‘The British (serves 60 Million)’ by Benjamin Zephaniah is a poem about the diverse culture of England. As the title of the poem says, it is about the “60 Million” people living in Britain at that time when Benjamin Zephaniah was writing this verse. The cultural diversity of English is not a new phenomenon. It existed at the times Picts, Celts, and Silures. The process of cultural assimilation continued thereafter. And the process exists till today. The poet throws light into the history of England and tries to spread the message of “unity, understanding, and respect” to the English people. He places “justice” as the foremost ingredient in his poem as it brings harmony to the nation.
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Summary of The British (serves 60 Million)
‘The British (serves 60 Million)’ by Benjamin Zephaniah presents the history of England in an innovative manner. The poet refers to the period when Romans conquered England and the cultural assimilation first started here. Thereafter the poet refers to the Norman Conquest and how the French culture spread into Anglo-Saxon England. In the second stanza, there is no such reference to any major historical events of the nation. The poet refers to the people living in different regions of the world and how they got mixed into the English culture. In the last few lines of the poem, the poet upholds the language issue and provides a solution. According to the poet, the nation should allow her people to practice their own culture and language. However, the English language should act as a binding factor, not as a mechanism that uproots oneself from her identity. The poet also emphasizes unity and justice at the end of his poem.
Themes in The British (serves 60 Million)
‘The British (serves 60 Million) by Benjamin Zephaniah presents the themes of cultural diversity, unity, and justice in the poem. The major theme of the poem is the cultural diversity of Britain. The poet refers to historical events and highlights the continuing process of cultural assimilation in England. This feature is what differentiates the nation from other countries. The poet respects such a welcoming attitude of his nations as well as the English people. Zephaniah uses the metaphor of cooking ingredients while presenting his view on cultural unification. Another important theme of the poem is unity. According to the poet, language plays a significant role in this process of unification. It binds people and unifies them.
The concept of justice is not an insignificant part of the poem. In fact, Zephaniah places it in a higher position. The poet thinks without justice such a rich diversity of Britain will tremble down. For this reason the poet after emphasizing unity, understanding, and respect for each other, the poet highlights justice separately in his poem. It is the last but not the least in the poet’s list of ingredients.
Form and Tone in The British (serves 60 Million)
‘The British (serves 60 Million)’ could adequately be described as being quite playful in tone. It takes the idea of a recipe and uses that as a kind of allegory for society in Britain. The effect is highly amusing. The poem is separated into two sections and is written in free verse. The line lengths are uneven and there is no discernible rhythm. However, rhyme is used to great effect in the second stanza. I think that disjointed rhythm, combined with the rhyme is a reflection of the diversity in Britain, celebrating the differences, while the rhyme highlights that we all have much in common.
Analysis of The British (serves 60 Million)
In the first line of ‘The British (serves 60 Million)’ the narrator begins with the initial “ingredients”, these are three civilizations from early Britain. The celts, who are relatively famous, and the Picts and Silures who are perhaps less so. The narrative voice then suggests you let them settle. This has an obvious double meaning as it a phrase one might use when making a cake, but also denotes the passing of time. This clever use of figurative language is a fixture throughout the poem. The third line is interesting because while the tone is distinctly in keeping with the rest of the poem, the content is not really a double entendre but takes us forward in the history of the country introducing the “Roman element”. The poet then continues “adding” various civilizations to the “mix” before concluding the stanza with the phrase “then stir vigorously” this could well be suggesting that during this time period when the country was influenced by the likes of the Saxons and the Vikings that there was a great deal of upheaval, the shaking here then, while sounding like it is part of the “recipe” for Britain is also probably a metaphor for war.
The first line of the second stanza of ‘The British (serves 60 Million)’ is quite clever as it says:
Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans
This is clever because Chileans sounds a lot like Chilli, which we know of course is hot and spicy, but this is also a fairly apt description of a stereotypical South American, with a fiery temperament. He then mentions cool Jamaicans, this mirrors the “ingredient” that proceeded it, with the hot being balanced by the cold, and don’t forget cool is also slang for being laid back, which is certainly a common Jamaican stereotype! Let us also not forget that Zephaniah himself is half Jamaican!
There are elements of sibilance in the opening section of the second stanza. There is the frequent repetition of the S sounds, which give the words a nice flow despite the disjointed rhythm. Rhyme is also used here and this accomplishes the same feeling. Also, note the use of the word blend here, this is very clever wordplay as it could work as either a noun or a verb depending on the context. Then in the seventh line, we see the narrator instructing us to turn up the heat. Once again this could well be an allusion to rising conflicts between the different races living in the country but it fits beautifully with the motif of making a meal. (albeit a meal that Hannibal Lector may well enjoy!
The rhymes continue in the next section as once again we see the wealth of incoming nationalities. With Japanese rhyming with Guyanese, Chinese, and Sudanese could the suggestion from this “ease” sound that these people all get along without too much effort?
Midway through the second stanza, the recipe seems to have all of its ingredients have been added to the mixture and are then left to “simmer”. In this section, there are a lot of pleasant sound “l” sounds which give the impression of things coming together in a positive way. This is suggested by the language itself with the use of the term flourishing to describe the languages of the various residents of Britain.
In the 14th line we see the repetition of the word blend, perhaps this is to emphasize the point that all of these great people are coming together as one, what is interesting though is in the line that directly follows that he says:
Binding them together with English.
Binding is not quite such a positive word. Yes, like blend it describes a coming together, but binding suggests oppression. Could this be suggesting that England can be an oppressive place? At times it really does feel that in Britain people are not as tolerant of other cultures than they should be, so perhaps that is what the intonation here is. Another incident of repetition is used directly after with Zephaniah using the word “cool” once more. Perhaps if the use of bind is suggesting an oppression that this period of “cooling off” is what is needed to rid the country of that.
The final stanza comes to a close on a positive with Zephaniah suggesting that the “mixture” requires:
unity, understanding, and respect for the future
and finally, justice, although the word justice may well carry negative connotations as it pertains to authority and therefore might hint at what is perceived to be Britain’s slightly authoritarian nature.
There is, of course, two rather amusing additions after the final stanza, almost acting like disclaimers. The first is that all the ingredients are equally important. This gives us a message that equality between different cultures is vital. It then goes on to add that justice is important to be used with equality in mind too. Given Zephania’s heritage, his views here are not at all surprising.
About Benjamin Zephaniah
Born of parents hailing Jamaica, Benjamin Zephaniah is a contemporary British poet that is well respected by critics. He was recently included in a list of the most influential writers since the Second World War which is a massive achievement but even more prominent considering that at the age of just 13 Zephaniah left school and struggled to read and write. Zephaniah often covers contemporary issues such as racial equality in his poetry.