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.