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Provence in Suffolk

by
23 November 2011

Malcolm Doney enjoys Ronald Blythe's new book

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The subject of Ronald Blythe’s hand-polished jewel of a book At the Yeoman’s House (Enitharmon Press, £15 (£13.50); 978-1-904634-88-1), Bottengoms Farm (above, in Richard Bawden’s painting, from the book) came into Blythe’s possession more than 30 years ago — left to him by the artist John Nash. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Nash and his wife, Christine, befriended this talented but innocent young man, and drew him into their orbit.

And so, long before the house became his, Bottengoms formed the nucleus of a new, exotic, and creative world. From here, he met Benjamin Britten, Cedric Morris, E. M. Forster, Vanessa Bell, and other stellar artists of the post-war years. “It was Provence, or even Paris, in Suffolk,” Blythe recalls.

The Nashes bought the house in 1944 for £700, and soon made their mark. “Chain smoking, paraffin, Windsor and Newton paints, damp, Ronuk, seeds, cooking, classy soaps, old uniforms and fishing gear, the village theatrical society’s wardrobe, lights (for the cats) and preserves in the cold larder would combine to give the house an odour which for a moment would take one back as one entered the front door.”

Blythe, now 89, celebrates the house and its surroundings, not just because of their personal associations, but also because of its own, longer, grounded East Anglian history. Blythe is con­summately a writer of place, and this is his stamping ground. He is as settled in the earth as the house is on its 17th-century foundations.

The strongest passages, in what is essentially a collection of essays, are those where he brings to mind the hard, steady rhythms of the agricultural life that has (barely) sustained generations: “History goes over and over the same ground, treading it down, pushing it up, scratching its claims.”

His newer village neighbours “have no notion of toil or myth”, and he regrets the passing of wood and brick floors, which have given way to concrete and fitted carpet. “It was from then on that, for the first time, the timeless intimacy between flesh and floor ceased.” If there was ever anyone you could describe as down to earth, it is Ronald Blythe.

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