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Word from Wormingford

10 April 2015

Paintings in an art gallery remind  Ronald Blythe  of the friends of his youth

I LOVE provincial art galleries. It is amazing what hangs on their walls. Is that a real Picasso? And who is this painter no one has ever heard of? It is so captivating.

This week, I went to the Minories Art Gallery, in Colchester, to see the permanent collection, which I knew existed, but had forgotten. And there they were - the artist friends of my youth, and of the Suffolk-Essex countryside I had known. Also, the ghostly assemblies I joined in a stately townhouse just after the war. I usually went with John and Christine Nash, who themselves belong to another day: John, who never looked at the paintings, and chatted away to old friends; and Christine, who sat in a tall window, endlessly embroidering.

I took in the exhibition appreciatively, longing to paint, not at all longing to write. It had been the generous custom of the artist to give a work to the gallery, and these, from having been tucked away so long, were now a kind of autobiography. Each picture, even if it was a portrait, brought to life another face, another room, another time.

There was Sir Cedric Morris, tall, his scarf tucked through a silver ring. There was my friend John Bensusan-Butt, cousin to the Pissarros. There were the poets James Turner, W. R. Rodgers, and R. M. Currie - all a generation older than myself, but we did not constitute an East Anglian collective: we were just local people who spread our wings after the war.

And, most importantly for me, there was the emergent Aldeburgh Festival, and its founders, Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, and Peter Pears. What there was not was wages, just little handouts and big improvisations. Simplicity was the thing. I walked and biked everywhere. I edited the wonderful programme books - collectors' items now - and did everything from setting out the stacked chairs to persuading the Suffolk priests to allow concerts to take place in their beautiful churches.

One of them forbade applause, and I still dislike the often excessive clapping of some concerts. There should be a few seconds at least, after the last notes of Schubert or Bach, to translate the audience to another sphere, but not this battle of palms and feet.

Everything took place in Aldeburgh itself in those days. But the spread of music across the marshes to Snape altered everything for the better. The entrepreneur Newson Garrett had built a vast maltings there in the 19th century, as well as emancipating women - Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was his daughter - and the entire business of concert-going was transformed by Snape.

My particular friends were Denis and Jane Garrett. He an exciting botanist, his wife a loving head of social welfare in Cambridge. Oh, brave new world! It was run on a shoestring - but a highly professional shoestring. I wrote stories, walked miles, got used to the sea, and became a writer.

At this moment, I am rereading that Essex masterpiece, J. A. Baker's The Peregrine. Once read, constantly read. One could call Baker a mid-20th-century John Clare. There is nothing like this bird book in the whole of English natural history. Its ravishing prose and scientific force remain mysterious. It was written by a rather ill young man as he cycled in the rivery countryside around Chelmsford. Each evening, he would translate his birdwatching jottings into brilliant prose. He died in 1986, having carried birdwatching into English literature.

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