Tom Hiddleston and Dumbledore have visited this shop - have you?
- Credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Many celebrities have favoured The Aldeburgh Bookshop. The ‘trend’ was started by Benjamin Britten. Records show the last thing he bought was probably a diary. Sadly, he probably never used it: the composer died weeks before New Year.
The bookshop had opened in 1949 – the year the rationing of sweets and chocolate came to an end… only to be reinstated four months later after demand outstripped supply. (The sweet-toothed would have to wait nearly four more years before gaining the freedom to wreck their molars.) It was the time clothes rationing finished, the BBC’s Light Programme (radio) launched Book at Bedtime, the gas business was nationalised, and the first self-service launderette opened (in London).
Meanwhile, by the North Sea in Suffolk, an institution was born. Christopher Rowan Robinson founded The Aldeburgh Bookshop. Seven decades later it’s still here.
A couple of years before the shop opened, Benjamin Britten moved from Snape to Crag House, Aldeburgh ? an easy walk away.
Documents recently catalogued at The Red House (the composer’s later home on the edge of town, now cared for by the Britten-Pears Foundation) show his admirable habit of shopping locally – and not just for books.
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A 1949 invoice proves he was one of the first through the doors of the bookshop, a place he patronised until he died in 1976.
“The bookshop receipts record Britten buying books that underpin his creative work,” says Dr Christopher Hilton, the BPF’s head of archive and library.
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“In February 1971, for instance, he buys Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (for 20p), and the next month follows this up with a collection of Thomas Mann’s letters: it was to be another two years before the opera of Death in Venice was completed, but the bookshop had provided him with raw material for this major work.
“And in one poignant detail we see Britten buying EM Forster’s posthumously-published novel ‘Maurice’ in November 1971. It had been published that year, after nearly six decades in which Forster kept it to one side, feeling that its gay love story was not yet acceptable to the public.
“Britten had worked with Forster on (opera) Billy Budd in the 1950s and hosted him here in Aldeburgh: it must have been a poignant moment for him to read, at last, a novel that was honest about his own sexuality but which could only be published after his friend’s death.
“In this, as in many other ways, Britten’s life in Aldeburgh is reflected in what he buys here, at his local bookshop.”
Britten also bought many tomes with a Suffolk flavour – tales of smugglers, for instance, and the biography of doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who cracked the medical profession’s glass ceiling that had held back women. She also (at Aldeburgh) became Britain’s first female mayor. These books, it’s thought, were bought as presents.
Folk going to the Aldeburgh Literary Festival at the end of February/beginning of March can learn more about the bookshop’s loyal supporter thanks to the Britten-Pears Foundation. It’s made some displays that will grace Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall over the long weekend.
The bookshop has been owned by Mary James and husband John since 2000. They learned of Britten’s buying patterns when Christopher Hilton called in, having found a file of invoices and papers he thought might be of interest.
“Chris invited us up to the archive and we spent a fascinating few hours poring over the documents,” says Mary.
“The invoices chart Britten’s shopping in Aldeburgh High Street. We see Britten ordering flowers from Geater’s in Leiston when Imogen Holst (friend and assistant) was in hospital.”
Have any other tales come to light from different sources, over the years?
“We do have the good story that (Akenfield author) Ronnie Blythe told us: he brought EM Forster into the shop to buy some Quink (ink). The then proprietor was in a hurry to catch the London train, so wouldn’t let them in.
“Rosamund Strode, who was Britten’s amanuensis (music assistant), was a very good customer of the bookshop when we started and I remember her anecdotes about someone spilling cherryade on the rainbow just before the first performance of Noah’s Ark; but that’s not directly bookshop-related. “Of course, Ian Tait, Britten’s doctor, was a good customer of the shop, and his wife Janet, also a doctor, remains so today.”
We’d better fill in the gaps about those contemporary stars we mentioned. Didn’t they all descend on the shop a few years ago, virtually all at once?
“Yes, it was Christmas Eve. We had Dumbledore (actor Sir Michael Gambon, who’s no stranger to Aldeburgh), Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston, who as well as being a Shakespearean character on stage was The Night Manager in a big-buck TV adaptation of the le Carré thriller; his mum lives locally), the head of MI6 (a former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service had fallen for Suffolk’s charms) and Craig Brown (author and satirist with long-established roots) in the shop on the same afternoon.”
Who can top that?