A Forest Gate memoir of Benjamin Zephaniah

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Forest Gate author and community activist, Derek Smith, pays tribute to, and shares local memories of, his pal, the recently deceased poet, Benjamin Zephaniah.

Benjamin Zephaniah (1958 – 2023)

I first met Benjamin Zephaniah shortly after he came to London in 1980. He was in his early 20s, a Rastafarian with long dreadlocks. He had left Birmingham out of necessity, where he says in his autobiography (The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah Poet), he was on the wrong side of the law, and had to get out or he’d end up dead. A good reason to leave town. Besides which, he wanted be a poet. A crazy aspiration for a dyslexic young man. But he had a bundle of poems which he’d got typed up. He now wanted to make them into a book and get moving. He was a young man in a hurry.

Benjamin went to Centreprise in Hackney with his poems. Centreprise were, in their heyday, a large community bookshop in Dalston with a cafe, running lots of writing classes, and had published a string of community publications. But Centreprise had got too respectable; they didn’t like his references to cannabis. Their funders would object. Benjamin would not withdraw the references on principle, he was a Rasta, after all. So they rejected him.

I have heard since regrets from former members of Centreprise in missing what would have been their biggest coup. But Benjamin, not deterred, came to The Whole Thing, our bookshop and cafe at 53 West Ham Lane, Stratford, a sort of poor man’s Centreprise. Cannabis didn’t offend us; we didn’t have funders to please. And some of us were partial to the odd spliff.

The Whole Thing, 53 West Ham Lane, Stratford

I said to him, let me have the poems and I’ll read them overnight. He agreed and we arranged to meet the next day. That night, I went through the poems and put them in three piles: Good, OK, and weak. I thought I’d have troubles when we met, as although he had some good poems, some weren’t so hot and in my opinion shouldn’t be published. But writers can be touchy, and, being too close to their work, can’t always tell the good from the bad.

When he came into the shop. I told him about the three piles I had made up, and waited for his reaction. Without even looking at which heap the poems were in, he said, much to my surprise and relief, just publish the good ones.

This impressed me, as it was obvious he had high standards. It was of course the right thing to do, if you want to get anywhere. I just hoped that my judgement was good. Gill Hay took over the publishing and printing side. And we brought our his first book in 1980, entitled Pen Rhythm.

A first edition of Pen Rhythm, published by The Whole Thing

Pen Rhythm was a very basic publication. A pamphlet rather than a book, stapled in the middle with a long arm stapler, and printed by the local printing co-op who had only an A4 offset litho. Upstairs in The Whole Thing, we laid out the pages and the covers on the floor and, me, Benjamin and Gill put the book together. Very cottage industry.

We made hardly any money on the book, sold a few copies in the shop, but gave most of them to Benjamin to sell at his gigs. Centreprise, I am sure would have sold tens of thousands, but we were lousy capitalists. The Whole Thing was a workers co-op; Benjamin liked the way we worked and joined us for a few years.

The Whole Thing was sublet to us, and we had a range of activities to raise money to buy the lease from the lease holder. One of these was a banquet, where Benjamin did one of his first gigs. I had not seen him perform before. He had helped with the cooking and then went upstairs to get changed. I recall, he was impressively dressed in a blue Afro tunic. It wasn’t a reading as he knew his poems by heart. And boy, could he deliver, with both power and feeling. We were spellbound. I thought, that guy is going to go places.

Benjamin helping with the cooking, Derek (beard) to his left, Gill Hay at the rear

He did. Incredibly quickly. The early 80s were a very political time. Margaret Thatcher was in power and Benjamin’s poems hit the zeitgeist amongst those of us in opposition to her policies. Much of his poetry was political, especially against the sus laws, where black people could be stopped and searched on suspicion by the police. One of Benjamin’s most popular poems is: ‘Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death. An ode on the perennial violent cop. With high unemployment and the National Front on the march, Benjamin quickly found his audience. The crowds at his gigs got bigger and bigger.

An early electrifying performance from Benjamin Zephaniah

Newham Community Housing (NCH) had an office at The Whole Thing, in an upstairs room. NCH had persuaded the Council to let it have its empty properties on licence prior to their being rehabilitated or demolished for various schemes. Most of us at The Whole Thing lived in short life housing co-ops that had got their houses from NCH. Benjamin needed somewhere to live, and helped set up Umoja housing co-op which, in turn, got its houses from NCH.

Cramped bookshop space at The Whole Thing

Benjamin was a member of Umoja for a number of years, and then bought a house on Roman Road, East Ham, where he lived until 2008. He was a night person, often writing in the early hours. While living in East Ham, he would often drive to Wanstead Flats at around 2am and have a run around the Flats, loving the quietness and the dark.

Benjamin getting stuck in with Derek in the workers' co-op

He worked at The Whole Thing for over two years, until his performances and his writing took over and his stage became the world. There was talk a few years ago of Benjamin being poet laureate. He gave that suggestion short shrift, it would have been a total sell out, and apart from that, he said:

‘Don't take my word, go check the verse.

Cause every laureate gets worse’

As I write, there is talk of putting a plaque at 53 West Ham Lane, the site of the Whole Thing, now the Sawmill cafe, where his first book was published and he worked for a number of years. He was a pal and a champion.

1 comment:

  1. I knew Benjamin a little because we both loved The Newham Bookshop on the Barking Road and he would sometimes be there when I was. My daughter worked as a Saturday girl so that was the day I would be browsing, buying and chatting to my girl. Benjamin was incredibly kind and a very good listener as you’d have to be write with the authenticity he did. He employed my daughter to type out a few of his books and to proof read them. What an honour for an 18 year old! He’d seen her love of literature, her love of poetry in particular, and given a Newham girl a chance. She treasures the signed and dedicated copies of his books.
    Benjamin was also generous with his time with much younger people going into Newham schools and reading his poetry. Again he was endlessness kind and patient but my lasting memory of him was him driving in a battered old car, probably a cortina, along Shrewsbury Rd with George Formby’s voice blaring out. Benjamin loved his voice and the lyrics!


We welcome comments to all the items featured on this site. However, we reserve the right to omit offensive comments, and edit the length of comments, for reasons of space.