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."
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