Mark Sandell honours Benjamin Zephaniah
Christmas is coming so it is appropriate that Her Majesty the Queen will be dishing out feudal baubles in the honors list. Of course most of these gongs go to the ageing segment of the British ruling class for services to... the rich and powerful.
Some gongs are kept aside for populist gestures towards the great unwashed. A handful go to sporting heroes (D Beckham) and other celebrities - "thank you kindly ma'am" - a few to do gooders from ordinary backgrounds - "it's such an honour".
It's enough to make you want to vomit, but this year the whole vile circus was upstaged by one man's principled stand. Benjamin Zephaniah turned down an OBE. Unlike Ken Loach and Helen Mirren, who followed the etiquette of keeping their rejection quiet for a polite interval, Benjamin wrote an excellent article published in the Guardian - 'Benjamin Zephaniah OBE? No way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen'.
The article started "I woke up on the morning of November 13 wondering how the government could be overthrown and what could replace it, and then I noticed a letter."
He went on to attack the 'Order of the British Empire', saying he was profoundly anti-empire; he attacked the monarchy and Tony Blair who would not meet him and others when they went to Downing Street to protest at the death of his cousin in a police cell. Benjamin also attacked the war in Iraq and privatisation.
He ended his tirade against all things New Labour by telling Blair "you have poured the working-class dream of a fair, compassionate, caring society down the dirty drain of empire. Stick it, Mr Blair and Mrs Queen".
This article had me laughing and cheering. It was an eloquent political refusal to be sucked into the sleazy world of the establishment. Obviously neither Blair nor the apparatchik who proposed offering an OBE to a Rasta poet had never read any of his poetry.
I am not an expert on Benjamin Zephaniah's poetry or politics, but I have respected him since he took time out of a poetry reading at Kent University to join a student occupation of the registry against the Tories Education Reform Bill. Once inside he read us a poem and gave us his support. He inspired a group within the week-long occupation to set up a poetry group which later printed a booklet of poems of the occupation.
Viva Benjamin Zephaniah. His latest collection, Too Black, Too Strong is on my Christmas list (Bloodaxe, £7.95).
Bought and Sold
(from Too Black, Too Strong)
Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It's not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.
The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
When they have done what they've been told
They get their OBEs.