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Edmund Bennett

In conversation with Joanna Sugden

I think more than I do. I’m Edmund, I’m 48 and I was born near Oxford, well within sight of Oxford. I was born into an academic family, my father was an English Don, so it was quite  bookish. When I was born, my dad was in his mid forties, so I suppose in some ways as children it was a bit constrained. He wasn’t old, old but he wasn’t in very good health, so he didn’t participate physically. He did used to play cricket with us and things like that, but I remember him being carried off in ambulances at various times for various things. I was the eldest of two. My mother wasn’t as old as my dad, but she was still quite old when we were born. Her first child was still born, and I think between me and my brother there was another unsuccessful birth. It was quite a struggle for her to have children, but she obviously wanted to. The two of us were quite a handful I think, she was always worried about us.

I went to the Dragon School in Oxford, which was perhaps less posh then than now - there were a lot of dons’ children there. I quite enjoyed the Dragon, it was relatively free and easy and certainly my public school, Ampleforth in Yorkshire with the monks, was much more rigid. I kept one or two friends from the Dragon. I suppose I wasn’t always happy there. I wasn’t a particularly sociable child. I was never any good at games so I was never on any of the teams. In my last year of the Dragon I boarded, which I did quite enjoy after an initial homesickness; the boarders were very suspicious of somebody who had been a day boy.  My father had got a job in Cambridge by then and my family had moved there. He had been at Magdalen College in Oxford and then moved to Magdalene, Cambridge. It wasn’t at all on the cards for my dad to be a Professor - his dad was a shoe salesman in New Zealand and my dad used to go and sell chocolates and matches at Mount Eden cricket ground to make money. I think his dad supported him in his ambitions, but it wasn’t expected. Therefore he really prized Oxford and Cambridge and education and perhaps idealized it a bit, whereas we were just brought up with it so we weren’t so in awe. I think we were very lucky because we met lots of interesting people. He was English tutor at Magdalen in the late forties and early fifties and overlapped with C.S. Lewis. When C.S. Lewis died my dad got his chair as Professor of Medieval English at Magdalene, Cambridge, which was, well, they were big shoes to fill. I wish I could say I could remember meeting C.S.Lewis, but I don’t. I’m sure I was waved under his nose but I don’t remember it. My dad was one of the larger group that met to discuss in the Eagle and Child pub. He knew Tolkien well - who lived on ten years after C.S Lewis - so I did meet him. They were friends in the English Faculty. If only we’d got them to sign more things. We had a Hobbit which was a first edition. Of course we all read it as children so it got a bit tattered. I wasn’t there, but at the end of his life, Tolkien came to stay with us in Cambridge. He stayed in our spare room, and picked up some copies of his books and said ‘I’ll write my name in these in case you’re ever in need of a bob or two’. I’m sure he’d be as astonished as anybody at the prices they fetch now. The Hobbit was too valuable to keep, we had to sell it. In the book trade one’s aware of how much things cost, so we couldn’t just leave it lying there for anyone to walk off with, we couldn’t even let people read it, which is the point of a book.

I went back to Magdalen when I went up to Oxford. I say back to Magdalen because I remember as a child I used to go and see my dad  and go to the deer park. I did Classics. I’m not quite sure why I did Classics, except that I wasn’t any good at science - that’s partly because of my background and partly because the Dragon wasn’t very good at teaching science.  I was quite good at languages and was quite good at maths. At Ampleforth the teachers were all men, a mixture of monks and lay teachers; the Classics teachers were a really interesting bunch of people so I think that justifies having chosen it - even though I got a Grade E in Ancient History. In those days you did entrance exams once you had received A-Levels. I took them at sixteen, which is silly really.

I was seventeen when I went up to Oxford. If you did Oxford entrance you finished school at Christmas and then you had nine months off. I didn’t use it nearly as excitingly as people use gap years now, I didn’t even get a job to earn money. My parents - you see, this is part of being very academic - didn’t want me to go and earn money. I was quite keen to have a menial job to earn something but they were very focused on intellectual achievement. I had done some Arabic at school, one of the Classics teachers had taught himself Arabic and Chinese and he was a great linguist.  Somebody in my year asked if he could learn Arabic as one of the little options offered, so the teacher agreed, but said ‘you’ll have to find someone else who wants to learn as well’ so I said ‘oh, I’ll have a go’. That was very interesting, I don’t really know any Arabic now but it is a different kind of structured language, it was just an eye opener really, I can just about remember the alphabet. So my parents wanted me to go to further Arabic classes after I left school and go to some Classics lectures. Again, it wasn’t really my idea but they fixed for me to go on an archaeological expedition to Greece starting after Easter, so before that, I did a couple of weeks as a volunteer digging and finding out how boring it is just scraping and brushing. That was quite fun.

I wasn’t very organized, my mum was very organized. I don’t know which way round it is, did she organize me because I wasn’t very organized, or was I not very organized because she organized me? I had a nice holiday in Italy with two friends from school, one of whom, Andrew Kerr, is now my business partner. He was at Ampleforth and briefly at the Dragon School, but we had actually met at nursery school in Banbury Road in Oxford, so I’ve known Andrew since I was three. At Ampleforth we were two of the three who took Latin and Greek, hardcore classicists. Italy was a real eye opener, so colourful and a really jolly place to be, people are friendly. We started in Rome and went to Sienna and Florence. We went to lots of fun fairs and looked at cathedrals and art. It was much less crowded than it is now.

Shortly afterwards I went off on a crazy Land Rover trip to Greece, led by a man called Lord William Taylor. He had been a merchant banker and then when he got control of his own life decided he wanted to be an archaeologist. He started rather late, so he was seventy when we went on the trip which he funded himself. He was unmarried and lived just outside Cambridge with his sister and a butler. I remember his elderly sister saying to us, ‘now you will look after him won’t you?’ as we trundled off, because he was a bit of a loose canon in some ways. It was quite an exciting drive, he was quite an impatient man, very tall. In France we had a collision with a car. Luckily the Land Rover’s like a tank so we were okay. However, as soon as we arrived in Athens, rather more seriously the Land Rover hit a bus which was stronger than it, so we weren’t that cheerful. It wasn’t disastrous but it did damage the vehicle. We were just oblivious after five days driving through Europe. It was a very exciting trip, we stopped at some very interesting places on the way, it was an open backed Land Rover so we were in the back, three of us.

We spent two months in very hot weather in the south of Greece. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked I think, we had a two hour break in the middle but it was five hours before and three hours after. It was tiring - you realized how you could fill your entire life with working, coming back, having a shower and going to dinner. We weren’t doing the really hard work, the local Greeks who came to do the heavy stuff were under a lot more strain. We learnt by doing the excavation, learning if you hit too hard you are going to break it. We were staying in a hotel and one of the first things I remember was the cooker being delivered the day we arrived. The woman who owned the hotel couldn’t understand what the engineer was trying to explain to her about how the cooker worked, so he was explaining to me. I didn’t really know much modern Greek and he didn’t know any English, but I could understand the basic principle. It was something to do with the timer; the cooker wouldn’t work if the timer was off, it was quite funny. I’m not sure if she actually used the cooker but we used it. Every evening we would return and boil up a pot of water to make Earl Grey tea, very English.  It was the first time I had been away from England without my parents.

Then Oxford, overall I enjoyed Oxford, I didn’t really enjoy the first year, not all of it anyway. You expect ‘its Oxford, and everyone will be intelligent and mature and interesting’ but actually not everyone is. I probably had the wrong expectations but I can remember thinking ‘isn’t it going to get interesting, when is it going to start?’  Life’s like that isn’t it.

It put a whole different complexion on things when I fell in love. At the Dragon School there were only a few girls but I hadn’t had many friends who were girls and Ampleforth had no girls, so anything female was electrifyingly exciting. Oxford was predominately male still, hardly any colleges had started accepting girls; there were girls’ colleges, but not very many. At the end of my first year I met Deborah, who was at St Anne’s. I used to go to lectures, not just because I wanted to see girls but also because I liked going to lectures. Some people didn’t go to any lectures. I used to meet her on the way to or in between lectures. We got married at the end of the second year, it wasn’t something we agonized about, perhaps knowing what we know now we would have agonized about it more! Our parents thought we were too young, I was not quite twenty. We finished our Mods [exams] and got married. I did okay in my Mods because I had met Deborah and she made me work. I really think that, I’m not joking. I got a first in Mods which was brilliant, not through Classics - I got it through logic and the study of Greek vase painting. Those were my A marks. Then I changed to Classics and Italian. I’d done Philosophy in Mods and I didn’t want to do any more of that. It is very bracing, it is very good for you to question fundamental things about the way you think, so I’m very glad that I did it but I didn’t want to do any more. I learnt Italian in the summer term, which was a bit of a joke. I spent most of the time punting.

After we got married we took a house in Old Marston, which we thought was miles away but is actually very close. We weren’t a rarity being married. There were a few other Classicists who were married. It didn’t prevent me working. My parents thought that I was meant to be being meeting people and being married restricted this. We still socialised with people and lots of other people were in couples. I could have gone out and got drunk with my old school friends or something every night but I don’t regret not being able to do that.

Then we graduated and thought about what to do next. I think Deborah always wanted to be a teacher, she would have done that even if we hadn’t been together. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did know that I wanted to do more art history, so I thought that I would go and do a post graduate art history degree. Classics  teacher training was only available in Oxford or London so we went to London and Deborah did her PGCE at King’s. We stayed in the top floor of a house in Notting Hill. We got around on bikes, it was a good way to get around if you were brave. Deborah’s course was a year and mine, at the Courtauld Institute, was two, with a dissertation. I really enjoyed that, we had lots of really good lecturers.

In Classics you think that everything has been done several times; unless you are exceptionally brilliant you are just re-treading what had been done before. Whereas in Medieval art there was scope to discover new things. I did a dissertation on medieval art depicting the parables. I worked on a particular manuscript which is now destroyed but copies of it were made in the 19th century. During this work I met Julian Brown, who used to lecture at Kings College about the writing of books, palaeography. I’d always thought this sounded the most dull and dry subject but he was such an interesting man that it was easy to become fascinated. He linked it with 20th century scribes like Edward Johnston, who had decided that he didn’t like the way people wrote and was going to find out how they used to write. He wasn’t against printing exactly, although he personally thought that the actual individual thing you made was really lost through printing, so he revived the art of writing. The funny thing is that he is the man who designed the London Underground Logo and designed the type that was used. He got through to the essence of what makes a letter and produced a really successful, timeless type. The script is still used today. So I became interested in this and the process of script and writing. I enjoy writing, it is very satisfying because you are making something that actually looks quite good.

We then had Robin at the end of Deborah’s PGCE. We remained in London for the Autumn but it wasn’t conducive to having a baby so moved to Cambridge to my parent’s house, which had a separate flat. Deborah began doing a little bit of Greek teaching in Cambridge to a philosophy professor who wanted to be able to read Greek texts.  The thing I enjoyed most was looking at manuscripts so I thought I would do a PhD in manuscripts. But it was all dependent on getting a grant and a tutor. So I spent two or three years looking into this but the complication in the meantime was that my mum had become very ill. She had a brain tumour, the operation to attempt to remove it didn’t really work so she was in a really bad way, so I did a lot of work in Cambridge rather than London. My dad was there, but he wasn’t a very practical man, the side effects of the radiotherapy meant that my mum lost her memory and we had to have a nurse visiting during the day.

My mother died before Joseph was born but Deborah had been pregnant whilst she was ill, so one of the good things was that every day you could come down and tell my mum that Deborah was expecting a baby; ‘Oh good’ she would say because it was new to her each day. The worst thing was not knowing how long we were going to be doing this for, I mean if you’d known it was only going to be nine months, like it was, you’d have said ‘okay, we’ll devote this nine months to her’. But you had a life to live and the doctors were not very good at saying how long it was going to be. My younger brother had gone to South Africa, he had a rather chequered school career. So it was difficult because he was over there doing outdoor things, which were good for him, so we didn’t want to send for him to come back and wait for his mother to die. Yet he must have felt a bit excluded. So that was all quite harrowing, really. It had all been very distressing for my dad. After my mum died Joe was born; before that, we went for a holiday to Sicily with Robin and my dad  - that was fun.

So there was I not with a PhD yet and not with any money. My dad had set off on a trip to New Zealand. Unfortunately he didn’t make it as he died in California, where he was staying on the way with a friend. So we were kind of in limbo really because we had this huge house but we couldn’t afford to keep it. We had to pack up the whole house, I didn’t know what to do. My dad had so many books, every Saturday morning he would go and buy new books and books came in anyway because he would review them - he was the third editor of Medium Aevum and he would get anything Medieval for review. The house was full of books, he also collected books about the history of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. If I had really decided then that I was going to specialise in the sale of Medieval books I would have held on to all of it!  About half way through the process of clearing the house an ex- pupil of my dad’s came to look at the books and said, ‘you should be a book seller’. I just said, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was looking for art history jobs at that stage and he was right really, that was the obvious thing to do. Andy had been in the book trade and he was just at that moment thinking of coming back to England and setting up on his own. He wasn’t sure that he could cope on his own any more than I would have done. It was a bit of a long shot again because somebody you have been mates with since you were three or five was one thing, but we were aware that we knew each other quite well, so we knew the faults of the other. A mutual friend of ours said that he wouldn’t go into business with either of us, but he is a proper business man and he thought we were mad, he’s always surprised that we are still going I think.

It was a bit complicated how we came to Oxford. I had applied for a job at the Victoria  and Albert Museum, so we thought we would look for somewhere to commute from, it was a bit of a back to front way of doing it because I hadn’t even got the job yet. I wasn’t even offered the job in the end, but we thought that I had to say that I could commute so we looked over here where Deborah’s mother was. It was quite convenient for Andrew since his parent’s lived north of Oxford. We thought we were going to get a shop or something, but it didn’t quite work out like that, for a long time we didn’t even know how to set about it, in the early eighties we didn’t have computers.

Deborah was earning sensible money amidst having the babies. She was teaching beginners Greek to undergraduates at the university, which is actually better paid than school teaching. Deborah  was expecting Katy and she got the job at Oxford High School and then she had Christopher. We were quite poor and we didn’t have much room because of all the books. On the whole it has been great living in Steventon, partly because we had young children so we could meet others with young children, we weren’t strangers for long. We chose the public school system for their secondary education because they were just bored really at the local primary. Robin was very clever, he was ill when he was three with very bad asthma. We were in hospital for three days with him before we left Cambridge with a big attack. It has faded away as he has got older actually.

When you have four small children, it is quite strenuous. But I’m glad we have them all. It’s funny how you change, isn’t it? It’s different having four small children than having four teenagers, I’ve really enjoyed the process of having children. The most difficult thing has been trying to exert authority without making a fool of yourself! Because you want to put them right but it just ends up in a shouting match which isn’t very good. People say I’m quite a gentle man, but I still shout at my children. The best thing is when they still want to be friends with you when they are twenty and want to give you hugs. I’m delighted when they are good at things, especially things which I was not good at. It’s not just their achievements

I suppose I have accepted that there are some things I’m never going to do, like reading some books. You become aware that you have limitations and try to make the best of where you are and what you are. I suppose that is sort of humility in a way, it takes a while to come round to that. Something I really love now and never did before I was thirty is acting on the stage. I didn’t know whether I would enjoy it before I got up there, but I do. It is important that the audience enjoy it and it is very rewarding, particularly in pantomimes where there is an audience participation. It’s quite selfish because I do it for myself. If you had asked me the question at 15 or 25 it would have been a different answer. At 25, money and at 15 probably sex.

How much has money driven you?

I’ve never been really hard up, I’ve felt, ‘it would be nice to have a bit more money’ but because I was brought up in quite comfortable surroundings it has never really been a great motivator for me. It’s nice nowadays when I sell a book, I think ‘that’s great’. Obviously as a business we need to make money to pay for the car or the school fees so it is necessary but its not what keeps you going to work each day. What keeps you going to work each day, I think, is the satisfaction of getting the right books to the right people, maybe that’s why we don’t make that much money. But I find it satisfying and it is a way of making a living. Whatever you do, you have to get a certain satisfaction out of it, otherwise you couldn’t do it. Some things you do for a short time because the money is so good. It is just luck really finding something that you love doing. When we started people said, ‘Oh you are brave’ but we weren’t really, I mean we didn’t have anything to lose, I wouldn’t have been any worse off if it hadn’t gone to plan, it didn’t feel risky at the time. It could all still go wrong.

Do you think your fears have diminished, increased or changed?

Fears, what of dying? I think you become more conscious of mortality as you get older. That is quite a grand way of saying it but, whether it is because your eyesight is diminishing or your hair is going, you do think more about death. Do you know what St Edmund Rich said? “Study as if you would live forever, live as if you would die tomorrow.”  It is quite hard to keep. Don’t think “I might die tomorrow so that it doesn’t matter”, make the most of each day.

How much of your life do you tihnk you have wasted?


Lots, oh god, lots of my life I've wasted. I can remember at school, when I was doing A Levels my parents would say now you really must work, this is the hardest you'll ever have to work and then it would be a sunny evening and...

May 2004