My chance to worship at the feet of the great nature writer Ronald Blythe

Nature Studies: He was the Grand Old Man whose mesmerising work captured a world of 1960s farming that was pivotal to the green movement

Share

Grand Old Man is the corniest of clichés, but perhaps we may deploy it for once in the case of Ronald Blythe, since he is widely seen as the doyen of writers about the natural world in England, and now he is 90.

Ronnie, as his admirers refer to him, is an author who has had the blessing and the curse of one particular book being so successful that it simultaneously fixes your place in the literary world but overshadows the rest of your output; and that book, of course, is Akenfield, his famous 1969 portrait of a Suffolk village.

Akenfield takes you by surprise: open it and mesmerising voices start to speak to you, telling of a vivid life shaped by two quite contrasting characteristics. On the one hand, there is the absolute, grinding poverty of the Suffolk farmworkers – that is, the agricultural labourers, as opposed to the farmers who owned the farms – and, on the other, for all their penury, there is their deep knowledge and love of the land and their fierce pride in their work on it, from ploughing their furrows to thatching their hay-ricks.

This life, the life of traditional, old agriculture, was virtually finished when Blythe spoke to the villagers in 1967 and ’68, years of the Beatles, the Stones and student revolt; over the preceding two decades, farm mechanisation had driven the men from the fields into factories in Ipswich where they found they could earn a proper wage. But there were plenty who remembered the life and who had lived it, and they poured out their souls to him, recounting what had gone: their poverty, for which they were glad, yet also their spiritual link to the landscape, for which they felt a great sense of loss.

It was a gripping snapshot of a pivotal moment of social and environmental change, and it made Blythe famous; but it has, indeed, disguised the extent of his real achievement as a writer, says the naturalist and author Mark Cocker – he who wrote Birds Britannica and the award-winning Crow Country, and who is a leading Blythe enthusiast.

Three weeks tonight, on 15 November, Cocker will be publicly interviewing the Akenfield author at a festival celebrating the cultural significance of nature in Britain, being held in Stamford in Lincolnshire, and he will be trying to bring out to the audience how much more there is to the man than the one famous tome.

“Ronnie is the spiritual father of writers about the engagement between humans and natural landscape in Britain, but he is also one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century,” Mark Cocker says. “Yet although he’s written novels and short stories, in some ways he is at his most telling and most brilliant as an essayist. He’s a kind of modern Hazlitt.”

Three recent volumes of essays in particular draw his praise: Field Work, Aftermath, and At Helpston, this last a series of meditations on John Clare, the 19th-century peasant poet who went mad and died in an asylum (Blythe has been president of the John Clare Society since its inception 30 years ago).

The Stamford festival is called Nature Matters, and is organised by New Networks for Nature, the burgeoning creative partnership of writers, artists, musicians and scientists formed to celebrate the natural world, and there are still some tickets left.

Blythe at 90, eh? I’ll be there, wanting to hear about his childhood, and his time in the circle of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at Aldburgh, and, if I get the chance, to ask him a journalist’s question: how on earth did he capture those Akenfield voices, at such length and with such freshness, before the cassette recorder came along?

It’s the judge who should be in jail

Well, if it was Caligula executing his soothsayers for getting their predictions wrong, we might have expected it. Or Nero. Or Commodus. Or any Roman emperor who was off his trolley, out to lunch, or a few grapes short of a banquet, however you want to phrase it.

But it wasn’t. It was Judge Marco Billi, who this week at a court in L’Aquila, Italy, sentenced a group of Italian scientists to six years in prison for not properly predicting the earthquake that devastated the city in 2009. Now that he has made a major crime of failing to spell out the course of the future in the natural world, I think Judge Billi should be arraigned in his turn. Remember that old offence of outraging public decency? The Judge should be charged with outraging common sense. And given six years himself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering