LibLink: Floella Benjamin – I want to be judged on my actions in a political place

Today’s Independent on Sunday features an interview with Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham – Floella to the rest of us – which ranges over a variety of topics, from Floella’s childhood, her work on stage and TV, her charity and campaigning work, to her future ambitions.

Some of the stories featured in Floella’s recent maiden speech in the House of Lords, but there are some unfamiliar ones, which she has included in her new book about her teenage years Arms of Britannia:

“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?'”. She was beaten up badly at 19 in a bowling alley, while the club bouncers just looked on.

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 qualifications and entering the professions. Floella’s mother used to clean office buildings. At 16, 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 Benjamin changed career. Used to singing on stage with her part time jazz musician father’s band, 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.

Floella also reveals that she was asked to pose naked for Playboy magazine, while still a presenter for the children’s programme Playschool, and declined a large sum of money to do so.

She goes on to say what she thinks about Honours, but not about proposed cuts to Child Benefit; about the Deputy Prime Minister, but not about the Prime Minister.

And on the question of running for Mayor of London:

“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 she won’t rule it out once she’s more experienced.

“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.”

You can read the full interview in the Independent on Sunday, here.

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This entry was posted in LibLink.

One Comment

  • Tony Greaves 24th Oct '10 - 7:50pm

    I hate to be pernickety (well no I don’t really) but Floella’s name is Baroness Benjamin. The rest is her territorial designation which is additional to her name. The reason she is plain “Benjamin” is that she is the first peer of that name or any similar name. The next peer called Benjamin or similar, if there is one, will have to have a place as part of his/her name.

    A Pedant of Winewall (aka plain Lord Greaves)

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