Liz Nicholls chats to Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE
Q. Hello Floella! I know you love to write – do you have any tips for our readers who might like to write a short story and don’t know where to start?
“Yes, firstly, don’t get it right, get it written! You can always go back and change or chuck it later, after all. You might not know where to start, but once you start to inhabit that world you’ve created, the imagination will help you find a way. Also: use your experiences. Children are wonderful natural writers because they’re seeing things for the first time. So, remember the innocence of when you saw the moon for the first time, a river, a butterfly, rabbit! I always like writing with pen and paper – you feel your hand move across the page which is wonderful. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it! You can!”
Q. You love to sing, don’t you?
“I love singing! When I’m singing I go into orbit – I just float. My father was a jazz musician and I used to sing with his band. He used to say ‘feel the song, feel the words’. You don’t even have to have a great voice; Frank Sinatra didn’t, but he lived every word. As children, we used to sing the blues while we did the chores [bursts into song]! You feel lighter, and don’t notice you’re working! My mum used to sing Jim Reeves but she had a terrible voice. Every birthday she’d call up and sing Happy Birthday really badly, and now that she’s gone my brothers and sisters all take turns to sing it in her voice. And I used to love singing on Playschool!”
Q. You’ll be 68 this month; how do you stay so full of beans?
“I did my stretching this morning before I spoke to you; I like to stay supple. I ran ten consecutive marathons but one day my body gave up and said no more of that! I used to be president of the Ramblers’ Association and still walk a lot; for Easter I went to Cumbria and walked for nine hours a day – it’s my spiritual home. I’m not a gym-goer, but am always running up and down stairs, hoovering the stairs, carrying bags. I’m conscious I’m getting older and have to stay mentally and physically fit. I try to remember phone numbers and, when I’m giving a speech, I never have a script. We live in an age where you press button and it’s done, it’s instant. But the brain is like a muscle – you have to keep it fit. I might have a glass of champagne on special occasions but I’m not a big drinker. Apart from that, I keep smiling! It makes you resilient and strong.”
Q. What’s your secret to a long, happy marriage?
“I’m such a lucky girl, to be honest; I was born into a family full of love and left the bosom of my family to fall in love with a man who loved me so passionately. Keith and I were born a day apart and we’re made for each other. When I was ten I came to London from Trinidad and he came to London from Manchester. We lived in Chiswick, a few streets from each other and, for the next nine years we probably criss-crossed paths across London. Then we met in a theatre, 47 years ago, and have been together ever since. We have such a pure partnership; it makes us confident in ourselves.”
Q. How does it feel to be a baroness?
“I tell you something: life has a mysterious way of working out and I’m so grateful to be treated with such affection. We used to live in Anerley [in south London] and my mum really wanted to move to Beckenham – a very white, middle-class area with the best healthcare and best jumble sales! We went to go and view a house there and someone called the police to say black people were there, and they might steal the fixtures and fittings. Anyway, my mum bought that house and we lived there for 40 years. They’re both buried now, my parents, in Beckenham and, once I became a baroness, I visited them in the cemetery there. I told them my news and said ‘I’m now Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham – how about that for a turn-up?’ Everything that happens, you can use. Grab the positives and focus on what you can offer the world; it will reward you.”
Please visit www.floellabenjamin.com