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Not many of us will merit a lengthy obituary in The Daily Telegraph, but this appeared following the death of parishioner Eric Norris in September 2000. Some will remember Eric arriving at church on a rather ancient bicycle!

ERIC NORRIS, who has died aged 85, had an unrelenting enthusiasm for his joint calling as bookseller and newspaper diary tipster.

A contributor to this newspaper’s Peterborough column for 50 years, he always seemed to come on the telephone at moments of crisis with “hot stories”, often involving anecdotes about Noël Coward or gentle plugs for literary festivals.

Generations of cub reporters, just down from Oxford or Cambridge with a full measure of self-esteem, would be told as they were handed his call: “This is Norris. One of our top operatives. Take down what he’s got, and knock it into shape.” Ten minutes later the hapless journalist would still be politely listening and taking down numbers for checking the facts, before finally interrupting: “Yes, but what’s the punchline, Mr Norris?”

For one young hopeful it was all too much. She gently put down the telephone, put on her coat and left for the evening. Eventually her editor noticed a ghostly “Hellooo” coming from the instrument, and realised that Norris was still talking. Yet Norris never took offence, and his yarns often turned out to be worth the wait.

Eric Edward Anderson Norris was born on March 8 1915 at Altrincham, Cheshire, the only son of Ernest Norris, an actor manager, and his actress wife Laurie Ellwood. Since his parents were frequently touring, young Eric attended numerous schools before deciding to go into book selling. His first job was as a sweeper and delivery boy for a firm in Charing Cross Road which specialised in first editions and banned books.

On being laid off from his third job at the beginning of the Second World War, Norris insisted on being registered as a conscientious objector, though a doctor assured him that the Forces would never take him. He worked next for Truslove and Hanson, in Bond Street, while firewatching on the RIBA building in Portland Street by night.

He was then sent to a farm in Wiltshire, a trying experience from which he fled back to London, where he acted as witness to the marriage of Edward Carpenter, the Johnson enthusiast and future Dean of Westminster. After the war, Norris worked at Denny’s in The Strand, then joined the Pioneer Bookshop at Woolwich, a Left-wing establishment (“next to the jellied-eel shop”, according to guidebooks).

A tall, scruffy man, Norris dominated these surroundings, praising his favourite poet Edward Thomas, discussing the merits of his daughter’s O-Level texts, and letting slip that his patrons included David Sheppard and that he knew T S Eliot and John Gielgud. For 25 years Norris was a part-owner, but the shop was underinsured when there was a fire, and he was forced by high rents to give up the premises and move to Bolton-le-Sands, Lancashire.

But this did not signal retreat into retirement. Norris had been a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament since the 1950s, and long remained a familiar figure at marches, peace rallies and perimeter fences. Since funds were never plentiful, he continued to hitch-hike into his late seventies in order to attend theatrical memorial services and book launches, and to drop into the Bookseller’s office in Dyott Street for a chat, a drink and the use of the telephone.

When he attended meetings of the Booksellers’ Association he never rose to make a point without introducing himself as “Eric Norris, master bookseller”. He would sometimes end the day in his sleeping bag on the floor of the Deanery at Westminster. Even after Norris had removed to a retirement home, he continued to trade as the Pioneer Bookshop and to supply diary columns. A call to Peterborough during his last week produced a lead story about a Wordsworth manuscript which had been discovered in America: a triumphant end to a diary tipster’s career.

Eric Norris married first, in 1954, Dorothy Francis; they had a daughter. After their divorce, he married Valerie Bird, who died in 1993.

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