IN MAY 1955, Mr Cullum,
the bank manager, sat me in his oﬃce to scold me for being £25
overdrawn. I told him that a cheque for this amount was on its way
from the London Magazine, but he was not assured. No more
for me from Barclays until I was cleansed of debt. His son Jeremy
was Benjamin Britten's secretary and tennis partner, and Mr Cullum
was the lover of Elizabeth Sweeting, the Aldeburgh Festival
Unbeknown to me, debt and
probity were ﬁlling the arts at this moment. The Festival was
overdrawn, like me, and Elizabeth, who was salaried, was having to
leave. Some other method of running things was being discussed.
After my interview, I
went next door to the baker's and there met Juliet Laden, who,
seeing my worried face and hearing of my penury, at once wrote a
cheque for £25. Returning with it to Mr Cullum, I expected
joyfulness. Instead, I received an even more anxious look. Not only
was I the kind of new customer who was going to bother him, but a
swift borrower to boot.
The next morning, the
London Magazine cheque arrived. I mention these
parsimonious facts because they somehow reﬂected "Aldeburgh" in
miniature at this moment - the scarcely now believable ﬁnances, the
give and take, the wildly imaginative plans both to do our own work
and also to run a unique music festival, now almost a decade old.
Could it go on? This question was openly asked.
The solution was to
replace the salaried Elizabeth Sweeting with the unsalaried Stephen
Reiss, who would be called the Responsible Organiser, and myself as
his assistant, at £150 per annum. What poor Stephen needed was not
a young man who had run a literary society and hung a John
Constable exhibition, but a competent oﬃce worker. What he got was
a ﬁnancially illiterate novelist.
Y INTERVIEW burns in my
memory to this day, each minute of it ﬁxed. The coming into the
same room where a few months earlier I had worked on E. M.
Forster's biography of his aunt, the woman who had saved him from
having to get a job of any sort, and standing before Benjamin
Britten, Peter Pears, and Stephen Reiss, the latter blinking
through his glasses. Fidelity Cranbrook introduced me, she having
been told by Christine Nash what a good arranger of lectures I had
been in Colchester.
Ben and Peter were in
shorts, and I was wearing my tweed jacket and green corduroy
trousers, and a tie. They stared gently at me. Stephen stood in the
background, an éminence grise to be. It would be brilliant
whilst it lasted.
As Britten could only
love or hate, it was said, and did not possess a detached view on
anything or anybody, I suppose he should not have been present. But
he was present, and would be, at even the most mundane aﬀairs
aﬀecting the Festival.
The question at this
moment wasn't so much can you help but when can you start? The room
was dominated by bare legs, Peter's so white and plump, Ben's so
ochre and knobbly. Doors were wide open fore and aft, and a fresh
breeze poured from the sea into Crabbe Street. So that was
"Say goodbye to Elizabeth
Sweeting, would you?" said Lady Cranbrook. "She would like to see
you." I had read her name on the ﬁrst Programme Book. I found her
in a little ﬂood-stained room behind the Wentworth Hotel. The box
ﬁles were marked with water. Two years earlier, the mighty winter
sea had broken all barriers from Canvey Island to the Wash,
drowning many people and animals. Benjamin Britten himself had
helped in bailing out Crag House and boats had been rowed down the
IVE years later
Noye's Fludde, Britten's setting of the Chester Miracle
Play, would ﬁll Orford Church with Suﬀolk schoolchildren in a storm
of sea music. Britten had remembered the carved ark on the Duke of
Norfolk's tomb at Framlingham, the many drowned sailors in
Aldeburgh churchyard, and the winter of 1953, when the North Sea
ﬁlled his rooms. He had brought them together in a ferment of
waves, hymns, terror, and salvation.
Amongst the guilds which
traditionally re-enacted the drowning of the world in Genesis were
the Shipwrights, Fishers, and Mariners. As with all Miracle Plays,
Noye's Fludde was performed, not during winter, when real
water would have passed through coastal towns, but at Corpus
Christi, in warm sunshine.
Seeing me glancing at the
watermarks in the Festival Oﬃce, Elizabeth Sweeting said, "It was
terrible!" I noticed an element of thankfulness regarding her
departure. We sat amongst the litter of her going. Mr Cullum the
bank manager was furious at the plan to exchange her with Stephen
When she arrived, Lord
Harewood had hoped that the Festival would "belong to Aldeburgh and
Suﬀolk in the sense that Mozart did to Salzburg". When I arrived,
it lay to Stephen Reiss to achieve this. He appeared somehow hidden
and yet powerful.
I should here say sorry
to Stephen Reiss for not earning my keep. Also tell him how great
he was in Aldeburgh terms. A rescuer. A rock. There were moments
when the Festival would have foundered had it not been for him.
Somehow tragic in himself, I thought, he knew how to bring light
into dark corners, to be strong when everyone and everything else
went to pieces.--
He had come from the New
Towns in Hertfordshire and possessed a Shavian common sense, and a
way of crossing awkward boundaries. This was also Fidelity's Quaker
territory, and between them she and Stephen held their sensible
ground in the frequent tempests of the Festival.
WAS too turned in on
myself at this stage, not to say too awed by Ben, to recognise
Stephen Reiss's greatness. Fidelity Cranbrook's understanding of it
was all too plain. She would observe me as I took it in - or failed
to understand what was being said. The fact was that I wrote and
wrote all day, read and dreamed. Words made a screen through which
every other activity was ﬁltered and made a kind of grudging
All the same, I found it
impossible to call myself a writer. The ﬁrst person to do so was
Imogen Holst. Not even Christine Nash could do more at this stage
than to tell people that I had gone to Aldeburgh "to write". The
stress must have shown, because Ben asked, more than once, "Are you
happy, Ronnie?" He let oﬀ steam with strange war-whoops. "Middle
class, Ronnie; middle class!" And, "I'm thirteen!"
I lived on herrings and
bread and counted pennies - even when the publisher's reader
fortune began to pour in. My ﬁrst manuscript was The History of
the Pig. But then an American magazine paid me £100 for a
short story. When I took it to Barclays bank, it was taken to Mr
Cullum, who peered at me through his door. I went to the Thursday
sale at the Scouts' hut and bought things for my ﬂat with it.
IT WAS in 1971 that Peter
Hall wanted to ﬁlm my book Akenfield, a project which
ﬁlled me with fear. We met for the ﬁrst time in London. The book
had upset him. It was as though he had encountered his ancestral
Suﬀolk for the ﬁrst time. He persuaded me to write a ﬁlm treatment
of it. The producer Rex Pyke gradually persuaded me that it could
I recalled a boyhood
picture named Man of Aran, directed by Robert J. Flaherty.
And what was more, that my farmer neighbour at Great Glemham had
acted in it as a 16-year-old. This in the 1930s. It was about a
kelp economy on an Aran island where seaweed was inned with
monotonous toil to make slippery ﬁelds.
I also remembered Pier
Paolo Pasolini's masterpiece The Gospel According to
Matthew. The two ﬁlms together were what ﬁnally persuaded me
to go ahead with the Peter Hall ﬁlm.
Peter Hall knew that
funding such a ﬁlm would be almost impossible, and he began to see
it as a triple venture by me, Benjamin Britten, and himself, all
I wrote fearfully to
Britten, well aware of his dislike of ﬁlm crews, telling him that
the Akenfield ﬁlm as created out of my book, which he had
read enthusiastically, would be a kind of Thomas Hardy story.
Britten adored Hardy and had set a number of his poems. But I added
Robert Bresson and Pasolini to my persuaders.
Greatly daring, for
Britten detested suggestions, I said, "It would be a very serious
ﬁlm in which Peter Hall and myself will be absorbed as people
coming from many generations of Suﬀolk country people. It is a
low-budget ﬁlm, and except for perhaps two or three leading
characters, will use real people and not actors" (in the long run
the leads were also locals).
I had already had a talk
about the ﬁlm with Britten's publisher, Donald Mitchell. Thus I
continued, "It was immediately evident that we could not ask you to
provide such ﬁlm music in the ordinary sense. Instead, Donald told
us of some unpublished music which exists which, if it could be
extended, would be perfect for the ﬁlm. Our plan would be to ﬁt
parts of the ﬁlm to this music, and not to request you to write to
the ﬁlm. There is plenty of time, as the ﬁlm has to be shot over
the seasons . . ."
WHAT I do remember now
was Ben's dislike of other people's projects. Twenty years earlier,
I had told Imogen Holst about the Quaker James Parnell, a hero of
mine, John Nash having agreed that he would be the perfect subject
for a Britten opera.
Imogen guessed that I
would tell it to Ben. We were working in her ﬂat. Her alarm was
real. "Oh, you mustn't, dear. Promise me you won't! He hates
suggestions. Oh, please don't tell him!"
This ancient panic about
not making any suggestions caught up with me as I wrote to Britten
about Akenfield. But he was easy, businesslike, and
approving. "What a good idea. Come over!" So I introduced Peter
Hall to him. I don't think that they had met before. Peter, Ben,
and I and perhaps Peter Pears and Rex Pyke, sat on the Red House
steps in sunshine. Ben was easy, seemingly very happy, aﬀectionate.
He and Peter Hall got on well.
One day, in 1972, coming
down the stairs of the Aldeburgh Festival offices, Ben allowed
Imogen and Peter Pears to go ahead. Then he said, "I can't do the
Akenfield score. I am ill. I have to have an operation.
I'm sorry." I noticed that his usual lined face had been smoothed
out with cortisone or some such drug. I was shocked. I didn't know
about his heart.
We walked along the Crag
Path in silence. The towers were as normal. Fishermen lounged as
usual. The gulls cried perpetually. After a few steps he hugged me,
and went ahead. It was the last time I would see him other than as
the grey shade at the rear of the brick Artistic Directors' box in
the Maltings, where, usually in an overcoat, he would enter just
before the performance, the ghost of his own reality.
When I went to Snape, I
would walk through the reedbeds to Iken, where St Botolph had his
cell. All the way there was reed whispering, and now and then the
noisy rise of a bird. Britten had a hankering for his grave to be
made in these reeds but it was out of the question. So much water.
Thus Bob and Doris Ling, caretakers at the Maltings and before that
gravediggers, compromised by lining his grave in the churchyard
with these now still reeds.
These reed marshes make
the sea appear far away. They create an optical illusion through
which the old thatchers would chop their way. In and around them
there would be constant toil. They set oriental standards in
Suﬀolk, and, like the Fens, they promised poor health for their
toilers. But the east winds seem less bitter there.
These reedbeds and their
subsequent marshlands have made a contrasting coastal universe,
each with its separate sounds and climates, each with its scuttling
occupants. Britten would wander along the wet paths, his curly head
coming and going through the dense reedheads. He liked company on
his car jaunts, but here he would usually be glimpsed walking
This, and on an Aldeburgh
marsh, was where he got away. Although crowds were part of him. He
was gregarious by nature, and often he seemed to thrive in company,
and to ﬁnd his own silence within it. This would amaze me.
The Time by the Sea
by Ronald Blythe is published by Faber and Faber at £15.99
(Church Times Bookshop special offer price £13.99). This
edited extract appears by kind permission.
THE textual artist Stephen Raw is marking the centenary of
Benjamin Britten with an exhibition of works based on the com-
poser's War Requiem. Raw has used the words from the
requiem mass, and from Wilfred Owen's poetry - both employed in the
Britten composition - in his pieces. The exhibition "Was it for
this the Clay Grew Tall?" is part of the City of London Festival,
and is in St John's Priory Church, St John's Square, Clerkenwell
Road, London EC1, from 25 June to 12 July. www.colf.org