The Time by the Sea: Aldeburgh 1955-1958
Faber & Faber £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40 (Use code
NOW aged 90, and still active as a writer, Ronald Blythe is well
known to Church Times readers for his weekly "Word from
Anyone reading these columns over the past 20 years (eight
volumes of collected "Words" have come out since 1997) will know
that Blythe is a writer of great perception with a wonderful ear
for words and, as he says in a preamble before the 18 short
chapters of this book, a gift for listening. The best-known work
from his long career is his account of agricultural life in Suffolk
from the 1900s to the 1960s, Akenfield: Portrait of an English
village. This was made into a film by Peter Hall in 1974, and
the book and the film have become classics of their type.
Christine, the wife of the artist John Nash, found Blythe a
place to live in Aldeburgh, and encouraged him to pursue his
writing. The Time by the Sea (Features, 7 June 2013) describes Blythe's
time during that period, 1955-58, and was issued to coincide with
the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, who features in the
book with other notable characters, including Britten's partner,
Peter Pears, Imogen Holst, the botanist Denis Garrett, the
photographer Kurt Hutton, Mervyn Peake, and E. M. Forster. Blythe
describes spotting Forster (distinguishable by his overcoat and
flat cap) in Aldeburgh and then arriving home to find a note under
his door inviting him to come for a drink.
At the appointed address, 4 Crabbe Street, Forster introduces
him to Britten. Britten suggests working for the Aldeburgh
Festival, and Blythe turns up for an interview in his best tweed
jacket, only to find Britten and Pears in shorts. But he is given
the job of administrative assistant on a reasonable salary. His
principal job is to compile the programme book.
One or two observations about the Church and churchmen will
amuse our readers. Britten wanted to mount a concert in Blythburgh
Church. Britten remarked that the clergy could be very touchy; so
Blythe was sent in some trepidation to meet the Vicar, the Revd
Arthur Thomson, who at first was reluctant until Blythe suggested
that he might like to ask his PCC. Thomson exploded at this, and
said he could do what he liked in his own church. The concert, of
course, went ahead.
Although the period in question is the mid- to late 1950s,
Blythe flits around freely, mentioning events that happened
subsequently as digressions from the descriptions in hand. He also
enlivens his narrative with passages from the writings of those
about whom he is speaking.
The book may be modest in size, but it is packed with
observation, as well as events and personalities. It also manages
to evoke the sights and sounds of the Suffolk coast, and
particularly the sea.
The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban's,
Holborn, London, is a composer and conductor.