45: Ronald Blythe: A Life Well Written
‘I would like to be remembered as a good writer and a good man . . . Writers are observers. We are natural lookers, watchers . . . it seems to me quite wonderful that I have so long been able to make a living from something I love so much.’
So wrote the writer, editor and famed chronicler of rural life Ronald Blythe for the Mail on Sunday in 2004. That Ronald (or Ronnie, as he preferred to be known), who died aged 100 in early 2023, will be remembered as a good writer is irrefutable. Many Slightly Foxed listeners will know and love not only Akenfield – his bestselling 1969 portrait of a fictionalized East Anglian village – and the ‘Word from Wormingford’ column for the Church Times but also his unparalleled collection of short stories, poems, histories, novels and essays and, most recently, his year-long diary published as Next to Nature, which celebrates the slow perpetual turn of the farming year, the liturgical calendar and the rhythms of village life.
In this episode Ronnie’s fellow writers and friends, Julia Blackburn and his biographer Ian Collins, lead us down the rough-hewn track to the ancient yeoman’s cottage he inherited from the artist John Nash and into the nooks and crannies of his private world, tracing a life well lived and well written. We meet the changeling boy obsessed with books and nature and the self-taught youth whose good looks and charisma caused queues at the Colchester Library reference desk where he worked until he was discovered by the painter Christine Nash. It was she, recognizing his rare talent, who insisted he leave his job to pursue writing fulltime. We track Ronnie’s rich literary life path through his friends’ personal recollections, touching on tales of mid-winter meetings with E. M. Forster and an unlikely tryst with Patricia Highsmith. We muse on his spirituality and sexuality, his great love for life and his deep connection to the rural world with all its harshness and all its beauty, before heading for Bottengoms Farm where we hear how this great man and great writer saw out his last days in the company of good books and close friends.
For our book-lovers’ day out we head to the quintessential English cottage of Ronnie’s hero, the poet and keen gardener John Clare. And, to finish, a round-up of book recommendations including another East Anglian delight in Adrian Bell’s A Countryman’s Spring Notebook, an unusual fishing memoir by the writer of the Killing Eve series that’s about much more than just fishing, and the intricately plotted revenge tale No Name by Wilkie Collins, one of Ronnie’s favourite writers.
We may be able to get hold of second-hand copies of the out-of-print titles listed below. Please get in touch with Jess in the Slightly Foxed office for more information.
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Ronald Blythe, Akenfield (0:19)
Ian Collins, Water Marks: Art in East Anglia is out of print (1:30)
Julia Blackburn, The Emperor’s Last Island is out of print (2:22)
Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls Trilogy (21.59)
Ronald Blythe, The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940 is out of print (24:18)
Ronald Blythe, The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age (31:06)
Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death (31:38)
Adrian Bell, Corduroy (37:30)
Ronald Blythe, Word from Wormingford (41:38)
Ronald Blythe, Next to Nature (43:36)
Nicholas Fisk, Pig Ignorant (52:54)
Adrian Bell, A Countryman’s Spring Notebook (53:59)
Luke Jennings, Blood Knots (54:11)
Luke Jennings, Codename Villanelle (54:13)
Annie Ernaux, The Years (55:15)
Wilkie Collins, No Name (55:47)
A. N. Wilson, Confessions (56:51)
Julia Blackburn gave the eulogy for Ronald Blythe at his funeral which took place at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds on 1 March 2023. She has kindly given us permission to share the full transcript.
Related Slightly Foxed articles & podcast episodes
Mellow Fruitfulness, Melissa Harrison on Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford books, Issue 40
Light Reading, Ronald Blythe on pocket-size volumes, Issue 17
A Private, Circumspect People, Maggie Fergusson on Ronald Blythe, Akenfield, Issue 11
Where There’s a Will, Andrew Lycett on Wilkie Collins, No Name, Issue 48 (56:29)
Episode 38 of the Slightly Foxed podcast: Adrian Bell: Back to the Land (53:59)
Episode 42 of the Slightly Foxed podcast: Jean Rhys: Voyages in the Dark (59:30)
John Clare Cottage, Helpston (50:20)
Opening music: Preludio from Violin Partita No.3 in E Major by Bach
The Slightly Foxed Podcast is hosted by Philippa Lamb and produced by Podcastable