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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee