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


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

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page


General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk