Heaven and Hell: Henry Layte

Originally an actor and playwright, Henry opened Norwich’s award-winning book store The Book Hive in 2009. He co-founded Galley Beggar Press in 2012 where he discovered Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing and now runs the shop’s own imprint, Propolis. Next year he will launch a new festival in North Norfolk, a major tree-planting initiative, and a food business. He is an ambassador for the Norman Lamb Mental health Foundation and lives with his wife and two children in Aylsham. Here he talks to Gina Long…

What is your connection to East Anglia?

I was born in Norwich, grew up in Swanton Morley and now live in Aylsham. I’ve lived in a number of other places over the years but Norfolk is home and most probably will remain so.

What is your East Anglian heaven?

What’s left of our regional accent and dialect. Growing up in the 80s we heard much more of them, but with the war generation having all but gone, huge swathes of it has been lost. The stories of the people and the land are what make any place unique and we should treasure what little of them remains.

What is your East Anglian hell?

There’s a lot of feudalism and bigotry that goes hand in hand with landowning rural communities. Too much of it is alive and well in this part of the world still.

What are your favorite local restaurants?

In Norwich L’Hexagone, XO Kitchen, Woolf and Social, and Farmyard. In Suffolk, The Butley Orford Oysterage.

Henry Layte and wife Sian
– Credit: Contributed

What’s your favorite East Anglian landmark?

I grew up down the road from the ruins of Bylaugh Hall – a fantastic, ruined house overlooking the Wensum valley. It’s been restored and brought back to life with public access now, but as kids we would break in and explore the whole derelict building, still full of furniture and possessions – very illegal and very, very dangerous.

What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival. This year it’s 250-years-old and still as vital and engaging as ever.

What’s your specialist Mastermind subject?

The history of theatre.

What is always in your fridge?

Hard cheese, sour milk, clean vegetables, rotten fruit – I have a problem with throwing food away. But I also have an addiction to making compost so it works out OK (in a specially insulated bin which can digest anything).

Henry Layte likes a drop of East Anglian beer

Henry likes a drop of East Anglian beer
– Credit: Contributed

What’s your simple philosophy of life?

Don’t worry about it (I have never, ever been able to follow this advice).

What’s your favorite film?

I can’t think of favourites, only films that made great impressions. As an adult On the Waterfront. Seeing Brando in that early role was like seeing the blueprint of great cinema performance being laid down. As a child, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for different but equally profound reasons.

What was your first job?

Working on a free-range poultry farm in Swanton Morley. We just said goodbye to Rory Watson, the farmer I worked with on and off for a number of years, who died of cancer far too young

What is your most treasured possession?

An early 30s National Steel guitar. Guitars have been a constant love since childhood. There used to be a yellow free-ads paper that came out each week and I’d scour it for things that looked interesting. I saw this guitar advertised for a couple of hundred quid and I said to my mum if this is what it claims to be its worth a lot more than that, so we went to see if it was real, and it was. A very good investment and a very special instrument.

Henry Layte on holiday with his children in Wales

Henry Layte on holiday with his children in Wales
– Credit: Contributed

Who do you admire most?

During Covid my wife retrained as a primary school teacher, which makes this answer easy; all state system teachers in the UK – in fact anyone who works in the public sector and is woefully, shamefully, overworked, undervalued and underpaid.

What is your biggest indulgence?

Buying guitars, art and good wine. Makes me sound like a millionaire doesn’t it, but as indulgences it doesn’t happen often.

What do you like about yourself most?

I have great ideas. I often caused a lot of anguish and havoc pursuing them, but at least they start out big.

What’s your worst character trait?

I set my self impossibly high standards. And expect everyone else to live up to them.

Where is your favorite holiday destination?

At the very tip of the Gower peninsular in South Wales, to a remote cottage on a small piece of land my family have been going to every year since the 50s

Best day of your life?

Our wedding day. A perfect setting on the banks of the Bure in my dad and his partner’s garden. Lovely weather, 250 friends and family, and my band played so I got a chance to have a break from talking to everyone.

What’s your favorite breakfast?

It depends where I am but generally it would include black coffee, toast, olive oil, tomatoes and garlic. Spicy sausage and poached eggs are good additions. Also butter and apricot jam if possible.

What’s your favorite tipple?

The best beer in the world which ALL comes from Norfolk and Suffolk, and Burgundy wine.

What’s your hidden talent?

I can cook.

Your earliest memory?

Setting off down a slide and immediately changing my mind, grabbing onto a railing and then being left hanging by one arm.

What would you like played at your funeral?

A Whiter Shade of Pale played by King Curtis live at Fillmore West. There’s a special film reference there too…

Tell us something people don’t know about you?

I play in a band with some of the best musicians in the country. I am NOT one of them!

What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

We need to talk…I knew what followed would be bad. I didn’t realize how bad.

Tell us why you live here and nowhere else?

We’ve built family life around the best of Norfolk – living in a lovely market town, the bookshop and publishing in central Norwich, a beach hut at Cromer, our children and my wife’s job in great schools and on top of that all the amazing food and drink here! There really is no reason to think about leaving.

What do you want to tell our readers about most?

What we publish at Propolis Books. Of all the books I’ve seen come and go over the past 14 years, the ones we publish remain the most special. I believe I could find a book for anyone from our small list which would make a lasting impression on them.

I am always looking for interesting people from Suffolk and Norfolk to feature in my Q&A. Please contact me at gina@hallfarmfornham.com or follow me on Instagram @ginalong_geewizz

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