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Obituary: Noel Lloyd

AT A time when Islington had a certain louche and scruffy charm (the 1970s, long before its awful red-rosed gentrification, when watering- holes began to sport three-figure meals and the Armani marque took over from fifty-quid suits run up in East Germany), the Compton Bookshop stood in the middle of Upper Street, a commodious, clean and airy site for any amount of interesting books often at staggeringly low prices. I once walked in and plucked off the shelf, for less than a pound, an Edgar Wallace paperback so hideously rare I don't believe anyone else has stumbled across another copy to this day.

The Compton Bookshop was presided over by Noel Lloyd and his partner Geoffrey Palmer. Their relationship, a loving and life- enhancing one, lasted for over 50 years. Most of what they did professionally was done in tandem; acting, writing, bookselling. The only divergence was when Palmer took up teaching and Lloyd didn't. Tasks such as book- hunting for stock, say, or the writing of ghost stories took place in the evenings and at weekends, until Palmer retired (in 1975, as headmaster of the Quadrant School, Highbury).

Noel Lloyd was born in 1924, in West Derby, Liverpool. His parents both died before he was 12, and he was brought up in Liverpool and London by an aunt and uncle. He joined the RAF and served in Canada before being invalided out and returning to England, where he took up a theatrical career, joining the Rock Theatre Company in 1945 (where he first met Palmer). He acted in repertory, mainly in the North, did a stint in South-East Asia with Cema (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts: Ensa's successor), worked in Northern Ireland and spent several years as a radio actor.

In the early 1960s he began a new career as an author, or co-author, in partnership with Geoffrey Palmer. They began by writing stories for children, moved into supernatural fiction (a favourite genre), then branched out, writing books on music (a passion of Lloyd's), archaeology, folk customs and social history. They contributed three books to the well-remembered "Observer's Book" series: The Observer's Book of London (1973), The Observer's Book of the Cotswolds and Shakespeare Country (1978), and The Observer's Book of Victoriana (1981).

As a bookseller in 1970s Islington, so close to that seething and incestuous haunt of back-stabbing book-runners, Camden Passage, Noel Lloyd often benefited from the track-down skills (genius would be no exaggeration) of the legendary Martin Stone, rock guitarist extraordinaire and the finest literary truffle-hunter this side of the Millennium. Lloyd's own talents as a scourer of north and south London street barrows and book barns, however, not to mention the dubious bazaars around Praed Street, should not be overlooked. The Compton Bookshop invariably had stock you seldom found elsewhere.

In 1981 Lloyd and Palmer moved out of London to Eye in Suffolk, and then, finally, to Harleston, south Norfolk, in 1985, where they launched Hermitage Books, selling by catalogue (always loads of bargains) and at book-fairs. In the early 1990s, partly driven by Lloyd's new-found expertise at, and enthusiasm for, a computer keyboard, they began to produce, in severely limited editions, the Hermitage Booklets, on the one hand reprinting scarce fin-de-siecle texts from the Uranian poets and the morbid Count Stenbock, as well as Simon Solomon's rambling Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, on the other a series of mainly previously unpublished material by E.F. Benson, an excellent biography of whom, E.F. Benson As He Was, they had written in 1988, and a collection of whose works they had painstakingly built up over 40 or more years.

Their latest mainstream work, Father of the Bensons (a biography of Archbishop Benson, patriarch of that odd brood) came out earlier this year. They were at work on a book about Charlotte Bronte as seen from a by no means conventional angle.

Noel Lloyd, actor, writer and bookseller: born Liverpool 15 December 1924; died Harleston, Norfolk 3 August 1998.