Ronald Blythe, our greatest rural writer, remembers sheep being driven through Lavenham, the Suffolk wool town, before the war. Now he’s lived long enough to see the same street filled with Japanese tourists. On the eve of his 90th birthday, on 6 November, Blythe doesn’t mourn that lost way of life. If anything, Akenfield — his 1969 bestseller about a fictional Suffolk village from 1880 to 1966 — exposed quite how back-breakingly grim country life was for most farmworkers, like his own father, a Gallipoli veteran.
‘The old farm work was terribly hard on people — there was terrible rural poverty,’ says Blythe. ‘A lot of the people think of depressions in terms of manufacturing and the cities. But it was very hard indeed in the country in the 19th century. It was very beautiful but it was another world altogether. When I wrote Akenfield, 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.’
That rural beauty hasn’t entirely disappeared. Blythe has noticed a decline in the brutal agribusiness of the 1970s and 1980s — when fields were laced with chemicals, and thousands of miles of hedgerows were grubbed up to accommodate combine harvesters. ‘It has settled down to a scientific, mechanised countryside,’ he says. ‘But there has been a huge change in attitudes. Farmers now take great care of the land. A lot of trees have been planted: there are more trees now in the Stour Valley than there were in Constable’s time.’
Blythe is in rude health, blue eyes gleaming, thick pelt of white hair intact, and still writing. The Time by the Sea — his account of three years in the late 1950s, working for Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival — will be published next summer. He is talking to me at Bottengoms Farm, his half-timbered house near Wormingford, Suffolk. Tucked behind a wood, wrapped within Blythe’s garden, Bottengoms can only be reached by a rutted, Saxon track. Until fairly recently, a stream ran through the house, trickling over the brick floor.
Blythe inherited the farm from his friend the artist John Nash in 1977. Nailed to the timbers of the sitting room there are landscapes by John Nash, alongside a picture of the trenches by his brother, Paul, and a charming drawing of the Cerne Abbas giant by Eric Ravilious. When Ravilious was killed in an air crash in Iceland in 1942, his dilapidated greenhouse ended up at Bottengoms, the atmospheric subject of several Nash drawings, before falling down.
‘Their work was very fragile, in a way,’ Blythe says of Ravilious and the Nashes. ‘Very clear and beautiful. I never knew Paul Nash, but I went to his grave once and picked wildflowers and pressed them for John. Paul was a kind of presence. They were close, but they loathed being called the Nash brothers, because they were so totally unlike each other.’
Blythe is the last survivor of this high-artistic, high-literary world, the Zelig of East Anglia. ‘On the whole, I was solitary, as I am still,’ he says, ‘I have lived alone all my life but not in a lonely sort of way, with a circle of friends.’ It is quite a circle, one that grew out of an intensely literary youth. Born in 1922 to the Suffolk farmworker father, and a mother from London, a VAD nurse in the first world war, Blythe was a ‘chronic reader’ as a child. For a decade after leaving school, he worked at Colchester Library — ‘It had marvellous 17th- and 18th-century libraries.’ There, he founded the Colchester Literary Society; and there a ‘tall woman with a lovely voice’ came in one day, asking for the score of Idomeneo. It was Christine Nash, who insisted that Blythe stopped being a librarian and became a writer. She also asked him over to Bottengoms to meet her husband.
‘The Nashes sketched all day,’ says Blythe. ‘When you were making dinner, they sketched away, sketched the cat, whatever was in sight. The house had great beauty, but it was very ramshackle, with oil lamps and candles, and they both chainsmoked. I just fell in with their ways. You retain an understanding of them without asking any direct questions. The artistic movements become part of you.’
As well as working for Britten at Aldeburgh, Blythe was also part of the gardening/writing/painting/cooking set at Benton End, near Hadleigh. There, the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing was presided over by the artist-plantsman Cedric Morris, and the painter Arthur Lett-Haines. Among the students were Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling. ‘We were enthralled by it,’ says Blythe. ‘I met many writers, met gardeners. It was magical, in your early twenties, to meet the last of the old bohemia in this huge, great house.’
By 1960, Blythe had himself become a writer, with the publication of his novel, A Treasonable Growth, and, ever since, a steady stream of memoirs, short stories, literary criticism and rural studies has poured forth. Although he doesn’t lament the passing of the tough old farming days, he has continued to document the huge revolution in country life of the past half-century. Not least among those changes is the emptying of the countryside. ‘It’s happened all over Europe — the modern world coming into the old, traditional world,’ he says. ‘When I was a child, hundreds of people worked on the farm; now it’s all done by machinery.’
‘One of the saddest things about country life now is that you never see any children. When we were children, we swam in the river, we climbed trees, we went for long walks. Nobody does it now. Children are with their computers upstairs — they’re even driven one mile to school, when they should walk,’ says Blythe, who still walks a mile to fetch the milk, and two miles to Wormingford Church, where he is a reader, as well as being a lay canon at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds.
The view from the pulpit adds another strand to Blythe’s observations. In recent years, he has noticed how rows of the under-50s aren’t singing, having only listened to singing on television, and never sung en masse at school or in church.
‘Writers are great observers,’ he says. ‘They can’t stop looking, really — they’re involuntary listeners.’
It’s characteristic of Blythe that, at a recent Buckingham Palace garden party, he slipped away from the throng to observe the everyday detail: the royal mulch, the creepers on the walls. Long may he continue to look, listen and write.