Book reviews

The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: the autobiography. Simon & Schuster, 2018, 344 pp; hbk, £20

He may not be the Poet Laureate but Benjamin Zephaniah is arguably one of Britain’s most popular poets and authors. At the age of 60 he has written his autobiography, telling the rags-to-riches story of his ‘life and rhymes’.

Zephaniah is an honorary patron and life member of The Vegan Society (www.vegansociety.com), having become a vegan at the tender age of 13, two years after adopting a vegetarian diet “to express my disgust at eating dead bodies, and my love of animals.” The author tells us of his admiration for the animal rights movement (“the most dedicated of liberation movements”) and support for many animal protection organisations. However, it is his writing, including poetry, novels, plays and children’s books, music and radical politics that have endeared Zephaniah to so many people.

Born and raised in Birmingham, the son of immigrants from the Caribbean, Zephaniah had a troubled childhood, with little formal education and spells in approved school and borstal.     A teacher famously described young Benjamin as a “failure” and predicted an early demise. However, a move to London in 1978 and encouragement from the reggae artist Bob Marley (who told Zephaniah “Britain needs you, so forward on”) persuaded the young Rastafarian to exchange a life of petty crime for a life of meaningful rhyme. Though never compromising his views (Zephaniah refused an OBE in 2003, telling The Guardian “I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality”) he has gone on to become a familiar figure in the media and in the classroom, where his poetry is especially popular.

The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah makes compelling reading and provides a fascinating insight into a man who proudly describes himself as “a black survivor”.

Peter Gabriel: Global Citizen by Paul Hegarty. Reaktion Books, 2018, 248 pp; pbk, £9-95

Peter Gabriel: Global Citizen presents a chronological analysis of Gabriel’s musical development from eight years as lead vocalist with the progressive rock band Genesis, though his four untitled solo albums, the multi-million selling albums So (1986) and Us (1992), promotion of world music through the Real World record label and the WOMAD festival, soundtrack for the London Millennium Dome show (OVO; 2000), to the more recent covers album Scratch My Back (2010) and New Blood (2011) – a collection of his earlier songs re-recorded with orchestral backing. Gabriel has also recorded complete soundtracks for the feature films Birdy (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Rabbit-proof Fence (2002).       In short, he is one of the world’s most talented, productive and innovative musicians.

Although the book includes relatively little biographical information, it rightly draws attention to Gabriel’s humanitarian concerns as “a highly visible advocate and fund-raiser for Amnesty International (and co-)founder of the Witness initiative, which provides people with means to capture and distribute imagery of human rights abuses.” However, Gabriel remains outside the political mainstream, once stating that: “I don’t have faith in large organisations, in large groups or the ideologies which are supposed to appeal to them.” Peter Gabriel is also a celebrity supporter of Viva, having been a vegetarian since the 1970s (https://www.viva.org.uk/what-we-do/celebrity-supporters/peter-gabriel), although the book makes no mention of this.

Though comprehensive, Paul Hegarty’s book is over-analytical and frequently pretentious, the author’s closing sentence providing a perfect example: “New Blood protracts Gabriel into different dimensions of locatedness, dwelling inside his work, but poised outside it simultaneously.” What is that supposed to mean? Fans of the man and his music may find Daryl Easlea’s recently updated Without Frontiers: The Life and Music of Peter Gabriel more digestible, while the musician’s website (http://petergabriel.com/) provides a valuable source of information.

Paul Appleby

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