Benjamin Zephaniah

· culture ·

A couple of weeks ago, we attended this year's Baggs Memorial Lecture on the theme of Happiness, delivered by Benjamin Zephaniah. I'm fond of the series (I think leaving a bequest for an annual lecture on Happiness is a brilliant idea), and I really enjoyed the lecture in 2008 given by Andrew Motion. Despite both being poets, Motion and Zephaniah couldn't be more different. While Andrew is quiet, cerebral and extensively educated, Benjamin is exuberant, political and self-taught, having left school at the age of 13. I love the work of both poets, but it's a particular treat to hear Zephaniah perform his poetry because of a lot of the art of Dub Poetry is in the rhythm.

He seemed pretty amused to be giving a 'lecture', given his rather curtailed contact with formal education, though he does now have an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Birmingham. He decided to just do it his way, and talked very engagingly about his life, what had made him happy and unhappy along the way, and interspersed this with poems.

It's funny how what can seem overwhelmingly daunting to one person seems natural and easy to others and vice versa. He read out the first poem of the night from a sheet of paper, explaining before he did so that he doesn't like to read poems, because he's quite severely dyslexic and he ends up getting anxious about stumbling over the words. He read it beautifully, but then later in the evening he performed (without notes) a long and very fast poem called Money, which was word and rhythm perfect. Reading out a written poem wouldn't worry me too much, but I would never be able to remember such a long poem and deliver it so smoothly, and the prospect would terrify me.

It was a really entertaining evening, and certainly made me happy. At one point, he even managed to get a bit of audience participation. He performed De Rong Song and got us all to call out the 'Don't worry/Be Happy' refrain. And sound like we meant it! On a Monday!

He comes across as the kind of guy who would be very interesting to talk to. Along with good vegan food and making other people happy, he said that one of the things that he most enjoys is good conversation. Most of what he has learned has come through talking to people, and that he particularly enjoys conversations with those who disagree with him: he doesn't always change his mind (or theirs), but he likes to hear the other side of the argument.