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."

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor