Not many writers in their 91st year are as indefatigable in keeping their name before the public as Ronald Blythe. Released to coincide with the centenary of its principal ornament – Benjamin Britten– this scintillating memoir of time spent on the Suffolk coast in the mid-1950s joins Aftermath, a bumper selection of his journalism, and At the Yeoman's House, which won a 2011 East Anglian Book award, as his third publication in 30 months.
The Time by the Sea opens with the thirtysomething tyro holed up in a winter bungalow at Thorpe Ness, scampering over the windswept dunes and writing stories on an Olympia typewriter. Walking to Aldeburgh one snowy day in search of food, he passes an elderly man in a tweed overcoat and a cloth cap.
This turns out to be EM Forster, on his way to leave a note enquiring if "Mr Blythe" would like to "come in for a drink". A few hours later Blythe is helping Forster and Britten compile the index to the former's Marianne Thornton. A few months later, at the princely salary of £150, he is installed as administrative assistant at the new Aldeburgh Festival.
Although much of what follows offers pen-portraits of festival personalities – Peter Pears, Imogen Holst, Britten wandering the marshland paths near Snape – there is space for the wider circle of friends Blythe was cultivating at this formative period: jaunts among the sedge with the botanist Denis Garrett, sea-bathing with the photojournalist Kurt Hutton, and the start of his long association with the artist John Nash and his wife Christine, whose house he was to inherit.
The leitmotif of these East Coast travels is Blythe's characteristic interest in what separates a bygone age from our own. At Blythburgh church, he maintains that the medieval mind "was incurious. It explored, amplified, decorated and taught only what it knew".
It would be wrong to talk of Blythe's "charm", for what lies at the book's core is a rather tough-minded sense of self-preservation. On the other hand, his great distinguishing mark is the good he sees in people. The Time by the Sea is like a late-period Bloomsbury diary, the essential difference being that one unreservedly admires the diarist, and all the natives are friendly.