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Stour Valley man with a typewriter

25 November 2010

Raymond Chapman enjoys a selection from Wormingford

Aftermath: Selected writings
Ronald Blythe

Black Dog Books £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

THERE must be many readers of the Church Times who, each week, go quickly to the back page for the latest “Word from Wormingford”. Now they can have a rich feast of reviews, book introductions, and essays by Ronald Blythe, extending over half a century.

He writes with ease about diaries, travel, biographies, and fiction. His reviews are unfailingly kind, always looking for the best in a book, but never shirking honest criticism.

His kindness comes from a man who can write with confidence about many subjects, with a partic­ular liking for the personal record: the first section of the book is devoted to published diaries and letters.

He takes pleasure in slightly off­beat writers; it is not surprising that he is distinguished for his work on Hazlitt and John Clare. His strong sense of history appears in frequent nostalgia for a rural past that is dis­appearing. It might be said that, like Goldsmith’s Mr Hard­castle, he loves everything that is old, but, in his case, also with un­der­standing of its negative aspects.

This is essentially a book by a countryman who can be fully en­gaged with modern urban life when necessary, but is always happiest when he can get back to his beloved Stour Valley. There is a particularly moving section of reviews of books about the Great War. The final essay, “The View in Winter”, is a devel­oped reflection on old age which looks honestly at the benefits and problems of a comparatively recent substantial increase in life expect­ancy. I have read nothing better on the subject than this.

There is nothing directly in this book about Blythe’s ministry as a Reader, but his faith comes over in many unobtrusive ways, rooted in the Church of England, which he loves for its place in the country’s national history, as well as its spirit­ual strength. The section “Divine Landscapes” takes the reader on a number of pilgrimages, some to the enduring evidence of ancient ca­thed­rals, and some to sacred legends such as the Holy Grail.

His friendship with the brothers Paul and John Nash is honoured in the volume with illustrations by Paul Nash and an amusing fantasy, “The Nash Cats’ Story”. I wonder what the current white cat makes of it. At a time of what seem to be steadily escalating book prices, this is remarkable value for 487 pages of text, all written in a lucid and elegant style. The hackneyed phrase “good holiday reading” is here en­tirely appropriate.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.

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