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Music and letters in Aldeburgh

21 March 2014

Ronald Corp enjoys a Britten memoir

The Time by the Sea: Aldeburgh 1955-1958
Ronald Blythe
Faber & Faber £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40 (Use code CT477 )

NOW aged 90, and still active as a writer, Ronald Blythe is well known to Church Times readers for his weekly "Word from Wormingford".

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.

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