The morning after the unveiling, the walkers came crunching along Aldeburgh’s shingle beach towards the large steel structure. One woman peered around the edge of the new sculpture and said to her companion, “I think that’s a shell.” The other woman said, “You may be right, I think that is a shell. Who’d have thought they’d make such a fuss about a shell.”
In fact the structure was two 12-foot steel scallops, one of which was on its edge and erected like a fan; the other lay face down on the shingle to create a cavernous shelter. They had been designed by the artist Maggi Hambling to honour Benjamin Britten, who had lived and composed in Aldeburgh and established the Aldeburgh festival. Some emphatic lines from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (also set in Aldeburgh, with a libretto based on a poem by Aldeburgh’s George Crabbe) had been chiselled into the rim of the standing scallop: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
After a while three men and a woman reached the scene. They were vigorously debunking the sculpture. One of the men was enraged: “It’s ridiculous,” he hissed. “And it’s not the place for a sculpture.” The four stood by the scallop shells, and talked about the ruined view. But they stood there, stroking the runes of the scallop and disliking it, for over half an hour. They weren’t alone: within a few months, 800 people had signed a petition to remove the shells from the shore. Paint was thrown over the sculpture in the dead of night. Disliking the scallops has ignited local politics. A counter-petition, championing the scallops, has been opened in a photocopying shop off the high street.
Thirty years ago, Aldeburgh town council turned down the offer to erect a sculpture to Benjamin Britten; they used the funds to build a birdbath instead. Some thought that this was because the days of commemorating famous sons were over. But other explanations were thought to lurk beneath the surface. The homophobia of the Aldeburgh burghers was said to have influenced the vote against Britten, and the town’s yachters and golfers were said to resent the influx of arty types.
In any case Maggi Hambling had become irritated by the town’s small-mindedness and wanted to design a sculpture that celebrated Britten. Even though scallops are nowhere to be found along the Suffolk coastline, the idea…