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Death of Gerard Benton... dole life in 80s Luton

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Location: South London

PostPosted: Thu Dec 01, 2005 10:07 am    Post subject: Death of Gerard Benton... dole life in 80s Luton Reply with quote

Gerard (Gerry) Benton died last week in Oxford, aged 47, from cancer. He had been working there for the past 13 years for a homeless charity, English Churches Housing Group. Back in the 1980s though, he was a well known Luton character. He wasn’t involved in the punk/alternative music scene, but he did play an important role in sustaining it through his invaluable advice as a volunteer at the Centre for the Unemployed in Dunstable Road. Thanks to him, me and many others were shown our way through the benefits system, ending up if we were lucky with our rent paid and an extra supplement for living in ‘Bed and Breakfast’. Would the Thursday routine of signing on and going to the Switch club have even been possible without so many of being told about the ‘Personal Issue’ loophole which allowed us to get our hands on our money straight away rather than waiting for the giro to arrive?

At one point in the mid-1980s, lots of us (including Gerard) were living in bedsits in London Road and Stockwood Crescent, including members of Karma Sutra, Corpelia and the Party Girls, and various others of the crimped hair persuasion. The bedsits were owned by Mr Cremin, a generally amiable Irish landlord who nevertheless thought it necessary to collect the rent accompanied by burly sons, an Alsatian and a baseball bat. The deal was that in return for providing a nominal breakfast which hardly anyone got out of bed for, Cremin was able to charge the DHSS a higher rent, and the tenants got a little bit more on their dole. It wasn’t exactly paradise, but it was too good to last. In 1985, the Government decided to change the rules so that young people under 26 could only stay in board and lodging for four weeks before their rent and benefits were cut – for those of us living in the Costa del Cremin this threatened homelessness. Actually it was no joke – the Luton News reported that Michael Ball, a a 24 year old from Marsh Farm, hanged himself when he was forced to move by the new regulations.

In June 1985, a Bed and Breakfast Claimants Action Group was set up at a meeting at the Centre for the Unemployed. Over the next few weeks, we occupied Luton DHSS and the Anglia TV office, and disrupted council meetings, with between 20 and 40 people taking part. When Prince Charles visited the town we occupied the Radio Bedfordshire office. Plans were also laid for squatting – a list of empty properties was put together at the Centre for the Unemployed and circulated in the name of ‘Luton Squatters Advisory Service’. I have a cutting from the Luton News headlined ‘Jobless Encouraged to become Squatters’ in which Gerry was interviewed, saying ‘Many people within Luton are going to be made homeless by these regulations. If they don’t want to end up sleeping in the park then squatting is one of their few options’.

Things came to a head in July, when what the Herald called ’30 punk-style protestors’ were ejected from another council meeting in the Town Hall and there was a scuffle with councillors. Gerard Benton was arrested, and to everyone’s amazement was jailed for six months in a court case the following February. He was convicted of ‘actual body harm’ for supposedly hitting a Liberal Councillor, Jenny Davies. She admitted in court that she had grabbed and spat on people before she was struck, and in any case everybody knew that Gerard was innocent – unlucky enough to be recognised by Davies from a previous meeting and picked out. The general view was that Davies knew that Gerard was innocent too, but wanted somebody (anybody) to be punished. After he was convicted, some of Gerry’s friends repaid Davies with a number of pranks, including placing an advert in a local paper offering prison uniforms for sale, with her phone number.

It was all too much for the respectable Labour Party types who ran the Centre for the Unemployed. We were banned from meeting there anymore, and not long after it closed. It was later squatted for a Karma Sutra gig, but that’s another story.

When he came out of prison, Gerry worked for a while with my mum at Luton careers office in Alma Street. I have a picture of them somewhere on a picket line there during a NALGO (public sector union) strike. I hadn’t seen or heard of Gerard for many years until my mum called me last week to tell me about the funeral notice in the Luton News.

In the heavy drinking culture at that time, it was sometimes easy to overlook that some of us were having more serious problems with drink than others. When I knew him, Gerard’s drinking was legendary, as was his not-unrelated capacity for improbable stories. The same gift of the gab, combined with his generosity, could though enable him to pull off some great scams. I first met him when I was at school and had joined the Labour Party Young Socialists. Gerry arranged a coach trip to the Welsh seaside resort of Llandudno for the LPYS conference, with us all being put up in a hotel. A lot of people came along for the ride, some of whom never even stepped foot inside the conference, with no questions asked about ability to pay. It was only when we got back that we found out that Gerrard had simply arranged for the hotel bill to be sent to Luton Labour Party, who weren’t very happy but paid up anyway.

So Long Gerry, and thanks for the holiday!
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 01, 2005 4:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

That's a lovely obituary Neil and full of reminders. Gerard helped out an endless number of people, who in turn would be more than happy to buy him a pint or two in return - which obviously fuelled his dependence.

To add to the music bits of what you've written - in fact, Karma Sutra, Party Girls and Click Click played a benefit concert for the Luton TUC Unemployed Workers Centre at the local tech, which is now part of the Uni, and The Switch did the music in between. Art student Liz Price, who later played in the band Talulah Gosh as "Pebbles" hand-printed the tickets herself.

When the B&B campaign started to have effect, not only were we stopped from meeting at the Centre but some of us were barred from going there for criticising the lack of support from various trade union officials for the campaign and later, some of us were left to wander where the money raised actually went.

By the time the Centre moved its offices, not only had local TUC officials distanced themselves from the B&B campaign, banned meetings and individuals, but expressed indifference and even some hostility (as we weren't towing the official line of shutting up and waiting for Labour get into office and forget about it). Gerard was caught in the middle as he "worked" at the centre but was nevertheless "one of us" as he lived in B&B himself. To his credit, he went out on a limb and made a number of public and comments, which meant the press had him down as the "leader" of the protest (when in reality he was no longer being allowed by his TUC "bosses" to be part of the group). It was for this reason, he was pointed out as the guilty party when, IIRC, he wasn't even there when the scuffling occured and wandered in later.

By the time the squat gig took place (Karma, Party Girls and one other), local officials were doing everything they could to stop the gig but failed. The police tried unsuccessfully to break in and were repelled with one of them saying they were only concerned about safety but, "go on then, you can all burn to death for all I care". Nothing changes.

Even though he knew about the plans for the squat gig, Gerry kept it quite and paranoid about being singled out for organising it, decided to go out of town for that weekend. He then changed his mind and, worse for drink, came down to try and convince everyone to leave. It didn't work and he remained all night enjoying more drink. The next morning the police successfully broke in and asked for the names and addresses of the few people who remained. Everyone refused except Gerard who, as in the council case, felt that he could just have a chat and sort things out.

After that, we talked about squatting the massive, old, empty Coop building (where that leasure complex is now) but it never happened.
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 12:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

good bloke there , Jerry cremin the slum landlord has property near to my home still to ths day he is charging maximum rent for slum dwellings And in order to claim full b and b rents he gives his tenants a fry up out the back of his wifes car on a saturday morning although a friendly chap he is as tight as a ducks arse and his bedsits are really smelly. But i like the guy p.s. this jerry is not the same one you are talking about they are good gerry and bad jerry
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