In January 2014, I interviewed the writer and Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing Benjamin Zephaniah about his thoughts on British identity and belonging to Britain. I began by informing him of my research on students’ perceptions of Britishness. My research commenced in response to calls for the teaching of Britishness by the previous Labour government in 2007/8. These calls are being echoed once again by the current coalition government requiring all schools to actively promote “British values” from September 2014.
I was keen to learn about Benjamin Zephaniah’s ideas on Britishness and British values, as I was a big fan of his poetry and writings on multicultural Britain. I had read his novel Refugee Boy with my Year Eight Class and collated their responses to learning about a young boy from Ethiopia/Eritrea, Alem Kelo. The students had been deeply moved by Alem’s story as they reflected upon the life of a refugee child in Britain.
Sadia Habib: What inspired you to write your poem The British?
Benjamin Zephaniah: People would talk about Britishness, and you had real extreme racists saying that we have got to protect this country from people who are not British, and I just thought who really is British. Everybody in these islands came from somewhere, even the early tribes, so I just thought let me have a bit of fun.
At the time it was when cookery shows were becoming really popular, and I thought I am going to use that format of a recipe. I knew that I am not going to be able to put everyone in it, yet sometimes people come up to me and say: “You missed out Trinidad or somewhere!” I had somebody say to me the other day, attacked me in the newspaper and said: “He did all that, and he never mentioned the Jews”. I wrote back that in that poem I never mentioned any religion, there’s no religions mentioned at all. There’s Jews in England, there’s Jews in Jamaica, so Jews are mentioned but not their religion! It’s just one of those people who think anyone who doesn’t mention Jews is being anti-Semitic.
It was a simple need to put in a very simple way, direct way, and very fun way. You get kids at school, and teachers tell me, they get them to do their own recipe of the British, and they come up with a completely different group of nationalities.
Sadia Habib: Can you tell me about what Britishness actually means to you personally?
Benjamin Zephaniah: For me Britishness is being a part of these islands. I say that very carefully because I also respect Scottish people if they want to go separate. I’d be happy just to have England, and not have Britain actually. While we have this concept of Britishness, it’s being a part of these islands, and if you really want to be a part of these islands, I think by definition you have to accept multiculturalism. Not just diversity. Diversity can mean all kinds of things. Multiculturalism is what it says on the tin: Multi. Many cultures. Living together. As I alluded to before, the Celts, the Jutes, and all these people were different cultures. I come from Birmingham which was started by a tribe called the Beorma tribe, and they were seen as a very odd tribe, and they came and they settled they used to keep cows and bulls, and they had this place where they kept bulls, and that became The Bull Ring, and today it is a shopping centre.
I don’t know if it’s still true now, but certainly a few years ago they were saying that the most popular food in Britain was an Indian curry. And some people thought it was a very British thing to have a curry. There are lots of other things which people think of as really British that came from somewhere. I mean what could be more British than living out in the countryside in a beautiful bungalow with a thatched roof? But where did the word ‘bungalow’ come from? Bengal, yeah. The English language also borrows from other cultures. So it’s being a part of that, that I think is Britishness. I actually think that in a very odd way, actually I don’t think it’s that odd at all, but when you hear racists saying “Britain is a white country”, I think that is anti-British. Because Britain has never been fixed. Britain is like its weather – you know it’s the weather but you don’t know where it is going from one time to another. We know we are British.
I just made a film in Sheffield a few weeks ago about people complaining about Romany Gypsies, I don’t know if you saw it. People are saying “They are coming in our country, they are taking our jobs”. And they are all Asian and black people. It’s actually quite British in a sense. They have settled down. I think it is negative. I’m looking at them and I am saying “People were saying that about you just ten years ago or so, and now you’ve settled and you are seeing the new immigrants coming in and you want to blame them.” In a few years’ time, Romanys and Poles will be complaining about the Azerbaijanis coming in or something. It’s always happened, and we have always got over it actually. That’s why any final solution kind of sounds like Hitler stuff, anybody that thinks they can step in and do something about it is wrong, and that’s when it becomes kind of totalitarian. People start killing each other in a really big way. People come here, they settle and start complaining about the new people coming, who make friends with the old people and then they start complaining about the new people coming in. There are issues of course about services and schools, and overcrowding and other things, but there have always been those issues.
Sadia Habib: What do you think about the government’s proposals that schools should teach Britishness?
Benjamin Zephaniah: I don’t like the idea. You can teach things about Britain, and that should be just a general part of education, but to teach British-ness… Now some people say a great symbol of Britishness is the Queen. I don’t. I think a great symbol of Britishness is all the people who have fought against monarchy… the Levellers… the people who fought for freedom… the suffragettes. That’s the tradition that fascinates me. I don’t say to the other people that your one is less important, if that is what you want to do, then let me do my one as well. So what version of Britishness are you teaching? If you are going to teach it, you have to pick a version of Britishness.
If you are the government, and you are telling people how to teach it in schools, you are going to teach one that suits the status quo. As part of your Britishness, are you going to teach about the British people that went to Amritsar and massacred innocent people? I guess most likely not. Are you going to romanticise that? Are your going to teach the real details of slavery? I know you may mention it, but as part of Britishness, as part of where we got where we got today?
Liverpool is part of Britain. Why are certain roads in Liverpool named after slave-drivers or slave-masters? Why have we got banks in this country that were started off during the slave trade and are a part of the great British establishment? Are you going to teach that? I think not. In their version of Britishness, they are probably going to teach that great comedy comes out of Liverpool, and there are banks, maybe on now and then they get it wrong, but on the whole they are alright as they will give you a mortgage eventually! They are going to teach a very sanitised version of the British institutions. So I don’t think you can teach Britishness. And all this stuff where foreigners are expected to swear allegiance to the Queen and all, I think it is bullshit! (Sorry for using such words!)
Some people are against state multiculturalism. I am as well, oddly enough, because the kind of multiculturalism I am talking about happens organically. I look at my band of musicians: I’ve got an Indian girl on percussion, I’ve got a Chinese guy in guitar, Jamaican, an African, and two English people. I just went out and looked for the best talent. That’s what I got. I remember the first time I met the Chinese guy, and I said to him play a lead piece for me, and he played the guitar, and it sounded kind of Chinese-y. And it was a lead. I said: “God! That’s really good!” One of the other people said: “Oh no, you are getting the tones wrong.” And I said “No, he’s getting them right. That’s working.” That’s what makes our music interesting. That’s what makes our culture interesting. That’s what makes our food interesting. So the kind of multiculturalism I am interested in is the one that happens organically, happens naturally.
Look how many black people are in America. Look how many white people are in America. And did you know that we have more inter-racial marriages than them? Because they’re separated over there. They live in their own ghettoes. White people live one ghetto. Black people live in another. Asian people in another. Whereas over here, I mean you can go to Bradford and see parts that are basically very Pakistani, and go to other parts and see parts that a little more Jamaican. But on the whole, we inter-marry and we mix a lot more than most other people. Now that’s not state-sanctioned. The government doesn’t say that we want so many black men to marry so many Indian girls this year. It happens naturally. We just fall in love with each other. That’s the kind of multiculturalism I’m talking about. You know you come around to my house and you show me how to cook something, and I say let me just dash a bit of this curry into it or whatever, and we make something new! That’s different from state multiculturalism.
And so our ideas of what it is to be British should also happen organically. We should just teach the history of these islands, real and honest history of these islands, what the British have done and achieved etc, and sometimes failed to achieve. And then let the students decide what is their idea of Britishness. I don’t mind that question being asked, but I just don’t like when it is answered by the government and dictated to children. If the government decide what it is, and this is the version we have got to teach, we just get a sanitised government-approved version. Britishness may mean different things to different people.
Sadia Habib: If students did explore Britishness, rather than be taught a government-sanctioned sanitised version, would there be any benefits to that? What are your thoughts? If they explored Britishness themselves… from their own perspectives?
Benjamin Zephaniah: Yes, that’s exactly what I would promote. Let’s look at some facts of what’s happened in Britain. Look at the people that have come here. Let’s look at the struggles of people. I mean, this is a really important question. I have raised it before but this is not really taught in schools. Because it is sometimes not in the interest of the powers-that-be to talk about it. I mean people will now talk about the suffragettes, and you’ll get a bit of that somewhere in the curriculum, won’t you? Because it just seems so right that women should have the vote. The interesting thing is that, and you probably know, that although the suffragette movement started in Britain, the first people to actually get the vote were in New Zealand. Do you know Shelley the poet? He wrote a poem called Mask of Anarchy…I remember when I was in school and the teacher put this poem in front of me and said to me: “Can you read it and tell me what it means?” And I remember reading a couple of lines of it and… And she gave me this verse and said: “Read a little bit of it and tell me what it means”. The bit I had to read was… I will read it very quickly:
As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim ;
Seven blood-hounds followed him :
All were fat ; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Now it goes on… I remember reading it because I wanted to understand what this means. Shelley was talking about I met Murder on the Way/He had a mask like Castlereagh… Castlereagh was a British Minister at the time. Very smooth he looked, yet grim/Seven blood-hounds followed him. He had just signed a deal with seven other European countries to continue slavery. All were fat ; and well they might/ Be in admirable plight. They were all looking to Britain because there was the leader, slavery country. For one by one, and two by two/ He tossed them human hearts to chew. He’s talking about black people and the suffering of black people. When I learnt it years later, I thought: “My God, why didn’t my teacher tell me that? Why didn’t he put it in context?” Now to me this is a great British poet, at a time when if you were teaching mainstream Britishness you would say, “Britain was involved with slavery. Full stop”.
I have just been making a programme with women in Birmingham whose husbands were making the shackles for slaves, they used to make a lot of metal things in Birmingham. And they refused to sleep with their husbands until they stopped making shackles for slaves. These are women who had started to discover tea from India, and sugar from the Caribbean, you know taking tea from India and sugar from the Caribbean and making a nice British drink! But they refused to use sugar because they said it was from slavery… are they going to teach that version? That’s the kind of things I want them to explore, as well as Henry the Eight and his wives and all that kind of stuff, that tells me there is a tradition in Britain of connecting with people around the world that has very little to do with government. Here is Shelley saying: “Never mind the government, the government looks like murder. The government is dealing with slavery. We are all human beings, and we want to connect with other human beings”.
So my history of Britain would talk about the poets and what they really stood for. You see when those people talk about the history, they talk about the Kings and Queens, and who had sex with who, and what baby they had. And this King and this Queen went to war with another King in Europe and they called it a World War, just because the Europeans were having wars, they called it the World War! There were parts of the world that didn’t have any war. But they are so important, that when they have wars they call it a World War. But if it’s a war with Iraq, they just call it the Iraq War. Or a war with Afghanistan, they call it the Afghan war. A war with Korea, they call it the Korean war. But if it’s the Europeans at war, it’s the world! That’s just self-importance. That’s like thinking Europe is the centre of the world, and that they are so important here, and everybody else are just second class citizens of the world.
Sadia Habib: How do you think Britishness is generally portrayed currently through popular culture and media?
Benjamin Zephaniah: I think the mainstream are trying to portray Britain as civilised, as opposed to those Muslims and those other people who have really negative views on women and so on. I don’t say women are living the best of situations in some parts of the world, I know there are issues, but the idea that the western woman is completely liberated, especially the British woman, and so we need to go out there and civilise these people. Not in the war way…I know most wouldn’t say it’s colonisation again, but it is colonisation in a cultural way, although there are sometimes aspects of militarism. But most of all I would say, if you are watching mainstream media and you are not thinking too deeply about wars, you would think that British culture is obsessed with celebrity. You would think the Royal family represent us, and Kate and those others… what are their names? I can never remember their names… And you would also think England is London, or Britain is London really, if you were an outsider. It saddens me sometimes when tourists come, and they just go to London, and say: “I’ve been to England!”
So the sanitised one is where the government is so democratic, and everyone is so free, and the women are so liberated, and the Royal family is so good! They wouldn’t want to mention that all over this country now we have soup kitchens, it’s one of the growing industries, and on most high streets now shops are closing down. And one shop that is not closing down, but are growing more and more are charity shops.
Sadia Habib: Charity shops and pound shops.
Benjamin Zephaniah: Yes, and pound shops. And also many money-lending shops and Wonga and so on. But they would like to tell you the City is doing well and the bankers need really big bonuses. It sounds terrible when you put them both together, doesn’t it? We know the reality of it, but the media can completely control it so that people don’t really understand how bad it is for some people. I mean it really is. I mean you live up North, I know Manchester has got its nice parts. But sometimes when you go to the smaller towns and you see the poverty there. Even in London actually. I went to Tipton the other day, just outside Birmingham, I looked at the place and I thought I would love to drag up some of the people from London and show them this place, because they would swear there is nothing like this in England. It looked like it had gone back in time…
Sadia Habib: In what way?
Benjamin Zephaniah: When I was growing up there were areas that had been bombed during the war that had never been built up, and they were still there, areas where there are no houses, just like wasteland, and closed down factories… it really makes me angry, and I do know that some people in London just don’t see it. I remember I was doing a film shoot in Stratford once, I was doing a poem about urban life or something….this was many years ago….and we found this wall that had this graffiti, anti-government graffiti and about unemployment, and we decided we would film against this backdrop. And we went away, and we came back the next day to film me and somebody had painted over the wall. Somebody made some enquiries as to why this wall was painted over, why now, when it has not been painted over for so long… Oh! The Queen was going to be driving past there! For years that wall has been there, and if the Queen drove past there, if she would have glimpsed that wall, she would have glimpsed it for a split-second, but for that reason it was cleaned up. Not because the people needed it cleaned up. But because the Queen was driving past. And I think that’s very symbolic of the idea of Britain that some people want to feed you… a very white-washed version of Britain. But I love Britain.
Sadia Habib: You love Britain! In spite of all that? So tell me why you love Britain?
Benjamin Zephaniah: Because, as bad as it is, when I go to bed, I don’t think when I wake up there’s going to be a coup in the morning! Because, on the whole, if I fell in love with somebody and if somebody fell in love with me (that doesn’t really happen!), but if it was to happen, it wouldn’t really matter what race she was, I may there may be some family issues, but that’s got nothing to do with the culture of the country. I came from a family that was poor, very working-class, uneducated, but I am a Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing now. It’s actually unfair of people like me to go on and say this country is horrible and rotten, and there are no opportunities here… there is opportunity, and we just want better and more. And we don’t want the government to take it away from us. That’s the main point. I think a lot of our hard won freedoms and things that we fought for, that other people have fought for before us, some people want to take it away from us now.
I’ll tell you a story… can I tell you something really personal? There’s this man right… he raised me like a son. I call him “Dad”, sometimes it confuses people, they ask me how many dads have you got? Well, I’ve got two. This one was really important, because when I was a teenager going through all the teenage things he was there for me. And he looked after me all the time. He worked in Britain all his life, all his other kids… all born in Britain. He worked here… worked most of his life. I can’t think of him ever going on the dole… I can’t think of him going in hospital…. And he went over to America to retire, and while in America, he was getting old now and he got ill, and they have somebody that comes over to look after him, kind of home help, and she was robbing him of his money. She was taking his money. And in America you can get a grant and it goes directly to the home help, and she was taking the money and partying and leaving him there. As soon as we found out we went and got him, we couldn’t believe how ill he was, we brought him back here. When he arrived at Heathrow… he had to go straight to hospital. He got better, he came out, he got ill, he went in and a few days ago he died. Do you know they said he is not a British citizen? So you are going to have to pay for his hospital care. We said that he paid all his taxes here! He went to America and retired. And somebody said to him while he was there that if you need help you would need to drop your British citizenship. So he dropped his British citizenship when he was eighty or something. And they were literally holding the body and saying that we are not going to give you the dead body back until you pay! The only thing that managed to help us was because me being a well-known person went in there and said: “Shame upon you, the Health Service!” My mother worked in the Health Service since she was young! They knew that I could go public with it and they said that they were going to try and sort something out, and promised we would get the body back now, and we are going to be able to bury the body next week. You know that’s the government doing that… my dad didn’t say I am going to England because I want to die in a hospital in England. He paid into this Health Service, and all his kids were here. I genuinely can’t remember a time he went into hospital. I mean ninety-four… you have got to be strong to live to ninety-four. Over two weeks ago they turned off the machinery… they called us in and said that we have to turn off the machinery, and he will die within hours. He lived for another two weeks. The doctors were confused that he had no liver and kidneys left and he wasn’t dead. We said to the doctor that he has never been to a hospital, and he just lives, he just goes on and goes on. But because of the politicians… actually the nurses and the doctors were a little embarrassed. They knew who I was and at the moment I am being employed to try and help Black and Asian people in the West Midlands area who have HIV but who are not getting checked because of stigma in their communities… they are using me, they don’t know how, they are just talking to me at the moment, they are using me to try and reach these people. And I am looking at them and thinking you are using me, but look at what you are doing to us…(laughs).
I don’t know why I went onto that. Oh I know why, because these are the things the government wants to take away from us. This is the kind of government the country wants us to have. You see, Britishness, to me, is the National Health Service. That’s really British. What can I say? That’s really British. When I walk down the street, if I see you, and I don’t know you, I can look at you and say to I am going to give a little of my money to your healthcare. I don’t know who you are, but I’ll put a little bit in the kitty so if anything happens to you we can take care of you. We all put a bit in… I think that is really British. That’s one institution that I think kind of represents us. But the government… well a long time ago Thatcher was saying more or less that she wanted to privatise it, I mean she never actually said she wanted to disband it but we know that’s what she wanted to do originally. When she saw the outcry from the people, she started talking about privatising parts of it… No, I think that belongs to us. We all put our money in that and it belongs to us. And they can’t come along and say that my dad because he retired in America, he can’t die here. Holding his body? It sounds primitive: I am going to hold your dad’s body until you give us some money! And we all pay into that. My dad paid into that. And we all benefit from it. Sorry I personalised it too much.
Sadia Habib: How do you think Britishness is perceived from a global perspective?
Benjamin Zephaniah: Well, you know I work for the British Council a lot? When I used to go around working for them, there used to be a real sense of pride. We used to go into countries that were quite totalitarian and they would hear my poetry and say: “Wow, you can say that in England!” You know, you have come in with the British Council and you have just said “Up the British government!” Yeah, we can say that, you know! Now, if you are working for the British Council, in a lot of countries you have to have protection. Yeah, we are seen like war-mongers… there has to be a level of risk assessment… even have to have a bodyguard over there. We used to…I remember working in Libya, when the politicians weren’t talking, the poets were talking…talking culturally… a long time before. A lot of the time you saw relationships were falling in this country between the British government and the Libyan government or whoever, you knew that the poets were in there working first, you know we were making the ground ready… we were building up some understanding through arts and art exchange… bringing an artist over from Libya to Britain, and sending a painter back over there, doing a poetry festival where we all got together. I call it cultural intercourse. But now you go to these countries and it’s like: “What are you guys doing? Why are you attacking these people? Why are you saying you are so good? Why are you saying you are better than us? Why is your civilisation better than us? Our civilisation goes back hundreds and hundreds of years but you just want to bomb it. And I can understand why they say that.
It’s a real shame. We used to be so proud sometimes to go to some places and represent Britain. And it’s really weird that it’s Tony Blair that went down this track of following America. I remember once in Russia this guy, as I was walking past him, this guy shouted something in Russian, and he was very aggressive, and I asked the people who were with me about what he had said. They said that he had said: “Piss off home, Americans!” (laughs) So I said: “Hold on, let me go back…”. And we went back and I said to the translator: “Tell him I’m not American, I am British.” (laughs) And they told him I was British, and he called: “Oh yeah, Maaanchester Unitedddd! Yeah! Yeah!” And he tried to put his hand around me you know. I mean this is some time back. “Shakespeare! Yeah yeah! Manchester United! Shake-es-peare! Reggae!” Completely different! And those were the main themes: America were the big aggressors, and now we are just seen as America’s poodle.
Sadia Habib: How do you see the relationship between whiteness and Britishness that certain factions like the EDL try to promote?
Benjamin Zephaniah: I like to say to them: “What is your idea of whiteness?” Go and get your DNA checked. I did propose it once as a television programme, but somebody told me that there is something similar where they checked a racist’s DNA and they found out he has Algerian blood in him or something. Like I said, their idea of Britishness is anti-British because it is anti-change, it is anti-progressive, and it is anti-compassion. It is inward-looking. It’s not creative. And it’s racist. Now when the Celts came here, they came with a culture, when the Jutes came here, they came with a culture, when the Beorma tribe came here, they came with a culture. They tolerate them because they think they were all white, but they weren’t all white. Romans had black people with them. I know Romans were conquerors as opposed to settlers, but they had black people with them. And there were black people here a long time before the Windrush. In a way I feel sorry for them because they are denying themselves the true history of this country and they are limiting their possibilities. There was a crazy wonderful story the other day on the internet, you might have seen it, this guy was a BNP member and he had BNP tattooed on his forehead, then he fell in love with a black girl. You saw him go and get the tattoo removed, and it was really quite moving, and he talked about when you love somebody, you just love somebody and what he has done in the past is just rubbish. And he said he realised how shallow he had been. You could see him really opening up.
I was on radio once a long time ago talking about when I was fighting skinheads in the streets of East London, then a couple of days later I got a handwritten letter, four sheets of A4 on both sides, from a Buddhist monk who said that he was one of the racist skinheads that used to fight me. Now he was a Buddhist monk, and he said his eyes had opened. I could almost feel the tears on the page. Because he was very open with me, and explained to me why he got involved with that crowd, and what was going on at the time.
So the sad thing is what are they doing to themselves, and what are they doing to their children, with this idea of whiteness, this idea of pure, this idea of what it is to be British is so … I mean there’s lots of nasty words you could call it… but … it’s just so limiting, it’s not setting themselves free. That’s the crazy thing. It’s setting themselves up in a prison of their own making.
Categories: Rethinking The World