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The Origins of the Suffolk Book League

The Suffolk Book League (SBL) ‘was created to be a provincial extension of the London-based National Book League (NBL) which became BookTrust in the mid-1980s and was a charitable organisation dedicated to the promotion of books and reading. Curiously, both the NBL and the SBL were initiated in domestic environments.

The NBL was founded in 1921, originally as the Society of Bookmen, in the Regent’s Park house of Hugh Walpole, who had gathered a group of people prominent in the literary society of the day: Stanley Unwin and Harold Macmillan as publishers, John Galsworthy and other writers. The Society aimed to promote ‘the advancement of literature by co-operation with the various branches of the book trade’ in the postwar world. It became the National Book Council at a meeting in Eastbourne in 1924 and ‘League’ subsequently replaced ‘Council’ but the objectives remained the same.

John Masefield was installed as President in 1938 and it was decided to open membership to the general public. In 1945, despite the aftermath of the Second World War, the League had a non-trade membership of 5,000, a financial base that enabled it to buy the freehold of premises in Albemarle Street, just off Piccadilly. Over the next thirty years, apart from promotional activities, it became a prestigious club for the London literati, but by the end of the 1970s financial support had dwindled and the location became unaffordable. Reluctantly, it was decided to sell the freehold and move to less expensive premises across the river in Wandsworth. With a grant from the Unwin Foundation a building at the top of East Hill was acquired and named Book House. It still is.

Margaret Drabble was NBL President then, with Martyn Goff as Chief Executive. They were both aware of the jolt to the NBL’s status the move to Wandsworth implied and wanted to secure its future. Peter Labdon, County Librarian of Suffolk at the time, had been invited to join the Steering Committee managing the NBL and was asked to serve on a small working party to examine its options for development. The working party met several times in formal circumstances and once informally in the President’s house in North London. It was here, in Margaret Drabble’s Hampstead kitchen, over a glass of wine that the SBL was conceived on a suggestion from Peter Labdon that the NBL had the potential to become a provincial, as well as a metropolitan, promoter of books and reading and suggested Suffolk as a pilot scheme. It was a pleasurable occasion as a conception should be. The recommendation was endorsed formally by the NBL and its Articles of Association were duly amended for the Charity Commission.

Back in Suffolk, Peter Labdon initiated the formation of a steering committee to set up the Ipswich and Suffolk Book League as it was originally called, crucially by approaching Norman Scarfe with his acumen and wide range of literary contacts in the county. Norman drew in Peter Du Sautoy, former managing director of Faber who acted as Chairman, and representatives from the Suffolk Poetry Society, the Books For Your Children Group [Ipswich Childrens’ Book Group], with Donald Morrison of the Deben Bookshops giving the view of the bookseller. Peter Labdon and the Suffolk County Library Service provided administrative support. Norman Scarfe persuaded Sir Angus Wilson to be the first president.

Thus, it was at the Ipswich Film Theatre on June 7th 1982, Sir Angus Wilson supported by Frank Muir, Margaret Drabble and Martyn Goff brought the baby ISBL out of its cradle and into lusty life. Later that month Peter Labdon wrote the ISBL Newsletter to welcome new members. This was produced by the Suffolk Library Service. The newly formed committee was chaired by Norman Scarfe and included most of the members of the steering committee with the addition of Martin Crook, who later became a rare books dealer. By September the Newsletter, renamed BookTalk, claimed eighty-nine members and published its first programme. The very first meeting was Handmade Prints as Book Illustration by Jo Lubbock and was chaired by Hugh Tempest Radford, the book designer and printer, then with Cowells. There were ten meetings in October and November across Suffolk, including the presentation of prizes for the Crabbe Poetry Competition, which the ISBL sponsored, the launch of Ronald Blythe’s new book From the Headlands and of Lee Chadwick’s In Search of Heathland, introduced by Ted Ellis. An enjoyable highlight was the Christmas meeting ‘Books do Furnish a Tree’ given by Frank Collieson, the distinguished Cambridge bookseller enthusiastically recommending books as the best presents for Christmas. Soon came the wonderful Second Hand Book Sales, organised by Martin Crook, huge affairs which raised a lot of money for the new St Elizabeth Hospice, and so well attended that Martin spent most of the day dashing to bank the income!

The early years relied on Norman Scarfe persuading his literary friends to come and talk, often without a fee, which helped the finances, and Peter Labdon bringing the support of the County Library Service. The committee drew in Peter Hardiman Scott, ex-political editor and chairman of the of the Suffolk Poetry Society; Wendy Brooks, who with her husband ran the Marlborough Hotel in Henley Road, Ipswich and hosted literary dinners; Alex and Sandy Bennett of the much loved Amberstone Bookshop in Upper Orwell Street in Ipswich; Anne Parry, former Children’s Books Editor and James MacGibbon, ex-publisher, whose wide circle of literary friends formed the basis for many future meetings.

Many early meetings were held across Suffolk. Everyone worked hard to find a venue, publicise meetings and dash across the county to support them. Eventually they became centred on the Ipswich School Library, made available through the good offices of the Headmaster, Dr John Blatchley, another keen supporter, where audiences steadily grew in size to reflect the growing membership and interest from the general public. With the society established the committee decided to change the name to the Suffolk Book League in 1986, and around the same time, since the support of the NBL dwindled away, to seek an independent future.

It has been a success story, but the hard work of the early years should not be overlooked or taken for granted. Perhaps it is also time to acknowledge our links with the organisation which brought it into being, the NBL, neglected though that link has become.

By Peter Labdon and Anne Parry

From BookTalk Issue #148 June 2012


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