Friday, 20 January 2023

Britain says "Farewell" to its Writer, Ronald Blythe, best remembered for his masterly evocation of English rural life in a village called of Akenfield

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Ronald, who has died at the age of one hundred, was a gifted writer who was n
ever out of print and read and studied, not just in Britain, but around the world. An opus of thirty books - s
hort stories, poems, histories, novels and, in later life, luminous essays and a superb weekly diary published in the 'Church Times' - all tumbled from his pen. It was, however, his depiction of bygone rural life in the imaginary Suffolk village of Akenfield, which he wrote when he was forty-seven and was immortalised on film by Peter Hall in 1974 that he will be best remembered. 

He was born the son of Matilda and Albert, the eldest of six children in the village of Acton, near Lavenham in the County of Suffolk, in the Autumn of 1922. His father, who came from a long line of shepherds and farm labourers with a surname derived from 'The Blyth', a small Suffolk river and had served in the Suffolk Regiment and fought at Gallipoli during the First World War, a few years before Ronald was born. His mother, by contrast, had been born in 19th century London where she had trained as a VAD nurse in the War and it was from her that young Ronald inherited his love of literature. First it was the Bible which was read daily by his mother and as then, becoming, as he said, a "chronic reader" of library books, which he read outside the family home and said : “Never indoors, where one might be given something to do”.

His 1920s Suffolk childhood left an indelible mark on him and at the age of seventy-nine in 2011 Ronald told the Guardian : "I actually haven't worked on this land but I've seen the land ploughed by horses. So I have a feeling and understanding in that respect – of its glory and bitterness". 

His friend, Ian Collins who was his literary executor and in later life, one of his carers said : "He had this earthy Suffolk philosophy; he was immensely wise but he wore it so lightly" and : “There would have been no Ronald Blythe without public libraries. It was the making of him because he was untrained and unconstrained. His voice was pure and original". 

Nevertheless his intellectual promise went unrecognised and, at the age of fourteen in 1936, Ronald left St Peter’s and St Gregory’s School in Sudbury and given the fact that the family now had eight mouths to feed and lived in a state of rural poverty, as the eldest child he duly started work and contributed his wage to the family budget. Four years later, at the age of eighteen and in the second year of the Second World War he was called up to serve in the Army but early on in his training, his superiors decided he was unfit for service, apparently friends said he was incapable of hurting a fly and he returned to East Anglia to work, quietly, as a reference librarian in Colchester Library

I
t was here, in the Library, that his literary career began when, as he said a : ‘Tall woman with a lovely voice’ came in one day, asking for a musical score”. It was Christine Nash, who insisted that he stopped being a librarian and became a writer and asked him over to Bottengoms Farm to meet her husband, the celebrated painter, John Nash. (link) It was his introduction to a glamorous,  bohemian world which he described as : "Provence, or even Paris, in Suffolk". (link)

Christine found him a cottage near Aldeburgh, and Ronald was introduced to and became friends with Benjamin Britten (right), the
composer, conductor, and pianist 
and edited festival programmes for him. He also met the great novelist, EM Forster (left), on a number of occasions, the first when he found a note from him pushed under his door inviting him for a drink at Britten's house and said : "How he knew I was there I don't know". Apparently, they would go shopping together for groceries and Ronald helped Forster write an index for his biography of his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton. 

He recalled : 
"It was rather frightening really. All I did was work. I suppose in a way I wanted to be thought of as a writer by them. I was a very quiet sort of boy, with a bike. I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of these people. I didn't tell Forster I was writing a novel. I didn't dare. But he was just an old man who was charming, and I expect he found me attractive". 

In the 1950s he began to sell his written work - poems, criticisms, essays and short stories and settled in a small house in the village of  and had his first critical success with 'A Treasonable Growth' in 1960, his first and only novel, Forster-inspired and set in pre-war Suffolk, about a local schoolmaster who longed to escape the restrictions of the family home where he still lived and fell in love with the daughter of an admiral, eight years his senior. This was followed by 'The Age of Illusion' in 1963, an anthology of life between the wars which included chapters on subjects as diverse as the life of the notorious rector of Stiffkey and the famous body-line cricket bowling controversy of 1933 . 

It was however, '
Akenfield', in 1969, a portrait of a remote Suffolk village from the 1890s to 1960s shaped out of the personal stories of its inhabitants which won critical acclaim in Britain and America and in 1974 was made into a film by director Peter Hall which was given a general cinema release in 1975 and its attracted 14 million viewers when it was shown on television that year. It remains to this day, the work for which he will best be remembered.

In 2012 Ronald said : "Akenfield is a kind of biography in many ways, but what really happened was two Swedish sociologists went to China and were let in, although Mao was there, because of their scientific background. They hadn't gone far into this great province when they stopped in a village which had stepped tiny houses and after being there a week, this man ( Jan Myrdal) and wife, recognised that the whole of China was in this little place as so often it is in some of the small places in this country and France. So they decided not to journey any more, but to take down everything they saw and heard in this one place and this book came out called 'Report from a Chinese Village".(link)

He went on : "Then as publishers do, they thought of a series and I'd just stopped from working on William Hazlitt and they came to me and asked me to do the English version of this book and I said "I'm not a sociologist" and they said : "Never mind. Get on with it". It was to be the lead title for
 Viking Press for a short-lived series on village life around the world. Not sure about how to begin Ronald said : "What I had forgotten was that I was born during the Agricultural Depression; that my Suffolk forebears had been there for hundreds of years and with a Suffolk name and basically they saw what I saw out of this Suffolk house (in the village of Debach, "a tiny parish of some eighty souls" ). All this waiting to be turned into story". 

The book was to be populated by fellow villagers, he simply said :"I changed the names of the people who were all friends and neighbours". In addition, he visited the neighbouring village of Charsfield where he was church warden and said : “I walked round the village boundaries which are ancient ditches: very deep, dug into the clay, and full of torrential yellow winter water. And the idea came to me of the fundamental anonymity of most labourers’ lives. In the church at Akenfield there is a long list of names and few remember who they were or what they looked like. Yet they were alive in our own century. So one wonders about the generations before. This is how the book began. A sort of compassion for farming people”. (link)

“I think my view of human life is how brief and curious most people's lives are. Yet when you come to talk to them, you realise how strong they are and how unbelievably rich their lives are”.

Ronald worked through 1967 and 1968, listening to the voices of blacksmiths, gravediggers, nurses, horsemen and pig farmers recreating authentic country voices and said : "Sometimes, when you’re alone with people, they will say astonishing things but a writer has a certain kind of ear, I think, which hears things which only a writer might hear" 

“My father worked on a farm - and his father. They both got very near to ninety, I believe. They were hardy old sorts. They never had a thing amiss with them. They worked and lived, and then kind of toppled over at the end". 

“I have seen young boys in this village get married. They think it all bed, poor fellows. I see it quite different to this. I’m in no hurry at all. I must work. I mustn’t be worried or distracted. Not yet. I couldn’t spend time on my work if I was married.”

“We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trench but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst; they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging - even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying, 'Good morning', in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath”.(link)

Jan Morris, author and travel writer, summed up the magic Ronald had generated when she wrote in The New York Times : “Blythe lovingly opens the curtains of legend and landscape, revealing the inner, almost clandestine, spirit of the village behind. His book consists of direct-speech monologues, delivered by 49 Suffolk residents, and interpretatively linked by the author. The effect is one of astonishing immediacy: it is as if those country people have looked up for a moment from their plow, lawnmower or kitchen sink, and are talking directly (and disturbingly frankly) to the reader”.

And of course, Ronald added a poetry of his own : 

'The villager is often imprisoned by the sheer implacability of the 'everlasting circle' … his own life and the life of the corn and fruit and creatures clocks along with the same fatalistic movement. Spring-birth, winter-death and in between the harvest. This year, next year and for ever – for that was the promise'.

In 1968, while working on the book, Ronald was interviewed about the book by the American
 writer, historian, actor and broadcaster, Studs Terkel (link)  and the recording of the interview provides an interesting insight into the think of the 46 year old Ronald at the time. Forty-four years later, at the age of 90, he was interviewed by BBC Radio and covered Akenfield at 15 minutes into the interview. (link)

The village voices were never sentimental about country life as indeed was Ronald. There were quiet revelations of incest and the district nurse recounted the old days when old people were stuffed into cupboards. Old labourers remembered the “meanness” of farmers who had treated their workers like machines because the big rural families delivered a seemingly endless supply of farm-fodder. The result was a picture of the penury and yet deep pride of the old, near-feudal farming life in the 1960s in process of being pushed aside aside by the juggernaut of industrial farming. Speaking to ITV News Anglia in 2013 he said : "What I feel sorry about now is that a lot of people who live in villages don't know anything about the fields, they just pass them in cars, or just walk past them on a Sunday afternoon, whereas our recent ancestors revered the fields and all their toil for centuries was on the fields. And so I think of the fields as a workplace".

'Akenfield' was published in 1969 and ecstatic reviews of this 'exceptional' and 'delectable' book in Britain, spread to North America, where 'Time Magazine' praised it, John Updike loved it and Paul Newman wanted to film it. However, some oral historians were suspicious that Blythe had not recorded his conversations and he said : "I thought it was legitimate, just as a painter might want to paint the portrait of a man, to turn some of the things he said into literature, rather than something taken down by a reporter. There's a neighbour of mine, an old chap and he told me about being in the Suffolk Regiment (in the First World War) in Gallipoli and when he said this on his doorstep he said : "I have these lines on my face because I've toiled under strong suns" and a reviewer in America said : 'No one has said that to him'. But he did say it to me". "It certainly was an odd and untypical remark, but it came out of an emotion which our meeting had unwittingly released”.

As to the film Ronald recalled : "Peter Hall, who was born in Bury St Edmunds, was rather overwhelmed by the book when it first came out and he asked me to lunch and wanted to make it into a film and I refused because I couldn’t think how to do it but then I wrote a film treatment and we filmed it where the book was written, in Charsfield near Woodbridge and it took over a year because we had to do it according to the farming year". 


As the Director Peter
 decided to select his cast entirely from local Suffolk people rather than actors and that they should
 improvise scenes with no script. Ronald oversaw every day of filming and played a role himself. He said : 
"Peter wanted it to be as authentic as possible and so he cast many of the villagers from the area, apart from the local clergyman, who was Irish, so I borrowed his robes and I became the vicar".


Nearly 15 million people watched Akenfield when it was broadcast on London Weekend Television in early 1975 and of the world we have lost said :

"I do mourn it in a little way. When I was young there would have been a lot of people here and all working the land. Nobody is working the land now, just one chap on a tractor or a great combine. I can remember horse ploughing. I can hear the jingle of the harness. I can see lots of people pea-picking in a field or singling out beets. Doing perfectly ordinary things. A landscape full of people".
.
"I had no idea that anything particular was happening, but it was the last days of the old traditional rural life in Britain. And it vanished".

 * * * * * * * *   
* VB Grey : 'A lovely tribute. I  only knew him late in his life, but his company was a delight'.

* John O' Brian : 'Wonderful'.

* Donald Learner : 'A lovely piece'.

* Anna Dillon : 'That is a superb tribute to him'.

: FranFlettHollinrake : 'That's lovely, and there were lots of things I didn't know. It feels like another piece of the past has just gently slipped away'.

Martin Francis : 'A lovely piece of writing and a fitting tribute to a great man'. 

Andre P. DeBattista : 'Marvellous !'

Howard Lake : 'That was real pleasure to read. I didn't know he'd been a librarian in Colchester. I know that (former) library very well'.

David Taylor : 'Splendid'.

Carole Bruce : 'It's a wonderful tribute'.

Graham Palmer : 'A great summary of the man who nearly didn't write Akenfield'.

Lathish Shankar : 'Good writeup, and it was a worth read’.

June Girvin : 'I enjoyed that.'

John Goodman : 'Very good indeed'.

Andrew McAlister : 'Thank you for the link to your lovely word portrait'.

Ruth Watkins : 'Lovely tribute. I walked the Norfolk countryside when I was teenage in the 60s. Two of the remaining farmers were called 'No hedges Hall' and 'No trees Beales'. Red poppies and viper's bugloss still in the cornfields and ponds with moorhens in field corners'.

Mary Cunnane : 'It's excellent'.

Sally Walker : 'It's great. My Dad's family were from Suffolk and I remember him talking of helping with the harvest for relatives in his holidays'.

David Stocker : 'My mother was 3 years junior to RB, born in Horning in Norfolk. "Akenfield" brought back so many of her younger memories - smiles and sadness ! Your tribute hits the right notes for me',

3 comments:

  1. What a lovely,affectionate portrait of RB. Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful - really seems to capture him, and his many great gifts. Thank you for writing it. Jill Dawson

    ReplyDelete