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Obituary: Ronald Blythe

by
20 January 2023

Church Times/Nick Spurling

The Revd Malcolm Doney writes:

RONALD BLYTHE was a man of letters, a man of the Church, and a man of the countryside. In appropriately trinitarian form, it was almost impossible to untangle one part of his being from another. The nature writer Richard Mabey — a long-term friend and admirer of Blythe — wrote: “His work has grown like an eco-system, with every part in some way connected with all the others.”

He was born in 1922, the oldest of six children, in the Suffolk village of Acton. His father was a farm la­bourer from a long line of East Anglian sons and daughters of the soil. His mother was from London, and had worked as a VAD nurse in the First World War.

“I was a very quiet sort of boy with a bike,” he said, and used to cycle miles to visit East Anglian churches, whose stillness and antiquity he loved. He was also “a watcher and listener”, and “a terrific reader”. He observed, compassionately and yet forensically, the details of village life, the minutiae of seasonal change, and the “glory and bitterness” of hands-on, horse-drawn agricultural toil, at a time of seismic change.

All this he was to detail in Akenfield, the 1969 book that made his name, in which he interviewed rural people of every kind, as the 1960s swept people who had been raised in a quasi-feudal culture into a technological and social revolution.

Sir Peter Hall, who turned Akenfield into a film (reaching a TV audience of 14 million), in which Blythe played the vicar, recalled: “What Ronnie did was to talk to many, many people, and shaped and formed what he heard, so that it is neither documentary nor fiction. It is a kind of emotional and environmental truth.”

Ronald Blythe had no formal education beyond school. After the Second World War, in his early twenties, he took a job in Colchester Public Library. “I loved novels, and poetry, and especially history,” he said. And, as he himself began to write, he was hungry to meet other writers; so he started the Colchester Literary Society. “I began to meet a whole host of writers, because I used to invite them to come and talk, and I suppose I was as thrilled by them as most boys would be if they met a great cricketer, or footballer.”

The first of these was the poet and novelist James Turner. Older than Blythe, he became a mentor, and friend; “I worshipped him.” But Turner wasn’t the only older guide to take an interest in this young talent. The artist Christine Nash, wife of John Nash, came into the library in search of the musical score of Handel’s Imeneo, but tucked Blythe under her arm, and began to introduce him to their friends.

In the mid-1950s, and early 1960s, Suffolk rivalled Cornwall as a haven for artists, writers, and musicians. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears were hatching the Aldeburgh music festival. Sir Cedric Morris and his partner Arthur Lett Haines were running the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting at Benton End, a large house at Hadleigh. They had taught Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling, among others. Vanessa Bell, E. M. Forster, Patricia High­smith, and Imogen Holst all turned up in the county for the big skies, the North Sea, and the diverting company. They absorbed this shy, solitary, church-going young man into their bohemian ménage.

Christine Nash insisted that the library was too safe a place for a writer, and installed him in a salt-sprayed summer cabin on the beach at Thorpeness, a walk away from Aldeburgh. Vicky Minet, Blythe’s neighbour, friend, and honorary chauffeur (he never learned to drive), says: “He was fascinated by that bohemian, cultured, and creative upper-class world. But Christine Nash was his mentor and mother figure, and she, above all, urged him to put aside trivial things and to ‘work, work, work’. And he did. . .”

This work ethic wasn’t simply something that he picked up from Christine Nash. There was nothing dilettantesque about the circles that he now moved in. “I was inspired by a lot of those people because they worked so hard, and didn’t make a fuss,” he said. “They just lived their lives in a very independent and disciplined way.”

Although Blythe admired writers, he loved artists. “I loved their houses. I used to love the turpentine-y smell and the cats, and the unusual food, and the blazing fires in the winter, and the gardens which were unorthodox,” he said. “They taught me how to live.”

His second home was the Nashes’, Bottengoms Farm, which was later to become his own. The Elizabethan yeoman’s house is in the Stour Valley on the Essex-Suffolk border. John Nash described himself as an “artist-plantsman”, filling the two-acre site with an informal profusion of flowers and vegetation. Blythe was a welcome, and willing, pair of hands in the house and garden.

His willingness to help and his readiness to learn, combined with his youth (he was considerably younger than most of the already established creative coterie in this corner of East Anglia), were seized upon with alacrity. “They all made me do lots of jobs. I’d dig the garden, clear the ponds, run errands. . . There were hundreds of things.”

Britten and Pears recruited him to help to organise the rapidly burgeoning Aldeburgh Festival. Before long, he was writing programme notes and exhibition catalogues, and providing editorial services for all and sundry. “Although fascinated by the glamour and liveliness of the circles he was introduced to,” Vicky Minet says, “he also always knew how to detach himself in order to work.”

His first book was a novel, A Treasonable Growth, published in 1960, which was followed by more than 30 more, which he either wrote or edited: poetry, short stories, essays, and novels. He was editor of Penguin Classics for more than 20 years, and edited editions of William Hazlitt and Thomas Hardy, among others.

His style, if he had one, is hard to pin down. Richard Mabey wrote: “if you were to make a map of his serpentine narrative, it would look like the excited scamperings of a spaniel, darting about after every intriguing scent and sign. . . But it is not random rambling, nor, as associations go, ‘free’. This — and not in organised, logically unfolding patterns — is how real lives and thoughts move. Ronnie’s genius is to so faithfully reflect this wonderfully collected muddle that what is some of the most beautiful and precise prose in modern English reads like conversation.”

Alongside Mabey, a pantheon of outdoor writers — Roger Deakin, Adam Nicolson, and Robert Macfarlane — queued up to sing his praise. But this is not to pigeonhole Blythe as a nature writer. The chief object of his listening ear and watchful eye was always people. None the less, a practical, earthy thread always ran through Blythe’s life.

“Ronnie had what you might call a robust approach to nature and to life,” Vicky Minet says. “He was a stoic . . . and his approach to country life was practical and unsentimental. Having lived alone all his life . . . he was very good at looking after himself, gardening, chopping wood, fixing things, and putting up with sometimes uncomfortable domestic arrangements.”

Like his great hero, the poet John Clare (he was President of the John Clare Society), he absorbed an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and animals, without specific study. Blythe’s writings — like Clare’s — are naturally scattered with references to native flora and fauna.

His Christian faith was another constant thread. He described himself as “naturally” a religious person, though not necessarily very orthodox: “It was deep-seated . . . private, but not conventional.” And quite soon, as he was recognised as a writer, he found himself at the lectern. “You know what the Church of England’s like: they always give you work to do if you’re not wary.”

He was licensed as a Reader in the Church of England in 1984, and made an Honorary Canon of St Edmundsbury Cathedral in 2003. He preached, and led services, more or less weekly, in the local benefice of which Wormingford is part.

After his early writing years on the Suffolk coast, Ronald Blythe moved inland to the village of Debach, where he lived for 20 years, and where he wrote Akenfield. But in the mid-1970s — as age rendered the Nashes progressively more frail (they were now in their eighties) — he began to spend even more time at Bottengoms Farm, nursing them in their final months until their deaths in 1977. John Nash left the house to Blythe, who lived there in contented solitude until his own death.

His celebrated “Word From Wormingford”, published on the back page of the Church Times, started at a request in 1993 by the paper’s then editor, John Whale. The current editor, Paul Handley, recalls: “It appeared at first to be a typical countryside column, but several elements soon appeared that showed readers that here was something special: his column drew on his literary roots; his life full of anec­­dotes about characters such as Benjamin Britten; his faith and work as a Reader; and his extraordinary skills of observation and description.

“Hence in one of his first columns: ‘December has come with almost my favourite weather, which is a kind of warm, muted, lemon-and-grey calmness, with the sun rolling up from behind Duncan’s white barn with no intention of doing anything more than a little gilding here and there.’ A few readers failed to appreciate the change of pace that reading Ronald’s column demanded; most, though, found it a source of inspiration and pleasure.”

Church Times/Nick SpurlingRonald Blythe with his white cat at Bottengoms Farm

As a Reader, Blythe said: “I mostly take the 1662 services, but I don’t mind if they’re not. I choose all the hymns. Sometimes we sing the liturgy. I use old prayers, but often modern ones. And I give them these sermons.”

“On Sundays, he never failed to turn up for Church,” Vicky Minet says, “always ready with a sermon, sometimes inspiring and informative, sometimes just consisting of a wonderful ramble through history, and a musing on the writings of the Bible and the people who put
it together. Vicars came and went, but Ronnie was always there: ‘You are the true vicar of this parish!’ one of them once remarked, ruefully.”

As ever, he retained his detachment: “The Church itself has a lot of certainties which nobody can possibly believe in, accumulated over the centuries,” he said. “So, I have no difficulty in disposing of these in my thoughts. I think of prayer and I think of George Herbert, and St Francis, and I think of the Quakers, and certain quiet gentle Christian people I have met at certain times, who wouldn’t think of themselves as saying anything in life, but somehow you learn something from them.”

He was very positive about the ordination of women and was an admirer of the former Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Frances Ward: “You couldn’t have a better Dean.” She returns the compliment: “The layering of literature, nature, poetry, people, and his phenomenal memory made any time spent with him a richly informed and restorative experience.”

But he resisted ordination himself. Several senior clerics tried in vain to persuade him. “I couldn’t get them to understand that it wasn’t my role. I actually think the laity is enormously important. The laity means the people of God.”

He told Vicky Minet: “I am first and foremost a writer; I don’t have time for all of that.” She adds: “His friends thought that the Church asked too much of him, but Ronnie was happy to continue. I think he saw it as a good counterbalance to that solitary writer’s life.”

He was definitively solitary, but no recluse. He had many friends, to whom he was enormously loyal, and he loved to entertain. But “I can’t cope with too many people,” he said. In the end, he was pleased to close the door.

Less welcome were the visitors who would make an uninvited pilgrimage to Bottengoms. “Having finally made it down the bumpy track,” Vicky Minet says, “they seemed to expect of him that he would instantly stop what he was doing, show them round the house, provide tea and time. But Ronnie was far too courte­ous to ever tell anyone to go away. . . So they kept coming. They felt they knew him. . . ‘Where is the white cat?’ they would ask.”

He was private, and deflected probing questions about himself. Richard Mabey wrote: “Ronnie’s work, though deeply personal and often auto­biographical, is intensely private. Do not expect disclosures or revelations. The man who has written sensitively about others’ travails and illnesses and loves is silent about his own.”

The work was the thing, even in old age. “If you’re a writer, you don’t retire,” he said. “I still do what I have done when I was young. I get up at about six in the morning, I write, I listen a lot to music, I read, garden, feed the cat, people are coming to supper on Thursday; life just goes on like this . . . I don’t ever feel old. It doesn’t occur to me.” The author and curator Ian Collins, a close friend and Blythe’s executor, says: “Ronnie was thriving proof of the pleasure of a life well-worked.”

But there was still a little room for ease. He once told Ian Collins: “I don’t really approve of alcohol, but I do like a little drink.” Collins adds: “In his oddly convivial old age, at the end of the farm track — with his books and cats and a steady stream of visiting friends — there could be a fair few little drinks as the meditation and conversation flowed. His appreciative art, after all, was a toast to life.”

In his last book, The Time by the Sea: Aldeburgh 1995-1958, the nearest he came to a memoir, Blythe wrote about John Nash. “Toward the end of his life he was to write: ‘The artist’s main business is to train his eye to see, then to probe, and then to train his hand to work in sympathy with his eye. I have made a habit of looking, of really seeing.’”

Blythe added: “My main business at Wormingford has been to continue in my own way what went before, but on my own terms, and as best I can. With my youth crowded with artists, these last years are a kind of fulfilled silence in which a remote old farmhouse has collaborated with an unexpected enthusiasm. So I have been fortunate. I too have made a habit of looking, of really seeing.”

To celebrate Blythe’s 100th birthday on 6 November 2022, John Murray publishers produced a compilation of his Church Times columns, Next to Nature: A lifetime in the English Countryside, and introduced by Richard Mabey, Rowan Williams, and others (Christmas Books, 25 November 2022).

Ronald Blythe died at home on 14 January, aged 100. 

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