There's a compelling, if macabre, reason why Benjamin Zephaniah is a vegan.

Every time he smells meat cooking, it instantly takes him back to his horrific experience of war.

He saw people being gunned down in front of him during the Lebanese Civil War, then their bodies left in the street.

The Birmingham-born writer remembers: “One day I came across a pile of burning bodies, a funeral pyre.

“It was gruesome and it really stayed with me. Now I’m a vegan, because any time I smell meat, it take me back there to the smell of burning flesh.

“I went to Lebanon many years ago, I was in the occupied territories of Gaza during a fierce civil war. I came under fire, I saw people shot and left in the streets, and thought I was going to die.

“War is ugly. We see it in films and on the news, but only the edited bits.”

The Lebanese conflict lasted from 1975 to 1990 and resulted in more than 100,000 deaths plus a mass exodus of a million refugees.

We’re discussing war and its consequences because Benjamin’s second novel, Refugee Boy, has been turned into a play which is being staged at Birmingham Rep.

And also because Benjamin has had recent experience of its devastation.

He says: “In the last couple of days I have been helping a friend, a former soldier, who has severe mental problems – his mind has absolutely gone.

“By 26 he had already seen four tours of duty in Afghanistan. He saw horrors he shouldn’t have had to. He should be enjoying himself but he can’t even have a girlfriend. He hears a bang and thinks the war has started.

“It completely freaked me out to see someone dying in front of me. He began seeing that at 19.

“Peace shouldn’t just be the absence of war, just subduing something that will come back.

“I like to see peace as a doing word, it’s something you have to work at, like a marriage. “We have to find new ways of solving our problems. It sounds idealistic, but we can do it in the playground.

“If two kids are fighting, the teacher takes them aside and gets them to talk it through.

“If you’re an adult and fight in the street, you’ll get arrested.

“I find it really odd that all our lives we are told not to fight, and then politicians get involved and send troops to fight in conflicts.

“It’s quite sad that Refugee Boy is even more relevant today than when I wrote it. There’s a part of me that would like the book to be a bit dated, something about our dark past which we’ve moved on from.

“But I saw a documentary the other day about people sneaking into Britain on a boat from Calais. So many were Syrians and so desperate.”

Refugee Boy was published in 2001. It’s about the warring factions of Ethiopia and Eritrea and a 14-year-old boy, Alem, who is brought to the UK for his safety and left alone.

The play was first produced last year by West Yorkshire Playhouse and adapted by East African poet Lemn Sissay.

This is the first time it has gone further afield and been staged in Benjamin’s home city.

The 55-year-old Rastafarian, who grew up in Handsworth, says: “When I was first approached about adapting my novel, I said no.

“I wanted someone fresh to take a new perspective. I’m too close to it, I wouldn’t want to change a word from the novel.

“I wanted to give a chance to an up-and-coming new writer. But the people at the Playhouse suggested poet Lemn Sissay, who I knew.

“He was so passionate about the book, saying it was so close to his personal story, that I had to let him do it.

“I oversaw the script, so the ghost of me was always lingering over him, but he was fine about that.

“If it had been down to me, I would like to put every chapter on the stage, but that’s not the way to do it.

“Quite frankly, I see when it’s been done by other writers and I think it’s a bit of a shame. You can never get a book fully on the stage, you have to tell it in another way.

“When I first saw the finished production, I was thinking ‘That’s the bit I wrote, that’s Lemn’s bit’. But then it melted into one and I couldn’t see the joins.

“One thing he did which was very good was putting poetry into it.

“I don’t put poetry in my novels because that’s what people expect, and I like to do the unexpected.

“My first novel, Face, was a straight story about a 15-year-old white kid. I just wanted to produce a good novel, to show people that I could write.

“I like to watch Refugee Boy whenever I can and it’s always quite emotional for me.

“I plan to see it at the Rep. It will feel special, I call it playing at home.

“It doesn’t matter what I do or where I go, Birmingham is always close to me. I live in Birmingham more than I let on. I have never let the city get away from me.

West Yorkshire Playhouse's production of Refugee Boy written by Benjamin Zephaniah
West Yorkshire Playhouse's production of Refugee Boy written by Benjamin Zephaniah
 

“I left in 1979, I was getting into trouble with gangs and I thought ‘I’m going to leave this all behind and never come back’. I didn’t really care about the place.

“But when I got to London and heard people doing Birmingham down and making fun of my accent, I got really patriotic about my city and realised how much I loved it.

“I’m not romantic about it, I get frustrated with its problems, but I love it.

“I love the way we talk and our friendliness. When I first went to London, I was standing at a bus stop and said ‘alright?’ to the man next to me.

“He swore at me and said ‘Are you gay?’. In Birmingham I always talk to people at bus stops!”

Aston Villa fan and divorcee Benjamin, who can’t have children, now lives alone in Spalding, Lincolnshire but often returns to Birmingham to see his mother Valerie.

The son of a Jamaican nurse and Barbados postman and the eldest of nine, he and his mother ended up homeless when they fled his abusive father.

He attended Broadway School in Handsworth and an approved school but left at 13 unable to read or write. He was mixed up in gangs and later spent time in Winson Green prison for burglary.

It wasn’t until he moved to London that he went to adult education classes and learned to read and write.

“I could read some words before then but I really struggled. I could just about write my own name.

“It wasn’t until I was 21 that I sat down and someone explained things like grammar to me. Then I discovered I was dyslexic.

“I don’t think I could tell you the alphabet even now. I know the letters but I don’t know the right order.”

It shows how far he’s come that he now enjoys respect in literary circles. He has lectured at both Oxford and Cambridge universities and was tipped for the position poet laureate, before Andrew Motion got the job.

He is now professor of poetry at Brunel University in West London and his fans included Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley.

He has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, 10 albums and four novels.

He also acts a bit and has just filmed a scene for the second series of Peaky Blinders, in which he plays a Birmingham preacher.

“I have a 16-year-old son now!” he exclaims. “I’m really upset about that, they haven’t even given me a wife.”

He first became known for his live performances as a dub poet. In fact he realises, after thinking for a while, that the first time he set foot in a theatre was to perform.

“It would have been in London at an alternative cabaret night. I was on the bill with French and Saunders, Keith Allen and The Flying Pickets.

“I had performed in places in Birmingham like Newtown and Nechells community centres, and the cellar of Canterbury Cross in Perry Barr, but never in a theatre.

“And the first time I saw a play, it was one of my own.

“Now I go to the theatre all the time, I’m passionate about it. When I come across people who can’t understand what’s so good about theatre, I say ‘I hated it too, you should change your mind’.

“That usually works, as it’s not somebody saying ‘mummy and daddy took me there’.

“I always felt when I was growing up that people I knew wouldn’t go to the theatre. It all seemed very much for uptown people.

“Over the years it has been changing, and theatre is more accessible, but we still need to chip away at it.

“And it frustrates me when I come across young people who are still not keen on books.

“I remember when I was kid, I thought ‘people like me aren’t in books’.

“So that is why, I can reveal, my next novel for teens is set in Birmingham.

“Terror Kid is about an act of terror, something that happens in the city that this boy gets accidentally mixed up with.

“Readers will be able to walk down the streets that I write about. That’s really important.”

A conversation with Benjamin takes many serious turns, but he’s also witty and quick with jokes.

And he’s keen to point out that his work, like Refugee Boy, has moments of humour.

“Life goes on for refugees, they have to smile and crack a joke, it’s part of the struggle to be human.

“I remember in Lebanon, there had been a day of heavy fighting. Finally when the shooting stopped, they put on a wedding. I was still shaking but the best man was telling jokes. The human spirit is amazing.

“I hesitate to say I’m a political writer. People say I am, but I write about life and that happens to involve politics.

“You can’t help raising these issues, but if you keep banging people over the head with them and going on about war and suffering and nothing else, they get turned off.

“I want people to face reality but also be entertained.”

* Refugee Boy comes to Birmingham Rep from April 8-12. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk