Figure in a landscape

02 November 2012

The writer Ronald Blythe, celebrated for his observations on literature, the Church, and the countryside, is 90 next week. He talks about his life and times to Malcolm Doney

EAMONN MCCABE

No place like home: above: Ronald Blythe in his garden

No place like home: above: Ronald Blythe in his garden

BOTTENGOMS FARM looks like a fairy-tale cottage. Or that is how it seems in the pen-and-ink drawing at the top of Ronald Blythe's regular column, "Word from Wormingford", on the back page of the Church Times.

There is a similar sense of mystery when you drive up the track, and find the house (it is not a cottage) nestling in a fold of land, wreathed by dense vegetation.

You almost expect the door to be opened by someone Grimm or hobbit-like. But, instead, its in­habitant is a trim, neat, friendly man with a wave of silver hair - it is only his humour that is impish, full of subtle mischief.

Dr Blythe inherited Bottengoms Farm from the artists John and Christine Nash in 1977. It used to be a yeoman farmer's house. Now, it is a writer's house; but the artists still lurk here - as do many of the regular denizens of his Church Times col­umn: the white cat, the brick floors, the study table, the manual type­writer, and the overloaded book­shelves, peopled by Clare, Traherne, Herbert, and Cranmer.

DR BLYTHE was born in the Suffolk village of Acton, in 1922, and grew up in the south of the county. "I was a very quiet sort of boy, with a bike," he says. He was also "a watcher and listener", and "a terrific reader". This combination of mobility and writerly qualities meant that he observed lovingly the details of village life, the minutiae of seasonal change, and the "glory and bitter­ness" of hands-on, horse-drawn agricultural toil, at a time of seismic change.

All this he was to detail in Aken­field, the 1969 book (sub­sequently filmed by Peter Hall) that made his name, in which he interviewed people who, after they had been raised in a quasi-feudal culture, had been swept into the technological and social revolution of the 1960s.

His writing life, however, has encompassed more than this, and includes poetry, short stories, and novels. He was editor of Penguin Classics for more than 20 years, and has edited editions of William Haz­litt and Thomas Hardy, among others. These days, he considers himself more of an essayist.

A pantheon of younger outdoor writers - Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Adam Nicolson, Robert Macfarlane - sing his praises. Mabey says that his work is "an expansive exploration of how land­scapes, humans, and words interact, touched with great humanity and expressed in exquisite but sturdy English. . . He is our tribal storyteller, plugged into a common stream of inquisitive conversation that joins us as a species."

Yet Dr Blythe has had no formal education beyond school. After the Second World War, in his early 20s, he took a job in Colchester public library, for the books. "I loved novels, and poetry, and especially history," he says. And, as he began to write himself, he was hungry to meet other writers; so he started the Colchester Literary Society. "I used to invite them to come and talk, and I sup­pose I was as thrilled by them as most boys would be if they met a great cricketer, or footballer."

The first of these was the poet and novelist James Turner. Older than Dr Blythe, he became a mentor and friend: "I worshipped him." But Turner was not the only older guide to take an interest in this young talent. Christine Kühlenthal, wife of the artist John Nash, tucked him under her wing, and began to intro­duce him to their friends.

IN THE late '40s and early '50s, Suffolk rivalled Cornwall as a haven for artists, writers, and musicians. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears were hatching the Alde­burgh Festival. Sir Cedric Morris and his partner, Arthur Lett-Haines, were running the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting at Benton End, a large house at Had­leigh. They had taught Lucian Freud, and were to teach Maggi Hambling.

Vanessa Bell, E. M. Forster, Patricia Highsmith, and Imogen Holst all turned up in the county for the big skies, the North Sea, and the diverting company. They absorbed this shy, solitary, churchgoing young man into their bohemian ménage.

But first he had to lose the day job. "Christine Nash thought that, if you're going to be a writer, you should be a writer, and she had no patience with all this [library] thing I was doing," Dr Blythe says. She found him a house on the coast, along from Aldeburgh. "So, greatly daring, I left," and he embarked on a literary life that has sustained him for the best part of 65 years.

Although Dr Blythe admired writers, he was smitten by artists. "I loved their houses. I used to love the turpentiney smell, and the cats, and the unusual food, and the blazing fires in the winter, and the gardens, which were unorthodox," he says. "They taught me how to live. . . I also felt loved by them. . . They were much more extrovert than writers - a different race, really."

An early refuge was the Nashes' Bottengoms Farm. That, too, had its particular aroma: "Chain smoking, paraffin, Winsor and Newton paints, damp, Ronuk, seeds, cooking, classy soaps, old uniforms and fishing gear, the village theatrical society's war­d-robe, 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."

LIFE was extravagant, but the budget was tight. "Everybody was amazingly poor: it was quite normal to have almost no money. But they had old cars, and very nice food, and they had this conversation all the time. There was a kind of elegance about it in a rough sort of way."

At Benton End, he was quickly recruited to write the catalogues for Morris's exhibitions. Here, Morris and Lett-Haines invited their stu­dents to live with them, and allowed them free rein to develop their talents. Morris was as much a plants­man as an artist; and Lett-Haines would cook large meals at which everyone sat down together.

"It was very unconventional," Dr Blythe says, "but everything was extremely well-mannered. There was no loutish behaviour, and the most wonderful talk - very intelligent." It was an education.

Dr Blythe was also impressed by everyone's discipline. "You had to work. There was no loafing about." And he needed to pay his rent. He began to work for Britten, who asked him to assist Stephen Rice, then dir­ec­tor of the Aldeburgh Festival, which he did for three years. In fact, he has just delivered a book for Faber and Faber on his time working with Britten and Peter Pears. It is called The Time by the Sea, and is to be published next year, to mark Brit­ten's centenary.

But, during this period, he also gave a practical hand to Britten and Morris and the Nashes (who were also serious gardeners, and for whom he regularly house-sat). "They all made me do lots of jobs. I'd dig the garden, clear the ponds, run errands. . . There were hundreds of things."

This practical, earthy thread has always run through Dr Blythe's life. Like his great hero, the poet John Clare (he is President of the John Clare Society), he absorbed an encyclo­paedic knowledge of plants and animals, without specific study. Clare "would slip off here and there, and lie down in the thick grass and flowers, in order to write, or to think, or just to daydream. And because he was lying low he could see insects climbing in the stalks of flowers, and he began to understand botany and nature." Dr Blythe's writings, too, are naturally scattered with references to native flora and fauna.

HIS Christian faith is another constant thread. As a boy, he cycled miles to visit East Anglian churches. He describes him­self as "naturally" a religious person, although not necessarily very ortho­dox: "It was deep-seated . . . private, but not conventional." And, quite soon, as he became recognised as a writer, he found himself at the lectern. "You know what the Church of England's like: they always give you work to do if you're not wary."

He says that, as a young man, he was "innocent to a degree, but also kind of learned in a way. I loved language, but was not very at ease in what you might call the ordinary world." But his innocence and faith­ful­ness was not capsized by the new, socially liberal world that the Nashes introduced him to.

"In the world in which I lived, being gay was something we never took any notice of. It wasn't con­ventionally middle-class. You were considered to be cultured, I suppose - rather cut off from those attitudes that people get steamed up over. I just found every aspect of life fascinating and delightful.

"I felt privileged to be with them, but a lot of them weren't church­going at all. The Nashes weren't, but they were people with the most tremendous goodness and kindness, and much better than some people who go to church."

DR BLYTHE is a Reader, and also a lay canon of St Ed­munds­bury Cathedral. He feels it is a natural extension of his faith to take matins and evensong, baptisms and funerals. He does this regularly in the Wormingford bene­fice, as alluded to in "Word from Wormingford". "I mostly take the 1662 services, but I don't mind if they're not. I choose all the hymns. Sometimes we sing the liturgy. I use old prayers, but often modern ones. And I give them these sermons."

He is very positive about the ordination of women, and enumer­ates a list of women priests whom he admires, including the Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Frances Ward. "You couldn't have a better dean," he says. "The Church has benefited hugely - in fact, it couldn't exist now, without women's ordination."

But he resists ordination himself. A Dean of St Paul's, Alan Webster, tried to persuade him to become a priest, as did a Bishop of St Ed­mundsbury & Ipswich, Leslie Brown. "I couldn't get them to under­stand that it wasn't my role," he says. "I actually think the laity is enormously important. The laity means the people of God."

But Dr Blythe is not really a joiner. He is definitively solitary. He has never, since he left the family home, lived with anyone; but he is no re­cluse. He has many friends, to whom he is enormously loyal, and whom he loves to entertain. But "I can't cope with too many people." In the end, he has to be left alone, where he is. "I've loved friends, and I've been greatly loved myself," he says; but he will not admit to having ever been in love. 

And why should he? In his book on ageing, The View in Winter, Dr Blythe says that "the countryman" is "more his own historian than an analyst of his final self". He could be talking about himself. He is careful not to reveal too much of himself. In our conversation, he deflects a num­ber of personal questions by saying, lightly: "I can't understand who I really am"; or "It's impossible to analyse oneself."

Richard Mabey knows him well, and, in the introduction to Dr Blythe's book of selec-ted writings, Aftermath, he writes: "Ronnie's work, though deeply per­sonal and often autobiographical, is intensely private. Do not expect disclosures or revelations. The man who has written sensitively about others' travails and illnesses and loves is silent about his own."

He has had 90 years of practice at being private, including 20 years in the village of Debach, where he wrote Akenfield, and, now, more than 30 years in this carefully untended two acres, which has provided a mother lode for his whimsical, mystical, earthy observations. Now, like Abraham, he is "full of years".

He does not resist the passage of time. As a gardener, country­man, villager, writer, and preacher, he has charted its tiny increments: "I am moved by it." But he does not feel that it is a burden. "I see it more in terms of life ending - not in a miserable sense at all, but just coming to a close. And, also, you love life more and more, because it's so beautiful. There's so much to do. Right up until the last war, most people died in their 40s; so we should appreciate life, and enjoy it enormously."

He does. "If you're a writer, well, you don't retire. I still do what I have done when I was young. I get up at about six in the morning; I write; I listen a lot to music; I read, garden, feed the cat; people are coming to supper on Thursday - life just goes on like this. . . I don't ever feel old. It doesn't occur to me."

And at the end of life? "If you're a person of faith, the physical life and the spiritual life eventually merge into infinity, as it were. That's how I feel about it." Death is "natural, but I don't understand what it means. I just think, myself, that our spirit returns to its home, to the realm of Christ. I think the rest - cities and such - are just the most beautiful picture-book concepts."

In the mean time, he would like to see in the Church the simple, ele­mental things that he values in life. "The Church itself has a lot of certainties which nobody can pos­sibly believe in, accumulated over the centuries. So I have no difficulty in disposing of these in my thoughts.

"I think of prayer, and I think of George Herbert, and St Francis, and I think of the Quakers, and certain quiet gentle Christian people I have met, at certain times, who wouldn't think of themselves as saying any­thing in life, but somehow you learn something from them.

"I think the beauty of holiness is very important. Priests should bring beauty into their services, and not brashness and vulgarity. Its just one hour a week when you're somewhere different. . . It's aesthetic as well as sacred. . . It's a very beautiful thing to be holy: it means 'whole', 'com­pletion', and it shouldn't be something cut off from ordinary exis­tence. Everybody should be holy, really."

He pauses, and smiles. "Shall we have a glass of wine?"

Books* by Ronald Blythe:

Word from Wormingford (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £7.99); 978-1-85311-845-6)
Out of the Valley (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (£7.99); 978-1-85311-854-8)
Borderland (Canterbury Press, £10.99 (£8.79); 978-1-85311-851-7)
A Year at Bottengoms Farm (Canterbury Press, £8.99 (£7.19); 978-1-85311-833-3)
River Diary (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (£10.39); 978-1-85311-862-3)
The Bookman's Tale (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (£10.39); 978-1-85311-980-4)
Village Hours (Canterbury Press, £14.99 (£11.99); 978-1-84825-237-0). Out this month.
Akenfield (Penguin Classics, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-14118-792-1)
Aftermath: Selected writings 1960-2010 (Black Dog, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-0-95492-869-8)
At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon, £15 (£13.50); 978-1-904634-88-1)

* The Church Times Bookshop is offering a 20-per-cent dis­count on his Canterbury Press collections until the end of this month.

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