FORMER Morning Star editor Bill Benfield had his hands on the wheel for only a short while, but his fingerprints are all over our paper and his influence lives on in those he taught and worked with.
Bill, whose life will be celebrated today at Chelmsford Crematorium, surprised his careers master at Hendon Grammar School by telling him that his life’s ambition was to be editor of the people’s paper.
However, after leaving school with just one O-level, English, he served his time as a printer, acquiring an expertise that was priceless in later life at the Morning Star.
He was brought up in a political home where his father was a Communist Party member who fought at Cable Street, while his mother was a Partick Presbyterian who fretted for her son’s soul.
Family legend has it, recounts Bill’s former wife Jane Paul, that his parents quarrelled over whether he should be christened and the row culminated in his father taking him to the nearest Christian establishment to do so.
“Unfortunately, it was the Plymouth Brethren who don’t do child christening, but Bill’s dad insisted: ‘I’m not leaving here until you throw water over his head’.”
Returning home, Benfield Snr reported: “There. He’s been done.”
Factual, fanciful or embroidered, the account encapsulates Bill’s capacity to entertain friends at length with tales of his heritage, complete with convincing parental impersonations.
His partner Helen Bennett, with whom Bill spent the last 18 “happiest years of our lives,” was constantly amazed at the breadth of his knowledge and his propensity for soliloquies and plays on words.
“At first I thought he was a very nice fellow, very intelligent, easy to get on with and having a wicked sense of humour that sometimes baffled me,” she recalls.
“But then one day, I just told him: ‘I didn’t realise you were a genius, Bill’.”
He was taught to read before starting school and consumed books avidly his entire life, winning a scholarship to Haberdashers that he was unable to take up for financial reasons, going to Hendon Grammar instead.
Throughout his school days — and indeed his entire life — he suffered from asthma and had lots of time off school, although his poor academic results owed more to his becoming a bit of a teenage rebel than to ill health.
Bill flirted with anarchism and hippiedom, spending six months in Morocco, before deciding to have another shot at education in 1970.
Long-time friend and fellow printer Terry McCarthy remembers meeting him at Ruskin College.
“At that time, you could get a scholarship as a mature student to university. It was meant mainly for army officers,” says Terry.
“I saw Bill there with shoulder-length hair and sandals and I thought: ‘Hello, I don’t think you’re an army officer’.”
Terry was a Communist Party member and party members met as a group for discussions and political activity and it wasn’t long before Bill applied to join.
“As soon as he joined, I saw him staggering up the stairs with about 50 books and, in a couple of months, he was leading the group in discussing dialectical materialism.
“He always had a great appetite for knowledge and for the party. When he joined the CP, he had to understand everything about Marxism and to be able to teach it,” says Terry.
Bill was active in the Ruskin History Workshop, which was run by the students, helping to organise the big Women at Work conference in 1971, attended by up to 2,000 people.
“Bill gave a fantastic paper and also helped organise the next year’s conference,” Terry adds.
He also recounts Bill being invited to seminars at St Anthony’s College, which he describes as the “post-grad college for spies,” where he was tapped up to go over to the other side, but “Bill gave them short shrift, told them to get stuffed.”
After completing his studies for a special diploma in social studies, delivering his thesis on the development of the position of women in the printing trades, focusing on the bookbinders’ trade and covering the strike at Watkins bindery, Bill returned to the print.
He became briefly a full-time official for print union NGA in Brighton where he and Jane were blessed by the birth of their daughter Julia.
Following the break-up of their relationship, Bill returned to London, working with Terry at the National Museum of Labour History in Limehouse before it transferred to Manchester.
The two worked closely together on a number of projects, including the Milex charity for children with special needs, where Bill taught printing and publishing, and the Dyslexic Computer Training charity, using specialist software found by Bill.
“Bill was a natural teacher. He was very patient and he also taught woodwork and metalwork to youngsters who’d been in trouble with the law, mostly teenage boys from an Afro-Caribbean background,” says Terry.
He had become a member of the New Communist Party at this stage, working on the New Worker weekly paper, while also involved through Camden Council on various housing charity initiatives.
As someone who always enjoyed a pint, he ran into Morning Star cultural icon Jeff Sawtell in Camden Town’s Old Eagle pub where I too first made his acquaintance. Lengthy and frequent discussions saw him renew his Communist Party membership and be welcomed onto the subeditors’ desk of the Morning Star in 1993 where he job-shared the chief subeditor post with Angie Cronin in 1997.
“He was a phenomenal force of nature. I learned so much from him both in the office and in many late-night debates during the lock-ins at The Sussex (the pub outside the paper’s then offices) after work.
“Bill was clever, witty and wise and was really helpful to all younger staff who came in,” she smiles. Morning Star equipment at that time was a cross between clapped-out and unreliable, but Bill, who had never worked on an Apple Mac prior to joining the paper, mastered the technology and seemed ever-capable of finding imaginative methods to surpass its limitations.
When I was sacked as editor in March 1998 and my reinstatement was demanded by the National Union of Journalists, Bill was unequivocal in my support, saying: “Editors run papers, John, not bean-counters.”
Following a successful six-week strike, we returned to work and he served as my deputy until I stepped down as editor at the end of 2008, taking up political editor duties.
Bill stepped up to the mark, confounding the scepticism of his careers master all those years ago, but he was still dogged by ill health, having been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
His health had deteriorated in the past six years, suffering three near-death crises in that time — cardiac arrest and a collapsed lung.
He also endured the heartbreaking loss of his daughter Julia, who had presented him with two daughters of her own, Megan and Kate, both of whom afforded him huge pleasure and who are looked after by Jane.
Bill had to step down from the Star at the end of 2014, although he was loath to do so and indeed continued to contribute articles, not least his excellent analysis of George Osborne’s Budget on March 17.
A new generation of Star journalists is carrying the banner he shouldered, not least current editor Ben Chacko who acknowledges the debt that he and other staff members owe to their training under Bill.
“Everyone who was privileged to have worked with Bill at the Morning Star will miss this outstanding editor and great communist,” says Ben.
Bill is survived by partner Helen, granddaughters Megan and Kate and brother John.
Bill Benfield’s funeral takes place at 2.30 today at Chelmsford Crematorium, Writtle Road CM1 3BL and after at The Bell, Main Road, Woodham Ferrers, CM3 8RF.