It is often said that everyone has at least one teacher who makes a lasting impact on their life. I'm not about to rock the boat on this. I count myself extremely fortunate to have enjoyed the benefits of being taught by a group of interesting men (all males in my school at that time). The majority of them would have been in their forties and fifties probably, although they appeared to be much older than this to me at that time. A good number of them would have
served in the armed forces during World War Two and possessed the kind of weight and gravitas that conflict and suffering often engenders in people. As individuals and collectively they were not men to be trifled with; they expected
respect and generally got it.
The one I'm about to single out though was Gilbert Bennett, English teacher at Gowerton, part-time BBC sport broadcaster, playwright, author, a founder member of the Dylan Thomas Society and a Vice President of Dunvant Male Voice Choir. These are his credentials but they don't really tell you about the man other than the obvious stuff that he was literate and fairly erudite. He did in fact have an extensive knowledge of English literature and possessed great prowess as a speaker. I believe he did fifty years of broadcasts for the BBC, weekend commentating on rugby games across Wales. I remember him telling us (his class) a personal anecdote about his mother, or perhaps it was a doting aunt, taking him as a small boy to visit a phrenologist who had set up shop in the wonderfully named Salubrious Passage off Wind Street, Swansea. The practitioner announced that the young Gilbert would 'talk for a living'. I recall him being very amused by the accuracy of the practitioner's asssesment of the bumps and contours of his head. However, I wonder if the phrenologist was given a little bit of prompting here by the little Gilbert himself, who judging by the man he became, was probably a childhood chatterbox. Yet, despite all the things he'd achieved in his adult life, I personally never heard him boast once. He was an extremely humble man and like all the very best talkers, he was a good listener. He told me once that he tried to increase his vocabulary by learning a new word every day.
Fortunately for us boys, he liked to illustrate his teaching with a story or two. If I remember correctly, he'd been a Bishop Gore Grammar School boy, the same school as Dylan Thomas, whose work he promoted. Something I've never forgotten were his descriptions of growing up in Swansea after the Great War and through the Depression. I recall how he brought the picture to life: conjuring up his schooldays, the register being taken at the beginning of a new term and the sad reality that someone was almost invariably missing. In just forty years childhood mortality had become something almost unheard of by my day.
A few years ago almost by accident I discovered I was dyspraxic. It explained a lot. I came from a family of sporty men but the only thing I was ever able to catch successfully was a cold. I was certainly never going to distinguish myself at school on a pitch of any kind. A deep and abiding love of literature and art have been the saving graces of my life and Gilbert Bennett was a major influence here. He saw something that perhaps few others did, took a shy, introverted young boy and nudged him out of his comfort zone; asked him to read an excerpt from 'A Christmas Carol' at the annual school concert in the Brangwyn Hall; put him up on stage in a toga in the school production of 'Julius Caesar' and made him drink pints of cold tea whilst leaning against a bar in 'The Plough and the Stars' by O'Casey (one of GB's favourite playwrights).
The last time I saw Gilbert was almost thirty years ago at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. I was playing Owen in 'Translations' by Brian Friel. By this time he'd left Gowerton and was now lecturing at Swansea University. We had a long enthusiastic chat about the play and how effective we both felt Friel was as a playwright. A couple of days later he tracked me down to my parents' home and rang to ask if I was free to come and watch a play of his, 'The Olive Branch', performed by Swansea Little Theatre that evening. Unfortunately, I was on a flying visit home and we had arranged a family meal and get-together. It couldn't have been helped and I know he understood, but this man had done so much for me and I wish I could have gone along to see his work.
Top two lessons learnt from G B:
Never use a big obscure word when there's a simple widely-used one that works just as well.
An intellectual isn't someone who knows the answer to everything, but knows how and where to
find the answer to anything.
Gilbert Bennett died in February 2003, aged 86