Ronald Blythe: My not so quiet village life

The Akenfield author tells Christian House about life in the company of Patricia Highsmith, EM Forster and a field full of farmers

Ronald Blythe lives in a secret pocket stitched into the fabric of a forgotten country. As I cycle down the flint track to his home at Bottengoms Farm, I leave the 21st century. I depart from urgency and traffic. This yeoman's house in a border dip between Essex and Suffolk has been the anchor to Blythe's peripatetic cultural journey since he pitched up in 1947 on the invitation of the war artist John Nash, who three decades later left it to him.

"When I first came, it only had oil lamps and candles," says Blythe as he settles me into the drawing room. "I was 23 or something like that. All the people I knew worked. The writers wrote and the painters painted. We had very little money but we all knew one another." Blythe is a man of letters in the traditional, fading fashion. This month he turned 90, and he has agreed to talk about his continuing ventures as England's greatest living country writer. He has edited war correspondence and authors' diaries and written fiction and poetry, but, most prominently, he is a master chronicler of pastoral life. As such, he has the ruddy look of a naturalist, with his brown complexion, useful hands and willow-tuft hair.

As I perch next to a black grand piano, he asks first if I'd like coffee and then if I play. It's a very Blythe moment; his writing is full of the union of physical and artistic concerns. He is most famous for Akenfield, his 1969 non-fiction portrait of a Suffolk village. It's a collage of villagers' stories; a patchwork of seductions, suicides, harvests and hopes, of the last of the Great War generation and the dying embers of man-powered agriculture. It was filmed by Peter Hall and is now republished as a Penguin Modern Classic.

"There's an essence of every rural experience within it. It was supposed to be every-village," says Blythe, pouring a sherry. "It's constructed really as a work of literature not of sociology. When it came out, there was a terrible hullaballoo. I walked down to the village, to the shop, and an old farmer's wife was standing by the gate. I thought, 'Now I'm for it.' She beckoned me over and said, 'Oh, my dear, you should have come to me, I could have told you worse than that'."

Blythe was briefly conscripted during the Second World War. I suggest that the conflict and its precursor loom over much of his writing. "It does," he says, "A lot of people I knew had been at the Western Front. For instance, I was once in a pub near here, with another boy, when I was 21, and we were talking about Rupert Brooke. And a little man turned round and said, 'I helped to dig his grave.' He was also going to Gallipoli, this man, when a young, 27-year-old officer died from an insect bite: Rupert Brooke. The ship pulled into the island of Skyros and he was one of the sailors who were told to go off and dig the grave."

Such extraordinary encounters have shaped Blythe's life. While working on Akenfield, he met Patricia Highsmith; the Talented Mr Ripley author lived four miles away. "I used to cycle over to see her sometimes. And I took her around. I took her to Cambridge and showed her old Suffolk churches and we went to pubs," remembers Blythe. "She drank in this American way, to get drunk for a week. When I opened her fridge once, there was no food in it, there were only bottles." He describes Highsmith as a contrary character: an alcoholic with a refined sensibility and a lesbian who took him to bed. "I think what she liked was my body, perhaps aesthetically. But she was very loving." So was it a romance? "No. Friendship. I think she was one of those people who had to have some kind of sexual thing with everyone she liked."

In the mid-1950s, Blythe worked with Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival. It's a period he is revisiting for his next book, The Time by the Sea, published by Faber next June, in the year of Britten's centenary. "It begins with myself in winter by the North Sea. Shivering."

This is when E M Forster arrived in his life. "I walked in a snowstorm to Aldeburgh to get some food. When I got back, a note had been pushed under the door: 'Dear Mr Blythe, would you care to come and have a drink with us.' Meeting Forster, to me in those days, was like meeting Shakespeare. When I went to the house, he was with this old professor called Sebastian Sprott," he laughs, "I remember being starving hungry. They had nothing to eat, these two old gents." Did Forster have designs on him? "I don't think so. He found me interesting as a young person. Well, actually, I don't know really, he was certainly affectionate. He was nearly 80 but he had a disconcerting youthful voice; very bright and intelligent."

Blythe has never married, but just "lived in wilds like this, writing books". So has the countryside been a substitute for romantic love? "I never thought of that. I love the solitary nature of my life but I'm not a hermit." He is content with a close group of friends, his duties as a lay preacher in the local church, and a tangled marvel of a garden. "Sometimes, people come from the village and say, 'Oh, I don't suppose you've had time to weed.' They don't understand it at all. Also, I work in my head outside. Doing the tomatoes yesterday, suddenly great big bits of book came into my head."

He is sad but realistic about the changing role of rural England. "I do mourn it in a little way," says Blythe, taking a nip of his sherry, "because when I was young there would have been a lot of people here and all working the land. Nobody is working the land now, just one chap on a tractor or a great combine. I can remember horse ploughing. I can hear the jingle of the harness. I can see lots of people pea-picking in a field or singling out beets. Doing perfectly ordinary things. A landscape full of people."

Akenfield, By Ronald Blythe

Penguin Modern Classics £9.99

"The villager is often imprisoned by the sheer implacability of the 'everlasting circle' … his own life and the life of the corn and fruit and creatures clocks along with the same fatalistic movement. Spring-birth, winter-death and in between the harvest. This year, next year and for ever – for that was the promise."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape