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News > Arts & Culture > Literature > Talking books: Sir Tim Waterstone OT (JH 52-58) in Conversation at Tonbridge

Talking books: Sir Tim Waterstone OT (JH 52-58) in Conversation at Tonbridge

We were delighted to welcome back Sir Tim Waterstone to Tonbridge, his first visit in many years, where he enjoyed a tour of the school and gave a fantastic talk to 250 guests in Big School
18 Mar 2022
Sir Tim Waterstone and Headmaster, James Priory (Photo by Russell Harper Photography)
Sir Tim Waterstone and Headmaster, James Priory (Photo by Russell Harper Photography)

Sir Tim and his daughter, Daisy Waterstone (actress, most known for her role playing Margot in ITV's series, 'The Durrells') were welcomed back to Tonbridge on the 70th anniversary of when he arrived at the School. 

After tea in the Skinners' Library we gave the Waterstones a tour of the school including Sir Tim's former house, Judde.  Sir Tim was amazed by how much the campus had changed since his time at school.  He was greatly impressed by the Barton Science Centre with its state of the art laboratories, the EM Forster Theatre and most especially with the Smythe Library.  He enjoyed seeing where the 'Grubber' used to be which is now known as the School Shop, which brought back many memories, and was astounded by the Tonbridge Sports Centre.  Sir Tim commented that in their day, instead of the beautiful olympic sized pool which is there now, they had to endure a very large and crowded pool with rusty metal poles which poked out and were very dangerous.  A tour of Judde House was a highlight of his tour where he visited his old dormitory and saw how it had all changed, but was very pleased to see the dining room looked very much the same except that the tables were arranged a different way. 

Sir Tim then kindly arrived to give his talk which was to be held in Big School and was welcomed by a very large and enthusiastic audience who came to hear his views on whether the book will survive. 

“The physical book has totally recovered, everywhere across the world – America, Germany, France, Britain. It has gone up and up again, it is a remarkable thing and I don’t think any of us quite know the reason.” 

These were the words of Sir Tim Waterstone, the founder of the largest bookseller group in Europe, as he spoke at Tonbridge on Tuesday (15 March) on the topic of ‘Can The Book Survive?’ A former Tonbridge pupil, Sir Tim discussed his life and extraordinary career with James Priory, the School’s Headmaster, before an audience of staff, boys, OTs and the public.    

“Perhaps there is screen fatigue: people spend so much of their lives looking at screens that it is a relief to turn to a physical book,” he reflected. “Another key to recovery, at least for British publishers, was to make books beautiful again … with lovely boards for covers, really good quality paper and illustrations. The value of a physical book is also that it is something lovely to give, as a gift, and is a wonderful thing in your own home too. Ebooks just don’t give the same joy.”

Looking back at some of the challenges his business has faced in the past couple of decades, he said: “It was a frightening time for book sellers when the Kindle and ereaders got to 25 per cent of the market, but then that figure started to slowly spiral down again, and now is seven or eight per cent. The ereader has, astonishingly, failed in the market.”

Sir Tim Waterstone was at Judde House during the 1950s. One Housemaster's report read, “Not, I think, a boy of advanced ability, and mildly subversive, but he does perfectly well.”

After Cambridge, he worked in marketing, first for Allied Breweries, and then for WH Smith. He founded Waterstone’s in 1982, with the help of a £6,000 redundancy payment, and ten years later he had turned it into a major national chain of stores.

This year marks 70 years since he started at Tonbridge, and Sir Tim was asked how it felt to be back. “It feels lovely, and I was very happy at the School,” he said. “Of course there has been incomparable growth in buildings, in playing fields, between now and my day.”

During the evening Sir Tim spoke about his days growing up in Crowborough, East Sussex, and being ‘a free child’, playing games and cycling around in the village. He recalled that, while there were remarkably few books in the family home, he became fascinated with a local bookshop, called The Book Club, which opened shortly after the war. While he never actually made a purchase over the course of the decade or more that he dropped in – “I had no money at all” – he was taken under the wing of the female shop owner, who also helped teach him to read. “It was there I learned how to read, and then what to read ... The Book Club was a fantastic place and it gave me a longing of books and of bookshops. That was a very happy part of my childhood.”

He also spoke of how his love of reading continued to grow while at Tonbridge,inspired by Valerie Austin, and that he was a winner of the School’s Floyd Prize for English.

The talk ended with rapturous applause and the audience were offered the chance to purchase Sir Tim's highly acclaimed latest memoir: The Face Pressed Against A Window, chosen as one of the Daily Mail's Memoirs of the Year where they describe it as "The rollicking, page-turning memoir of Britain's biggest Book Tycoon". 

Sir Tim's talk was recorded and can be watched here

Please see photo album of his visit below: ( photo credits: Clair Miller and Russel Harper Photography) 


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