 'If you want to make a change, be political. I like that anger you have. In fact, in politics, there isn't enough of that! I tell my story – I remember being in prison, thinking, 'I want to change the world, and now I'm sitting in a cell. What am I doing?' When I got out, the guard said, 'Oh, you'll be back in a few weeks.' And I looked at him and said, 'I'm not saying I won't come back – it's possible – but the next time it'll be political.' And he looked at me and said, 'Mmmm.'"
He was serving 18 months at the time, for robbing houses. "And affray." That was after riots in Birmingham in the 1980s. "I had to fight skinheads on the streets. When I was a teenager going to clubs, you'd come out and they'd be lined up, and you had to fight them. It's hard for a lot of kids growing up now to imagine that." Zephaniah's mother came to Britain from Jamaica; his father was a postman from Barbados. He – along with his twin sister – is the oldest of nine children. They grew up, as he wrote in a short memoir aimed (like a good portion of his books and performances) at children, in a house with no bathroom, with cardboard stuffed into the soles of their shoes to make them last. His father could be violent; when he was nine years old, his mother took Benjamin and ran away. (She wanted to take the others, he once said, but "we couldn't find the rest of the kids – they were all hiding in cupboards".) For "only two or three years, but when you're a kid it seems like a long time", they were on the run, living in bedsits sometimes only for a week at a time. Benjamin would come home from school to find their bags packed, ready to go.
Apparently he was always poetry-inclined, rhyming at the breakfast table, performing at church aged 10. By 15 – two years after he dropped out of school, illiterate ("I even thought," he writes in his memoir, "reading and writing were not the kind of things black people did"; as it turned out, he was severely dyslexic) – he was well known as a dub poet in Birmingham; at 20 he moved to London, where he would go to gigs by the Clash and Aswad, even Bob Marley and the Wailers, and ask to be allowed to go on stage and perform, where the bolshiness that contributed to the end of his athletics career was channelled into poetry so angry and intense that, as he put it in My Story, "you kind of knock people out with the politics. Sometimes you can make people aware of a situation if you show them the absurdity of it and get them to laugh at it." Hence his poem for children, Talking Turkeys, for instance (Zephaniah is a vegan); hence the (somewhat heavy-handed) sarcasm of Rong Radio. Initially bands used him as distraction while they were setting up the next act; after a while he started to be requested in his own right.
Later he was asked to do a regular slot before the news, on the new Channel 4, and suddenly people were recognising him in the street, and have done so ever since. At 22 he enrolled himself in adult education classes, to learn to read. "If I was unemployed and couldn't read the cards in the job centre, couldn't date a girl because I couldn't read the menu – life would have been very different." As it was, he says, matter-of-factly, he had four girlfriends, "and they all wanted to type [my first book] out for me, know what I mean?" Four girlfriends? He laughs. That must have been a complicated life – "Uh … yeah, but you know. I was quite fit." He laughs again, slightly bashful, but not apologetic. "Oh, sorry – but it's the truth." He was married for 12 years, to a theatre administrator called Amina, and by all accounts was entirely blindsided when she left him in 2001.
Was fame a problem? "Um … yes, in a word. It's interesting, because when we split at first, I just had no idea, and we haven't talked much since then, but one of the things she said to me was that she was fed up with being married to someone who was famous. And I kind of said, 'You knew that when we got married' – but I just think she didn't realise how it would be." He suffered another great blow, part way through his marriage, when he discovered he was infertile, and has talked movingly, on Desert Island Discs, for instance about how difficult that has been, because "it's an issue with men generally, but black men tend to see being able to have children as something to do with strength and virility"; more importantly because he always wanted "these very simple things in life, and one of them is having a baby, and it's one thing I have no control over, really. I'm going to start getting tearful now. Can we talk about football or something?"
He has been single ever since, and insists he likes it that way. "I really like being on my own. I love it. I almost can't imagine somebody else being in my life now. I think I'd have to interview them and give them trial runs – I don't know." He laughs. To see how they cope? "Yeah." And what would your interview involve? "Um – I'd probably get my mother as well to do it. 'He gets up early in the morning and goes jogging, he can be locked away for a long time … what would you do with yourself … are you creative?' I don't know! But anybody that's been anywhere near approaching me, I say, if I was giving you advice, I'd advise you not to." He undermines himself, too. "Sometimes I'm in there writing until three o'clock in the morning, and I come out and think I wish I had someone there to whom I could say, 'I just did this or I just did that,' but there's nobody. So I just go to bed and think, 'Guess what I just done, Benjamin?'" he laughs.
"Having said that, I realise that one of the reasons I'm so happy to be alone is I spend so much time on stage, with thousands of people. I walk through Birmingham and people come up to me, I sit in a restaurant on my own, people come up to me, 'Oh, can I join you' – so it's not as if I leave here and I go out into the world and I'm on my own as well. Coming home" – to the big skies, to the endless, flat, flat fields, to the small, quiet office lined with books – "is a bit of a retreat."