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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 Akenfieldhis 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.


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Show Notes

Books Mentioned

Please find links to books, articles, and further reading listed below. The digits in brackets following each listing refer to the minute and second they are mentioned. (Episode duration: 59 minutes; 46 seconds)

We may be able to get hold of second-hand copies of the out-of-print titles mentioned on the podcast and 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

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)

  • Mellow Fruitfulness
    1 December 2013

    Mellow Fruitfulness

    What do we lose when we become a nation of urbanites? A connection to nature, sometimes – though not necessarily. An awareness of the seasons, an understanding of the farming year; a sense of community, perhaps, and of being bound to a particular spot by ties of history and blood.
  • Light Reading
    1 March 2008

    Light Reading

    When my old friend the artist John Nash died I inherited his books. I imagined him reading them by lamplight, just as I read when I was a boy, the twin wicks faintly waving inside the Swan glass chimney. There they all were, those handsome runs of pocket-size volumes which preceded the 1930s Penguins and the subsequent paperbacks. Some were small-pack books and had gone to the Western Front. Some were hiking books and had gone up mountains. Some were still a bit painty, having gone on landscape expeditions. All showed signs of having had a life far from that in the studio bookcase.
  • A Private, Circumspect People
    1 September 2006

    A Private, Circumspect People

    Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Royal Society of Literature took out a long lease on a white stucco Bayswater house, formerly the home of General Sir Ian Hamilton, leader of the Gallipoli Expedition. It was dilapidated but spacious, and a first-floor room roughly the size and shape of a tennis court became a library in which the Society’s Fellows could browse among one another’s works. All went well until, in the early Seventies, an elderly, light-fingered Fellow took to leaving the building with volumes secreted between two pairs of trousers, which he wore sewn together at the hem. The library was closed. I began working for the Royal Society of Literature in the autumn of 1991, and it was on the shelves of this silent, abandoned room that I first discovered Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. Published in 1969, it had become an instant classic, and, since then, it has never been out of print. From the first sentence – ‘The village lies folded away in one of the shadow valleys which dip into the East Anglian coastal plain’ – it was clear that this was a book to slow down for, and to relish.
  • Episode 40: Adrian Bell: Back to the Land
    15 February 2022

    Episode 40: Adrian Bell: Back to the Land

    The farmer-cum-writer Adrian Bell is best-known for his rural trilogy of Suffolk farming life, CorduroySilver Ley and The Cherry Tree. To explore Bell’s life and writing the Slightly Foxed editors are joined by Richard Hawking, chairman of the Adrian Bell Society, author of At the Field’s Edge: Adrian Bell and the English Countryside and editor of A Countryman’s Winter Notebook, a selection of Bell’s newspaper columns. From the pride of the wagon maker, the repeal of the corn act in the 1920s and the heartbreak of farmers going bankrupt to his bohemian mother making butter, his friend John Nash illustrating Men and the Fields and Second World War soldiers packing Corduroy in their kit bags, we learn that Bell is the perfect writer to reconnect people with the land, one whose work still feels relevant today. And in our usual round-up of recommended reading we enter Walter de la Mare’s dreams, explore Shackleton’s Antarctica and visit Catherine Fox’s fictional Lindchester, the setting for her glorious twenty-first-century Trollopian tales.

Other Links

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

Episode 45: Ronald Blythe: A Life Well Written

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

  1. Hoffnungpete says:

    A absolutely brilliant podcast. I would highly recommend the Ronnie Blythe episode. Thank you so much.

  2. Harvey says:

    I always enjoy the podcasts but for me this was the best ever. I’ve enjoyed Ronald Blythe’s writing since Akenfield was published and my sister-in-law posted it to Zambia for our Christmas present. Next to Nature was my Christmas present this year. A real treat, as is the podcast.

  3. S. Brown says:

    I loved it! How wonderful to hear people’s personal experiences of spending time with this lovely man. I enjoyed hearing about his life, and listening to some of the snippets from his writings. Another lovely episode – thank you!

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