How does Benjamin Zephaniah balance a love of his sports car with doing his bit? Caroline Rees investigates the poet’s sacrifices, indulgences and green dilemmas.
Which activity gives you the warmest doing-my-bit glow?
I’ve got this little gadget for moving bugs that are bugging you. It’s a pyramid box with a door on the end of a stick. I’m always really pleased after I’ve used it and think, “Most people would have killed you”. Even bugs are part of the eco-system. I’ve just ordered three more for friends. But my biggest ethical, ecological statement is being a vegan.
When did you kick the meat habit? And why?
I was vegetarian at 11 and vegan at 13. First of all, it was just a love of animals. After that, it was a love of females, because I read why females of all species produce milk – for their babies, and to get it we have to take the baby away. I didn’t even know the word vegan at the time. As a kid, somebody offered me ice-cream and I said “No, it’s got animal products in it”. He went, “You’re a vegan!”. So I jumped on him – it sounded a really strange word, like he was calling me a nigger.
Has it ever proved awkward socially?
In Ethiopia, somebody wanted me to drink cow’s blood and eat an animal they’d killed for me. It’s seen as a big insult to refuse but I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t have it”. We had to sit and talk about culture – I explained about weird and wonderful things that people do around the world. In Britain, I went round to one famous TV person’s mansion – I told them to keep the food simple – and they gave me a plate of peanuts while they were eating all this other stuff, with servants waiting.
What has been your biggest sacrifice to the green god?
I used to love soaking in the bath. I know that a shower is much better because baths take up so much water but sometimes I just say, “No, I need to soak”. Maybe every two or three months.
What turned you green?
I just felt it naturally in me, you know? I was green before it became fashionable, when we were called wacky and loony. I wrote “Me Green Poem” in the 1980s about people jumping on the green bandwagon. We wanted people to be more aware, but I was wondering how many were really sincere. The poem ends saying “Blue [as in Tory blue] will turn green/When votes are seen/An yu will get lead-free gasoline”.
Which ‘sin’ would you hide from the eco-police?
Probably letting rip in my sports car. It’s a TR7 hybrid that I built myself. It’s so low to the ground, you appreciate that you’re in a motor. It’s an adrenaline rush when you get that roar. If I put my foot down in my Ford Fusion, my runaround car, you feel like you’re on the sofa. But I don’t drive the TR7 that much now because I’m too busy travelling. I remember meeting families in Switzerland and the car was a last resort for them. So if it’s nearby and I can do it by bike, I do. But shopping on the bike is so difficult.
What energy-saving devices have you installed at home?
My loft is insulated and I’ve got a couple of those green light bulbs. I’ve always wanted solar panels. I don’t want a system that only heats the water; I want one that does everything. I’ve heard about people who sell back electricity to the grid. That’s my ultimate.
What would persuade you to buy a greener car?
My friend has got a Toyota hybrid and it’s amazing. I would have got one but there’s only one place to service it this side of London.
How do you offset your carbon footprint?
I religiously put recyclable stuff in my yellow bin-bag. As a writer, you waste so much paper, so when I’ve used one side I use the other side – just for taking notes. If there’s a recycled version of anything, I’ll get it – unless it’s really rubbish. In Sainsbury’s, there’s a good line of stuff called Remarkable. I’ve got a pencil case and a mouse-mat made of recycled tyres.
What’s in your recycling sack in a typical week?
I don’t produce that much waste on my own, so it’s newspapers and lots of letters from my publishers. We have a bottle bank not far from where I live so I take those on my morning jog. I hate the crunch when they go in.
What do you do with old books and clothes?
Old clothes always go to charity shops, and books the same – or to someone who may be interested. I was trying on some trousers recently at home and realised that half my clothes didn’t fit me any more – and some were brand new. I had so many, I took them round to five different charity shops. I went back into one the other day and a label said, “As worn by Benjamin Zephaniah”. I’ll probably see somebody walking round and they’ll go, “I’ve got your pants on, man!”.
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in February 2007