Arts Council England, benjamin zephaniah, book review, Bruce Lee, China, Jackie Chan, Val McDermid, world book day
Kung Fu Trip by Benjamin Zephaniah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“I wanted to leave London. This is why. There were too many bombs going off. After joining America in her ‘war on terrorism’, our Prime Minister had started his own ‘war on terrorism’. Muslim houses were being raided all over the country and my Muslim friends felt as if they were under siege. I was stopped three times in one day and I don’t look anything like a Muslim.”
True. Anyone who has seen Zephaniah will know he looks nothing like a Muslim. He’s a cool, Rasta dub-poet known for his gap-toothed smile that reaches his eyes, his resemblance to Bob Marley and his streetwise lyricism that captured the imagination of teenagers. He is also famous for having turned down an OBE because it reminded him of ‘how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised’. Zephaniah does not mince his words, he is upfront and direct about issues close to his heart such as dyslexia (as a sufferer, he left school aged 13 unable to read or write), street politics and racism.
In this short but funny read Zephaniah leaves behind his poet persona and talks about his pilgrimage to China to study kung fu at a Shaolin Temple. As he battles jet lag, bemoans the lack of Vegan restaurants and revels in being perceived ‘like a god’ (the Chinese aren’t used to Rastafarians); he recounts the oddities of the country, its’ people and reflects on cultural image and how this might or might not match up with reality and how misinformed we really are about other people. Part humour, part travelog and part philosophical musing, this was an entertaining read and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I don’t know how much of it is true, but I really enjoyed the parts about Zephaniah’s dream to study with the monks on a snow-capped mountain. I had the same aspirations (still do!) and it was great to see them mirrored. There were many strange characters along the way such as the ‘kissy kissy’ woman, Sifu Iron Breath and Fat Thumb which were among the most memorable.
China is indeed a strange place if you do not know much about its culture. Kung Fu, or Wu Shu is probably the most famous thing people associate with it. However even I seem to forget that in China, not everyone knows or does kung fu. In fact those like Zephaniah and I who grew up on Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films that channelled the nobility and spirituality of Zen Buddhism, often end up disappointed by just how commercial and touristic the once-sacred temples have become. At one point Zephaniah muses on how Bodhidharma once left China to find enlightenment, but that everyone now comes to China to find it. There is a faint whiff of disillusionment, as he realises how most of its citizens are doing their utmost to be more ‘Western’.
“The pagodas have Buddhist holy writing carved on them and a history of the life of the deceased, but in China not everything is as it seems at first. Near the gate there was a pagoda that was extremely old. As I walked around it admiring the kung fu fighters using sticks and knives and doing various exercises, I saw a carving of a laptop computer, a digital camera and then a jumbo jet.”
Yet there are moments when Zephaniah finally feels the true spirit of Kung Fu, as on the last day of training he is granted special permission to perform with the monks. Donning his bright orange suit, he goes through each movement, trying to empty his mind and stay in unison with the collective. As he puts it, ‘it was like training in heaven’.
This was an impulse read, but I recommend this as an ideal book for young readers of age 12 upwards who might not like reading much. It’s very quick and would give them instant gratification. It is also quite good for those who might have reading difficulties.
If you are interested in short reads then I suggest you check out the www.quickreads.org.uk website for more on this series which is supported by the Arts Council England and World Book Day. You will find titles by authors such as Val McDermid, Maeve Binchy and Ian Rankin who agreed to collaborate. I think it’s a great way to try out authors and genres you might not be that interested in.
- Benjamin Zephaniah (wearepandorica.wordpress.com)
- Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘There isn’t enough anger in politics’ (guardian.co.uk)
- The real me at 18: the personal statements of five public figures | Richard Dawkins, Alan Johnson, Suzanne Moore, Camila Batmanghelidjh and Benjamin Zephaniah (guardian.co.uk)
POGUS CAESAR LAUNCHES SPARKBROOK PRIDE
Birmingham-based photographer Pogus Caesar has a new book coming out, specially commissioned by Be Birmingham and published by Punch and OOM Gallery Archive.
‘Sparkbrook Pride’ consists of 70 black-and-white photos of residents of Sparkbrook, Birmingham – where Pogus grew up – all taken with his trademark Canon Sureshot camera.
The book also has a foreword written by Benjamin Zephaniah and an introduction by Paris-based photographer Nigel Dickinson. In the foreword Zephaniah says “I love the ‘rawness’ of these photos, they have a sense of place, yet nothing is staged, and the only information Pogus gives us about those featured is how they define themselves, nothing more. We need no more. So people – it is down to us to piece together the rest of this multicultural puzzle”.
Last Autumn Pogus visited Sparkbrook several times, and the striking images in ‘Sparkbrook Pride’ are the result. Documenting the diverse individuals who live and work in the area, the book features both the long-standing residents from the West Indies, Ireland, India and Pakistan and the more recent additions to the community from Somalia, Sudan, Malawi and Afghanistan, celebrating the rich cultural mix that defines the area.
Be Birmingham, in association with Punch and OOM Gallery Archive, will launch Sparkbrook Pride in Spring 2011.
Book details. Paperback, perfect bound, 160 pages, 70 black and white photographs, 11.6 x 8.2 x 0.8 inches. ISBN: 978-0-9566741-1-1
Wow. Thanks for the information! I love finding out about new books. I never heard of Pogus Caeser before, thanks for dropping by and letting me know 🙂
lisa :) said:
“Part humour, part travelog and part philosophical musing”
Sounds like a delightful combination! (And a quick clarification for the stateside reader – OBE… Order of the British Empire? Is that knighthood?)
Yes, that’s correct. I’m not sure if it’s a knighthood or not, but it was quite cool that he turned it down. The slavery issue will never be forgotten or forgiven for many black people. I never really understand how some people accept OBE’s, especially if their country was colonised by the British Empire.
Both Benjamin Zephaniah and Pogus Caesar hail from Birmingham in the West Midlands. A great combination of talents for sure. As well as being a photographer, Pogus is a TV and film director. Check his Flickr page!
Well done you guys.
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