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The music of the marshes

07 June 2013

In this extract from his new memoir, Ronald Blythe recalls his first meeting with Benjamin Britten, founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, which is now celebrating the composer's centenary


Composer in his landscape: Benjamin Britten in the marshes near Snape

Composer in his landscape: Benjamin Britten in the marshes near Snape

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 manager.

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 that.

"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 High Street.

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 Reiss.

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 entrance.

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 be done.

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 Suffolk-born men.

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 alone.

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

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