Wednesday 28 May 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to an old jobbing poet called Gerard Benson who brought light to the lives of children and underground travellers

Gerard, who published 10 volumes of poems and prize-winning collections for children and whose autobiography, 'Memoirs of a Jobbing Poet', is to be published this summer, has died at the age of 83.

What you possibly didn't know about Gerard, that he :

* was born in 1931 in Golders Green, North London, the son of a young, unmarried Irish schoolteacher who arranged to have him fostered and consequently spent his first 10 years living with a family of Christian fundamentalists, whom he believed to be his parents and remembered as a time of "punishments, an absence of love".

*  was visited by his glamorous 'Auntie Eileen' at weekends until evacuated from London to Norfolk at the outbreak of the Second World War and on his return, found the Auntie had become 'Mum' married Romanian composer, Francis Chagrin and became a boy in a new world of artists, writers and musicians and a baby step brother called Julian (right) who years later became R.White's 'secret lemonade drinker'.

* was a troubled teenager, who at school came into conflict with his teachers, undertook counselling at the Tavistock Clinic and attended boarding school followed by, at the age of 18 in 1949, two years National Service in the Royal Navy as an intelligence coder in Gibraltar which, as a lover of words and puzzles, he found convivial.

* after a row with his Mother, the surname of the father on his birth certificate, Arthur Bayard 'Benson' and in his twenties drifted from acting to student life for a year at Exeter University, to work as a clerk and a porter with evening drama classes at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and a tour as assistant stage manager with a play, 'Lilac Time', based on tunes by Schubert.

* undertook a year's teacher-training at the Central School for Speech and Drama, London and then served for 20 years as a member of staff, teaching voice production, diction and verse-speaking.

* while teaching,  joined the 'Barrow Poets', who in the early 1960s, took their anarchic programmes to pubs and village halls, with appearances on radio and TV, in which he excelled on the kazoo and took part in renditions of Thomas Love Peacock's 'Three Men of Gotham' and wrote 'The Pheasant Plucker's Son'.

* was a prime mover of the 'Poems on the Underground' scheme along with Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert that started in the late 1980s offering a wide range of poetry to a mass audience in his belief the arts should be accessible to all and reflected : "Just as we had hoped, the poems provided relief, caused smiles, offered refreshment to the soul – and all in a place where one would least expect to find anything remotely poetic.”

* in 1990 edited 'This Poem Doesn't Rhyme', designed for young children, to help them discover free and blank verse through Beowulf,  John Wesley, Tennyson, Kurt Schwitters and Bob Cobbing followed by collections of his poetry : 'The Magnificent Callisto' at the age of 61 in 1992, 'Evidence of Elephants' in 1995 and 'To Catch an Elephant' in 2002.

* a Quaker in religion, with a strong moral drive, ran writing workshops for psychiatric patients, prisoners and the disabled, had joined the 'Ban the Bomb' Aldermaston marches in the 1960s and the million-strong London protest against the Iraq war in 2003.
 * in 2008 became the City of Bradford's first and only Poet Laureate and took his role seriously, from helping children in libraries and schools to get the most out of poetry and writing verses to commemorating civic events :  Holocaust Memorial Day, Bradford City Fire Disaster Memorial Services and the Lord Mayor’s Installation Service and where his widow said : “He loved the multicultural ambience of Bradford..the City Hall and the mirror pool, which he extolled to others who had never seen it, suggesting they should visit on a summer’s day.”

* was the first poet-in-residence at The Wordsworth Trust, attended workshops at the Welsh centres Celmi and Ty Newydd and undertook regular stints at Aldeburgh and British Council residencies in Kenya, Egypt and Norway.

* earlier this year, recorded his poems for the digital 'Poetry Archive' and opened with his wry sonnet, 'Beginning':
'Believe me, I hadn't asked to be born,
but still I pressed head-first toward the light … Adventure, sorrow,
puzzlement, delight were waiting. I pushed on through,
breathed air, then wailed – and so again began.'  

A last word from Gerard reading 'A Good Time' :

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