Benjamin Britten was adamant that he did not want any memorial sculpture of himself in Aldeburgh, the Suffolk coastal town where he lived for 30 years. He died in 1976 and he is remembered there by the Britten-Pears music school and Snape Maltings concert hall, by John Piper’s magnificent window in the church, and at the Red House, where Britten lived, which contains his entire library, art collection and musical archive. A bronze bust standing on the seafront was neither needed nor wanted. But the Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling was greatly inspired by Britten’s music, and especially his opera Peter Grimes, and in 2002 she had the idea of designing a tribute. Its form — that of a scallop shell divided into two parts and standing upright, came to her immediately.
And now there it is, rearing up from the shingle on the stretch of beach between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness along which the composer walked almost daily. I have known Aldeburgh for 50 years; I lived and wrote five novels there during a series of winters, in a house overlooking the North Sea. I still visit often and I cannot imagine it without Hambling’s ‘Scallop’. It blends into and is moulded with the sea, shingle, sky, the whole landscape, so perfectly that it is like a limb, and to tear it away would leave the body irreparably wounded and be an act of vandalism.
The scallop was not commissioned by any public body, local or national; the considerable sum of money it cost was raised by hard graft, and its progress from idea to completion was slow and fraught with problems.
The unveiling ceremony did not mark the end of them for, quite unexpectedly, opposition was immediate and vehement. As Hambling said: ‘All hell broke loose.’ In his introduction to her short book about it, Stephen Fry writes that he has tried hard to understand why anyone loathed it but simply cannot. Nor can I. ‘Scallop’ is a glorious thing of power and beauty. From every angle it looks different, its surface changing with the changing light. A quotation from Peter Grimes is carved out of, not into, the steel. Through the words you see sea and sky. ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned.’ Every time I read them, they mean something different, something more.
I rarely go to it without finding others there too; people stroke it, tap it, photograph it, photograph one another beside it; children clamber over it and curl up inside it, dogs sniff it, and more. Last week, someone had left a small candle in a glass there.
It is my favourite piece of outdoor sculpture. I love it not only because of its outward magnificence, but also because it does what its creator intended. ‘People are encouraged to have a conversation not only with the sea but with themselves. To listen to their own voices.’
I knew Ben Britten and I am absolutely certain that he would have loved it too.