I first encountered Ronald Blythe at Benton End, a glowing oxblood farmhouse above the river Brett, poised on the edge of Hadleigh in Suffolk. This was the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, run by Lett Haines and Cedric Morris, and known locally as the ‘Artists’ House’ and for ‘every vice under the sun’. Ronnie describes the set-up brilliantly. I was a raw 15-year-old at the time, and the point of studying most subjects on the school curriculum had escaped me: painting alone had become my raison d’être. Indeed, art began for both of us in Suffolk. Its particular air, sea, sky and mud run through our blood — and possibly cause both our mops of curly hair.
Ronnie’s minute observation of places, people and plants, his ear for scraps of dialogue and his feeling for poetry and painting make everything about those days immediate. Vintage photographic portraits and John Nash’s drawings further enhance this book. As Ronnie describes the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival, details of the adventure, the people involved and another huge cast of characters, each mysteriously connected to this part of Suffolk, are brought vividly to life — and gradually we get to know the author himself.
In his chapter on the primeval woodland at Staverton Park he writes:
Most of the Staverton Oaks are so near death that they seem to be nothing more than gnarled drums for the gales to beat. Yet so tenacious is their hold on life that the twigs sprouting from them are still April green, and come August, ‘Lammas’ growth will hide some shrivelled bole.
(By contrast, a delightfully dry humour also runs through this book: Ronnie ends one sentence ‘which is why in Gothenburg you can’t have half a bitter without a government permit’.)
At last we reach the waves at Aldeburgh, whose voices have echoed since the beginning of the book:
I give up attempting to keep my mind on what is landward as I watch the sea hit the rocks, like a restless sculptor with all the time in the world to shape them. My head becomes a tabula rasa on which the ocean is welcome to write poetry or gibberish without any guidance from me.
The Time by the Sea rings true. As with any real artist, the subject is always in charge, and Ronnie’s response to Aldeburgh is one of a deep love of the place — and of humanity.