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',

Friday, 13 January 2023

Britain says "Farewell" to Tom Karen its 20th century Giant of Industrial Design and Gentle Genius Toymaker

Tom, who has died at the age of ninety-six, will best be remembered for the work he red and undertook as Managing Director and Chief Designer of 'Ogle Design' from 1962 until 1999. It was here that he oversaw design of the Bush Radio TR130 radio, the Bond Bug and Reliant Scimitar GTE cars, the kid's Raleigh Chopper bike and a series of lorry cabs for Leyland. 


It was, however, for his 'Marble Run' toy, sold by Kiddicraft, that he himself was most proud and would have liked to have been remembered. Certainly his description of its creation provides us with the insight into the workings of his richly creative mind. Although the toy did not make a lot of money for the company, Tom said : 
 'I think I may be more proud of this product than of any car I’ve designed.'

Tom steered Ogle towards toymaking in the late 1960s and said : 'Back then, in the late 1960s, design organisations never touched toys. They left them to the specialist toymakers. Yet the tide was turning: in December 1967 the Design Centre held a small ‘Under Fives’ exhibition showing innovative designs for toys and nursery furniture'.

His first toy was a wooden Lotus 49 car : 'With big back wheels and rubber tyres, and transfers that gave it the look of a real car. Part of the beauty of this toy lay in its fidelity to the original: I remembered from my childhood how much I had valued the accuracy of toys such as my Water Line ships, or my beautiful wooden Lysander (aircraft) '. 'Children do appreciate toys that are beautifully formed – or so I believed'.
In 1970 he made the wooden F1 racing car with real rubber wheels, big at the back, small in front.

With his own young family growing up, Tom said : 'I would make countless playthings for my own children : not just the usual theatrical props, I made many swords, but unique creations which filled them with delight, such as a lovely little wooden desk that I made for Eugenie, with little holes for her yoghurt-pot pen-holders'. 
Tom confessed : 'The truth was, I liked making playthings because I still liked playing myself : I often used to unwind in the evenings assembling little plastic Airfix models of aircraft. Who could be better qualified to explore new toy ideas with a child’s perspective in mind?'

In 2020, at the age of ninety-four and in his autobiography, 'Toymaker', Tom had written : 'My Marble Run means so much to me that I can call every detail of it to mind without reference to a physical example. It is one of my most perfectly resolved designs. What I love about it is that it came from nothing – or almost nothing. It met a hitherto unidentified need; it was beautifully executed; and, as a result, it was spectacularly successful'. 
Giving the reader a glimpse inside his wonderfully creative mind he said :
'Like many of the best ideas, it began with an everyday observation. My sister had given our children a traditional wooden marble run toy. It was a simple wooden device, a bit like an empty picture frame, with three sloping sticks of wood zig-zagging across the space within it, each with a track through which a marble could roll. You dropped a marble in the top and watched it roll down : zig, zag, zig, "clatter". . . That was all'. (link)

Tom said : 'I began to think about how the toy might be improved. Could a more imaginative development of the core concept create a better experience? If so, how? Such questions are the essence of design. I mulled it over. Every now and then, I would make an exploratory drawing, to free my mind to consider the next step.' 'Wouldn’t it be better, I asked myself, if the marble zigged and zagged in a more interesting way? What if you could vary the route? What if there was some element of challenge and reward?'

It was at this point Tom said :  'Suddenly, the answer came to me. What would really transform the game would be to let children build the run themselves. They could build it in different ways, depending on how ambitious or impatient they were feeling. They could still enjoy the sounds and the sights of the marbles rolling down the run, but that would be only part of a much richer satisfaction. I knew at once that this was a winning idea. I also knew that it would only work if the whole thing was thought through to the tiniest detail'. 'At every level, in each possible configuration, it needed to work. In a sense, it was as ambitious as anything I had attempted. At least with a car you only have to design one configuration at a time. But for that very reason I was confident that, if I got it right, my Marble Run would be a brilliant toy'. 

Tom said : 'I wanted with just three kinds of part : bridges, spacers for adding height and hoppers, in which marbles could collect, which were mainly for the start and finish but could also be used in between. Players could construct from them any kind of structure they wanted, weaving and winding in three dimensions like mad plumbing systems. And then they could watch the ‘runs’ they had envisioned being turned into reality by rolling marbles – a set of which would also be included in the game'. 

He continued : 'I have heard from countless adults who played with my Marble Run as children and kept it for their own children. In some cases, the toy is already being enjoyed by a third generation. How many toys can boast that kind of classic status? One of its secrets, I think, is the fact that, like other successful products I have designed for children, including the Chopper, it respects the user. Millions of children around the world have enjoyed playing with the Marble Run. What more can one hope for? Many toys today often seem to be designed with the adults who will pay for them in mind rather than the children who will play with them. It’s all about profit and packaging . No one is thinking about how much lasting satisfaction the child will get from it'.

'The best toys aren’t necessarily those that make the biggest profits, they’re the ones that are also used with love, the kind of thing you’d select if you were woken in the night and told to choose one favourite toy to take with you before fleeing for your life with your family. I like to think that, for many people, the Marble Run has been that kind of toy. It is a gift that keeps on giving. And that means far more to me than the fact that we should have negotiated a more lucrative contract'.  

When Tom referred to one 'favourite toy', he  was reflecting what had happened to him when he was thirteen, in Czechoslovakia, in 1939 and grabbed a few of his die-cast Waterline Warships before he and his family fled the country in fear of their lives with Hitler's invasion and experienced two traumatic years as refugees before achieving sanctuary in Britain.


Tom said : "Our family name was Kohn, which is a Jewish name. Both my parents were totally irreligious but with that name we didn't stand a chance". His father, seen here with his mother, was arrested and : "Somehow, after three days, my father’s release was arranged. The Gestapo kept his passport, but he quickly made arrangements with contacts in the Czechoslovak Air Force to have a new one made. He then escaped to Poland on foot, before flying first to Sweden and then to the UK. There were no goodbyes. One day he was with us; the next, he wasn’t". 

Tom, his mother and brother and sister got to Belgium and then went to the south of France and said : 'We had periods of being hungry and at some stage we were staying in a dreadful unhygienic place' but they got visa permission to travel from Spain to Portugal and then Britain. In 2020, ay the age of ninety-four, Tom said : “I feel so sorry for every kind of refugee. I know what it is like but they have it much worse than I ever did. It is terrible that families and children are drowning in the Channel. It is just appalling”.

The experience of three years as an itinerant refugee in Europe left an indelible mark on him, to the extent that and in 2020 he said : "The British establishment, ridiculously class-bound and traditionalist, had taken me, a maverick designer, to its heart and had made me very happy by doing so. Perhaps it seems odd that, after so much success, I should still have felt the need for the reassurance of an official accolade. But that’s what happens when you’ve been a refugee. You never quite feel safe enough to relax. I know that, no matter what comforts and luxuries I possess today, they can all be taken away from me tomorrow". 

Tom took a series of jobs, before realising he wanted to become a commercial designer and retraining at Central St Martins in London. At the age of thirty in 1956, he provided an interesting insight into his character when, at that time, when he and his Mauritian born, future wife, Nicole, went to see John Osborne’s 'Look Back in Anger' at the Royal Court, starring Kenneth Haigh as Jimmy Porter, which made a deep impression on him. 
He recalled :
'The play had opened more than a year earlier, but the waves of its initial impact had failed to reach Dagenham. Now it hit me with all the explosive power that had scandalised the theatre-going public at its premiere. This incoherent cry of a young man’s rage at establishment complacency felt as though it had been written with me in mind. I saw it repeatedly, and sometimes I felt like standing up and punching the air in support. Life had treated me kindly, compared with what millions had suffered in wartime. Britain had treated me kindly. I had been extremely lucky in material terms. I had made a good start on a career path that made use of my talents. I had a home I liked, and I was even learning to form friendly relationships. What did I have to complain about?' (link)

He continued : 'Yet I was restless, even so. I had, and still have a deep-seated instinct that tells me that things could be better. This makes me hostile to the establishment’s default idea that things are fine as they are. I am always looking for better ways of doing things. Often, in terms of design, at least, I find them, but that’s only half the battle. A good idea needs a receptive audience, otherwise, it risks being lost and forgotten. I hated the thought of that happening'.

'One of the most popular playthings I have created recently consists of  
little more than big blocks of wood. I call them Big Brix. They’re about s
ix inches long with the same proportions as ordinary bricks, but of course they’re wooden: I went to a local wood yard to buy some big lengths to cut down. The idea is that you see how big a tower you can make with the Brix, and part of the fun is the horrendous racket they make when the tower collapses. They’re always the first thing the younger grandchildren run to. I’d like to market Big Brix commercially, as I think they’d be a huge success. I still think about designs for adults too, but the adults I have in mind are basically today’s children'.(link)

Tom's drive to create pleasurable and challenging toys for children and his joy at embracing their company, as seen here with his grandchildren, can be traced back to his own lonely and neglected childhood in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s where he said : 'We lived in Hlinky, a broad, curving, tree-lined avenue in the south-west of the city, far from most of the industry. Locals called it ‘millionnaires’ row’. Our house, known as the 'Kohn Villa', was one of its larger buildings. I was born Thomas Joseph Derrick Paul Kohn. We weren’t a very happy family, but we were rich'.

He said that he and his brother and sister : 'Had everything money could buy and we could not possibly have been considered deprived in any material sense, but normal children would have ridden their bicycle in the park with friends. We had no friends. Our cycling was restricted to circuits of the path around our garden'. The fact that in later life Tom was never happier that when he was surrounded by children as seen in here, with him surrounded by his grandchildren. With children in mind his 'A Little Look at Bottoms' was published in 2004. (link)


Tom said : 'Looking back I can see my childhood was very lonely. At the time 
I hardly realised'. He failed to get on with his elder brother Felix who wouldn't let him play with his Bugatti Type 35 pedal car and his sister was too young to be a companion. He said that when he looked at the portrait his grandfather had painted of him when he was twelve : 'I am surprised how cheerful I look. Perhaps that is why I don't recognise myself'.

In addition, his mother and father's marriage was loveless and : 'There was no conversation at family meals, just relentless oversight of our manners. I spent long hours detained at the dining table until I had finished my last vegetables'. There were no questions about what he had done at school : 'It really wouldn't have taken much effort to work out that my talents and interests related to shapes and appearances of things. When I was two I could recognise twelve different makes of cars. I was never taken to galleries or museums or encouraged to draw, or given any kind of creative start in life'. 

Despite his brilliant and successful career as a designer, Tom never lost that feeling of being the outsider and said he : 'Felt somewhat shunned by the design establishment. In the 1970s and 1980s, London’s big design names tended to rub shoulders at the same fashionable parties, associations and clubs. I was rarely asked to join them, and sometimes I felt that I was specifically excluded. During my time at Ogle, the RSA gave more than 50 designers its Special Honour, the 'Royal Designer for Industry' award, but it never gave one to me. As far as I am aware, neither the Design Museum nor the V&A has ever shown any of my work'. It wasn't until he was ninety-two in 2019, that he finally collected his OBE for 'Services to Design' at Buckingham Palace.

Tom said : 

'Children are born with an urge to build and create. Toys that allow them to explore this urge fascinate them'.

and 

'Deep down, in some sense, I have never fully grown up. I find it easy to relate to children because I think like a child. That’s why I enjoy my grandchildren’s company so much: we see the world in much the same way'.


'Designing things was a doddle. It was everything else that was difficult.'