Swinging racism: Floella Benjamin’s memoir of 60s London

Talking to Linda Grant earlier this week (see next post below) about her 60s/70s novel about the privileged babyboomer generation, who “had it so good”, got me thinking again about the strikingly different 60s experience of one of Britain’s best known presenters — Baroness Floella Benjamin. Her frank autobiography, The Arms of Britannia, about her teenage years is a harrowing account of daily racist abuse, an aspect of Swinging London that embarrasses us, and has not been widely explored.  I thought it worth posting the long version of my exclusive interview, which appeared in The Independent in October (just after the row over ending universal Child Benefit), and examines her journey to the House of Lords. The Age of Aquarius musical, Hair, did actually change her life, though not in the way you might think…

Baroness Floella Benjamin

Baroness Floella Benjamin

There is something strange about meeting the LibDem Peer who probably raised a significant number of the New Generation of MPs running Britain’s major political parties as toddlers. A kind of journey from Big Ted to the Big Society.

As I wait in the  vaulted  Victorian splendour of the National Liberal Club I find myself imagining pre-school  Master Nick, Master David and young Master Ed in front of the glowing  TV screen in the  early 70s being read to or watching Humpty and Little Ted have a tea party with Jemima the ragdoll. I suspect all but Ed may have been too old to have benefitted from Benjamin’s songs about “Reggae Rita” on Playschool.

And when the Baroness arrives — she combines an elegant black  trouser suit and white costume jewellery  with a delightfully streetsmart spikey top knot ponytail. Impossible to imagine any other 61 year old, let along a member of the House of Lords could ever get away with. She’s enjoying the Lords. Unlike elsewhere no one’s yet asked her “what are you doing here?” She also looks at least 15 years younger. Or is that the spell of meeting the lady who spoke to me through the TV all those years ago…

Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham rolls delightfully in the air when you say it;  as if it had been chosen for the alliterative possibilities of reading it out loud to children. The reality is rather darker. She chose to take her title from the South East London suburb, in tribute to her parents, whose decision to move their 6 children to a neighbourhood with good schools and a better class of jumble sales to clothe them,   saw them endure years of racist abuse from neighbours who pushed dog excrement through their letterbox and shouted at them in the street. The day Mrs Benjamin arrived with the children to view the house they’d just bought, neighbours called police to report a criminal gang were breaking in.

Floella Benjamin’s new autobiography about her teenage years, “The Arms of Britannia”,  while written for young readers, and with schools in mind,  is a distressing read though undoubtedly therapeutic to write; a thoughtprovoking counterbalance to the Swinging 60s memoirs of many celebrity Londoners. While David Bowie was down the road in Bromley commuting into Carnaby Street as a longhaired pop dandy, and Peter Cook was opening up The Establishment Club in Soho for the political classes to come and watch themselves being mocked, Floella Benjamin growing up near Crystal Palace, says she spent every single day like a soldier on patrol or guard duty, ready for for passers by in  to hurl racist abuse at her. She remembers her handsome brother Lester being regularly beaten up; seeing him lying on the ground his white shirt covered in blood.  “When I came here I realised I wasn’t a person anymore. I was a colour..I didn’t admit to anyone how much I enjoyed hurting people because of how much they had hurt me. I felt the force of being pushed to the limit.”

“For the first four years of being in England,” she says, sitting on a leather sofa in the genteel surroundings of the club’s library, “I fought almost every day. You never know who would spit at you, or try  to pee on you, or lift your skirt and say “Where’s your tail, monkey?””.

Born in Trinidad, the Baronness had endured the trauma of nearly 2 years of sometimes neglectful separation with a foster family, before her parents, she called Dardie and Marmie, were able to bring her to join them in London in 1964 at the age of 10. It is a trauma she says for a generation of West Indian children left  behind that she’d like to document more widely.  That early childhood was the focus of her earlier memoir “Coming to England”, which she wrote, she says, like her latest book, “because there was nothing that reflected my experience” . It also she says, helps people understand the anger of so many young black men even today, who are defensive about the daily fear of racist treatment they endure.

The turning point in her life she, says, came in 1964 at 14, when she nearly killed a boy  who was shouting racist names at her, as she walked to the shops in Penge High Street. She grabbed his lollipop and jamming it down his throat, watching him turn blue. Benjamin calls it her “spiritual moment”; the moment when she says she realised that violence was not the answer. She pulled out the lollipop and walked off proud.

And the Benjamin family — high achievers all– made the classic immigrant journey so often held up by politicians of all persuasions. Working hard at school, gaining qualifiications and entering the professions. Floella’s mother used to clean office buildings,  and died just 2 years before her daughter was elevated to the House of Lords with a Life Peerage. 16 year old Floella crossed the threshold of Barclays  head office as a clerk, with the ambition of becoming Britain’s first female bank manager. She claims she pioneered women wearing  trouser suits in the City. In the light of the credit  crunch, one likes to imagine what she night have achieved if she’d pursued it.

But it was Benjamin’s superficially impulsive career change to showbusiness that made her political journey possible, and reveals the performer within the practically minded bankclerk, set to progress steadily up through the ranks of charities, government advisory bodies and media industry networking clubs to the highest echelons of the political Establishment. Used to singing on stage with her clerk and part time jazz musician father’s band, and organising dance nights  for the West Indian Student Centre in London’s Earls Court, she responded to an advert in a newspaper in 1973 seeking non professionals for a new musical tour.  The show was “Hair”, famously controversial for its hippie onstage nudity. Going in her lunchbreak from the bank, you know all you need to know about  Benjamin’s steely determination from the fact that she not only got cast, but  also rather presumptuously announced at the audition  that she wouldn’t be taking her clothes off.

“Is that really true?” I ask cynically.

“Yes. Myself, and Paul Nicholas, “she returns without even a blink.

After a few roles in TV (including a jailed prostitute in “Within These Walls”, the mixed race sitcom “Mixed Blessing”  and the film “Black Joy”, described on the BFI website as a kind of Brixton-set “blaxploitation effort), Benjamin got the role that put her at the heart of  British culture. In 1976, she took off her Hair afro stage wig to reveal her own blue beaded braids, and joined  the much loved and admired preschool children’s TV show Playschool — that inspired America’s Sesame Street — and later, Playaway, staying to the end of its run in 1984 — a closure she  fought fiercely and publicly. On Radio 4 recent “The Reunion” she was among the presenters reminiscing about the creative freedom they were given, without commercial pressure.  She remains a vocal campaigner for British made quality children’s drama and entertainment as a bulwark against the sexualised materialism of, what the papers have dubbed “toxic childhood” culture, and a passionate defender of the BBC’s record in children’s programming.

In 1977,  at the height of her Playschool fame, long before  kids TV presenters stripping off for lads mags became a well trodden career path, Playboy offered her a large sum to pose nude. “They offered me so much money,” she reveals. ” A fortune.” She smiles, knowingly. “You can just imagine how they’d have loved it, if I’d laid there with my blue beads on. But how long would it have lasted? And then what? The impact on my career?  I had to say no. I’ve never done anything I that I didn’t believe in. I tell young women never compromise your beauty”.

Perhaps most tellingly, Benjamin says she told Playboy,  “I’ll make the same money, but over the long term.” Far too careful to name names, Benjamin sits forward on the armchair and reflects on the work she’s lost over the years through turning down the casting couch. Acting jobs, even as a producer. Tellingly, while 70s theatrical London was probably still swinging, Benjamin had no truck with what she rather quaintly in her book, terms “hankypanky”. Instead she’d settled down with her husband, Keith Taylor —  who she’d met  when he was stage manager on Hair, had two children, and remains with him, as her manager, more than 40 years on. Despite the frankness of her books, she has always been fiercely protective of her personal privacy.

But after the end of Playschool in 1984 she was quietly but determinedly building influence in public life; much of it voluntary, earning an OBE, and a BAFTA award for services to broadcasting and children’s Television.  As  well as continuing to make children’s programmes through her own production company, she was working for  charities such as  NSPCC, and Barnardos, but also quangos and advisory boards; everything from the Millennium Commission that helped decide what to put in the ill-fated Dome, to the Royal Mail’s  stamp advisory committee where she pointed out that prospective designs for Christmas stamps had no black children at all.

“Everybody buys stamps,” she states. And then puts on a sad expression immediately recognisable from how she addressed children directly reading stories through the camera on Playschool.  “I said, ‘I’m heartbroken. Because you’re saying all black people are not part of Christmas.’ The people on the board went, ‘Oh, we hadn’t realised.’ I’m there to make people notice.”

This approach clearly has been getting results wherever Benjamin has been on a board or an advisory panel. On BAFTA juries,  on the Women of the Year awards,  on children’s bookprize panels. Shirley Hughes is, says Benjamin, among the children’s writers and illustrators who’ve thanked her for “opening her eyes” to the importance of reflecting cultural diversity in their pictures. “One writer wanted me to do the introduction for their book, and when I pointed out every single character in the illustrations was white they said “Oh, but  it’s a fantasy world.” Floella smiles through closed lips. She’s made it her mission to tackle this sort of casual ignorance, because she says, it matters. It is all about making all Britons, know they belong.

It is why belonging to the establishment matters to her.

In her maiden speech to the Lords earlier this month, Baroness Benjamin acknowledged that her entire career had been about Getting There: From arguing with a casting director who insisted it wasn’t “realistic” to cast a black woman as anything other than a bus conductor or a thief, to wearing the ermine.  “I love being part of this establishment,” she said on October 5th, acknowledging how much Britain had changed in her lifetime.

Benjamin has no truck with those who  decline Honours, when I cite the argument made by people like the poet, Benjamin Zephaniah about their oppressive association with Empire.

“The honour is to recognise the contribution YOU have made to this society that you are a part of, ” she says firmly and seriously. “That’s what people like myself are fighting for. Whether for being a JP, a lollipop lady or in showbusiness… When you get an honour, your peers write about you and why you deserve it. You have to download the form and read the requirements and then submit it. I’m often nominating people through the system. That’s the system. You have to know the rules to break them, Maybe you could change what you call it if you don’t like the word “empire” on the OBE. But it gives you” (she holds her head up and articulates the word knowingly) “BOTTOM”. It’s what her headmistress used to say. “It’s important to have bottom. Then people listen to you.”

So is the coalition listening? Asked repeatedly to run as an MP over the years, Benjamin   says she found a natural home for her child-centred philosophy with the Liberal Democrats;  going down a storm at party conferences.  What does she make of the Deputy Prime minister?

“What you see is what you get with Nick,” she asserts. “When we met he asked me “If you were in government, what would you want?” I said to promote children. He shook my hand said that he agreed. He said if you get it right with the children at the beginning  you have sorted it out for life.”

Now for the second time, the party’s asked her to consider standing for London Mayor. “They said You are everything that represents the party”. But perhaps having watched the mauling  former deputy assistant Metropolitan police commissioner Brian Paddick took at the last Mayoral election, between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, Benjamin is not biting .. for now: “My mum said “don’t touch it”..I wouldn’t have been given space between the battling egos in place at the time.” (This is quite an admission from the woman who tells me she once gave the notoriously difficult theatrical co-star  Kenneth Williams a telling off  for rudeness and got him to apologise. “He was never rude again.”)

Running for Mayor this time, though? It’s clearly not going to happen. “I can see the headlines, ” she says, matter of factly. “Which window has she come through today?” What’s the point? My ideas on important issues — on families, on tackling gangs and knife crime would have been overlooked. I’d be between two battling peacocks. ” But as for the next. Well, Benjamin is just starting out  in politics and like with everything else, she’s in it for the long term. “We’ll see. I’m going to keep working till I die…It’s up to people like Diane [Abbott], Oona [King] and myself to just say, we’re laying the path for you.”

“I want to be judged on my actions in a political place. It’s important that my maiden speech was reported on Today In Parliament on Radio 4 with that audience. People don’t yet know or understand me. They think I’m just ambitious, or a silly children’s presenter So I have to prove myself.”

Proving herself as a politician will be challenging , as the Coalition announces deeply controversial deficit reducing policies. Benjamin admits she’s been bruised by  the grillings she’s got in early interviews since her peerage, about the LibDems signing up to the Coalition. It’s not how she’s used to doing business.  “Life is a compromise,” she tells me. “I’m not happy  with it, but I’m realistic.” She has the sharpness to keep her counsel for now, on the very issues where you might expect a strong opinion. What does the champion of children’s rights and fairnesss make of the planned slashing of Child Benefit?

I can see Benjamin closing up tight. “We haven’t discussed it yet. I don’t know enough about what’s really going to happen.” But what does she think of the idea that the Coalition government is suggesting it’s fair to take the benefit away from  1 breadwinner families on less than 44 thousand pounds, but not from 2-earner families on 80 thousand?

She looks at me very firmly and will not be drawn. “The process has not been thought through yet, ” she insists. “We want fairness, even though it might be difficult. We need a moral conscience. we are in it together, But we will have to re think some things Like the free bus pass.”

It’s not that there are two Floella Benjamins. Quite the contrary. The one Benjamin operates on two levels. The charming, disarming Floella who can quiet  a crying toddler in its pushchair in the supermarket queue  and get a gruff young man to apologetically take take his “size 11s” off the seat on the bus by smiling and saying how “You’ve ruined my day. Here I am in my nice white suit and I can’t sit down now, can I?” and the practical, form filling Baroness Benjamin who worked hard at school and in the bank, and on stage, and  developed a protective carapace from all those years of racist name calling and abuse;  determined to beat the bullies and be judged on her ability and to make it easier for others  coming up behind her

She does have a remarkable skill to draw you in. “You have to tell a story,” she explains, to engage a child. She knows she has a gift for it . And most remarkably of all, for a politician, the ability to bring out the moral conscience in people.

“Winos do it, ” Benjamin tells me. “They see me walking  and they say I’m so sorry, Floella. I’ve let you down”.

Why?

“Because when they were children I told them everything was possible. Society let them down.” It’s quite an effect to have on grown men.

Her formative experiences are so profoundly different to those of the public  school educated and Prime Minister and Deputy PM. David Cameron once even felt the need in the pre-election leaders’ debates to specify that he had spoken to a black man, about immigration. But with the first PMQs  having more than ever before, the air of a school debating society, I can’t resist suggesting naughtily: “Have you ever thought about looking the Prime Minister in the eye and talking to him in that Playschool voice?” Appealing  to, in the words of Kate Bush, the man with the child in their his eyes. “Now David, I am very disappointed in you and what you’re thinking about doing to Child Benefit.”

Her eyes are sparkling and she smiles carefully back; amused at the idea, but gives me no encouragement. “I have to not be judgmental. I won’t believe what I see on screen. I’ll wait to meet him.”

So Floella Benjamin is very much at the heart of the establishment now. But the title of her book “The Arms of Britannia” seems to refer as much to weaponry as to the embrace of her home country.

In the two most shocking incidents, Benjamin recalls how she managed to get away from a car mechanic who had trapped her in his garage intending to rape her. Benjamin recounts how she  drew herself up and imitated the haughty voice of her English teacher, Mrs Thomas, who had once humiliated her for talking with a broad Trinidadian accent.  Instead of panicking she announced, “My good man, if you so much as lay a finger on me, my 3 6 ft brothers will come round and teach you a lesson you will never forget. Now pull yourself together”.

In the other incident, she was beaten up at the age of 19 in a bowling alley by a gang of boys who smashed her face in shouting “you fucking nigger” while the bouncers looked on and did nothing. Benjamin even managed to find her tooth and stick it back in place, the nerve stitching itself back, before escaping. “My smile is my weapon,” she tells me. And though she is still on “guard duty” today, she is optimistic.  “The amount of people who come to me and apologise,” she says,  after they hear about her experiences . “I met the neighbour from hell who had put dog mess through my letter box, who came to ask for forgiveness.” Benjamin says a lot of apologies in letter and in person come from strangers. “Especially those now in their 70s. They were like those bouncers who just stood by.”

It is time to go home. Out of the club room,  past the cut-glass accented white men in blazers, down the spiral staircase, out the big arched doorway.

At the front entrance a 30something man in a suit emerging from a meeting and I can see it happening.. I can see the child in his eyes. He hovers, fidgeting a bit while Floella says good bye to me, and then apologizes to her profusely, for stopping her, embarrassed and excited and grinning endearingly. He is one of her Playschool children. Baroness Benjamin smiles that beautiful smile and heads off to her next engagement.

As she might have said, to us all, in the middle of reading out a story, “I wonder what she’ll do next?”

Link to original article: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/floella-benjamin-from-big-ted-to-the-big-society-2114941.html

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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