Gerard Benson: Award-winning writer and teacher who played a central role in the Poems on the Underground scheme
Sunday 01 June 2014
Best known as a prime mover of the iconic public arts scheme Poems on the Underground, the poet Gerard Benson was "discovered" in the Sixties as a member of The Barrow Poets, who performed everything from Shakespeare and Milton to limericks and risqué ballads everywhere – from the back rooms of pubs to BBC's Late Night Line-Up, around the country and in Europe and the US.
LPs spread their fame and a hit single, "The Pheasant Plucker's Song", stayed in the Australian top ten for six months.
In the Seventies and Eighties, Benson published children's books and edited anthologies for Puffin, winning the Signal Award and being shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. The various Poems on the Underground anthologies (co-edited with Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert) are bestsellers and there has always been at least one edition in print.
Benson was evacuated from his home in London during the blitz to Norfolk, and later did national service in the Navy, stationed in Gibraltar as a teacher (and acquiring the nickname Shakespeare). Back in Blighty, he was recalled as an intelligence decoder.
After treading the boards in Rep, he took up a post at the Central School for Speech and Drama, where he stayed for over 20 years. He was an immensely gifted teacher, and tutored hundreds of workshops and courses into his eighties.
Yet Benson was always foremost a writer. He wrote extensively for The TES and could turn his hand to anything, including winning on a regular basis poetry "comps" at the New Statesman and the Spectator, and anonymously editing the fiendish literary competition Nemo's Almanac. Benson had a passion for chess, and was delighted to cover the World Championships – until he was mistaken at a press event for the delayed Boris Spassky. He was photographed with Bobby Fischer, but convinced the authorities of his true identity in time to avoid trouncing the grandmaster.
The long-running Gerard and Jean concerts (with pianist Jean Phillips) played to full houses, often at the Purcell Room on the South Bank. It was at one of these in 1982, a Valentine's day concert, that Benson met Cathy, who was to become his third wife, and the love of his life.
Moving from London to Yorkshire in 1989, the Bensons lived a busy freelance existence. British Council appointments took them to Egypt and Norway, and in 1994 Gerard became the first (20th century) poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. A collection, In Wordsworth's Chair, was followed by Bradford and Beyond, a sequence of sonnets which led to his becoming the city's Poet Laureate.
In the last decades of his life, Gerard wrote his most accomplished work in the outstanding collection A Good Time. In their insight, wit and modest wisdom, Gerard's poems are often very like their author. And in their joy and playfulness too. Because, however dark or difficult some of their subject matter, his poems are always built with a clear-eyed joy in language and in life. These qualities inform his last project, the vivid prose book Memoirs of a Jobbing Poet, which he saw in proof just before his death. It is published later this year.
Gerard Benson, poet: born London 9 April 1931; married three times (one daughter, one son deceased); died 28 April 2014.
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