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."

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us