Ronald Blythe describes himself in his new memoir as a listener & a watcher. He has always been a distinguished writer about rural life, through his columns for the Church Times, collected in several volumes, including Word from Wormingford. In the columns, Blythe writes about the Church year & about the changing seasons. He also writes about one of his greatest loves, poetry. He is especially fond of the poetry of Crabbe & Clare. The Time by the Sea is about his first years living near the Suffolk coast, the people he met & his tentative beginnings as a writer.
Blythe had met Christine Nash, wife of the artist John Nash, during his time as a librarian. Christine was to become his muse, the person who had a vital influence on the course of his life. It was his visits to the Nash’s home at Wormingford (where Blythe now lives) that first introduced him to the Suffolk landscape & it was Christine who helped him find the house at Aldeburgh where he lived for several years in the 1950s while he tried to write a novel. He would write in the mornings & then take long walks in the afternoon, exploring the coast & the countryside. He met E M Forster & Imogen Holst but most importantly, Benjamin Britten. Britten & his partner, Peter Pears, were living in Aldeburgh & were planning the Festival of arts & music which continues today. Blythe became involved in the running of the Festival, writing programs, negotiating with unwilling parsons to be allowed to hold concerts in their churches & assisting the Director.
The Time by the Sea is a series of reminiscences about the people & places that were important to Blythe during this period when he discovered his landscape & the country where he would live for the rest of his life. Blythe describes himself as a watcher & listener &, indeed, he’s a shadowy figure in this book. He tells wonderful, intimate stories about Forster, Britten, Mervyn Peake, photographer Kurt Hutton & Nash but rarely intrudes himself. He describes the lives of George Crabbe & rationalist author, Edward Clodd. Amazingly he met the widow of Clodd, who had been born in 1840. In 1914, Clodd had married for the second time & his widow, Phyllis, was still living. One of the most memorable chapters in the book is the account of Blythe’s visit to Phyllis Clodd & her companion, Miss Grant-Duff, for tea.
‘Oh, you are young!’
She was a bag of bones in a pretty summer dress. She hung to one side. Miss Grant-Duff filled the teapot. I sat between them and felt unable to get out my notebook and pencil. Mrs Clodd said,
‘You are sitting in Thomas Hardy’s chair – from Strafford House.’
and from then on, Clodd’s widow and myself were engulfed in a torrent of literary reminiscences.
Ronald Blythe has become one of the best known writers about rural Britain. His classic account of rural life, Akenfield, was published in the late 1960s & captures the very end of the old traditions of rural living. He has edited Austen & Hardy & has championed the work of John Clare, the quintessential rural poet. He is always at his best writing about landscape, about the solitary walks he took,
One April morning in 1956 I made one of my planless walks from Slaughden towards Orford and with the usual elated feeling. there would be a wonder midway although I knew nothing of its existence. All I experienced at this moment was a tossing about of freedom. the sea was glorious and near at hand, the gulls screamed and the air was intoxicating… Somebody had told me that Chillesford Church tower was pink because it contained lots of coraline crag. But what drew me would be the stunted oaks and the limited nature of things.
The Time by the Sea is a look back at a time of possibilities & new beginnings. Blythe was able to take the time to work out his future direction & find the one place where he could bring his plans to fruition. He also pays tribute to the people he met who influenced him & helped him on his life’s journey.
I read The Time by the Sea courtesy of NetGalley.