In the summer of 1967, Ronald Blythe cycled from his home in the small Suffolk village of Diebach to the neighboring village of Charlesfield. There he listened to the voices of blacksmiths, grave-diggers, nurses, horsemen, and pig-breeders. He gave them names from the tombstones and placed them in a fictional village. Akenfield, a picture of country life quickly disappearing from view, was instantly hailed as a classic when it was published in 1969.
Not out of print, reading and studying all over the world, Akenfeld He made Blythe famous and may have overshadowed many of the fruits of his many years of writing – short stories, poems, histories, novels and, in later life, illuminating essays and a brilliant weekly diary published by the Church Times for 25 years until 2017. Blyth, who has died at the age of 100, is considered by his peers and many A readership of the best contemporary writer on the English countryside.
The eldest of six children, Blythe was born in Acton, near Lavenham, into a family of farm workers rooted in the Suffolk countryside. His surname comes from Blyth, a small Suffolk river, but his mother and her family were Londoners. His mother, Matilda (née Elkins), a nurse, passed on her love of books to him. Although Blythe left school at the age of fourteen, by then he had already established an insatiable habit of reading—”never indoors, where one might be given what to do,” as he recalled—that became his teaching.
His father Albert served in the Suffolk Regiment and fought at Gallipoli and Blythe enlisted during World War II. Early in his training his superiors decided he was unfit for service – friends said he was incapable of harming a fly – and he returned to East Anglia to work quietly as a reference librarian in Colchester Library.
He befriended local writers including the poet James Turner, who helped him cross over into a creative bohemian Suffolk circle that included Sir Cedric Morris, whom he taught. Lucian Freud and Maggie Hambling and lived nearby with his partner, Arthur Lett Haines. Blythe “craved to be a writer,” he said, and listened and learned—inspired by the example of poet friends including Turner (the unnamed poet of Akenfeld) and WR Rodgers on how to live with little money. “It was a kind of apprenticeship,” he once recalled.
More importantly, in 1951 he met artist Christine Kohlenthal, wife of painter John Nash. Kohlenthal encouraged and championed his writing: Blythe edited the Aldeburgh Festival programs for Benjamin Britten, and even ran some commissions for E.M. Forster, who starred in The Shy Young Man. Blythe Forster helped compile an index to Forster’s 1956 biography of his great-aunt Marian Thornton.
Blythe’s first novel based on Forster, Growing Up Traitor, was published in 1960. He followed it up in 1963 with The Age of Illusion, a social history of life in England between the wars. He earned money from journalism, being a “reader” for publishers, and edited a series of classics—including one of his heroes, the essayist William Hazlitt—for the Penguin English Library.
After a stint in Aldeburgh, remembered in a characteristically elegiac and discreet memoir, The Time by the Sea (2013), he moved into a cottage in Diebach. In the mid-1960s, he befriended the American novelist Patricia Highsmith. “I admired her very much. She was a very strange and mysterious woman. She was a lesbian but at the same time I found men’s bodies beautiful,” he recalled. One evening, after a literary party in Paris, they sleep together; Tell a friend they’re curious to “see how my other half did it.”
Blyth said the idea for Akenfield (which takes the name from the Old English “acen” for oak) arrived while he was stomping through the fields of Suffolk contemplating the anonymity of most farmworkers’ lives. His friend Richard Mabee recalled that Vikings had been commissioned as the main title for a short-lived series on village life around the world.
During 1967 and 1968 he listened to the citizens of Charlesfield, recreating authentic country sounds while somehow adding poetry of his own. The result was a picture of the “glory and bitterness” of the countryside: the poverty and deep pride of the old semi-feudal agricultural life, erased in the 1960s by a second agricultural revolution along with the arrival of the automobile and television.
Village Voices were never sentimental about country life, and neither was Blythe: In addition to stories of how dolls of corn were made, there were quiet revelations of incest, and the district nurse recounted the good old days when old men were crammed into cupboards. Old workers remembered the “meanness” of farmers who treated their workers like machines because large rural families provided a seemingly endless supply of fodder.
Rave reviews for this “extraordinary” and “delicious” book spread in Britain to North America, where Time praised it, John Updike love it and Paul Newman wanted to photograph it. But some oral historians have suspected that Blythe did not record his conversations.
Blythe declined a film offer from the BBC, but eventually accepted a presentation from the theater manager Peter Hall, a Suffolk native man. Blythe wrote a new synopsis based on the book That Can’t Be Filmed, and Hall asked ordinary country folk to improvise scenes without script. Blythe oversaw every day of filming and played a cameo role as deputy. Almost 15 million people watched Akenfield when it was broadcast on London Weekend Television in early 1975.
Blyth’s next book, The View in Winter (1979), was an enlightening examination of aging in a society that did not value it, at a time when more people than ever before had reached it. The “disaster” suffered by the elderly, he wrote, was that “no one sees them as they see themselves”. Blythe considered it his best book. While it was being written, Kolenthal died, and Blythe moved to Nash’s old farm, Buttingjoms, to care for the aging Nash. When Nash died a year later, he left the house to Blythe. There Blythe lived for the rest of his life, and writes beautifully about his home in At the Yeoman’s House (2011).
In later years, Blythe won praise for his short stories and essays, including a series of reflections on the nineteenth-century country poet John Clare. Many of the writers who were later grouped together as “nature writers” became friends of his, including Mabey, Robert MacFarlane, and Roger Deakin.
Blythe never married, never lived with anyone, and kept his personal life veiled. In an interview with the Observer in November 1969 he was judged “too private”. He revealed nothing in his published writings about his romantic relationships with men, or indeed his one-night stand with Highsmith.
He was almost reticent about his faith, but his writings were deeply immersed in his Christian beliefs and knowledge of the scriptures. He was a regular reader—deputizing for chaplains in several parishes—and became canon regular of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, but he turned down the opportunity to become a priest.
Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and admirer of Blythe’s writing, believes that Blythe used the year of Christian festivals as a “steady backdrop” for his writing and thinking, which his faith liberates. Writer Ian Collins, a good friend of Blythe’s in his later years, felt that it was Blyth’s lack of formal education or “training” that liberated his original thinking and elegant prose style.
A lifelong political radical, Blythe was a Labor voter who joined vigils for peace outside St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. His friends were surprised when he accepted the CBE in 2017, around the time he “gently retired” from public speaking and writing as his short-term memory faded. When he reached 100, he was still good enough to sign 1,500 copies of a new collection of Church Times’ best columns.
The seniors who thrived on The View in Winter, Blyth concluded, were those who managed to maintain their “spiritual vigor, vitality, and imaginative energy.” This doctrine served him well in old age, though in the other respect he was wrong. He wrote: “Old people are cared for, surrounded by kindness, and people are often interested in what they say; but they are not really loved and they know it.”
Blythe was much loved in later life. A group of loyal friends whom he called his “lovers” visited him daily, gave him hot meals and made sure he could spend his years at Pottingomes.